The idea puts a lot of faith in children, their innate interest in learning and in their intelligence. It also restores faith in parents, returning some control over their children's growth that they handed to educators and politicians more than a century ago.
This was the philosophy behind home-schooling when it emerged in the 1960s and 70s as a way for children to learn from the world around them. Then, in the past few decades, home-schooling was embraced by the Christian right, which saw it as a way that kids could be shielded from the secular world.
Then the Internet galvanized unschoolers. It provided a support network for parents seeking alternatives, and made satisfying the whims of a child's curiosity a lot easier. Why is the sky blue? Google it. How do you make a baking-soda volcano? Ask YouTube.
This type of experiential learning suits boys and concrete learners in particular, who "are set up to fail in the regular school system," according to Ron Hansen, a professor at the University of Western Ontario.
He says the school system favours abstract learners, the half of the population who find it easy to think in symbols and signs, for whom written work comes naturally. Concrete learners "need action, they need projects, they need to be tactile as well as using their eyes and their ears."
Although Mr. Hansen believes that unschooling might not work in every home, he thinks its emphasis on experiential learning is laudable and has a thing or two to teach public education.
There is an obvious objection, and one familiar to home-schoolers of any stripe: Does any kid who hangs out all day with his parents and who lives by the whims of his own curiosity have any hope at being anything less than a dork?
Though unschooled children tend to have highly developed critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, some find it difficult to socialize with large groups of children, according to Paige Fisher, an instructor in education at Vancouver Island University who has observed unschooled children.
Another concern more specific to unschooling is if children's education is formed by their own interests, or solely by those of their parents, there are likely to be gaps.
"Individual children might be happy, but it's not clear that this makes for an autonomous or well-rounded adult, or for a better community," Christopher Lubienski, an associate professor at the University of Illinois, writes by e-mail.
Structured learning, with external direction, "can force people to experience things that they wouldn't otherwise, and quite often find new interests. ... Ones that may also have some wider social value."
OFF THE BUS, BUT NOT ENTIRELY OFF THE GRID
This week, as most children kissed their parents goodbye and boarded yellow school buses, a group of home-schooling families gathered in a park in Toronto's west end for a Welcome Back to Not-School party.
They represented a fair cross-section of the city's home-schooling community, and most would place themselves somewhere on the unschooling spectrum.
Generally white and well-educated, the unschoolers were the kind of middle-to-upper-middle-class parents who don't dream of a home in Rosedale or their kids graduating from medical school.
They didn't fit any other stereotypes, except that all were able to stay home at least part-time. And they knew their kids' daily lives in a detail that made the average helicopter parent seem negligent.
They stood in clusters, discussing current events and their children, who buzzed about from swings to picnic tables in swarms of mixed-age groups. The sight was a bit jarring to eyes accustomed to traditional school playgrounds, where kids tend to stick with their classmates.
Carlo Ricci, an associate professor at Nippissing University, was pushing his younger, unschooled daughter, Karina, 5, on a swing. His older daughter, Annabel, 7, attends Grade 2. He had gradually figured out the differences that made one girl prefer unschooling while the other was drawn to the classroom.
"[Annabel]is like a movie star when she goes to school. She gets a lot of praise," he said. Karina is more shy.
John Day's 10-year-old daughter, Brenda, has never seen the inside of a classroom. Still, he specified, "I'd say we're part-unschoolers."