“Unschooling is about following the kid’s learning style and their interests”

Ellen lives with her five children and her husband in a lifestyle block just outside of Taupo, New Zealand. Her husband mostly has worked shift work and she has been doing home-/unschooling.

About unschooling

I have 5 children and we did one year of school with the 3 oldest children (my oldest would have been 8). They went to school because I got so much pressure from family and friends. I gave up and sent them to school. My older two hated the bullying but they loved the friendship part – which is interesting because both of them have social issues.

I think it was not a good choice to send them just for the social aspect.

I do follow the unschooling approach with different pieces of structure. Usually the morning and evening have some sort of structure where the middle part is sort of unstructured. There is some routine that our family follows. Sometimes there are things we got planned, but other times not.

For me, unschooling is about teaching the kids to live life for the future and being in school is about being educated for the future. I want my kids to learn how to cook, that’s just part of life. They know how to do the household things like washing and I want them to know how to handle money. Little things like that which, I think, are essential. But of course they also need the basics like reading and writing.

My husband actually didn’t want to do unschooling. He is more accepting it now although he is glad that the two older ones (14 and 15) are in school again which is extremely structured. They just started last term.

It’s throwing our family structure out because they are structured. It made us get up earlier; there is a lot more tiredness and a lot of pressure at home to do school work. They are a little bit behind in school but the school is not that concerned.

They can work in their own pace. I’m quite happy with that decision.

About different learning styles

When my son went to school he was five and a half he was actually excited about learning to write and one year later he didn’t want to do it. He is not a paperwork person, he is a hands-on learner. Therefore, he had lots of time-out indoors at lunch-time because he hadn’t completed his written work.

I had lots of meetings with teachers and asked ‘Can you not go outside and use chalk on the ground so that he can write it out there?’ or ‘Can he use the blocks to spell this word?’ And they said ‘Yes, he is allowed to do that as soon as he’s finished his written work’.

I reached the point where I said ‘Hey, he is five and a half, legally he doesn’t even have to be here until he is six’. So I took him out again. That’s been a real struggle. But it made me realize that some kids are so much more hands-on.

He now, age 12, still hates finishing paperwork and reading. He is maybe still at a 7 year old level if you want to put an age level on it. We do a lot of reading a day but he hates it. But he starts realizing now that there are lots of things that he can’t do very well because he hasn’t got those reading skills.

My son is very interested in fishing and hunting and therefore he needs to read lots of things he needs to buy and find out about things. I know it’s not the traditional way or he is not learning words he should learn in school.

His goal is apparently to be a butcher and we live rural and have animals. We butcher them ourselves. And he can pretty much do butcher smaller animals by himself. That’s what he wants to do in his future and he spends time doing things that could be a part of that. If he wants to have his own animals he learns about fencing or how to look after animals. It’s the whole practical side of things.

But my two other kids are different: My 14 year old is a social learner. He loves to be in an environment where lots of other people are learning. And my 15 year old is more structured than I am and likes more the structured learning in school.


My 15 year old could be friends with the others her age in the group, but she prefers to be friends with the younger kids. She never made really good friends at school, she is friendly but quite shy, and she is probably more comfortable with younger kids or adults. It’s interesting because the whole school concept says they should have friends their own age & for some it doesn’t work.

My 9 year old loves doing book reading. She loves doing workbooks but she is also very easily being lead. I don’t want her to be influenced badly by other people too much. She loves the social aspect and the social input so we meet up with other homeschoolers one or two days a week.

Advantages of unschooling

My husband had an accident, he was knocked off his bike and it took a lot of time with hospital and rehab. It (unschooling) meant that I don’t have to worry about school and the whole school structure. My kids learned so much about the hospital system they would never have learned if they were having go to school.

Another advantage is that they have to work through stuff. You learn to get along with people you don’t like. Learn to work as a team, as a family team and to get along with different personalities, goals, thoughts, abilities.

It’s the closeness in your family, you know your kids very well.

To sum it up

At the end of the day, if we are not passionate about something we can’t teach it. Unschooling is about following the kid’s learning style and their interests.

So if they are interested, they want to know and they learn better. That’s why I’m not so worried about my 12 year old’s reading because I figured that I eventually find a hot button that he wants to read. And therefore he will probably learn what I maybe could have forced him to do in five years, he’ll learn in three months because he just wants to. And he is at that point where it could quite realistically happen.  He is so close to that idea.

It’s not that he is lacking the exposure to reading; he is not lacking the exposure to all sorts of words. If he wants to spell something he asks me about it; when we drive past a sign he will ask what it means. He is getting to that stage where he is getting so frustrated. That motivates him.

My unschooling approach is ‘If they’ve learned something that’s progress’ But at the same time it’s good to do internal reviews on yourself and ask yourself ‘Did that work or not?’ If it’s working I will use it for the next kid. Or if it didn’t work you will try a completely different style.

Every child learns differently. It’s a personality thing. And, you know, unschooling is a lifestyle choice.


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