As a teacher, I've educated people of all ages, from preschool to medical school, and on a variety of subjects, from science, math, and health, to Spanish, English, and engineering. But it's my time as a homeschool mom that has gifted me with a slew of secret parenting tips that, I'm sure, will change every caregiver's life.
Right now, I spend most of my time teaching what a friend of mine calls, "a highly selective student-centered micro-school." I teach my own two kids, ages 5 and 2, and we spend a lot of time with other homeschooling parents from all walks of life. Unschoolers (who use learner-chosen activities as their main method of learning), worldschoolers (who learn by interacting with the world around them), school-at-home folks, gifted kids, kids with learning differences, neurotypical and neurodivergent kids, religious and secular kids. And because there are so many different kinds of children who homeschool, and so many ways to homeschool a child, I've learned, let's just say, a few things along the way.
Whether you want to help your kid learn, connect with your kid better, or carve out a little down time in a hectic day, homeschooling moms have some advice to share, including the following:
1. It's OK To Take A Break
This little nugget of truth isn't what most expect to hear from parents who spend all their time with their kids. Many (but not all) homeschool parents are stay-at-home parents. And since the kids aren't out of the house seven or eight hours a day at school, we enjoy a lot of together time. And while that's wonderful, it can also be a bit much.
As you can imagine, homeschool parents learn that it's OK to take a break. In fact, not only is it OK... it's necessary. Whether you declare a moment of silence, park your kids in front of the screens for half an hour, assign 15 minutes of silent reading "homework," or just lock yourself in the bathroom for a few seconds, it's fine. It's warranted. It's essential. And when you're blunt with your kids and say, "Hey, I need a break right now," you're letting your children know that it's OK to set healthy boundaries with people, including people you love and care for.
2. Playtime Is Learning Time
This is especially true for young children. In 2019, a study published in Scientific Reports found that structures play helps teach toddlers to self-regulate, and a 2002 study found that children in preschool who learned via play, instead of regulated instruction, had higher grades by the time they hit fourth grade than those who did not.
Homeschool parents, especially unschoolers, understand the value of play. They make time for it, and they value how their children learn from play. So, the next time you're tempted to think your kids are "just goofing around," consider that they might actually be doing important, self-directed learning. (And then give yourself a pat on the back!)
3. Dollar Store Science Is Still Science
You don't have to have a big, expensive lab filled with trinkets to teach your children science. From preschool up through high school, there are plenty of science supplies available at your local dollar store.
Want to help your kid learn chemistry? Go buy a few dollars of food and/or cleaning supplies (just not ammonia or bleach) and let them mix away. The internet can provide you with a lot of videos that will help you explain the science behind why that mixture fizzed or oozed.
How about physics? Anything round can teach motion and friction, and anything with a string can teach about pendulums, wave motion, torque, or angular momentum. Batteries, magnets, and wires teach electromagnetism.
Dismantling pretty much anything can help teach engineering. So can making paper pulp or building things out of tin foil.
But what about biology? Knifes can help with dissections. There are all kinds of planting supplies you can utilize in the spring, and inexpensive bug nets, jars, and magnifying glasses to help your child examine the life around them.
With a little help from the internet and a little creativity, you can find some science in just about anything your dollar can buy.
4. There Are Words Everywhere
Just like there is math everywhere, there are words everywhere. Yes, it slows down my errands when I ask my 5-year-old to sound out "milk" or "cheddar, but it's great reading experience for him.
For older kids, asking them to make the grocery list so they can practice their spelling, or asking them to compare ingredients so they can practice their vocabulary, is worth the few extra minutes it takes to go shopping or make dinner.
5. There Is Math In Everything
Remember those tedious word problems from grade school, where the textbook tried to make math practice relevant by asking you how many cookies Sally needed for her birthday party if her five friends wanted to each eat two cookies? And instead of answering the question you just wanted to make yourself a batch of cookies?
Well, homeschoolers get their math and their cookies, too. These word problems make a lot more sense when I'm actually at the grocery with my kids, trying to figure out how much to buy for a friend's baby shower. Yes, it would be faster to just do the math myself, but if I ask my kiddo how much change he should expect if he buys three apples for $1 each and pays with a $5 bill, my morning at the farmer's market doubles as a math lesson. Multi-tasking win.
6. There Are People Just Waiting To Teach Your Kid Things
Think of all of the places that your kids — or you — have gone on field trips. Museums, state parks, nature centers, libraries. These places are all staffed with adults who like teaching kids things. And even when the museums are packed with visitors, many families are too busy to stop and let these wonderful educators teach their kids. So, take a minute and ask the docent a question. Or, better yet, prompt your kid to ask the question! Listen, learn, then ask more. Often docents and tour guides and rangers are fountains of knowledge. They're there to teach, so let them!
7. Learning Differences Are A Good Thing
Lots of homeschooling parents plan their days around their kids' learning habits and needs. Quiet kids who are easily overstimulated get to spend lots of time at the library. Boisterous kids who love loud noises get to explore science museums and be in community theater. If the setting and the kid match, things go much more smoothly.
In the right setting, a "disruptive" kid can be "highly curious" or "wonderfully social." A kid with with high sensitivity to noises can be a perceptive musician.
Find the upside to your kid's most challenging traits or habits, then find a setting where that trait can be appreciated and valued. Even if your kid is still in school, struggling to sit still and be quiet, knowing that they'll get a chance to be the star of the musical after school can help them (and you, and their teachers) see the value of their loudness and energy.
8. School Supplies Can Be Hand-Me-Downs
Homeschoolers trade and share and sell school supplies the way most folks pass along half-used winter coats that the kids grew out (often way too fast). There's a ton of second-hand curriculum materials, teacher books, science gear, math manipulatives, board games, and even plain old workbooks floating around.
If you're looking for materials to help your kid learn, consider linking up with your local homeschool network and finding out if anyone has a used set of math games or a binder of science fair project ideas. Some homeschoolers may want a few bucks for the supplies, but many of them just want to be sure that the learning materials will be used and appreciated, instead of ending up in the recycling.
9. Learning Can Happen Any Time, Anywhere
So you're thinking of taking a family vacation to Greece for two weeks, but you're worried your third grader will fall behind in school? You want to go visit the grandparents in Florida, but it's too hot in the summer and the flights cost too much over winter break? How could you possibly pull your kids out of school? How will they learn anything?
Well, take it from a homeschool mom when I say: They'll learn. Really. Learning is an innate part of childhood. In fact, I think you have to work hard to stop kids from learning. (Think about how hard it is to keep them from learning that cuss word you let slip. Or how hard you tried to keep them from learning how to unlock your iPad.)
If you take kids out of school and put them in an engaging, interesting environment — new place, new people, new sights, etc. — they'll take it all in. They'll notice things, make connections, make comparisons, and do their best to make sense of it. Whether the new environment is something fabulous like the Andes or just a doctor's office, it can be new and exciting to a kid (my big kid was fascinated by my OB-GYN and my prenatal visits and, as a result, learned a lot about medicine and reproduction). Each kid will notice something different — it might be the shape of the building, new words, or a bit of history — but they'll be learning wherever they go. So go ahead, take that trip for a day or a week and think of it as a mini-homeschooling adventure.
Healey, D.; Healey, M. (2019) Randomized Controlled Trial comparing the effectiveness of structured-play (ENGAGE) and behavior management (TRIPLE P) in reducing problem behaviors in preschoolers. Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-40234-0
Macron, R.A. (2002) Moving up the Grades: Relationship between Preschool Model and Later School Success. http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v4n1/marcon.html