12 Alternatives to Conventional School

children reading in the forest


Our kids deserve better than conventional school.

They deserve better than endless busywork and a fifteen-minute recess.

Our system of forced education is inherently flawed.

Factory-model schools quash curiosity and creativity.  They lock children indoors and shame (or even medicate) students who can’t adapt.  They fail to meet children’s basic needs for emotional security and community.

Like all of us, children crave meaningful work and a place within the community.

In earlier eras, boys their age claimed
homesteads, climbed ship rigging,
set type, shaped glass, forged iron.

Every day in every boy’s memory,
they’ve been graded on on doing
a backpackful of nothing.

Laura Grace Weldon

In this post, you’ll find a dozen alternatives to traditional school.  We’ll start with the most radical option and work our way back from there.

Let’s dive in!


1) Life Without School

Live with your child as you always have, and trust that they’ll continue to learn naturally.

A growing number of families, sometimes referred to as unschoolers, are rejecting the school paradigm altogether.  Parents facilitate learning without trying to force or control it.

As simple as the concept is, it’s an enormous topic.  You can learn more about unschooling here.


2) Homeschool

Educate your child at home — or, more accurately for most families, out in the world!

schools are for fish

Many homeschooling families use some sort of curriculum.  They may pick and choose, using different curricula for different subjects.  Often the work of these curricula can be completed in a few hours a day, leaving ample time for free play and family fun.

Oak Meadow is a Waldorf-inspired program that offers “progressive, nature-based, child-centered learning”.  Their rich curriculum includes music on recorder and optional craft kits for knitting, sculpting, and more.

Many families use Khan Academy, a free resource that offers math for all ages, hundreds of science lessons, and even AP classes!

BookShark offers literature-based curricula for kids aged 4 through 16.  Their packages include instructor’s guides and hands-on experiments.

Prefer a religious curriculum?

There are dozens of Christian curricula to choose from.  Abeka offers a comprehensive Christian curriculum from preschool through high school.  Sonlight is a biblical program that values the power of good stories over worksheets.

Many Christian curricula use the Charlotte Mason method, which features short lessons and plenty of time outdoors.  “Living books” deliver lessons in the context of rich literature.

Jewish Learning Matters offers lesson plans on history, sacred texts, and more.  They even offer three dozen lesson plans centered on values ranging from ‘Protect Your Body’ to ‘Repair the World’.  All for free!

Our Muslim Homeschool offers Islamic curriculum with beautifully designed workbooks.


3) Co-ops

Find a local co-op or band together with other like-minded families to create your own.

Some co-ops offer childcare and regular lessons.  Some are run by the parents, while others maximize childcare by hiring a facilitator.  Others simply offer meetups and community.

Photo by Annie Spratt

4) Nature-based programs

When we first take children from the world and put them in an institution, they cry.  But gradually, over the many years of confinement, they adjust.  The cinderblock world becomes their world.  They don’t know the names of the trees outside the classroom window.  They don’t know if the moon is waxing or waning, if that berry is edible or poisonous, if that song is for mating or warning.
Carol Black

Enroll your child in a program that lets them explore with other kids.

Forest kindergartens, based on German waldkitas, allow young children to spend their entire schoolday in nature.  They play outside regardless of weather, climbing trees and building forts.

The Wild Child Free School offers a play-based program meeting in state parks and permaculture gardens.  Children learn about ecological restoration, wild foods, and water catchment.  The program is eligible for state funding through a local charter, which means kids can participate for free!

No such program in your area?  Ben Hewitt and his wife found mentors to teach their sons the wilderness skills they craved.  Which brings us to…

5) Mentors and Private Tutors

No, they’re not just for the uber-rich.

You could  hire someone.  That’s one option for working parents who need childcare.  This could be made more affordable by joining together with other families.

Some charter schools offer state funds for private tutors.  More on that below.

But there are other options!  Host an au pair.  Trade homemade meals for music lessons.  Connect with extended family, neighbors, the local senior center.

Follow your child’s interests and you’ll find someone who’s happy to share what they know.

6) Community Learning Centers

In a perfect world, factory-style schools would be replaced with community learning centers.

Neighbors of all ages could gather together for classes and workshops.  There would be community gardens, computer labs, commercial kitchens, libraries and art supplies…

These places do exist, albeit on a smaller scale.  The Discovery Learning Center in Santa Cruz, CA has a lending library that includes curriculums, games, and science kits.  They also host clubs, classes, and workshops.

Another excellent option is a community makerspace like The Bodgery in Wisconsin.  Members have access to woodworking tools, a metal shop, an electronics lab, and so much more.  Families are welcome; the space also has games, crafts, and construction kits for kids.

Is there nothing like this in your community?  Start your own!

7) Sudbury Schools

Modeled after the Sudbury Valley School, these democratic schools provide a safe place for children to gather and learn.

There’s no curriculum, no homework, no tests.  The school provides a rich learning environment where students can spend the day learning whatever they choose.

Each person, be they a four-year-old student or a senior staff member, has an equal vote.  At weekly school meetings, students determine rules, expenditures, and even whether to rehire their teachers for the next term.

Click here for a list of democratic schools.

Outdoor Play at the Sudbury Valley School Image Source

8) Waldorf

The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility — these three forces are the very nerve of education.

Rudolf Steiner.

The Waldorf method was established nearly a century ago by Rudolf Steiner and Emil Molt.  Waldorf Education is focused on spiritual development, though it’s not affiliated with any particular religion.

Many Waldorf programs focus on art in the early years, often exploring letters and their sounds through drawing and movement.  They value creativity and integrative thinking above memorization and testing.

Waldorf preschools and elementary schools tend to be very anti-technology, maintaining that children under fourteen shouldn’t use computers.

9) Montessori

The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say,
“The children are now working as if I did not exist.”

Maria Montessori

At Montessori schools, children choose their own projects and work together in multiage groups.  There are no grades or quizzes (though charter schools may be subject to standardized testing).

Emphasis is placed on the learning environment, especially for young children.  Rather than an imposed curriculum, Montessori teachers offer a rich variety of materials.

They take an integrated approach to learning, covering all subjects as part of a whole unit rather than separate entities.

montessori classroom
Inside LePort Montessori Image Source

10) Charters

Charter schools receive public funding (which means they’re tuition-free) but function independently from the local school district.  There are charters that use Montessori and Waldorf methods, charters that focus on coding and graphic design, charters that meet only three days a week… you get the idea.

Some charters exist purely to fund and support homeschooling.  Families join these charter schools to receive state money for books, equipment, and even lessons!  They also host a variety of field trips.

Just a few of the things covered by Ocean Grove in California:
– private tutors
– books and workbooks
– felting and knitting supplies
– music lessons
– horseback riding
– tae kwon do
– theater programs

Families receive over two thousand dollars per student each year.  All materials are property of the school and the nonconsumables (eg textbooks and microscopes) must be returned at the end of the year.  The program also entails a certain degree of oversight, which some homeschooling families prefer to avoid.

11) Distance Learning Schools

There are a number of accredited schools that offer online enrollment.  The bulk of them are expensive and unimaginative, but there are some exceptions.

Oak Meadow School offers a print-based curriculum that includes music and art.  Teachers provide support via email and over the phone, and students have the option of working with the same teacher for years at a time.

Stanford Online High School accept students as young as 12.  They offer financial aid ranging from 30%-100% of full-time tuition.  It’s not an easy school to get into, but may be worth a try for academically inclined students who are unhappy in public school.

12) Public Independent Studies Programs

Independent study programs allow students to learn at home or abroad.  Students are still subject to curriculum and assessment by local teachers, who are available to help students complete their work.  These programs are free, but not available in every district.

Photo by Rene Bernal


Be the Change: Advocate for Your Child

This section includes an affiliate link to my favorite parenting book.  If you click the link and then buy something on Amazon, I earn a small commission.  Thanks!

Public schools need a complete overhaul.  But that won’t happen with any big top-down proclamations.  It will happen one school, one policy change, one concerned parent at a time.

There are some excellent public schools with small classes and a project-based approach.  Unfortunately, that isn’t the norm.  If a conventional public school is the best option for your family right now, there are still things you can do.

Start by taking a critical look at your child’s school.

Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting has a section called “Teachers and Parents Together” that offers advice on working with and within schools.  Here are some of the questions he poses:

  • Does the school foster collaboration or competition?
  • Are the teachers focused on meeting the children’s needs or demanding obedience?
  • Do the teachers help kids make good decisions?  Or do they insist on making the decisions themselves?
  • Would you want to attend this school?

He then offers ideas for protecting your child, respectfully approaching their teacher, and taking action.

If your child isn’t thriving, what can you change?

For more ideas, check out this article on 5 Ways to Be an Ally to Your Child in School.

Mix and Match

Of course, these options aren’t mutually exclusive.

A homeschooled child might choose to attend a waldorf high school.  An unschooling family may enroll in a charter to receive state funds for books and art supplies.  A public school student could attend a nature program after school.

The choices are endless.  How does your family learn?

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