Five Ways to Transcend the School Mindset


School-like instruction has been around less than a fraction of one percent of the time we humans have been on earth. Yet humanity has thrived. That’s because we’re all born to be free range learners. We are born motivated to explore, play, emulate role models, challenge ourselves, make mistakes and try again—continually gaining mastery. That’s how everyone learns to walk and talk. That’s how young people have become capable adults throughout history. And that’s how we have advanced the arts, sciences, and technology. In the long view, school is the experiment.

But it’s hard to see beyond the school mindset because most of us went to school in our formative years. So when we think of education, we tend to view school as the standard even if we simultaneously realize that many parts of that model (found also in daycare, preschool, kids’ clubs, and enrichment programs) aren’t necessarily beneficial. Narrowing the innate way we learn can interfere with the full development of our gifts.

Here are five ways to get past the school mindset.

build divergent thinking, creative children, more imagination, creativity builds leaders, nurture divergent thinking,

Welcome divergent thinking

In today’s test-heavy schools the emphasis is on coming up with the correct answer, but we know that the effort to avoid making mistakes steers children away from naturally innovative perspectives. Divergent thinking generates ideas. It’s associated with people who are persistent, curious, and nonconforming. Research going back to the 1970’s shows that this generation of children are less imaginative and less able to produce original ideas. An extra whammy may very well be coming from increased participation in organized sports: more than a few hours a week appears to lower a child’s creativity.

This is dire news, because creativity is actually much more closely linked to adult accomplishment than IQ. In fact, 1,500 CEO’s listed creativity as the leading indicator of “leadership competency.”

We don’t have to instruct kids in divergent thinking, just nurture it. Children are naturally inclined to question and explore. Remain open to their enthusiasms, encourage them to identify and solve problems no matter how unusual, and welcome the learning power of mistakes.

exercise and learning, overtaxed impulse control, full body learning, sensory education,

Value full body learning

School-like learning emphasizes the brain over the body. It narrows from there, emphasizing one hemisphere of the brain over the other with its focuses on left-brain analytical thinking. But children don’t learn easily when they spend so much time sitting still, eyes focused on a teacher or lesson or screen, their curiosity silenced and their movements limited. Children ache for more active involvement.

Research shows us that the rules necessary to keep a classroom full of kids in order all day, like being quiet and sitting still, can overtax a child’s ability to resist other impulses. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood development has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD. (One of those kids was my third child, whose “symptoms” disappeared once we took him out of school and figured out how to homeschool such an active child.) 

What we need to remember is that the mind and body are exquisitely tuned to work together. Movement allows sensory input to stimulate the brain as it absorbs a flood of information. This is the way the brain builds new neural pathways, locking learning into memory. (Check out A Moving Child Is a Learning Child by Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy as well as Spark by John J. Ratey for more on this.) Active, talkative, curious children aren’t “bad.” They’re normal.

If we look at movement we realize that even a very brain-y activity, reading, has to do with the body. Young children develop reading readiness in a variety of ways, including conversation and being read to, but also through physical activities that help their neurological pathways mature. These are activities children will do whenever given the opportunity, like swinging, skipping, climbing, walking, and swimming.

All the relentless activity of early childhood may very well be a sort of intrinsic wisdom built into them, because movement is key to keeping an active brain. Children who are more physically active actually increase the areas of their brains necessary for learning and memory. That doesn’t mean the antidote to the school mindset is a constant frenzy of activity. It does mean that children tend to self-regulate within loving safeguards. Every child needs to balance physical activity with other essentials like snuggling, daydreaming, and sufficient sleep. We simply need to remember that movement isn’t an enemy of education.

goldilocks effect, individualized education,

Build on the “Goldilocks effect”

This term came from researchers who demonstrate that we are cued to ignore information that’s too simple or too complex. Instead we’re drawn to and best able learn from situations that are “just right.” Sort of like the educational equivalent of Goldilocks on a porridge-testing quest.

The Goldilocks effect means you are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for you right now.  Usually that means something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold a player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments. That’s how kids who follow a passion of their own tend to learn and retain more than any prepared lesson could teach them.

Our kids tell what they’re ready to learn. They tell us through what bores them and fascinates them, what they’re drawn to and what they resist. They’re telling us that, until they’re ready, learning doesn’t stick.

 too much adult-run learning, stubborn kids, child-led learning, natural learning,

Diminish the focus on instruction

The school mindset leads us to believe that children benefit from lessons, the newest educational toys and electronics, coached sports at an early age, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these pricey advantages. We do this because we believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more kids will benefit. But there’s very limited evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value. In fact, it appears too many structured activities diminish a child’s ability to set and reach goals independently. 

When we interfere too much with natural learning, children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that real education has very little to do with instruction. Learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close and the baby is less likely to find multiple creative ways to use that toy.

Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking.

This isn’t to say that all instruction is bad, by any means. It does mean that six long hours of school-based instruction plus afterschool adult-organized activities in sports or recreation or screen time supplants the kind of direct, open-ended, hands-on activity that’s more closely associated with learning. Most of the time this kind of learning is called play.

free play benefits, play versus learning, chores, self-regulation,

Recognize free play is learning 

Before a young child enters any form of schooling, his approach to as much of life as possible is playful. A walk is play, looking at a bug is play, listening to books being read is play, helping with chores is play. The school mindset separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. It leads us to believe that learning is specific, measurable, and best managed by experts.

A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Playful absorption in any activity is on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability in school. But play is essential for kids, for teens, for all of us. (For more check out these two marvelous and very different books: Free to Learn by Peter Gray and A Playful Path by Bernie DeKoven.)

Free play promotes self-regulation and this is a biggie. It means the ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control  —all critical factors in maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

That doesn’t mean a child’s entire day must be devoted to free play. There’s also a great deal to be learned from meaningful involvement in household responsibilities as well as community service.

why homeschool, democratic schools, raise successful children,

I want to nurture my children in such a way that they define success on their own terms. I hope that means they craft a life based on integrity, one that brings their unique gifts to the world. Homeschooling, for my family, gives us the freedom to go beyond narrow roads to success. (Democratic schools can also provide that freedom.) This is the way young people have learned throughout time. I’ve come to trust the way it works for my family.

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

44 thoughts on “Five Ways to Transcend the School Mindset

  1. This is brilliant, as usual. Sadly, I don’t have much faith that these very central insights into an alternative for the school mindset will be heeded by those whose minds are already set. Even more sadly, these are the people who are dictating much of the educational policy in this country. It seems to me something of a manifesto. Something that should serve as the guide to the core curriculum of alternative education. This, and, of course, the concept of the Adventure Playground and wisdom of Lady Allen –


    • You’re right, the folks who are dictating educational policy have their minds firmly set in stone, if by stone we mean gravel dumped by the moneyed interests that so heavily influence education.

      If this is a manifesto, I have no idea how to get it out there. My quiet little blog and social media attempts have a pretty limited reach.

      Off to watch the video you’ve linked!


  2. My daughter really likes doing math worksheets, but she treats it like play, which is fascinating to observe. She sometimes follows the “official” instructions, and sometimes makes up her own like a game. At first it was hard to resist putting her “back on track,” but she really learns more rapidly and sticks with it longer when she does it her way. I shudder to think of her trying that at school and getting shut down. What I learned is even relatively formal subjects can be made more playful.


  3. Thank you for this great article! I have successfully provided our home for learning for our three daughters. For my two oldest daughters college was their first day of ‘school’. My youngest is still being nurtured at home, she has special needs and will follow in her sister’s footsteps. I did not push my girls to go to college, they excelled in all the college prep tests and this is what they chose to do, they are both A students, who still think for themselves. It is refreshing to read such helpful articles, please keep them coming! Aloha from Maui.


    • HI Ivana. When you have time, could you please elaborate on your comment about your two oldest daughters having their ‘first day of school’ when they attended college. I’m curious. I loved this article and am really struggling right now with my 9 year old boy as we homeschool. I attended public school as a child and have great difficulty teaching in a ‘non-traditional’ way. My son is having problems with reading and math but yet, can tell you a good bit about Alexander Graham Bell. He loves to tinker and has a great imagination.


  4. Another pressure to conform is being ‘popular’ in school, following the brat pack who dictate what is and is not socially valid or acceptable. I would not want any child of mine exposed to such corrosive, petty, social testing for the sake of fitting in. Friends made in such contexts are survivors banding together, not soulmates chosen because their thoughts, ideas and interests are in common with yours. Long live home schooling!


    • Totally agree Kate. Here’s some info about one effect of peer culture, from a post I wrote over the summer:

      “According to Beyond the Classroom by Laurence Steinberg,
      less than five percent of school kids belong to peer groups that value academic achievement, while pressure from prevailing peers steer young people toward underachievement. Even high-achieving students, when asked, say they’d prefer popularity over academic success. That comes at a price, because members of those lower achievement groups are more likely to demonstrate negative behaviors like conduct problems and drug use. Not the kind of influence parents expect.”


  5. Love it! We have a 3.5 year old and a 21 month old and now that I’m expecting number three middle of next year, we always get the odd look concerning why our eldest isn’t in school yet. And sometimes asked how he learns outside of school. I have to laugh and can’t even pretend not to. He learns every day with his sister, me, my family that’s nearby and through our rich, screen-free environment! Thank you for your beautiful encouragement and all the research you do to back up those of us who want to continue to school in the world and at home, not in a classroom.


    • I have a 4.5 yr old daughter (and 22 month son) and my daughter has never attended preschool. She often dazzles adults we meet around town with her vocabulary, curiosity, sociability/manners, as well as “math facts” (counting to a thousand, counting by 2’s, 5’s, 10’s, 20’s, 100’s) and THEN, without pause, they look at me and say, “Wow- what preschool does she attend?” I tell them she does not attend school and they say “Oh, well she’s so smart you should put her in school. Just think how smart she *could* be!”


  6. Pingback: Five Ways to Transcend the School Mindset~ Great article from Laura Grace Weldon - Tactical Educationism

  7. I appreciate your insights and suggestions here Laura. They remind me of, well, of many, many books and articles I’ve read over the years as an innovative educator and also a parent. I daresay you might also be interested in knowing more about the learning program of which I am a co-founder: SelfDesign Learning ( and also my book, Learn Your Way! directed toward youth, 14-25 years (
    Cheers, Michael Maser


  8. I love this article and the opportunities that alternative schooling methods offer. I would be very interested in your thoughts on how to ensure social interaction without mainstream schooling. My son will start school this year, much to my distress, simply because I feel he will benefit from the social interaction and it will, I hope, help with his separation anxiety. Please let me know your opinions on this. Thanks so much.


    • I understand your concerns Julie. Here’s a small excerpt about school versus homeschool social interaction from a recent post:

      I realized the school day isn’t really set up for socializing, although we’d come to rely on school as a source of same-age friendship. Sadly, according to Beyond the Classroom by Laurence Steinberg, less than five percent of school kids belong to peer groups that value academic achievement, while pressure from prevailing peers steer young people toward underachievement. Even high-achieving students, when asked, say they’d prefer popularity over academic success. That comes at a price, because members of those lower achievement groups are more likely to demonstrate negative behaviors like conduct problems and drug use. Not the kind of influence parents expect.

      And it turns out studies show homeschooled children have better social skills and fewer behavior problems than their demographically matched schooled peers. Homeschooling families also tend to be more active in the community. Initially it took me a while to get used to homeschool gatherings where kids hung out with a wide range of ages and abilities. Sure, they’re kids and not beacons of perfection, but I was pleased to see so much overall good cheer.

      As for friends, my kids kept many of their school friends. They also made more as we widened our circle of acquaintances. Many of their new friends were around the same age but some were decades older, bringing perspectives shaped by widely varying experiences. They offered my children a route to maturity they couldn’t have found in school among kids similar to themselves. Their friends include a Scottish gentleman in his 70′s, a group of automotive restoration enthusiasts, a wildlife rehabilitator in her 60′s, fellow backpackers, people with differing physical challenges, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, Wiccans, well, you get the idea. These friendships happened because they had the time to stretch in all sorts of interesting directions.


  9. Good reminders for us parents. While school is overall beneficial, it’s important to teach our children that there are many ways to solve a problem and to not get so hung up on being ‘right’. It is overwhelmingly the case that a problem has several different solutions. It has always irked me that formal school almost always teaches only one path to a solution and accepts only one correct answers. This is so contrary to real life.


    • I believe change will not come on an administrative level but from parental guiding at home. Current administrators are a lost cause, but our children will be the ones sitting at those desks in the years to come.


  10. I thought this was great. I recently read Free to Learn which has similar points. My big struggle is having more people around to bounce ideas off of than just my children’s siblings. When I homeschool, I ache for more play opportunities for my children outside of our family. The neighbors are too busy. I’m trying to figure out a half a week homeschool, and a half a week Sudbury type school setup. That sounds dreamy 🙂


  11. My husband and I have been toying with the idea of taking our 12 year old out of pubic school..and not sending the younger ones when the day comes. This blog tipped the scales and made it final. We read it together several times.
    I have felt since having children that the whole idea of “school” is just not natural, only…I didnt know how to really say why…(perhaps my schooling stifled this, lol)
    Thank you so much for the intelligent way you put many of our feelings into words.
    Today was my son’s “graduation”. He stayed home, I had a chat with the principle, and a letter will be on the school board desk in the morning!


  12. I’m stopping by from the Carnival of Homeschooling. I love this!

    When I began homeschooling, I had been a traditional school teacher. Often people will say this must be a big help. Really it’s been a hindrance.

    When we began, I tried to set up school- like “real” school- at home. It took me a while, but I realized that didn’t work.

    Thankfully as my children grew and my younger children moved up to school age, I read and learned and became more flexible and relaxed. I realized how much my children were learning in spite of me. 🙂


  13. Laura, Thank you for this post. One of the most frequent concerns I hear is that pesky “socialization” issue mentioned above by Julie Cooke. I find it ironic how frequently other adults are impressed by our home-schooled children after “socializing” with them for a few minutes. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. When we first started homeschooling we always held it in our minds that we could put them back in school if it didn’t work. Not any more. I only wish I could go back in time and convince my parents to let me be home schooled!


  14. The first sentence is sufficient to betray the lack of scholarship of the author. Schools exist and have existed for many centuries. To suggest that they have existed for LESS than a fraction of one per cent of the time we humans have been on Earth has to mean they do not exist. To be less than a fraction has to be zero (or a negative quantity). She would presumably like to live as a troglodyte. This is how all humans lived until society got organised – and schools started!


    • I am very careful to back up my assertions with data, hence all the links in this piece. It didn’t occur to me to back up my opening statement.

      It’s easy to think of humanity as going back only to the eras covered in history classes. We think of Egyptian mummies and Inca tribes, and maybe a brief early phase as the “cave men” although that term is woefully incorrect. We humans have been around since the Paleolithic era, over two million years ago. If we count only from to when our species had complex language and cultural mores, that’s 50,000 BC. If we decide to count back to the end of the Paleolithic era that ends somewhere around 12,000 BC. Humans didn’t cultivate wheat until around 9,000 BC. The Great Pyramid of Giza wasn’t built until around 2,500 BC. The dates may not be very exacting, but it’s a foregone conclusion of archeologists, anthropologists, and other experts that the hunter-gatherer stage dominated 99 percent of human existence on Earth. (Here’s an article by Peter Gray, Ph.D. about the richness of natural education in the hunter-gatherer era So yes, less than one percent.

      You’re right, schools have existed for centuries. Exactly what I was saying. Centuries, let’s remember, are less than a blip on the timeline of humanity.


  15. Laura, so true. As a parent I was too scared to be a homeschooling mum. Now I realise parents are better qualified than most teachers because we love our kids – living and learning from the heart is so much more satisfying for everyone. have a support program for parents wanting to explore child directed learning.
    Thank you for confirming what we all secretly believe. I noticed some comments on ‘the system’ – it might be time to heed the advice of Socrates – don’t expend anymore energy trying to change the system, create a new system (paraphrased and could even be wrong – ooh imagine that 😉 )


  16. This is a wonderfully informative post on self directed learning, thank you for providing a source of wisdom to parents like myself who are new to natural learning. This post is a beautifully written, gentle reminder that it’s OK to let go and trust that our children will thrive when we, their parents, learn to transcend the school mindset.


  17. Reblogged this on Our Global Unschool Adventure and commented:
    This is a wonderfully informative post by Laura Grace Weldon on self directed learning, providing a source of wisdom to parents like myself who are new to natural learning. Her post is beautifully written, a gentle reminder that it’s OK to let go and trust that our children will thrive when we, their parents, learn to transcend the school mindset.


  18. I have a very active 7th grader. He loves life and can hardly stay still and focused to get his work done but yet he can listen to a story on a tape or cd and do his math. He loves Legos, computers and demolition. He has a hard time following through with anything. Cleaning his room, getting an assignment completed, and even giving a oral list of 2 or more things to go do. He just can’t focus long enough to follow through. I get so frustrated because we easily get behind in our studies. I love the Free Range Learning. It seems more his style. I just need some support in getting pointed in the right direction. HELP!


  19. What does this type of education look like for teens who are desperate for community/peers? We have followed this unschooling, child-led type of education for the early years, and it has been wonderful. My 13-year-old daughter now is no longer happy spending her days at home with her immediate family. How can a teen find consistent community and still have a self-directed education?


    • Your daughter is right on track. Of course she wants to stretch her world. And she’s right, expanding her community of friends and mentors is vital. In their early teens my kids mostly required the freedom to pursue their interests with friends of all ages. (They also required a ride, which is why I spent a lot of time carpooling.) Unschooling teens I know now are involved in playwriting, filmmaking, collaborative businesses, activism, horse training, and all sorts of pursuits which can’t help but expand their circles. This has been an unprecedented year of isolation for all of us and I’m sure your daughter’s need for peers is more urgent than ever.

      Here are a few articles I wrote about unschooling teens:

      We Don’t Need No Age Segregation

      Successful Teen Homeschooling: Two Vital Factors

      And here are some book suggestions, each one packed with examples of the ways unschoolers learn and grow through their teens:

      Blake Boles “The Art of Self-Directed Learning: 23 Tips for Giving Yourself an Unconventional Education”

      Grace Llewellyn “Real Lives: Eleven Teenagers Who Don’t Go to School Tell Their Own Stories”


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