I’ve had lots of requests lately to share my thoughts on home schooling. I haven’t done so previously because I didn’t feel qualified– after all, there are so many other parents with years and years of experience, and we’re still newbies. But, I suppose it’s never a bad thing to open up a discussion, share some tips and encourage others to share theirs. I’m hoping this post will inspire those thinking of home schooling, those already home educating and those just looking to supplement their children’s traditional schooling. Many of the activities and exercises we do with our kids are fun and would make for great rainy day activities, even if not part of a home education.
I should preface this post by saying that Michael and I have always held a relaxed view on formal education. Rather than focusing on academic standards, grades or test results, we’ve been more interested in encouraging our children to play, to be creative, to be independent thinkers and to learn for the enjoyment of learning. Up until this year, our kids were in a school that held this same ‘whole-child’ educational philosophy. The transition from learning at their school to learning at home was, for this reason, a relatively smooth one for our kids. Learning how to be good home educators was not so easy for us.
We’ve been home schooling our children since our travels began last September. Actually, we like the term, ‘Road Schooling’, a reflection of this year’s special flavour of tuition. It wasn’t an easy start. In addition to adjusting to life in new places, it took a couple months to figure out how to teach and to understand how each of our children learns best (they’re all so different!). It also took some time to figure out our rhythm and schedule as a family on the road.
At first, because of the novelty, the children struggled to take school time seriously. Quin, our best student in a classroom setting, couldn’t quite wrap his head around the fact that he had to focus and listen to his parents. Teaching him was an unexpected challenge! For Ivy, being in a comfortable setting meant it was easy to get distracted, and she kept finding excuses not to do her work. Like Quin, it took her time to become self-disciplined with home schooling. Easton, our eldest, who has always found it difficult to focus in a classroom, was (and has been) surprisingly easy to teach. He quickly took to the one-on-one tutoring, and is excelling and progressing faster than he does in school. As a result, his confidence has skyrocketed.
The other big challenge was knowing what and how to teach. Our three school-aged children are sufficiently apart in years, so a one-size-fits-all approach could not work. After struggling to keep their attention, we realised a whole lot more preparation was needed before each lesson. This makes total sense, of course, but naively we thought we could just open some interesting school books and get all of our children to follow along and learn with us. Not so. While there is overlap in some areas, for the most part lessons needed to be individually crafted to make an impact—more work than we expected.
More patience than expected was also required. We had to learn that when a child wasn’t getting something on the first, second or third explaining, it wasn’t always lack of focus or effort. More often it was often the explanation that was at fault. Learning how to rephrase or explain a lesson in a new way is a skill we’re refining. And being more patient in general is a quality, we now know, every teacher must possess in great quantity.
Though a surprise to us at the time, all of these initial challenges seem predictable in hindsight — as with anything, there’s always a period of adjustment. After six months of navigating our way along this home schooling journey, I think we are finally getting the hang of it. Well, at least we have a better grasp on the whole process and what works best for us. In fact, we’re really enjoying it now. I’ve broken up the rest of this post into different subjects, as it was just easier for me to organise my thoughts this way.
Michael does most of the teaching (he’s the one with the most free time, and truthfully, the one with the most patience!). I help come up with ideas. I’m also the one who reads with them, and occasionally I’ll take one of the kids and work with them on an assignment Michael has given them while he works with the others. But in general, he does most of the actual teaching and preparing of lessons, especially with maths, writing and topical studies. I thought it was worth pointing this out because it takes a certain type of person to be a teacher, and it’s certainly not for everyone. It only really works for our family right now because Michael isn’t working and he has the time to teach the kids. I know that I could not do it on my own.
In terms of schedule, we try to spend about three hours a day ‘in school’, doing the more structured learning. Sure, kids spend six or more hours in a traditional school day, but when you back out all of the breaks and non-learning activities (though these are equally important), three hours of structured learning is probably about what they get a day. In any case, it works for us.
The nice thing about home schooling is that you can be flexible on timing and can teach at the most opportune times for your family (no morning school run rush!), taking into consideration when they are most receptive to learning and when their attention span is greatest. For us, it seems to work best in the mornings, after we’ve had breakfast as a family. The kids know if they focus well and work hard, we can spend the afternoon out on the beach or on a walk, etc. — surfing has proven to be a great motivator to get through the morning lessons! If we aren’t able to squeeze in schooling in the morning, then we try to fit it in later in the afternoon before dinner. And sometimes it’s not three consecutive hours – sometimes we have to break it up throughout the day. Occasionally we’ll miss a day or decide that a special outing (like a trip to the Australia Zoo) was educational enough, but if we don’t accomplish everything we want to in a week, then we’ll make up for it the following day or on the weekend. We are not fussed about when they learn, just as long as it happens.
When you are your child’s teacher you end up teaching throughout the day — working on multiplication tables in the car for example, or summarising topical lessons while on a walk. We were on a trail in the Blue Mountains recently when the kids asked about the ‘Sydney Funnel Web Spider’, one of many potentially deadly arachnids here in Australia. Michael explained that this spider lives mostly within a 100km radius of Sydney. When the idea of ‘radius’ perplexed Ivy, we stepped to the side of the trail and drew a circle in the dirt with a stick. He then explained the concepts of radius, diameter and circumference to all of the kids. Little lessons like this happen throughout our day and this is another joy of home schooling — seizing these moments of genuine curiosity and watching the lessons really sink in.
Our biggest focus this year has been on maths, writing and reading. Before our travels began, we bought the Core Knowledge UK Fundamentals books for each of our children’s school years. These books offer a great summary of the curriculum in each year, and have helped give us an idea of what the kids would be learning back in school. We have found these especially helpful for Maths, as we really had no idea what maths concepts they learn at their ages. These books are also great for introducing poetry and extracts to books appropriate for their age and reading level. Though they also have sections on history, music, science, etc., but we are using these less. We believe our kids are learning so much through their travel experience that they’ll get a well-rounded education over the course of the year anyway.
Maths: Michael uses the Core Knowledge books to prepare daily math exercises for each of the kids. He writes out the math problems/questions in their math exercise books in black ink (usually the night before), and the children solve the equations and write their answers in pencil. The kids usually have 2 pages of maths to get through each day, and Michael works closely with them, answering questions if they have them. Additionally, each of the kids has a ‘Letts: Make it Easy’ maths activity book for their age bracket, and the kids work in these as well. When we hit a wall with a certain Math topic, we’ve found the Khan Academy to be really helpful. There are free, instructional videos for just about every maths topic. Sometimes hearing another teacher explain it is all it takes for a new concept to be grasped.
Writing: The kids are keeping journals where they document their travels and write down the things they’ve seen and done. We had hoped that they would write in their journals daily, but they seem to do it more conscientiously if we aim for 3 times a week. We also found that the kids wrote more and had an easier time if we provided simple questions for them to answer, like ‘what did you do yesterday?’, ‘what was your favourite thing you saw?’, ‘what did you eat?’, ‘who did you meet?’, etc. (You can read more about this here.) In addition to being a great keepsake from a special year, we use their journaling to practice grammar, punctuation, spelling and handwriting. After an entry, we go over their writing together to correct and explain mistakes.
Additionally, at least once or twice a week, Michael chooses a topic to focus on for our weekly topical studies. This is almost always something relevant to what we’ve done or seen that week, or something the kids have shown interest in. For example, when we were in Brazil the kids learned about the production of coconuts, in Chile they learned about ocean currents and swells, and in Uruguay we studied up on Rheas, a large flightless bird. When we were in NZ, the kids learned about Maoris, about the extinct ‘Giant Moas’ that used to roam the country and about Captain James Cook and his voyages to NZ. Since arriving to Australia, the kids have learned about flying foxes (fruit bats), goannas (large monitor lizards), and we’ve learned all about marsupials and how they differ from other mammals. The kids write down notes and findings in their journals, and we encourage them to include a drawing on the opposite page.
The kids have also written their own fiction stories. When we were in NZ, we asked them to write a story set in New Zealand that included NZ animals, plants or people. This was such a fun exercise and one they all really enjoyed. In fact, it was hard to stop them writing page after page.
Lastly, we’ve asked the kids to write book reports of the books they’ve read or we’ve listened to. This is another good writing exercise that helps develop reading comprehension and writing skills.
Reading: This is pretty straight-forward. We encourage the kids to read for about 20 minutes a day. Some of our kids really enjoy reading and will do so without being prompted, while others need the reminder (and nagging). Ivy still needs an adult to read with her, while the boys (aged 8 and 10) read on their own. We had to bring quite a lot of books with us to South America, knowing that we probably wouldn’t have access to English books while we were down there. The boys read a lot of the same books, which helped, but Ivy needed different books entirely (we have an entire suitcase devoted to exercise books, journals and chapter books!). In New Zealand and Australia, we were able to find bookstores to stock up on books for the kids. Unfortunately, we haven’t stayed in the same spot long enough to make use of the public libraries, but I can imagine these would be a second home for most home-schooling families. Of course Marlow (aged 3) is not reading yet, but she loves picture books and all the kids enjoy reading to her as well.
***A note about Marlow: We are big believers in learning through play so she does not sit down for formal lessons. When she shows an interest we work with her on letters, numbers and letter sounds. She writes her name and her sibling’s names, and loves writing postcards home to her friends – which consist of silly drawings and lots of random letters all over the place. She loves to draw and paint, she loves being read to, and she’s just as fond of nature as her siblings are. We think she learns a lot just from being surrounded by her family 24/7. How many 3-year olds get to spend all day, every day playing with their big siblings?! ***
Geography: This has been an easy topic to learn as we go. Each time we arrive to a new country, we study the map and learn about the different cities/states/regions/capitals, etc. The kids have drawn out many different maps along our travels, colouring in the different regions, and labelling the cities. Additionally, in each country, we learn and write down 20 interesting facts about the country. Again, these lists go in to their journals. Before and after long road trips, we show the kids the road maps and get them to help plot out our journey. When we were in New Zealand, for example, we traced our entire path from the South Island to the North Island, putting star stickers in each of the places we visited. It was a great way for the kids to really visualise where we had been and to understand the lay of the land.
TIPS, IDEAS & RESOURCES
- It took us a while to find the right journals for the kids. We wanted good quality, sturdy, A4 sized journals so they could write in them, draw in them and paste in maps, mementos or work done outside their journals. We also wanted them to be lined, to encourage nice and neat writing. Surprisingly, journals with these qualities were hard to come by. Thankfully we found Leuchtturm1917 A4 Lined Notebooks fit the bill perfectly. They are expensive but solid—sure to stand the test of time. The kids have decorated them with stickers we’ve collected during our travels – this is a fun way for them to personalise their journals, and it helps to jog memories of all the places we’ve been.
- The kids have separate maths exercise books. We’re using the Apica CD Notebooks for these (I like their design! I also like that the kids write their name on the outside and they come in different colours, so we keep them all separate.)
- Our favourite pencils are the Blackwing ones—smooth and dark, with an eraser/rubber that lasts longer than a standard pencil.
- A deck of cards and a pair of dice are handy things to have for playing maths games. I received some tips from fellow home-schooling mothers on IG recently, and one of them reminded me of all the different maths versions of the card game WAR, including addition, subtraction, and multiplication variations. (See here)
- We also love playing this letter game, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post. It’s a great game for learning vocabulary and practicing spelling.
- These multiplication flowers are a fun and creative way of practicing multiplication. Our kids have loved making these, and we continually go back to old ones for practice.
- Audio books are loved by every member of our family. We listen to fiction as well as the historical/fact-based books, and have found most of the audio books on Audible (we have the app and download the stories to our phone to listen in the car).
- Sending postcards and letters is a great way to encourage your children to write! This has become a weekly writing assignment, and the kids really enjoy it. It’s also fun to get word from home that our post cards arrived! (Ivy also has a pen pal whom she writes to regularly. I love the idea of pen pals
- Crosswords and Word Searches are great fun. There are websites (like here and here) where you can make your own puzzles based on places you’ve visited and things you’ve done recently. The kids really enjoy these!
- For inspiration and ideas, I love following @wildandfree.co on Instagram (and their website and magazine is beautiful too). I also love following Kirsten Rickert’s homeschooling IG feed @mayaclimbstrees. She has so many wonderful craft ideas and encouraging words. She has also posted videos about her home schooling on her website, which I have found very helpful (and reassuring).
Phew! That was a LOOONG post! If you’ve read it all the way through, then thank you. And please, if you feel inspired, share your thoughts and tips in the comments section below. We are always happy to receive more ideas!