The beauty of unschooling

My daughter would have entered second grade this summer. But she didn’t, because Steve and I deliberately chose a different educational path for our children. Of course she is free to attend a school, we visited several (free) schools in Germany this winter and decided against it, together with her. Zoe has never attended a school and that is neither planned nor desired by her in the near future. This means that our children do not study at school or in kindergarten – they learn freely and independently.

Unschooling? What the hell is this?

For all unschooling newbies: Unschooling could be classified as a special kind of homeschooling. But we don’t do “school at home” in our family. There is no form of formal teaching at all! No assignments, no writing exercises, no math problems, no curriculum. We are not our children’s teachers, we are their parents! However, we do learn a lot in our family, also “classical” things such as reading, writing, arithmetics, only in a completely different way.

Unschooling is, in this respect, something completely different than classical homeschooling, where the school takes place at home. In many ways we do exactly the opposite of what happens at school! Our children learn freely according to their interests. They can choose from morning to evening (within a real life context) what they want to do and when. At their own pace. Without us parents intervening, without us wanting to “encourage” them to study certain subjects.

“No school? Are you out of your minds?”

Well, that depends a lot on the perspective. For most Germans in particular, the idea of allowing children to learn and play freely, without school, without curriculum, seems completely absurd, even negligent. Homeschooling has a bad reputation im Germany and is often associated with isolation and fanatical-religious content. In addition, due to the very strict legal restrictions, there are hardly any homeschoolers, let alone unschoolers, in Germany. The few families who choose a life learning path for their children often have an interest in not attracting too much attention or choose to emigrate. And what you don’t know, you are often suspicious of, that’s nothing new! In this context, I find reservations about a life without school absolutely understandable.

However, if we look beyond our national borders to our European neighbours, the situation is far more diverse. Contrary to what most Germans assume, Germany does not meet either the international nor the European standard in its rigid enforcement of an exceptionless obligation to attend school. In many European countries, homeschooling (partly in line with a national curriculum, partly without any restrictions) is perfectly legal and the choice of educational path is up to the families in the first place. These include many of our immediate neighbours such as Great Britain, Denmark, Belgium, Ireland, France, Switzerland and Austria.

Did you know, by the way, that the UN already criticized Germany in 2006 because of its “selective, undemocratic and discriminatory” school system and also because of the ban on alternative forms of education such as homeschooling?

School no – Education yes

The crucial factor in our decision to make a self-determined education path possible for our children were the years of living together with them and witnessing their development. Steve and I have accompanied our children since they were born and have experienced every day since how incredibly curious, motivated and full of joy they discover their world!

Babies are born as little “learning machines” and acquire knowledge and skills at an incredibly fast pace to such an extent that it is hard to believe. A complete mother language, social behaviour, complex movement patterns such as walking, running, jumping, swimming, cycling….Unbelievable what children can achieve within a few months and years!

This innate, intrinsic motivation to learn all that is needed for a “successful” human life does not suddenly cease just because children reach 6 years of age and are required to attend school! For us, free learning is the logical conclusion of years of respectful parenting, of trust and equality.

Was lernen unsere Kinder konkret im Alltag?

For this article I have thought about what our children have learned in the last weeks and months of our journey. The list has become quite long, so I have shortened it to a few snapshots. They learned, for example:

  • About the horrors of the Second World War during our visit of Kalavrita, the “widow’s village” in Greece, where the Nazis committed a terrible massacre in 1943;
  • The importance of waste avoidance and sustainable lifestyles through the confrontation with the countless plastic mountains on land and in the sea that we encounter almost daily on our journey
  • Independent shopping in various small camping shops; at the same time: the handling of money, the value of individual coins, as well as counting and calculating (Zoe);
  • Reading and writing – e.g. by daily writing of diary and letters, by reading street signs, packaging or books;
  • Social interaction: making and maintaining friendships, conflict and problem solving, teamwork, negotiation, respecting others and upholding one’s own interests, arguing and agreeing;
  • Independent preparation, practice and presentation of an acrobatic-musical performance with friends on stage in front of dozens of spectators;
  • Arts and crafts, among others: Crochet and knotting techniques, realistic drawing, repairing a bicycle, making a doll;
  • Shopping for food and preparing meals together
  • Endless freedom of movement such as running, jumping, climbing, swimming, cycling, handstand, cartwheels;
  • Geography, flora and fauna of various countries;
  • Languages: Getting to know various languages, basics in English (Zoe);
  • Experiencing and questioning poverty and social inequality as well as cultural differences.


What they also learn and what cannot be easily sorted into a list

Just as valuable (or more valuable!) as the contents of the above list are the many other experiences that our children have in our everyday family life together.

Endless hours in nature, uninterrupted play and free bodily movement possibilities. Crickets chirping as they fall asleep, the roaring waves of the sea, the sparkling stars in the sky, the rustling of the leaves and the crunching sound of sand under their bare feet, the countless colours, shapes, smells and sounds of nature.

Fantasy, creativity, imagination. Discover and develop of their own strengths. Concentrated immersion in the flow of an activity without being disturbed.

Mindful support in life and in conflicts, unconditional appreciation as a person regardless of their behaviour, taking their feelings and interests seriously. Nonviolent communication. Self-efficacy. Learning that their boundaries are respected and learning to respect the boundaries of others. Arguing, agreeing, forgiving, apologizing.

Learn that their opinion counts, that they can make their own decisions, that they are being heard and taken seriously. That they can and may pursue their dreams. That obstacles can appear and that they can overcome them.

Establishing relationships with other people. Experience that they mean something to others, that they are loved and do love. Experience that the people who are closest to them trust them unconditionally. Profound relationships with siblings and family members.

No school is needed for a successful education.

PS: Answers to the most frequently asked questions.

  1. But isn’t school compulsory in Germany? Our children are free to learn on their own terms because they are no longer registered in Germany. They are therefore no longer subject to German compulsory schooling, which is derived from the place of residence and not from nationality.
  2. I couldn’t do that. I live in Germany. I highly recommend to visit the website of Franziska Klinkigt or to contact her. In any case, the legal situation in Germany is not quite as clear and hopeless as everyone thinks.
  3. And what about the high school diploma? It is not necessary to have attended school in order to take the “Abitur” (high school diploma) or another school diploma in Germany. Here you can find a (german) interview with Esra Reichert, who passed his Abitur as external examinee with 1,8 (good).
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