With unschooling, learning is tied to young people’s interests. Sometimes that learning will involve what we think of as “academic” topics, and sometimes that learning will consist of topics that don’t resemble school subjects at all, like skateboarding. But it is all learning.
Children do not usually admit this, but they do not wish to be all powerful, and the possibility that they might be is frightening indeed. Children raised without firm, consistent boundaries are insecure and world-weary. Burdened with too many decisions and too much power, they miss out on the joyful freedom every child deserves.
Research shows that when children are given the opportunity to take an active role in science they are much more likely to retain what is learned. Involvement and exploration help them assimilate the information and relate it to other areas.
Teachers must conform to arbitrary expectations in the same way their students do. The only difference is that teachers can quit.
Even though most parents and educators recognize the benefits of unstructured outdoor play, research shows that this generation of children plays outside significantly less than their parents did. One cross-sectional study representing four million children in the US showed that roughly half of all preschoolers don’t have daily outdoor playtime, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends encouraging “children to play outside as much as possible.” Older children don’t fare much better, with digital entertainment on average now eating up nearly fifty-three hours of their time every week. By the time they reach their teens, only 10 percent of American children report spending time outside every day, according to the Nature Conservancy.
All guiding documents for preschools in Sweden guarantee children’s right to spend time outside, and even at traditional preschools in Scandinavia it’s extremely popular to let the youngest children sleep outside. Come nap time, it’s common to see a long line of prams with napping babies lined up against a wall outside, and in Denmark some preschools even have a special sheltered area with stationary pram-like bassinets where the youngest children sleep. And preschools that skimp on outdoor nap or playtime can quickly draw the ire of parents, who expect them to provide it.
Unschooling can lead to deeper, more meaningful, more authentic learning because it is driven by the learner, using the varied tools around him. In a new, networked world with information at our fingertips, a set curriculum may actually hold us back.
What’s the best way to master language? Years of research provide the answer: It’s not with drills or computer programs, but with daily conversation that gives the child motivation and allows time to respond. When children interact with real people in a social context, they are motivated to express their needs, thoughts, and feelings. Nature has programmed us to learn language through social relationships.
As schooling becomes even more standardized and test-driven than when we were kids, and the academic pressures on children mount, more parents are questioning this cookie-cutter approach to education. They may be witnessing in their own homes and neighborhoods the striking correlation between decreasing childhood free play and increasing mental health disorders in young people. They may be dismayed by schooled expectations that now push kindergarteners to read, and they may be concerned that as instruction ousts play—and recess diminishes—more young children are being diagnosed with attention disorders and put on potent psychotropic medications because they can’t sit still and focus—at five. These parents may see how their children’s creativity has waned and their enthusiasm for learning has dwindled, replaced by extrinsic motivations and a determination to simply make it through the day without bullying or condescension. Learning for the sake of learning disappears.
Children are natural learners. They are born with the drive to explore and synthesize their world. Their childhood curiosity and exuberance lead them to learn and discover, to make connections and deepen their knowledge, so that they may gain essential skills. This inclination to learn, along with a passion for discovery, does not magically disappear at a certain age. Our industrial model of schooling systematically diminishes a child’s natural curiosity and ability to self educate. Educators have long known this to be true.
Children who possess competence through experience will be safer in the world because they will not launch themselves headlong into risks they are unprepared to handle. A child who believes he’s ready for the deep end of the pool because you praised his incredible talent as a swimmer when he flopped through his first two freestyle strokes is in much more danger of drowning than a child who has a realistic sense of his abilities.
Toddlers are definitely capable of cooperating, but they need to be taught through respectful feedback, corrections, and modeling rather than being tricked, manipulated, or coerced.