Relaxed Homeschooling versus Unschooling: Which is Better?

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I am certainly no expert in labels nor in homeschooling, but as far as labels go, I’d probably be in the “relaxed homeschooling” or “eclectic” mix it up category. I think a lot of us homeschoolers are in this category. And I imagine most homeschoolers follow some mix of various teaching methods and philosophies depending on their child’s needs, learning style, and personality.

It seems that Unschooling is growing in popularity, with Unschoolers making up 10-20% of the homeschool community. Here is why we’ve chosen a Relaxed Homeschooling path versus Unschooling.

Relaxed Homeschooling versus Unschooling: What’s the Difference?

Unschooling is where all the learning is child-led, based on the child’s interests. Versus traditional homeschoolers are those who instruct their children at home often using various curriculums and classes that the parents ultimately decide.

I imagine relaxed homeschoolers as those of us in the middle, some of the learning is child-led based on their interests, and some is parent-led. The parent-led stuff is the stuff we decide to teach because we think it is important for our child’s knowledge, growth, and development.  

Unschooling = Interest-Based Learning

Firstly, I think interest-based learning is absolutely wonderful! And I think it’s wonderful that parents want to satisfy their children’s curiosity and love for learning! If my son came to me and asked to learn about xyz, we would definitely make the time to delve into whatever he has in mind to learn.

I read the book Free to Learn, which is definitely worth reading, and while I don’t consider myself an Unschooler, there were some awesome takeaways from this Unschooling book. Kids are wired to learn, they can learn a lot from their peers, and having downtime for kids to explore their own interests is invaluable.   

But one of the issues I have with being 100% an Unschooler, is that young children don’t know what they haven’t been exposed to yet.

Whenever I asked my second grader what he wanted to learn about, he always said the same thing, “outer space.” We did a deep dive into outer space in kindergarten with a lot of hands-on activities and field trips. And while I’m glad that he is continually excited to learn about space, that’s not all we’re going to learn about every year. Maybe he doesn’t know how much he would love learning about the oceans or photosynthesis because we haven’t deep-dived into those topics yet. 

Unschooling for older kids who have already been exposed to various topics and subjects throughout the years seems to make a bit more sense to me. Older, meaning middle or high school, kids may have a better grasp on what they are interested in. At that age, they can zone in on a topic and be highly capable of educating themselves and finding opportunities for learning.

But for younger kids, elementary age, I think exposure to as many different topics and activities makes the most sense. Get them out on as many field trips as possible, try out all the fun classes, and learn about all the fun topics: nature, art, science, history, sports, and games. Kids may not know what they love until they’ve been exposed to it. 

Should Parents Instruct Their Kids?

Most parents will feel that there are some things that their children should learn and that they should teach. And maybe some kids won’t ask or be motivated to learn certain skills on their own. I’m thinking of manners, chores, saving money, and cooking specifically for my kiddo. My child may never be motivated to learn how to cook on his own, but it’s a necessary life skill that he’ll need to learn before leaving the nest.

History is another example. I feel some parts of history are very important for everyone to know. I’m sure there are some history-buff kids out there who love history and will choose to learn it on their own. I can also imagine plenty of kids would be happy to never cover a thing about history. Many kids may not be motivated to learn about the history of slavery or civil rights. Sometimes I don’t even want to learn about it, because some of the stories are heart-wrenching and sad.

But I think yes, every kid (and adult) should have some working knowledge of these difficult parts of the past. Firstly, so history doesn’t repeat itself and secondly, so we may be open to seeing our own prejudices and bigotries. And change our beliefs and attitudes if needed. 

Music is another important one. My kiddo can pick the instrument, but pick one he must. There are just too many brain benefits of playing an instrument that I wouldn’t let my kiddo opt out if he wasn’t interested. (Thankfully he enjoys it.) And no, I wouldn’t push my kid to do something he absolutely hated, but I might give a push or an incentive for something he was just so/so into. 

Relaxed Homeschooling versus Unschooling: Does it Even Matter?

As a parent, if you feel like you should instruct your children in a specific subject or topic, there is nothing wrong with that. You shouldn’t feel like you have to follow whatever the newest trend, method, bandwagon everyone else is on. You know you, and you know your kids. Trust yourself and your intuition. There is no one-size-fits-all method for all homeschoolers, whether you jive with Reggio, Waldorf, Eclectic, Unschooling, Charlotte-Mason, Classical or whatever mix, find what works for you and your child. 

Why I'm not 100% an Unschooler: picture of a group of elementary-aged school kids, homeschoolers

Why 100% Unschooling Won’t Work for Us

I feel this on a personal level because my son liked to say “no” to taking any new class or trying any new things if I asked him if he wanted to. Our deal was he had to try it out and if he decided he hated it, I wouldn’t push it. Of course, I signed him up for stuff I was pretty sure he would like and enjoy. And then after the first class, he usually loved it, said he had “so much fun” and wanted to do it again.

I can honestly say he’s enjoyed almost everything we’ve done so far: gymnastics, tennis, swimming, soccer, art, film, theatre, rock climbing, skiing, skating, horseback riding, and baseball. Theatre was the only one he was like, “meh.”

And no, he wouldn’t have asked to do any of these things on his own since he didn’t know anything about what these classes would entail until he tried it! (The only one he asked to learn was skiing, because he had friends who talked about going skiing! And of course, I was thrilled!)

Sometimes kids need a pass when trying something new and sometimes they need a push. Deep down parents usually know what is needed. This is why 100% Unschooling wouldn’t work for us. 

Read: Activities to Grow Social-Emotional Skills for Your Homeschool Co-op

Learning as a Challenge Builds Confidence

Also, sometimes in life, we have to learn things or take a class just because we have to, to reach our next goal post. Architects have to take a lot of difficult classes. Will they love and be voraciously interested in each and every class they take? Probably not, there might be a couple they don’t care for but have to take and pass to ultimately become an architect. Flexing this muscle that yes, we can learn things that we aren’t intensely interested in, is another life skill. 

I took an Organic Chemistry class in college (I had zero interest) because I had to for my major in college. After taking it, I gained an appreciation for how elements interact and how very complicated these seemingly simple interactions are. I was also proud of myself for just passing the class and learning something challenging even though I had no interest. Sometimes overcoming and conquering difficult situations has a way of building up your confidence, even if the idea or choice to take the class was not your own. 

What All Kids Really Need

Kids need love, books, friends, and outdoor time. Let’s not over-complicate things and get stuck on labels. Regardless of what education philosophy you subscribe to, the beautiful thing about homeschooling is that we all have the extra time to follow our child’s interests. And we can sign them up for activities that we know they’ll probably enjoy and excel at (or need to grow in), and this is at the heart of what Unschoolers do. 

Ninety-nine percent of the time I think learning can be fun. Interest-based or child-led learning is something that every homeschooler should consider spending ample time doing, and most already do. But let’s also be ok with the fact that yes, there are some things you, as a parent, will teach your child just because you think it is important. And that is fine. No apology needed.

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