“There is no consistent pattern for number of days of school per year, length of school breaks, or even length of an average school day among top-performing education systems. This suggests that when it comes to student performance, more important than the amount of time students spend in class is how that time is spent.” From a graphic on NCEE
How can we spend time with our kids and create a quality education at home? When we first start homeschooling it’s easy to recreate traditional school at home. It’s what we know best. And if a school can do what it does in six hours a day, 180 days a year, imagine how much we could teach having our kids 24/7, 365 days a year?!
But the truth of it is, many people start that way and quickly realize it doesn’t work. Homeschooling doesn’t need to look like traditional schooling at all and, in my opinion, it shouldn’t. We should always be Mom and Dad and never “teacher” to our children. That doesn’t mean we aren’t helping them learn, it just means the role we take in their education looks very different. Educating our own children, in our own homes, can and should take on a much more organic feel that looks nothing like a classroom and much more like a creative workshop.
We homeschooled both our boys from birth. I didn’t plan to and the evolution of our homeschool path was a rocky one. We were both traditionally educated, so when we decided to homeschool we automatically took the “school at home” approach. It’s what we knew and what we believed was a tried and true approach. But over time, through watching our kids, reading and studying education styles, talking with parents of grown homeschooled children, our homeschool quickly evolved into a radical unschooling approach that worked very well for all of us. Even if you aren’t using the unschool method, these five tips can help relax your homeschool and support your learning lifestyle.
My sons are now 17 and 19 years old. They both hold jobs and are moving toward independence at their own pace. One is living at home and enjoying the academic life of college. The other has spent a year in Europe on his own and is pursuing a vocational path. Both are competent young adults that people enjoy being around and trust. That’s not bragging, it’s my qualification to speak on the subject. I’m not an expert on homeschooling or on education in general. I’m a mom with experience, sharing what I found to work for us.
#1 Start a Morning Routine for Yourself
You know how on airplanes they say, “Put your own oxygen mask on first and then help your children.” We’ve seen it go around as a meme for years, quoted in self-help books, and laughed about by comedians. It has become cliché, but so totally true, especially for homeschooling.
If you’re homeschooling your kids this year, you’ve just expanded your duties beyond parent and into the realm of educator. Not only are you responsible for keeping them clean, fed, and loved; you now have the added responsibility of facilitating their education. Take care of yourself first, so that you’re ready and able to take care of others.
I’ve found a morning self-care routine is the best way to do that. Getting up before the kids, or having Grandma come over and watch the monkeys for an hour in the morning (one of the perks of a live-in Grandma), was one of the best things I did for their education. The routine evolved over the years from a few minutes in my favorite book with a cup of coffee, to journaling, to day planning, to meditation. The key is to create one that feeds your own soul and makes you a more relaxed person in general.
Search the internet for “morning routine” and you’ll find all kinds of inspiring ideas to get you started!
#2 Ditch the Pre-Packaged Curriculum
A standardized curriculum was created to get a large group of people through a designated amount a material in an organized manner. It’s useful for schools so they keep everyone on track and moving in the same direction. But we don’t need it.
“But won’t there be gaps in their education?”
“How will I know they are learning all the material?”
First of all, there are gaps in everyone’s education: public, private, homeschooled, or tutored. Use one curriculum and you’ll know one list of information. Use another and you’ll know a different list of information. There is no way to put into one human all that they will need to know in a few years of any style of schooling. The point of education shouldn’t be gathering a list of information. It should be learning how to find the information you need.
When my sons were elementary school age, I printed out the World Book Encyclopedia’s Typical Course of Study for their age and kept it as a reference. We’d go to the library once a week and, along with any book they chose to pick up, I picked a book that covered one topic in each subject and left them on our coffee table to thumb through at quiet moments, or look at while we ate lunch. If they found a topic interesting, we’d explore it more.
We also found great recommended reading lists, like the one at TJEd.org. I read those books aloud to the boys before bed, during meals, as audio books during drives, and in line for rides at amusement parks (a great use for a smart phone). There were loads of questions, discussions, and looking up word meanings, but never book reports, diagraming sentences, or tearing apart of character and plot. We just enjoyed the stories. Sometimes we’d find a movie based on one of those books and watch it, which led to more discussion and sometimes controversy.
Another alternative to curriculum and lesson plans is to go to a park day and play with other kids every week, get an annual pass to a museum, science center, or zoo, join scouts or another club, or spend time at historical sites and events all around your area.
The key is to not push the “learning” aspect, but to create an atmosphere of learning all the time. That goes for you too! Go to movies, see the sites, find out what’s going on in your area. Talk with your kids, ask them questions, be curious, and always answer their questions. Show them through your actions that curiosity never dies, that learning never ends and isn’t a chore to be gotten through.
#3 Don’t Over-schedule Your Week
It’s tempting to fill your week with organized field trips and classes but don’t fall for it! There’s a lot to be said for time at home doing nothing in particular. A week could look like this:
Monday Park Day
Saturday Family Time Adventure
The key point here is flexibility and leaving time to process and relax. There should be time in your day to get the housework done, the groceries in, and to make meals. Invite the kids to help you and learn from the process, or ask them to play outside while you get things ready for them. We shouldn’t be running from one thing to the next and have no time to stop and enjoy the scenery. And your plans should be flexible enough to be able to take advantage of a show or event you just found out about or to take into account the needs of a sick, tired, or just plain grumpy kid (or parent for that matter). You should also have time to visit friends and family when you want to!
It may sound like taking time off to spend the day at the movies or at the zoo, but to a real homeschooler, it’s part of their education. Even something as mundane as the grocery store is part of the process. And when one of us gets sick, call it Health Science and find out what a cold really is, how the body works to fix it, and how best to manage symptoms. This, by the way, is one of the glories of the information age. You have a smart phone, start using it!
#4 Plan Meals and Rest Not Learning or Subjects
Our family’s day revolved around eating and sleeping when my kids were under 12 years old. Breakfast was generally at the same time (and when I read from the books I wanted to get from the library), lunch was at the same time, naps (or really just rest and quiet play), and then dinner when Dad got home from work, which went right into the evening routine of a tv show with Dad or a game, bathing, and reading stories (one for each and the “classic” I wanted them to hear).
Between those times is when the magic happened. Making lunch became science, world culture, and life skills. They’d reenact the stories we were reading in the backyard while I did the laundry. Building forts became physical science. The mailman would come, the street sweeper, the neighbor kids, the park, all lent itself to our education.
How did I keep track of it as a school? I kept a journal, both online as a blog and in a notebook. I took a lot of pictures, too. There were pictures of the kids doing things, places we went, signs we saw, and people we talked to. Part of the evening routine was sitting in the rocking chair in the their room while they went to sleep. I used it as an evening meditation for myself. I’d sit there with my journal, write down what we did, and then read my own book, usually one about homeschooling or some other self-help book. Most nights I ended the day in prayer and thanksgiving. And many nights I ended it in prayer and tears. Parenting is not for the faint of heart!
#5 Start an Evening Routine That Involves Reading What Your Kids Want to Read
We never had a bedtime per se, but we did have an evening routine. After dinner we usually watched a tv show, then we’d head upstairs for clean up, baths, teeth brushing, and pajamas. Then we’d read. Each of the kids would pick a book for me to read to them. It was usually one we’d read a million times. At times, they might choose to read aloud to the rest of us, which is so much fun when they are tiny and just making it up and pointing to words in the book to mimic you (also part of learning to read).
I would end the evening by reading a few chapters from a book from my list, usually a book that would be too hard for them to read on their own. There was a lot of discussion at this time. Lots of questions, looking up words, and talking about the story. Then they’d settle into bed and I would start with my evening routine.
It wasn’t always pretty, my journals are filled with Mom angst and tears for just one peaceful bedtime, but there was consistency and the kids loved it. We must have read over one hundred classics by the time they got out of elementary school and the proof that it meant a lot to their education is that they still have most of those books and there are still jokes and references to them on a daily basis. And, I simply must add, they both tested right into college English without taking a single English class.
For the uninitiated, homeschooling this way feels like not going to school at all, especially during the elementary years, but if you keep a detailed journal listing only the books you read, the places you visited, and the play projects you did together, you’ll start to see the “school hours” rack up. Learning should be play for children and homeschooling this way relieves both parents and kids of some of the stress of modern living.
Our homeschooling lives don’t need to be complicated or expensive. If you’re spending time with them reading, exploring, relaxing and playing, they will learn. Answer their questions, make their lives regular, comfortable and safe. They’ll learn in amazing ways right along side of you and you’ll all be better for the journey!