Homeschooling looks different from family to family. Some prefer rigid schoolish schedules. Others prefer comfortable and predictable routines. Some enjoy the stability of curriculums and others enjoy the freedom to experience education as it happens.
No matter what style you find yourself falling into, one thing is certain: as beginning homeschoolers, NOTHING feels truly comfortable. Everything is new. How in the heck are you supposed to educate your kids anyway???
How Our Homeschool Started
My son was very young when we started homeschooling. Prior to getting started, his only real “school” experience was in a small preschool at his daycare. He was taught by a recently retired kindergarten teacher in a small class of 10 kids or so. She was a warm and caring woman who had a lovely little preschool classroom set up at the daycare.
I quit my job to stay home with him when he was almost four years old.
At that point, I had just finished up ten years of teaching. I went to public schools for all of my own K-12 education and spent many years learning all about classroom management, assessment, and all the trappings of traditional schooling.
In short, my mind was 100% oriented towards the school model.
What I thought I HAD to Do to Homeschool
I thought I HAD to have a curriculum. How on earth was I supposed to know what my child needed to learn if I didn’t have a curriculum map or a standards rubric?? At the very least, shouldn’t I have a list of skills to learn??
I thought I had to spend 6-8 hours a day on instruction. After all, kids go to school for all that time. Don’t they spend it all learning? Aren’t they completely on-task for the entire school day? Surely, we needed to spend that much time learning at home too.
I assumed that time had to be structured and scheduled. Hey, if we’re going to spend 6+ hours a day on instruction, shouldn’t it be properly blocked out? 8:00-9:00 could be for reading. 9:00-10:00 could be for math. Of course, we’d take a half hour break there for recess, but then we should definitely do some handwriting practice before lunch. Right????
I figured that learning was only legitimate if it looked like school. I had a preschool workbook that I tried to lord over my four year old. A workbook. Of basic letter and number skills. That he’d have to sit still to complete. At a table. Like school.
Because four year old boys are naturally inclined to simply sit still for six hours to do workbooks.
What We Learned From Doing it “Wrong”
You don’t need a curriculum. Sure, you can use one if it helps you to feel less frazzled or more stable. But in our family, I’ve learned that if my child isn’t truly interested in a particular topic or doesn’t see how it is immediately relevant, he won’t learn it.
This isn’t actually any different than it is in school. I had plenty of students who could sit in a classroom all day and not retain a lick of information presented to them. If a kid didn’t care, it didn’t matter how good the instruction was: no learning would take place.
Instead, I figured out that we could meet learning goals though his interests and play.
If I want him to practice handwriting skills, he will fight tooth and nail over a handwriting workbook. But if he wants to draw and label the controls to his “robot” on a cardboard box he’s playing with, he will work diligently to make each letter precise. He will ask about spelling. He CARES because it’s immediately relevant to him.
The same is true of math, science, history, and so on. We often find creative ways to learn about these things through our everyday lives. The traditional school subjects are EVERYWHERE if you take the time to look. Learning comes alive when parents are willing to get curious and seek information right along with their students.
Kids of all ages learn best through play. If we’re being honest, so do adults, but it looks different than child’s play. Workbooks are not play. Coercion is not play. Learning is deeper and more permanent when it is learned through play, particularly free play. In school, kids are given less and less time for free play for the sake of academics, which serves neither the children nor the academics.
As for 6-8 hour school days, it’s a myth.
Think back to your own school experiences: how much time in the day was actually spent doing things like lining up, waiting for instructions, waiting for your peers to stop talking, going to the bathroom, walking to other parts of the school building, eating lunch, and so on?
The actual amount of instructional time is a lot less than most people think. And most of that time isn’t spent doing the exact same thing. As a former classroom teacher, I know that when our administrators would observe us, they would look for appropriate amounts of on-task time with good transitions from activity to activity. What does this look like in practice?
I taught high school students who, of all school-age groups, have the highest focus potential. And even at that age, if I spent more than 5-10 minutes on any one thing without transitioning to a different type of activity (i.e. individual practice to groupwork to lecture to discussion, etc.), my principal wouldn’t be pleased about it.
So imagine if you have elementary-aged kids like I do. The amount of time from activity to activity is even less. You can count on a child being able to concentrate on a given task like this:
Minutes of focus = Age in years + 1
This means that my six-year-old child can reasonably give me 7 minutes of good concentration before he needs to do something else. What does this look like in practice?
Say we’re working on a math concept using base-10 blocks. I can reasonably expect up to 7 good minutes of him focusing on counting with the blocks before he might need to go do something active. If I still wanted to keep working on that math concept, I might bring LEGOs into the activity. Or, I might have him do math through active play.
Or sometimes, it’s just that he does 7 minutes of a “structured” learning activity and then goes out in the yard with the dog. We don’t force arbitrary learning because we feel like we ought to. He has the entire day to learn! If he returns to a concept later in the day, chances are it’s because he’s still curious about it and is ready to learn more. If he isn’t ready, forcing him to complete activities only stresses us all out.
You don’t need a fancy schedule.
If you WANT a fancy schedule and one works for you, that’s great! Do what works. Don’t ever feel like you have to change what you’re doing just because someone on the internet says so, as long as what you’re doing works for you.
But if you’ve tried a structured homeschool schedule with your kids and find that it isn’t working for you, you have permission to try new things!
Schedules work at school because structure is necessary to move a large group of students safely and effectively through the day. It helps for everyone to know where to be and at what times so that there is an order and flow to the day.
But at home, you get to do things differently. If you need to sleep in, you can. If you need to spend more time on one activity and less on another, you can. If you need to just watch documentaries all day and forget the coursework because you all are tired or are ill, you can.
Home allows that kind of freedom! If you impose the rigidity of school on your home, don’t be surprised when your kids push back. That said, having a home ROUTINE can be helpful even for the most unschoolish among us.
Routines are not schedules.
Routines are what we have for brushing our teeth or taking a shower. Maybe you’re a “night shower” or a “morning shower” person. You probably aren’t a “shower at exactly 8:30 pm regardless of the circumstances” kind of person. If you had company over, you wouldn’t abandon them to go shower because that’s just what you do at 8:30! You’d wait until they leave and then take your shower.
Homeschool is the same way. We have a very relaxed homeschool routine. If we’re deep into a learning project, we don’t stop just because the schedule says it’s time to switch subjects. We keep going until we reach a natural stopping point.
Our days are always pretty similar in how they flow, but the activities we do vary. This is a good thing! You can learn all about our relaxed routine HERE.
Learning isn’t confined to a “school day”.
Within our routines, learning is open-ended. It happens at all times of the day. It happens on weekends and holidays. Our son invariably comes up with endless math questions right around 7:00 pm as we’re winding down for the night. Is that MY optimal time to think about math? No. But does it work for him? Yes. So we indulge it.
Sometimes, that looks like playing a math-heavy game together, like Monopoly. Other times, he’ll work out loud all the ways he can think of to equal 100. And sometimes we’ll collectively figure out something crazy, like when we figured out how much ice cream we would need and the approximate cost if we wanted to fill a backyard pool with our favorite local ice cream.
(For the record, it was about 11,744 gallons of ice cream at a retail price of $546.800.64. Don’t think we’ll be pursuing that one.)
The ice cream problem involved units of liquid measurements, area of shapes, volume, conversion and equivalence, price per unit, and multiplication, just to name a few skills. Does he absolutely understand everything that went into our calculations yet? No, some of it is far beyond what is 6 years will allow him to figure. But did it spark a keener interest in math and a greater understanding of the relationship between numbers? You bet it did.
Will our homeschool change over time?
You bet it will! As it should. Our son will continue to grow and change, and our homeschool approach should grow along with him. He has big goals and big ideas. Homeschooling is the perfect vehicle for him to explore those right now! And if at some point he decides he wants to try school? That’s his choice. If he wants a curriculum or a program, that’s his choice. We work together as a family to reach the learning outcomes that will bring him the greatest success.
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