An Overview of Unschooling

An illustration of a boy at the zoo

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

When it comes to school in the United States, the majority of people favor the traditional school model. Not only is the idea of unschooling completely foreign to them, but it is a frightening concept as well. They struggle to understand how children can go from unschooled to college and still be successful in life.

To people who ascribe to unschooling, the answer is simple. Kids acquire knowledge through play, projects, volunteering, field trips, and everyday life. They maintain that their unschooled kids don't have to worry about catching up to their peers, because they are learning just as much, if not more. It's just not always visible or as tangible as a standardized test.

What Is Unschooling?

When it comes to unschooling, most people often confuse it with homeschooling. But it is more accurate to say that unschooling is an overall mindset on how children should be educated. The term unschooling was first coined by author and educator, John Holt, and is often referred to as child-led learning. It also has been called interest-based learning and delight-directed learning.

Overall, Holt, who wrote Growing Without Schooling, believed that the traditional school model hindered the way children learn. He believed that humans are born with a natural and instinctive curiosity that cultivates a desire to learn more about the world around them. He also felt that the traditional educational model, which controls and regulates how and what children learn, was a detriment to this natural and instinctive learning process.

Additionally, Holt believed that schools should serve only as a resource for education, much like a library. He also didn't think that schools should be the primary source of education for kids. Holt argued that children learn best when they are with their parents and are engaged in everyday life. Children, he claimed, learned through their surroundings and their circumstances rather than a structured environment with required readings and standardized tests.

Pros and Cons of Unschooling

To those who do not understand unschooling, it appears like kids are not really being educated and that they have vast amounts of free time. As a result, many people worry that kids in unschooling environments are not truly learning anything. They also worry that parents are neglecting their kids by taking this approach and not really teaching them anything.

But unschoolers argue that children—and adults for that matter—are always learning. What's more, they maintain that unschooling parents are not neglecting their kids nor are they uninvolved. They are actively participating in the learning process every step of the way. Here's a closer look at the pros and cons of unschooling.

Pros of Unschooling

When it comes to the unschooling approach to learning, parents are not satisfied with the traditional educational model, which covers topics in a broad, and sometimes diluted way. After all, most schools are working under time constraints while trying to provide maximum exposure to a large number of topics. By contrast, unschooling allows for deep and involved learning.

Children can go as deep as they want into a subject, for as long as they want. This allows them to pursue their passions and develop specialties.

Knowledge Retention

A benefit of unschooling is that children tend to retain more learned information. Instead of being forced to memorize random facts long enough to pass a test, unschooled children are interested in retaining the information they learn because it interests them. What's more, unschooling allows kids to build on their natural skills and talents. This shift in focus allows kids to reach their full potential in an area where they excel.


Another benefit of unschooling is that it fosters self-discipline. When kids are allowed to direct their own learning, they become motivated learners. This skill carries over into other areas as they get older. For instance, when teens realize they need to learn algebra and geometry for the ACT test, they can sit down and plow through the subject because they have developed self-motivated learning skills.

Freedom From Schedules

Unschooled children also are not restricted by schedules. So they can take trips, travel to new places, and visit relatives anytime they want. Additionally, because travel is a hugely educational experience, kids are gaining a lot of knowledge from the places they visit.

Likewise, when unschooled children are not restricted by schedules they are able to get better sleep than their peers, which also contributes enormously to academic performance.

No Rankings

Unschooling also prevents schools from tracking students. In other words, there is no pressure to be the best or to be perfect based on the school's ranking systems or identification of giftedness. Instead, kids are allowed to move at their own pace without worrying about how they are measuring up in comparison to their peers.


Proponents of unschooling also indicate that students exposed to this method of learning typically develop initiative and step outside the box. Because of the nature of traditional schools, they have to have rules and policies.

Therefore, when a traditional student asks to do something outside of the box, they are frequently told no due to liability reasons, safety concerns, or policies. But in an unschooling environment, there are a lot more yeses than there are nos because there are no policies to worry about.

As long as it is safe, most unschooling parents will happily say yes to their child's next adventure. And, as an added benefit many parents are learning right along with their kids, taking advantage of the projects and learning opportunities to increase their knowledge base as well.

Problem-Solving Skills

Another big bonus with unschooling is that children learn problem-solving and decision-making skills because they are directing their learning and their education. In a traditional school, when a problem occurs, students aren't usually consulted. But in an unschooling environment, they take an active role in their educations and are often solving problems at a very young age.

Unschooled children also learn critical thinkings skills. Not only do they learn how to question things, but they hone their information gathering skills. Overall, unschooling promotes questioning things without fear of being punished or ostracized.


There also is less concern about school violence, bullying, cyberbullying, sexting, and teen dating violence when kids are in an unschooled environment. They are simply not exposed to the things that other traditionally-educated students must deal with on a daily basis.

Cons of Unschooling

Because children often choose which subjects they will study, they are often information gaps in their education. For instance, for the child that pursues English at the expense of math, may not ever master calculus. Likewise, the child who learns how to program a computer or studies physics nonstop may never master geography or know what happened in World War II. Consequently, these knowledge gaps can impact their ability to score well on the ACT or the SAT.

Parental Time Commitment

Additionally, for unschooling to be successful, it requires a great deal of parental involvement. In order for unschooling to be successful, parents must be highly involved in and aware of their children's growth and progress related to learning. They also must be able to provide resources and opportunities as their interests and needs change and evolve.

What's more, this approach to learning requires a great deal of attentiveness, spontaneity, and focus. Consequently, it is not ideal for every parent's personality and circumstances. This fact is particularly true for single-parent families, dual-income families, and families with limited resources. Unfortunately, unschooling becomes an option for families with the time, money, and resources to make it work.

Not Right for Every Learner

Another pitfall to unschooling is that not all children are suited for this type of education. In fact, some children fair much better in a structured environment and do not respond well to the pressure of having to make their own educational choices. In these situations, it is unfair to force a child who would thrive in a more traditional educational setting to submit to an unschooling approach.

There also is the social element to consider with the unschooling approach. While there are opportunities for socialization and interaction with others, some kids fare better when they are surrounded by peers and permitted to engage in extracurricular activities.

The importance of social interaction should never be compromised for education. Kids learn a great deal with one another including important life skills like the ability to collaborate, negotiate, and problem-solve as a team. If unschooling parents are truly child-lead, they should be open to kids who indicate they might like to try a more traditional approach to education.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to parenting, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, most successful parents often combine several different parenting styles in order to meet the needs of their children and their families.

After all, no one knows kids better than their own parents. So while parenting styles like unschooling are useful in providing parents with ideas, they should never be used to label or shame other parents. These parenting styles are only meant as guidelines for developing your own unique style.

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