When people hear that we Unschool, their first concern is how the children will ever be motivated to learn.  “My child would never learn anything if they weren’t forced to” seems to be a common mentality of most parents of school-aged children.  Understanding that children would be self-motivated if left to their own devices is the biggest obstacle for non-Unschoolers, especially if they had a strict or more formal compulsory or homeschooling education.

The truth, however, is that the majority of parents who make the above statement have, in all actuality, never given their child the opportunity to self-motivate in their learning and thus they just assume they never could.  From the fresh age of six (and often even earlier), the child’s learning is hijacked and controlled for them, not only removing, but inhibiting any reason for self-motivation.  Even if a child holds onto their motivators, they are given very little time to do anything about it.

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Yet, before compulsory school age, children show many signs of being self-motivated in their learning.  They learn to crawl, walk and talk, three very challenging tasks, all on their own.  Then, once school is over and we are left as free adults, our individual motivations return.  We take full control over what we choose to learn and how far we wish to pursue learning; from Google searches to non-compulsory college courses.

“Children are born passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of things around them. If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process…the independent scientist in the child disappears.”  
~ John Holt

But what motivates us to learn as curious little babies and then again as free-willed adults?  Three simple things:

Interest, submersion, and need.

In order for us to have a complete and well-rounded education, all three motivators must be present.  Without any, learning becomes difficult, exhaustive and near pointless, and with only one or two, learning is lacking and incomplete.  Let us for a moment take a look at each type of motivator:


I begin with this because it is the most obvious to many as to what motivates someone to learn something new.  We see something on television that peaks an interest, overhear an exciting conversation, or even have a unique thought or impulse to which we yearn to follow.  Whatever the reason for our interest, it is the easiest and most exciting catapult into learning.  Intrigue is the first step into an open-mind ready to absorb and process information. 

As adults, the interest may be pure pleasure, serving seemingly little purpose in our responsibilities.  These are usually looked at as hobbies.  Take, for example, if we want to keep a stamp or coin collection, part of that is learning all we can about what we are purchasing or selling.  But even though it’s just a hobby, we learn and perfect very valuable skills and even absorb large amounts of information.  Bartering, purchasing and selling, in-depth research, analysis and comparisons, history of individual pieces from dates and names to locations and events and so much more.   Often times, the knowledge accumulated isn’t even noticed, because it just becomes a side effect of pursuing something enjoyable.

“We learn because we want to learn, because it’s important to us, because it’s natural, and because it’s impossible to live in the world and not learn. Then along comes school to mess up a beautiful thing.” 
~ Peggy Pirro

Children have interests too and they also have the same desires to pursue them.  Whether seemingly pointless and useful only for a hobby or an obvious potential career track, they learn whatever they are interested in learning and accumulate a lot of accidental knowledge along the way.  There are no limits on what can interest each individual child.  Some appear passionate about “acceptable” things like filling out workbooks and reading for hours while others’ delights may lie in video games and internet surfing.  But the interest is leading them to learn whatever they want whenever they want, with joy and receptivity.


Submersion in anything will spark accidental learning.  Even when our brains are not searching for the information, we cannot help but pick it up when we cannot escape it.  Simply by existing in a world filled with information, powered by reading, science and math, we certainly pick up a thing or two, whether on purpose or not.

It is a common idea that the best way to learn a second language is to submerse yourself in it.  If you have a background in engineering and are forced to work in a restaurant kitchen for a month, you will come out knowing a few terms about how to make a risotto, even if you may never be an expert chef.

“If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.” 
~ Linda Darling-Hammond

Submersion teaches children to walk and talk because they can’t help but see us doing it.  They learn and master an entire language in a couple of years simply because they are submerged in it.  Simply put, it is impossible for a child not to learn something of the society in which they live.


As adults, there are things we need to know.  When we realize we need to know it, we learn it as soon as we can by the most obvious means available to us.  If an adult is reading a new proposal for work and there is a pertinent word that they are unfamiliar with, they quickly realize their need to understand what the word means, thus they look it up.  If our vehicle breaks down and we have no clue how to fix it, we either learn it or learn where we need to go to get it fixed.  Through our adult life, things pop up often that we don’t know and must learn.

“Life learning is about trusting kids to learn what they need to know and about helping them to learn and grow in their own ways. It is about respecting the everyday experiences that enable children to understand and interact with the world and their culture.” 
~ Wendy Priesnitz

Children know when they need to learn something as well.  Sometimes they realize it on their own and other times it is pointed out by loved ones, friends or even, for teens, employers.  A child learns pretty quickly that reading is a necessary skill in life and that they need to know it.  They learn that, if they want to buy a toy with their money, they must learn basic math skills from prices to greater than/less than concepts.  They see friends playing an enjoyable game and know instantly that they need to learn the rules in order to join in.  They see the needs, they know the reason and they are independently driven to learn it.

So if these are the things that motivate us to learn as babies and adults, then why do we assume that school-aged children are lacking them?  We are conditioned to think that they can never motivate themselves, despite the first five years of their lives as evidence to the contrary.  So instead of allowing self-motivation, we assume that they must need school or formal education to push them to learn all we think they need to know.  But it would be impossible for a school to cater to each child’s motivators and so they are removed and replaced with just one motivator to learn:


Fear of failing grades.  Fear of underachieving.  Fear of losing competitions.  Fear of not measuring up.  Fear of being “stupid.”  Fear of being left behind.  Fear of not becoming successful in terms defined by the school.

They replace all other motivators with fear because it is the easiest and most controllable method to teaching.  Interests cannot be measured by a school system, nor can they possibly gain the resources to fuel the interests of each individual child in a classroom setting.  Submersion is impossible when they are not allowed to leave the school.  And need falls by the wayside without real world experiences, lessons and consequences.  The only need school children see is the need to get an A, which once they are no longer in school, quickly realize how arbitrary and meaningless that letter truly is.

School presents daily exercises in dis-association… It sets petty, meaningless competitions in motion on a daily basis, pitting potential associates against one another in contests for praise and other worthless prizes.” 
~ John Taylor Gatto

So when you think of Unshooling and instantly assume that your child could never self-motivate to learn anything, consider their infancy and toddlerhood.  Take a moment to look at all the proof they have given you to the contrary simply because they were interested, submersed and knew they needed to.  Then ask yourself why you think those motivators just disappear by the age of six.  Any Unschooler will tell you that if you just give your child a chance to continue all they began from birth, their learning will never stop.  Their motivation will know no limits.  And they won’t have to put it on hold for 13 years to learn through fear.