By Leo Babauta
When should the unschooling process start? Can and should you start at preschool age if you have a young child?
There's no right answer to that, of course, as there are never any "right" answers in unschooling. It's all about figuring out what works on your own -- though your experiments can be informed and inspired by what others are doing.
And so I'll share my thoughts here, along with what we did, with the idea that you'll figure out your own answer through experimentation and discussion among your family.
The first thought to share: unschooling starts at birth. Unlike school, which starts at a legally mandated age and involves the trauma of leaving your child with strangers while he cries (I had to do this several times), unschooling doesn't have a defined start. That's because unschooling is the same as living.
Unschooling means you learn to tie your shoes, you play games, you explore nature, you learn to talk to your family members about various things, you break and fix things, you are curious about new things. This happens when you're a baby, a toddler, an old person, and everything in between. So the answer, if you have a young child of 2-4 years old, is that you've already been unschooling.
The second thought to share: you can start in small doses. This goes against what I said above, but if you want to "start unschooling", you don't have to do it wholesale. You don't have to yank your kid out of school or preschool immediately. You can do it after school, in the evenings, on weekends, during breaks. What you do could be anything, but basically you can do fun things and learn together with your child and start teaching him or her to be autonomous.
Do it a little bit at a time, and gain confidence that you can do it and you and your child like it, and then transition to all the time if it works out.
The third thought to share: the sooner you start the discussion in your family, the better. An important part of the unschooling process involves a group discussion. It means talking about these ideas with your spouse or partner, with the child, with your parents and siblings, with others who care about the kid's education. They don't all have to be on board, but it definitely helps, and even if they aren't on board, perhaps you can start educating them slowly.
Involve as many people as you think necessary in the discussion, in helping to do research, in learning together. Even if you don't actually start unschooling (whatever your definition of that is), you can start thinking about it, talking about it.
What We Did
If you'd like to know our story, here it is in brief:
- First, two of my kids from my previous marriage decided not to be unschooled. I offered it to them but they were already in school and enjoyed going, so they stayed in school. Even though I wish I could have done unschooling with them, I totally support their decision, and they've turned out completely fine and I love them to death.
- Second, two of our kids who were unschooled (the older two), were already in school -- grades 4 and 6, I believe. We talked with them and they agreed to give homeschooling a try (we didn't start with unschooling), and we took them out of school. There was a large transition period, for all of us, when we moved from believing in the ways of school to figuring out what we could do if we abandoned school's methods and ideas.
- Third, our younger two kids (who are now 7 and 9 years old) never went to school. They were in preschool (actually it was just daycare) when we decided to homeschool the two older ones, and we just stopped sending the younger ones to daycare. We all stayed home, and did things together. Again, we started homeschooling in the beginning, but soon after transitioned to unschooling. So they started at preschool age, but life wasn't really much different for them -- being a young kid and doing "unschooling" are really the same thing. The main difference was that they stopped going to preschool and were no longer destined for the classroom.
That's our story and we're sticking to it. It's not what you have to do, by any means, but maybe it'll show you that various paths are possible, even within one family.