With this year's unique worries, many parents are considering switching to homeschooling. But how to do it in a way that is sustainable and joy-filled?
Too often, we parents start out homeschooling by trying to re-create school at home, with too much structure, too much focus on curriculum, and too much trying to cram knowledge into our kids' brains. We push, we cajole, we spend hours trying to find the "perfect" curriculum that will solve our problems. All too soon, it leads to kids who resist (or even hate) school and parents who feel like they're losing it.
I've been there. I've been homeschooling for nearly 9 years, but those first couple years were rough! I pushed too hard, too fast, leading to homeschool burnout and damaged relationships. But then I found a new way.
For the last 7 years, our homeschool has been purposely geared towards cultivating a love of learning in my kids. Instead of trying to force our way through a specific curriculum, I'm following my kids' own interests and creating a home culture that weaves learning into the fabric of our days.
In focusing on creating a love of learning, I intentionally do not require or push or bribe my kids to do anything academic. But guess what? Quite a lot of academics still does happen in our house! So it's not that we don't do academics, but that "how" we do them is very different.
A few of the questions and concerns I often hear are:
"My kids hate school."
"How do you do school without requiring?"
"How do you know you're doing enough?"
"My kids will never want to do math [or science or writing or whatever dreaded subject] if I don't make them."
This post will give you the resources for creating a sustainable homeschool that will bring joy back into your homeschool. Along the way, I'll share the details of what has worked for us, and how we do school time without requiring or bribing. The overall plan looks like this:
Catch a Vision - Find your true focus in homeschooling
Create a Rhythm - Implement a daily rhythm that creates a culture of learning
Follow Their Passions - Let your children's interests drive their education
Expand Their Horizons - Give exposure to the wide world of learning
Keep in mind that every family is unique! My kids are currently 13yo and 10yo, and although I will share what's worked well in our home, your own best homeschool may be quite different from mine. Younger kids have different needs than older kids, some people need more or less structure, and some households just function differently.
It's all good! Please be gentle with yourself and your kids.
Catch a Vision
We homeschool parents tend to get stuck thinking that if we just find the right curriculum, everything else will fall into place. In reality, though, it is more important to develop a vision of what we are trying to achieve in our homeschool and let that vision be the guidepost for all the follow-on decisions.
If you really want to create a sustainable homeschool, you've got to start with figuring out what your real long-term goals are. Take some time to sit down and ponder what you're trying to achieve in your kids' educational experience. For instance, some different objectives include:
kids who are at grade-level in all areas
kids who love learning and think homeschool is fun and engaging
kids who learn to follow instructions and do what they are told rather than charting their own paths
kids who are prepared to be self-directed students in the teen years
kids who think that their own passions are important
kids who think that some specific emphasis (such as math/science/etc) is more important than their own natural passions
kids who believe that learning is a finite objective that is best if completed as soon as possible
kids who believe that learning is a lifelong pursuit that continues well beyond getting a "good job"
Some of these goals could be achieved concurrently, but some of them are really at odds with each other. For instance, wanting your kids to be at grade level in all areas would very likely interfere with developing a love of learning.
In my own homeschool, the overarching goal is to create a love of learning in my kids. I want my kids to *own* their educations, to see learning as a joyful lifelong pursuit, and to be prepared to have a self-directed Scholar Phase in the high school years.
If you need some inspiration for creating your own homeschool vision, check out these articles: The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher and The Seven Keys of Great Teaching. If you're ready to dig deeper, two books that I'd recommend are Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling and A Thomas Jefferson Education.
When we have a vision of where we're going, our doubts can be largely put to rest and we can instead aim our focus towards what will help us achieve our vision vs. what will harm it.
Create a Rhythm
Once you've got a long-term vision for your homeschool, the next step is to create a daily rhythm in which you'll nurture that vision. You're not aiming for a rigid schedule that you'll be locked into (ahem, been there, done that, eek!). But what you are aiming for is a set of routines that create a framework within which learning and relationships can flourish.
Having routines for homeschooling and housework can help your lives run more smoothly. Routines give structure and support to the day, allowing everyone to know what's up next and more fully relax into what's happening now.
Make sure, though, that your routine doesn't become a ball-and-chain that you're tied down to. Some days it is great to let go of the routine and just go with the flow.
In my own homeschool, the routine that has worked best for us for the last 4+ years incorporates learning and housework both throughout the day. I work part time, so our routine has to flex around my work hours. Using a routine helps ensure that my kids have minimal resistance to doing housework, because they know what to expect and what is expected of them daily.
Our routine also makes our exploration of academics more effective: because my children know that I am only available for academic pursuits for a set time each day, they are motivated for us to do as much as we can while I am available before I start my work hours. Overall, this routine gives us plenty of time to learn, play, and work.
pre-8:30am: Quiet Morning Time - kids usually read, draw, or play quietly; work and yoga time for mom
8:30am-9:30am: Breakfast School - history, science, or math (more about this below under "Expand Their Horizons")
9:30am-10:00am: Family Work and Chores - family and independent work, including personal hygiene
10:00am-noonish: Kidschool Time - 2-4x/week - kids choose from among many options (more about this below under "Follow Their Passions")
10am-2pm: Away-from-Home Outings and Field Trips 1-3x/week (more about this below under "Expand Their Horizons")
1-3:30pm: Afternoon Free Time (plus band class 2-3x/week; work time for me)
3:30-4:30pm: Afternoon Quiet Time (individual projects, quiet play, classic audiobooks; rest and study time for me)
4:30-6:30: Dinner Routine - mom or mom+kids meal prep, family dinner, and cleanup
6:30pm-9pm: Evening Family Free Time - family walks, talks, games, reading and/or family audiobook
9pm-9:30pm: Bedtime Read-Aloud - (more about this below under "Expand Their Horizons")
You can see that our school time is not confined to a specific time of day. Learning really gets spread out throughout the whole day. All times are approximate! We don't operate under a rigid daily time schedule. However, because I work part-time, there are specific time constraints on certain days. You can read more about our daily routine here.
This is just the routine that has worked well for us. Your own ideal routine may vary quite a bit from this! The main point is to find a rhythm for your days that supports you in creating a loving, peaceful, educational environment.
Follow Their Passions
An important part of developing a love learning in your kids is encouraging them to pursue their own interests. Think about what it was like when you were learning about something you were really interested in; wasn't it fun and exciting without anyone "making" you do it? When kids are allowed to follow their own interests, their learning is catapulted to a new level.
One of the biggest advantages of homeschooling is that children can have as much time as desired to follow their passions. Sometimes, kids' intense interests will pop up at "inconvenient" times; don't let your homeschool routine lock you in, but instead watch for times when you need to let go of the routine and instead follow the flow of your kids' interests.
If your kids have some specific interest such as cars or horses or sports or machines or chickens or whatever: nourish those interests! Find ways for the kids to enjoy their interests at home, get books from the library about their interests, watch interest-based documentaries and movies together, find local places where you can see things in-person, tie their interests into more traditional academic subjects, and just keep supporting their interests as long as they last. Then be ready to adapt when their interests change.
For example, in our homeschool I've supported my daughter's long passion for horses through books, movies, visits to the local university horse farm, arranging grooming and riding days with horses at a local horse sanctuary, driving the scenic way as often as possible to allow more sights of horses while we're in the car, buying horse coloring books, watching horse races, and more. In pursuing her interest in horses, my daughter has researched horse breeds, care, and handling, learned about farriers, written stories about horses, drawn horses, learned geographical locations where different breeds were developed, learned about cultures that emphasized horsemanship (such as Native American, ranching, and Mongolian cultures), and done innumerable horse crafts. Through her interest in horses, her education as a whole has been enriched.
Remember that learning is about so much more than academic subjects. Be open and creative in supporting your kids' interests, and they will fall in love with learning.
School time can be another great time to support your kids' own interests. In our homeschool, I really messed up those first couple years by requiring specific subjects and assignments during school time. This backfired and made my daughter start dreading our school time. I was dreading it, too! When I committed to finding a better way to homeschool, I learned that I really could let go of requiring my kids to do academics.
There are so many fun ways to learn together, without force. Why not give your kids the freedom to choose what to do during this time, and in doing so reinforce the lesson that their own interests are valuable?
During our Kidschool time, my kids take turns choosing what we'll do from a list of many options. (They are also free to come up with other activities for us to do together, but having a list of options gives us a good starting place.) Most often they choose board games (which are great for practicing math without them even knowing they're doing math) or having me read-aloud while they color/draw. Now that my daughter is getting older and dabbling with Scholar Time, she sometimes chooses to do her own thing during Kidschool time, and that is fine, too.
Remember that kids learn in different ways at different ages. Young kids need different learning environments than older kids. Young kids need the freedom to play, and they learn through play. Many kids won't be ready to have a structured sit-down learning time until 7-9 years old; this is totally natural and fine.
Expand Their Horizons
Breakfast School - History, Science, and Math
Encouraging our kids to follow their own passions is a good start, but what about all those other subjects like history, science, and math? Although I encourage my kids to follow their own interests for much of the day, I also want to make sure I am giving them plenty of exposure so they have the opportunity to get interested in things beyond what they already know about.
Breakfast School is my secret weapon for making sure I feel like I am doing *enough*. It is *my* turn to choose what I want to read to the kids, and I generally choose to read engaging books about science, history, and/or math.
Breakfast School is not required, and it isn't even called School. I just ask my kids if they want me to read during breakfast. If they don't want me to read, that's fine! But they usually do. Breakfast School typically happens ~4-5 times per week, and sometimes my kids even choose for it to happen on the weekends, too.
I like to have an overarching theme for history and science each year, so that is what I generally fall back on during Breakfast School. Each school year, we have a different science focus (such as Human Body, Earth Science, or Astronomy). And each year, we focus on a different period in history (such as Ancient History, Middle Ages, etc). For instance, this year our Breakfast School has focused mainly on chemistry (read-aloud and experiments) as well as history and inventions from 1600-1850. Often, the history and science reading will lead to watching a few short videos (such as Periodic Videos or videos showing inventions). And once or twice a week, Breakfast School includes math in the form of Life of Fred or a math picture book.
NOTE: When my kids were much younger, Breakfast School was more centered around sweet picture books or chapter books, and was not so heavy on history, science, or math. And often, Breakfast School was instead before-breakfast snuggling on the couch with books. :)
Away-From-Home Outings and Field Trips
Please remember that there is so much more to learning than academics. With homeschooling, the world can be our classroom. Kids learn so much when they are allowed to actually experience things first-hand. Coming from a public school background, I used to think that our academic time was our *real* learning time, but I've now learned that there is tremendous learning potential in away-from-home activities.
In our homeschool, 1 to 3 days per week, we have outside-the-home activities such as homeschoolers park day, field trips, nature days, or hiking with grandma. On those days, once our morning routine is finished we head out into the world. We usually return home in the early afternoon by around 2-3pm, just in time for our afternoon routine.
Read-aloud time can be a crucial part of homeschooling. With high-quality books such as those by EB White, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Ralph Moody, read-aloud time provides a chance to discuss character, integrity, honesty, relationships, etc. with your kids on a daily basis.
In our homeschool, we almost always have read-aloud time before bed. This is a sweet, comforting way to end all of our days on a high note. My kids and I have many meaningful discussions during this time, and it allows me to keep laying the foundation for good character.
Pulling It All Together
Homeschooling can be a joyful process, even if every day doesn't look perfect. Homeschooling gives families the chance to focus on loving relationships and learning together. By beginning with creating your own vision for your homeschool and then adding a supportive routine, you'll be off to a good start towards having a sustainable, successful homeschool.
It often takes families a few months to get their homeschools and routines dialed in to what works well for their individual family. This might be a great time to do some exploring or projects together, while you catch your homeschooling vision. Give yourself permission to slow down a little the first few months, so you can really observe your kids and see what is going to work best. You've got this!
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