Imagine a school day where kids decide what they learn, how they learn and when they learn it. Children can sleep in or start early and take breaks to play when they want.

It’s an educational approach called unschooling and some parents are opting to do it in Alberta and across Canada.

Mid-morning at the O’Briens on the first day of school, 15-year-old Aidan plays his cello in his living room for an hour before working on his 3-D printer. His 13-year-old sister Summer flips through an anatomy textbook. Seven-year-old Cai reads with his mom in his bedroom after playing Minecraft.

The O’Briens learn at home. Instead of following a government curriculum, the children’s curiosity dictates their learning.

Unique approach isn't easy, mom says

"We go out in the world. We have lots of adventures and we learn through living life experiences. And on top of that they learn through following their own passions and interests," Lola O’Brien said. “Unschooling is something we embrace as an entire household. So I'm learning all the time. My husband and I are learning all the time."

O’Brien says critics may see unschooling as doing nothing, but it’s actually a lot of work. She stays at home with the children and facilitates their learning, asking them questions about what interests them and helping them seek out resources to help them further.

But much of the time, the older O’Briens teach themselves by reading books or reading online. When asked, the kids discuss books they’ve read or videos they’ve watched about the solar system, engineering or human biology. A few years ago when Summer was in Grade 3, she studied genetics through an online class that was geared toward younger kids but covered the topic at a high-school and university level.

“I’ll think about my eldest. Now that he’s 15 years old he’ll come to me with somethings he’s learnt that blow my mind because it’s nothing I knew,” said O’Brien. “Whether it’s what a tesseract actually is and different dimensions or new theories of gravity that superimpose the old existing paradigm."

Post-secondary ambitions

Unschool kids are still registered at a school board and twice a year a facilitator comes to their home to see what they’re learning. They still participate in extracurricular activities such as theatre and music, and on some days the O’Briens attend Math Club or a politics discussion group with other homeschooled students.

“All children in Alberta who want marks and credits for college courses need to write the diploma exam,” said Judy Arnall, a child development specialist who also wrote a book about unschooling.

Her book, Unschooling to University, tracked the paths of 30 kids who were unschooled in Alberta and went on to post-secondary. Arnall found a third of the students studied STEM subjects.

“They were all very motivated and excited to go onto post-secondary cause they didn’t spend 16 years in an institution learning a government curriculum that was kind of forced on them,” Arnall said.

If you ask the O’Brien kids, they’ll tell you they don’t want to go to school. Summer, who has her sights set on becoming a surgeon, said she will go to school someday, but Aidan, who is aspiring to be a 3-D artist, isn’t interested.

“I feel like when I do learn something I'm much more likely to remember what I've learned because I've learned it because it's something that I'm interested in,” he said.