Rather than rushing out to buy text-books or a curriculum when beginning to home educate, many families find that it's best to begin with a period of 'de-schooling'. If your child has had problems in school such as bullying, or exam stress, it's particularly important to take time to relax together as a family, to read, to discuss issues, to talk about goals and ambitions, and to think about what education means to you. De-schooling refers to a change in worldview, as we and our children discover that learning can happen in multiple ways outside a classroom setting. 

Gradually easing into home education - de-schooling

It has been informally established that, the longer a child has been in school, the more time he or she needs to unwind and 'de-school' before beginning any formal study. Up to a month per year of schooling is sometimes given: so a child of ten who has been in school for five years may need up to five months of 'de-schooling' without any guided study. Naturally this varies from child to child, but it's best not to rush straight into a programme of formal education, particularly if your child has left school after a lot of stress. Building family relationships and boosting the child's self-esteem is far more important.

You will also find that parents themselves need to 'de-school'. We have to get past the idea that learning only happens in a classroom, in 40-minute periods, or with workbooks and pens. Education does not start at nine o'clock in the morning, nor does it necessarily stop in the middle of the afternoon.

In a sense everything your children do is educational, from the time they wake up until the time they go to sleep. More formal learning can also happen in different ways, depending on the child and the circumstances. Even in the early stages of home education, you can look out for 'teaching moments' when your child is interested in a topic, and asking questions. This is a cue to provide resources, if he wants them, and to help him develop the skills he needs to research his own answers. Encourage your child to explore topics in any direction he likes. Learning can take place without any need to write the experience down.

What are the educational 'basics' in the 21st century?

Reading still ranks as an important skill, but rather than the old 'reading, writing and arithmetic' core of education, I would suggest that computer literacy, research skills and general creativity are more important for the modern child. Indeed, I would suggest that the modern '3 Rs' could be defined as 'reading, research and reasoning'.

Complex arithmetical skill is no longer as essential as it was 100 years ago, since inexpensive calculators are widely available, and most calculation happens with computers. Far more important is to give your children an understanding of mathematical concepts which will enable them to use their calculators intelligently. Ability to reason is more important than arithmetic 'facts', and most rote learning has given way to the ability to find out what we need to know online. 

While small children should not be exposed to computers for more than a few minutes at a time, and should be encouraged instead to find information in books, a child of nine or ten needs to become familiar with web searching as he begins to research subjects or topics that interest him, and which may not be covered in easily available books. 

In your de-schooling period, don't feel that your child must be shielded from all education. Instead, help him see that he can find out anything he wants to know by asking questions, which can veer into digressions and many different 'subjects'. De-schooling allows him to re-cultivate the natural curiosity and motivation that is a feature of toddlers and small children before they are confined to a classroom with set times for learning.

Learning through reading

If your children read widely they will learn a huge amount anyway. Encourage them to read non-fiction as well as fiction, if it interests them, but ideally they should have free choice from all available books in your home and/or local library. There are excellent books around like the Horrible History and Horrible Science series that appeal to many children and teens. When a child is not afraid of learning, he is likely to pick up educational books as often as fiction.  

If your child is not interested in facts and non-fiction, there are plenty of fiction books based in particular historic settings which (in my experience) give a better understanding of history than many text-books. Again, don't push these during the de-schooling phase, but if your child reads one, it may be a good springboard for discussion. 

If your children don't like reading, or don't read well, you can still read to them. This is in any case a wonderful way of drawing families closer and introducing your own childhood favourites, and can be continued into the teenage years. Don't try to make the reading time 'educational', but choose a variety of classics, historical novels and contemporary fiction as it appeals to you all. The page 'Raising Bookworms' goes into this topic further.

Construction toys

Do your children like Lego, Meccano or K'nex? Those are all excellent maths/technology tools. How about building a scale model of your house (involves measuring, accurate drawing, scaling down etc)? Cooking/baking? A useful thing to learn anyway, and when you double or halve recipes it involves multiplication or division in practical ways.

Part of de-schooling is to realise that home education does not have to be anything like classroom teaching, because it doesn't have to deal with the inherent problems of 30 children all trying to learn the same thing at the same time. But during this de-schooling period, make sure your children realise that they are free to do anything they wish - within moral and legal boundaries, of course. Talk, discuss, debate; encourage them to rant or complain, if they want to, and listen rather than trying to argue. 

Computer skills come naturally in home education

Computer skills are likely to be learned intuitively if your children have access to a computer. There is no need for special child-oriented software unless you and your children particularly like it; by the time children are  seven or eight, they can use regular word processors to type letters and stories, and will quickly develop keyboard familiarity. Children who struggle with the manual dexterity of writing with a pencil can become quickly confident in typing.

Some parents worry that their children, if left to do whatever they want during the de-schooling period, will get hooked on computer games and never do anything else. This is possible, but will do no harm for a week or two, so long as the games are age-appropriate. Check the ratings; if a game has an 18 rating, it has content which is not appropriate for young children. But with child-friendly games, a week of extensive playing may be sufficient, and many children will emerge from this and find other more active things to do.

Moving on from de-schooling

If your children wake up some morning and wonder what to do, feeling as if they should be doing something 'educational', try widening their scope a bit, rather than thinking directly in terms of academic subjects. For instance my children enjoyed: web-page design; writing stories/novels; stamp collecting; programming; graphic design; art of various sorts; music - self-taught and from outside teachers; juggling; soldering - and much more. If you want to think in terms of school subjects, there are a few starting ideas on the pages about informal study of maths, English, history, geography and science.

But that's mainly for long-term informal home educating. When you are de-schooling, take each day as it comes. Offer support, understanding and encouragement, and only make casual suggestions if your children ask for them. You may find that this period of de-schooling gradually evolves into the kind of learning - autonomous education, or 'unschooling' that so many home educators do over many years.

An excellent, and fairly lengthy article that outlines principles of informal learning - and admits that we don't always understand why they work so well - is 'Informal learning, home education and homeschooling' by Alan Thomas.

Further reading: Educating eclectically, Education is life, Learning styles, Multiple intelligences