When I first heard of the term unschooling, I’m not going to lie — I definitely thought of kids running around like drunken tiny people and living like The Lost Boys in Peter Pan. Even the name unschooling sounds pretty rebellious and scary to me. But the more I’ve learned about it, the more that I’m kind of digging it. But how does it work in modern society with government regulations and standards? We have standardized testing, curriculum and set regulations, and educational trajectories in place, so I couldn’t help but wonder if this unschooling thing was even legal. How are these parents keeping their kids out of traditional schools, and furthermore, how are they able to function as adults and have careers? Can they even go to college if they want to one day?
What Is Unschooling?
Like I did, I think many folks have the wrong impression of what unschooling actually is.
Domari Dickinson, educator, unschooling parent, parenting coach, and an advisor to the unschooling platform Mosaic, tells Romper, “One of the biggest differences between unschooling and traditional schooling is that with unschooling, the adults aren’t mandating that kids follow a set curriculum or demanding that their learning happens in a specific place or at a specific time.”
She says that unschooling also requires adults to trust kids to take the lead when it comes to their learning, “and to commit to living and learning along with their child instead of viewing themselves as a teacher who needs to pour knowledge into an empty child-vessel.” Dickinson adds that Wikipedia definies unschooling as informal learning that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning, but she prefers the definition offered by Akilah S Richards, author of Raising Free People: Unschooling as Liberation and Healing Work. “In her book, Akilah offers up that unschooling is a child-trusting, anti-oppressive, liberating, love-centered approach to parenting and caregiving. It is a way of life that is based on freedom, respect, and autonomy.”
However, Dickinson adds that if you ask her four children what it means, they’ll tell you it’s when kids get to learn what they want, when they want. “Unschooling is for people of all ages. It really is a way of life — a philosophy — that goes beyond schooling. It’s about giving people, regardless of their age, the freedom and respect to lead their own learning by pursuing interests as they arise in a way that makes sense for them.”
Is Unschooling Legal?
Dickinson says that since unschooling is a specific type of homeschooling, it’s legal in all 50 states. However, attorney David Reischer tells Romper, “Even though there are no official ‘unschooling laws,’ various state laws may exist to regulate how a person is permitted to homeschool.”
“Different states have different laws that outline the specific homeschooling requirements for that state, so it is important to know your state’s laws as you are working to determine what unschooling will look like for you and your family,” Dickinson says.
“A person that wants to unschool legally should still have lots of record keeping and a portfolio of the child's work and progress,” Reischer says, adding that there is no requirement to have a scheduled curriculum, but a portfolio with detailed information regarding the child's progress should be kept so that it can be reviewed.
Echoing Reischer, Dickinson says, “Some states require families to keep a very detailed record of what/when/how learning is taking place. Other states require families to submit portfolios of artifacts that show what students have learned, and some states have umbrella schools which allow families to have complete control over determining what their child’s learning experience looks like.”
To become more familiar with the homeschooling laws for a specific state, visit the legal page of hslda.org, and to find local unschooling-friendly communities, visit the resources page at self-directed.org.
Will Your Child Be A Functioning Adult If They’re Unschooled?
When I ask Dickinson if she thinks that kids will be prepared to have careers and function in the “real world” as adults after being unschooled, she enthusiastically replies, “Yes! Should unschoolers decide that college is necessary for what they want to do in life, they absolutely have that option!”
“Remember, unschooling doesn’t mean that children are not learning. It means that they are given the space and support that they need to figure out how to learn in a way that makes sense for them, and this skill is one that they can use in college and beyond.”
Dickinson suggests that some children who are unschooled may enroll in college well before their peers who weren’t able to take college classes until after they graduated from high school. “Other unschoolers, even ones with no formal schooling experience, are able to prepare for and pass college entrance exams, allowing them to enroll in the college of their choice,” she says.
Does all of this sound crazy enough it just might work? If you’re thinking about doing this with your family, Dickinson says there are plenty of resources out there for folks interested in unschooling their children.
There’s definitely no set curriculum for unschooling for parents to go by, “because that would mean that adults are choosing what would work best for their children and that goes against what unschooling is all about, but there are courses and classes available to help parents get started on the path to Unschooling and to really provide support through the de-schooling process,” she says.
“Mosaic is a new storytelling platform and community for independent learners launching next week, offering perspectives from real unschoolers and resources for people at every stage of the process,” Dickinson adds. “Websites like hslda.org and self-directed.org are packed with resources detailing the homeschooling laws/requirements for individual states, as well as resources to help you get started on your journey.”
If you’re looking for more communities, Dickinson recommends Akilah S. Richards’ Raising Free People Network within the My Reflection Matters Community and Iris Chen’s Untigering Parents FB group. “There are also local FB groups that are Unschooling friendly, such as Goodloe HUGS for folks in Maryland, where you can find resources, get support, and plan local meetups with other Unschooling families.”
Reach out to other unschoolers in your area to talk more about what it could mean for your family, and if it’s the right choice for you and your children.
David Reischer, attorney