Unschooling Subjects?

People just discovering unschooling often have a lot of questions. How do unschoolers learn what they need to? Do schools really have the right idea in dividing everything into separate subjects? And can unschooling really work for every individual? My short answers would generally be lots of different ways; no; and every child can unschool, but not every parent or situation is compatible with unschooling. However, I really think I need to go a bit more in-depth with those answers…


When you really start immersing yourself in unschooling, you start to see that, barring any learning disabilities, it's easy to absorb all the basics from everyday life. Sometimes it can be helpful to observe just how seamlessly those subjects are being learned, even though eventually, you probably won’t think of learning as being broken into subjects at all!

  • Reading is learned from being read to, dictating stories to a helpful adult or older sibling, playing word games, picking out books at the library, deciphering a video game manual or board game instructions, using computers…
  • Writing is learned from reading, creating stories, communicating with friends online, blogging...
  • Math is learned through playing card and board games, helping with shopping, managing their own money, helping with budgeting, cooking and baking…
  • History is learned through conversations with friends and family, books and movies and tv shows (both fiction and non-fiction), looking things up on the internet...
  • Geography is learned from traveling and making friends online with people all around the world, keeping track of current events (online, through news on TV, and newspapers)...

When an unschooler wants to gain higher proficiency in any of these things, they can dive into researching something they’re interested in, find mentors or teachers (with parental help, depending on age and what the learner wants and needs), and take online classes or in person ones (at a homeschool co-op, college, or offered to the wider community). After all, unschooling simply means self directed (adult facilitated) learning. It doesn’t mean you have to eschew all structure, it just means that the learner should be calling the shots (in partnership with supportive adults in their lives).

...Maybe not

As you gain greater comfort with the unschooling lifestyle, you start to find that breaking everything down into distinct subjects--and trying to find or create learning in every moment--is extremely limiting. Reading is writing is history is art is geography. Learning is in large part the process of making connections, following the threads and seeing where they lead, what they intersect with, and how they affect each other. When we try to set firm boundaries between various subjects, all we do is impede those connections, restraining and interrupting the natural curiosity and desire to build an ever more complete picture of the world and our place in it. If we’re going to call anything “education,” perhaps it shouldn’t be about schooling at all, but instead about our continuous process of building and re-building that picture, looking at it from different angles, adding and subtracting from it as we learn and grow and change.

Learning is such an endlessly complex process, that to try and break it up into firm subjects seems almost absurd.

Everyone is born a self-directed learner

A lot of time I hear those who have limited familiarity with unschooling say that this type of learning helps children “learn how to learn,” and my reaction to that is always that everyone knows how to learn! Children need supportive people in their lives, circumstances that allow those people to invest the time those children need, and access to resources, but if you have those important elements, everyone is capable of unschooling. Obviously, those circumstances can be hard to find in our capitalistic culture, where many people just don’t have the financial ability for a parent or trusted adult to stay with children. My point isn’t to minimize that, just to point out that humans are built to learn, that we all have the innate abilities needed to do so, and that while external factors might get in the way, if the circumstances are right then we’re ALL unschoolers.

ALL children, you say? What about children with learning disabilities, or neuro-atypical children, or other children with special needs? It’s the job of an unschooling parent or guardian to help their children gain the skills and find the resources they need to achieve their goals, which can absolutely include specialized tutoring, therapy, support groups, or other services. Remember: unschooling is all about self-directed learning, cultivating learning partnerships between children and their parents/guardians/mentors/teachers, and using a variety of resources as wanted and needed. The nature of unschooling means that each learner’s “education” will be completely different, and can bend and adapt to the unique needs of everyone involved.

So there won’t really be a collection of subjects that every unschooler studies. There won’t be one standardized body of learning that every child has. But when it really comes down to it, the world is a very big place, and each person can only ever hope to learn a fraction of what’s out there to be learned. It seems to me that the best we can do is accept that fact, and work to support each individual in living a life and creating an “education” that feels meaningful to them, and equips them with whatever skills they need and want.

We can look at how various subjects are learned in different unschoolers lives, we can use examples to explain how it works to prospective unschoolers and naysayers alike, and we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that we (or our children) are learning some of the same everyday skills that children in school are (supposed to be) learning. But in the end, it would probably do everyone a whole lot of good if we stepped away from the idea that everything can and should be broken into subjects, and that every individual needs to learn the same things in each of those subjects.

Learning is too big for that, and it makes a whole lot more sense to just take a deep breath and enjoy the ride!

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