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Starting Your Homeschooling Journey

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
This article originally was published on IndySchooler, last updated there on or around August 13, 2022, and ported here on May 26, 2024. See also the tag-indyschooler and tag-education tags on my archives page.

We took the leap. My family started homeschooling. It is an option that many families consider for various reasons: quality of education, bullying, world view, autonomy, special needs, family cohesion, and more. With the 2020 pandemic, interest in homeschooling exploded. But getting started with homeschooling—or, as I prefer to call it, independent schooling or "world schooling"—can be daunting. Here I offer a few tips to get started.

Take stock of your resources.

For many families, homeschooling is manageable. Yes, homeschooling takes work, especially at the outset when you're figuring it out. Even "unschoolers" have to spend the time to learn what unschooling is and how to make it work for their family. Most of us see a more active role for parents in a child's education.

What should my child be doing during the course of the day? What educational materials should we use? How should we manage screen time? How much one-on-one time do I need to spend helping my child learn? How do we schedule all this? How do we balance career, homeschooling, and other aspects of life? These are all important questions that take effort to successfully answer.

New homeschoolers can take comfort in four basic facts:

1. You know your child better than anyone else does and care about your child's success more than anyone else does.

2. Children have a natural love of learning, an inborn desire to understand and successfully navigate the world. Our job as parents is to nurture our children's natural curiosity and help them discover the resources they need to develop.

3. For everyone but especially for younger children, free play alone and with peers is essential to development—and usually it's easy for parents to facilitate.

4. Especially in the internet age, homeschooling families have access to an enormous amount of high-quality, and often low-cost, educational materials. Indeed, the major challenge for new homeschooling families is not finding enough good materials but narrowing down the available options to something manageable.

I don't want to pretend here that homeschooling is easy or even possible for all families. At least for younger children, someone has to be physically present all the time. Many people work outside of the home in careers where work-at-home simply is not an option. In families especially with younger children where a single parent or both parents work outside of the home, unless a relative or someone can step in to help, homeschooling probably will not be feasible. Yet for many families, especially now that improved technologies create more opportunities to work from home, homeschooling is a great option.

I do think that parents need to think seriously about their own needs and values along with the needs and values of their children. In general, people (adults and children) need to pursue meaningful projects for their own sense of achievement and well-being. For many parents, this means pursuing a career, even if part-time, beyond homeschooling. ("Household management" of a large family can count as a career.) I don't think parents should feel at all guilty about asking a child to self-manage sometimes so that the parent can work. Indeed, I think this is very healthy (when in balance). Children learn largely by example, and they need to see their parents (and caregivers) take their lives and values seriously.

Evaluate the relevant laws.

One interesting question is just what does homeschooling mean. My family is taking the "standard" home education route as outlined by our state's laws. But for many families "homeshooling" means enrolling in a distance-learning private school, which usually costs money. And some "free" public "charter" schools also offer distance-learning. Add to that the fact that "homeschoolers" often participate in programs offered by local public schools, and the lines can get a bit blurry.

One organization that offers an introduction to homeschooling, including the legal issues surrounding it, is the Home School Legal Defense Association (which offers paid memberships); see its "get started" and "homeschool laws" pages. Although this organization is religiously oriented, most of its materials are helpful to secularists.

Choose appropriate materials.

In a typical day with my six-year-old, we spend an hour or two each morning working with our core educational materials. During the rest of the day we work in free play, social events, art projects, trips, reading, walks, and so on.

I'll start with a brief description of the core materials I use and like.

For math we use Singapore's Dimensions Math series. I use the textbook, workbook, and test book materials, not the teachers' guides. We also love the Dragon Box math apps. For younger learners consider wood blocks, foam counting blocks, and triangle wheels.

For reading we spent several months working through The Reading Lesson: Teach Your Child to Read in 20 Easy Lessons and Bob Books. The Khan Academy Kids app offers good phonics work. Of course we read many other books and materials too. Later on we'll get into formal grammar work.

For history I love Curiosity Chronicles. We also really like the history, science, and language arts books from Core Knowledge (free in pdf). (Core Knowledge also has math materials for grades 6–8, although I haven't used them.)

I haven't found a ready-made science curriculum that I love. In addition to the Core Knowledge science books, we like Smithsonian's Geography, Heinemann science books (unfortunately out of print), Peter Jones's The Complete Guide to Human Body, and Awesome Science Experiments for Kids. Online, we love Generation Genius, Mystery Science, and various video series listed on the resources page. And we've purchased and used various science kits.

Also, we use Brain Quest workbooks as supplements.

Different families will find that different materials work better for them. Generally, my take is that you don't need to get overly complicated with educational materials. If you have plenty of good books (which you can buy, borrow from a library, or in many cases download for free), some good math workbooks, and some science projects, you're basically set. Older children may require more-specialized materials. Add to the basics good video documentaries, many of which are free on YouTube or available through standard streaming services (such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Disney+), plus lots of "real life" activities such as shopping and camping and visiting the museum, and your child's day will be rich with opportunities to learn about the world and to develop meaningful skills.

You certainly don't need to spend a ton of money on a fancy prepackaged curriculum—although you can if you want. Bear in mind that a lot of sellers are basically trying to make a quick buck off of nervous parents. Be wary of slick marketing materials, pressure sales tactics, and ad-supported click-bait. Some educational materials are very good, others pretty bad. Some are very expensive, others free. Don't assume that quality correlates strongly with expense; there's a lot of overpriced junk on the market and a lot of free or low-cost gems. I review lots of stuff I like on this site.

I do offer some Amazon links on this site via my affiliates account that pay a small commission on related sales. So bear that in mind. Mainly I keep up this page because I'm deeply interested in education, and I'm already spending considerable time homeschooling my child. So writing up what I learn for this site is a natural extension of my interests. If I link to something on Amazon through this site, it's because I genuinely value the product at hand. Whenever there is a free version of something I try to include that information as well. For example, in my post about fraction wheels, I link to the set that I personally bought from Amazon and also offer a free download that people can print out if they want. And of course I link to products elsewhere that I like for which I receive no commission. (Amazon is my only commission source.)

Be flexible.

In terms of general approach, I personally prefer an "interactive parenting" style that gives children enormous autonomy but that also offers kids lots of guidance and support. Our schedule is flexible and adaptive.

If something just isn't working for your kid, stop doing it! There's no need to force anything. Experiment. See what works. There are lots of different ways to approach a given subject. If something works well, do more of it. Give your child plenty of opportunities to try new things. Pay attention to what interests your child and nurture those interests.

My child absolutely loves science. He loves watching videos about science and doing simple science projects and experiments. So we tend to spend a lot of time with science.

At one point I bought my kid a small violin. It didn't take. He just didn't enjoy it. I'll probably try again later, but if he doesn't want to play an instrument, I'm not going to try to force it on him. On the other hand, my child really loves dance. So we have him in ballet classes.

Maybe the best thing about homeschooling is that kids are free to be who they are, to develop their own interests, to become autonomous and self-responsible individuals. My aim is not to recreate regimented "school" at home but to nurture my child's independence and capacity to responsibly direct his own life.

I do think parents need to grapple with the interrelated issues of struggle and obsession. Let's take these in order.

Struggle: The most fun thing of the moment may not be the most beneficial thing long-term. Some things worth knowing are hard to learn; some skills worth having are hard to develop. So homeschooling parents need to nurture their children's independence as well as their grit. Sometimes you just have to tough it out. This is why Bryan Caplan starts his homeschool days with math: "Most good jobs in the modern world require strong math skills, and very few kids like math enough to learn it on their own." I think Caplan overstates the point: I think that math, properly presented, can be very enjoyable. So far my basic strategy is to do short, high-intensity sessions of math instruction every day. I have added a few external rewards; for example, we've planned scavenger hunts with a prize once he finished a particular math workbook. I definitely think that external rewards can be overused (and that external punishments generally are a bad idea). I think the main job of parents in this regard is to have regular, meaningful conversations about long-term goals and the work required to reach them. Short-term drudgery can become fun, or at least tolerable, with a clear view of future gains—and perhaps a (metaphorical) "spoonful of sugar."

Obsession: I recognize the benefits of video games, television, and social media (at the appropriate age). As an adult, I also enjoy an occasional alcoholic drink and poker match. Yet I recognize that kids, like adults, can fall into unhealthy behaviors. I certainly do not think that playing video games or watching TV all day, or even most of the day, is healthy. Nor do I think that spending hours on end on social media is healthy. So I do think that parents need to set some clear boundaries for their children (and themselves!) when it comes to potentially addictive or obsessive behaviors. And parents can initiate meaningful conversations with their children about such things. We do need to allow for potential savants. For example, the kid who practices guitar in the basement at all hours might just become the next rock superstar. A passion is not the same thing as an unhealthy addiction.

To summarize, my approach is to give my child a great deal of autonomy, consistent with the need to maintain a workable schedule, the need to work hard for long-term gains, and the need to avoid unhealthy behaviors.

I see my job as essentially to help nurture my child's development, not to try to force him to develop in some particular way. To invoke Alison Gopnik's metaphor, I see parenting not as pounding out a carpentry project but as nurturing a native garden.

I see no inherent conflict between nurturing a child and facilitating a child's autonomy. Everyone recognizes that a child needs a nurturing environment to thrive. No one thinks that "unschooling" (to take the extreme) means locking a child in a bare room. We all begin life utterly dependent on our caregivers, and a successful person slowly, over a span of years, develops increasingly greater independence and autonomy. The parent's job is to suitably enrich a child's environment and to provide opportunities for a child to learn and grow. Sometimes that means leaving a child completely alone to concentrate on some self-chosen task. Sometimes (I think) that means encouraging a child to sit down and work on some math problems while explaining (at an age-appropriate level) the long-term benefits of knowing math.

Homeschooling families have an extraordinary opportunity to finely tailor each child's education to that child's needs and interests. Although initially the open-ended nature of homeschooling may overwhelm a parent, most families quickly can discover a homeschooling path that works for them.

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