THE BLOG
03/06/2014 12:34 pm ET Updated May 06, 2014

Sunday Unschooling

Though my wife and I have chosen to keep our sons, aged 3 and 6, out of school, don't call us homeschoolers. The whole point of what we do is that it is not school and does not rely on the standard school mindset.

Some call it unschooling. Some think it should apply to Sunday morning as well.

We unschoolers are backed by a relatively seasoned body of thought that draws on Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Illich and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. (Of course there are the iterations of flightish neo-hippies with superhuman, over-acheiving kids as well). It also draws on my own experience of school, with the degrading boredom and four-walled, hard-desked sense of captivity that it entailed. I got good grades, excelled at sports and had lots of friends, but like too many other kids, I hated school.

I also realized later in life that many of the most creative, wise and spiritually grounded people I knew had little formal education.

The basic idea behind "unschooling" -- or "free range learning" as Laura Grace Weldon calls it in her beautifully liberating book by that title -- is to nurture children's innate curiosity rather than require top-down instruction. The starting point is a trust that kids have a God-given spring of creative potential within them.

The idea is to provide a range of opportunities and be a resource and guide as kids experiment with their own creativity, not to fill the left side of their vacuous heads with multiplication tables and grammar rules. The idea is to go with the flow -- and go outside -- rather than impose prescribed schedules, buzzers and extended times sitting inside.

As Weldon -- a rural Ohio mother of four grown, free-range kids -- documents, numerous studies show that kids brought up in this fashion do as well or better than schooled kids in terms of academics, post secondary training, careers and happiness.

The studies also show that kids do not become anti-social weirdo hermits just because they aren't cooped up with 25 of their peers for 35 hours a week (which is, by the way, an advertiser's dream come true).

In a phone interview, I asked Weldon how free-range learning relates to faith. The basis for Weldon is the Quaker notion of the light of God within each person. In terms of what was most spiritually formative for her kids, she talked about "empowering" her kids to spend time alone in nature in order to have the "profound experiences that we are cued to have" there. She also said music was a confirmation of the sacred for some of her kids as well as any times when they were "in flow with anything that really mattered to them."

In terms of Sunday morning, Weldon feels that what was most important for her kids were rituals, music and the "warmth of feeling like you have an extended family at church." Sunday school, she says, too often borrows from the standard school mindset of top-down instruction, with little room for questions and even less for doubt. Weldon believes nature should be worked in as much as possible.

At the church I attend, we're experimenting with a set of resources called Godly Play. Again, the starting point is a trust in children's innate sense of wonder and the divine. It involves a standard welcome followed by a creative telling of a biblical story using wooden figurines and other props. Then a series of open-ended "I wonder..." questions. Then kids are given quality craft supplies and invited to respond in their own way to that morning's story or any previous story. It lacks any outdoor component.

Some Quakers use a kids curriculum based on 18 Dr. Suess stories, though the Doc never intended such a thing. Unfortunately, the often brilliant stories are followed by sometimes mind-dulling questions like, "What do truffula trees look like?"

The downside of free-range learning is that it is a full-time task. That means our kids won't have as much stuff as double-income offspring. We live not far above the low income cut-off. Single parents and people with less earning opportunity can't necessarily afford to stay home.

The line between school and unschool is not impervious. Many teachers and principals are fine people who believe in the innate potential of kids. But it still bugs me that I spent 15,000 hours of my childhood in school. It bugs me that a near-dogmatic societal bias toward school persists in all those awkward pauses after people learn your kids don't attend school.

Many people are deeply invested in the school system, as teachers, people with hard-earned degrees, or parents with seemingly no other option. For many, questioning school is out of the question. That's understandable, but unfortunate, given the stakes -- the nurture of the very essence of what God has placed in each child.

Will Braun writes for Canadian Mennonite magazine, in which this article first appeared.