By Ela Forest

I travelled around the world for several years before my daughter was born, and many people told me that once I became a mother I would "settle down." Actually, having a baby was barely a blip in my travelling; we were on the road again when she was two weeks old. 

Then I constantly heard comments like, "well, you'll have to settle down soon, after all, your daughter will have to go to school."

Everyone was trying to convince me that children must go to school, for various reasons, such as: children need a routine and schedule; children need to learn to play with other children; children need to learn academics; they need to learn how to survive in the real world.

For me, none of these reasons made sense under close inspection, and I always hoped there was a different method to educate my daughter.

Then I heard about a style of home-schooling called Unschooling.

Unschooling is more than a style of education; it's a philosophy of natural learning that is really a whole-life extension of Attachment Parenting practices. 

The basic idea is that children, and indeed everyone, learn more and better if they are free to direct their own learning, if they are free to live in the real world and learn from it.

For me, the most obvious point is that children learn an astonishing amount of things in the first years of their life.

By the time a child is five years old, she can speak at least one language fluently, and not just the language, the very basis of communication - body language, social skills, and more.

She has learned how to walk, how to eat, draw, paint, various household skills, an impressive array of motor skill, basic numeracy and possibly basic literacy.

She probably knows a lot about animals if she has a pet, quite a bit about electronics and computers if her home has a TV, video and computer… think about it - before a child starts school, she has learned an imaginably large amount, and most of it is self-taught, coming from her own curiosity and motivation - her own will to learn.

For most people, this knowledge is so basic and deeply entrenched in their consciousness that it can be easy to forget that these things are very difficult concepts; this learning was so early in our lives and so intrinsic, that we don't think of it as having learned but just 'stuff everyone knows.'

However, if you think about it, a newborn infant doesn't know much of anything outside of suckling, crying, sleeping and pooping.  Everything else that a human child can do, think, know before school age is something that they learned, and for the most part, these are very difficult things that they taught themselves.

Children don't need to go to school to learn a language - they already speak one and every parent who has lived with their toddlers in a foreign-speaking environment know that children will easily absorb seemingly as many languages as they are exposed to in their early years.

In fact, without any 'teaching,' my own daughter at age three speaks two languages fluently, with three others she has an understanding of enough for basic communication, and a smattering of words in half-a-dozen more languages that she picked up along the way.

For me, the idea of a schoolroom is flawed; after all, it is unnatural for children to sit in a large group, all born in the same year, in one room.

In traditional cultures, children who are free to play with each other of their own choosing will interact in a group with varying ages, and this holds true for all people in every culture - no adult, once freed from the artificial constraints of school interacts exclusively with people born in the same year.

In natural groups of children, a wide range of ages will play together, with the smaller ones learning from the bigger ones, and the older children also benefit from teaching the younger ones, and having some small level of responsibility over them. After all, to teach is to learn!

Of course the children will organically group together with children of similar ages, but the range will be much wider than one year, and there will usually be a couple of children who are considerably younger or older.

Not only that, age is such an arbitrary criteria - not every child at any given age is at the same intellectual level, or emotional level than the rest of the children of that age. 

Stories abound of children who were kept back in school for being too intelligent; rather than allowing the child to continue to learn and explore at her own pace, she is given seemingly endless mindless busy-work while she waits for the rest of the class to catch up, or, children are sometimes put up a grade because they are intellectually ready for it, but emotionally they suffer.

For some reason, we as a culture decided that children can not or will not learn anything without being forced to learn it;

however an increasing amount of research shows that children who are forced to learn a subject really learn how to memorise, and once the test is passed, much of the information is forgotten.

On the other hand, children who learn because they are interested in a subject, and are able to direct their own learning have a far higher retention rate and a much deeper understanding that helps in building on that information in the future.

In fact, it is just that; a child's will to learn is her best tool. The main point is that if a child wants to learn something, it's hard to stop them, and best not to get in the way.

When I was travelling in Brazil I met a family with a 9-year-old girl from France. Every morning she could be seen sitting with a workbook doing schoolwork. She generally finished the whole day's work in an hour or two and was one of the most educated children I've ever met; able to speak several languages fluently, discuss politics and philosophy and played classical guitar to boot.

Another example is of children who around the age of five or six become "dinophiles" - obsessed with dinosaurs. My brother was one of them; as a kid he devoured any and all information about dinosaurs that he could get his hands on, reading piles of books, watching videos, visiting museums, reading more books, playing games, drawing pictures, building models, puzzles, stickers and still more books.

Small children, like my brother, manage to learn a wealth of detailed information all by themselves, without being "taught" anything - relying and working solely on their own motivation.

Many people mistakenly imagine that Unschooling parents treat their children with little more than neglect, or conversely, guess that if they take their children out of school, they will magically, and without any prompting begin studying from schoolbooks.

The reality of Unschooling couldn't be further from the truth; unschooling parents are constantly available to their children, just as in attachment parenting.  Without telling the child what to do, but letting her follow her own interests, at least one parent or care giver is there for the child, to explain things, answer questions, to help, to suggest, but most importantly, to support the child's own natural learning - nurturing her will to learn.

First Published on Essence of Life, with permission