Unschooling gains traction with home educators

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SAN DIEGO -- A method of education that has been around for more than 40 years is now getting widespread attention and criticism.

While some describe unschooling as the hippie version of homeschooling, others argue it is the best way for children to learn.

The premise of unschooling is that the child sets the curriculum and decides what they want to learn and when they want to learn it. For example, if a child is not ready to read in first grade, they are not forced to or a child can learn math through something they enjoy, such as baking.

Sammy Velthuis, 13, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and lives north of Oceanside. Sammy, whose dad is a Navy Chaplain currently deployed, has been unschooled for several years.

One way Sammy learns math is by baking cookies. His mom, Becky Velthuis, teaches him fractions as he measures out the ingredients. She often quizzes him by making him double the recipe.

“Sammy was doing traditional school,” Velthuis said. “He could do the work, write it on paper and the next day, totally forget it. A lot of times he will read upside down, but he’s still reading.”

Velthuis, who comes from an education background, admits it was difficult for her to discard the curriculum. She started with just traditional homeschooling until a friend told her about unschooling.

“If they explore and they have access to materials, they’re going to learn,” Velthuis said. “Each person, each child learns differently, and that’s the beauty of unschooling. They can find their natural way to learn.”

Another family in Ramona also practices unschooling.

Lana Russell, who unschools all three of her daughters, said so far they are thriving. Her oldest child, 15-year-old Anika, is enrolled in college courses and runs a horse rescue.

“I think a lot of people think that they sit at home and do nothing, that the parents are too lazy to get them to school,” Russell said. “The reality is the girls still put in a certain amount of schooling hours, they’re just done differently. Because they’re not forced to learn, I don’t have to argue about it. I don’t have to argue about homework. I don’t have to tell them, ‘you have to do this now.’ They want and are willing to do it on their own.”

Unschooling emphasizes hands-on learning. Parents like Russell take their children on field trips to learn, such as to the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park.

Emily Russell, 12, showed Fox 5 around the dinosaur exhibit and explained why she likes unschooling.

“It’s easier because I get to choose what I want to do and it’s more fun than learning out of a book,” she said.

Each state has different rules for unschoolers. In California, there are no standards for learning or yearly aptitude tests to check on skill level. Parents file yearly as an independent school and have to prove there is progress, which is subjective. Both Russell and Velthuis admitted the state has never checked on them.

Family psychologist Dr. Rachel Goldenhar said she understands why many people are skeptical.

“We have to think about what a child wants long term,” Goldenhar said. “If they want to go to college and need a take a GED, then what skills do they need to pass that test? When those responsibilities are put solely on a child, he may potentially miss some opportunities, so parents need to be especially in tune with their child and what they need.”

One of the big areas of criticism for homeschoolers is the social aspect, but both families said that is not really an issue.

The children go on field trips and interact with other homeschoolers and unschooling families, Velthuis said.

“I’m personally fine with it because I’m not the most social anyway,” Russell said. “Other than that, it doesn’t seem like we’re missing anything. In fact, it seems like we’re getting more out of it.”

Russell and Velthuis both admit that though there is room for improving the system, the weight of a child’s education falls on the parents’ shoulders. They said most parents don’t want their child to fail.

“This style of learning is not for everyone,” Velthuis said. “For us, it works.”

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