As a homeschooling mother of a lot of little kids I often get asked what kind of curriculum I use, how I do it with so many babies and toddlers, what our schedule looks like, etc. So I thought I would share— especially for those who are considering homeschooling but maybe find the possible answers to these questions too daunting.
My general educational philosophy most closely aligns with Charlotte Mason. I prefer the idea of creating a nurturing, educational environment rather than sectioning out “school” as a separate, regimented part of our lives. I feel strongly about the importance of “living books” and sincere, authentic, beautiful writing. I refuse to read any book to my child that panders to him, talks down to him, sounds ridiculous, or— and this is probably the biggest one— is not enriching for me as the adult. Our homeschool is founded on great books and subsequent great conversations. So I am extremely picky about books. My reasons for this are both selfish and unselfish. I know that I will burn out if I am not enjoying the homeschool curriculum, but, most importantly, I want my children to love reading and learning and I want them to have a sophisticated palette for the good, the true, and the beautiful. Captain Underpants may get some laughs but it’s just not good literature so you will never see something like that in my house. I am very intentional about the actual content of our curriculum.
Now, our actual day-to-day probably looks the most like “unschooling.” But it is not unschooling. I believe strongly that children should not get to dictate and direct their days and their activities. I appreciate and recognize that most children have a natural curiosity and love of learning that often needs to be simply nourished, and nothing else. I have seen that in action. My oldest reads science textbooks without any prompting and has to be pulled away from them to do other things. But if I was an actual unschooler I might not pull him away. I might say, “isn’t it great that he loves science! I should let him do that all day!” But I do not believe that. I believe he also needs to learn to write well and make his bed and make his lunch. We certainly have a very relaxed school day with very little time sitting down working on assignments. And we don’t do tests or quizzes or worksheets or anything like that. And my children have a lot of free time to read and play and engage in all sorts of creative activities. They rarely get bored and have lots of niche interests that they pretty much orchestrate independently of me (like building Estes rockets or sewing.) BUT. At the end of the day, I am in charge of what we read together and when, and how our day is structured. Because I think certain abilities and virtues are essential and I want the children to learn them whether they are interested in them or not. So we are not unschoolers, although our actual day-to-day looks very relaxed and almost completely different from traditional school.
Part of this relaxed style is simply a response to the following apparent quandary: how do you homeschool older kids with babies and toddlers running around? One of our general rules is that babies and toddlers come first. Our schedule is dictated more by their needs than by the older children’s needs. We can read a history book at pretty much any time of the day, but the baby has to eat and sleep when the baby has to eat and sleep. So, we work around that. We almost always do homeschool reading whenever I am feeding or putting a baby to sleep. That homeschool reading usually continues on once the baby is actually asleep— but not for the entire nap— because I always need some of that nap time to tend to other things. We also try to read or do activities together whenever the babies are occupied or generally calm. I usually give independent assignments sometime in the morning so that the older children can finish them sooner rather than later and have most of the afternoon to play, explore, etc. Some days we don’t get very much done. When we have a newborn around or when I have bad morning sickness, we get almost nothing done.
Which comes to another point. Our yearly schedule is also very flexible and not tied at all to the regular school calendar. I have found that if your kids are already homeschooled, then they really don’t care much at all about traditional school norms. While summer vacation and field day and homecoming were a big part of my growing up and I have quite a bit of nostalgia for it all, my kids have no concept of any of that whatsoever. If anything, they often resist doing whatever the other kids have to do and find it silly whenever I have tried to incorporate something traditional but arbitrary. (Now, I think this probably works very differently for families whose children have already gone to traditional school. Because they probably do share that same nostalgia that I have and probably don’t want things to change so drastically, so that obviously has to be accommodated for.)
On that note, my children do not generally think of having “vacation” or “time off of school”. In fact, we don’t really use the word “school” very much at all. We refer to our various activities as “work” and “play.” Some work involves the hands and some involves the mind and some involves both. Learning to sweep, in my opinion, is just as important as learning to multiply. I generally do not differentiate between “school time” and “chore time”. Instead, we have a list of things we need to “work on” each day and we try our best to accomplish them before having free time. The reason for this approach is multi-fold. First, I think that modern education has placed too much emphasis on “book learning” and too little emphasis on manual labor, daily habits, personal virtue, household skills, etc. Secondly, plenty of psychologists and pediatricians have now pointed out how important outdoor time is for children and how many of them are lacking it. I would go a step further and say that our experiment with keeping children inside at desks for many hours a day is a relatively new and dangerous one and I like to err on the side of too much time outside and as little as possible inside. Charlotte Mason recommended at least 4 hours outside. It has taken us a long time but we are finally starting to hit that number. Third, for whatever hosts of reasons there are, many modern children find book-learning to be the greatest of chores and the last thing they would choose to do on their own. Which is really quite tragic. The life of the mind is supposed to be a gift, a treasure, an act of leisure. Notably, my generation grew up hearing from grandparents or from immigrants about what a gift an education is. Most children rolled their eyes and just did not get it. So the way they were convinced was by being told that the education would “get” them “somewhere”— a fun college, a great job, money, prestige and vainglory! How sad! The education of the mind actually should be mostly a joy! I want my children to thoroughly know and feel that and to continue enjoying their education for the rest of their lives. I don’t mind if they hate sweeping floors! But no way do I want them to hate reading. So, in our house, sweeping floors comes first! Reading is supposed to be the fun part.
Now, we do still “take off” from the “homeschool” part of our daily life on certain days. But that is always simultaneous with “taking off” of all other work. So, for instance, on Sundays, I don’t direct which books they read or tell them to do writing assignments— nor do I tell them to clean their room! All of us rest on Sunday. Sometimes that means my oldest son spends most of the day reading! But he gets to read whatever he wants to read.
Saturdays are also a break from “homeschooling” but this is more for my sake. Saturday is my day to (try) to focus on personal projects. It is often the day that the children work more directly on homestead/farming/household projects with my husband. And then we always take off of pretty much all “work” on special feast days, birthdays, the Twelve Days of Christmas, and the octave of Easter. We also go very “light” on work during the entire Easter season. Basically the Easter season is the equivalent of our children’s summer vacation. It makes the most sense liturgically and, at least in the South, it makes the most sense seasonally. Where we live, nobody wants to be playing outside all day in August. But April and May are delightful!
That’s really one of the greatest things about homeschooling— the flexibility. Many people do not realize the sheer extent of that flexibility. The number one goal here is raising happy, virtuous, healthy children who have a wide range of skills and a good deal of true knowledge and wisdom. We want them to have a hearty appreciation for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful and a voracious desire to explore those things for the rest of their lives. That can be done in so many different ways and it can look drastically different from traditional school. It can be done in bedrooms, at kitchen tables, on swing sets, and in the car. It can be done in the morning or at night. It can be done in the summer or the winter. All that matters is that it gets done. And you don’t even have to call it school.
(In the upcoming article I will lay out more specifically what our “curriculum” looks like.)