Homeschooling? Unschooling? Life-Learning? Down the rabbit hole we go…


Before I had my son, Chayton, I knew very little about homeschooling. I was a teacher in a school when I first become aware of the term and simply thought that if parents believed that they could do a better job than I was doing—teaching their children—they were welcome to it.

Later, I spent some time working in the Ministry of Education for the Government of Alberta and sat in on a presentation on a local Hutterite colony’s approach to homeschooling and how they were meeting provincial standards. I was very surprised to learn that homeschoolers in Alberta are not required to follow provincial curriculum. I thought that was disastrous! Where was the structure? The accountability? How would those poor kids learn anything? Parents (or anyone without an Education degree for that matter) are not qualified to do this job! It didn’t leave me much confidence in homeschooling. Like most people, my idea of homeschooling was lonely, bored children, sitting at a kitchen table working through an endless series of workbooks. Oh yes, and they were usually from religious families that strongly opposed the science (evolution) and health (sex-ed) programs in their local schools. I am now happy to admit that I was wrong on all of these accounts!


When I had my son a year later, I started inquiring about our two local schools. We live in a rural area and I found out that it would be an hour and fifteen minute bus ride to school one way! Unless I was willing to drive him both ways each day (a lot of driving and gas for me), my son—from kindergarten to grade 12—would be spending 12.5 hours of his precious life on a bus per week. That’s 475 hours per year—the equivalent of 19.8 days. By graduation, he will have spent 257 days of his life on a bus. That really got me thinking. Neither of these two schools have any special qualities that made me feel that the drive would be worth it and there are no other schools or alternative programs anywhere near us. So I started reading and researching more about homeschooling as an alternative. Chayton was only a baby at the time but I was now sure that I wanted him to learn at home and I wanted to make it a fun and dynamic experience for him. As a teacher with a Masters degree, I felt that I was more than qualified to do the job and began creating the structure of our home “school,” complete with schedule, curriculum, learning centers, colorful manipulatives, and fancy flashcards. I even bought a light table.

As I continued to read and learn about homeschooling I soon discovered that there wasn’t just one way to homeschool but that there were many different approaches. The more I learned, more more I slowly changed my own approach.

In this blog post, we’ll cover the two main approaches to learning at home: “homeschooling” and “unschooling.”



“Homeschooling” is learning at home, following a structure and a pre-planned curriculum (one that you’ve usually paid money for). As the parent, you don’t have to research or plan anything because everything will already be laid out for you. You’ll just have to do the preparations and make sure you’re up to speed with the lessons. You’ll have all kinds of workbooks, textbooks, required reading, and suggested field trips to enhance your child’s learning. You’ll have a schedule and if you want your child to finish the year on time you’ll have to keep up.

To break it down even more, in Alberta, there are two types of homeschooling. You can either be a “traditional” or “non-traditional.” “Traditional” means that you are following the provincial curriculum, unit-by-unit, grade-by-grade, until high school graduation, the same way your child would learn in a regular school. “Non-traditional” means that you will be following some other structured curriculum—and there are many different programs and packages out there. Either way, you are following a structured, pre-planned program. You’ll be following a set curriculum with objectives and activities and assessments all built in. This is great when you have to fill in your reports for the government, and this is a wonderful option if you are:

  • a busy parent
  • not sure of yourself as a “teacher” and would like extra support
  • comfortable working within an existing structure
  • comfortable with your provincial or state school system and feel that your child would be missing out of they weren’t also following the provincial curriculum




“Unschooling” is the other type of homeschooling and is a term that every unschooler dislikes. It’s confusing! Who describes something with a word that tells you what it is not? It is an old and outdated term that refers to learning without any of the trappings of school. This term is still in use so it is helpful to know that ‘unschooling” is actually referring to “life learning,” or learning from real life.

“Life learning” is also learning at home but is a radically different approach to homeschooling. You can think of it as the opposite of “homeschooling” because it is unstructured, unplanned, there is no schedule, and no curriculum. Think of it as learning and living as if school did not exist. What would that look like? Basically, if you want to learn about money, you keep a piggy bank, go to the store, open a bank account, learn about interest and investing, and buy and sell things. If you want to learn about birds, you set up a bird feeder, get a pair of binoculars, a good field guide, and sit at the window to see what comes along. Rather than a set curriculum, it is the child’s curiosity and personal questions about life that sets the direction and pace of learning.

There are as many approaches to life learning as there are learners. Some families follow a daily routine (such as nature walk after breakfast, an hour of reading before bed, free unstructured play all afternoon, swimming on Mondays, that sort of thing) while others have no routine whatsoever yet their days are packed with fun and activities. Many families take advantage of special classes, play groups and local homeschooling events. Some use workbooks here and there but most life learners prefer to avoid textbooks and workbooks altogether, or else use them as a casual reference.


Life learning is learning directly from life, in context, and in a way that is directly relevant to the learner. As mentioned, the learner sets the direction and the pace. Since there is no set curriculum, there are no limits as to what your child can focus on, or for how long. In the early years, research on child development encourages parents to simply allow children to PLAY. This is perfect as it give parents a chance to practice observing their children closely and learning what their passions and interests are. For example, if a child loves ladybugs, they can learn about ladybugs in many different ways:

  • catch a ladybug and observe it closely
  • visit the library to find books and videos about ladybugs
  • do an internet search on ladybugs, watch youtube videos about ladybugs
  • read the books about ladybugs
  • write words describing ladybugs, post them on a word wall, practice spelling the words, use the words in sentences to describe a picture, etc.
  • label a diagram of ladybug body parts
  • do  crossword puzzle or word search with ladybug words
  • write a letter to a ladybug entomologist
  • watch educational videos about ladybugs
  • ask questions about ladybugs (what are their favorite foods?), make a hypothesis, and then find out the answers
  • write a story about a ladybug then act it out
  • draw and paint pictures of ladybugs
  • make a sculpture of a ladybug
  • photograph ladybugs
  • add plants that attract ladybugs in your garden
  • count how many ladybugs you see each day, make a graph to show this
  • count 100 ladybugs
  • find out how many different ladybugs there are in the world
  • find out where in the world ladybugs live and label or color a map
  • visit the local natural history museum and visit the bug room; prepare five questions and interview the specialist there
  • make or buy a ladybug kite and fly it (explore wind)
  • make a ladybug costume for Halloween or a play

Boy with ladybug

In life learning, it is the child (not the parent) who decides which activities he or she would like to do. You, as parent and facilitator present the options and opportunities. Although there is no set pre-planned curriculum, you do end up with one. It’s just written as you go. For example, the questions and curiosities of the child make up the objectives and activities. In life learning, there are usually no tests so assessments are in the form conversations, the child telling stories, answering questions, and/or making things to demonstrate their learning and understanding. If you are documenting all of this daily, and maintaining a portfolio of your child’s work, the government reporting (to show evidence of learning, and what, in particular, your child is learning) is fairly easy.

Life learning is wonderful homeschooling approach if you are:

  • an active and creative parent
  • comfortable with trusting your child’s curiosity and innate ability to learn
  • comfortable working without an existing structure
  • happy taking a backseat and letting your child steer the course of their learning
  • interested in your child’s unique passions and interests and using that as a springboard for learning

So there you have it, the two main choices for learning at home: homeschooling and life learning. All approaches are good and valuable you just need to be clear on the needs of your child and your needs as parent/facilitator. If something isn’t working, try something else. If your child isn’t having fun, try something else!

In the next post we will look at passion-based learning, place-based learning, and community-based learning. Plus, I’ll fill you in on what approach works best for our family here at red feather smooth stone/cabinorganic.

Take care and keep learning!