Home education 9: Incidental learning

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:

Coming soon:

  • Resources and materials
  • Staying happy and staying friends

 

 

Home education 8: Science experiments

Some of the most fun and memorable home education things we’ve done have been science experiments. I’ll suggest specific ones that you can try with minimal resources, but I want to start by talking about the scientific method. When you teach your child how to ask questions and find out answers to them, you’re not just helping them to learn whatever specific bit of science you’re investigating at that moment, you’re equipping them with a technique that can help them in all areas of their learning.

The scientific method

You can find colourful flow charts of this all over the internet, and versions with more or fewer steps, and you can collapse or expand the steps depending whether you’re talking to a 4-year-old who wants to find out why some things float and some sink, or a 15-year-old preparing for their Physics GCSE. The basic structure goes something like this:

  1. Ask a question and be clear exactly what you’re asking – define your terms. For example, if the question is about whether a plant will “grow better” under certain conditions, do you mean taller, stronger, faster growth, greater total weight of harvest from it…
  2. Gather information and ideas – this might mean having a chat about what you already know, or looking through a book, or a search on Google Scholar, as appropriate.
  3. State your hypothesis: what will happen, exactly, and when and how? You might want to think about including a control condition in your experiment – if you’re comparing outcomes, you might want a “what if we did nothing?” condition, like the untouched bread in the mould experiment below.
  4. Do your experiment. The fun bit!
  5. Gather data by measuring, taking photos, writing notes, drawing, a table, a list of measurements with dates beside them, a spreadsheet…
  6. Draw a conclusion by comparing your results with your hypothesis. Did you see what you expected? What surprised you? How can you make sense of what you’ve seen, on the basis of what you knew before you started? This is often a springboard into another experiment: if you aren’t sure why you got the results you did, what experiments could you do next to work out what was going on? So if you think that one piece of bread was mouldiest because it was wetter than the others, could you make them all wet but vary other aspects like whether they’ve been touched or not? If you think you accidentally over-watered your plants, could you try again keeping everything the same but giving different, measured amounts of water to each plant? Science experiments are also a good context for teaching some basic statistical concepts like range, or mean/median/mode.
  7. Optional step: present your data and conclusions. This might mean anything from drawing pictures or a simple graph, to a systematic written report.

There are some wonderful resources for older children to do more advanced science – I strongly recommend a Mel Science subscription to anyone trying to do Chemistry GCSE from home – but here are some ideas that you can do with resources you might have at home right now.

The mouldy bread experiment

I got this idea from friends in a home education group, and as well as being educational, it was helpful in encouraging effective hand-washing – “remember the bread!” turned out to be pretty good motivation for small children making sure their hands were really clean.

You will need some sliced white bread (white shows the mould better) cut into equal-sized pieces, one for each condition – don’t forget the control. We had control, touched with dirty hands, been on the floor, run under the tap, licked, and toasted. Seal in transparent plastic bags, or wrap in clingfilm, and label them clearly – we copied the person whose idea it was and taped the bags to a large sheet of cardboard with the labels written on it. Then check them every day and find out what happens. Disgusting and fascinating.

Floating ink

If you have whiteboard markers at home, you can try this. The reason dry-erase markers can be wiped off non-porous surfaces is that they contain solvent as well as ink – when you wipe, the solvent dissolves the ink (this is also why dry-erase markers can remove permanent markers like Sharpies, because the solvent works on both). This means that the ink never really sticks to the surface it’s on, so you can do this: draw a picture in whiteboard marker on the inside base of a glass dish or tray, wait a minute for the ink to dry, then gently pour in water and see if you can get the ink to float.

If you can make it work, you can experiment with different colours (we found a lot of variation in how well different colours worked), try different shapes (e.g. outlines vs filled-in shapes, small vs large), and if you have a long enough container you can race your shapes along it by blowing them along.

Sprouting seeds

This isn’t a hypothesis-testing experiment, more of an exploration and seeing what happens. My children were doing a worksheet (it does happen sometimes) about the different parts of a seed, and the illustration wasn’t really clear about which part was which, so we got to wondering if we could find out for ourselves.

The seed on the worksheet was a broad bean, which I didn’t have any of, but we went through the kitchen cupboard for a few things that looked like they might grow if they got a chance. We found red and green lentils, unpopped popcorn kernels, two kinds of dried bean, and some quinoa – you can also try any kinds of seed (sunflower, pumpkin etc), brown rice, and if you have pets, the grains that are in their feed (I say this having accidentally grown a large patch of wheat from throwing my rabbit’s old food out for the birds when I was little). It won’t work with anything that’s been cooked.

Larger beans and popcorn will benefit from being soaked in water overnight before you start. Then lay a couple of sheets of damp kitchen roll or cloth, in the bottom of an opaque container, and arrange the seeds on it (you might want to draw yourself a diagram to remember which is which, as some of them change quite dramatically). Cover the top with an opaque lid, and check on them every day, adding water to keep the base damp. You can draw pictures or take photos of the different ways that the shoots and roots emerge from each seed, and when they get to a few centimetres, you can plant them into pots of soil and see how big you can grow them. You might even get a crop from them! It’s worth including at least one monocotyledon (corn, wheat, rice etc) for comparison, as most beans and seeds are dicotyledons. You can also try using spices (coriander, mustard seeds, fenugreek etc), or the links here and here have some suggestions for sprouting vegetable off-cuts.

Some other ideas

  • Parachutes: if your house has an upstairs and a back garden, you can make parachutes for toys and time how long they take to hit the ground if you use different materials, different toys, or different sizes of parachute.
  • Marble runs: use toilet roll tubes or any other bits of cardboard taped to a radiator to design marble runs, and time how long different routes or different sizes of marble take to complete it.
  • Taste tests: not everybody has the same set of taste receptors, so we differ in our ability to detect and identify tastes, and whether we like them or not. You can test each other’s sense of smell and taste with foods and spices, and see whether holding your nose makes a difference.
  • Bicarbonate of soda and vinegar: if you have bicarb in the house, you can do all sorts of experiments with acids and alkalis. The simplest version is combining bicarb with vinegar and seeing how they react; then you can use that to design new experiments, such as testing whether other liquids are acidic, or putting a balloon over the neck of a bottle to catch the carbon dioxide that’s given off by the reaction. The internet will suggest a thousand more possibilities for you to experiment with bicarbonate of soda (called baking soda on US sites).
  • Float or sink: if you have outdoor space then this is good for a sunny day, but you can also do it in the bath or lay a towel on the floor and put a bucket or washing up bowl on top of it. Why do some things float and others sink? Maybe it’s what they’re made of, or what shape they are: can you make floating shapes and sinking shapes from playdough? What about a bottle with the lid on or off? Does it make a difference if the water has bubble bath or washing up liquid in it?
  • Density: in a tall glass, pour in layers of different liquids – for example, treacle, water and vegetable oil (you can add food colouring to your water or oil to help the layers stand out). If you mix them, they will settle out into layers depending on their density. You can also drop in different objects (a coin, a marble, a piece of lego, a cork) and see that they float at different levels.
  • Dissolving egg shell: leave a raw egg in a container of vinegar and watch what happens. Over the course of a few days the shell dissolves, first the outer layer then the inner one, leaving the egg white and yolk contained in the translucent inner membrane. You can use this as a jumping-off point for discussions about chemistry (what is vinegar made of, what is the shell made of, what happened and why); biology (hold the squishy shell-less egg up to the light or shine a torch through it, look online for information about how baby birds develop in their shells); it’s even a good starting point for a bit of geography work about acid rain and erosion, and the different things that rocks can be made of (and what some of them have in common with the egg shell). It’s also slightly gruesome in a way that makes it really memorable, like all the best science experiments.

 

Other home education posts:

Coming soon:

  • Resources and materials
  • Staying happy and staying friends

Home education 7: Morning activities

The thing I’m trying to describe here turns up again and again, with different names and subtle variations, in all sorts of writing about child-led education, whether Charlotte Mason or Montessori or Reggio Emilia… If you search online for “morning activities” or “morning baskets” or “strewing” or “invitations”, you can find explanations of the different philosophies behind in, and photos of beautifully-strewn tables and wicker baskets full of natural objects, and I encourage you to have a look if you’re interested to know more or would like to take a more purist approach. For us, as with so many things, we’ve taken some basic ideas and extracted what works for us, then made it as simple and practical as possible – and particularly right now, I’d really encourage you to do the same, not only with this but with anything you come across.

By its nature, this is better suited to primary-aged children than to older ones, though if you have both in the house you may find the older children take an interest too. Older children might still benefit from setting up their workspace the night before, or might enjoy the more arty/crafty ideas, or a book or a puzzle out for them.

The basic idea

At its simplest, the idea is that you leave something your child might be interested in, in a place where they will see it and can choose whether to do it. Ideally it looks inviting or interesting, and it’s set up in a way that makes it possible for your child to start it immediately and independently if they choose to. Another helpful idea is keeping it quite pared-down and simple, which might mean putting out two of something rather than twenty, or choosing a small number of pieces from a collection rather than the whole box – more specific examples below.

Why?

Honest answer first: it makes my life easier. I’m very much not a morning person, so thinking of a few things in the evening and leaving them on the table before I go to bed helps me to delay the start of my thinking, concentrating day a little bit. Also, it suggests some kind of constructive activity, even if it’s not purely “educational”, so helps my children not to drift every day towards the same default activities – I don’t mind them watching TV or playing computer games or Lego, but leaving out morning activities gives them a gentle reminder that other activities also exist, and they often end up getting really interested in something they might not have thought of otherwise. And if you have children who get up at different times, or someone in the house who needs your undivided attention for a while each morning, this helps any child who’s up and ready to get started without you, and not feel forgotten about.

Laying out resources like this helps us to remember books and activities that we haven’t looked at for a while, or to introduce some new thing I’ve found, without having to explicitly present it. “Hey, you’ll like this” is a sure way to drain the interest out of something, in my experience – like when something tells me a film is hilarious and immediately raises my expectations past what it can possibly live up to – but a more casual offering lowers the stakes, and also leaves your child free to ignore it, without it feeling like a rejection of your idea.

Although in my house they’re morning activities, these types of things can also be good for times when you need a period of quiet, because they’re specifically designed to be things your children can do independently – whether you need to make a phone call for work, or want a few minutes to take a shower, or you’re trying to get the baby to bed without the three-year-old interfering in the process. Use them as they work best for you.

Where?

We have a table that we use for most of our sitting-down-together learning, and don’t use for anything else, so at the end of every day we clear away that day’s things and get the next day’s morning activities out. If you don’t have the space, or you also need to eat meals off the table where your child works, even a coffee table or a mat on the floor works well. Or you could use a basket or a tray: each time, put the materials in it for one activity, and leave it in the same place, near where your child will be using it.

How?

I’ll go into more detail in a minute about some specific types of materials you might want to use, but here are some things to keep in mind:

  • simple

At other times your child might be choosing from a whole pile of books, or a cupboard full of toys, or a whole textbook or exercise book, but specifically for this, it’s helpful for filter their options a bit. Leave one or two books open or bookmarked at a relevant page; leave three different-coloured pens, not the whole box; leave a single worksheet not a whole workbook.

  • focused but open-ended

The idea is for the invitation or materials to give your child an idea of how to start, but leave space for them to go in a different direction or go on to some similar but different activity. If for example you’ve left out a ruler and a set of objects for a young child to measure, they might measure all of those things then go on to find other things to measure, or you could offer a tape measure to use for bigger things, or a piece of string and show them how to measure things bigger than the ruler.

This also means that different children can get different things out of the same set of materials: for example, I left out a box of old and foreign coins, and one child made the coins into a timeline of UK monarchs, another played a shop game with the money, and another went off to research pre-decimalisation currency, leading into some maths work (on how many old pennies made a pound, and so on) as well as some science (metric measures and S.I. units).

Using worksheets is not really in the original purist version of this idea, but if it works for your family then feel free to run with it, and you could think about how to make it more open-ended as well, if you want. Maybe you leave out some maths manipulatives or a calculator alongside a maths worksheet, and some blank paper for your child to make their own versions of the questions; maybe with a history worksheet you leave a timeline or a book about that period of history; next to a list of spellings, a dictionary and some Scrabble letters.

  • ready to use

This is really important if you want to use these as morning activities or as independent activities while you do other things. If the activity might involve a pencil and paper, then put both right next to it; if the materials are stored in a box, take the lid off and take some or all of them out. You want your child to be able to go straight from seeing the activity to doing it with no interruptions or distractions.

  • appealing

It may be that you’re doing work set by the school, in which case your options for making it appealing are limited, but it’s still worth thinking about. Lay it out in a clear space so it’s easy to see, put some music on, put a drink on the table next to it, whatever helps. If you’re doing more traditional strewing, think about choosing colourful materials or things that are a pleasure to use, and laying them out in a way that looks visually appealing.

  • relevant

You can strew any kind of activities, but if you want you can pick things that are relevant to what your child has been learning about recently, or something that picks up on an interest. I usually try to link in the morning activities to the kind of group work we’ll be doing each day, so for example I might leave out The Flag Game on a day when we’re going to do some geography, or white chalk and black paper if we’re going to do some art together later. Or I might find a book or a magazine article related to something my child did or asked me about recently.

An example

All of my children love the Steven Universe series, which has a characters named after precious and semi-precious stones. I found a couple of books on gems, rocks and minerals, and left them out one morning with some crystals we grew from a kit a while ago, and a magnifying glass. They spent a while looking at the books, finding out what the characters’ stones looked like, then looking for stones whose names hadn’t already been used in the series. The youngest looked at the crystals with the magnifying glass, then wandered off with it and used it to look at other things around the house. Later on, some of us learnt together about the structure of crystals, linked it with what we’d been learning about atoms in chemistry, and used Molymods to make some molecules. Over the next few days, one child researched gemstones online and used what she found to assign gems to different people in the house; we also had an interesting conversation about why people do or don’t believe in different crystals having healing properties, and about alternative medicines. Another child found a website where you can create your own Steven Universe characters, and designed a whole range of characters. And another child had a bit of a look at the pretty pictures in the gems book then wandered off to do something else she was more interested in.

What?

You can come up with ideas of your own, based on what you have available at home right now, or by searching online. Pinterest and Waldorf/Montessori websites are a treasure trove of ideas, all very beautiful and aspirational, if you enjoy that sort of things. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • general

jigsaws, puzzle books, card games, board games, books, worksheets, construction toys.

  • for little children

threading beads, materials for sorting, tweezers/tongs and objects to pick up, bowl & spoon, counters, marbles

  • art and craft

colouring sheets, paper, pens/pencils/crayons/chalks, craft kits, beading, sewing materials

  • English

wordsearch, crossword, letters from a Scrabble game, dictionary and word list, reading book

  • maths

calculator, sums on cards/paper, abacus, dice, counters, number line, hundred square, weighing scales

  • science

magnifying glass, microscope, “spotter’s guide” book and pictures/objects to identify, weighing scales

  • history

books, timelines, newspaper cuttings/printouts

  • geography

map/atlas, list of places to find, string and tape measure, flags

 

Previous posts:

Coming soon:

  • Resources and materials
  • Staying happy and staying friends

 

Home education 6: What to do

I’m really hesitant about writing this at all, because there are lists upon lists circulating right now of all the amazing websites and YouTube channels and Facebook Live events and virtual museums and so on that have been created in response to school closure, I think you’re probably at greater risk of information overload than of not knowing what there is. So I will include a very short list of some of our favourite websites and online resources, as well as some alternative ideas, and some thoughts about how to manage all the ideas you might be accumulating.

Online resources

A short list of our absolute favourites:

Yes, you’ve definitely heard about this already, but I want to add a couple of tips based on my children using it for a while. First, know that its strength is maths, and it has a beautifully structured maths curriculum with excellent in-built testing and motivational badges, but for many other subject areas (particularly humanities) the structures courses are a bit patchy. Frankly, for something so vast, and completely free, I’m just grateful for how good the maths is. But second, what it does even better than maths is the “partner content“. For example, Pixar In A Box is a course on animation produced by Pixar, covering character design and story construction and colour theory and a whole world of other things, all through the lens of animation and illustrated with examples from familiar films. There are also courses from the Tate Gallery, NASA, the American Museum of Natural History, and much more (and it’s strong on both humanities and sciences). Every bit of partner content we’ve used has been wonderful, really compelling, and not quite as school-like as the main Khan Academy courses if that’s what your child needs.

Very good for everything from Early Years to GCSE and post-16 Functional Skills.

We have a subscription to their experiments-in-a-box scheme, which is great but expensive (worth it for us because it contains enough equipment to do each experiment at least twice, so we share it, and because it’s making it possible for my daughter to do Chemistry GCSE from home). But they have made their online lessons free for 3 months and if they’re anything like as good as the ones we’ve seen on their app, I highly recommend them.

Great apps/websites for language learning, well structured to keep children interested (and good for adults too).

A brilliant idea: advertising revenue funds donations to the World Food Programme. It’s full of quizzes on a wide range of topics, and you can set the difficulty level – great for a quick burst of learning or revision.

Free online courses from universities and other prestigious providers, very good for older children.

  • Montessori websites

If you have children in EYFS or KS1, it’s worth searching for the phrase “free Montessori printables” and any topic you want to cover with them. There are some wonderful resources for literacy, numeracy, biology and geography in particular – perfect if you have a printer, but even if you don’t they might give you helpful ideas.

Earn a series of virtual “badges” by learning computerskills, from coding to online safety and lots more, building up to Bronze and Silver Awards (the Gold Award is still under construction).

From the British Science Association: a resource library of ideas for science experiments, and if you want you can register (and pay a small fee) to get certificates in the post when your child has completed a series of activities. The younger children’s awards are very structured – picking a number of experiments from a list and following instructions – while the older children’s are longer-term projects, but all can be done at home.

If your child does Brownies/Scouts/etc you’ll recognise the format: pick a challenge pack from the list, then pick activities from each category until you reach the total for your age, and hey presto, you’ve earnt a badge. You can buy actual cloth badges if you want them, or just make your own certificates or tick challenges off a list.

Other ideas

There are lots of other ways to learn school subjects at home, in addition to using online courses or worksheets, or doing work that your child’s school has sent home. Of course the different approaches can sit comfortably alongside each other and complement each other.

  • Science experiments

If you search online for “kitchen science” you’ll find ideas for all kinds of simple science experiments that you can do at home with ordinary experiments. They’re a good way of exploring scientific concepts in a memorable way, and also for children to learn in general about the scientific method: the idea that you can ask a question, design an experiment, look at the results and draw a conclusion. To give a simple example: you can mix bicarbonate of soda with vinegar to illustrate the idea of acid and alkaline, then you can ask your child to come up with ideas of other things you can test with vinegar or bicarb, or you can do the reaction in a plastic bottle with a balloon over the neck to capture the carbon dioxide it gives off. I’ve written about science experiments in more detail here, including our two favourites: floating ink, and the mouldy bread experiment.

  • Reading out loud

You might find that your children are more willing to listen to you reading a lesson, or a story book, if they’ve got something to do while they listen, like playdough, colouring, Hama beads, jewellery making, or Lego. All children’s books are currently free on Audible, so you can browse for new things to listen to if you don’t want to read it yourself (or if you want your hands free to join in with the beading).

  • Podcasts

Instead of you reading aloud, you could try putting on a podcast. Some of our favourites for primary-school-aged children are Smash Boom Best, Tai Asks Why, Short & Curly, Brains On, Pants On Fire, Every Little Thing, and NOAA and the Octonauts. For older children, you could try You’re Dead To Me, The Infinite Monkey Cage, The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry, or Ted Talks Daily. Podcasts are also great if you’ve got a low-mental-effort job to do together, like tidying or washing up; or even put one on while your child is in the bath or once they’re in bed.

  • Poetry teatime

I don’t know where this idea came from, but it’s another variation on the theme of doing something else while you listen. Set everyone up around a table with snacks and drinks, then as you eat and drink you take it in turns to read out poems that each of you has chosen. Younger children can choose one for someone else to read; some children also enjoying learning a poem off by heart.

  • TV

Look, if you live in the UK and have small children I don’t need to tell you about CBBC and CBeebies, but I can’t pass up an opportunity to sing the praises of their educational programmes, mainly because they’re done in a way that’s interesting enough for children to watch them voluntarily. Numberblocks teaches complex number concepts in a really accessible and intuitive way; Andy’s Prehistoric/Dinosaur Adventures and Octonauts are full of scientifically accurate information; Horrible Histories is funny and has great songs while getting children interested in history; Newsround is easy-to-digest current affairs. You can also look across other channels for documentaries and factual programmes aimed at adults which might appeal to older children, or films based on historical events, which could help children to get interested in finding out more about a topic, as well as buying you some time to work from home if you need it. For a while we watched Countdown as a family, which turned out to be really good practice for the eleven plus exam.

What to do with all this information

There’s been an international outpouring of ideas, and I know from experience that having a vast list of options can sometimes overwhelm you into doing none of them. You can also find yourself approaching it from the wrong direction: when you’re really excited about what’s available and trying to get your child to take an interest, rather than starting from what your child wants or needs to learn and looking for ways for them to pursue that interest. I suggest you find a way to collect ideas and suggestions and resources as you find them – notebook, Word document, Pinterest board, whatever – then turn away from the list and towards your child. When they’re interested in something, or need help understanding a particular concept, or there’s a gap in their learning, you can look at your list or go searching for new ideas. That’s not to say you can’t tell your child about what’s available – “hey, I heard about a different website we could try for maths / a ballet production we could watch online / a YouTube channel I think you’d like, do you want to have a look?” – but just be selective. You’ll all get more out of doing a few things well than many things halfheartedly.

Other home education posts:

Coming soon:

  • Resources and materials
  • Staying happy and staying friends

Home education 5: Working from home when your children are there

In general, this is a terrible idea. In ordinary circumstances, I’d be suggesting you think of all possible alternatives to getting yourself into this situation, unless your child was a teenager capable of working pretty much independently, or your work was something requiring really minimal concentration. However, we are where we are, and everyone is having to get a bit creative – and right now it’s far safer for everyone to stay home if it’s at all possible, even if that’s not ideal for work or education.

I’ve spent the last few years doing different kinds of work from home, on and off, and I’ve tried to avoid having to do much while my children were around but sometimes it’s been the only option available. Here are some of the things that have worked, or not worked, for you to use in your own family if they suit your specific circumstances.

Also, top secret bonus tip: you don’t have to be working to use these ideas. If you really need fifteen minutes by yourself to take a shower or read a book or call a friend or just stare into space, do what you need to make that happen.

Pay up front

This is one of the things I’ve most consistently found to be true, and also one that I’ve tried hardest to resist: smaller children in particular do much better if you pay attention to them first, then go off to do your own thing afterwards. If I say “I just need to work for half an hour then I’ll play with you for half an hour”, I can almost guarantee that I’ll get half an hour of being constantly interrupted and complained at while I work, followed by half an hour of us listlessly semi-playing because I’m annoyed about not having been able to work and the child in question is annoyed with me for having ignored them. On the other hand, if I play wholeheartedly for half an hour first, the child has usually got involved in the game and is willing to carry on without me, and I can do a bit of work with minimal interruption.

All or nothing

I’ve also tried working while engaging with the children, and that doesn’t end well either. When we were planning what to write here, my daughter said that her least favourite thing is “when you say it’s OK to talk to you but you’re doing something else and not really listening” (ouch). All the evidence we have about “multi tasking” suggests that, really, people who think they’re doing two things at once are just repeatedly switching attention from one task to another, losing a bit of focus and wasting time reorienting every time they do it.

I get that sometimes it’s unavoidable, and there might be some aspects of your work that keep you physically occupied but with most of your attention free to focus on your children (to use a non-work example, I can get away with knitting or sewing while being with my children, but I can’t read a book). But if at all possible, my experience is that it’s far more efficient, and everyone is happier, if you can organise your day so that there are times when your children have your full attention, and times when they know they don’t have it.

If there are two or more adults trying to work in your house right now, this means you might want to negotiate a schedule or system for exactly who is on education/child duty at any particular point in time. It’s also easier for your child if you can tell them very clearly, for example, “Right now I’m with you and Daddy’s doing some work. At 12.30 we’ll all have lunch together then I’ll do some work while Daddy looks after you.” The person who is on child duty at any given point might be able to get a little bit of work done if they’re lucky, but shouldn’t count on it.

The 100% principle also applies to things that are neither your work nor your children. Yes, we’re all anxious, and we all want to check the news/email/social media every five minutes, but make a time when you’re going to do that with your full attention, and don’t let it intrude either on your work time or your time with you children.

Can they be with you while you work?

Not dividing your attention doesn’t rule out you and your child sitting at a table and both getting on with some work in companionable silence for a while, if your child is doing something like an online lesson or a worksheet that they can do with minimal ongoing help. If this is a good fit with the kind of work you do, in many ways it’s ideal.

It may also be possible for a child to play or read quietly near you while you’re concentrating on getting some work done. Particularly if they’re feeling anxious or unsettled right now, they’re likely to want the reassurance that comes from being near to you or physically touching you a lot more than usual. With young children that might even curling up in your lap while you work for a while; older children might be fine just to be in the same room, or within sight or earshot.

Explain how to interrupt you

Depending on the type of work you’re doing, it might be anywhere on a scale from fine to catastrophic for your child to interrupt you. Make life easier for everyone by being clear under what circumstances they can interrupt, and how you’d like them to do it if it’s necessary.

When I’m making a confidential work phone call, for example, my children know that they mustn’t interrupt unless there’s a medical emergency or something is on fire, and if they absolutely can’t wait, they need to write a message on a piece of paper and come in with it silently. If I’m going to need to do that kind of work while I’m in sole charge of them, I let them know very clearly that it’s going to happen and how long it will take, and I remind them of the rules.

Other kinds of work might be more interruptible, so the rule might be “if you need help with your work, come over to where I’m working and wait for me to answer”. My children used to go to a school which had a system of cards: all children had a red, an amber and a green card which they could put on the desk next to them, to communicate with the teachers. Red meant “I urgently need help with my work as soon as someone’s available, and I can’t do anything else until I get that help”; amber meant “I’m stuck on something and would like some help, but I have something else I can get on with while I’m waiting”; green meant “I don’t need any help, but I’ve got a piece of work that needs to be checked or some information I’d like to share”. While I’m not suggesting a system of cards necessarily, it could be useful to talk with your child about the level of urgency, and whether you need half an hour of “code red interruptions only” or whether you’re open to amber-level interruptions for the rest of the morning, etc.

If you’re making work phone calls or video calls, find out before you start how to mute the sound and/or turn off the video, in case you have an unexpected interruption and your rather not share it with your colleagues. I once spent nearly an hour with the phone on mute while I comforted a seriously unwell toddler, unmuting it every few minutes to say “mhm” so it was clear I was still listening, and waiting for lulls in the crying to say whole sentences. Not ideal, but it was enough.

Support their understanding of time

Even children who have learnt to tell the time can still struggle with “in twenty minutes” or “the next hour”, and may benefit from some more concrete cues. If you need to work for a period of time, you can set a countdown timer of some kind – on a phone or an oven timer, for example – for your child to see how many minutes are left. Younger children might need something even more concrete like a sand timer, if you have one, or you can give a clear explanation or even draw a picture of what the clock will look like when you’re done: “You see that long hand is moving round? We’re both going to work quietly until it reaches the 6 at the bottom, then I’ll be ready to look at what you’ve done.”

What can they actually do?

If you want them to be doing something at least notionally educational while you’re busy, these are probably your best options:

  • Online learning
  • Computer games (“educational” ones if you prefer)
  • Worksheets
  • Timed tests or mock exams
  • YouTube channels (suggestions of helpful ones coming soon)
  • Documentaries or TV programmes (including CBeebies and CBBC for little ones)
  • Ideas from the morning activities post
  • Puzzle books or jigsaw puzzles
  • Board or card games, solitaire versions if you have one child (suggestions of games for toddlers, little children and older children)

But also, you can just let them do anything that occupies them while you work, and focus on their education some other time. Or not at all, if that works for you all.

Prioritise and organise your own work

You can’t do everything, so which bits of your work are most urgent? Are there things that will need absolute uninterrupted concentration and other things that you can muddle through while sitting with your children? Start with a clear priorities list, and especially once you start to have a clearer idea of when you can get your best work done, put the essentials in those places and fit the rest around them, being prepared to have to abandon a few things or at least postpone them.

Also, you still can’t do everything. Realistically, you might have to choose between a piece of your work getting done or a piece of your child’s schoolwork getting done – or your work versus paying attention to a child who really needs reassurance right now – or your work versus your sleep. These are not normal times, and something will have to give, so decide upfront what’s most important and what will be the thing, or things, that has to wait for another time.

Be flexible

You may or may not have to work normal office hours, and your child certainly doesn’t have to follow normal school hours – unless they’re doing live online lessons, in which case it shouldn’t be hard to work while they do that. Can you work during their free time, so they can have your full attention while they do school work then you work while they play with Lego or watch TV? Can you work while a younger child naps or after they’re in bed? I used to get quite a bit of work done when my two youngest were in their bedtime bath – they were contained and entertained, and I perched on the closed toilet with my laptop paying just enough attention to make sure nobody drowned.

Let them help each other

If you have more than one child, you have a higher risk of a fight needing your intervention, but also a better chance of them entertaining each other for short periods of time. They may be willing to play together, or an older child could read to a younger one or even help them to learn. I’m going to write more about keeping he peace between siblings while you’re all at home in a later post.

Virtual babysitters

If you’ve been planning video calls with friends or relatives, you might be able to negotiate using them as long-distance babysitting: your child is busy chatting to Grandpa for half an hour, you get a chunk of concentrated work done. I mean, arrange this plan with the other people in advance, obviously don’t just disappear mid-call.

You’ll all get better at this

We’re all learning new skills right now, and we’ll probably all be a bit rubbish to start with. Aim small to begin with – you may have to work in very small chunks to begin with, and younger children in particular may struggle to understand and follow the new way of doing things. Give it time and practice and patience (you may be short of patience, but time is plentiful). You may discover that you can be surprisingly efficient – when you know you only have a few minutes, you can be hyper-focused on getting the most important things done. You will still sometimes have disastrous days, but the general trend over time will be towards things getting a bit easier for everyone. A bit like everything else about being a parent, really.

 

Other home education posts:

Coming soon:

  • Resources and materials
  • Staying happy and staying friends

Home education 4: Work spaces

This is where a huge amount depends on your personal situation, how you’re approaching home education, who’s in the family and where you are right now – I’ll keep it as general as I can, and always bear in mind that what works for me or someone else might not be right for you. Also, when I’m talking about workspaces, that might mean a lot of different things for different families: it might be a place where a teenager sits at a desk for a couple of hours writing an essay, or a table where you leave out some activities that your child can dip into if they want, or a space where you can all work together on a science experiment, or somewhere for a child to balance a laptop while they do online work, or many more things. To simplify, I’m going to write this as if you’re mainly looking for a space for one or more children to do sit-down lessons of some kind, whether online or pen-and-paper.

The first thing to say is that, if you possibly can, it’s really helpful to make a specific space for working in, even if this means using one corner of a room, or being a bit creative with furniture. Older children might want to work alone, and I wouldn’t rule it out – my oldest daughter works in her room for part of the day and with the rest of us at other times, for example. There also might be activities or resources that limit where you work some of the time. But in general, it’s worth seeing if you can make a dedicated space and all work there together, even if you have more than one child and they’re working on different things – it makes it easier for you as a parent to supervise and support them, and being around other people who are also working creates more of a focused atmosphere (assuming that anyone is focusing… but having a specific working space also means that you can ask a child who’s finished their work or run out of steam to play elsewhere). It also means you may be able to keep any resources or supplies near to the place where everyone will be working, so that a morning’s work doesn’t get disrupted by someone having to go and hunt for a pencil sharpener or an iPad charger or the workbook they were looking at yesterday (more on supplies and resources coming soon). And it may help children who are missing the boundaries and structure of school, where your location (are you sitting on the mat, or at a table, or in the lunch room?) often gives you some important clues about what you’re meant to be doing right now.

If sharing space really doesn’t work, then obviously keep experimenting until you find something that does. One of my children finds it hard to be around other people for long periods of time, so chooses to join the rest of us in a shared work space for specific activities and to work or relax in her room at other times. When one of the older children is doing the kind of work that needs longer periods of concentration, like a timed test, or would be disruptive to others, like watching an online language lesson and wanting to practise vocabulary out loud, they work in their bedroom.

If your children are having to do school work in a place where they also relax or sleep, it’s worth thinking about how to psychologically separate work time from not-work time (a lot of these ideas have come out of discussions I’ve had with adult therapy clients who have suddenly found themselves working at home, so if that’s the position you’re in, you might also like to try some of them).

You can think about using sensory cues for different parts of the day. Taking sight as an example, if your child has to work in her bedroom, can she position herself so that what she can see when she’s working isn’t the same as what she will see when she’s in bed? My daughter has hung a sheet across her bedroom to separate off a work area, but it could be as simple as changing the direction you’re facing in. While you’re thinking about visual cues, you probably want to make sure that your child can’t see any really exciting toys or games that they might prefer to the task you’re trying to help them to focus on. One of my children uses a different internet browser on the laptop, for when she’s doing online work versus when she’s using it for fun, so that she doesn’t get distracted by links to more interesting things when she’s trying to concentrate; I had to start doing this for some of my own work because I couldn’t access the site I needed on my usual browser, and I find it’s much more helpful than I’d have imagined, to have the cues of the browser frame to remind me what I’m doing at that moment. You can also create different profiles on a computer, tablet or phone, so that the desktop or home screen has everything you need for work and nothing that might drag you away from it.

Another home educator said she uses a particular playlist of quiet background music when their family is working, so they all switch into “work mode” when they hear it; you could even consider using some kind of scents, like a candle or perfume, only at work times. Lots of people have been noticing the impact of wearing “work clothes” when working from home, and while I’m not recommending your children ought to put on school uniform every morning, you could all experiment with whether you find it easiest to work when you’re in pyjamas or something soft and comfortable or something “smart” – it could be different for everyone. And actually, if you have a child who’s really struggling to understand how it can possibly be school when you’re at home, using a school jumper as a concrete signal of “this is what we’re doing right now” might even be worth a try. Some people are also “commuting” by leaving the house and walking back in again, or even just leaving the room and re-entering it, to mark the beginning and end of the working day.

Whatever you try, I think it’s helpful to aim for very specific signals to everyone’s body and brain, both that “this is time to concentrate and do some work” (if that’s the kind of thing you’re doing), and also that “we’re done for the day and you can relax now”. If you find anything that works really well please let me know, I’ll add more suggestions as I come across them.

 

Other home education posts:

 

Posts to come:

  • Resources and materials
  • Staying happy and staying friends

Home education 3: What to learn

You may have been given some work by your children’s school, or some clear instructions on what they ought to be studying, or your children might be keen to work on something in particular. Among voluntary home educators, there’s a whole spectrum of approaches, from following the National Curriculum to the letter, to being completely led by the child’s interests at any point in time.

According to recently-updated legal guidelines there’s a specific obligation to provide appropriate education in the basics of maths and English, but other than that, parents’ duty is to provide an education suitable to the child’s age, abilities and aptitudes, and to “equip a child for life in the community”, whatever that means for that child and that family. So here are some different ways that might play out for you.

Do the basics

In the context of children who are going to be returning to ordinary school at some point hopefully soon, it makes sense to support them in keeping in practice with some basic skills, as well as the general idea of sitting down to do some work. This might mean doing a maths and English worksheet and workbook for a short time every morning, or doing work that’s been sent home from school in core subjects, or using online resources (some suggestions here).

Follow the National Curriculum if you want

If it would be helpful for you to have a clear idea of the topics your child would be covering at school, and the level they might be working at, you can look here for a very thorough description of the primary curriculum (skim down until you get to the detailed descriptions of each school year), here for the secondary curriculum, or here for subject by subject guidance (for example if you only want to follow the National Curriculum for certain subject areas, or you want to work on the same subject with children of different ages or attainment levels). You don’t have to do any of this, but if it makes you feel better, the information is out there.

If that’s too much information, be aware that BBC Bitesize is aligned with National Curriculum content and organised by school year, so you can follow along with their activities at the appropriate level for your child.

Recreate a school timetable

Some children might find it reassuring to follow something like their ordinary school timetable, particularly at the beginning when they’ve only just come out of school and might want something that feels familiar. This can be a challenge if you have more than one child, particularly if they’re in different schools, but the advantage is that life is easier for everyone if you already have a structure so don’t need to invent your own from scratch. Some schools seem to be organising online lessons and providing vast amounts of work for home learning, so if this is your situation, it might be easiest to follow along as if school had just relocated home for the duration.

Do what you need

Your child might have subjects that are a priority for them, for example if they’re hoping to sit certain subjects at GCSE/A level at some point, or if they’re intending to enter a new setting in September and need to make sure they’ve covered certain content or want to avoid getting rusty. This could include thinking about workplace skills or life skills – online courses on web design or money management, or learning to cook in preparation for going to university, for example. Even with younger children, they could spend some time thinking about what skills and academic subjects they will need if they want to be able to do certain kinds of work in future. In an unpredictable and unusual situation like this, there’s a psychological argument for spending some time focusing on the future, on what you will want to do when the current pandemic is over – being able to see past the immediate crisis can help you to keep going when it feels difficult. It’s also helpful for everyone to check in: why are we doing this again? What’s the point of learning anything at all – what knowledge and skills do I need, what will be useful to me, what would I like to know more about even if I don’t see an immediate purpose to it? When we started home educating I spent quite a lot of time reflecting on my own education, wondering which of the things I’d learnt as a child I still used, which had enriched my life even if they didn’t have a practical purpose, and which I wished I’d had the chance to learn sooner. Linking what your child is learning to why they’re learning it can really help them with motivation and engagement.

Do what you love

Maybe your child has particular subjects that they really love and could do all day without any encouragement. I’d encourage you to allow them to do that, at least some of the time – being absorbed in something you enjoy is another big psychological boost, as well as being a great way to learn. There’s quite a lot of evidence that people learn best when they’re interested, when they’ve chosen what to do, and when they’re doing it for its own sake rather than for external reward.

Even if the topic seems esoteric or downright useless, don’t dismiss it out of hand – there’s a lot of incidental learning going on that might not be obvious at first glance. Your child might be picking up research skills, developing computer skills that will help them in other parts of life, learning new words from reading, or who knows what. Most of what I know about the American Constitution and the Founding Fathers, I picked up from getting very involved in a computer game called Day Of The Tentacle when I was in my early teens; my daughter became briefly obsessed with designing new characters for the game Citadels so went off to research life in Mediaeval Europe in order to come up with plausible social roles for them. There’s a post on incidental learning here, but the short version is, maybe now your child has time and space to go deeply into something they have a bottomless appetite for, so they may as well make use of it. Some children will have an ongoing interest that they keep coming back to alongside other learning; some will disappear into a single topic for a period of time then exhaust it and move on.

As well as allowing your child to do what they love, you could also try doing some of the things you love: my experience is that when I look like I’m enjoying something, sooner or later at least one child will appear and ask whether they can join in (unless I’m singing, in which case they tell me to stop). So you too: do what you love. Maybe you’ll get a chance to share your interest with your child, and maybe they’ll be indifferent but you’ll have spent some time doing something wonderful; either is good.

Do what you can

Your home is not a school, and some things will be really hard to teach – team sports, secondary-level science practicals, subjects where your child’s knowledge already surpasses your own, you name it. There are also things that you might have been able to teach at home under other circumstances, but right now it’s hard to get hold of equipment or resources.

On the other hand, some things are much easier to teach at home than at school: for example, life skills (more below), or things that require long periods of involvement rather than 50-minute lesson slots, or things that there isn’t space for on the curriculum. Focus on what’s possible right now rather than on what’s not. Look for long-term projects (more ideas below). Are there subjects you have expertise in – maybe academic subjects but maybe language, music, art, technical or practical skills – that you and your child could work on together? Have you got any books or kits that have been gathering dust for lack of spare time? There are some wonderful online resources being made available for free – more information in the post on resources, but you could consider taking advantage of this if there are museums your child would love to visit, or shows they would like to see, that are suddenly and temporarily accessible. Use what’s there, and if there’s something that just isn’t possible right now, look forward to when it will be possible again.

Project-based learning

This means allowing your child to follow their interests and to go deeply into a particular area – it could be anything from planning and building a massive model of a dinosaur out of cardboard boxes, to making a notebook of all the spells used in the Harry Potter books, to planning and writing a novel, to setting up an Etsy store to sell their crafts. The important things are, first, that the project arises out of your child’s interest, and second, that it’s a longer-term or larger piece of work that crosses traditional subject boundaries or doesn’t fit within them at all.

There’s a wonderful book by Lori Pickert called Project-Based Homeschooling, and she has a website with lots of ideas, tip sheets and a blog which might give you inspiration. For little children, you can also look into lap books – essentially this means making a folder which contains a whole lot of research or information or pictures in one place. There are some videos on YouTube that might help you get started, though they can be heavy on the lists of fancy craft equipment so you’ll need to be open to improvising – cereal boxes make good folders, for example, and if you don’t have brads/split pins (beloved of lap book makers) you might be able to make alternatives with paperclips, treasury tags or bits of string.

Life skills

You’re all in the house, and all the usual tasks need to get done, so you can make the most of the situation by involving your child in things like cleaning, tidying, laundry and cooking. It’s helpful for them to learn and practise these basic life skills, and also for you to feel like everyone’s in this together and we’re helping each other as much as we can. They might also like to be involved in meal planning, or budgeting There are other skills that you might be able to pass on, or to look up tutorials on YouTube so your child can learn them, or you can both learn together – depending on what resources you have at home that might include sewing (both mending and making new things), gardening outside or on a windowsill, computer skills, fixing mechanical or electronic things around the house, foreign languages, or woodworking, to name a few.

Keep a list

One final suggestion: if you want to make space for following your child’s interests, you could try giving them a notebook or a piece of paper that they can use to keep track of any interests or questions that crop up at times when you can’t, practically, follow them. One of my daughters has a habit of thinking of lots of interesting things just before bedtime: “How do people make paint? Can we make some? Why do matches burn? How would we cook our food if we didn’t have an oven? When did the last woolly mammoths die? What’s the opposite of Tuesday?” and so on – all great starting points for interest-led learning (except possibly the last one) but not a great time to do a ton of research. So at bedtime, or while you’re busy helping someone else, or while you’re working, your child can make a note of something they’d like your help with, or an activity they’d like to try, and when you have time you can check the list for any outstanding items to work through. And if you happen to find out the opposite of Tuesday while you’re at it, please do let me know and I’ll pass it on.

Other home education posts:

 

Posts to come:

  • Resources and materials
  • Staying happy and staying friends

Home education 2: Scheduling

Find what works for you

You may have seen suggested timetables circulating on social media (some more sincere than others); you may already have been planning how to organise your day once your children are home. As with everything, what works for your family and your specific circumstances may be very different from what suits someone else, and it might take you a few days or a couple of weeks of experimentation to work out what is best for you.

Don’t be afraid to play around with this, and ask your child/children for feedback too: “Do you think you work better in the mornings or the afternoons? How often do you need a break? Yesterday you seemed like you were struggling to concentrate after lunch, can we switch things around today so you can take a break then or do something less complicated? Would you rather start with the easiest things and work up to the hardest, or get your least favourite bits over and done with first?”.

Also when I talk about a schedule, it might be that you aren’t planning home education but just going with the flow, or you might not be doing any formal “educating” at all. In the current situation it’s probably still a good idea to make sure your days have some kind of structure and predictability, even if it’s just regular mealtimes and bedtimes, or sketching something out over breakfast each day like “let’s finish making that castle then call Granny, and after lunch we can do some painting if you want to”.

Everyone is different

It’s an extremely useful life skill for children to learn how to organise their own time, and to work out how to motivate themselves and do difficult things – letting them have some leeway to work it out could really help all of you in the long run. Bear in mind that different people in the house may have different preferences – maybe you’re a “get the worst bits done before breakfast” type and your child is “work up to it gradually and not really get stuck in until mid-morning” – so you may have to be flexible in your expectations of what a good schedule looks like, and in fitting around each other.

First of all: you don’t have to have a timetable. It’s honestly fine just to hang out together, or separately, and do what you want when you want. See the post on incidental learning for some more thoughts on this, or search online for “unschooling”. Your priorities may well be nurturing your family’s physical and mental health, and allowing adults to work; if formal education needs to take second fiddle to that, or you just don’t want to work that way, it’s all fine. They might astonish you with how much they learn regardless, or they may learn very little but come through this whole thing happy and healthy, and that’s enough.

Focus first

If you do choose to use a timetable, here are a few ideas. As a general principle, whatever schedule you’re using, I find it’s easier to start the day with focused work and gradually ease off; for example, you might do more adult-led pen-and-paper work in the morning and something more open-ended in the afternoon. Similarly across the course of a week – after a lot of experimentation I’ve created a timetable starting with subject areas that need the most enthusiastic input from me on a Monday, going downhill to the things that the children will do almost independently by the end of the week. It’s far easier, if you can, to start the day with work then let them do their preferred leisure activities, than it is to drag your child away from the TV or Minecraft or YouTube in order to teach them something.

Be (a bit) consistent

For most people, it will be best to get up in the morning at roughly the same time each day – maybe after a few initial days of rest and recovery if you need them – and to have some predictability and structure. Having a fixed timetable reduces “cognitive load” – if you’re constantly having to decide what to do next and remember what needs doing, that takes quite a lot of mental energy, and most of us don’t have a lot spare right now (anxiety is a really big drain on it).

Different children may need or prefer different levels of structure, and you may have to find ways to negotiate this within your family. Perhaps a younger child has free time or watches TV while you do some more focused work with an older child.

Experiment

Don’t be afraid to learn from your experiences and build on what works or throw out what doesn’t. Whether you’ve done something once and it’s terrible, or tried it for a week and it’s not getting any better, or it worked for a while and now it just doesn’t – it’s OK to stop.

Timetables for children who don’t like timetables

Some children respond badly to being told what to do, or to fixed schedules – you can have a level of predictability without an explicit timetable, such as fixed mealtimes or “in the morning we sit at the table and do whichever work you want to do, after lunch you can play”. I find that my children who don’t like to be told “we will all do XYZ at 10am every day” respond much better to “XYZ is happening at 10am today, if you want to join in”, or “oh, it’s 10am, it’s time for XYZ”. Neurodivergent children in particular might need an extremely clear timetable and strict adherence to it, or might hate any kind of imposed structure (or both of those things at once). Some children who hate following someone else’s timetable can do well if they’re allowed to create their own – if they know they have a certain amount of things to fit in and can make their own decisions about what will happen when, it can be easier for them to follow along with it; they might also want more explanation about why you’ve made certain decisions, or why you’re asking them to do something at this time rather than another.

Start from fixed points

A blank page can be intimidating, so it’s useful to start any timetable by thinking about the fixed points in your day. That’s usually meals and bedtimes, but might also include online lessons for your child’s school, or some of the live YouTube or Facebook activities happening at the moment, if you’re using any of them. I know several families who are structuring their whole week around Joe Wicks and Maddie Moate and Oti Mabuse and Steve Backshall!

Another way to use fixed points is by linking existing habits to new ones you’d like to establish. For example, instead of “at 9am we will…” you can use “after we’ve cleared away breakfast we will…”, or “while dinner is cooking we spend ten minutes tidying up”. It takes away the problem of “remembering to remember” which is a challenge when you’re starting something new.

Try alarms

Sometimes children respond better to an alarm going off than they do to being told what to do by an adult. You could try setting a series of alarms on your phone – ideally with nice tunes rather than startling bleeps and bells – to let everyone know when it’s time to start a new activity. When children have been in school until recently, they’re more open to the idea that certain things just happen at certain times, and may find it easier to go along with that sense of “when we hear this alarm it’s time to start work”.

How much work to expect

Be aware that even the most school-like home educators rarely do as many hours of formal education in a day as there are on a school timetable. If your children are getting one-to-one adult attention, and the work is pitched at the right level for them, and they’re able to take breaks when they need them and work when they’re able to focus, they can often cover ground more quickly than at school. Also, when they’re working at home, they can refer back to that morning’s work at the dinner table, or you can point out something that’s relevant to what you talked about yesterday, so they can be reinforcing and integrating what they’ve learnt even when they’re no longer sitting at a table with a pen and paper.

Take breaks

Bear in mind how much of the school day is not actually spent sitting at a desk writing – children move from one room to another, talk to friends, go out to play, wait for a teacher to check work and so on. Make sure you build breaks into your day, or just grab five minutes if your child needs it. Also, you can schedule in free time, or times when everyone gets to choose their activities, or time to watch a film, or whatever it might be. This might be part of how you manage to work from home with your children there – more on that in a later post.

Bunk off sometimes

Also, don’t forget to have days off, not only weekends but occasional random bunking off days. The weird thing about having a cheeky pyjama day is that it kind of reinforces the timetable – it’s only bunking off if there’s something you’re meant to be doing. I can’t say this enough: we all need to take care of each other and ourselves right now, and if that means everyone spends a day painting their toenails or Skyping grandparents or on a computer game marathon, then do it, and relish it, and get back to the normal routine when you’re done.

What we do

For comparison, here’s our notional timetable that we use at home. First thing, I have morning activities out (post about that here), then once everyone’s had breakfast and got dressed we have a time when everyone might do their most focused academic work. This is usually separate work for each person, but we’re often in the same place (workspace post here); for the younger children it might mean continuing with or building on morning activities. We have a mid-morning break for a drink and a snack, then might continue with table/pen and paper work. After lunch, everyone has a bit of time by themselves if they want it (the lunch table is a noisy place and some of us need some time to recover), then we might all do some work together – science experiment or painting or watching a documentary or working on a project or whatever. Then we (theoretically) do some housework or tidying, then the children have a break and usually play outside while I make tea, unless they’re involved in making it. On Monday, the morning activities and individual work and group work are usually science; Tuesday is English and/or foreign languages; Wednesday is maths; Thursday is history, geography and politics; Friday is art and music. And sometimes all of these things happen, and sometimes none of them.

I know other families who always do some English and maths first thing, then the rest of the day might be on other subjects; it will depend a lot on what work you choose to do (topics post here), how old your children are, and what you feel able to do with them. Keep experimenting with it, and whatever schoolwork your children do or don’t cover, you’ll also be teaching them flexibility and openness and curiosity about what works best for them, which are skills we could all do with cultivating.

Other home education posts:

Coming soon:

  • Resources and materials
  • Staying happy and staying friends

Home education 1: Introduction

As millions of families unexpectedly find themselves with school-age children at home for the foreseeable future, my oldest daughter and I thought it might be useful to share some of our experiences with starting home education – what we’ve learnt, what we’ve got wrong, what works for us, what resources we use and so on. We came up with some lists of ideas – I’ve separated them into several separate posts by topic, as I think a lot of us are feeling a bit overwhelmed with information right now, so you can just look at whatever you need, and I’ll link to all the other home education posts at the bottom of each one to help you find them.

Disclaimer number one: voluntarily home educating, whether by choice or as a way to deal with a crisis, in ordinary circumstances, is very different indeed from what is happening to most people right now. Normally home education involves lots of groups, classes, courses, tutors, clubs and other activities, all of which have been put on hold; you may well be trying to work from home while also educating your children; everyone is probably quite stressed. So you can draw on the experience of existing home educators, but you will probably have more of an emphasis on “just surviving this bit right now” and “being able to go back to school when it becomes possible again”.

Disclaimer number two: the resources you have available right now may be quite limited, and the space and time families have to make use of varies hugely. I’m trying very hard not to make assumptions that everyone has access to specific equipment, and to focus on things that can be done with everyday resources or online. It’s easier if you have reliable internet access and enough devices to go round everyone who needs them at once; it’s easier if you have a printer; it’s easier if you have a table that children can sit at to work; it’s easier if you have an adult who can give them undivided attention. If you don’t have any of those things, it isn’t impossible but it’s more difficult. Right now we’re all just doing the best we can.

And having said everyone’s situation is different, a brief introduction to us and what life is like for us. I have four children and we have been home educating for nearly 18 months, having looked into it several times over the years but never taken the plunge until two children had crises at two different schools simultaneously. At that time the oldest had started secondary school and the middle two were in primary; the youngest has only recently reached normal UK school-starting age. We are a two-parent family – in normal times my husband works four days a week (and I’m home on those days) and I work in an office on two days (when he’s at home) and do bits of work from home on some other days too. Right now we’re both working entirely from home, but sticking to our usual pattern of who is working and who is in charge of childcare and education.

 

Home education posts:

Posts to come:

  • Resources and materials
  • Staying happy and staying friends

I’ll add and update and edit as we go – right now I’m just trying to write everything we thought of as quickly as possible. Please comment or message me with any reactions or suggestions.

Paddington’s Postcards

We recently signed up for this great thing, and we’re having so much fun with it that I wanted to pass it on. If you set up a monthly donation of ¬£8 to UNICEF, for the first year they’ll send your child a letter every month. Each letter features a child from a country where UNICEF works, and includes postcards, facts about the country, a few phrases in the country’s main language, and a suggested activity to do in the travel journal that you get when you first sign up. They suggest it’s appropriate for children aged 4 to 10 – my 4-year-old loves it and really looks forward to getting it each month. They send an email shortly before each letter arrives, so you know which country it will be from and can look out some other resources if you want to build on what they’ve sent. As well as using the map included in the pack, I like to look each country up in some of the following:

  • The Travel Book (which I got for Christmas, it’s a wonderful book for adults or children)

Not every country is in all of those books (apart from the first one), but it’s exciting when we do find some extra pictures or information about a country, and gives us all a broader picture of everyday life in another place.

Sign up here: Paddington’s Postcards