Everyday Life, Parenting

My One Answer for How to Homeschool with Littles

Taking a break from writing about books and book culture in our homes to answer this frequently asked question:

How do you homeschool with little ones always around?

Wait, I should be the one asking this question, right? I’m the new homeschool mom with little kids!  This is our 5th year homeschooling and my brain is finally catching on: “Ohhh. I should know this now…” Up until this point, my answer has been so unhelpful. A shrug and a “some days are better than others!” is all I’ve mustered because (1) I hate to sound like I’ve got it all figured out and (2) I don’t have it all figured out! But I do know this: We want to instill in our children a love of learning, the ability to learn for themselves, and the strength of character that comes through hard work and good relationships. Our ideal for our homeschooling days may be full of warmth and beauty, but the chaos that comes with babies, toddlers, and/or preschoolers wages war on our ideal. How can this ever work?

This is about what our homeschool life looks like every day. There are crumbs on the floor, a babbling baby at the table, and a conglomeration of papers, pencils, and crayons scattered everywhere. We are all together the whole time, from youngest to oldest, either at the kitchen table or at desks in our schoolroom, like a crazy one-room schoolhouse in 1858. How in this madness do we (a) learn together and (b) still like each other?? How do you homeschool with littles in the mix? I’ve thought and thought about how to answer this question, and I keep coming back to one over-arching practice in our family. I wish it were a quick fix, a busy bag solution or a magic scheduling technique, but it’s nothing very pinnable like that. It’s totally uncool because the word “longsuffering” comes to mind. But let’s leave out “longsuffering” and use the word commitment.” My one answer to homeschooling with Littles is an everyday commitment to practicing togetherness.

So fun and snappy, I know. And what does it even mean? Well, after Day One of my homeschooling career, I realized my ideal of one child doing schoolwork with me while one child played quietly with toys and another napped was never going to happen. That just doesn’t fly in the world of kids under age 5 who have to be touching me/each other all day every day or spontaneously combust. Right away, I could see there would be no separating small children from our schooling. But if these tiny people expected to be included in the homeschooling fun (and they did), they would have to also expect to BEHAVE. No interrupting, no whining, no singing songs that sound strangely similar to Benny and the Jets out of tune incessantly under their breath. I guess the idea became if they wanted to be treated like students, they would have to behave like students. It’s crazy to expect this from a two or three-year-old, right? Maybe, but after weeks of consistent (and sometimes frustrated) training, an amazing thing happened – they behaved. They could sit and listen to our read aloud, they could color and be quiet during history, and a lot of times they could even answer many of the same questions about the lesson that their older sibling(s) could. I was floored.

I’m not really sure in those early days if I had an epiphany about setting schooltime behavior standards or if it just sort of happened out of necessity, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’re plunging into homeschooling with little ones in your home, or you’re already wading through it, maybe practicing togetherness—welcoming the younger children into the experience along with setting standards of behavior—could change your days as much as it changed mine. Separating them from our homeschool life certainly didn’t work for me! To make our home the peaceful and loving place I envision it to, I have to keep practicing this togetherness of welcoming the small ones into our school environment.

Crazily enough, now I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think having someone like my four-year-old involved actually enriches the experience. For one thing, she is hilarious, and laughing is good for our souls. But more importantly, our family culture being built on shared narratives and histories gives us a lot to talk about and imagine further as we learn it all together. But that never would have happened if we hadn’t set some expectations at the beginning!

So that’s my answer, my one big homeschooling with Littles discovery – if you expect great behavior from them and teach them how to do that…well, some day, it might just happen. =) I realize so much of it has to do with what personalities I’m dealing with and my own upbringing (I was the oldest in a homeschool family). But because it’s worked so great for me, I figured I would give sharing it a shot, and finally give a straight answer to that frequently asked question!

And now for some more fun and snappy side notes I’ve learned to stick with along the way ~

  1. Keep hands busy – drawing, playing with play-doh, building with blocks, or other quiet thing will stretch an attention span beyond your wildest imagination. In fact, some studies show that busy hands make brains learn more easily! My oldest now likes to stay focused while she’s listening to lessons by taking notes, but up until this year, she was sketching or molding dough along with the others.
  2. Take it outside – literally, take all of it outside any chance you get. Little people are happier out of doors. Fact.
  3. Snacks are golden learning opportunities – while many homeschool families do their ‘morning time’ or cultural studies first thing, I find that a 10:00 gather round the table with a snack works best for us. We have a snack, read some poetry or listen to a composer/hymn or study a piece of artwork, do some literature or geography, read a Bible passage, and the whole time the little people are (relatively) happy because they have their little hands busy and bellies full.
  4. When you have a breastfeeding baby, find a favorite educational show. I know, I know, TV is a crutch, but some babies don’t eat well when there’s a lot of action around them. A 20-minute Wild Kratts or Wishbone gives just the right window for giving the baby a good feeding in the mid-morning, hopefully followed by a nap, and that  100% makes the rest of the morning go better.
  5. Share some responsibility – There are some things we just can’t do all together. During these times, we trade responsibility. One child is responsible for keeping the baby happy, while the other student is taught by the parent, and then we trade off. This works best if I set an expectation for how long and why I need one of the kid’s help, so that they can understand the important role they’re playing in our family and so that they don’t get frustrated with being asked to help when they feel like they should be having a break.

Family dynamics are unique and ever changing, but I’m pulling for you as you figure out what works best for your amazing family in your homeschooling journey. And if you have any epiphanies about what works for you, please share!

Parenting, Reviews

For The Children’s Sake

I saw For The Children’s Sake often around my house as I grew up. I remember it clearly Cover art (Penguin Classics Edition/1989; The Illustrated Children's Library Edition/2002): <i>Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy</i> by Jessie Willcox Smith.because the cover illustration is by Jessie Wilcox Smith, who has been my favorite illustrator since I read her version of Little Women. The cover was the only part of the book that interested me until just a couple of months ago, when my mom held it up and asked, “Do you want this book?”

“Is it good?” I asked.

“I think so.”

“Okay, I’ll take it.”

Well. To say that “it is good” is an egregious understatement. It is very good. In fact, it is the best book I’ve read on educating children so far. It has already become instrumental in forming my home educating philosophy. And it’s really not only for parents who solely homeschool, but for anyone who has children or works with children.

For the Children's SakeIn For The Children’s Sake, Susan Schaeffer Maculay (daughter of Francis and Edith Schaeffer) gives a basic of overview of Charlotte Mason’s thinking on what children need. She has ideas that go far beyond the three R’s. Here’s my favorite: Children are actually little people.

Some of you are going, “…and?” Yes, this seems like it should be very obvious, but it seems like children are so often treated like their intellectual skills are nonexistent.  I recently had a conversation with a someone whose granddaughter’s teacher told her that her granddaughter is so smart. She told this grandmother, “I couldn’t believe I was actually having a conversation with a six-year-old!” I’m sure most of you already are well aware of how conversational six-year-olds are.

Another one of my favorite Charlotte Mason points is that children do not desire or need “twaddle.” What is “twaddle?” You know those books that say things like, “I see Spot. Spot is brown. Spot has a tail”…those books? Well, those may serve some purposes, but mostly they are twaddle. Maculay points out that Mason is right when she says children need “living books,” books that will capture their imaginations and live on in their minds after the story is over. These are the kinds of books that will instill a love of learning and literature in children.

Another highlight of the book is the importance of reaching out to the heart and soul of a child. Education is not about just feeding children’s brains knowledge. They need to play. They need to be surrounded by nature as often as possible. And above all, they need to know love and a sense of being well cared for. This isn’t an environment that can only be found in homeschooling environments, but it is a far cry from most public schools. Because the majority of our nation’s children are in public school, it becomes even more important for parents to take their role in their children’s fully rounded education very seriously. I currently have my children at home with me, but I can see how important it may someday be for me to guard their time at home from educational TV, computer games, and whatever else may seem good but cannot replace the real-ness of experiencing the world around them. I also need to be more proactive, even now when my kids are always at home, about looking into their faces and truly listening to their thoughts. We can all get so preoccupied with our own activities. Mason believed children need to know that their value is inherent because they are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and are “image bearers,” in body, mind, and soul.

There’s a lot more to this book, but those are the highlights for me on this read-through. It will be a book I’ll return to as my children grow. Charlotte Mason is a pretty popular person these days in home education circles. Maculay published this book about her ideas before Mason came back into vogue. There is a ton of resources for people who want to delve deeper into the Charlotte Mason method (which I’m not entirely sure Charlotte Mason actually invented…it’s more based on her ideas, if I’m not mistaken). Whatever you and your children do in the education realm, the questions Maculay raises and the ideas she presents in For The Children’s Sake are well worth considering.

If you’ve read it, post a comment! I’d love to know what you think. 

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