Unschooling and the Benefits of Unstructured Time

Unschooling and the Benefits of Unstructured Time

Unschooling and the Benefits of Unstructured Time

Part 1 of a 2 part series discussing unschooling and the educational benefits of unstructured time.

Ask a handful of unschoolers what unschooling is and you’re likely to get dozens of answers ranging from “not school” to “child led learning” to “unbridled curiosity” to “total freedom.”  Considered from the world of compulsory schooling, state mandated curricula, and the Common Core, these answers can be utterly perplexing.  What do you mean there are no lessons, no assignments and and no curricula?  How could unschooled kids be learning anything if they are allowed to have total freedom?

To better understand the philosophy, attitudes and practices of unschoolers, Dr. Peter Gray, Research Professor at Boston College, and Dr. Gina Riley, Adjunct Professor of Special Education at Hunter College, conducted a survey of more than 230 unschooling families in 2011.  A summary of the results appeared last year in Dr. Gray’s blog Freedom to Learn (here, here, and here).  A full report of their findings will be published later this year in The Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning (Vol. 7, issue 14, 2013).

“Essentially all of the respondents emphasized the role of their children in directing their own education and in pointing out that education is not separate from life itself.  The responses varied, however, in the ways they described the parents’ roles.” [1]

Gray and Riley found that 43% of their respondents took an entirely hands off approach to their children’s education apart from responding to the child’s wishes or lead. 42% of the respondents described some parental involvement such as creating an enriching environment without any specified learning goals. 15% of the respondents had learning goals in mind, such as learn something new each day, but remained focused on the interests of the child and allowed a great deal of latitude in how the goals were met.  

The core principle of unschooling, then, is that learners are largely free from externally imposed structure and expectations. They are free to enjoy unstructured time, follow their own interests, develop their own passions, learn at their own pace and eventually to create a learning structure that is meaningful to them.  This, it turns out, is an excellent way to nurture independent, creative, compassionate, motivated, productive and socially connected thinkers who are prepared to act on their beliefs.

The Benefits of Unstructured Time


One of the primary benefits of unstructured time for children is that it provides time to play outdoors. In Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation, and Affect,  Hillary Burdette and Robert Whittaker cite abundant evidence linking active, unstructured, outdoor play with improved physical, social and cognitive outcomes.  Because outdoor play spaces are more varied and less structured than indoor spaces, they provide children with better opportunities to engage their curiosity and imaginations, use their bodies and engage in decision making and creative thinking as they explore the outdoor space. 

Burdette and Whittaker contend that play based problem solving “may promote  executive functioning --- a higher-level skill that integrates attention and other cognitive functions such as planning organizing, sequencing and decision-making.” Working out the logistics of unstructured play also encourages children to  develop social skills as they learn to compromise and cooperate with each other.  This social learning contributes to the development of empathy, flexibility, self-awareness and self-regulation. Finally, Burdette and Whittaker argue that free play can improve emotional well-being in young children by minimizing anxiety, depression, aggression and sleep problems.

How does this play out in daily life, you ask?  It means that unschooling families place as much value on park days and outdoor play as they do on any academic learning.  It means that we encourage not just our young kids but also our 12 – 18 year olds to go outside and play.  Get in the creek, climb trees, go for a hike, a run or a swim.  We encourage them to get out in nature, open their senses and use their bodies.  Often unschooling parents can be found right alongside their kids, participating in the joy of outdoor play.

The appreciation for play also means that unschooling families are more likely than others to consider board games, card games and computer or video games legitimate learning activities worthy of their child’s time and energies.  For example, one unschooler I know who was passionate about Norse Mythology and computer games spent many hours working to recreate and reenact the Ragnarok battle in a computer gaming environment.      

I do not mean to suggest, however, that unschooling is all play and no work.  Often, especially as unschoolers get older, they engage in activities that even the most skeptical critic of unschooling would recognize as worthwhile academic work.  They research, they attend classes and they write papers.  The difference is that unschoolers do so, not because anyone requires it of them, but by choice because they are fascinated by the topic and motivated to learn more.

Autonomy, Inspiration, Creativity and Flow

Another important benefit of unstructured time is that it provides autonomy, which is the seedbed for inspiration, creativity and flow. 

In the 1991 classic Motivation and Education – The Self-Determination Perspective, Edward Deci, Robert Vallerand, Luc Pelletier and Richard Ryan outline the link between self-determination, or autonomy, and a range of positive outcomes including creativity, cognitive flexibility, and self-esteem.  Valuing and supporting student autonomy in educational contexts is the best way, they conclude, to “facilitate conceptual understanding, flexible problem solving, personal adjustment, and social responsibility.” 

In subsequent research, Vallerand and other colleagues described a Dualistic Model of Passion that differentiates between harmonious passion and obsessive passion.  Their research suggests that “Harmonious passion originates from an autonomous internalization of the activity in identity, leading people to choose to engage in the activity that they love” and establishes harmonious passion as the mechanism linking autonomy, flow and creativity. For an excellent summary of these findings, check out Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.’s post: How to Increase Your Harmonious Passion.

Because there are very few external constraints on how unschoolers invest their time, they are free to run with an idea whenever inspiration strikes for as long as they like.  If inspiration for a story strikes at 3:00 one afternoon, there is nothing to discourage the writer from spending the next 2, 4, or 8 hours working on the story.  The creative process takes precedence over any other educational activity that might have been planned that day.  In that moment, nothing is more important, educationally speaking, than following the writing muse wherever it leads. This allows unschoolers to bask in their harmonious passion and experience flow.

If an unschooler sits down to practice piano and plays a chord that sounds intriguing, he is free to spend the next 20 minutes or two hours exploring where that chord takes him without either the child or parent worrying whether he is staying on task.  This happens several times a day in our house.  An intriguing chord leads to an improvisational exploration of chord progressions and then to a new composition incorporating the original chord and some of the material improvised along the way.   Next comes a switch from piano to guitar for a full exploration of the chord progressions on a new instrument.  Before we know it, an hour or more has passed.

By giving unschoolers the power to make their own choices and manage their own time, unschooling families provide the autonomy and freedom their children need to discover and develop their passions, nurture their creativity, strengthen their cognitive and social skills and enhance their emotional well-being through exploration and play. Unschoolers may not be adhering to the Common Core, but I would argue that they are nonetheless providing a valuable education.  I suspect that Peter Gray, Robert Vallerand and other researchers cited here might just agree.

In a future post, I’ll discuss how unstructured time facilitates positive constructive daydreaming, imagination, empathy and compassion.

This post and its follow-up are part of the Unschooling Blog Hop sponsored by Gifted Homeschoolers Forum.  To learn more about unschooling from a first person perspective, check out these participating blogs.

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