My Best Homeschool Teaching Tools (so far…)

We have been homeschooling for less than a month so far, but long enough to know that some things are definitely working, and some are not. We are not using a curriculum, at least for the rest of this school year. We’ll reassess for next year. In this post, I reflect on the tools I’ve used that have engaged my kids (5.5 and 7 years old) the most, and where I see them learning.

  1. The Outdoors. Anywhere, any weather. Something will be discovered, an interest will be sparked, a skill honed (social, practical, or both), and something will be learned. Check out Angela J. Hanscom’s book Balanced and Barefoot: How Unstructured Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children for the science behind how being outside in an unstructured (by adults) way benefits kids’ brains in a way that cannot be replicated through indoor play, or outdoor activities controlled and/or organized by adults. This is especially helpful for our kiddo dealing with sensory processing issues. Things we’ve done outside include: stream stomping in an ephemeral stream in our own neighborhood, identifying poison oak, trillium, blackberry, and other plants, checking out the flooded Willamette River, hunting for salamanders and rough-skinned newts in a creek, taking photos of blooming wildflowers, playing in our own yard, riding bikes to our neighborhood playground, gardening, swinging and/or reading together outside in our hammock, visiting city parks and playgrounds in the middle of the day when there is almost no one else there, kids playing in naturally formed tunnels in the underbrush at a park, talking to passers-by about their dogs, watching bees enjoy the flowers of spring, reading outside in our driveway, learning how to make polite social calls to our neighbors, etc.
  2. Elements of The Brave Writer Lifestyle. I really appreciate Julie Bogart’s approach to homeschooling. It’s a happy medium between structured academics with curriculum and free-for-all unschooling. It’s fairly similar to where we are with our own family’s educational philosophy. I’ve gleaned a lot of great inspiration and information from her book, The Brave Learner. We make time to enjoy Big Juicy Conversations, on whatever topic, when they come up (often they are juicier and last longer if there’s food present, if we are in the car, or it’s bedtime–see below). We’ve also done a lot of reading aloud, watched some movies and TV, and we use a lot of language games, one-on-one time, and Jot it Down (list-making is writing!). I want to move toward copywork and dictation, but we are not yet there.
  3. Podcasts. Some of the best ones for us have been: But Why?, Short and Curly, Ear Snacks, Highlights Hangout, Wow in the World, and Story Party on Audible (not a podcast, but recorded storytelling, so used in a similar way). We listen to them in the car, and sometimes during lunch. They expose the kids to science, humor, history, civics, and ethics, and they often spark lots of questions that we can then explore together.
  4. Hamilton (the musical). My kids have been listening to it non-stop for a month now and almost have all the words memorized, plus a deep grasp on a lot of the history it covers. We are taking advantage of that natural interest and exposing them to books about colonial and early U.S. history, slavery, forms of government, etc. Before we started listening to Hamilton, all I knew about Alexander Hamilton is what I could remember from this commercial from the 90s. Now, between the musical and all the supplemental reading we’ve been doing, I have a deeper grasp on that part of history than ever before. In addition to the musical teaching us about colonial U.S. history, it also brings up present-day racism and white supremacy, immigration, and careers related to music. AND, it has us learning about budgeting and money as we talk about out how we could make the dream of seeing Hamilton live in New York or San Francisco come true. We’re definitely going to use musicals as much as we can to study different subjects.

5. Food. If I put food in front of them at the table, I can usually keep their attention and interest on a topic for about 20 minutes or so. We’ve read chapters of What to do When It’s Not Fair: A Kid’s Guide to Handling Envy and Jealousy this way, books about colonial times, the story and history of mathematics, and astronomy. During meals, we’ve also enjoyed listening to podcasts or stories, and had a lot of Big Juicy Conversations. Baking has also been a great educational tool– measuring, reading recipes, learning how to use the oven, stove, mixer, and other tools, not to mention the social and intellectual skills it takes to: a.) convince your mother that baking brownies at 9:30am is totally reasonable because it’s part of homeschool, b.) take turns with your brother using the mixer, and c.) discuss the risks of food-borne illness while licking the batter spoons.

6. Car rides. Something about being in the car, close together but not looking at each other, creates an alchemy just right for certain kinds of conversations.

7. Scavenger hunts. Reading clues is reading!

8. MadLibs and writing funny postcards. Both involve writing and part of speech, and they appeal to my silly, fun-loving five-year-old.

9. The library. We’ve visited the library about five times in the last two weeks, each time bringing home a huge bag of books, and going through most of them within a day or two.

10. Shopping. Reading a list, doing the math necessary for sticking to a budget, navigating a store, reading labels, and practicing appropriate behavior in a store. Such a rich educational experience!

11. Chess. I bought a chess board at a thrift store the weekend before we started homeschooling, and our seven-year-old has played at least one chess game every single day since then. He has also read books about chess independently, and watching videos on strategy and then implemented his new knowledge into his game play. Our five-year-old also knows the rules of the game and enjoys playing as well.

12. Bedtime. Education doesn’t only happen during normal “school” hours. It happens everyday, all day long. It starts the minute they wake up and start building a marble run or thinking about what to eat for breakfast. One of our boys talks to us about his goals and what he wants to learn about only during bedtime. We also read for about an hour with each boy, and sometimes we are reading about “serious” topics such as slavery, immigration, natural disasters, space, math, owning pets, etc.

What hasn’t really sparked much engagement or interest? Curriculum, parent-planned activities, workbooks, worksheets, structured classes outside of the home, structured Montessori-style lessons, or leveled readers. We do some of these things anyway, but there is a noticeable difference in the level of engagement and length of focused time for these activities. I believe that everything can be learned through anything. Rote skills in spelling, reading, and mathematics can be applied to any area of natural interest. I trust that my children can learn deeply when they follow their own interests, and I trust myself as a home educator that I can help guide those interests to also include the things that are important to me (and the State).

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