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Deschooling: 5 Ways to Bring the Joy Back to Learning

November 14, 2020

This is a guest post about deschooling, co-written with Rachel Nishikawa, Creative Director of the West River Academy; and Sarah R. Moore of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting.


Many families around the world are learning to adapt to new circumstances this year, from how to shop for groceries to how to do school at home. Thoughts around creating or following a curriculum at home and establishing a new routine for their families can feel overwhelming, to say the least. School at home feels new to many of us; it's simply out of our comfort zone.

That said, it's important to recall that traditional schooling evolved because of the convenience factor, which matches the evolution of our industrial society. "Traditional school," of course, had nothing to do with the public school system; most education took place at home until relatively recently. Completing elementary school wasn't even required in the United States until 1918 (source).

More recently and for a wide variety of reasons, many parents are opting out of brick-and-mortar school in favor of homeschooling. It continues to grow in popularity around the world.

When we start to consider homeschooling (or find ourselves doing school at home unexpectedly), it's also important to learn more about the process of deschooling. Deschooling is often a critical intermediary step between school-as-it-was and the beginning of the homeschool journey.

What is deschooling?

After a child has become used to the schedule of private or public school, and they have established that reality as the norm, there is a transition period to re-examine their preconceived notions of what school "should" be. Part of that process may include deschooling.

The deschooling process can bring back the joy of play and natural exploration back into education. Although the way play manifests changes as children get older, it's very much a valid form of education:

“…Play is how our instinct to become educated manifests itself, a concept that is supported by more than a century of research and observation performed by the brightest names in education, from Dewey and Piaget to Montessori and Vygotsky. But as to the question of ‘what’ children are learning at any given moment, the only one who knows that is person who is playing, and the moment we interrupt them to ask, the moment we test them, we forever change it.
It’s version of what in physics is called the ‘observer effect.’ As humans play, they are unconsciously asking and answering questions as they emerge, pursuing trains of thought, playing with variables, theorizing, making connections between one thing and another. The moment another person steps in with his own questions, that pursuit stops, and when the questioner is in a position of authority, like a teacher or parent, those questions become an imperative…” (source)

This is not to say that brick and mortar education isn't enjoyable. Deschooling is simply the adjustment period during which a student adapts to a new way of schooling.

To be clear, this is also not to say that deschooling is solely about play, lest we undermine its importance and validity. It may be helpful to think of deschooling as a means to prepare the mind for a deeper ability to absorb the material that's presented to the child. It's an opportunity to rethink the process of education.

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How to deschool

Deschooling can take many forms. Some families use the deschooling period to travel, which many call worldschooling. Seeing the world firsthand has many advantages for children and parents alike.

Deschooling can also take the form of spending more time at the local library, out in nature, or doing anything at all that is separate from the public school system. Many deschooling ideas enhance, rather than take away from, a child's prior school system experience.

Further support: How to Make Homeschooling Easier for You and Your Child

You might designate a specific deschooling period before delving back into homeschooling with more specific learning objectives. Some families decide to take a break from schooling at the same time every year. In short, you find what works well for your family.

There's no single "right way" to engage in deschooling, provided that it feels right for your family.

Here are 5 ways to approach the deschooling journey and embrace it as a part of your children's education.

Think of deschooling as “de-programming”

Many adults were programmed to think that learning looks a certain way: studying with books and taking tests. How did that work for you? Did it inspire or dampen your love of learning? As we consider how we experienced school, we may find that at the base of our experience was fear: fear that if we didn’t do what we were told, we would fail—at school and at life.

Perhaps that fear is now governing our decisions about education. “If I don’t make sure my child follows what someone else says will lead to success, my child may fail and it will be my fault.” This fear can be gradually released and replaced with trust.

For example, many adults are pleasantly surprised to learn that children rarely need formal instruction to learn to read.

For children in standard schools, it is very important to learn to read on schedule, by the timetable dictated by the school. If you fall behind you will be unable to keep up with the rest of the curriculum and may be labeled as a "failure," or as someone who should repeat a grade, or as a person with some sort of mental handicap.
In standard schools learning to read is the key to all of the rest of learning. First you "learn to read" and then you "read to learn." Without knowing how to read you can't learn much of the rest of the curriculum, because so much of it is presented through the written word. There is even evidence that failure to learn to read on schedule predicts subsequent naughtiness in standard schools.
One longitudinal study, conducted in Finland, found that poor reading in preschool and kindergarten predicted poor reading later on in elementary school and also predicted subsequent "externalizing problem behavior," which basically means acting out.[A. Halonen et al., (2006). The role of learning to read in the development of problem behaviour: A cross-lagged longitudinal study. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 517-534.] But the story is entirely different for unschooled children. They may learn to read at any time, with no apparent negative consequences. (source)

Trust your children and their learning process

Children are born with curiosity and drive. Children are learning all the time because that’s what humans naturally do. Watch young children play, and you will see what is important to them. Let them take the lead and you help to provide resources and guidance.

For example, put the child on the floor with some crayons and paper. Give them no specific instruction. Watch your child explore the world through their imagination. You will be amazed at the genius you find. Just as children don't need to be taught to use their imaginations, natural learning follows a similar path.

To be sure, we can and should expose our children to new experiences from which they can learn. Learning does not happen in a proverbial vacuum. If we can provide the opportunity, however, the child can thrive in their own time and way.

Think about how you learned

Consider what you liked and what you didn’t like about school. Did you like being told what to learn, when to learn, and how to learn it? And then being tested to see how well you learned it? Or did you have a favorite subject that would've held your attention captive to the point that you could develop a true mastery of the subject?

If you enjoyed reading -- or perhaps even if you loathed it -- would it have been encouraging to have input into which books you'd read? If you knew from the bottom of your heart that a particular topic was not of interest for you, would exposure to it have been enough, without a requirement for mastery of the topic?

Know where you fit on the continuum of learning

Figure out what works best for your family. Do your children thrive when following a strict routine or a child-led approach to learning? Maybe you fit right in the middle; starting with some structure and also allowing your children to substitute assignments with hands-on projects that relate.

Do research about each part of the educational continuum by looking up terms such as unschooling, self-directed learning, eclectic homeschooling, or on the other side, block scheduling, and school-at-home.

Expert Peggy Webb discusses deschooling, unschooling, and homeschooling

Trust yourself as the expert on your child

Who else knows your child better than you? Who else loves your child more than you do? Who is more qualified to guide your child on his or her journey? You have years of experience to pull from so you are able to assist with information, resources, and guidance. But it’s your child’s life and your child’s journey.

Don’t short yourself — you are wonderfully qualified to assist them, starting with deschooling and on through their entire educational journey.

Enjoy the freedom of learning alongside your child.


If you need advice or support, schedule a free phone consultation with Peggy Webb, a 30-year veteran unschooling mom and founder of West River Academy.

Disclaimer:  All advice and guidance offered on this site is not medical guidance and should not be interpreted as such, and the owner of this site is not responsible for individual outcomes.

I am not a physician, psychologist, or counselor, nor am I licensed to offer therapy or medical advice of any kind. I am a certified conscious parenting coach and my courses, blog posts, and all other guidance are based on my training and experience. If you are having an emergency or are in crisis please call 911, or the National Suicide Prevention Line (800-273-8255), or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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