Structure

 

 

Below is an extended version of a book contribution I recently wrote for awesome home educator Anna Dusseau of https://homeschoolguru.org/ 

The book, 'Homeschool Works', is due to be published later this year, Hawthorn Press. It includes lots of different home educating styles and contributions from lots of Mums most of whom have a much more relaxed (and healthy) attitude to home education.

Here's my snippet, it basically maps out how we ended up quite so structured:

Scrapping Our Vision

As a young, dating couple, we planned to work abroad. Home education was our practical option. We had seen the home educated mission kids in Asia as well as in our own university back in the UK flourish and were excited to try it out.

 

Years before our children even existed, we started imagining their education:

  • Flexible and child-led

  • Textbook-free and based on creative, cross-curricular links

  • High-input and high-expectation

 

Our eldest was born and we managed to uphold this vision. However, after our second and third children arrived, we have had to pull back. We simply don’t have enough hours in the day to manage an education that is flexible, child-led, textbook-free and creatively-integrated for three small humans. Much of our recent journey has been learning to thrive within this scaled-down reality.

 

One-Child Parenting

“You made the mistake of being awake. Stimulation time!” – our first child’s home education began immediately and enthusiastically.

We started by attempting to create a loving, calm and kind environment by working hard at our marriage and behaviour patterns. We kept a daily God Time with prayers, Bible readings and songs; and made regular space for simple family acts of generosity. We were strict about healthy habits: long-term breastfeeding; eating our “five a day”; three hours a day outside; zero screens, salt, processed sugar or processed foods; and regularly encouraging a wide range of movement. We made space for child-led socialising, hosting many events. We praised effort over result and discussed emotions. These are foundations we still strive to maintain today.

Over this foundation, we were impatient to introduce our child to the World! From birth, we’d watch our daughter’s eyes and discuss everything she was looking at. Moments not filled with parental chatter were filled with parental singing. We taught numbers, letters and blending letters into words in a variety of creative ways before she could even speak. Instead of teaching nouns like “flower” we would accurately name individual wildflowers, trees, mushrooms, fauna, dinosaurs, rock types, flags, countries, internal organs; anything we could explore. Mummy was learning much of this for the first time too, so our eldest learnt to navigate reference books.

As I speak some Mandarin and had planned to live in Asia, I aimed to raise bilingual children. My chosen method was joyful immersion. Every day I read and chatted to my daughter in Chinese. Native-speaking teachers requested to act like “favourite aunties” became close friends and we flung ourselves into the dumpling parties of our local expat community.

Our living room became set up to display books and educational aids from which our child could select. We even squeezed in a piano, which our child chose to start practicing aged three. Frequent trips were linked to our learning at home. Every morning we would beautifully prepare an exploratory educational activity on our coffee table to surprise our daughter as she woke up. She normally chose to dissect it immediately.

With one child we had happily settled into a flexible, child-led pattern. Our lives were slow and relaxed.

Multi-Child Parenting

The birth of our second and third child combined with our first child’s expanding interests brought new time pressure. This is the itinerary of our first child, aged 2 and ¾; just before her first brother arrived:

  • Wake, dressed, teeth

  • Come down the stairs and view the beautifully prepared activity on the coffee table

  • Walk Daddy to station

  • Walk back, naming wildflowers and trees

  • Breakfast

  • Day’s activities (any order):

    • Go out: a paid club, home educators’ activity organised by Mummy, meeting friends, trip or nature walk

    • Exploratory play

    • Time outside

    • Lunch

  • Bedtime routine: dinner, hygiene, books (Chinese, English and a Bible story), family God Time, many songs, bed.

Fast-forward two children later. In addition to my studious 6-year-old, I have a cute, cheeky four-year-old, and a savvy, 14-month menace whose primary desire is to throw shoes into the garden.

Our current timetable is so tight that child-led flexibility is all but gone:

  • 6:00am. Kids pile into parents’ bed, waking co-sleeping baby.

  • Tick-list 1, to complete any time before 11:30am:

    • Morning cuddles

    • Hygiene, dressed

    • Breakfast

  • Tick-list 2, “The Five Things”, to complete BEFORE NOON:

    1. English

      • Eldest: creative writing

      • Middlest: tracing and copying words, reading, simple activities

      • Littlest: books, alphabet, blending, naming things

    2. Maths

      • Eldest and Middlest: Maths! No Problem curriculum plus activities

      • Littlest: counting, number recognition, ordering, shapes

    3. World (Science, Humanties, Current Affairs etc.)

      • Eldest: Variety of exploration avenues including Story of the World (History) and My Pals Are Here (Science)

      • Middlest: Non-fiction reading, physical exploration, trips

      • Littlest: Interactive play

    4. Chinese

      • Eldest: Zhongwen (writing curriculum), reading

      • Middlest: Read 10 characters

      • Littlest: Chinese books and play

      • Everyone: Speaking and listening with Mummy or immersion crafts and games with native-speaking teacher

    5. Music

      • Eldest and Middlest: Piano pieces and technique, creative musicianship

      • Littlest: Action songs

  • Noon. Schoolwork finished!!!

  • Tick-list 3, Afternoon activities:

    • Lunch

    • Minimum 3 hours outside

    • Minimum 90 minutes child-led, unstructured socialising with other children

    • Home educators’ and/or after-school clubs (between 9 and 12 a week!)

  • Tick-list 4, to complete before 7:30pm:

    • Dinner

    • Hygiene, dressed

    • Eldest: Private reading and God Time

    • Family God Time

    • Family reading (second child’s listening level)

    • Cuddles

    • Bed

 

What happened?!

Where is the time for genuine, child-led flexibility? Where did the textbooks come from?? Why has our learning become segmented into discrete topic areas??? Help!

If we started with the aims of “child-led and flexible, textbook-free and creatively-integrated, high-input and high expectation”, we have only really managed the last.

Here’s how it all went wrong.

 

Losing “child-led and flexible”

When our second child arrived, it became clear that we didn’t have the time to provide both genuine, child-led flexibility and the quantity of “stuff” we had originally discussed learning. We had to choose which to keep: child-led flexibility or “stuff”. We chose “stuff”.

Guiding our decision-making were three observations:

   1. Our kids become best at what they do every day.

BUT

   2. Our kids’ most beautiful eureka moments appear on unstructured, free days.

 

Together:

   3. Our kids’ eureka moments are building on what has been encountered during regular learning.

 

So we needed two kinds of days: packed days and free days. Our packed days build key skills and muscle memory. Empty days allow the kids to take ownership of those skills and learn to be themselves.

 

One afternoon a week, weekends and school holidays (not necessarily synchronised with local schools) are protected free time. It might be spent writing down freshly composed songs, reading, constructing historic buildings from Lego, making tepees, writing campaign letters or paddling in our local river.

 

Without the weekday input, our kids wouldn’t have the tools to attempt many of their free-day plans. Without the free days, there would be limited processing and connecting. Family relationships would strain and all of us would burn out.

 

By noon our “schoolwork” is done. In the afternoon we try to tick off clubs, socialising and outside time. To accomplish that much in an afternoon, I try and tie these activities into one event. Once a week I allow myself the easy option: an invitation-only playdate in the woods. This is limited to once a week because I don’t want to model social exclusion. However, the reality is that public-access, outdoor, home educator playdates fall apart. People just stop turning up.

 

Finding activities that are both popular long-term and also provide a good stretch of outdoor socialisation is a battle. Indoor events survive better than outdoor ones because home educators are free to huddle at home when it’s chilly. Activities paid in advance, termly blocks also receive better attendance. An established indoor activity with a park or woodland on its doorstep is a great resource for relaxed, outdoor socialisation afterwards. If we can walk there, even better.

 

Losing “textbook-free and creatively-integrated”

Our original plan has to teach based on child-chosen topics, in depth. I remember in our teen dating time discussing what it might be like if one of our kids was into "The Sea" as a topic, how we could teach Maths, Geography, Biology, History, Science all through the lens of the sea for an extended period!

Here’s how we slowly dropped topic-based learning and allowed textbooks to infiltrate our lives.

Firstly, Mummy was running out of preparation time. I just didn’t have the energy to sketch out the systematic, child-development-based curriculums I had envisaged for Science and Maths, or the comprehensive chronological curriculum for History. We had previously slotted new Historical knowledge into chronologies of kings and queens, famous paintings or A Street Through Time, but my daughter was hungry for more.

Secondly, our eldest seemed to enjoy textbooks. She is methodical and a confident reader, gobbling Alice in Wonderland independently just before her fourth birthday. Textbooks offered variety to Mummy’s teaching methods. Besides, it took two years for the excitement of being allowed to write in workbooks in the gel pen of her choice to wear off. Sleep-deprived, I began wondering why I was spending such huge quantities of planning time reinventing the wheel.

I started to research curriculums. My aim was to find textbooks that:

  1. Included fun, imaginative, physical activities away from the book in every lesson.

  2. Made frequent cross-curricular links.

  3. Were easy to navigate on a daily basis.

Textbooks like this do exist.

One great source is Singapore, a country which has adopted a nation-wide “concrete-pictorial-abstract” educational method. All state-approved materials must explain concepts first with practical activities, next with pictures, finally with words or symbols. We use Singapore-based materials for Maths and Science.

Another resource is textbooks written by home educators. The Story of the World, History, is still my daughter’s favourite curriculum. Every chapter includes story-style text; colouring; map work; a choice of maybe five practical projects from crafts and cooking to outdoor role play activities; plus a CD to recap in the car. We supplement this textbook with textbooks written by Historians of different nations for children of those nations. For example, at the moment we are using Black History curriculums by Robin Walker, The History of India for Children by Garodia Gupta and Garodia and Chinese language materials to give a sense of how different History can be when told from another person's perspective.

How can I be truly “creatively-integrated” and cross-curricular if I am using at least four separate curriculums at once? By looking ahead. I already do a 6-monthly planning to make sure I don’t have any unfeasible surprises lurking. If I see two similar topics coming, I try to synchronise them.

For example, when we reached the “Mass and Volume” chapter in Maths, we jumped to the “Mass and Matter” chapter in Science. Both included fun, practical activities. Since Mass involves weighing, we made pizza dough during Chinese immersion time. The kids love space so we recapped Gravitational Mass, and I left the home-made volume-measuring bottles in the bath for later exploration.

When we reached our first 12-bar-blues in piano, we listened to blues from around the World and ethnographic recordings of Black-American slaves. We spent our “World” learning about the slave trade and the civil rights movement.

In the same way, I try to anticipate trips with related learning at home. Most days I can link something.

Curriculums don’t need to be rigidly followed. The joy of home educating is that we can pick and mix. Curriculums are simply a base upon which to create.

 

Did our losses matter?

Did our loss of child-led flexibility or heavy use of textbooks equal failure? There’s no concrete way to measure child-rearing success, but my gut feeling is that our kids are OK.

My eldest is an enthusiastic learner, a kind and empathetic sibling who is genuinely helpful to me. She is comfortably a year or more ahead in all her studies except Chinese writing where, despite being non-Chinese, she keeps pace well with an ex-patriate curriculum. Her Chinese conversation is good. She’s a keen climate activist, enthusiastically attending marches and writing letters to politicians. Her life-plan is that Mummy home educates her children when she becomes prime minister and enacts radical environmental reform.

I am particularly proud of our eldest's thoughts on Hogwarts Houses. After finishing book 3, aged 6, I asked her, "which house do you think is best?" She immediately answered, "Hufflepuff. Because it's hard working and kind." It took me until my twenties to work out that kindness was really the most important of the Hogwarts attributes!

My second is also a climate activist, painstakingly tracing Mummy’s writing in campaign letters. He has amassed an impressive knowledge of hydraulics, high-speed trains, planets, South America, sea otters and orangutans. He may be around eight months behind his sister in reading and piano, but in every other subject he is matched or ahead.

It is my second who initiated the weekly family tradition of running into the front garden to greet the rubbish truck team. They now bring us sweets! Our kids find lollipops inedibly sweet, but they love our rubbish truck team so much that they accept them gratefully and continue their welcome.

Our littlest is just starting to spout out words. Through the neglect of the little one, he has become our best problem solver, walker and is mischievously savvy. 

Covid-19 Changes

Before Covid-19, we would have a termly discussion: "so, what activities do we want to quit?" and the kids would say, "No! We want to keep everything!" Eventually, I would wrangle them into cutting one activity. Then we would add two new exciting activities.

Lockdown has been the most wonderful blessing. Our clubs have been scrapped (except the odd stressful Zoom class, which I am trying to cull!)

In the place of all these clubs and travelling, we spend all our afternoons outside by the river, in woods or in fields. Often we are joined by another family and the kids freely play while the Mummies unwind. It's been fantastic. The schoolwork and concentration has improved due to the reduced stress of going to all those clubs.

After 3 months, our eldest said that she wants to be more careful about piling up the clubs. We are now looking forward to a greatly reduced post-lockdown club timetable of swimming, French, dance and a fortnightly large gathering plus playdates. It sounds like loads, but for us it's a huge improvement. 

And for now? We are loving spending so much time in the river, just catching fish and sailing umbrellas! We are still structured, but the added space in the structure to be free is of huge benefit.

© 2020 by FRANCES MATTHEWS