Unschooling: No Tests, No Books, No Bedtime

PHOTO For the Martin family, the usual morning ritual of getting ready for school and onto the school bus, is a foreign concept.Courtesy Dayna Martin
For the Martin family, the usual morning ritual of getting ready for school and onto the school bus, is a foreign concept.

For the Martin family, the usual morning ritual of getting ready for school and onto the school bus, is a foreign concept.

They live as though school doesn't exist. They're at home all day, but they're not being homeschooled. They're being "unschooled." There are no textbooks, no tests and no formal education at all in their world.

"Just picture life without school. So, maybe a weekend. We wake up, and we have breakfast, and we just start pursuing what we're interested in doing," said Dayna Martin, a mother of four in Madison, N.H.

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Unschooling: No Tests, Books or Bedtime

Martin doesn't believe her kids need to go to school to learn their ABCs. It's part of a radical new approach to education and parenting.

"I just personally don't believe that humans learn best when they're trying to learn something that somebody else is telling them to," she said.

And she doesn't necessarily think they need to mind their Ps and Qs. Her hands-off approach extends to other areas of the children's lives. The kids are allowed to eat whatever they want -- even pasta with peanut butter sauce -- as long as it is in the house.

What's more, they make their own decisions, and don't have chores or rules. "Because we don't punish, we don't use the term rules," Martin said.

Dad Joe works from home making wooden toys. In this household, there is no bedtime, no alarm clocks in the morning. Eleven-year-old Devin often stays up past midnight -- and Martin does not object.

"I'm so happy that he does, and that he has that time to himself because his sisters go to bed at 9 or 10. He can have a nice three, four hours with Joe or just me," she said.

It's a philosophy that makes sense to a small but growing number of parents. Unschooling is legal in many states, and now there are at least 150,000 unschooled families nationwide.

Unschooling: A Day in the Life

Instead of waking up at 7 a.m. to go to school, Devin sleeps until around 10 a.m. "It's the same amount of sleep," he said.

Martin allows her children to decide what they want to learn, and when they want to learn it.

"I think sometimes people they'll come over and spend time with us, family or friends. They'll ask me, 'How do your kids learn if they're having fun all day?' Like, they so don't equate learning with fun," she said. "Whatever they're interested in, I try to bring as much of that into their life as possible with as many resources as possible."

"Nightline" followed the Martins on a rainy Wednesday to see how this learning through osmosis works. With spring showers keeping them cooped up, they decided to go on a field trip. First stop, the Weather Discovery Center. As the kids ran around and pounded on the wind simulator, it was not always easy for Martin to make her point.

Martin said she has "such a present-based mind-set" that she doesn't think about her kids' futures, and that she just wants them to be happy.

The 'UnNanny'

Martin has become a leader in the "radical unschooling" movement through YouTube videos and a book, "Radical Unschooling: A Revolution Has Begun." She even gets paid to go into people's homes to strip away the rules and do away with structured learning. She calls herself the "UnNanny" -- the opposite of the superstrict disciplinarian on the reality show "SuperNanny."

Erica Berg, a Massachusetts mother of three sons, brought Martin in to give her a lesson in how to ditch the textbooks and typical parenting paradigm.

"Most of the struggle is myself and trying to figure out how to let go of what my idea of school is," said Berg, who was full of questions for the "UnNanny."

Teaching a New Approach to Parenting

For example, what if they need algebra down the road?

"What if they really do need algebra, and I don't teach them algebra or I miss some specific part of something that 's going to help them to learn algebra down the road right now while I'm in the early phases of their life," Berg asked.

"The fears that you have are so normal," Martin said. "Algebra is not something that everybody needs to know. This life is about honoring the fact that we are not all put on the earth to do the same thing in life. ... It is such an individualized education as opposed to a cookie cutter education where kids are kind of, this bucket of knowledge that you pour into kids and they may or may not learn it."

Martin advised Berg to listen to her children. "This is child-directed learning. You'll know when you're done, because your child will say they aren't interested anymore. How simple is that."

When Berg's 4-year-old son, Henry, wanted to go play on the blue hammock in the front yard, Berg forbade him at first. But then Martin intervened, saying that "no" can become "yes."

"Why can't he go on the blue hammock?" Martin asked Berg. "We can just as easily move on over here and still have everyone's needs met."

In the kitchen, a sticky issue came up: What to do when your child wants to eat the whole bag of cookies. Martin encouraged Berg to let her kids have it their way.

"When you set up things with limits, you're setting up a scenario of kids sneaking things," Martin said.

"I just feel like if they eat a whole bag of cookies, they're off the wall," Berg said.

"For one a lot of times our fears can really be imposed on our kids," Martin said.

After Martin left, Berg wasn't quite sure. "I'm not sure that I'm ready to give up limiting the junky stuff in our house, so that's something that's intriguing to me," she said. "I don't know how I feel about it all yet. But that's why she's here, right?"

Will Unschooled Kids Be Prepared?

Back at the Martin household, Devin told us he could go to school if he wanted to -- but he doesn't.

"I love being free and doing whatever I want," he said.

Martin said her children have picked up adequate reading and math skills without formal instruction. But when we asked Devin a basic multiplication question, he stumbled.

What happens when the learning becomes more sophisticated and her kids need to be exposed to Shakespeare or Twain or Henry James?

"I think a lot of people might value that more than others. That that is important and it is part of someone's life. I honestly don't remember, yes, although I know their names, I don't remember the details of what I learned in school about the historians," Martin said.

Those are details her children may never even have the chance to forget.