Unexpected Home Education
There are now thousands of children and families the world over being plunged into the unknown of home educating, thanks to Covid-19. In some cases, schools are sending work home, in others there are parents going it alone for an indefinite amount of time.
Earlier in the week, on social media, I shared some links to educational websites for folks who have had school cancelled. I was overwhelmed with messages from friends who want tips about how to home school, so I thought I’d write a post about it. In part to reassure and support, in part to dispel some myths and give you permission not to go into panic mode.
Pause for a moment..
First, take a breath. You do not need to launch into a full on, full time learning programme on day 1. Coronavirus is scary and our kids are not shielded from that. There are anxieties, questions, anger and worries to deal with first. You may also have a child who is thrilled to have an extended school holiday for any reason and looking forward to chilling out. Give yourself and your kids permission to just enjoy each other as a family for a while as you navigate this strange new normal, where toilet paper is non existent and we can’t visit our friends and family. It’s weird for all of us. Learning is fairly low on the agenda for a lot of children right now, and who can blame them.
Given that this crisis is going to be a reasonably long term one and you may all feel you want to approach learning more consciously again at some point, I’ve put down a few things to consider. But it is okay to linger for as long as you need to on the here and now concerns of living through a major pandemic. There is nothing that you could learn in the next six months that could not be caught up on next year in school if needed, because learning does not have an expiry date.
You can make choices that suit your family. You have agency. Prioritise connection.
Your version of home education, however long it lasts, does not have to look like school. For one, the school day may be six or more hours long, but that is not six hours of focused learning time. At home, you have a tiny teacher : student ratio and none of the transitions, assemblies, lining everyone up, waiting for people to sit still and other things that take up school time. You could cover the same amount of material in a much shorter period, at the perfect pace for your child. You do not need to plan for six hours of learning every day, so let go of that expectation of yourself right away.
The vast, vast majority of home educating families are not replicating school at home. (Side note: home ed also looks nothing like self isolating or social distancing either! We’re missing our groups and normal routine as well, so it’s new experiences all around). It simply isn’t necessary recreate school to successfully learn. Both you and your children have agency and power to make decisions about how education (and wider life) should look for the foreseeable future. For some of you, this might be exciting, for others this is probably extremely daunting.
There have been a few narratives emerging on social media in light of unexpected homeschooling (which is usually the American term; in the UK it’s home ed), which range from “here’s how to structure every moment of your kid’s day to maximise learning” to “stop structuring your kids, let them play, you’re finally free”. And everything in between.
Many parents are just trying to survive the logistical, financial and medical puzzle thrust upon them as well as they can. I totally understand the panic. There is a lot of privilege in being able to say this is a freeing scenario, for anyone, considering the wider context. But it’s worth highlighting, and especially as our physical movements are restricted through social distancing and self isolation, that the freedom to make meaningful choices in our daily routines is a key part of mentally dealing with a crisis far beyond our control.
The freedom comes in the form of not having to make your unexpected home ed look any particular way for anyone else. Creating a culture of joyful learning in a home environment is an ongoing, long term, ever evolving process. You do not have to get this “right” right away, if that even is a thing (it isn’t). Be kind to yourself.
It is also important to note that attempting to fully replicate school at home or enforce or coerce desk-learning at a time when the whole world is upside down could impact your relationship with your children quite negatively. This is perhaps one of the most crucial times in living memory for children to feel connected and safe, so those connections should be nurtured above all else if possible.
Rhythm over Schedule
Children who are struggling with what is going on around them are often comforted by routine. Having a rhythm to the day is completely different to scheduling every moment. It just means that there is a general expectation of what comes next, within a flexible framework. A rhythm allows you to wriggle down a rabbit hole of learning if you get caught up in something interesting, without being considered “off-task”, in a way a schedule doesn’t allow. You don’t have to stop writing your epic story just because it’s time for maths now. Maths can wait.
Something as simple as Mornings Inside, Afternoons Outside could be enough of a rhythm for you. Or perhaps you would like a smidge more structure, such as STEAM Wednesdays and baking Fridays, ready for the weekend. You could also set aside some time to be with your kids individually and focus on their specific needs or interests, before coming back together as a family for movie night or a pancake brunch or to build blanket forts. These are just loose ideas, there are lots of ways to do this. Plenty of people successfully educate their children with no forward planning whatsoever and going with the flow.
The Inseparable Nature of Learning and Life
‘All of life is learning’ isn’t the trite phrase it seems to be. Life just isn’t often framed as a good enough learning experience for kids; we’re usually told that important learning is something done in a special building, with certain books and tests, separated from the rest of our time. Suddenly, you’re in a situation where that learning context has disintegrated and you’re feeling adrift. The paradigm has completely shifted and it’s a bit unnerving.
Please don’t worry! I had a lot of panicked messages in my inbox from people saying that haven’t a clue where to start, what their children are capable of, how to teach, how to manage around their younger children or countless other worries. These are all the same worries many elective home educators have, especially those who left the school system part way through. It is completely normal and you are not alone. You really can do this.
You Have Options
Some people like planning ahead and feel secure in that. It isn’t really how I do things, but I know people who do and really enjoy finding exciting things to explore with their family in advance. Some start off quite structured, then relax the structure, others do the opposite. There are exactly as many ways to do this as there are families doing it. We’re all different.
The thing to remember is that kids are sponges. They can’t help learning, all the time, even things we would rather they didn’t! It’s totally fine to have a plan in mind of things you would like to cover, but it doesn’t have to be a hard and fast collection of boxes to tick. There is so much space and scope to explore and meander and still make progress.
My suggestion would be to try not to overwhelm everyone (yourself included) by implementing lots of structured activity all at once. This is brand new for all of you. Take one small thing, figure out how you would like to approach it together and once you are all happy, add something else. Just one thing at a time. You have time to pace yourselves because you’re now together all day every day, or near enough. Aim for a happy rhythm, prioritise your relationships over academics (especially when you’re just starting!), take lots of breaks and leave lots of free time for the kids to pursue their own interests and to play – especially now they have the time to do so!
You can also simply let your everyday life experiences and child’s interests guide what you end up learning. You could then, if you like, “plan from behind”, logging all the great learning that took place. Or simply trust the learning was there.
For example, the blossom on the tree outside our window is beautiful. Aeryn’s interest was piqued (she loves nature) and she asked lots of questions about it. So, we looked at seasonal changes. We read about trees, watched Youtube videos and nature documentaries, read pastoral poetry, learned about Earth’s tilt and the reason for seasons, tried leaf chromatography, tried flower pressing, took walks through a forest and Aeryn made loads of drawings of our tree as it changed. This was over several weeks, not all at once. We covered a load of curriculum areas, including English, science and art, without once picking up a text book. The learning happened because she was interested and motivated (which also means she has retained what we learnt). I just facilitated her interest by pointing at the resources and nurturing the skills she needed to discover what she wanted to know.
Just take it a day at a time and see how it goes. You can always wake up tomorrow and try something new.
Please do not feel compelled to spend a fortune on resources and workbooks all at once until you have a better feel for how your children learn best in a home environment, or you may waste your money! There are lots of free resources you can begin with online to see what fits.
The Power of Boredom
Free websites and workbooks and print outs are everywhere along, really. We’ve looked at lots of them. We watch science videos like John Tickle on Braniac walking on custard (remember that one?!) or David Attenborough nature programmes or Dr Brian Cox on space. We print out posters or artwork we want to explore or soak up, or quote we love from Pinterest. We sometimes play online games like Reading Eggs, to help with reading but mainly for fun. They just aren’t all of what learning is. It’s okay to not cram every minute with things to do to keep everyone busy. Preferable, even.
Boredom is a healthy part of becoming creative and self motivated, or noticing things that interest you to explore, like blossom for Aeryn. Play is also the single most important thing for kids to be engaged with, so allowing plenty of empty space in your week to just have fun is a brilliant idea.
Pursue their Interests
What are all of the amazing things your child is into you never get time to explore? Are they big into Ancient Egypt? Or Minecraft? Or growing plants? Or musical theatre? Or social justice or baking or the Victorians or Warhammer models or manga or the ocean? Deep dive into those things! Read everything about them, watch everything about them, role play and discuss or play games or find out more! Academics can incorporate these passions! Make it relevant to things your kids care about.
There is value inherent in your child’s interests by virtue of the fact they value them. Try to notice what it is! Unexpected homeschooling might not have been your plan, but now you’re here, consider letting go of the idea of what they “should” be doing for just a few weeks or months, and let them discover what they really want to know. This might take some time, if they are used to being told what to learn, but have a little faith – they will probably astonish you, and maybe themselves, too.
Cut yourself Some Slack
If your next few weeks are chaotic, you can’t get your kids to “do anything” that looks like learning, you’re bickering or stressed out or miserable, I see you and I get it. There is nothing wrong with you, or your family. Everyone has days like this and definitely at the moment, with the chaos we’re all experiencing! The situation right now isn’t what normal home education looks like. If you’re like our family and fully self isolated, you won’t be allowed out at all and that is SO HARD with children. In our case, we don’t even have a garden!
It is absolutely okay to go into holiday mode and just chill. Recuperate from your usual crazy busy life. Focus on just keeping your family healthy and trying to figure out what everyone needs out of this, or if there are anxieties to work through (a pandemic is terrifying for adults, let alone children). Learning will start to happen gradually and organically and almost without notice as you become more relaxed and connected. Things like board games and reading aloud to your children from your favourite books (or taking turns to read if they are able!) are perfect for times like this.
Your kids will not fall irreparably behind their peers in the next few months because they take a little time to de-stress (even kids with exams looming). Prioritise your relationship, given you may have to spend a significant amount of time constantly together in the coming weeks. I promise you, everything is easier if you have open communication and can have a laugh together. Learning can and should be fun.
This might feel like a very lonely and overwhelming time, but you are not alone. There are lots of families you can connect with on social media as you work through this huge upheaval, mine included! If you have questions or worries, please feel free to find me on Instagram – my handle is @the.everyday.adventurers – or comment on this post! Everything is easier with a supportive network around you.
You’ve got this! Welcome to (unexpected) home educating! xXx