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Unshackled and Unschooled: Free-Range Learning Movement Grows

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Most people have heard of homeschooling -- kids are educated by parents or caregivers at home, rather than at school, for a variety of reasons. But within the homeschooling community, the growing "unschooling" subset has a somewhat different, amorphous, definition.

Depending on whom you ask, unschooling is centered around what the child wants to learn using any and all resources available, not just fixed, school-prescribed curriculum. The general idea behind unschooling is this: getting kids to develop a love of learning for its own sake rather than for grades, and giving kids the opportunity to experience "valuable hands-on, community-based, spontaneous, and real-world experiences."

That's exactly what Ellen Jenkins has made happen for her son. Jenkins, a stay-at-home mom and former high school art teacher in Dubuque, Iowa, knew she had to do something when she realized her son, Nyle, had not enjoyed kindergarten and continued to be deeply unhappy in first grade. This was a big contrast with Nyle’s 10-year-old sister, who loved school and thrived in a traditional classroom environment.

Jenkins went to Nyle’s school to observe him in class and immediately realized that her son “was bored — he wasn’t getting engaged or challenged.”

Jenkins and her husband, a high school English teacher, pulled Nyle out of school and began teaching him at home, first with a traditional, standards-based curriculum, but soon left that behind for a less structured approach. Jenkins focused on subjects that interested Nyle and involved plenty of outside activities, from nature center and museum visits to raising chickens and digging for bugs on the family’s two-acre lot.


Within two weeks of leaving school, she says, he “basically learned to read – an interest he hadn’t had in the classroom.” Nyle also developed an interest in writing; as part of a unit on biomes, he wrote a short story – “Nyle and the Thorny Devil” – that was chosen for publication in a Dubuque writer’s guild anthology, with Nyle, then 6, reading it to more than 100 people at a reception.

She credits the turnaround with less stress from having to follow a classroom routine, being able to set his own schedule, and “having more running time outside.” Jenkins says Nyle is happier, more peaceful, and more energetic because he was “given the chance to explore learning with the ability to write freely and on his own terms … It’s one more indicator that we made the right decision to educate Nyle outside the school environment.”

Ellen Jenkins, 8-year-old Nyles and their chick.
Ellen Jenkins, 8-year-old Nyles, and their chick.

The Jenkins family has become one of a growing number of unschoolers – a type of homeschooler who opts for a more child-centered, personalized model of learning, rather than simply moving traditional lessons from classroom to home. Judging by the explosion of websites, books, Facebook groups, and homeschool groups adopting the unschooling label, the 40-year-old movement, first coined by author John Holt in the 1970s, appears to be on the upswing, as is homeschooling in general.

About 2.2 million school-aged children are homeschooled in the U.S. today – a number that’s growing by 5 to 10 percent annually, says Brian D. Ray, a former university professor and director of the National Home Education Research Institute.

Ray’s numbers are higher than the 1.77 million homeschoolers (representing 3.4 percent of all students) reported by the U.S. Department of Education in a 2012 survey. Ray believes the government’s survey undercounts the homeschool population, which he measures using data from states that keep it (not all do) plus input from home-school organizations and vendors.

While Ray doesn’t have data on the number of unschoolers, he senses momentum for it: “I hear people talking about it more.” In 2011, an Associated Press story estimated the number of unschoolers could be one-third of typical homeschoolers.

"Being bored makes school miserable for a lot of kids, plus there is the element of compulsion, which completely changes any activity," Colorado unschool mom Carol Brown said in the AP article.

Whether homeschooling or unschooling, home education is growing for several reasons. “It’s easier to try it than it used to be,” says Ray. “There is less adult peer pressure against it; it’s more socially accepted. The support services are expanded. And adults who were home-educated are now having children” – and have a higher rate of homeschooling their own children.

Jenkins notes that two years ago, when she pulled Nyle from public school, she felt she constantly had to defend her choice; now, she says, homeschooling seems to have become more common, with more homeschool groups popping up near her, and with her state – Iowa – recently doing away with testing and other restrictions for homeschoolers.


Parents homeschool for many reasons. The most common, cited by 25 percent in the Department of Education study, was concern about the school environment (worries about safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure). And 19 percent of parents homeschool for the same reason as Jenkins: dissatisfaction with academic instruction. What's more, 16 percent of parents said they homeschool in order to provide religious instruction.

But there are plenty of reasons for parents not to choose to homeschool. Many aren’t sure they want to spend that much time with their kids, Ray says. And perhaps the most prevalent reason: They don’t know how they can afford to have a parent stay at home to be a teacher.

When possible, some families have shifted their lifestyles, with a second parent working from home or working part-time, Ray says, and single-parent families have been able to homeschool with help from grandparents or family members. Not counting the lack of (or lowered) income, the cost output to home-educate a child, Ray says, is about $400 to $600 annually on average.

For Jenkins, their decision for her to stay at home full time with her 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, in addition to Nyle, now 8, means they're “broke and happy.” The family makes do on one income by cooking more (with Nyle and his siblings involved in cooking as a lesson) and driving less. They also use many free or low-cost resources in the community to help foster Nyle’s learning – free art classes offered by the local art museum, frequent library visits to stock up on books, passes to local nature centers, and membership in a new homeschooling parents’ group that plans to begin offering classes next year.

On a typical “unschool” day, Nyle might visit a library, tromp around the nature center and talk to the naturalists, feed and care for his chickens, work on spelling exercises online, do math worksheets, read and write and create artwork – spending no more than 90 minutes or so in actual formal learning, says Jenkins. She and Nyle delve deeply into topics they both agree to study – such as Egypt or insects or biomes -- incorporating math, science, social studies, English and other subjects as they relate to the topic.

Achievement tests indicate homeschool students do well; nationwide studies Ray has done show homeschoolers generally perform 15-30 percentile points above average, putting them in the 65th to 85th percentile.

A 2011 Canadian study found that “structured” homeschool students ages five through 10 outperformed traditional students – but that “unstructured” homeschoolers (in other words, unschoolers) fared least well. Ray notes this study only looked at younger children, suggesting that by graduation age, kids may catch up; also, unstructured students aren’t necessarily learning standardized test items and so it isn’t surprising they wouldn’t do well on a test of this knowledge.

Dale J. Stephens was unschooled from grades six through 12 while living in a small California farm town; he did well enough on standardized tests to be recruited by colleges. Stephens chose a private college in Arkansas, but quickly became just as disenchanted with that type of formal, structured education as he had been with his public elementary school.

Stephens dropped out of college and started an UnCollege movement, extending the idea of unschooling beyond K-12 to higher education. He received a Thiel Foundation grant for “changemakers” and wrote a book, “Hacking Your Education,” featuring people who have achieved success in careers without having degrees or having degrees in unrelated fields.

Last year, Stephens, 22, started The UnCollege Gap Year Program. The program costs $15,000* and helps enrollees figure out what they want to do with their lives and includes stints living abroad and interning in relevant industries.

So far, says Stephens, half of those who enrolled in the program’s first cohort have received or taken job offers in the field they were pursuing.

As an unschooler, says Stephens, he was able to have experiences he couldn’t have had given the public school options in his hometown, including starting small businesses (flower delivery and photo sales), working on political campaigns, and helping his town build a new library. He also learned important life skills – how to find mentors, do good research, negotiate, be self-motivated – that he tries to impart to his Gap Year enrollees.


 *Clarification: A previous version of this article stated the wrong cost for the program. The correct number is $15,000.

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