So here’s a thing: what you’re doing at home doesn’t have to look much like what your child would be doing at school. Maybe you’re still getting your head around how to do this; maybe you have to work full-time and you don’t have spare time or resources to do much more than keep your child fed and safe; maybe everyone’s worried and unsettled and you need to focus on your child’s mental health right now; maybe on the day the schools closed you just declared that the Easter holiday had arrived early. For whatever reason, it’s OK to decide not to actively educate your child right now.
I’ve struggled with writing this more than with most other posts, and I think it’s because I’m really wary of seeming like I’m telling you what to do. So I’m going to be really clear from the start that I’m not saying what anyone should or shouldn’t do: you’re the expert on your own situation and what’s right for your own family at any particular point in time, and I know very well that the same approach doesn’t work for everyone. Maybe your child is thriving with a highly-scheduled school-at-home approach, and that’s wonderful, keep on with it. I’m laying out some options that can and do work for different families, and describing some of our own experiences, but this is more of a buffet than a set menu: take what works for you and leave anything you don’t like the look of. Above all else, I’d like to offer you the option of not feeling guilty about whatever education looks like in your house right now.
Some long-term home educators take an approach commonly known as “unschooling”, which separates the idea of teaching (an adult decides what should be covered and when, and conveys it to a child, and checks the child has learnt it) from the idea of learning (gaining new skills, knowledge or ideas). It absolutely doesn’t mean leaving your child to their own devices and doing nothing; it does mean being led by that child’s interests as well as their preferred way of structuring their day. I won’t go into the theory and practice of it here – you can look at Sandra Dodd’s website or Pam Laricchia’s podcast or search online if you want to know more. But I mention it because I want to talk about the idea of incidental learning: whatever you do, you’ll end up learning something somehow, because that’s how humans are made. We don’t teach babies to smile, or to sit up, or to walk; we’re there to help if they need it, and to celebrate when they manage it, but we start from the assumption that they want to learn new things and will do so in their own time. There’s no need to suddenly change that mindset when they get to school age.
When my children were going to school, I was collecting my five-year-old daughter after her first day back from the summer holidays. Her teacher met me with a big smile: “You’ve obviously been working on her reading a lot over the summer, she’s made great progress!”. I made some noncommittal noises and got away from there as quickly as possible, feeling a bit guilty because we hadn’t worked on her reading at all. We’d read to her at bedtime as always, and she’d been looking at books and choosing new ones from the library as usual – but we never actually Worked On Her Reading, which I imagined meant sitting at a table with worksheets or school-approved reading books with only phonetic CVC words in them. She’d just done it when she was ready, the same way she’d started talking suddenly at two years old (to our great relief, because we were beginning to wonder if she’d ever say anything). On the other hand, one of her siblings talked fluently from barely a year old, but despite having the same support and environment, didn’t read fluently until she was well over six. If a child doesn’t have a specific learning disability (such as dyslexia, dyscalculia or language disorder) that could get in the way of part of their learning, they will learn it when they’re ready.
It’s a tradition among unschoolers to have an international “Learn Nothing Day” once a year, when they challenge their children to learn nothing at all for one day. Inevitably, even before lunchtime, they have to admit defeat because they’ve read something in a book they didn’t know before, or mastered a new dance move, or solved a puzzle. Or, often, they’ve just gone off and learnt in a very school-looking way about an academic subject without any encouragement from an adult, because they’re really interested in it or it’s relevant for a job they’d like to do one day.
I touched before on the idea of asking your child what they want to learn about, and that’s one way in to child-led learning. Another way is just answering their questions as they arise: if your child asks what a word means, or what something is, or how something works, you can follow that lead. It can be helpful not just to give an answer straight off the bat: talk through the way you’re working out the answer, or help your child to use a physical or online dictionary, or work with them on how to phrase a search string for an online search engine to get the most useful results and talk about how to judge the reliability of the answers that you get from it.
Children will also pick up useful skills from what seem like leisure activities – board games and card games can teach literacy and numeracy as well as logical reasoning, and many more things (I have some suggestions about board and card games for toddlers, for little children, and for older children). Reading books, watching TV and playing computer games can be sources of ideas, information and new interests, and the hours of focused attention that a child will give to something like Minecraft or pretend play or Lego are not “wasted time” but a continued exploration of the world and what is possible in it. Older children might get interested in a topic and research it online, watch YouTube videos or discuss it with friends. The fundamental principle is that if you’re interested, you’re probably learning something.
It’s also worth thinking about involving your children in everyday activities around the house if they’re willing – both because it’s intrinsically useful to learn “life skills” like laundry or cooking or mending, and also because those activities can feed into academic learning. Sometimes doing something in a really concrete way – such as using weighing scales while cooking – can support a child’s understanding when they’re asked to work in a more abstract way for pen-and-paper schoolwork.
I believe that all kinds of art, craft, practical and creative activities have a value in their own right, not just “it’s OK to do them because they might help you to be better at maths”, although the latter is true too. As a culture we often dismiss the value of these kinds of activities, at the same time as we really appreciate their end results (films, TV, beautiful objects and pictures). One of the skills that I think children rarely get to practise at school is that of tolerating boredom, or knowing what to do with free time, or choosing what to do (even when schools offer “choosing time” it’s a brief window with a limited range of options). There’s also a lot to be said for being able to spend a really long time on something, whether reading a novel in one sitting, or spending a whole day building a gigantic Lego castle, or repeating a gymnastics move again and again until you’ve got it right, or working through all the levels on a new computer game, or setting up an elaborate pretend play game with Sylvanian families and seeing where it ends up. Deep immersion in an activity over a long time gets you to different places than just dipping in and out over the course of a week. If that’s what your child is doing now, then they aren’t doing nothing or wasting time – you don’t have to haul them out of whatever they’re involved in and insist that they do some worksheets, and you don’t have to feel guilty because they missed today’s online class.
If it helps to focus on the educational value of what your child is doing, then you can focus on whether they’re acquiring new information, practising literacy and numeracy skills, using logical reasoning, or developing the kind of transferrable skills that are incredibly valuable for the later stages of education and in employment like research, planning, organisation, resourcefulness and creativity. I’ve been repeatedly surprised by my children picking up skills and ideas from unexpected places (my daughter learning huge amounts of history because a YouTuber she follows for other content happens to take an interest in it, my son’s spelling improving because he was working out how to search iPlayer for what he wanted to watch) and I see how willingly they do supposedly academic tasks as part of their immersion in their own activities (a child who was an unwilling writer started composing songs and suddenly wanted to write down all the lyrics, one who avoids maths wherever possible needed to calculate how much fabric was needed to sew a bag). I know from my own experience that the things I learnt in that kind of fully engrossed and contextualised way feel very different from those I learnt as dry facts that everyone ought to know. So yes, it all has educational value, but it has much more than that: it’s deeply fulfilling to spend time immersed in something that you love doing.
Other home education posts:
- Home education 1: Introduction
- Home education 2: Scheduling
- Home education 3: What to learn
- Home education 4: Work spaces
- Home education 5: Working from home when your children are there
- Home education 6: What to do
- Home education 7: Morning activities
- Home education 8: Science experiments
- Resources and materials
- Staying happy and staying friends