For Teachers

Unschooling 101

Here’s what you should know about this growing trend in education and how it relates to financial literacy.


If you teach in a traditional setting or are new to homeschooling, you may not have heard of unschooling. You’re not alone. This unique approach to educating children is a powerful and effective method, and if you want to learn more, you’re in the right place. In this guide, we’ll look at what unschooling is, how homeschoolers can start unschooling, and how you can help guide your child to a bright future. One crucial component of unschooling that outshines many other teaching approaches is financial literacy – which we’ll focus on and show the power of unschooling.

What is Unschooling?

Unschooling has a reputation as hands-off education, a distinct break from traditional schooling and its curriculum and routines. However, there is a method behind the approach, a right and wrong way to do it. At its root, it can mean to not go to school. Over the years, though, it has become a unique homeschooling style. 

The child is front and center in unschooling. Instead of textbooks, unschooled children receive life lessons and practical, hands-on experiences to expose them to the world and learn. 

You’ll find no textbooks, no pre-set lesson plans, and frequent testing like you’d see in standard classrooms. You’ll tailor what kids learn based on their interests, the resources you have available, and the learning opportunities that pop up throughout the day. 

Is Unschooling the Same as De-Schooling?

Although the terms unschooling and de-schooling sound similar, they are quite different. 

As students move from traditional schools into homeschooling, the process and transitional time are often called de-schooling. They get into the routines of home education without the norms and schedules of “regular” school. It is a crucial phase in the morphing of educational approaches.

On the other hand, unschooling is a comprehensive learning system that can work with any child. It puts kids in the driver’s seat, with engaged parents in the co-pilot position to help guide children to their best possible outcomes. Unschooling can be trips to the store, museums, parks, beaches, grocery stores – virtually anywhere where learning can occur. Connections can be made to any subject kids would encounter in school, including math, science, art, ELA, and social studies, to name only some. 

Think of unschooling as a natural extension of a kid’s curiosity. They are not limited by a bell signaling the end of class: if they want to keep exploring, more power to them. That being said, it’s not a free-for-all. Parents can structure and plan for these experiences, letting children have a say in their learning.

Radical Unschooling

Some unschoolers take things a step further into something called radical unschooling. This approach becomes an entire lifestyle, removing arbitrary rewards and punishments for specific behaviors, creating a child with confidence, self-control, and intrinsic motivation. 

Homeschoolers can adopt a standard unschooling approach, sticking to the method mainly during experiential and academic journeys, or a radical unschooling style emphasizing child independence and confidence-building day and night. This may look like kids helping to set screen time limits, chores around the house, and what activities they want to prioritize. Either way, it needs to be implemented correctly and systematically.

Is Unschooling Legal?

Yes! Like other forms of homeschooling, you are allowed to provide instruction and educational opportunities in non-school settings, but unschooling turns it up a notch. While unschooling will look much different than standard instruction, you can comply legally by following your state’s regulations. These rules may include comprehensive portfolios, administering year-end testing, and assessing and evaluating student progress throughout the year.

Unschooling – like any type of homeschooling – is legal in 50 states. However, some laws are different in one state versus another. 

For example, if you homeschool in New York or Pennsylvania, you’ll need to justify your approach. You’ll need extensive portfolios, in-depth recordkeeping, and logs describing what you did during unschooling and how it aligned with the subject matter. These could be simple things like maintaining reading logs, saving receipts and brochures from museums and other “field trips,” or proof of projects your child worked on, with pictures and work samples as evidence.

Every state has unique homeschooling – and unschooling – regulations, and you’ll want to check out the rules where you live. If you’re in Alabama, you may be able to connect with church schools to ensure you’re unschooling appropriately – and legally. For those in Florida, you can find umbrella schools that bring homeschoolers under a specific district and school the supervision. These umbrella schools can validate homeschooling diplomas and ensure that criteria have been met. 

Ohio, Michigan, and several other states require homeschoolers to register with district superintendents’ offices, maintain logs, and adhere to a loose curriculum to ensure students qualify for a high school diploma. The good news for unschoolers is that many activities, including visiting a national park or volunteering at a hospital, meet the subject matter requirements. Parents can find many resources, excursions, and engaging things to do that will fit the district’s criteria.

How Do I Start Unschooling?

It’s good you asked. Let’s break down the process.

  • The first step is to check the legal requirements of your specific state. Set your child up for success and make sure they will receive the diploma or certificate of completion they need to further their careers. 
  • Determine what unschooling means to you, how you can modify it to meet your child’s interests and strengths, and how you can get ready to perform efficiently.
  • Bring in your child as a partner. Explain to them their role in unschooling, how it will revolve around them, and what an exciting time it will be!
  • Be realistic about the structure and intended use of curriculum. Unschooling is a broad term with a range of freedom and curricular implementation.
  • Have fun with the process. Embrace challenges, grow through experiences, and let your child blossom in their outstanding education.

Using Curriculum In Unschooling

Some unschooling parents want to go wholly untethered from the curriculum, using real-world experiences and hands-on activities instead of textbooks. Some unschoolers use curriculum to transition students from traditional schools to the unschooling world. Others prefer the structure and design of lesson plans for specific subjects. For example, if you’re teaching geometric concepts, you can use books and worksheets to teach certain ideas and formulas and then head out into the city to observe shapes, angles, and more in a real-world setting. 

Unschooling the Right Way

Unfortunately, there is a wrong way to unschool. Some think that unschooling is simply letting kids be free, with no plan or methodology. However, that is not unschooling. Parents must actively engage with the student, monitoring progress closely and keeping kids on the learning track. Although there is little to no curriculum involved, students are still learning constantly, growing, evolving, and expanding knowledge. More than anything, unschooling the right way means enjoying time with your student, ensuring their interests are met and that they are thriving. There is a focus on avoiding excessive praise and extrinsic rewards, instead building intrinsic motivation, so kids want to learn on their own terms. You’ll encounter specific components in unschooling, including:

  • Building trust. Trust the system and each other! You and your unschooler are likely new to the approach, and understanding how it all works is critical to both the parent and the child. 
  • Answer in the affirmative. Many traditional classrooms involve plenty of “no’s.” No talking. No exploring. No free time. The list goes on. Changing your mindset to consistently saying “yes” can boost your unschooling significantly. Give kids that confidence to go out on a limb – allow them chances to learn and grow. 
  • Strewing: This concept involves leaving things out, items to play with and discover, and also constant discussion about what kids see, smell, hear, and feel. They will see the world around them as full of wonder and opportunity.
  • PartnershipIt is crucial to have parents and children, spouses, and other stakeholders as partners, working together to optimize the method.

Financial Literacy in Unschooling

The whole point of unschooling is to prepare kids for the real world through hands-on, experiential learning. What better way to apply this approach than through money? Financial literacy is severely under-taught in traditional schools but can fit phenomenally well into unschooling. Let’s see how you can work personal finance into your child’s education.

Spending Wisely

One advantage of unschooling over traditional school is access to actual money-related situations. A key area to include in your approach is prioritizing spending. Show kids the importance of making a shopping list for the store, so they don’t spend more than they planned. Explain that people tend to impulse buy, including purchasing “wants” instead of “needs,” and how lists can help keep them on track. Take them to the grocery store, warehouse stores, and farmer’s markets to show them the variations in price, healthy options, and more!

Create Savings Habits for Life

Unschooled children can learn savings habits that will seamlessly move them into adulthood success. You can open a checking and savings account for them in person, and model how to complete deposit slips, make withdrawals, transfer money, and other banking services. You can use the Internet and find videos and informational websites to provide so much information. Your unschooler will have savings built up and, more importantly, understand how to save effectively.


Demonstrate how to create budgets to monitor spending and see if they can apply the knowledge to real-life scenarios. You can find budgeting worksheets easily online; fill them out with pretend or real numbers and work on staying within their means in various categories. Show them how to use a budget to save for larger purchases, setting aside weekly or monthly amounts to reach a larger goal. You can also pivot into investing with older children, explaining that they can pay themselves first each month and grow their cash over time.

Having Frequent and Honest Discussions

Remember, the unschooling approach is all about partnerships. Talk to kids about money transparently and openly, explaining different financial terms and how to prioritize spending and saving habits. Set kids up for success, reminding them that they can make their own decisions but should weigh the pros and cons. For example, if they want to buy a video game system, bring up the cost of games and how much the total price would affect their budgets and goals.

Use the Unschooling Setting to Your Advantage

Whether you see financial literacy as part of a daily routine or you prefer to demonstrate good money habits as scenarios unfold, unschooling can be the ideal solution. A major benefit of unschooling is the time you have together. You can discuss financial literacy during the day, at dinner, or in the evening. If you are actively engaged in the discussions, positive interactions, and child-led experiences, your child will feel empowered to learn more and more about money. 

Further Reading And Resources For Unschooling

About the Author

Peter Brown

Peter Brown is a National Board Certified teacher with over two decades of experience in the classroom. He loves working with students of all ages in many subjects, but particularly in practical areas like money education, to help kids achieve their goals. When he is not teaching or writing about financial literacy, you can find him surfing, hiking, skiing, or traveling to new places.

Last updated on: July 8, 2024