Unschooling John Holt

A baby smiles, crawls, pulls up, begins to walk, says her first word – parents rejoice at these milestones and are excited at how much their children are learning. 

Children begin to eat with a fork, speak in complete sentences, hold a crayon – parents clap and encourage – again, ecstatic at their child’s capacity for learning. 

And then, they send them to school.

Suddenly, once a child reaches the ages of three to five, parents decide that school is necessary in order for them to take the next steps in their development.

But why?

The child has learned to smile, talk, crawl, stand, walk, eat, build with blocks, color with crayons, and literally thousands of other skills without the aid of teacher or classroom.  All of these magnificent things that we croon over and snatch up the camera to capture – all of these things are skills learned at home – learned by the sheer will of the child and his curiosity about the world around him.  Why now that the child has reached a particular age do parents suddenly feel it is time for them to “get down to business” or “become more serious” about their learning?  Were they not serious about learning to crawl?  To walk?  To climb?  How is it different to learn to read?

Educational psychologist and philosopher, John Holt, thought it was not so different.  He decided to conduct a series of tests to see if children would learn to read, write, and complete mathematical equations as a part of a natural progression if provided with the materials necessary to do so and an available adult to go to with questions. 

What he found was astounding.

In his book, Learning All the Time, Holt tells of a room filled with books and a few adults whose soul job was to sit in the room and answer any questions children might have – to answer only that questions, and not to offer any additional information.  Children were brought to the room and shown the library filled with books and told that the adults were there to help them if they needed help.  The adults were never to ask a child to “sound it out”, but if a child asked what a word was, the adult was to read it for them.  The average child learned to read in about thirty hours – total – in this manner, without direct instruction.  Without reading groups or reading workbooks or pushing or prodding.  They learned to read ON THEIR OWN and through their own curiosity. 

The parents of unschoolers are those who understand and agree with the philosophies of Holt and others like him:  the child will learn everything that they need to learn when they need to learn it without coercion, as long as all of the necessary resources are available to them when they are ready. 

The duty then, of the unschooler’s parent, is to provide ample opportunities and resources, and to be present in the child’s life.  The unschooler’s parent is hands on, involved, and excited about everything that their child is learning, doing, and thinking about.  The parent becomes the child’s advocate and resource and the child becomes his or her own best teacher.  The unschooling household is one based upon trust.  Trust that a child can and will learn what is necessary, and trust that the adult will look out for the best interests of the child and provide for his or her well-being. 

In such households, children are able to blossom in ways about which the traditionally schooled parent and child could only dream. 

In the unschooling world, children are trusted to know what is best for them.  They are treated as individuals who are of equal value to adults and their interests are seen as just as serious, their thoughts just as important.  In this world, the child is able to learn as much as they like about whatever they like at the pace that suits them best.  If a child wishes to stay up all night reading The Complete Works of Shakespeare, this is allowed.  Bedtimes become arbitrary.  Learning becomes synonymous with living – and living each day is about living life to the full.  The world is the unschooler’s classroom.  Every person is a resource.  Learning doesn’t begin and end with the sound of a bell.  Learning never ends.  It is one beautiful circle of living. 

In such a world it is possible for children to truly and fully explore their interests and to imagine new ways of doing and being.  Creativity is allowed and encouraged, producing truly outside the box thinkers who know that there are multiple ways of reaching the same conclusion and multiple ways of thinking about every issue.  A mutual respect is cultivated between parent and child. 

Unschooling is about trust and unconditional love.  When both of these things are given in abundance, there can be no question that a child will grow to reach his or her fullest and ultimate potential.  Without the constraints of the traditional classroom, true passions can be explored, and whole new worlds imagined.