|Unschooling is rooted in the ideas of education reformer John Holt, who said children are innately curious and
will learn what they need to know when they need to know it. That doesn't mean unschoolers won't ever take conventional classes. Art enthusiasts
may take art classes. Teens who want to go to college may take community college classes first.
Unschoolers figure out what they want to do in life and then learn what they need to get there. Advocates say they absorb
material better by learning it when they need it. One unschooling Web site calls the approach "delight-driven learning." Author Pat
Farenga, a student of Holt's, calls it "the natural way to learn." "This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we
learn when we leave school and enter the world of work," Farenga writes in Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Unschooling.
One Northside Unschoolers mom was seeking an alternative to the test emphasis and heavy homework in her public school. Other
unschooling parents may want to avoid labels schools put on especially active kids or late readers. "The hardest thing for most people ... is
that you have to trust that the child will learn," said Mary Griffith, author of The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World As
Your Child's Classroom. "For those of us who had late readers, it was really hard. A lot of unschooled kids don't learn to read when they
are 6. Sometimes waiting until they are 7, 8 or 9 is quite common," said Griffith. "But once they learn to read, they read anything and
The tools of unschooling in the early years are scattered across a third-floor playroom of Winifred Haun's
turn-of-the-century Oak Park home. Dice and board games help daughters Athena, 10; Iris, 5, and Selene, 2, learn math -and social skills. Pads of
paper, pencils and markers are there for writing and drawing. Books are omnipresent.
This "unschooling" morning, Iris and Athena have completed math problems they asked their dad, Stephen Parke, a
Harvard grad and physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, to create. "Iris was interested in 1 plus 1 is 2," Haun says, so Parke's
worksheet expands the idea all the way up to 50 plus 50. Athena's problems amount to early algebra. Selene plays on a futon as Iris works with her
mom on sewing and Athena announces "I need to practice my writing."
Athena has seen what she's missing - and doesn't miss it. "I've been to school for a day. It was fun, but I like it
here better. In school, they just sat there while the teacher talked," Athena says.
Athena knows some question whether homeschoolers will develop the proper social skills away from a classroom full of kids
their age. "I say homeschoolers do get social skills," Athena says. "I go to choir where there's one other kid who's home schooled.
And I go to a homeschooling group where there are kids of all ages. And I have Girl Scouts and ballet."
Haun said some days her kids "just noodle around, but they are investing in days when they produce more." Besides,
she said, "You can teach your kid in 90 minutes a day what it takes the school six hours. ... The other 4½ hours are, 'Stand up. Sit up.
Let's go to the bathroom. Let's take attendance. ...' "If my daughter needs to know ... how to find her friend's name in the phone book, I
can take five minutes and explain to her about alphabetizing," Haun said. "I don't have to test her. I know when she can look up the
name on her own."
In their teenage years, said Grace Llewellyn, author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook, unschooling kids can study
biology with a textbook, in a community college or with software. Or they can befriend a doctor and brainstorm on books to read or projects to do.
Or they can volunteer to work in a veterinarian's office. "The sky is the limit," Llewellyn said.
The college question
Abby's dad and mom, a hospice social worker, gave their three children a taste of school (all won admission to gifted
programs), and eventually let them decide if they wanted to stay there. All three wound up pretty much unschoolers, with the oldest graduating
from Dartmouth in June. Abby wanted to go to college, too, and plunged into subjects she'd need to get there.
To prepare for the SAT college admission tests, she bought some test prep books and took some old subject matter tests. She
posted knockout scores: an overall SAT of 2,350 out of 2,400. To pad out her track record, she also took the SAT world history, literature and
U.S. history tests, scoring 800, 790 and 780, respectively, on an 800-point scale.
Not all unschoolers or homeschoolers have Abby's scores, but on another popular college admission test, the ACT, test-takers
who identified themselves as homeschoolers have scored a notch above the national average for the last decade. This year, they averaged 22.4 on a
36-point scale compared with a national average of 21.2.
Before Abby got the news last week that she had won early admission to Princeton, she had researched applying to seven other
colleges and found them "pretty forgiving" about her lack of a traditional grade-point average. At Harvard University, admissions
director Marlyn McGrath Lewis said, unschoolers without transcripts can submit college admission scores, and then "tell us what they have
done in the way of academic preparation for college, and we'll take it from there."
Some may wonder if unschoolers can adjust to the structure of college life. After the regimen of ballet classes, Abby
doesn't expect problems. Unschooler Sam Dickey, 23, an Oak Park native now attending Beloit College after four years at a community college, said
he has no difficulty making it to classes. He found he performs well on deadline and is a "very good writer" despite never having
written a research paper before college.
But just like traditional schoolers, not all unschoolers want college. Jan Hunt, an unschooling counselor who operates the
Natural Child Project web site, said her unschooled son didn't go to college. He started a computer consulting company instead. "He
continually beats us at Trivial Pursuit. He's an incredible editor," said Hunt. "He can do any math problem in his head. I have the
proof in the pudding right here."