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Natural Learning – What Is It?

by Tiffany in Homeschool

natural learning unschoolingAs many of you know I will likely be homeschooling my 7 year old son after the conclusion of this school year. I have been giving a lot of thought to what type of homeschool methods I would like to incorporate and as with everything in my life I find that approaching things “naturally” is usually best.

Right away I can see I will not be a homeschooler with strict schedules and heavily organized curriculum. It just isn’t me and it isn’t my son. We are both pretty independent and stubborn. We want things the way we want them period…and we don’t like being told what to do. So right away I can see that buying a bunch of workbooks, textbooks, and sticking to a scheduled curriculum will NOT be the best course of action for us. So what is the opposite end of the spectrum…unschooling. It is touted as being the most natural way to learn and as I investigate it more, I see the inherent value.

What IS unschooling? Basically, as I understand it….unschooling is allowing children to learn from life and not from a structured school setting. According to Wikipedia, Unschooling (also sometimes referred to as “natural learning”, “child-led learning”, “discovery learning”, or “child-directed learning”) is the term given to an increasingly popular method of homeschooling. Under unschooling education, parents act as “facilitators” and are responsible for having a wide-range of resources available to provide their children with a quality education. –

Right away I see the value in a directing your own learning…that is the way I have always liked to learn and I still love to learn and pursue education on my own terms. Case in point…right now I am reading a book called The Case for Faith. It basically discusses the 8 main objections to Christianity and objection number 7 discusses the atrocities committed in the name of Christ…ie the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem with trials, the Holocaust, etc. I pause for a minute and realize I do know quite a bit about the Holocaust but not so much about the other three. So I decide right then and there to research these, either on the Internet or via a trip to the library. I decide I need to know more about these historical times and although at some point I am sure they were discussed in school history classes they made virtually no impact on me…I didn’t want to learn about them for whatever reason. Now I do….and as I direct the learning I am sure that what I learn will remain with me this time.

So will this work for a 7 year old? Can I trust him to want to learn about history and lead himself to history or other similar school subjects without directing him there myself or allowing a teacher to do it?

I say yes. Another case in point…a few weeks back my son was painting in his room. He was painting the New York City skyline and using a postcard sent to him by a classmate that visited the city over the winter break as a guide. When he came to show me his work I was very impressed and I expressed that to him. He looked perturbed though and I asked him what he was thinking. He wanted to know what were these two vertical lights shining up into the sky. Wow…what a great question. So I sat and explained to him about the World Trade Center Towers and what happened to them on 9/11 and how these two lights now shine their place. I told him about his Uncle worked in at the World Trade Center and how by mere chance he was late to work that day or he would have been there when they fell. As it was he was a 1/2 mile away watching from the street. I also showed him pictures of the aftermath ( I was at ground zero only a few weeks after they fell). And thanks to the amazing Internet I pulled up a YouTube video of the actual footage of the planes hitting the towers and towers falling.

We had an impromptu history lesson and he instigated it. His natural love for learning caused him to seek out answers and this runs contrary to the idea that unschooled children will be lazy and unmotivated. This week he asked me for a math workbook to work on during the weekends AND he asked that in lieu of presents for his birthday we take him to Pittsburgh…to see the Children’s Musuem. Come late August that is where we will be.

So does this mean I have settled on unschooling? No…but I think I can’t ignore the benefits of allowing a child to learn and develop on their own terms. I think a happy balance is where I am heading. My son has been using a Phonics system I bought for him and he LOVES it and is is doing great with it. So I see the benefit of structure but then again I see the benefit of the unschooling “natural” approach of learning from life and allowing natural interests to take root and grow. And as brought out in the book Homeschooling Our Children Unschooling Ourselves…unschooling creates an opportunity to learn as a family.

So what are your thoughts? Learn by the book or toss the book and learn from life…that is the question…

  • Marti

    Each child is different, so what works for each child is different. Through my own homeschool adventures, I’ve found that a combination of both unschooling and tad of “learn by the book” worked best for us.

    Marti’s last blog post..A Sock or an Ancient Torture Device?

  • I am interested in possibly home schooling some day, but it all seems overwhelming to me. Thank you for sharing. I am very interested in your discoveries and the thoughts of your readers, too.

    Mommy Bee’s last blog post..Toys?R?Us Takes Action

  • Another option would be to assign him a long project that combines unschooling with a direction. When I moved from a big city school to a small town school (4th grade), I was ahead academically and grew bored quickly. I was assigned a semester long project on mythology and was responsible for creating a presentation that showed I’d put in a semesters worth of work, etc. It was the most fun learning I’d ever had and I still remember most of what I learned.

    Rete’s last blog post..C is for Crazy

  • That is very creative Rete. Thanks for the idea…

  • good luck, I will also be homeschooling my (now) 7 year old this fall. I haven’t decided whats best for us yet. I think a combination of both, Our family sort of thrives on structure but i also want my children to help decide when, what, and how they learn. I see the library being our main “workbook”. :) I’m so glad you’ll be going on this journey at the same time!!

    Nicole Mc’s last blog post..Happy Valentines Day!!

  • Heather Clark

    That is a concept I had never thought of but totally agree with! Somehow when there is an interest the knowledge is retained better, and although I had the traditional schooling I would much rather have had the “unschooling”. Although my daughter is nowhere near that age yet, it gives me something to consider for a while. Thanks Tiffany

  • I am a huge fan of unschooling, most of my favorite homeschooling familes followthis approach and I’m always amazed at the things their children want to learn about.

    I can tell you that as a child I learned more about history on summer vacation when it was self directed than I ever did those 9 months stuck in a chair. When you want to learn you absorb so much more!

    Summer’s last blog post..Being Frugal

  • First of all I wish you only the best on your journey. I was at this same point, with a child of the same age, about three years ago. What has worked for us is a mix of both. The Eclectic approach. May I recommend a few wonderful books in addition to the above mentioned Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves by Alison Mckee. David Guterson has a great book titled “Family Matters”, Nancy Wallace wrote a great unschooling book titled “Child’s Work” which I loved. I also enjoyed the Unschoolers Handbook (author: I forget and am too lazy to go looking but you’ll find it on Amazon) While many of these books I recommend are unschooling based, I find they really helped me lighten up. Sometimes I am really hard on myself worrying that my child won’t know “enough” or she’ll be “behind”. The greatest lesson these books taught me was to trust my gut. No. Scratch that. Trust my child.
    I have more lists of homeschool links on my blog if you are interested.

    I’ve really enjoyed this site a great deal!!

    Maria R’s last blog post..Nancy Wallace Moment

  • Pingback: Homeschool News Roundup - Feb. 20 « Just Enough, and Nothing More()

  • Looking back at my own education (public school) versus my husband’s (homeschooling), I would go the direction of a mix of un-school and book-school. I was easily bored and often assigned additional work to curb that boredom. My husband has some very glaring academic weaknesses that he had to overcome (which ironically mimic his mom’s weaknesses). However, what I would do and what you “should” do are not necessarily the same. :)

    Maria’s last blog post..Nothing goes as planned…

  • Looks like we have some things in common and you definitely have some info. I would like to read more about when I am not working. Just stumbled on you! Will probably feature your blog on mine soon. I love to tell people about other neat sites/blogs. :) Thanks.

  • I wish you lots of luck as you start your homeschooling journey. Being so willing to consider and experiement with various techniques really gives you a great advantage. I’ve found that flexibility is key, even within the more structured parts.

  • Lauren

    Thanks for writing that. I’m interested in the idea of homeschooling, as well as ‘unschooling’ and have just begun to research them both (my daughter isn’t even one yet:). A big question I have, that I’m hoping someone can help me with is this: Does unschooling teach our children that they don’t have to do what they don’t want to? I strongly believe that one of our main jobs as a parent is to raise our children in a way that nurtures their individuality, and also gives them the best opportunity to thrive in this world. And the reality in this world is that sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to. And that there has to be a lot of structure and discipline in some situations (social, academic, work, whatever). I feel it’s my job to help my child learn the skills that are needed to excel in these types of situations as well. I definitely want my child to have a voice, and think for herself, and have self-directed learning…where is the line drawn so that it doesn’t swing too far one way? Sorry this was so long, just stuff I’ve really been thinking about (i figure if I start now, then in 5 years I’ll have made a decision:)

  • jen

    as a former teacher I have such problems for lack of a better word with homeschooling. More and more, though I see the benefits of it as our schools move more towards standardized testing and away from expressing individuality. My biggest “problems” with home school are the social aspects of not having kids interact with other people their age that are different from them on a regular basis. My main suggestion would be I strongly urge you to include socialization with other kids his age on a very regular basis. Have him be involved in activities that you are not a part of (like art classes for example — since from your post he seems to have an interest in art)

    • Connie

      Homeschooling isn’t about keeping our children away from other kids, that is a myth from the past. I live in TN and there are homeschooling groups in every county where the children can have the same set of friends that they play/learn with on a weekly basis – just like i did when i grew up in the public school setting. There is also church where they meet and are able to communicate and interact with not only there age piers, but people of all ages from babies to the elderly. I think its a much more well rounded thing than it used to be in the past. I’m really quite surprised though that people still think homeschooling shuts children off and cuts off their socialization skills. If we love them enough to teach them academics, then we will certainly love them enough to teach them how to be emotionally/relationally healthy as well.

  • I don’t think it’s either/or with books or unschooling. A lot of “unschooling” kids even love workbooks, but the difference is that THEY chose to do it…it wasn’t forced upon them. I think it’s important for unschooling parents to expose their children to lots of ideas, books so that they can even find out what they are interested in…a rich environment.
    I have also however taught my kids that they have to do what they don’t want to do (this is in response to Lauren’s question) but that comes under the arena of chores. As responsible family members who learn to work and be a part of a team, we all pull our weight. My children don’t have an option when it comes to helping around the house and pitching in…this is the area where they learn to “work” and carry responsibility. In my opinion, learning should not be the place for that. We should nurture and protect the joy of learning without pressure. Just my thoughts!

    As far as the

    Aimee’s last blog post..A New Way to Go Green!

  • Sarah

    It sounds exciting, albeit a bit overwhelming, for you to be contemplating this step. As an early childhood educator I was taught to “follow the child’s lead” or build upon their interests. This is a wonderful way to foster learning and I think you’re on the right track making it part of your curriculum. I do worry though, that there will be a time when you want your child to have the option to step back into traditional school-based education (for me, this might be in Junior High when my expertise and creativity has started to wane). I think including some desk-based book learning and some subjects that your son may not be self-motivated to pursue will be important to give him the skills that other children are getting at school.
    How will you keep yourself on track? I could see myself setting up playdates and field trips often and procrastinating the toughest subjects. Good luck!

  • We have done things both ways and have found that the kids knowing the resources are available, having conversations about things and the materials to fuel their interest works the best for all three despite their incredibly different personalities–your on the right track.

    heather’s last blog post..No Doodle today

  • Laura

    I am a homeschooling mother. I too have gone for the ‘middle of the spectrum’. I combine self led learning w/ textbooks and workbooks. I love unit studies, they’re organized studies-like textbooks but focus on one idea. Right now we’re doing the Renaissance, it has history but also math, science, etc.
    Don’t feel bad about people commenting on socialization. I remember school days being spent wanting to talk to other kids my age but only having a 15 minute recess to do so. My children are comfortable talking w/ people outside of their ‘class’. We visit nursing homes, soup kitchens, etc. They love to learn from other people.

  • Monica
  • Jodi

    I am in my third year of homeschooling my 3 kids (13, 11 and 7). We took a big chunk of the first year to “de-school:” to get the kids used to the idea that learning isn’t restricted to a building a few miles away. That was the hardest part. They learned so much in that completely unstructured time that I never did use a formal curriculum. Oh, I tried, but I just spent a lot of money for nothing! :-) We have since adopted the Charlotte Mason method of homeschooling, with a huge dose of unschooling mixed in. Gentle, child-directed learning, with just enough structure to be sure that the 3 Rs are covered, makes homeschooling a joy rather than a grind. Enjoy your journey!

  • Lori

    Keep in mind that most people don’t find the method that works for them the first year. On top of that, the first year is usually the hardest. Hang in there, and remember that if something doesn’t work that you can scrap it and try something else.

  • We plan to homeschool our now 3.5 & 1.5 yr old. We are planning to mostly unschool but I have been trying to incorporate now the rhythms and festivals from Waldorf methods. Good luck! I really enjoying reading your blog.

    Momto2Boys’s last blog post..Menu Planning Monday

  • I am an eclectic homeschooling mom of soon to be 5 boys (9 and under) we love it. I just re-launched a site & social group dedicated to relaxed, fun and real-life homeschooling. I’d love for you to visit.

    Love & blessings, Alli

  • Marti

    You’ll get the “socialization” myth thrown out to you a lot. Don’t worry about it. In all actuality, research published in scientific peer reviewed journals has shown that homeschooled children have above average social skills where as conventionally schooled children have average to below average social skills. It seems that conventionally schooled children are only able to relate to children their own age whereas home schooled children are exposed to people of all ages and all walks of life on a daily basis which gives them better social skills.

    Here’s a link to just one of these studies.

    Marti’s last blog post..A Sock or an Ancient Torture Device?

  • Holli

    I wanted to second the recommendation of the Charlotte Mason method. Here is a free online curriculum I am a former teacher and I will be homeschooling our children. I am very intrigued with this method. This is how I wish I had been educated.

  • What a great post! With my little girl on the way, my Husband and I have been discussing homeschooling her and how exactly we plan to go about it. I love this concept though I know I’d want a little more structure – but the general principle is right on!

    Thanks for sharing.

    marie @ green your apartment’s last blog post..Third ?Tips for Green Living? Carnival

  • Elissa

    What a great post. I’ve been unschooling for 14 years now and can tell you, it works!! it’s often harder on the mom to let go of HER plans and her upbringing and her insecurities, but it’s an amazing journey!

    If you want to take a peek at my blog Christian Unschooling I have some answers to some typical concerns, and also, back issues of an online ezine I used to publish, Seedling. They are filled with wonderful reading material!

    In response to Lauren, above….I always say, Unschooling isn’t Unparenting! However, in some unschooling groups, you WILL find unparenting in the equation.

    I think the difference for me is a “God-thing”. I am commanded to do a lot! Training my children is a constant mode of modeling behavior (ha, which I fail at often!!). But I also listen for their interests as I feel they are Spirit laid. Following something that was SPirit-led…how can it go wrong? Because I sure don;t know the BIG PICTURE, but HE does!!!!



  • Lisa

    We are starting homeschooling (well preschool level!) this year. I have many friends who are unschoolers so i have seen it in action. I do think its an awesome approach and its implementation is very flexible depending on what works for your family. Workbooks are not not unschooling if you child wants them! If your child likes structure and asks for it then that is unschooling too! (this happened to a friend of mine for a year – she was in shock as a hard core unschooler however she followed her childs wishes on this). For me , while i am pretty well versed in what it is, what other homeschooling is out there etc i am lacking in practical experience still (my DD1 is 3). I suspect too me being an ex-teacher and a tertiary level curriculum designer before being a mum i will have more trouble de-schooling myself! (Despite truly believing in the unschooling model). I found this blog
    in some of my recent research. She talks about her type of homeschooling as “tidal homeschooling” which is largely unschooling (in her analogy this is low tide) with chunks of “high” tide which she initates and drives (though it is based on what the kids are interested in). I am really attracted to this approach and its probably where i can see us heading. She has a really good blog, you might like to check it out.


  • Just wanted to let you know we linked to this article in the March issue of Learning in the Great Outdoors. Thanks!

    terrell shaw’s last blog post..Learning in the Great Outdoors #10

  • I enjoyed reading your post. My daughter is also 7 and has a natural curiosity. We use primarily a Charlotte Mason method. Have you looked into that? For math and some language arts, we follow a curriculum. And, I’ve been trying to go through American History this year, with mixed success. But, we often just study whatever we feel like or whatever comes up next. And, my daughter just recently decided she loves math and will now ask for it, but that wasn’t the case before! I wish you the best as you seek out the best learning environment for you and your son!

    Dana’s last blog post..Pioneers & The Boston Tea Party

  • TootieLizardTush

    Just as an observation it seems your approach to home schooling is a little too black and white. You are already wanting to become too organized before you start. While I appreciate your reasons for considering the options, textbooks vs unschooling etc, they are really both the extremes and neither are adequate for teaching any child I know. Text books don’t work because showing a child a picture of an apple and describing the taste helps the child neither remember the apple or know what it tastes like. Letting your child wander through childhood hoping they might become passionate about apples having never been introduced to their existence is equally unhelpful in the learning process.

    I home school my child and I have found the best method to be, teach them to read and teach them how to research. Provide them with the resources they need, library card, internet, trips to parks and museums etc. Let them ask questions and then let one subject naturally lead to another. Be flexible. If you had in mind to teach fractions that day but he/she is asking about beetles, then change tack. Let them go learn about beetles which leads to other insects, plant life etc. Then start discussing what fraction of the insect population is beetles and how we work that out. You will get to your fractions, you just need to go down their path to do it.

    If we were to take a child at birth, never talk around them except to hold up pictures and say “ball, cup, spoon” etc by age 5 you would have a child that talks in disjointed, non grammatical sentences. This is an example of text book learning. If we hand them a book with the pictures and the words in and hope they make the connection, this is un-schooling and still doesn’t work. What actually happens in real life is we talk to them, around them and about them. They make the connection and they learn to speak in fluid sentences. We didn’t teach them to speak, they taught themselves. This is receiving an education. The only part we really had in it was to decide which language we wished them to learn. For instance there would have been no point placing our child with a French non English speaking au pair and expecting they would learn English. We are not teachers, in fact I don’t know what the term “teacher” is meant to portray? Children are not taught, they learn and the two are entirely different things. Hence our job as educators is merely to give the child a set of tools such as speech, reading and writing, then point them in the right direction. All we do is introduce the idea of the apple, we then let them cut it open, discover the seeds inside, ask what they are, discover the differences in textures between skin and pulp and finally they will want to taste it on their own. Having tasted the apple they will soon move on to wondering about oranges for themselves.

  • Rachel

    Thanks to this little blogpost, we have all but decided to unschool! Thanks for introducing me to this exciting new concept!

  • Thanks to the power of Stumble, I’ve come across your post today.

    My 5 year old son is naturally curious. To the point that by 3 he’d begun to teach himself to read. He now reads very well, and enjoys chapter books and books about how things work and why. He’s moved on to math, teaching himself addition and subtraction. I say “teaching himself” because he has not done this with much influence from us, aside from reading to him and answering his questions. We’ve made the resources available to him, and he’s run with them.

    That’s not to say that we won’t use curriculum in the future. I intend to, actually. Again, curriculum is a tool that he can use, just like educational TV, nature, the internet, books and so forth. His day is not structured around education. Rather his education is structured around his day.

  • Courtney Morgan

    I went to public school. I plan to homeschool my children, but I don’t have any yet. I have studied child development, both formally and informally. In my rather inexperienced and humble opinion, I think you should decide what method works according to what you know about your son. Unschooling will work if your child is intrinsically motivated to learn. I always was, and I was also very independent, so I hated being told how to learn what I needed to learn and that I didn’t have time to learn what I wanted to learn. On the other hand, unschooling won’t work if your child would rather play than learn (unless his play is educational, then by all means let him proceed). People who don’t know your child aren’t qualified to tell you how he will learn best. You are his mother, and the only people that know your son better than you are your son and God, and you are smarter and more experienced than your son, which makes you the second best person to decide what he needs.

  • Connie

    I think it sounds a bit dangerous….