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Relaxed Homeschooling: One Alternative to Unschooling

by Christine Ralston

Photo Purchased From
Photographer: Floyd Anderson

The author offers "relaxed homeschooling" as a framework for drawing inspiration from the the unschooling philosophy while retaining some conventional structure in your homeschool. This excellent article was originally published in The Link.

Have you been considering an unschooling approach, but arenít quite comfortable with the philosophy that your children should lead their entire education? You want to allow them some freedom and to involve everyday living in their lessons, but youíre worried about adequately covering the core subjects. Maybe the method you are really looking for is relaxed homeschooling. This method incorporates some structure, while offering a great deal of flexibility.

First, ask yourself why you are leaning away from unschooling. Have family and friends shown doubts that your children will learn enough unless you impose structure in your homeschool? Or are you worried that by unschooling you will be unable to prove that youíre meeting state requirements? While both scenarios can be difficult to work through, neither are impossible.

Support from family and friends is important, especially on those days when you feel overwhelmed. However, you donít need their permission to unschool or even to homeschool. Opinions offered by well-intentioned relatives may leave you feeling inadequate to even teach your children. Try not to let it. A teacherís certificate is not necessary to homeschool your children and most homeschoolers donít have one. It is not necessary because you donít need training for classroom management to teach only a couple of children.

Look up your state laws regarding homeschooling before you get started. Know what is required of you before you begin planning your schoolís structure. You probably already have an idea of your philosophies on teaching and learning and once you have a clear understanding of your state laws, you can incorporate the two.

Examine your situation carefully and make sure that if you decide to steer away from a totally unschooling education for your children, that itís for your own reasons. There are successful unschoolers in every state, but unschooling doesnít fit every family. Some children require at least some structure to help them stay focused. Your child may thrive on a set schedule with specific deadlines, while another childís performance may improve by allowing him to set his own pace.

Second, if you have concluded that a relaxed homeschool will work better for your family, then you need to sit down, preferably with your children if they are old enough, and select those subjects which you feel require the most structure. Anything you donít choose becomes an elective for your child. In other words, he may decide how and when he pursues anything in that subject area by setting reasonable goals. This is self-directed learning. You can offer him guidance when he asks for it, but if you have agreed on letting a particular subject be child-led, then donít try to later impose structure in that area without first having another family discussion.

If it is your goal for your child to have more responsibility with his education, it does not mean that unschooling is your only option. It is possible to allow your child to be self-directed within a structured learning environment. This philosophy emphasizes the childís role as an active learner. It is very different from the traditional teaching model where the teacher is telling the student what he should be learning as well as when, how and whether he should learn it at all. We are all familiar with the teaching model, so much so that it is difficult to not think in the linear fashion that it utilizes. But unless you intend to have a strict school-at-home system, you need to open your mind to other ways of thinking.

You do not have to select a structured curriculum for all the core subjects. In fact, by imposing structure in certain areas (determined by each childís needs), you might actually deter a natural love for a subject. When making your choices, examine your childís personal interests. If he enjoys collecting samples, mixing ingredients and using a microscope, chances are, heíll pursue more than enough science on his own. However, donít go out and buy him the most expensive microscope or set up an elaborate chemistry lab unless youíre certain he will still be as enthused in a year or two. He may not have the same objectives or be as interested in the subject for the long term. If you become too ambitious about every interest your child demonstrates, you may find yourself spending too much money only to find that your child is interested in something entirely different a few months later.

Encourage your child to ask lots of questions, but keep your answers simple, not offering more information than the child is asking for or can handle. Often, a simple answer will do more to spark a childís enthusiasm and imagination, while giving a dissertation may only confuse and bore him.

Relaxed homeschooling may also include a flexible schedule, which will make it easier for your family to participate in field trips, group meetings, extra curricular activities and other social events. Some children can work well with little structure; others need a schedule to help them complete tasks. If your aim is to achieve a relaxed homeschool, experiment with your childrenís schedule. Determine how much time needs to be set aside for each subject and the entire school day for a satisfactory amount of learning to get done.

Talk to other homeschoolers and find out what theyíre teaching their children. Join local support groups and online mailing lists and ask lots of questions. They were all beginners at one point and will understand your doubts and concerns as well as offering you encouragement. Networking with other homeschoolers will also offer you and your family wonderful socializing opportunities, which should be integral to any childís education no matter the subjects they are learning or the method in which they are being taught.

Many homeschooling parents consider that in addition to reading, writing and basic math skills their children should also learn good hygiene, cleaning and cooking skills. If you have taught your child these basic skills, chances are that he will use those skills while pursuing other interests. By allowing your child to follow his interests in a relaxed setting, he will be encouraged to continue learning. A child will not only learn more, but more importantly retain more information when he is allowed to have a say in some of the subjects he studies. Listen to your child when he tells you what interests him and help him with locating resources and by assigning tasks related to the subject. Course of study should be different for each child, because each child is different. Individual and unique interests can and should guide their learning.

But isnít there a certain amount of rote learning, say in the areas of history and geography, that every child should know? Of course! This is where the idea of relaxed homeschooling versus unschooling plays the biggest role. How your child is presented material is far more important than when he is made to study it. You want to teach your child facts in not only a way that is fun and interesting, but also in a way that he will better recall later. The method that works can vary from child to child. Some children learn better visually or by listening while others need a hands-on approach. Teaching in sequence does have some relevance. You wouldnít want to teach your child about the American Revolution before he knows the history of British colonization of America.

Try to avoid grade-level thinking. Not all children are ready to learn the same material at the same time. Children learn in different ways and a childís unique way of learning should be fostered. It is better to teach your child in a way he understands so you know he is learning. To attempt to teach him something that heís not ready for, because a scope and sequence says that he should be learning it, may only end up frustrating both of you. Waiting six months or even a year to introduce the material wonít affect your child negatively for the rest of his life and if allowed to wait, he will probably learn it quicker.

However, some states have regulated curriculum requirements. If your state has specific laws about when a child should learn certain skills, then you will need to follow their guidelines. Donít let this deter you from encouraging your child to pursue personal interests. Just be creative with your lessons and your child can still learn in a way that makes him comfortable. You can find out what basic skills your state requires at each grade level by visiting your stateís Department of Education website. You can also check out the World Book Encyclopedia website for national standards for each grade level. If the local public school is cooperative with homeschoolers, you can ask them for a copy of their curriculum or you can check out any of the books from the ďWhat Your Nth Grader Needs to KnowĒ series by E.D. Hirsch from your local library.

Scope and sequence does have its place as a guideline to help you consider and plan lessons for your children. They can help you figure out where to start when you get stumped. Donít fret if your child seems unreadyĖjust try the lesson again at a later date. Donít dwell on what your child canít yet do, instead concentrate on his strengths and interests. He may be ahead in those areas. Remember, itís more productive to teach your child a subject heís ready to learn. When children are allowed to actively participate in their education and given regular encouragement by the adults in their lives, they will learn what they need to succeed as adults.

You may not hit on the exact combination of unschooling and structure that works for your family right away. But relax and have fun. Exploring different methods can in of itself be a learning experience.

Copyright Christine Ralston. This article was previously published on her web site, Christine's Country Unit Studies, and in The Link. It is reprinted here with her permission.

Christine Ralston is a writer and unit study designer. See her lovely web site and unit studies at Christine's Country Unit Studies.

Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 3, page 11

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