How Unschooling is Like Lunch

When we went to the grocery store this week, we bought a few extra treats. I sometimes do that when Dad is away, because I feel the need to lighten things up a bit. Froot Loops were on sale. Olivia requested pickles, and John wanted marshmallows and whipped cream. So we got all of those along with our regular fruit, veggies, and milk.

We arrived back home past our normal lunch time, so I knew I needed to throw something together quickly for them to eat. As I looked at the variety of food laying on the counter waiting to be put away, I was inspired to prepare a monkey platter. You can read about the monkey platter here on Sandra Dodd’s website. It is one of my favorite take-aways from her site. I used to make it often, but had fallen out of the habit.

The kids watched an episode of Liberty’s Kids, as I worked making the lunch. My thoughts already heading in that direction, I thought about unschooling and why it works for some and doesn’t for others. One of the questions I have been pondering lately is what specific things should I be doing as a parent to make sure my kids are learning. The number one complaint among parents who tried unschooling and then quit, is that unschooling was wasted time and the kids didn’t want to learn. Yet there are other families who unschool with great success. Their kids attend the college of their choice (assuming they choose college) — some even on scholarship — and do extremely well. If we are to trust the child, and if all children love to learn, then the difference between the two experiences has to lie in the parent.

I added foods to the platter that I know the kids like, some they would not choose to eat if left to their own devices, and some of the treats that we had purchased at the store. And then it struck me that unschooling, specifically being an unschooling parent, is very much like making a lunch just like this one. If I left those kids alone to fend for themselves, they would sit and eat that entire bag of marshmallows in one sitting. Almost all kids would. In fact, a couple of days later, John did sneak away with the whip cream and empty the entire can in his mouth before he was found out. And he was only found out because Olivia was upset there was none left to empty into her mouth.

The finished monkey platter. I would eat this lunch — also an important point.

Unschooling, though, is not leaving kids alone to fend for themselves. Instead, unschooling is like making my kids a monkey platter for lunch. My job is to lovingly offer a wide variety of things for them to try and enjoy. Some things I put out there exactly because I know they will love and devour them. Some things I put out there because I think if they try them they will like them. Some things I put out there because even though they might not choose it on their own, they might eat it if I offer it — especially with a little sauce to dip it in.

The feast has been spread. I am excited about it, chatting as I present it, talking about how yummy everything looks. They dig in, filling their plates and enjoying their lunch. I sit with them, enjoying my own lunch (a sushi treat for Mom) and picking a couple of things off the platter to eat. When more marshmallows are requested, I suggest the pear. “This is pear? It is good,” and a second piece is taken as the extra marshmallows are forgotten.

When it is done, and they have run out to play, the platter is just about bare. Sure there are more carrots left than marshmallows, but everything has been tried and consumed with no stress, no whining, no disappointment. And me? I am a bit wiser about unschooling and how it is like lunch.

The remains

Welcome Simple Homeschool readers and thanks so much for stopping by. It’s always fun to make new friends. Here are a few related posts you might enjoy:

How We Became Us-Schoolers
Letting Go of Homeschool Perfection: Throwing Out the Unit Study
Kicking Curriculum to the Curb with Living Learning Lists

If you’re an Internet junkie like me you might want to join us each week in Making It Count Tuesday. Don’t forget to leave a comment linking back to your blog, so I can “meet” you too, and please consider this my invitation to you to subscribe via feed, email, Facebook, or Google Friend Connect in the sidebar over there. Would love to have you stick around. — Pam



  • Sue Elvis says:

    I love this, Pam! I’m coming to lunch at your place and we’re going to mull over unschooling while I eat some marshmallows, a few carrots but sorry, no pears! I wish we could!

  • Enough says:

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

  • Laurie says:

    I like that comparison. Like the above commenter said- wonderful.

  • Mandy says:

    yes yes yes awesome!

  • Stephanie says:

    What a really great comparison!!!!! I love it! I have always been attracted to unschooling and for a while thought that it was what we were going to do. Then I delved into the Montessori method and loved it for much the same reasons! I prepare the envoriment for them, and they are left to choose what really intrests them! Sometimes they need me to suggest something, but in the end, we are all learning and happy! Thanks for sharing!

  • Pam Barnhill says:

    Thanks everyone. I just love those moments when something clicks for me and everything makes more sense.

  • Kristen says:

    What a wonderful analogy Pam! Great post… as always. 🙂

  • melyssa says:

    Those are our favorite lunches, here and now, and from back when I was a kid! My kid’s call em Sampler Platters. 🙂

    I love the analogy. Great job!

    Melyssa from

  • Jenny says:

    Great post. I feel the need to get away from the workbooks, but I just don’t know how.

    • Pam says:

      Hi Jenny. It’s a tough journey. That’s why I spend time studying and thinking about these things even if I can’t go all the way. Baby steps.

  • Very inspiring – thank you. I am more of a relaxed homeschooler, but this still feeds me as encouragement. We “do” school, but it’s just for exposure. I don’t worry if we don’t get the whole book finished in a year, we just keep plugging away in a comfortable pace that fits our lifestyle. However, for each child there are subjects that I just don’t force or teach – because the kids just eat it up…like marshmallows. I love that. Thanks for the fun perspective.

    • Pam says:

      You are speaking my language Dianne — comfortable pace, lifestyle, eat it up. Exactly. Best wishes to you in your homeschooling.

  • Thank you for typing this!
    We recently started homeschooling and it has lead to unschooling. I like how you described it. I’d like to link into this if I could on my blog, if not that’s ok too.

    • Pam says:

      Kathy – Please feel free to link up. Thank you so much!

  • Debbie says:

    I do think, however, that the “term” unschooling gives a lot of other homeschoolers a bad name—-it seems like a very lazy approach!

    • Pam says:

      Unfortunately I think the some people’s use of the term unschooling gives lots of other unschoolers a bad name. If you don’t do anything the year grandpa is sick, that’s simply not doing anything. It’s not unschooling, no matter what you call it. It may SEEM lazy, but often when we are in our unschooling mode we move back to a more formal mode, because I feel like I can’t keep up with the unschooling. It almost never goes the other way. Thanks for stopping by.

  • LOVE this!!! Thank you so much for this wonderful comparison 🙂

    • Pam says:

      You are welcome. Thank you for stopping by.

  • rocketcreek says:

    The feast has been spread, indeed! 🙂

    • Pam says:

      Thanks for stopping by and linking up to your blog — loving it!

  • Karen says:

    We’ve been (mostly) unschooling 20+yrs but couldn’t describe it as well as you have done. Bravo!!

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