How Unschooling Saved Us (Sort of)

Unschooling in action: building a model of the world's tallest building while still in pajamas.

Unschooling in action: building a model of the world’s tallest building while still in pajamas.


Unschooling (n):

a home-school education with the child taking primary responsibility instead of a parent or teacher; also called “child-directed learning” or “self-learning.”    –from  (The word doesn’t yet appear in Merriam-Webster)

Good things happen to the human spirit when it is left alone. –John Taylor Gatto

 Living is learning, and when kids are living fully and energetically and happily they are learning a lot, even if we don’t always know what it is.  –John Holt


Two years ago, I hadn’t even heard of the word “unschooling.”  My son “Jack,” then four, was slogging disconsolately through pre-K, gamely sounding out letters with his classmates though he could already read chapter books on his own.  I was researching local kindergartens in hopes that next year would be better.

We knew finding the right school would be tough.  They’d have to be flexible and understanding, able to accommodate a kid with off-the-charts reading ability and a passion for certain subjects—astronomy, geography—who struggled to keep his hands to himself and melted down when he didn’t know the right answer.

Public school, with its crowds, slashed budgets, and tendency to keep kids in lockstep, was probably out.  But there had to be a school somewhere that would be a good fit for him.  Right?

We’d been told by an expert in giftedness that homeschooling would be Jack’s best bet, but I wasn’t ready.  I wasn’t going to go there unless we had run out of options.

Besides, my husband and I are, as he puts it, “school people.”  We first met in the teachers’ lounge of a public high school, for God’s sake. (He taught Spanish and social studies and I taught English.) Now he’s a high school principal, and I lead creative writing workshops for adults, but our shared love of schools remains.

We found an alternative private school for Jack that seemed to get it.  When we explained our dilemma to them, they nodded sagely.  “We get lots of kids like him,” they said.  “Don’t worry.”  (Yeah, right.)

It only took a few months of kindergarten to realize it was a disaster.  Jack was anxious, lonely, and angry.  His innate love of learning was fading.  His joyful demeanor had given way to a wan exhaustion.  All he wanted to do was watch the movie Cars over and over—a bad sign for a kid who used to soak up adult-level astronomy DVDs.  In January, we pulled him out without a plan, simply because we couldn’t take it anymore.

And so began our great adventure.  Taking the advice of many in the gifted homeschooling community (thank you, Gifted Homeschoolers Forum), we spent the first few months “de-schooling.”  That meant avoiding any sort of instruction and letting a weary and skeptical kid decompress, play, and relax his way back into learning.

All that letting it be made sense in theory, but it wasn’t natural for me.  A teacher by temperament as well as training, I have a perennial itch to direct things, and as weeks went on with nothing really quantifiable happening, I couldn’t help but feel anxious.

Then one day, we were eating lunch and Jack was waving his fork in the sunlit air beside him.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“Trying to cut dust particles in half,” he answered.  “If I cut them,” he went on, “will they break up into cells or atoms?”

Free of the confines of school, his curiosity was coming back, and it kept on coming.  He wanted to know about weather, and the Periodic Table, and his old loves, geography and astronomy.  He invented his own carnival games, acted out long imaginary stories with his toy cars, and listened to the Hallelujah Chorus over and over again.  Between playdates and park days, he taught himself Power Point and Comic Life on the computer.  Most of all, he seemed happy again.

At some point, I told myself, we’d start doing “real” homeschooling. I imagined this would happen mostly at the kitchen table and would involve paper and pencils and me teaching him the “important” stuff.  We’d have a schedule and a plan.

But any time I tried to take charge or push an agenda, it backfired.  Jack would melt down, or instantly develop an aversion to whatever it was I was trying to teach, even if it had originated in an interest of his own.  He needed, for a whole host of reasons, the freedom to learn what he wanted, when he wanted, how he wanted, and for as long as he wanted.

And I needed to get out of his way.

That’s how, in our house, de-schooling became unschooling.  Simply put, it was, and is, what works best for our kid.  It’s thrilling to watch him “go deep”—delving into American presidents or skyscrapers to the exclusion of all else—while also having plenty of time and space to play and be a kid. (It’s trickier when he wants to dive into subjects that we’re less comfortable with, like Minecraft.  But that’s another blog post entirely.)

There are a few caveats here.  Unlike some, we’re kind of old school about things like bedtime and teeth brushing and limits on screen time.  And for all the faults of the public education system, I refuse to bash schools and what for me has been the joy of the classroom.  What’s more, I see a real value, over time, in knowing how to buckle down and learn something that’s not one’s first choice. We’ll have to figure out that one before too long.

But I’ve also come to believe in the wisdom of unschooling, and the way it allows kids to bloom.  For asynchronous kids like mine, it can be nothing short of a miracle.

Wendy Priesnitz of Life Learning magazine writes:

Children don’t need to be taught how to learn; they are born learners. … And if they are given a safe, supportive environment, they will continue to learn hungrily and naturally—in the manner and at the speed that suits them best.

 unschoolingbloghopWant to read more about unschooling?

Comments: 13 thoughts on “How Unschooling Saved Us (Sort of)

  1. Susanne says:

    Deschooling can be a magical time in a parents life. I’ve seen families just really ‘turn on’ during those periods and a LOT of them at least do a ‘hybrid’ of unschooling and schooling after because, like you, they see the benefit of letting the kid just ‘go’.

  2. Tedra says:

    A kindred spirit!

  3. lonwolfcry says:

    I remember having a conversation with my principal when I was considering leaving my teaching position to homeschool. “It must be nice to have a gifted kid”. Little did she know how he was struggling with counting blocks when he had been doing 3 column addition for over a year. He has tested out of reading groups 1-3 grade so they just had do AR.

    I will not bash the school system and I hope one day I can go back and teach full time. I know that it was not a fit for my son though and even though we are on year 3 of homeschooling that passion and unquenchable thirst of learning still hasn’t come back. I know how much I want to quantify and plan his learning and worry about the gaps in his education… I walk a fine line to have a happy kid who enjoys reading and learning and trying to make some sense to what we are doing at any one time.

  4. Deva says:

    Thanks for the great post! Could you please tell me where you got the Burj Khalifa model kit that’s in the picture? My son is obsessed with architecture, and this is his favorite building. He would love it! Thanks in advance.

  5. jodi says:

    we continue to keep homeschooling as an option but right now, we’re trying to make school work. i question my decisions almost daily because i know my boy is functioning way above his classmates but socially, he’s way behind. fortunately, i’m in a very supportive school district and he has a teacher who not only gets him, but loves him for all his gifted quirkiness. he does his time in class and then comes home and disappears into his books (lately it’s diseases that he’s hugely interested in)

    mostly, i wish people would get that having a gifted kid is not as easy as you would think it should be

  6. Joy says:

    Does your son take an interest in writing? My son is 7 but in many ways similar to yours. We have a curriculum, but he picks up the concepts in just a few minutes so the lessons are rarely needed and he spends most of his time on his own interests. However because his thoughts are fast and writing is slow he just doesn’t want to write, or type. We dictate and share writing, but he is finishing 3rd grade and I’m afraid this is going to come back to bite us. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • Thea Sullivan says:

      Hi Joy!
      Great question. My guy doesn’t want to write or type either. We also dictate stories sometimes, and other times I encourage him to write in a journal, but he usually writes just a few words and then draws. I’m thinking we might try Druidawn in a group or class at some point, and maybe a “dialogue journal,” where he and I write back and forth to each other in a notebook. Mostly, at the moment I am trying not to worry, and trying to focus on all the things he IS learning! That can be the hardest part, I think.
      Best of luck!

  7. Christine says:

    this may sound a little dramatic but I felt so moved reading your article because I’m going through a similar phase with my son. He’s in 2nd grade and I’ve struggled between public school, true home schooling, public school again and now trying K-12 in August. I’m a stay home mom and I’m amazed at my son’s genius but concerned for his lack of structure and discipline. On one hand I’d love to let him be “unschooled” but I am concerned how this will pan out in adulthood. Deep down I’m hoping for a logical reason to let him try unschooling but I fear he will just play Minecraft non-stop and be less active than he already is, he’s becoming a little chunky….I wish I could find more articles like yours so I can come to a conclusion that I won’t regret later. So far the only parents I’ve known that have tried unschooling have very young children. Thanks for any input.

  8. […] How Unschooling Saved Us (Sort Of) – Thea Sullivan […]

  9. Cecelia says:

    I stumbled upon your blog after googling “unschooling gifted children” and I’ve been devouring your posts and articles ever since. Where I am in my unschooling career with my son (6 and in kindergarten…or was, until I pulled him out), this post is like a beacon in the night for me. It makes me feel that I’m not crazy to be considering unschooling my son. Like you, I’m a product of (probably) too many years of schooling. While unschooling seems perfectly natural to my son, it is forcing me to adopt a new way of thinking and being. I feel like this will be an exciting learning opportunity for my son and me. (For my husband too, but he’s a little removed from the day to day because of his out of home job.) I noticed that this post is from 2013. Is Jack still loving his unschooling life? You mentioned that Minecraft could be another post all together. Has he grown out of Minecraft? My kid is OBSESSED with Minecraft right now. I’m trying to let it go and let him enjoy it, but…

    • Thea Sullivan says:

      Hi Cecelia,
      I’m so glad this post was helpful and that unschooling is opening up new vistas for your son and you! It was a lifesaver for us during a crucial time in his development, and I know many families for whom it continues to work beautifully. Things have shifted for us since then–I’m happy to tell you more about it in a private email conversation if you’d like.
      Wishing you all the best,

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