Making Homeschool Enjoyable – for Both of You!

You love your kids. You want them to have all the benefits of homeschooling – a more flexible approach to learning (tailored to their particular learning style, of course), their parents’ attention, safety from bullies and negative peer pressure – but you’re not seeing those results right now. You’re burned out, the kids would rather eat overcooked brussel sprouts than “do school”, and your friends whose kids are in school seem so…calm and happy. But you don’t think that’s the right path for your family right now.

Well, I was homeschooled K-12, starting in the early 90’s when homeschooling was still a relatively new idea. I am the oldest of an entirely homeschooled family that spans over a decade, with a wide variety of experiences. Some of them worked; some of them didn’t, and I’m going to share both with you.

One of the primary things I learned watching my mom homeschool me and my younger siblings was the importance of self-care for the primary teaching parent. Many homeschool parents, precisely because of their drive to give their children the best, push themselves to the edge. Burnout is the most common reason parents and kids don’t enjoy homeschooling, so don’t underestimate the importance of physical and emotional self-care. After all, your main goal in homeschooling is to teach your kids to be happy, healthy adults, not just how to solve the quadratic equation, so show them how to do that. The easiest way is to take breaks when you need them!

[Editor’s note: of course, you don’t have to homeschool yourself as a parent. Many parents use us as a resource for homeschooling, where we will have a teacher do the homeschooling for them, or some portion of it. This has ranged from our teachers running the entire homeschooling experience for families to our simply teaching a class on a single subject like biology. That being said, we feel Melissa’s advice on keeping calm and creating healthy space for yourself is wise no matter what your approach!]

Here’s an idea: when I was in elementary and middle school, we had “quiet time” for an hour every afternoon, usually right after lunch. My mom would turn off the phone ringer and set an egg timer where we could all hear it when it went off. The youngest child usually had a nap, while school-age children were placed in different rooms with special “quiet time” toys. We knew we weren’t allowed to knock on Mom’s door until the timer went off unless there was an emergency. My mom would nap or just have some time to herself; we kids got a break from each other and learned how to amuse ourselves. (Remember that for most of my school years, iPads and smartphones didn’t exist. I suspect that my family’s emphasis on learning to play or read alone quietly is actually more important in today’s world because of the rarity of these skills and because the brain development they encourage.) I have many fond memories of “quiet time.” I got a welcome respite from my brother’s company and a chance to do something fun – when I was younger, I’d build with Lincoln Logs or Legos, and when I got older, I often drew or made things out of modeling clay, when I wasn’t absorbed in my latest favorite book (often historical fiction).

As my family got older, I saw a shift happen. My mom no longer had small children in the house who need naptime, and “quiet time” quietly fell by the wayside – and my mom’s exhaustion and stress levels increased. Just as the frog doesn’t notice his pot of cool water heating up until it’s too late (a gruesome metaphor, but perhaps not too extreme as a comparison), it’s easy to ignore the symptoms of burnout until they become overwhelming.  Doing whatever you need to recharge on a regular basis is absolutely essential to enjoying your homeschool experience, and lays the foundation for your kids to enjoy theirs. As the old Southern saying goes, “When Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

My next suggestion is to look for easy ways to make “book work” more interesting. My family listened to dozens of cassette tapes (boy, do I feel old now!) – historical songs that made my social studies and American history lessons come alive, as well as geography and grammar set to catchy tunes. Once I learned to read, we went to the library constantly (now, my younger siblings have Kindles), where we rarely checked out books written by contemporary authors; this meant I got to see first-hand what the world looked like in days gone by. My parents also read aloud to us on an almost daily basis, which had a myriad of positive effects. It introduced younger kids to books they might not be able or willing to read on their own (Mom started reading me Little House when I was about four and a half, Anne of Green Gables at 7); it showed us that reading is important; it gave us reading comprehension by giving us the opportunity to ask questions and discuss the story with our parents or older siblings; and it sparked our imaginations in countless ways.  Reading “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle showed me that science and math were interesting; reading the American Girl historical books helped spark a lifelong fascination with history and an appreciation for technological advances. I can’t say enough about how much more enjoyable my school work was as a result of my extracurricular reading of everything from Nancy Drew to Narnia, to say nothing of the vocabulary, reading comprehension, and spelling I learned without even trying.

Another way to make homeschooling enjoyable is to shake up your routine. Many kids love spontaneity, especially when it involves getting out of “work.” This doesn’t mean you have to ditch schoolwork; just look around for creative ways of achieving your learning. NYC has dozens of museums, including hands-on children’s museums in Brooklyn and Manhattan; the Sony Wonder Technology Lab; the Children’s Museum of the Arts; and the Intrepid Air, Sea, and Space Museum. A day trip to Philadelphia or Boston gives you dozens of historical sites, while close to home is the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Rainy day and you know everything will be packed? There are dozens of videos from all over the internet – ask your kids what they’re interested in, and help them learn to navigate the internet safely to find out more about it! (Bonus book recommendations for field trip prep: All-of-a-Kind Family, set in NYC at the turn of the twentieth century; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for more mature readers, set in a similar time period; Johnny Tremain for Revolutionary-era Boston, or American Girl’s Addy series for Philadelphia. Find many more in the New York Public Library list at http://www.nypl.org/childrens100 )

While we’re on the subject, a balanced approach to technology is a great way to make your homeschool experience more enjoyable. There will be days when keeping your home sane and yourself healthy will mean using educational videos to give yourself some breathing room, but we’ve all read and heard the statistics around children’s technology use and the impact it has on them. Teach them how to set limits for themselves (something best taught by example, and by providing interesting alternative occupations) and how to keep themselves safe online.  For a long time, the only internet-enabled computers in my family’s house were in the living room and the “school room” (once we were fortunate enough to have a dedicated school room). This instantly provided visibility to our parents of our online activities and the time we spent on the computer. My parents also chose to install strict monitoring and blocking software on our family’s computers, something which I feel had mixed consequences; my adult siblings often struggle to set appropriate screen time limits, and strict blocking software can stunt your ability to navigate safely. (My seventeen-year-old sister had no idea why her Google image search of “Russian woman costume” was blocked, and didn’t know how to find the historical information she was looking for safely.) Teaching your children screen and Internet responsibility both enhances their learning skills and makes your home a more peaceful place.

To return to the idea of “shaking up your routine” – what if you feel overwhelmed by your activities and your “school time” is constant chaos? What if your child finds spontaneity threatening, rather than exciting? (I was one such child – fortunately my mom was very good about breaking up our routine in a structured way, such as scheduling field trips at least a week in advance.) While some families thrive on a very flexible schedule, all our human tendencies push us toward baseline routines.  We eat three times a day – at relatively similar times across cultures – because most of us need to. We sleep at night for similar time spans because our bodies require it. If you’re the spontaneous type, it doesn’t hurt take some time to step back and ask yourself, “Is my household characterized by spontaneity – or chaos? Would I or my family benefit from making some part of our life more regular?” I think of our next-door neighbors when I was young, who were also homeschoolers. Their mom was always having them go out and change a tire, or analyze why they liked spaghetti so much (starch), or they’d have macaroni and cheese for breakfast; but eventually, she got burned out and discouraged by their slow progress. Eventually the family decided that the more regular education routine of the local public school was necessary simply to get through essential education topics. While this may be the best course for some families, those who want to continue long term may find it best to have a plan to keep things moving forward smoothly.

You don’t have to have a strict schedule of “rise at 7, breakfast 7:25, school from 8-12, lunch at 12:15, school from 1-3, bed at 8:30” if that doesn’t work for you! But maybe – just maybe – a bit of structure would benefit you or your family as a whole, and it doesn’t even need to be directly school-related. One very simple routine that my family found helpful was a weekday breakfast schedule. That way there was no thought required for making breakfast (beyond “what day of the week is it again??”). If your life feels chaotic, take a moment and think about your typical day. At what moment does making a decision feel overwhelming? Maybe that’s where a routine would help you. I know some parents who find it very helpful just to drink a cup of coffee before the kids get up, while others set a family wake-up time. Try different things and see what works!

Another thing that often takes the enjoyment out of homeschooling is isolation. I hate to bring up the oft-repeated question of “socialization,” but I can tell you from experience that while it can be a problem, it doesn’t have to be. I’m the oldest child in my family, and when I was in elementary and middle school, my social life consisted of weekly church attendance, bi-monthly or monthly homeschool group activities, and the occasional get-together with friends met through one of those avenues. In high school as I realized that I felt isolated and lonely, I used online homeschool forums to make friends, joined my church choir (though I was the youngest member for a long time), and sought out old-fashioned pen pals. This situation was not ideal; my circle of acquaintance was badly limited and I was lonely, despite being an introvert.

My siblings, on the other hand, have had a drastically different experience due in large part to the development of a homeschool co-op in their area. Their participation has given them the chance to make friends under more ‘real-world’ conditions, where they can collaborate on classwork or just sit around and talk on a regular basis. Co-ops are a great resource for making homeschool enjoyable, both for the socialization and for giving kids a chance to learn from a different perspective. Other common social/school activities enjoyed by today’s homeschoolers are debate clubs, robotics teams, after-school sports teams…the possibilities are endless. The New York City Home Educators’ Association, NYCHEA, is a large non-sectarian group that offers many resources, but is by no means the only such group in the area. Check out www.mommypoppins.com for intros to many other groups and activities in the area.

Finally – enjoy your kids! There is no better way to ensure that the homeschool experience is all-around pleasant than to take joy in learning in each other’s company.

Have you or your kids struggled with this? If so, we'd love to hear about it and strategies you took to overcome it in the comments below!

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