MADISON, N.H. — On a late Monday morning in this rural New Hampshire town, Dayna and Joe Martin’s four children are all home. Devin, age 16, is hammering a piece of steel in the blacksmith forge he and his parents built out of a storage shed in the backyard. Tiffany, 14, is twirling on a hoverboard, deftly avoiding the kaleidoscope-painted cabinets in the old farmhouse’s living room. Ivy, 10, and Orion, 7, are sitting next to each other using the family’s two computers, clicking through an intense session of Minecraft.
It looks a lot like school vacation, or a weekend. But it’s not. This, for the Martin kids, is school. Or, to put it more accurately, it’s their version of “unschooling,” an educational theory that suggests children should follow their own interests, without the imposition of school or even any alternative educational curriculum, because this is the best way for them to learn and grow.
“I don’t even know what grades are,” says Orion, who has never spent a day in school, has never followed a lesson plan, and has never taken a test. (Tests, his mother says, can be degrading to children – an invasion of their freedom of thought.) ...
[Dayna] Martin is the first to admit that her family’s approach to child rearing might seem, at first glance, “out there.” She is also upfront that it has been lonely at times, disconnected from families whose lives revolve around school, as well as from traditional home-schoolers. But in recent years she has noticed something: She and her family are a lot closer to the mainstream than they used to be.
Over the past decade, the number of children home-schooling has skyrocketed, along with the number of families practicing some form of unschooling. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of children learning at home jumped from just over a million in 2003 to 1.7 million in 2012. But since there is no federal registry of home-schoolers, and many home-schooled children are counted as being in the public school system, many researchers believe the true number is somewhere between 2 million and 3 million, if not higher. To put that in context, the US Department of Education estimates that 2.3 million children were enrolled in charter schools in 2012-13.
Meanwhile, although data are sketchy, some surveys have found that as many as 50 percent of home-schoolers embrace some variety of unschooling – a category that might range from the Martins’ extreme hands-off approach to that of other parents who incorporate many ideas of self-directed learning but still set some limits and goals for their children’s education....
From its beginning, unschooling attracted a small but steady band of followers. “It has had some bohemian chic for 40 years,” says Stanford University sociologist Mitchell Stevens, who wrote the 2001 book Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement. “It was out-there cool when John Holt championed it in the 1970s. It’s always getting rediscovered.”