Once upon a time, in a former life, I pulled my children out of the private Montessori school they were enrolled in and homeschooled them. It lasted six years. At the end of those six years, we enrolled them in another private school. At the end of that year of formal schooling, my older son, a 10th grader, completed the year with the highest grade point average in the entire school. My younger son, who began the year as an 11-year-old, entered as a 7th grade student, because academically, 7th grade was where he was at that time. I’m sure that I was not the perfect homeschooling parent, but I am just as sure that I did not do a bad job of it. A lot of you are finding yourselves in the position of homeschooling your children for the first time, so I want to offer you some words of advice.
The first thing to remember is that homeschool doesn’t have to look like school. In fact, for a lot of kids, it’s better if it doesn’t. A big part of the reason that school looks the way it does—with worksheets, and a whiteboard at the front of the room, and set questions, and timetables, and tests—is because teachers are expected to manage so many kids at the same time. You don’t have to do that. You only have your own kids to worry about, and that means you have flexibility. So don’t feel like you have to develop a lesson plan for every day, and worksheets, and set questions, and tests. A timetable will probably be helpful, because routine is often helpful. But occasionally, you may find that you need to throw the timetable out the window, and that’s OK.
When I was homeschooling my children, instead of approaching it with the idea that I had a bunch of knowledge that I needed to impart to them, I approached it with the idea that my job was to teach them how to learn. To foster curiosity in them, and to give them room to explore thoughts and questions and ideas that inspired them.
This will take different shapes on different days. It may mean that midway through reading a chapter of a novel together, your child has a question, and so you stop reading the novel and go on the Internet or turn to reference books you might have in the house to look for the answer to that question.
It may mean taking walks, and allowing space to become fascinated by the color or texture or smell or shape of a flower, and then going on the internet at home and finding out everything you can about that flower, and maybe dissecting it at home and making a diagram of its parts.
It may mean that instead of throwing out that shirt with the button torn off, you help your child to locate a new button and teach them how to sew the button back on.
It may mean giving your home over to a Rube Goldberg machine that sprawls through two days and occupies every room.
It may mean watching a lot of nature documentaries, and talking about the different animals you see, and then doing supplementary reading if a particular animal catches your child’s attention.
It may mean stopping in the middle of playing in the yard to notice that a branch is oozing liquid where the end was broken off, and wondering what that liquid is, and what purpose it might serve for the tree, and pondering the similarities between living trees and living animals.
It will definitely mean a lot of play: building with blocks, creating with Legos, exploring all the various things you can craft with paper, putting on puppet shows with sock puppets or paper cut-outs on popsicle sticks, making a million different paper airplanes and flying them all around the yard, making collages out of dried pasta and beans. Children learn through play. You can tell them 100 times that an arch is a stable architectural form, or you can give them a bunch of blocks to play with and encourage them to build bridges, some with arches and some without. You can give them a couple eggs and tell them to squeeze one on the sides, then to squeeze one from top to bottom, and see which one breaks more easily. Let them make homemade parachutes for their eggs out of plastic bags or fabric scraps and string and launch them from the upstairs window or balcony into the yard or parking lot. They will learn from this. They will learn from everything they do, so encourage them to do things.
If you have older children, it may mean giving them the task of engaging their younger children in play. Let them organize and supervise an activity for their younger siblings. Give them full responsibility for it. Let them lead and teach, and try and fail, and learn from that.
It will also mean involving your children in housework, if you haven’t already. Even kindergarten aged children can help wash dishes, set the table, sweep the floor, fold laundry… These tasks form several functions: they help children develop fine and gross motor skills, they develop self-confidence and teach independence, and they teach children how to function as a member of a community in which everyone is expected to contribute.
Most of all, it means relaxing your expectations. Or perhaps a better way to say that is: adjusting your expectations. For so long, we have approached education as the means to an end, as a results-driven exercise in which the results are test scores. This is an opportunity to abandon that approach, and to see education not as a means to an end, but as a lifelong endeavor to pursue curiosity. Frankly, in my opinion, this is the healthiest attitude one can have towards education.
Homeschooling was a lot easier for me than it will be for you, simply because I had access to libraries and museums that are now closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, homeschooling my children was my job, and I know that many of you are attempting this whilst also attempting to work from home. For those of you who are in that position, my advice applies tenfold: relax your expectations; allow your children the freedom to play and to explore, and trust that through that play and exploration, they will learn. You do not have to manage every moment of their day in order for their day to be a productive and fulfilling one; in fact, it’s probably better for them if you don’t.