Due to the coronavirus crisis, schools across the nation are temporarily closed. Even before we were thrust into this strange new world of home-educating our kids, I’ve long been interested in trying my hand at homeschooling.
Over the years, as I’ve considered making the move to homeschooling and observed the many friends and family members immersed in that world, I’ve learned that you don’t have to be committed to home-educating long-term to reap some of its benefits and learn from the mindsets of those who excel at it.
Here are the homeschooling tips and tricks we're trying in our home to keep learning as easy and fun as we can in our home during this challenging time.
1. Be flexible
At school, kids are separated by grade and ability level. They (mostly) sit at tables or desks and their days are highly scheduled and routinized to accommodate the many students learning together in one building.
But at home, you get to be more flexible. You don’t have to be so rigid in your schedules and routines, unless that’s what actually works for your family. Homeschoolers often take advantage of the unique opportunities being home presents to make learning fun. At home, kids can study in their pajamas. They can sleep in. They can snack as they read. They can have hot cocoa as they write in their journals.
Being stuck at home has many challenges, but it’s not all bad. As a work-from-home parent, I can attest: It’s nice to work in your pajamas sometimes. Be flexible with your daily schedule and with your expectations for your kids. You can do big chunks of guided learning time every other day, or break up the time into short mini sessions over all seven days of the week. Get creative! It might just make things a little easier (and more fun!) for everyone.
2. Follow your students’ lead
In school, there’s a standardized curriculum that all students must learn, and this means that teachers can’t always customize learning to the individual student’s interests.
At home, there are different opportunities to customize learning based on your kids’ interests. It’s amazing how much kids can learn when they engage with subject matter that interests them. I, for instance, do not care about exotic animals. My kids, on the other hand, could regale you with fascinating, minute details about meerkats and sloth bears.
Not sure what subjects your kid loves that you can tie into their home-based learning? Follow homeschooling expert Julie Bogart’s advice from her book “The Brave Learner: Finding Everyday Magic in Homeschool, Learning and Life.” Bogart suggests writing down everything you can think of that interests your child. Then, list out every possible way you could engage them in meeting a learning goal through those interests. She also recommends writing down every question your child asks you over the course of a day, then following up with books, magazines or online research conducted together to explore the answers to those questions.
3. Indulge them
Now is the time to say yes when your kid asks if they can stay up late reading in bed or use up all the chocolate chips to bake cookies. These activities aren’t just cozy and comforting, they’re also learning opportunities. Surprise and delight them by having a day of yes.
4. Think outside the classroom
The bad news: When kids aren’t in school, they’re not getting the same opportunities to interact with teachers as they do in the classroom. The good news: Kids don’t confine learning to a building — they are always learning.
Make breakfast or cook dinner together. Sing karaoke. Play “Just Dance” (at my house, we dance along to free uploaded user videos on YouTube). These fun, relaxed, everyday family activities can build math skills, vocabulary and physical coordination.
5. Let them be bored
There are so many wonderful extracurricular opportunities for kids these days. As a mom of four, during the course of a usual day I am shuffling kids from sports and music lessons to art and cooking classes. We’re not used to having a lot of downtime in our home. But something I’ve learned from the homeschooling families I know is that it’s okay (and even beneficial) for kids to be bored sometimes.
So, while it’s tempting to make a minute-by-minute schedule for kids to keep them constantly entertained and educated, it’s far from necessary.
6. Do less
The average elementary classroom has 20 or more children whom teachers must manage, meaning kids get very little personalized, one-on-one instruction. When you factor in recess, transition times, distractions, time with specialists (think librarians and music teachers), the time you must spend on the three R’s dramatically decreases. Some homeschooling parents claim that guided instruction time at home can be cut to as little as one focused hour a day.
So, start by cutting yourself some slack. There’s a lot going on and it’s okay to do less than what your students might be used to doing in school. Determine how much time you can reasonably set aside each day for focused learning with your child and feel good about what you’ve been able to accomplish, no matter how small.
7. Use the tube
Among educators and experts, screen time often gets a bad rap, and for good reason. Too much time spent vegging in front of the tube or scrolling on devices isn’t good for kids’ mental or physical health. And yet, screens can play a huge role in learning.
Apps, movies and television series all offer a wide array of educational information, from topics ranging from History to Zoology. Plus, podcasts, books and movies are much more engaging and entertaining than PowerPoint lectures and textbook excerpts anyway — and these days, they’re often more accurate, too.
Documentary films and television series offer a great introduction to history and science. Kindle offers a reading assistant that defines words for kids and second-language learners. Vooks reads books aloud to kids and highlights each word as it is read on the digital “page.” Pinna offers a huge array of audiobooks and podcasts just for kids. And you can check out ebooks and audiobooks through Overdrive’s Libby app for free with your library card.
8. Game the system
When your kid thinks “games,” they’re probably thinking Minecraft... and there’s nothing wrong with that. Video games teach beneficial sequencing and strategy skills. There are plenty of educational apps and console games to choose from, but old-school board games also offer an array of learning opportunities. Choose a couple you think your family will enjoy and institute a weekly game night.
9. Seize the play
When kids are at school, their days are broken up into different subjects and modules of learning, such as physical education, library time, music and art. At home, you can simply get out some paper and a pack of crayons, pull a book from the shelf, or let them ride bikes or run around in the yard. Guided instruction doesn’t have to occupy the whole day. Play is the work of children, and much of what looks like child’s play is actually a child’s way of practicing important life and academic skills, such as taking turns, counting, measuring, estimating, negotiating, practicing language and more. So, embrace the learning in play and allow your kids the freedom to play with dolls, build a fort, make play dough creations or bang on the piano. They really are learning when they do these super simple activities.
10. Find and lean on your (virtual) village
One thing I’ve learned from watching the homeschooling families in my community is that the adage “It takes a village” is so true. Luckily, thanks to technology, we can all tap our village while still practicing safe social distancing. Ask Grandma or Grandpa to read a book over FaceTime at bedtime or have kids become pen pals with nursing-home residents nearby. Consider utilizing this free tutoring resource offered by displaced college students to help your kids learn subjects you don’t feel as confident teaching them. It’s a great way to stay connected to the community and share the responsibilities of home-educating all in one.