Unschooling is the Best! Our Journey from Fully-Planned to Plan-Free

Unschooling is the Best! Our Journey from Fully-Planned to Plan-Free

To say I was a reluctant unschooler, is an understatement.

I have wanted to be a teacher for as long as I remember. I played school all throughout childhood…in fact, one of the most amazing presents anyone ever gave me was an old teacher’s edition 5th grade spelling textbook.

It had supplemental activity suggestions in the margins and all the answers were in RED. I was in pretend-teacher heaven.

I went to college to be a teacher. It was the obvious choice for me. I really never felt the need to consider another career.

So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered during my junior year of college that I didn’t think teaching in a classroom full-time was actually the job for me!! I was working at an after-school camp with the YMCA and I quickly realized that my teaching skills were best suited for small groups. I wasn’t cut out for the 30-kid classroom.

It wasn’t until I met my husband that I ever even thought of homeschooling my own children. He was homeschooled and wanted to homeschool our own children. It was the perfect fit for me and would more than fulfill my childhood dream of teaching.

Of course, our first year of homeschooling, I did what most people (especially those with a public school-teaching background like me) do. I made:

Honest Mistake #1: I re-created public school in our home.

We began right after breakfast by saying the pledge (something that I do think is important to learn) and promptly moved into our carefully scheduled lesson plans.

This flowed as a placid stream for about a week.

Then my son started resisting. So I started changing things up.

I made little changes at first. I shortened the lessons for each subject. I reduced the number of days we had school. We took more breaks.

When we *finally* finished what I had planned for that first year, I made:

Honest Mistake #2: I blamed the curriculum.

I had written his full curriculum for that first year so I thought perhaps what I had put together wasn’t optimized to his learning style. I had discovered a lot about how he learned and the things that really got him excited.

So I attended a state-wide homeschool conference and researched as much curricula as I possibly could. In fact, I overwhelmed myself with all the possibilities.

The beauty of homeschooling is that you have infinite choices and opportunities. But that also becomes a difficulty when you don’t know which choices to make.

I finally realized (and this is true for anyone who is struggling over a homeschooling decision) that I had to just pick one and jump in. You can never know if it will really work until you try it.

So by the end of that summer, I was armed with a new lesson plan of “sure-to-engage-him” curriculum.

Some things I got were great. He enjoyed doing them and never fought me. But for the most part, we were right back where we had been the year before: me constantly re-working our plans and he fighting me tooth-and-nail over school time.

The third time’s the charm, right? Well, sort of.

By the third year, I was tired of fighting. I didn’t want school to be a fight…after all, that’s why we wanted to homeschool in the first place! To teach the way he learns AND to keep learning enjoyable.

I attended yet another conference, but this time, I didn’t go crazy looking for a full arsenal of curricula. I only searched for answers to what seemed to be our biggest trouble spots: reading and math.

I came home with two solutions and a plan to be as relaxed as I could while using them.

(Can you see a pattern here? I’m a planner by nature…read more here about when you and your child have differing learning styles.)

Honestly, both curricula were amazing. Wonderful. Over the summer, we did a few reading lessons but were never super serious about it. Life happened and before I could get back to it, Ace surprised me with the fact that HE COULD READ ON HIS OWN.

I want to make that bolder so it really sinks in:


All my worrying, struggling, striving, and planning ultimately didn’t matter! The boy took the concepts we talked about in regular conversation/as I read aloud to him and taught himself to read.

As wonderful as the curriculum was, I can’t give it any credit for this momentous breakthrough. In fact, I can hardly give myself credit for this feat. Sure we talked about letter sounds as we read together (and we read all. the. time.)

But there was nothing magical about what I did that helped Ace learn to read. It was really up to him to get there both developmentally and motivationally.

I realized that rather than being his teacher, I had become his guide. A facilitator of his educational quests. But whether or not he actually learns is up to him.

After all, any school teacher can tell you that you can require a child to memorize a set of facts and regurgitate them on a test, but you can’t force them to internalize those very same concepts.

Turns out, I had accidentally unschooled Ace.

I had been resisting the unschooling philosophy all this time because, well, I was scared of it. It seemed too radical. Too open-ended. Too laid-back.

Surely “school” wasn’t meant to be that way. How could a person possibly learn without formal lessons or instruction?

The answer to those questions was sitting there right in front of me, reading a new book. Ace had learned to read on his own, in a way that made sense for HIM. Without any formal lessons or instruction.

If that could be accomplished without curriculum, what else could he do?

The more and more I relaxed our approach to schooling, the more I battled with my feelings of guilt. What if I wasn’t doing enough?? Would Ace learn everything he should?

It wasn’t until I read more about unschooling from Joan at Unschool Rules that I officially embraced the unschooling path for our family.

Joan talks about how she unschooled her (recently graduated!) daughter in Pennsylvania – a state known for it’s tough homeschool regulations.

Joan’s posts about how much of their schooling is based around conversation really got me thinking.

So many times Ace will ask a question and we will research the answer together. Which often leads to another discussion and so on. On the surface, that seems very mundane, but that is really the crux of learning!

That one question will lead to a multi-faceted learning experience. His learning isn’t restricted to a single subject laid out before him in lesson-plan format. Through a natural discovery process, he will learn about a variety of subjects before the conversation is exhausted.

Once I embraced unschooling in all of its open-ended, go-with-the-flow glory, I have started to relax and enjoy homeschooling even more.

We have FUN!

And guess what, it’s okay for learning and “school” to be fun!

It’s okay to thoroughly enjoy yourself while you are learning about something new. Even if that something is considered a boring concept…it’s amazing how many things are boring when they’re restricted to text on a page or chalkboard.

Our homeschool is experience-based.

We go on as many field trips as we possibly can. I fill our lives with books and experiences and videos and podcasts and conversations and experiments. Especially on Ace’s favorite topic: trains (and model trains.)

And I’m so glad we have finally ended up on this path.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have moments of doubt and fear – moments where I wonder if we’re doing “enough.” When those doubts creep in, I read this post and this post from Bethany Ishee, this post about learning not being linear, and this fascinating post about teaching math.

And I remind myself that education is a life-long journey, not a destination.

What is your homeschool philosophy? Have you considered unschooling? If not, why not?

2 thoughts on “Unschooling is the Best! Our Journey from Fully-Planned to Plan-Free”

  • We are unschooler’s at heart. Every now and then I feel like I am not doing enough. But then one day my daughter will say something and just surprise me. Without formal instruction you think they are not learning but they always are. Great read, my friend.

    • Thank you so much!! I appreciate your compliments and I’m so happy to be able to offer encouragement on this journey.

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