Natural learning (also called unschooling) is a philosophy which believes that children will learn what they need to know when they are ready to do so.  Proponents of this philosophy vary in their approach, but all are child led.  In many ways it’s as much a parenting approach as an educational one.

Radical unschoolers do not believe in coercing their child in any way, so do not have set bedtimes, or rules.  Children are free to choose their own activities, with no pressure to do anything ‘educational’. Many unschoolers feel that it’s not possible to be an eclectic/unschooler – that it’s an all or nothing approach.

For this reason, we’ll use the term ‘natural learning’, because many eclectic home educators incorporate aspects of natural learning to some degree or another. Whether it’s incorporating a child’s interests into a plan for the year, or giving a child the freedom to choose how and when to learn, whilst still having a list of chores, bedtimes and screen time limits.

For families where children have been removed from school, natural learning can seem challenging, but think back to when your children were small, and how they learnt to walk, talk and behave appropriately in an incremental fashion: at their own rate, with learning scaffolded by caring family who were there to support them both literally and metaphorically.

Think about yourself too. What do you do when you want to learn something new? Do you learn at your own pace, and choose resources that appeal to you?

Children can, and do, learn to read and calculate by themselves, and by asking for help. If they are shown how to learn, they can discover facts, research areas of interest and prepare themselves for adult life very effectively. For most natural learning families, this is achieved in tandem with caring adults scaffolding learning, providing suggestions and resources, and modelling being an active learner. Here’s how that might look at different stages.

For a young child who is starting to show an interest in reading and writing, a parent might:

  • Offer to show a child how to write their name so that they can write a card to Grandma.
  • Play I Spy to familiarise the child with letter sounds, and then move on to nonsense rhymes.
  • Spend lots of time reading together, repeating old favourites and introducing new books with rich vocabulary, rhyme and information about the world.
  • Scribe for the child, writing down their stories.
  • Encourage storytelling by taking turns to make up funny stories and giving them plenty of time to pay makebelieve games.
  • Provide activities like a sand tray, ziplock bags of shaving foam and varied writing implements for the child to experiment with.
  • Encourage fine motor control by teaching them to use chopsticks, or giving them small items to sort.
  • Have magnetic letters on the fridge, or foam letters in the bath, and help them sound out any words they make – real or imaginary.

Once the child has good fine motor skills, is confident at drawing and knows their letter sounds, writing will follow.  Allowing the child to enjoy writing, without criticising letter formation and spelling will lead to them feeling good about their ability.  Children will also start to recognise words in books – particularly the old favourites, and the parent can point out similar words and help the child sound them out. Playing word games such as Banangrams and Scrabble will help with spelling. Incrementally, the child will learn to read and write, and parents can continue to help by providing a spelling dictionary, reading trickier words in stories and providing opportunities and resources as needed.

For a primary aged child who wants to understand how cars and other machines work a parent might:

  • Help the child find books at the library, then read them aloud/together.
  • Find suitable Youtube links at the right level, and create a playlist.
  • Take the child to the Science Museum, to visit a friend who’s a mechanic, or to the colonial farm where there’s lots of machinery to inspect.Provide Lego, Knex or other building toys, to help the child learn about building simple machines and help the child gather supplies to build a billy cart.
  • Borrow an Engineering project book with achievable craft ideas, and help the child choose projects, providing help and guidance as needed.
  • Extend the interest to incorporate humanities by learning about ancient technologies and the societies that produced them.

A child in high school may be quite self directed, but as they are looking towards studies or a career, they may be unfamiliar with what’s required, and unsure of which skills they still need to learn.  For a teen who is interested in studying nursing, the parent’s role will be less hands-on than for the younger child. They might:

  • Explain pathways to the teen, and show them how to find suitable courses and work backwards to discover how to apply and meet any prerequisites.
  • Put the teen in touch with a young adult who is working as a nurse to get a feel for whether it’s what they expect.
  • Encourage the teen to volunteer with children, the disabled, or elderly to see if they enjoy the role of carer.
  • Help the teen find ways to meet any identified knowledge gaps using courses, websites, books etc.
  • Share tips on how to prepare for any entrance tests.
  • Arrange work experience cover for any placements the teen arranges.
  • Act as a chauffeur or competent driver for a teen who is working – enabling them to save the money needed for a car to get to TAFE/university.

In each of these examples, the child learns what they need, when they need it, sometimes in greater depth than might be achieved at the same level in school. The parent is still a vital part of the educational experience, but as a facilitator rather than a teacher– responding to the child’s cues, rather than directing learning.

If natural learning is a good fit for your family, then embrace all it has to offer. However, if you feel that your child needs a more structured environment for maths and languages, that’s fine too.  And as your child grows, and your priorities change you may move further one way or another along the structured/natural learning continuum–finding the balance that works for your family.


To read more about natural learning/unschooling and how other families home educate using this style, take a look at our blog articles.

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