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What Is Christian Unschooling?

by Teri J. Brown and Elissa M. Wahl

[Ed. note: The following excerpt, from a new book, Christian Unschooling, by Teri J. Brown and Elissa M. Wahl, published by Champion Press, Ltd., hopes to shed light upon this relatively new approach to homeschooling. Although the term might at first glance appear to be an oxymoron, Teri and Elissa show the opposite to be the case. Once one understands the definition of "unschooling" it is clear that a family can be Christian and unschooling, happily and to everyone's benefit.]


It's amazing how many books have been started with a conversation. This book is no exception. Elissa and I were "talking," online, about being a Christian and an unschooler and how isolating that felt at times. I was telling her that I felt estranged from my Christian homeschooling friends because of my educational philosophies and isolated from many of my unschooling peers because of my faith. She told me that she had felt the same way, but was realizing that there were many more Christian unschoolers out there she had previously thought. In that conversation a seed was planted in both our minds.

After much prayer and thought, that seed germinated and flourished and a book was born. We were quite sure that this book was to be a collection of essays of Christians of faith who were unschooling. Neither of us wanted to set ourselves up as unschooling experts. Since the very nature of unschooling isn't a formulaic approach, but rather a highly individualized endeavor. Unschooling for one family is quite different than the unschooling in another family. By following your child's interests and God given gifts you will be heading down a very different road than other Christian unschoolers.

Before beginning the book, we wished to have a few concrete goals in mind. Our main goals fell into three categories:
  • To support Christian unschoolers and let them know they are not alone.
  • To give hope and information to those Christian Moms who are burning out from a strict "school at home" schedule and to inform them of another option.
  • To let Christian Homeschoolers everywhere know that not only do Christian unschoolers exist, but we are growing in numbers and we do not believe that we are less righteous or unbiblical then curriculum using homeschoolers.
We felt that giving unschooling Christians a voice was the best way to obtain those goals.

This book is also unique in that while writing it, Elissa and I never met and have rarely spoken on the phone. The Internet was our main method of communication; we passed ideas and chapters back and forth as easily as if we were in the same office. Living on opposite sides of the United States, our chances of meeting in person were slim and long distance rates prevented us from calling one another except for the most exciting of news and generally even that was limited to... "You have to get online! Big Stuff!" In spite of these hindrances we got to know one another well, we shared joys and heartaches, prayed for each other and encouraged each other, and always, always kept the Lord upper most in our minds while we worked. We put out the call for contributors everywhere, magazines on homeschooling, and online newsletters. We wrote articles about the book for support group newsletters and magazines alike. Then we sat back and waited. We didn't have to wait long; the essays came pouring in. From our mailboxes and across the phone lines, Christian unschoolers were sending us their stories. They shared with us their hopes, dreams, accomplishments and activities. The essays were so different, yet had so much in common, their desire to allow God to work in their children unencumbered by their own agendas.

It is our hope that this book and their stories will uplift and encourage you in your efforts. Unschooling isn't something that is unbiblical, nor anti-education, but a wonderful way to allow Our Lord the freedom to work in your child's life.

Chapter 1 -What is Unschooling? The Dream

Ahhhhh, the homeschooling dream. How many of us held a preconceived notion of homeschooling in our minds when we first decided to educate our children at home? When most people think of homeschooling, they picture a loving mother bending over a table lined with bright and shiny children. Breakfast dishes are nowhere in sight and morning devotions have been done. The mother is patient, loving and kind, tireless in her efforts of bringing up and raising her children. The children are well-mannered and obedient, eager to learn the pearls of wisdom falling from their mother's mouth.

The Reality

A mother, still in her robe, is trying to wipe the table free of crumbs while a sick toddler clings whining to her legs. After several false starts she finally gets all the children to the table which is still sticky with jam. Her six-year-old is clutching his paper airplanes, making loud whirring noises while flying reconnaissance missions over the juice his three- year-old sister has just spilled. After cleaning the juice she distracts the two youngest with a story tape then sets her eight-year-old with the poem he was supposed to copy last Monday. According to her teacher planning book, the one that has almost fallen apart from frequent erasing, they are one week behind. She sighs when she notices that her eight-year-old is tapping his pencil and staring out the window with a vacant look in his eyes. She reprimands him and they begin their tri-weekly fight over school work. She is demanding and cajoling and he is both defiant and defeated until they are both in tears and she sends him to his room. Her six-year-old looks up at her, "Do I have to do my handwriting," he asks." Tired of arguing she shakes her head no and he happily scampers off to play with his airplanes. "Lord," she asks silently, "why is this so hard? I was so sure that you wanted me to homeschool my children. They are so obedient in so many things, why is our school such a struggle?" Feeling like a failure she wonders if they wouldn't be better off in a public or private school.

This book will show you how to escape homeschool burnout and the push and pull trap through the method of unschooling. We will also clear up many of the misconceptions that Christians have about unschooling. The unschooling method offers parents and children an educational alternative that is both healthy, effective and a joy to the entire family.

The Possibilities (same family three months later)

The mother sits on the floor playing Candyland with her two youngest children while her six-year-old lies next to her carefully copying a picture of an F-15 Eagle out of an encyclopedia. He has quite a collection of airplane drawings now and has even showed an interest in learning to read the books on flight that he has gotten from the library. The game finished, she pulls a chair up to the counter and shows her three-year-old how to make juice, counting out the cans of water together and showing her where the two quart line is on the pitcher. While doing this her eight-year-old bursts in the door, bringing with him the freshness of the outdoors, where he has been playing for the last hour. "Look what I found, Mom!" he cries as he excitedly shows her the tiny salamander in the palm of his hand. "I'm going to put it my terrarium." He takes the lid off the terrarium that he had carefully constructed after much research. It already housed several snails and a slug. "You better find out what it eats, Bud," the mother reminds him. "I know." He says grinning at her and crossing the room to the computer, "I'll look it up on Encarta."

Unschooling, child-led learning, free learning, interest based education, child delighted learning. These are all terms for what this book is about. But what do they mean exactly? Good question. The best way to answer that is to first explore what it doesn't mean. What Unschooling doesn't mean.
  • Unschooling does not mean raising your children without discipline.
  • Unschooling does not mean allowing your children to do nothing all day except watch television and play video games.
  • Unschooling does not mean you are too lazy to teach your children the "proper way."
  • Unschooling does not mean anti-Christian. True, there are unschoolers who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhists, agnostics, etc. However, we are Christians and we are unschoolers and that is what this book is all about.
To me, unschooling means raising your children in the freedom of Christ. To allow the Lord to show us the gifts he has given them and the freedom to develop those gifts to the fullest. It means the faith to let God show your children what they should learn and to trust them to learn it. It means letting their God given curiosity lead them in the exciting quest of exploring the world around them. It means... I could go on and on.

Different Meanings for Different Families

If the truth be told, unschooling means different things to different people. A better way to ask that question would be, "What does unschooling mean to you?" Which is how we phrased the question when we took our informal unschooling survey. The answers to that question are as unique as the people answering it. I am including them here in order to give you an idea of how complex the question actually is.

"Unschooling is a process by which we change our own ideas of learning. Most of us were taught in a classroom. Thus, in allowing our children to lead the learning process, we are constantly learning ourselves. I guess to me it is the entire lifelong process of living, loving, and learning in our natural home environment." Leslie Theurer Missouri

"Helping your children learn how to teach themselves. Being a facilitator, question answerer, resource giver, but not always a teacher." Lynne L. Henderson, Washington

"Unschooling means to me, using whatever works for each child to fulfill their potential. It is not separating learning from life, but embracing learning, through everyday activities. It is not following a scope-and-sequence developed by professionals, but using teachable moments to teach our children what they need-when they need it." Michele Hastings, Canada

"I define unschooling as a lifestyle of learning. Learning through life not only from a pre-planned curriculum. Letting each child pursue his or her God-given talents and desires." Kathleen Smith, California

"Child led learning with a push every now and again. Learning without time or space boundaries. Learning with love." Alice Steen, Georgia

"No workbooks, no textbooks forced upon the child. We have some curriculum, but our policy, effective immediately, is that the child has to ask to do the books. Then I will gladly sit down with them and help them do a page or two or three or whatever the child requests." Jeanne Musfeldt, Iowa

"I have a definite set of goals in mind for my kids to know/learn during their homeschooling. They need to be able to read well, write well and do math. Everything else can be pursued to their heart's content. They spend days obsessed with a project. It doesn't matter; there is no hurry. I don't believe in coercing them to learn. When you force knowledge upon someone, they only memorize it. They don't understand it on a deeper level, and they don't see how it fits into other pieces of the world. Unschooling is a way of letting them discover the 'big picture' " Susan Viator, Oregon

"I never intended to be an unschooler, I just never got organized enough to do it any other way, and discovered they were learning anyway. So now, after six years, we do a combination of things and change our schedule often. I've done Saxon math, one unit a day, with my ten-year-old, as well as some other specific assignments for this last year, but the younger kids pretty much just do what strikes them. Part of that is because he's the oldest and into more complicated stuff and partly because he's the least self-motivated of the bunch. The nine-year-old would study all day if I let him. So my basic philosophy is 'Do whatever works for each kids.' Complicated, huh?" Pat Graves, Nebraska

Complicated is right. With so many definitions of unschooling floating around how do you know which one is the right one? Basically, they all are. All of these definitions carry a common theme that can give you a clue to the real heart of Christian unschooling:

"I guess to me it is the entire lifelong process of living, loving and learning in our natural home environment."

"Helping your children learn how to teach themselves" "Unschooling, to me, is allowing the children to decide what things they are interested in and what they want to learn about." "I define unschooling as Child-directed learning."

The common theme is allowing your children the freedom to choose, in many cases, what they will learn. Unschooling involves allowing the Lord the freedom to work within each child. Whether you are completely unstructured in your learning environment or offer periodic guidance, children who are unschooled have more individual freedom and empowerment when it comes to their education then their homeschooled contemporaries.

Copyright © 2001 Teri J. Brown with Elissa M. Wahl. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media