“Do you remember when we learned all about the Sumerians when you were younger?” I asked my 18 year old daughter. “We dressed up, made different foods, and even did a puppet show?”
Looking at me blankly, she responded “No, I don’t remember doing that!”
We used to get together with a couple of other home ed families every week to cover different civilizations from history. The mums went to a great deal of trouble to prepare activities, and engage the children in a fun and positive way. But years later, I was to realise that even when a parent manages their child’s learning activities in what appears to be a meaningful way, if a child is not particularly interested in the topic, and their own curiosity is not driving their learning, it can have the same result as if the child had sat through a dry and boring classroom session. This was somewhat of an epiphany for me!
Further proof came during another conversation with the same daughter. We were talking about Ancient Egypt, and she made an offhand comment about Cleopatra being Greek. I didn’t recall us ever covering Cleopatra in any detail in our history sessions, so I asked her where she had come across that knowledge. “Oh, Horrible Histories!” was her answer.
One of my tactics to encourage the children to read was to leave a variety of different books in baskets around the house, hoping that they might pick one up occasionally when bored. This was how she had come to read about Cleopatra’s Greek heritage. This random bit of reading had stuck with her, whilst our very engaging and fun history session had not!
This is why as I have continued with my home educating journey (now in our 23rd year), I have become more and more “hands-off”. The non-negotiables remain “Please make sure you do some maths and some english every day”, but pretty much everything else is about noting the child’s interests, doing what I can to feed it (and fund it, in some cases!). We have attended home ed groups over the years, and the children have still participated in whatever activities were on offer, sometimes exploring more on those subjects after. We still have many educational chats, encourage our children to expand their horizons, and “go and look it up!”, but have abandoned most of what would be considered traditional schooling, particularly in the primary years.
Based on my years of home educating 7 children, my approach now is so very relaxed that I am barely involved, unless the children have asked me to be. During the primary years, I encouraged my children to learn to read and write by reading to them, and as they got older, giving them workbooks to do so that we knew we had covered the “need to know” stuff. We did the same with maths. I view these subjects as needing to be a steady building of a wall, row by row, making sure the foundations are solid. I didn’t tend to get too formal until they were around 8 years of age, and then we eased into it. Most of them were already reading by that age, learning fairly painlessly and as they were ready. But most of all, I wanted them to PLAY!
I believe that our society today vastly underestimates the great value of play for a child. Maria Montessori said “Play is the work of a child”, and it is how children learn and make sense of the world. For many home educated children, play eventually leads to interests, and developing of those interests can lead to a vocation. I would let my son have 3 day Lego or Duplo building marathons, watching as his building and thinking skills developed in huge leaps as he figured out better ways to build things.
Through play, a child figures out problems, comes up with creative and imaginative ways of filling in gaps, practices relationship skills through roleplay, comes to terms with feelings and emotions, and so much more that might seem intangible, yet lays the foundations for who that child will become as they grow older. And then of course there are other benefits like improving eye-hand co-ordination, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, etc.
Former CEO of the LEGO Foundation, Randa Grob-Zakhary, states in this presentation that play is essential for “whole child development”, and that some of the things which are developed through play in the preschool age are “more predictive of life success than your ability to read when you’re four”.
Through my now many years of home educating, my approach has gradually shifted from a more formal, planned format for my children’s education to a model that encourages my children to take ownership for their own lives and their own learning. My role as a parent is to keep them safe, guide them when necessary, but otherwise to not restrict their natural ability to learn, their natural curiosity. As a result, my younger children have benefited from my more relaxed but supportive approach, pursuing subjects they are excited about and planning their own route to chosen careers.
I sometimes wish I’d had someone to talk to back in those early years when I was starting out: someone who might’ve helped me to take a step back and consider learning as a far broader concept than “schooly” subjects. Home education offers so many amazing opportunities for giving our children freedom to just “be”, to discover the joy of mastery, and to have the thrill of heart, mind and body fully engaged in learning curves. If you haven’t taken that step back – I hope this story will encourage you to do just that!