Rewild Your Child

Ben Hewitt’s essay on “unschooling” in our September issue has sparked some heated debate. Few parents are willing to do as the Hewitts do, and turn their kids loose entirely. But how can we give our children more freedom?

Aug 30, 2014
Outside Magazine
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Ben Hewitt's sons, Fin and Rye, don't attend traditional school. Instead they spend their days on a self-made agenda, exploring and helping out on the family's farm.    Photo: Ben Hewitt

Even if you're not ready to yank your kid out of fourth grade to let them run loose in the woods, there are plenty of ways to give your kids more freedom to learn on their own while still sending them to school. Start at home by encouraging them to follow their passions and explore subjects that interest them. "It doesn't matter where or when you do it. The main thing is to show kids that they can teach themselves," says Leo Babauta, 41, father of four unschooled children ages eight to 17 and founder of the blog Unschoolery. "Learning is everywhere: parks, museums, nature trails, online, libraries, even video games, like Mind Craft, which are a great way for kids to control what they're learning." Outside the home, numerous alternative and nature-based schools and programs around the country incorporate the essential tenets of unschooling—curiosity, intellectual independence and child-directed learning—into their curricula. Others have no formal curricula at all. We’ve included examples for each age group; find programs in your area at


"If you have kids under four, you've probably already been unschooling them," says Babauta. "By making art with them, reading to them, taking them outside, you're teaching them that learning is fun and playing is fun. But then school puts learning in a box, and it becomes separate." One surefire way to take learning back out of the box is to take the kids out of the classroom, which is the philosophy behind the growing "forest kindergarten" movement, modeled on German's WaldKindergarten, where students spend the bulk of the school day outside in nature, learning through hands-on exploration and free play. At Cedarsong, on Washington's Vashon Island, the first total-immersion nature preschool in the US, kids ages two to six romp outside in all seasons and weather. In Massachusetts, the Natick Community Organic Farm's "Forest Gnomes" classroom is a clearing in the woods— perfect for singing, hiking, exploring, storytelling, creating, and playing—with an outdoor fire pit and a cozy warming hut/craft house for frosty winter days. The Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs's Forest Kindergarten, in New York, combines Waldorf's largely media-free, organic approach to education with nature play, on the trails and fields of Saratoga Spa State Park (a renovated farmhouse offers respite from inclement weather, organic lunches, and a quiet place to rest). Farm schools, like the Waldorf-inspired Good Earth Farm School in Austin, trade the wilds of the trails for the more structured, cultivated rhythm of a working farm, where children learn through daily and seasonal activities, like feeding the animals, housekeeping, baking and gardening. 

Elementary School

The primary years set the tone for the next 15 years of schooling, so a solid foundation of intellectual curiosity, creativity, and plenty of outdoor time is key to raising an engaged, inquisitive, active child. In addition to the examples below, private Waldorf and Montessori schools nationwide provide child-directed learning without the stresses of state-mandated testing. 

Outdoor ed starts early at the North Country School, a day and boarding school for grades four through nine in Lake Placid, New York, in the heart of the Adirondack wilderness, where students head out on multiday wilderness canoeing, climbing, and hiking expeditions. In addition to a core curriculum of language arts, math, arts, and social studies, NCS sports its own lean-tos, outdoor ice hockey rink (this is Lake Placid, after all), Tuesday afternoon all-school ski trips to nearby Whiteface, and a rock crag with more than 30 routes. Graduation requirement: climbing 4,098-foot Cascade Mountain, practically out the back door. The Journey School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, blends child-directed Montessori-style learning with environmental outdoor education. Adjacent to 25 miles of high desert trails and open space, the one-room school house serves kids in grades one through six, who spend one day a week on a field trip of their own design. Nationally, the National Audubon Society offers environmental-education curricula to parents and teachers, and hosts camps and programs at many chapters. Or give your child a taste of farm-based, wilderness, or environmental education through outreach programs or day camps at places like Washington state’s Oxbow Farm and Ohio’s Mohican Outdoor School.

Middle and High School

Now’s the time to encourage teens to find and follow their passions. Many alternative schools offer both experiential education and traditional academics, with plenty of free thinking and fresh air. And after graduation, a gap year can turn the world into a classroom. Semester-long programs like International Studies Abroad give college credit, and some universities provide financial aid to offset costs. 

Each semester, 45 high-school juniors from around the country converge on The Mountain School, a branch of Milton Academy, on a working organic farm in rural Vermont. Environmental studies and daily farm chores join pre-calc and English in the curriculum, along with a three-day wilderness solo. Likewise, the High Mountain Institute, in Leadville, Colorado, offers semester programs and summer terms for high-school juniors, in environmental ethics, wilderness skills, outdoor ethics, as well as traditional AP-track courses. You couldn’t ask for a better backdrop than the San Juan peaks that surround Colorado’s Telluride Mountain School, where in addition to a rigorous college-prep curriculum, high schoolers learn avalanche skills and winter ecology. White Mountain School, in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, sends students on some of the coolest off-campus field courses around, from exploring urban sustainability in Montreal to practicing Zen meditation in New York. The Arthur Morgan School, in Asheville, North Carolina, just may be the ultimate progressive hybrid for middle schoolers, blending the Quaker ideals of simplicity and peace with a Montessori farm school and serious outdoor ed. Boarding and day students venture out on three extended outdoor trips a year, plus an 18-day field trip each spring (past projects: hunger and homelessness, Hurricane Katrina relief), and tackle an independent study of their own design.

Perhaps the closest you can get to unschooling in a school setting, the Sudbury model of progressive education puts the students in charge of their own intellectual development. At the Sudbury Valley School, on ten rural acres in Massachusetts, students from four to 18 choose what they learn, and how. There are no teachers (adults function as role models and resources), tests, grades, classrooms, or application requirements, but there is a photo lab, sound-proof music studios, an internet room in a restored barn, the freedom to spend all day outside if they choose.

For a semester abroad or a gap year, sign on for a three-month expedition in the Patagonian Andes with the National Outdoor Leadership School, or head to Rwanda to study peace building with the School for International Training. Students may earn academic credit or even Wilderness First Responder certification—proof that some of the most profound learning doesn’t come from a textbook at all.

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