People often used to ask us what a typical day is like for a home educating family. My usual (admittedly clichéd) response was that there is no such thing as a typical day. When education encompasses the whole of life, there is no way we could tell what each day would bring. Might there be something dramatic on the news which prompted a lengthy discussion? Would we have an unexpected visitor, or phone call? Would one of them have an idea for a story, or a project, that occupied the entire day?
When people start home educating, they often think it’s important to have some kind of structure to the day. But as my sons pointed out, in the seven hours of a school day, there is probably an hour and a half of recess/lunch break, half an hour of assembly, half an hour of lining up, hanging up coats, changing shoes, etc, plus half an hour of registration, moving to the right desk, handing in homework, and so on.
So at most there are four hours of real learning time: probably less, since children have to wait to ask questions in class. If you aim to spend about three hours per day in your education time, it’s more than sufficient. In practice you may find that in less than one hour per day you can cover the basic National Curriculum (if you wish to do so) leaving the vast majority of the day for the children to follow their own interests.
Some families set aside mornings for educational activities, and keep a log, but the law in the UK does not require any record-keeping. The longer you educate your children at home, the more they are likely to become enthusiastic about learning; as a result, ‘educational’ opportunities may arise at any point. If you take time to answer your children’s questions, and help them find out what they need to know, you will find that they are learning and teaching themselves all day, every day.
De-schooling to start with
If your children have been unhappy in school, they may need a period of ‘deschooling’ where they are free to do whatever they like, even if that means watching TV all day or playing basketball in the back garden. Many children who spend a few weeks doing whatever they feel like, unrelated to education, start to ask questions and may even suggest some structured learning. But some children learn best from television or computer games, and you may find that a child apparently ‘doing nothing’ is in fact absorbing more than you realise.
We started home education in October 1997, when my sons were 9 and 11. They had been in school in the UK – where they were fairly happy – so it took us a while to get out of the schooling mentality, realising that education encompasses the whole of life. At first I wanted to get bookwork done in the mornings, and rather discounted other learning experiences.
It took months before I realised that the most significant learning happened at random moments: when one son, reading in bed, asked me what molecules were, leading to an hour-long discussion of chemistry at 10pm. Or when he wanted to know where Kosovo was, so we got out the atlases and talked about world politics. Or when their computer civilization games helped them to learn about economic systems and see the history of the rise and fall of various empires far more vividly than any formal study of history could do. Or when, reading a computer manual, they wanted to know what sines and cosines were, leading on to an instant – if brief – study of trigonometry.
Studying for a diploma
As they grew older, they decided to use a curriculum for part of their studies. This was to gain a recognised diploma which might help them in future careers, or – if desired – university entrance in the UK. We made this decision after much family discussion and research, and used a curriculum where they set the pace, and worked at their own ability levels.
Then our days had a bit more predictability: both boys tried to be up by about 10.00am, and working at their curriculum, which covered six or more different subjects, for two or three hours. But sometimes one of them would start working an hour earlier than that; sometimes one of them overslept.
Then they decided to cover their curriculum work, if possible, in four days a week and spend Fridays doing creative writing or other projects that cropped up. Usually at some point during the mornings they took a break, and I might read to them for an hour or more, depending on how things were going. Sometimes their workbooks inspired extra questions or discussions, or research. When there were dull, repetitive sections of the workbooks, they left them out or we did them verbally.
We always avoided the ‘school-at-home’ style. I made every attempt to be flexible; I generally stayed in the room with the boys while they were doing their workbooks, so that I was available for questions and discussion.
At the end of each workbook they had to take a short test, which had to be taken without reference to the workbook (or any other relevant material). We tried to ensure that these were taken more seriously, with no discussion during the test-taking. The result of these tests were important records of their achievements which were used in their diplomas.
At most, this more formal work took up three hours each morning; often less. It was by no means the main part of my sons’ education. I’m glad we had the three ‘interest-led’ years which showed me that a curriculum, is just one tool in the lifelong all-encompassing concept of education.
They also took art and music classes, roller-bladed, and played an invented tennis-type game in the back yard. They wrote computer programs and email, built web sites, did graphic design and wrote stories. They read for hours. They played their civilization-building and similar strategy computer games. They listened to the news, and asked questions, and we discussed all kinds of issues at the meal table. They spent time with my husband observing his workplace, learning some of his skills, helping him with his web-site.
Every day is different in home education
So… we never really had a typical day as home educators. A pattern gradually evolved for us, taking into account the differing needs and interests of the whole family. As the boys grew older, and sometimes had morning activities or needed to sleep till lunch-time, they started doing curriculum work at other times – afternoons, or evenings.
There is no ideal, no perfect way of educating children which is guaranteed to work for everyone. Probably no two children learn in exactly the same way, and our role as parents is to inspire and encourage and open doors. As a home educating parent, the best thing is to work with your family to discover your own rhythm, your ways of meeting your children’s needs as you grow and learn together.