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Last year, my five-year-old stepson learned to read. It happened so quickly as to seem almost miraculous. One week he was barely out of toddlerhood, tentatively sounding out words on street signs, and the next he was sneaking James and the Giant Peach under the covers with a flashlight. Apart from the obligatory prebedtime reading, we, as parents, didn't feel as if we had much to do with it at all. Had the teachers at school taught him to read, or had he learned because he was ready? It was impossible to work out, but one thing was clear: When small children are motivated to learn, their powers of absorption are astonishing.

Across the country this week, parents are preparing to send children back to school. What a wonder these institutions are – safe, clean, caring environments where you can send your child all day for free. And they learn to read and write, add and subtract? Sign me up.

But not all parents of school-age kids feel this way. A growing number across North America are choosing to "unschool" their children instead.

What is unschooling? It's exactly what it sounds like: home-based education that involves no schedule, no rules, no homework, no textbooks and no tests. It is education as pure experience – and, as such, the final and most extreme frontier in the broader cultural shift toward "child-centred" parenting.

It's also not as crazy as it sounds. Free play – the core component of unschooling – has been widely endorsed as an educational method. Researchers at the University of Colorado recently concluded in a study of a group of six- to seven-year-olds that the more time children spent in less structured activities, the better they were at "self-directed executive functioning."

In most Scandinavian countries, children are encouraged to play freely and begin formal school later, usually around age seven. The theory is that children learn better when they are ready and willing, rather than when they are being pushed and prodded.

In his recent book, Free To Learn, Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College, argues that "children come into this world burning to learn, equipped with the curiosity, playfulness, and sociability to direct their own education. Yet we have squelched such instincts in a school model originally developed to indoctrinate, not to promote intellectual growth."

Unschooling – which, like all forms of home-schooling, is legal across Canada (registration regulations vary from province to province) – has been around since the 1970s and involves only a small percentage of all home-schooled kids. Since home-schooling is largely off the grid, there are no firm enrolment statistics available; a recent New York Times story estimated 3 per cent of U.S. students are unschooled.

In the educational chicken-and-egg scenario of learning (do children pursue knowledge or does it pursue the child?), unschoolers place all emphasis on the former. Instead of curriculum being dictated from the attending parent, unschooled children are allowed to learn at their own pace and according to their own interests all the way through high school. So if your six-year-old wants to spend his entire day – or month, or year – making mud pies, that's fine. If he prefers finding faces in the clouds to sounding out words, that's fine too.

Eventually, say proponents of unschooling, the child will come around to reading, writing and even long-division on his/her own accord. All you have to do is make the tools for learning available.

Curious to find out how people who were unschooled in the 1970s and '80s turned out as adults, Gray surveyed 231 unschooling families across North America and Europe. Of the unschooled adults surveyed, 83 per cent had pursued some form of higher education and 44 per cent had completed at least a bachelor's degree at university. (Recent statistics show that 51 per cent of Canadian adults have earned a postsecondary degree.) Their career choices tended to be creative and self-directed, many were self-employed, and the majority were financially self-sufficient by their mid-20s.

Of course, there are plenty of critics of unschooling. Proponents of traditional education argue that unschooled children miss out on the discipline, emotional boundaries and social structure that prevail in regular schools. Those are among the reasons why the vast majority of parents do not choose to unschool their children.

But perhaps the most compelling argument against unschooling (and independent education, generally) is that, if adopted on a large scale, it's bad for society. In her 2012 article for Slate, writer Dana Goldstein points out that, increasingly, home-schoolers are not hippies living on the fringes of society, but people who can afford the luxury of having one parent educate their children full-time instead of working. Like privately educated children, home-schooled and unschooled kids tend to be economically and culturally privileged. And as Goldstein notes, there is an inherent hypocrisy when liberal-minded people abandon the public education system in order to exert control over their kids' learning.

"Home-schoolers might be preaching sound social values to their children, but they aren't practising them," she writes. "If progressives want to improve schools, we shouldn't empty them out. We ought to flood them with our kids, and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing."

I wholeheartedly agree – unschooling is too individualistic for my family. But there's a great deal the regular school system can learn from the principles of free play and self-directed learning. I want my local school to unschool my children so I can work and pay the mortgage. Is that too much to ask?

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