Unschoolers have largely relied on anecdotal evidence through personal networks (and now social networking) to gain confidence in their chosen method of educating their children. However, published research is available which provides not only an insight into the powerful and effective nature of informal learning but also presents some fundamental challenges to many of the assumptions underpinning conventional educational theory.

In 2007, Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison released How Children Learn at Home with Continuum. Their book examines how and why children who learn at home without curriculum, sequential teaching, lessons, textbooks, requirements for written work, practice exercises, marking or testing can and do achieve an education on par with what schools offer. This is Alan Thomas’ third book on homeschooling, and — in this joint effort with Harriet Pattison who home-educates her three children — the authors provide an analysis and practical examples of informal learning at home through research undertaken throughout the United Kingdom and Australia.

The DFF Book Club

How children learn at home by Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison

When I first picked up this book upon our return to Australia, I expected it to be the usual rehash of homeschooling theory. Once I started reading it properly, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the use of qualitative research and the examination of educational theories in supporting the scope for informal learning within children’s everyday lives — including the informal acquisition of literacy and numeracy. It’s refreshing to see that “real” research has been done into unschooling/natural learning and we no longer have to rely purely on anecdotal evidence when others may question the value of our educational philosophy.

In reading How Children Learn at Home, I found myself highlighting sentences and passages that I wanted to remember. Rather than rehashing all the researchers’ findings, I’ll simply go through and share what I thought were the highlights of this valuable text.

My goal in sharing these direct quotes from How Children Learn at Home is two-fold. Firstly, I want to remember the strengths of the philosophy we have chosen, and when I write things down, they stick in my brain. Secondly, I hope to encourage those who may be considering unschooling or pursuing it with their children to see that child-led learning/unschooling is a valid, desirable alternative to all other methods of educational instruction.


Pinning down informal learning has often felt very much like trying to catch a sunbeam or shut up a shadow in a box. (p. x)


Perhaps both the greatest fascination and the greatest difficulty in studying informal learning is getting to grips with its sheer ordinariness… [I]nformal learning remains … a commonplace, unremarkable and yet astonishingly efficient way to learn. (p. 2)

One of the fascinations of informal learning is that every family, every child and every educational path is unique. (p. 4)

Towards informal learning

[S]hared learning is an everyday feature of home education … [It] enhances the quality of learning because the children are active partners in the process rather than passive recipients of adult administered knowledge. (p. 6)

[P]arents gradually discover the potential of informal teaching and learning … Most common was a growing awareness of how much learning took place through spontaneous conversation. (p. 7)

Teachers in school regularly assess their pupils and are expected to know with some precision what they have taught and what pupils have learned. It takes courage to question let alone depart from the security of this highly professionalized system. (p. 8)

[T]here can be nothing as unproductive as insisting on teaching someone who is not learning. (p. 8)

Most of what children learn during the early years, including the foundations for literacy and numeracy … is acquired informally, largely through everyday interaction with their parents/carers. There is no developmental or educational logic behind the radical change in pedagogy from informal to formal when children start school and there is no reason, a priori, why this cultural apprenticeship of early childhood cannot be extended through the primary school years and beyond. (p. 11)

In casual or incidental learning concepts are acquired, skills improved and new knowledge gained during the course of concrete, everyday activities … Learning is therefore embedded and contextualized in a way it rarely can be in formal lessons. (p. 12)

The point is that maths, certainly most of what is acquired at the primary level, can be learned as an integral part of everyday concrete activities. In school, maths has to be divorced from the dynamic realities of everyday life. (p. 13)

Other perspectives on informal learning

Through self-initiated inquiries, children develop their own logical trains of thought, using their parents as a resource to fill some of the self-identified gaps in their own knowledge and, in a very real sense, doing their own scaffolding [a term that refers to “the adult support which allows a child to operate in the zone of proximal development … referring to the way in which it can be gradually withdrawn as the child’s competence increases”]. (p. 19)

[J]udging at this level of observation [when assessing the educational value of play] is fraught; as … what adults might see in the activity is not necessarily what children derive from it. Furthermore it is next to impossible to separate out learning which has occurred through play from learning that has arisen through other activities. (p. 21)

In teacher-directed play, teachers are expected to take advantage of any opportunities to extend learning during play session. Hence, it is deemed good practice to interact with children in order to extend vocabulary, make comparisons, ask questions, develop numeracy and so on. In fact there is a fear that children will not learn anything useful without careful preparation of play material and teacher intervention … The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority [in the United Kingdom] maintain that children will only learn through play with effective adult support … On the other hand, [published researcher, Tina] Bruce is a leading proponent of ‘free-flow play’ with its greater emphasis on intrinsic motivation, choice, control, active use of first-hand experience and a high level of imaginative, creative, innovative and original functioning, arguing that this is sufficient for learning to take place without adult direction other than provision of play materials. (p. 21)

[T]here is no reason to suppose that children stop learning informally even if opportunities for doing so are markedly curtailed. (p. 22)

[In a] pioneering study of informal street learning [researchers describe how] they bought fruit and vegetables from children working part time on a market stall. The children calculated prices of multiple purchases without error, though when the same calculations were subsequently set as classroom tasks they made lots of mistakes. This kind of finding has been confirmed in numerous studies. (p. 23)

[Informal works in three main ways:] goal-directed learning … learning which is incidental to the main activity … [and] implicit kind of learning … [O]ne feature which stands out … is the degree to which informal learning is a learner-led activity. This feature cuts across the three categories above, being pertinent to all three, regardless of the levels of awareness which accompany learning … We need to accept the chameleon-like qualities of informal learning as one of its major strengths. For the learner it means that informal learning can take place in myriad ways in virtually all circumstances and subject matters. (p. 29)

The informal curriculum

People just life and learning is part of that. This is completely at odds with the professional belief that cultural knowledge needs to be harnessed and pre-digested with a set instructional framework before being presented to children. (p. 32)

There is nothing special about the informal curriculum, it is what most children in school experience on a part time basis. It is just that for children educated informally, it’s all there is. (p. 33)

Yet whether ‘educational’ or not, [recreational] interests allow children to explore a topic at length, research, problem solve, persevere and develop a sense of mastery which, as well as providing them with some unusual knowledge, also helps develop the skills and concentration which can be applied to later learning or study. (p. 43)

[Parents concentrated on the skills their children were acquiring, rather than the subject matter, which] could be summed up as the ability to think in some depth on a topic, to know how to approach, explore and find out more about a subject and have the confidence, problem solving abilities and personal wherewithal to go wherever their future interests might take them. (p. 46)

Engaging with the informal curriculum

[Knowledge acquired through an informal curriculum] is not harnessed, pre-digested and formalized as it needs to be in school. (p. 51)

Informal learning is a fluid phenomenon; different forms of engagement overlap and interact with each other and constitute a dynamic and lively process. This may make informal learning hard to trace, but is also probably a key feature of why and how it is so effective. (p. 51)

[O]bservational learning that is implicit … is … downplayed in our culture where the overriding emphasis is on instruction and explanation as the source of learning. (p. 54)

[Following her research, Barbara Rogoff uses the phrase] ‘intent participation’ to describe purposeful, observation-based learning. She suggests that where children mix with adults in their day-to-day activities and as they get on with their domestic, social and working lives the need for instruction or any manner of direct teaching is greatly reduced. (p. 55)

[B]ecause children are so used to explanation-based methods of learning they may have lost the ability to learn through observation … ©hildren educated informally, and who are in control of their learning, may make much more use of observation. (p. 56)

For children listening can also be a very important way of picking up information … Home-educated children probably have more chance than most to listen in to adult conversations. (p. 61)

In informal learning however, it is children who choose whether or not to follow up an interest. They will also decide how to pursue the topic, how far to pursue it and whether or not to write or record anything. They can take or leave any suggestions from their parents. They may also go off on any tangent that captures their interest. At home, this choice and control over what to learn serves as a powerful motivator that can lead to considerable, sometimes adult-level skill or knowledge of a chosen topic. (p. 65)

[W]e have not emphasized enough that these children do not see themselves as learners. They simply get on with life, doing the things which appeal to them and through these things learning is stimulated, whether that takes the form of finding out about an intriguing step-relationship or something more ‘academic’. From the child’s point of view they are simply involving themselves in their environment; it is adults who chose to impose such categories as ‘intellectual’, ‘academic’ or ‘useful’. (p. 69)


[Positive parental involvement as defined by researchers Desforges and Abouchaar] generally includes ‘provision of a secure and stable environment, intellectual stimulation, parent-child discussion, good models of constructive social and educational values and high aspirations relating to personal fulfilment and good citizenship’. By the nature of the task which they have undertaken home-educating families are almost guaranteed to fulfil the greater part of [the researchers’] ‘good parenting’ ideals. (p. 70)

[Research has shown that] it seems that parenting, rather than teaching, is sufficient to enable children to learn. (p. 71)

The home educating way of life, in which children spend much more time with adults as they conduct their everyday domestic lives, creates the conditions of ‘spontaneous apprenticeship’ … in which children learn from adults by watching, helping, imitating and, if they need to, asking questions. (p. 71)

Questions in school are a tool chiefly used by the teacher in order to establish how much children know. At home it is more likely to be the children who use questions to find out more about what interests them. (p. 73)

Play as a vehicle for learning

Home-educated children who have the time and the freedom to do so, may continue playing long past the age where formal pedagogy sees it as a useful activity. (p. 81)

[S]imply being included in a group or community who behave in a particular way can induce learning. (p. 92)

As one of the children put it ‘play’s fun because it is interesting’; in other words, the intellectual stimulation is integral to play’s appeal. (p. 92)


Unlike in school however, ‘late’ reading did not appear to disadvantage these children in any way. They were all able to get on with other things that interested them by employing, as one father put it, ‘the verbal, the visual and the hands on’ as their learning methods. The explanations for reading at a later age are potentially many. One possibility is that children at home are simply not under pressure to start reading and have the freedom to wait until they are self-motivated to learn. (p. 97)

Not only does late reading at home appear to hold no knock on educational disadvantage but it also seems to have no long-term consequences for reading ability. Many children, who learned late, made up the ground in a remarkably speedy fashion once they did begin to read. (p. 98)

Modern life takes place within a vast sea of written material which is pertinent to virtually every situation and which plays a part in so many activities. (p. 100)


Modelling of genuine reasons for writing surround children and provide the first materials from which an understanding of composition can begin to be built. Children seeing adults writing may emulate their actions long before they understand either the purpose or the technicalities of what is going on. (p. 113)

The opportunity to talk, listen, play and use language in a variety of ways and in different situations may provide a stronger basis for writing competence than the production of large amounts of writing. (p. 115)

Whichever way children choose to develop their writing it is the incidental and unquantifiable input over a long period of time that appears crucial. The knowledge gained in this way way can then be put to use when required, whether for enjoyment or practical purpose. (p. 127)


[A researcher] notes that informal US home-educating parents often opt for a ‘we unschool everything except math’ approach. (p. 128)

There is little doubt that all children learn a great deal of maths informally for themselves before being taught in school. (p. 129)

Far from being a subject detached from everyday life as it is often treated, maths, like the written word, is all around us, and numeracy skills are in daily use. (p. 130)

As with reading and writing parents are role models who demonstrate, through their own activities, the importance and uses of maths in everyday life. (p. 131)

Note that nearly all these calculations [in examples quoted in the text] are embedded in practical realities of what children actually want to do or need to do. They are not sums on paper which, once dealt with, are of no further consequence. They have, as one parent remarked, intelligent purpose. (p. 135)

Teachers might argue that apparently leaving maths to chance could mean that a lot of what is taught in school is missed, leaving children at a disadvantage if they turned to formal learning at a later stage in school or college. However, it does not appear that the years of relying on informal learning left the children disadvantaged. Those who developed a mathematical interest either in its own right or to support some other purpose were able to pursue it in the same way that they would any other hobby. (p. 138)

Alternatively, some children felt the external pressures to be mathematically competent in the school sense and decided for themselves to study the subject systematically for the sake of future study and career prospects. (p. 139)

The most striking aspect of children learning maths informally is the practical nature of it. The children did not see maths in the conventional sense, as an activity undertaken with little relation to real life. Rather, they encountered maths, as they did reading and writing, as a means of getting things done; as a practical step in achieving something else. One consequence of this is that errors have real-life consequences — divide the cake wrongly and not everyone will get a piece. The chances to spot errors and to self-correct are therefore fairly high. (p. 140)

For many being able to competently handle numbers at the day-to-day level is enough. For others, interest pushes them into the further reaches of mathematical knowledge whether out of intrinsic interest or because they feel they ought to. In either case informal learning was found to have provided a solid base for further study. (p. 140)

Towards a deeper understanding of informal learning

[The authors propose] that without a set curriculum, planned teaching, structured lessons, regular assessment, age-related targets or even clear goals, children may learn from life at home what school, with all its professional expertise, seeks to impart. (p. 141)

As a society we simply expect pre-school children to learn successfully from everyday life … [T]here seems to be no substance behind the idea that the efficacy of informal learning should run out at or around [school-starting age]. (p. 141)

[The authors propose three basic elements to the type of learning on which informal home education is based:] First, the culture that surrounds children provides what we have called their informal curriculum … Second, if the subject matter is there for children in the form of the informal curriculum, they still have to somehow engage with it … Third, parents or carers play an important role in children’s informal learning although what they do is not materially different to the ways in which most parents of children in school interact with them out of school hours. It is just good parenting … Underlying it all is a faith both in their children and in the form of education which they are undertaking. Parents frequently expressed the conviction that not only were their children capable people able to learn whatever they needed in order to take up a useful and personally fulfilling place in society but also that child-led learning would ensure that this happened. (p. 142-4)

[H]aving information deliberately broken up by other people is only helpful if the ways in which this is done can make overall sense to the learner. More important than having your information broken down and sequences may be the place and the way in which you come across it. A real-life, holistic setting from which it can be linked to other ideas and information may be what allows the learner to order information in the way which is most helpful to them. (p. 145)

[T]he study of home education begins to reveal how many routes there are to the same basic achievements. Looking at the different ways in which children acquire the primary school skills of literacy and numeracy makes this abundantly clear. (p. 145)

Child-led learning ensures that children are reaching these bodies of knowledge through avenues that hold an intrinsic appeal to them. (p. 145)

[T]he question of motivation, so important for success in school, barely seems to arise in informal learning. Children learn because that is what they do rather than because they are in some additional way motivated to do so. (p. 145)

The overwhelming message from this study has to be the ease, naturalness and immense intellectual potential of informal learning. Children who are educated informally learn, not as a separate activity as children do in school, but as an integral part of everything they do as they engage with the world around them. (p. 146)


While these quotes only indicate the passages of How Children Learn at Home that I found most interesting, the book as a whole is an excellent addition to any homeschooler or parent’s library. You can buy your own copy from Amazon, the Book Depository or Ebay.

If you’ve been provoked or encouraged by reading this article, please join the discussion by leaving a comment!