School’s out, this time forever


KNOWLEDGE WAVE: Takaka mother Charlotte Squire and her son, Kahu Marsh.KNOWLEDGE WAVE: Takaka mother Charlotte Squire and her son, Kahu Marsh.

For a while, Takaka writer and mother Charlotte Squire thought unschooling children meant “doing sweet FA about their education”. That was until she tried it.

It happened after her 5-year-old son Kahu Marsh came home from school one day and announced: “Mum, I figured out how to make the teacher happy. I just have to shut up.”

“That wasn’t what I wanted for him,” Squire says.

So she brought him home and let him discover what he wanted to learn. For Kahu, that included such mysteries as skateboarding, Frisbee, and Auckland. Adults around him knew what he was interested in and helped him out with each – Kahu would do things like finding out about Frisbee aerodynamics and write about how he had played with it that day.

Squire says her son’s emotional development has particularly benefited from their experiment, something that was as important to her as his academic success.

“It’s really nice how confident he is in himself, how sure of himself he is, and how eager he is to learn, because I didn’t force him to learn stuff he found boring,” she says.

“I’m happy about who I see emerging from that style of education.”

She’s especially glad that Kahu came to reading at his own pace – after a slow start, he’s now an avid bookworm.

In pockets all over the country, parents are keeping their children at home and letting them find out about the world themselves, a process they say is the best way to ensure a lifelong love of learning.

The late American educator John Holt came up with the term unschooling based on a philosophy that children are natural sponges and will enjoy learning more if they can follow what they’re curious about, on their own timetable. Other names for essentially the same concept are are experience-based learning, independent learning, hackschooling, project-based child-led learning, or natural learning.

Most of these philosophies agree that the child’s entire life makes up their education, seamlessly, 24 hours a day.

Although the continuum of home-based alternative education varies widely from a Correspondence School curriculum at one end to completely free-range kids at the other, unschooling is different from regular homeschooling in that it generally involves kids directing what, when, and how they learn, with their parents there to facilitate it.

Because they learn at their own pace, there is no course work, timetables, or need for exams to compare them with others. With their love of learning left intact, and the ability to focus and work independently established early, unschooling’s proponents say that children are equipped to learn whatever they need to for the rest of their lives, and credit it in particular with developing an entrepreneurial spirit.

The Ministry of Education doesn’t keep figures on unschoolers, though homeschoolers make up 0.7 per cent of the total school population at last count, a figure that has stayed stable since 1998. Parents wanting to unschool their children must get the usual homeschooling exemption from the ministry, proving they have a plan and evidence that their children are receiving an education. Home-schooled children are able to attend university without NCEA qualifications, but have to complete either a bridging course or diploma to gain university entrance.

Ministry of Education head of sector enablement and support Katrina Casey says the ministry is reviewing homeschooling, and will communicate with the sector about its findings in February.

She says parents gaining an exemption certificate must satisfy the ministry that their child will be taught “at least as regularly and as well as at a registered school”.

“The exemption is from school, not from receiving an education,” she says. “Homeschoolers, including ones who defined themselves as ‘unschoolers’, need to provide evidence of a commitment to certain routines appropriate to the maturity level and abilities of the child.”

EXPLOSIVE DEVELOPMENT: Toby Hill of Foxton makes his own firecrackers to sell at a local market.


EXPLOSIVE DEVELOPMENT: Toby Hill of Foxton makes his own firecrackers to sell at a local market.

That might include a specific timetable for a typical week, and parents intending to home-school also need to communicate what their proposed curriculum is for teaching, learning and assessment, and how it will cover different subject areas.

“We do have a number of homeschoolers who say they are ‘unschoolers’ who successfully meet our criteria for a structured education. We don’t have figures on how many homeschoolers fall into this category,” Casey says.

After approval, parents have to visit a JP every six months to confirm they are still homeschooling their child, although children taught at home aren’t required to take part in national standards or NCEA.

UNSCHOOL PROJECT: Toby at home with mother Alice Kleinsman, father Duncan Hill and sister Ina.


UNSCHOOL PROJECT: Toby at home with mother Alice Kleinsman, father Duncan Hill and sister Ina.

One of the strongest areas for unschooling in the country is Kapiti-Horowhenua-Manawatu, where Hearthland Educators has about 30 families practising the idea. Foxton father Duncan Hill, however, prefers the term “natural learning”. Hill and his partner Alice Kleinsman are both trained teachers, and from their experience in the education system have decided on a more holistic approach for their three children – Toby, 10, Ina, 16, and Ben, 19.

They wanted to give them the freedom to learn what they were inspired to, when they wanted to, based on a plan and goals outlined at the beginning of the year, following their interests: rivers, camping, iPads, swimming, mountains, family, tools, robots, Spanish. “We see ourselves as setting up the environment for those things to happen as much as they can,” Hill says. They do not mind what their children learn: “They call the shots as to the direction of their lives.”

Kerikeri’s Nitya Nixon juggles running her business, Nature Body, with taking care of daughter Sarai, nearly 6. She has just filled out the Ministry of Education application for the homeschooling exemption, though says their unschooling process has been happening since Sarai’s birth. She’s confident it’s the right choice for her daughter, who she says “is not a conformist”.

“There’s no ‘should’ in unschooling, which is amazing for us,” Nixon says. “As she grew up we saw her interests and how she liked to learn, and her education came naturally from knowing her. She doesn’t like sitting at a desk for too long, and we didn’t think traditional school would suit her.

“In school so many teachers are fantastic and try so hard and some kids love it and do really well. But other kids have such a different learning style and it doesn’t fit them.”

For her, unschooling is about following Sarai’s patterns, including what she is fascinated by at the time – currently dancing, the outdoors, chickens, eggs, and chicks – while providing further opportunities and resources, including play with Kerikeri Homeschoolers and Far North Homeschoolers.

“We get to be here while she’s figuring out all this cool stuff in life without any coercion or tests or worrying about comparisons to anybody else,” Nixon says. “The learning just happens when they’re interested in it. It’s really exciting for me to sit back and watch it.”

Read the rest of the article here:


Updated 1 October 2014:  Three years on (Craig Smith’s Health) page 7 click here


Needing help for your home schooling journey:


Here are a couple of links to get you started home schooling:

Information on getting started


Information on getting an exemption

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