My husband and I are homeschooling preteens now and can look back at the elementary school years and share what worked well for us. In general, we’ve prioritized mental, emotional, and physical health over academic learning and yet we’ve been surprised by how well they’ve done on standardized tests. Their scores match ours when we look at our school records—and this has been accomplished on minutes of academic work a day, not hours. Upon reflection, I think the early years of homeschooling do not need to be complicated, at all. They are more about setting the stage for quality future thinking, behaving, and learning and certainly not about stressing oneself out by completely recreating public school at home. When my kids were five and six years old, we maintained a casual daily rhythm involving lots of play and loads of hands-on guidance. Once or twice a week I planned an activity that entailed more than the usual amount of structure and presented it to the kids as an invitation.
They only once turned it down, and yes, I gave them the option (an anatomy lesson involving blood was too creepy and gross at one point in time). In the photo above, you can see the way our structured lessons would often look like. On this particular day, the kids asked to learn about ocean life. I got a book on the topic from the library. I used a few tangible and subject-related items that we already had. I included art into the lesson because kids love creating. That evening when I served dinner, it was tuna with spaghetti and peas, or “fish, anemone, and fish eggs”. I didn’t think my picky eaters would touch this new dish but it was a hit! That night, we watched a bit of an ocean documentary and as my husband and I tucked the kids into their beds, they were eager with more questions like whether sea turtles ever went to sleep, too. The next day they sought to better understand tides and we jumped to focusing on the moon from there.
It doesn’t take an extreme amount of cleverness to plan occasional structured lessons for young children. Their enthusiasm is great and their attention span is not so you keep things simple, help your child make connections, and follow their train of thought. You don’t have to know answers to their questions. You can say, “I’m not sure, let’s find out!” And now you’re teaching them how to take initiative and research information versus settling on not knowing something.
Homeschooling during the first few years of your child’s life should accomplish a few crucial things. First, you want your child to approach new information with curiosity and calmness. They need to learn how to learn. As such, you provide them the freedom and time and support to try and fail and to learn all about dinosaurs, clouds, robots, ladybugs—whatever it may be. It doesn’t matter if their interests are never deemed to be particularly useful later in life.
What matters is a child spending the time and effort learning how to acquire and absorb information and practice using new skills. This is invaluable and lucky for us, a natural and rather organic process once you try it. You also want your child to be comfortable communicating with you and others, as necessary. Homeschooling gives your child lots of practice with not just acquiring good manners and social customs, but more importantly how to express thoughts and feelings and use their body in healthy ways. If you’re at home, you have the time to repeat to your child, “let’s wash our hands before eating” as many times as is needed, and you’re also there each time they meet with frustration and can help them manage negative emotions and steadily mature. It is also ideal for your young child to trust you and follow your guidance. In my experience you can accomplish this if you’re respectful of them, sensitive to their environment, accepting of their stages of development and the way they play to learn, and model the behavior you want them to have.
The above has little to do with the focus schools have on academics. That’s because while the first few years of homeschooling can definitely involve a great deal of academic learning, depending on the child, it is more about habits, mindset, and relationships that your child will develop which they’ll use to thrive as an adult. Imagine having developed the beginnings of impressive life skills by age 10? This is preferable to figuring out some of these basics, as many do, as a young adult. Homeschooling provides an effective foundation to learning because our attitude as homeschoolers is that we learn all the time while living. We have this focus because we’re fully accountable for our child’s education and not leaning on an institution. School is everything and everywhere. Hasn’t it always been that way? Even at the grocery store where I taught the kids estimating math and once had a manager give us an hour-long educational tour. We consciously take advantage of every situation or challenge to learn. It’s not that you can’t do this regardless of school choice but homeschooling vastly increases exposure to various situations where trusted parent leadership is involved. Once, when I was pretty sick for a few days, the kids learned to make themselves sandwiches and oatmeal, and they pretended to be my doctor and nurse. I was well cared for by 6-year-olds and my husband didn’t have to miss work. They realized what they were capable of. These little confidence boosts are highly encouraging.
My advice for those homeschooling young children is to follow your child’s curiosity, casually share what you know and love, join them in their enthusiasm, embrace learning opportunities life has to offer, and most of all, connect with your child. As they get older, you can add more and more formal structure and advanced resources to match their interests and increasing attention span. The first few years are about building a healthy foundation so that they become people who can learn and do whatever they need to and face the obstacles along the way.
There’s almost nothing a healthy, confident, and curious person can’t do.