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Unschooling: A Denver mom shares a glimpse at this growing movement

Unschooling: A Denver mom shares a glimpse at this growing movement

A recent article in Outside magazine “We don’t need no education” touted the virtues of unschooling as a growing movement. These parents believe a steady diet of standardized testing and indoor inactivity is choking the creativity right out of our kids. The alternative: set ’em free.

Amy Gates and her husband Jody have two kids, Ava (10) and Julian (7). They didn’t start off as an unschooling family, but evolved into it over the course of a few years. Although homeschooling had always been in the back of her mind, her kids started out attending Waldorf preschool. Then her oldest, Ava, went to kindergarten at a public school but Amy knew in her heart that that wasn’t what she wanted for her, but didn’t feel she was in the best place mentally and emotionally to homeschool her at that point.
After Ava completed kindergarten, however, Amy felt ready to make the shift to homeschooling. They homeschooled for a short time before making the switch to unschooling. For the most part, unschooling works well for their family. The four of them have a range of interests, from computer games to woodworking, Legos to crafting, traveling to gardening, raising chickens to riding bikes, and more. Both of her kids love Minecraft. 
Don’t miss Amy’s fascinating Q&A!

What is it about unschooling that appealed to you and what is the difference between unschooling and homeschooling? 

Unschooling is based on children’s natural curiosity. I like that my kids are able to explore their interests in their own time. I like that they discover where they need to turn to find out the information they need — whether that’s asking a parent, looking things up on a computer, reading a book, etc. I like that through unschooling they learn how to teach and motivate themselves. If there is something they want to do or learn, we make it happen.  

The difference between unschooling and homeschooling is that there is usually no curriculum involved in unschooling. Other terms for unschooling are child-led learning or life learning. Children learn organically through their day-to-day lives with their parents there to support them as needed. Whereas with homeschooling, curriculum is usually involved and it’s more a case of sitting down and doing school at home.

If your child’s learning is led by them, how do you ensure they will learn important subjects? I.e. I can tell you that if one of my children had to direct their own education/learning, they’d opt for no education and just to play all the time.
Because my children’s learning is led by them and their interests, I trust that they will learn what they personally need to know. I don’t worry about the things they might not learn, because I don’t feel that ALL children need to learn X, Y, and Z. If something comes up that they don’t know and they want to know, they ask me or their dad or look to the almighty Google or YouTube for answers. There is so much information available at their fingertips. 
You bring up an interesting point by saying that if your child had to direct his/her own learning, they’d opt for no education and just play all of the time. I believe kids can learn a tremendous amount through playing alone. It often amazes me that my daughter basically taught herself to read and that both of my children can do math in their heads, without ever being formally taught how to do so. They also have expressed the desire to take various enrichment programs or workshops over the years. Between the two of them they’ve been involved in local community theater, 4-H, a farm program, nature and science programs, Lego classes, art classes, soccer, parkour, horseback riding, piano lessons and more.

Do you sometimes worry an untraditional education would limit your children’s chances of getting into colleges? How do college registrars feel about kids who are unschooled?

The thought has crossed my mind, but I feel pretty secure that whatever my children desire to do, they will make happen. If they want to go to college, we will find a way to make that happen. I also don’t feel that college is necessarily the answer for all kids. Many older unschooled kids tend to lean towards entrepreneurial pursuits. 

I honestly don’t know how college registrars feel about kids who are unschooled because I’m not a college registrar. My guess is that unschooled kids have to complete the same entrance requirements as traditionally-schooled kids. Leo Babauta (creator of and started a blog called Unschoolery a while back and has written his thoughts about college and unschoolers here – Leo and his wife unschool four of their six kids, one of which is preparing to go to college.

Are you open to your children returning to a traditional school when they get older if that is what they want?

Yes, if that is what they desire, then I would support them in it. I’d first examine the reasons they are choosing that route and make sure there isn’t another way to meet those needs that they hadn’t yet explored. However, if traditional school was the answer, then yes, I would support them. I know unschooling families whose kids have moved in and out of school over the years. Some go a day, some go for years. It just depends on the child and his/her motivation. 

What do you love most about unschooling?
I love the freedom we have with unschooling. My kids and I tend to be night owls and pretty much always have been. We have no set bedtimes or wake-up times. We have no deadlines (other than self-imposed). I enjoy that we can do things any time of the day (or night), we can travel any time of the year, and that the world is our classroom. 
Follow Amy’s journey on her blog, Crunchy Domestic Goddess.
Amber Johnson
Author: Amber Johnson

Amber is the founder and editor of Mile High Mamas, travel writer and former columnist for The Denver Post. She is a passionate community builder and loves the outdoors. She has two awesome teens and is happily married to a man obsessed with growing The Great Pumpkin.

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Amber is the founder and editor of Mile High Mamas, travel writer and former columnist for The Denver Post. She is a passionate community builder and loves the outdoors. She has two awesome teens and is happily married to a man obsessed with growing The Great Pumpkin.


  1. We unschool our 3 boys and are loving it! We did send them to PS as well, but have slowly evolved into unschooling. My boys’ ages are: 12, 10 and 9. We are all learning Japanese right now because we plan to be moving there next summer through my husband’s job!

  2. I just learned about unschooling and and trying to find more info on how I go about doing it. Do I just inform his current school that I am taking him out and putting him in unschool or do I have to tell anyone? My son has always been a non conformist and although he has always gotten along with kids at school he has never understood why he must learn the things and they way the make him in PS. I even tried a public home school program but he is still learning stuff he and I think are pretty much useless for real life. Anyway sorry for rambling but I am glad there are sites like yours to help. Thanks.

  3. I have been afraid that if I let go totally, my boys will spend their days in front of the computer and TV all day – except when they go to some of their chosen activities. They already spend a lot of time doing that, but they wouldn’t do anything else, if I gave them full control…

  4. Jess – How great! 🙂 What an adventure Japan will be for you all.

    Beth – You might want to look up homeschooling laws for Colorado. There’s some information here about how to get started homeschooling:
    Unschooling can be a little different depending on how you want to go about it. You can essentially be recognized as a homeschooler and then have to either do the standardized testing at whatever grades that’s required (I honestly don’t know what grades that is) OR have an evaluation done by a qualified person. OR You can enroll in what’s called an “umbrella school” which is basically a private school and then you only have to fulfill whatever their requirements are. Some ask you to send curriculum choices, etc., and some don’t. If you are enrolled in an umbrella school, you no longer have to do the standardized testing or evaluations. You can find a lot of information online. You might also want to look up BlueSkies2 on Yahoo Groups. It’s an unschooling group located in Boulder County. You can get a lot of your questions answered there. We also have weekly park days.

    Cindy – Are you already homeschooling or unschooling? It is hard to let go and give kids control, but I think once they know that they aren’t going to have TV or video games taken away from them, they can relax and not try to get it in all the time for fear mom or dad may take it away.

  5. Unschooling is wonderful! I also fear that parents may not have the time due to a full-time job to stay home with their children. That is definitely a challenge. Please look into Alpine Valley School. This is a private school, based on the model unschooling follows. It allows for students to thrive at their own pace, learn about the democratic society they live in and give them an opportunity to vote and shape the very institution they go to. The staff and children are all equals with equal votes at school meetings which decide everything from supplies to buy to who to hire.

  6. Homeschool Treasury is a website I put together specifically for homeschooling parents in Colorado to find information on field trips, classes, enrichment programs, etc. It’s here:

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