We've been at this thing for ten years now and there has been trial and error, success, graduation, challenge, ease and anything else you can imagine.
I often get questions about what works, requests for advice and curriculum recommendations, questions about how to plan, create a schedule and deal with unmotivated children.
First let me say this. My way is not THE way. What works for us might not work for you.
Our values may be different than yours.
But I'm sharing in case it helps someone.
I'm sharing to have this written down for the next time and the next time and every time after that I am approached for advice.
I also want to say that we have been influenced by many educational philosophies; mostly Charlotte Mason, Waldorf and unschooling. As long time readers know, we have gone through periods of being only CM, only Waldorf and only unschoolers (or more appropriately deschoolers as we've never really moved past that process on the journey towards unschooling, otherwise as full unschoolers can attest to, we would be unschoolers). These philosophies most definitely affect who we are and how we do things, and yet there is no philosophy that is perfect and comes with a guarantee. Every child is different and the beauty is that God is sovereign and each of your children will get what they need regardless of philosophy. Sometimes a particular method or curriculum will suit your present needs and that is fine. Just stay aware of your children, yourself and the peace of your household and do not be ruled by methodology or curriculum. Be willing to make changes when necessary.
Instead of being a homeschool that is fully one method or another, we have instead adopted principles that I consider to be the most important aspects of a successful homeschool. They are the things that rule our days, the things that have carried us into high school and college, the things that have become a part of who our family is and our lifestyle. Because just as when you follow the law and forget about the grace of Christ or when you tie yourself down to a schedule and have no flexibility for life, committing religiously to one curriculum or method can be stifling and doesn't allow for the uniqueness of each child, each family. It can be condemning when you feel you don't match up or aren't cm/Waldorf/unschooling/anything else PURE enough. It can cause turmoil and feelings of failure in mama when she sees the so-called perfect homeschool on Instagram. And it can be stifling for the child when this one method or curriculum doesn't meet their needs or passions or style. Instead of experiencing the freedom and peace of homeschooling, these families are struggling with feelings of failure and inadequacy.
So in hopes that some can be set free, here are the 8 most important things, in my opinion, for successful homeschooling all the way through high school.
1) Create an inspiring, lifestyle of learning atmosphere. This has been the absolute, most important thing for our family. Build a library, hang beautiful things on the wall, play music, fill your home with natural, open-ended toys, bring nature in, and model learning and creativity! Your children will naturally involve themselves with what is in your home, they will copy what you do and the atmosphere will seep into their souls.
2) Let childhood be a time for play. There are so many years for academics but not nearly enough for play. Don't rush things! Let the little ones spend hours with their toys, following mom around while she works, digging in dirt, watching birds. Even after they are reading independently, allow them their play time. So many skills are gained from play, so much is experienced and such growth occurs that rushing our children out of this stage and into the time of academics, really robs them of important development. So let them be!
3) Read! Our children are surrounded by books from birth. I'm always reading, I read aloud to my infants as I nurse them, we give books as the most special gifts, read aloud to the littles numerous times a day. Everyone in our house knows that if a little one brings a book to you, everything you are doing stops and you read the book to the child. Never is a negative spin put on reading, it's just a natural, normal part of life. Eventually the children want to read on their own and then the wonderful process of expanding their horizons begins. I've had people tell me that they would love to encourage this sort of reading environment but their husband doesn't read and so they are unable. But here's a little secret... My husband doesn't read. He had the love of reading killed when he was in elementary school and never developed the habit and now reads maybe a book a year. I promise, it's still possible! My husband may not be a reader himself but he understands the importance of raising our kids to be readers and so he encourages it all he can. He may not be part of the example but he is definitely an encourager (and who do you think buys all those books?!)
3) Talk! (And listen). Ask questions about the books your children read, talk about events, tell stories, talk about movies. Listen more than you talk. Be attentive. Put the phone down. I love to ask my kids these two questions when they are telling me about their books... Should they have done that? Does this make you think of anything else? Great conversations are had from these two questions, connections are made and so much is learned. Get your children in the habit of natural narration and having wonderful discussions; it lays the foundation for open communication and critical thinking.
4) Work together. House work and chores do not have to be awful, fight-inducing experiences. Involve kids from the youngest ages in the daily work and make it normal. If your older children are not in the habit of helping out, this can still be accomplished without a struggle. Communicate. Explain how all the work of the house is too much for one person and things could be cleaned much faster if everyone pitches in. Tell them you need them. Don't guilt them, just be open and honest and most likely they will happily jump on board.
5) Outside everyday. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. We all need fresh air and a dose of nature to be mentally, emotionally and physically healthy. Children are no exception. Man was not meant to spend so much time inside four walls and when we are disconnected from creation our souls feel it. This isn't a lesson or a nature journaling session, it's just a refreshing experience. (And on the topic of nature journals- don't overdo it! Maybe don't do it at all. CM recommends journaling and it's the really hip thing to do right now but honestly, for some kids it just doesn't work. I only have one child who likes to keep one. The others hate it and it ruins their nature experience when they are required. Without the expectation of nature journaling my children are observant and enjoy everything they see and hear. But if they think they're journaling they look for the most simple thing and then turn off. I'm not saying don't do it, I'm just saying you don't have to. It's okay. Know your children, know what feeds their souls, realize it's okay to be different.)
6) Set expectations. We have three expectations for our homeschool days. The school-age children all know that they need to do these things every day: 1. Read 2. Write 3. Math These three things must be done throughout the day and the kids are really free within these bounds.
Read~ The kids read, at a minimum, an hour a day. (Though most of the kids read 3 or more hours.) They are free to read what they choose from our home or their personal libraries which are filled with wonderful living books, both classic and modern. Occasionally I will recommend books to them (for example if one of my children hasn't read history in awhile I will suggest a particular history book that I think that child will enjoy) and they will almost always follow my suggestions. Most of my kids have numerous books going at once.
Write~ We initially teach handwriting along with reading when the individual child shows interest. Once they are able to write they are expected to write what they choose daily. They write stories, narrations, letters, copy quotes, journal, poems, etc. I read their writing and if they have any sorts of grammar or spelling errors we go over them. Occasionally we will add a few weeks of grammar or writing lesson if a child seems to be needing more help in those areas. Most of their spelling and grammar is learned naturally through the reading of great books.
Math~ Usually 6 months or so after a child learns to read, we begin working on the 4 processes so that they understand the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Once they have these concepts down we find a math program that works best for them. Most of my kids love doing a combination of Life of Fred and Khan Academy, though I have one who prefers Saxon. Every day they do a lesson or two of their preferred math, and then of course there is the math that occurs in daily life -baking, cooking, shopping, in games, etc.
These are the expectations for our days and the kids know they must be done. They are free to do them when they wish as long as they do them. Honestly they are so much a part of our daily life that the kids do them without really thinking about it as their school.
7) Be flexible and listen to your children. I put these two together because I think that often they go hand in hand. We get this idea about what we need to do in our homeschool and we implement it to a t, but our kids protest, either with words or behavior. Much of the time we either don't hear them or we do hear them but refuse to be flexible. There is of course a time and a place to be firm and say "I hear you, I understand your feelings but this is just too important and we need to continue my plans. I hope you can hear me too," but that is not always the case and oftentimes their feelings are reasonable and if we are willing to be flexible we can usually find a solution that works well for everyone. Keep in mind that a love of learning, a peaceful home and caring, well-rounded children is the goal.
8) Keep life simple. Seriously. I know simplicity is this popular thing right now but it really needs to be a priority in family life. Too much stuff, too much stimulation, too much activity is stifling to children and adults alike. A slow pace of life, where there is time to notice the little things and enjoy the moments, is a necessity for us all. So we strive to keep life as simple as possible. We menu plan every two weeks so that we are prepared and ready. We focus on the basic things in our homeschool; reading, writing and math. Extras are thrown in here and there but they don't have to be constant. My son wanted to make an Egyptian art notebook while reading about Ancient Egypt. He worked hard on it everyday and it is a wonderful thing to have. But he doesn't do that for every book he reads, just on occasion. The same goes with things such as nature journaling, crafts, tea time, etc. They don't belong in our everyday but we do add them in here and there. (This is different than our passions. Those we focus on throughout our days. The twins and I love to knit and we do so daily. We have a musical child who plays everyday, an artist who draws, a Lego enthusiast, etc. Spending a good amount of time on our passions is another reason a simple life is so important!) Also, most of our time is spent at home. I love the poem Stay at Home My Heart and Rest by Longfellow and I take it to heart. We focus on creating a life and home that is simple and that serves us instead of allowing other, outside activities to be our master. This is not to say we don't do things outside the home such as classes, groups or play dates, but we carefully consider each activity and how it will benefit or not and make our decisions accordingly. Our goal is a simple, mindful home life and so we attempt to make those things possible in all areas; food, school, play, technology, influence, time, possession, cleanliness, etc.
So these are the 8 things we focus on in our family and homeschool. I offer them as suggestions if you are looking to create a relaxing, lifestyle of learning environment in your home. Again, they work for us but they may not work for you and that is okay. Do for your family what your family needs. Know your values, your goals, and work to make them happen.