What is Unschooling?
I really would like to know what unschooling is.

Unschooling IS schooling, just not in a regimented, chained to the desk way. :-)
We do "School at home" for math but all the other subjects (with the exception of occasional writing practice or phonics practice) is on the living room couch, out in the "real world" (outdoors/field trips), and exploring every topic under the sun in good literature or non-fiction rather than textbooks.  I would say if you are simply managing daily household tasks and your kids just always have free time, that's not really educating them.  But if while you work and play and go about life you point out things to your kids and explain what they are, how they work, the people involved in them then that's educating using an "unschooling" approach.  Yes, you would deliberately visit the library and go on field trips but your motive for choosing the books or selecting the place would be based on the kids current interests and what they've been exposed to lately. (ideas/events/topics not chicken pox) ;-)
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Unschooling is living life with your kids: it's family-based living.  It's going to the library to look up what interests them (interest initiated learning).  It's going to ice skating lessons in the morning and to the park for a picnic lunch and home to read to your kids.  It's basically helping your kids soak up the information they want to soak up.
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Unschooling is a sort of natural learning process which allows a child to learn because he is curious.  I find that I can arouse curiosity in my kids if I do it carefully and not force it on their strong willed selves.  I am their encourager but learning is up to them really.  I say, "Wow, cool.  I wonder why...?"  And sooner or later they start doing it themselves.  We don't have to teach them to be curious, just how to follow up on it.  Unschooling is not sitting down in a classroom setting with books and paper and writing a report about butterflies.  It's more like seeing the butterfly outside in the garden and watching its movements, and wondering how those wings work and what the butterfly is doing on the flowers and why he likes them so much and what other kinds of butterflies there are, etc. -- whether you are studying butterflies in your science book or not.
When I was in the nursing program in college, I had to write a paper on learning and even though I had never heard of unschooling, it is exactly the process that I wrote about.  Think about those things that you learned from a lecture or a book, enough to satisfy a teacher on a test.  You probably don't remember them.  Now think about those things that fascinate you and cause you to ask questions and research the answers.  It is like learning from the other direction.  I love unschooling.
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Unschooling is letting your child choose what he/she wants to learn.  It is child led, initiated, and motivated.  They decide what they want to study and your job is to supply the material.
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You are right.  Unschooling *is* letting the child lead.  I use books (like "What Your X Grader Needs to Know" and other similar guides) to give *me* a feel for what a particular age/grade is doing.  This is not to try and fit my kid into "X" grade, but more to get see what things interest children at those levels and to spark some ideas.
An example:  David is 7th grade/age 13.  I've thrown out the idea of California History for years and he has never been interested.  We've been to several missions and museums that relate to CA, but only (from his pov) as an interesting thing to do.  Jessi was always very into it (and, is currently writing California fairy tales/legends) and we took the younger ones along for the ride.  Anyway, he is expressing some interest in this topic and would like to pursue it further. This means that he wants me to come up with a unit study and lesson plans, but that is how he likes it - his style.  So he will be doing California History this summer or in the fall.  He didn't do it in 4th grade.  This will be counting toward his high school credits.  He does want to begin high school and skip 8th grade - it is really a matter of completing a course of study and not "th" grade at the high school level, anyway.
Unschooling does not mean, BTW, that we don't teach/share things with our children.  When they want to know what sound a letter makes, e.g., I tell them.  This really makes it a one or two time thing because they are so receptive (after all, they are seeking the information).  Or maybe the child says, "I'm 6 and I want to learn to read."  Well, that's the cue to teach them.  But back off if it becomes too much.  Or you could even approach them with the idea of learning something and see if they are receptive or not.
Two of my boys did not read until they were older (around 10+) and I was beginning to sweat a little.  It is a lot easier to hold this philosophy when the kid does great academically at an early age.
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I think unschooling as defined/practised by the people on this list would be 'doing whatever is working for this particular child in this particular family and this particular parent at this particular time.'  For some of us, that may be more curriculum oriented than for others.  And in the 12+ years we've homeschooled, almost all at the unschooling/relaxed end of the spectrum, I've learned that curriculum is not necessarily a bad word.
Some of us, as parents, need more structure to feel comfortable. Some of our children need more structure. (I printed off a review of American School -- a correspondence high school -- and showed it to my 13 yr old daughter last week to see what she thought. Her response "Can we start this now or do I have to wait?") There are some days where we need more structure, and some months where, from the outside looking in, it may look like 'they never do school there'.
I have found as my children get older (now 17, 13, 7 and 3) that they need more structure of some sort. My oldest was able to provide most of that for himself. He's always been the kind where I could just give him nudges and he'd be off. Not always in the direction or the manner I would choose for him, but off and running. He has definite plans for what he wants to do with his life and is working on getting there.
#2 child is the personality that needs structure. She made a 'to do' list once and it had "1-wake up, 2-get out of bed, 3-go to the bathroom, 4-get dressed, 5-put nightgown away, 6-make bed, etc..." A bit too detailed for me. She thrives on check lists and if things are too loosely structured she can't get things done.
#3 and #4 I'm still figuring out. So far I haven't used any 'curriculum' for them with the exception of starting 'Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons'.
I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes 'unschooling' can look an awful lot like 'school at home' and sometimes it looks like 'doing nothing'. And this list sometimes seems to have nothing to do with education <G>. We're moms (and a few dads) with the common interest of love for our kids and trying to figure out the best way to homeschool them.
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The age-old question, indeed.  Not to begin vague, but unschooling means different things to different people - it's unique - adapting - and progressive.  To some it means absolutely NO formal lessons (curricula - scope and sequence - lessons - teachable moments), nothing.  This is usually named Radical Unschooling.  Only the brave dare tread here, and those who either refuse, or do not have to report to authority figures; meaning they are "underground".
To these families, unschooling means leading the children to the water, but refusing to coax them to drink.  Whether they drink or no, it is the child's choice.  What they do is immerse the child in all sorts of learning experiences - academic or esoteric, providing the materials for learning, laying around the materials hoping the child will pick them up and spark an interest.  They usually allow the children to form their own schedules - and be responsible for their own lives.  I've found that some radical unschoolers hold back on their own enthusiasm when they see a child pick an interest, so as not to contaminate the learning process with their own propensities.
A friend of mine, who honestly doesn't like or agree with the concept of "unschooling", whether that be because the word can denote a laziness or laisefaire attitude toward children and their education, I don't know.  She and her family followed the ways of Dr. Raymond and Dorothy Moore, who taught the concept of "delayed academics".  (You can learn more about this in their book, "Better Late Than Early".)  For 11 years, my friend read aloud to her 4 children, daily.  The subject matter varied, but reading time could stretch on for hours at a time.  Her oldest son had never been shown how to read - ever.  One day, while passing by a comfy chair, she saw her son curled up, reading a novel on the French Revolution.  She commented to me, "I asked him what he was doing, since I'd never seen him do that before.  He looked up at me, annoyed; I was obviously disturbing his peace.  He said to me, "I'm reading, Mom.  What does it look like?"  I said to him, "What?  You don't know how to read, and there are no pictures in that book."  She went on to tell me that he was in fact reading, and reading perfectly word for word.  He's almost 18 years old now, and completely self-taught in the area of ancient languages and law.  He's looking to either get a job working for HSDLA or finishing up working in the area of languages to interpret.
In more relaxed settings, there is a great emphasis on reading aloud to children on many topics, from the mundane to the outrageous, a lot of game playing, role playing, discussion and explanation.  It sounds really out on the "edge" to someone who is not used to this lifestyle.   A lot of libraries carry Grace Llewelyn's work on this subject with unschooled kids and their families.  She has documented how teenagers are encouraged to take a hold of their own abilities and education, and DO something with it.  Some of these children have extraordinary bents and talents, and a lot of freedom to go with it from their parents.  One 17 year old Grace documented, took her bike and started a road trip from Southern Mexico, and by herself rode North back to California.  I believe it took her 3 months - and yes... she was really all by herself.
Still, to others unschooling means to steer their children in the child's own interests, providing moderate to minimal input and accountability as they go along.  The Colfax family seems to fit this description the best.  "A Day in Paradise" and 'Homeschooling for Excellence" (look in the library) document the happenings on their mountain top mini-farm, while their 4 children prepare for the Ivy League.  All four children were different; all four had to be given the correct tools to get them where they wanted to go.
There were scheduled times of academics, usually when the boys were finished with their outside chores.  Their parents painstakingly selected math and science curricula that would afford their children with the best laid-out plans for self-education.  Language Arts started simply with writing letters to relatives, or writing to each other for practice.  One son was in love with plumbing, so his parents purchased a box of plumbing parts, and the rest is history - he is a highly educated plumbing engineer.  His three brothers went onto the Ivy League  degreeing high in their area of interest and expertise.
Because they lived in such a beautiful and conducive environment, David and Micki Colfax used their isolated property as a conduit for self-education.  As the old axiom states, "Necessity is the mother of invention."  Barn building, goat raising, feeding quandaries and home repair proved perfect for teaching and reinforcing geometry, trigonometry, and stoking up the intuitive inventiveness in all of us; most of which is lost in those who have everything solved and handed to us in nicely tied-up packages.
Then there are those who have one foot in school-at-home, and one foot on the radical side.  Sometimes I think this could be called straddling the fence out of fear to jump off on either side, but not always.  There are those who believe that it's their responsibility to allow the children to explore and learn while still under parental constraints... whether that be schedules, forms of academics, accountability to elders, or a planned out course to get them there.  Being accountable to either their school district, eldership or an umbrella organization limits them in some aspects, but provides a loose course of study which everyone can live with.
Clonlara Correspondence School affords this.  The student is required to accurately detail credit hours spent in core academics, counting also life experience and outside interests for credit.  "Wisdom's Way of Learning" leans highly in this regard... as well as some Charlotte Mason (more likely sometimes in the same vein as the Colfax experience).  The Moore Foundation has a lot to say in this issue as well.
Whether you call it child-led learning, natural-progression learning, self-interest/self-education, loosely-structured, highly-structured with little parental input... is all up to each individual family.  It is ever-changing, ever-evolving, and sometimes it is simply "back to the drawing board" for re-evaluation.
Depending on the interests of the student, it can get expensive, because the child's interests require a higher amount of outside real materials or experiences.  Some kids have elected to begin college courses from as early as 13, by the time they were 18  they had practically graduated college altogether.  In the instance where there isn't a lot of cash-flow, people have apprenticed themselves to experts in their fields to be taught the skill or trade.  Bartering, home business, enterprise, invention - or just plain improvising, are some ways families have found help to bring real-life, practical experience to their children.
Providing a loving, communicative, godly home filled with the wonder of God and His creation, a lot of good books and the willingness to "wait upon the Lord", will always provide the good ground for which the learning process can flourish.   All the rest are details, details......
Fear is unschooling's worst enemy - either have confidence in the ways that the Lord is leading you, or drop back and punt until you have a more clear direction.  Pray for guidance regularly, and pray that the gifts that were given to your children on the day of their conception be stirred up by the Holy Spirit.  Don't be surprised if the Lord says to back off for a while, or even... speed up.  His direction, above all else, is what you need to seek; not man's.  He's the one that laid the plans for our children, He's the One Who's capable to see to it they're accomplished - if we pay attention, and are willing to be a bit "different".
Renee Kerouac

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First let me share this with you...
Why do we homeschool?

  • We homeschool so our child can learn at his pace, fast or slow or in between.
  • We homeschool so our child can learn what he wants to learn, when he wants to learn it.
  • We homeschool so our child can learn to socialize at his own pace, unfolding in a gentle, natural way.
  • We homeschool because it is fun to learn, and we don't want school with its predetermined agenda to squelch that joyful attitude toward learning.
  • We homeschool because we trust the learning rhythms of our child.
That was from another list.  I have saved it for a long time and use it often.  Unschooling is following your child's interests.  Some children are workbook kind of kids.  So to my daughter, who despises workbooks of any kind, doing a workbook would not be unschooling.  To the child that loves them and learns from them, it is unschooling.  The child's choice.
The religion issue.  I am a Christian.  I teach my children my values, not with workbooks or forced learning, but as a way of life.  We read the Bible, like we read any book.  With the exception that I tell the kids I believe that the Bible was written through men with God's wisdom.  They can choose a different course, but I really don't believe they will.  I believe that if we give them a solid foundation, they will grow to love the Lord with all their hearts.  If not, I will pray daily for them and know that God is in control.
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And finally, someone had this concern regarding unschooling:

What!  You let kids do the work when THEY want to (or not at all) !!!??  Whoa!
I like Mary's response:
It is the "not at all" part that is a bit confusing.  The teacher in me still has an agenda and even a time frame and "in my head" lesson plans.  But, if Jonathan is composing a song and is really into it, I am NOT going to stop that to have him work on a history lesson.  After moving, all the boys were into building cardboard castles, tunnels, swords, and dungeons.  That was fine - I still had not unpacked "official" school stuff!  Game day or a reading day is okay.  I just want to see some progress in the math area - sometimes they will do 2 or 3 lessons all at once to catch up.  And reading and communication skills are important.  If Nate is writing to everyone on his e-mail and reading the newspaper - yes, he starts with the comics and ends with the first page - but I do not stop those activities to "do" school.  THAT IS learning.  We also take a lot of outside the home classes this year so that takes up a good part of every Tuesday and Thursday.  Nate is 15 and a sophomore in High school and compared to other high school students some would shake their heads and say "how will he ever graduate?"  BUT they don't see who God is making him to be.  He is still struggling at the 7th grade level math.  So what?  He is faithfully working at it and will eventually at least get through Algebra 1/2 (that is my goal for him).  He spends a lot of time with music - trombone and piano, he takes 3rd year Spanish and does a lot with that and then his heart is in several church activities - worship team, quiz team, children's church worker, youth activities.  He is the most generous, kind, gentle guy and his sisters think some girl is going to be very lucky to have him as her husband some day!  The point is that each one is so unique and is gifted in different ways, and my prayer is that they follow what God is directing them to do.  We try hard to get a math lesson in every day, reading everyday, and history twice a week (we're using KONOS high school level so the boys can keep track of actual credit hours if they want a public school diploma).  Bethany is opting for the Washington State Organization diploma as did her sister.  Both went to community college the last 2 years of high school.  Hang in there, and read anything and everything, and relax.
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