My daughter Maya has never been to school. Seven years after our learning adventure first began, here’s why I never send her there.
One of the more positive things to come out of Covid this year is that homeschooling has finally stepped out of the shadows. Loads of families have had a taste of home-based learning, and now know first-hand what happens when you take a child out of the classroom and set their curiosity loose in the world. Homeschooling might not have hit the mainstream yet, but if plant-based patties can make it into the freezer in Coles, perhaps homeschooling can finally shake off its fringe-dweller status.
So what is homeschooling?
Homeschooling, if it must be called that, has almost nothing to do with school at all. It is an education all of its own, customised to your child, that’s flexible, fun, adventurous, engaging and very hands-on.
Homeschooling doesn’t even have to take place in a home (I live on a sailboat, for starters). It’s really just an umbrella term for what happens when a child doesn’t go to a regular, Monday-to-Friday school, and when you – the parent or guardian – take responsibility for a child’s learning, and decide to make it happen in places far more interesting than a big, overcrowded classroom.
This kind of education is a very fluid, individual thing that changes as your child grows, and as you learn too. It can all be a bit baffling at the beginning when you’re confronted with the freedom to write your own curriculum and decide – of all the things a child might learn – where you’re going to start.
The good news is that homeschoolers are all too ready to share their experiences and curriculum samples, and hook up with you for playtime and parental support. I’ve been a part of many homeschooling groups – in Darwin and in Cairns – and they have both been full of incredibly diverse and supportive people.
In Darwin this year, our local homeschooling group met a couple of times each week to tackle all kinds of adventures from ranger-led walks and circus workshops, to beach fossil hunts, and water slide fun. My daughter took ice skating lessons and joined a kids’ gem club, tried her hand at small boat sailing and lawn bowls too.
What about unschooling?
By definition, unschooling might be called the process of undoing and unlearning the unhelpful pathways and practises taught at ‘regular school’. But more so, unschooling is about changing how we look at learning, and adopting a big-picture view that acknowledges the many effective ways in which human beings acquire knowledge and skills, and deepen their passions and interests.
Seven years ago, when my daughter and I were stuck on workbooks and sitting at the table, unschooling seemed to me an abandonment of proper learning. Today I completely embrace organic, curiosity-led learning, but it takes time to realise that kids will still learn (and learn very effectively) when they are not sitting at a desk with pencil in hand.
Over the years I’ve learnt to trust my child’s own instinct to learn, and I’ve seen first-hand that when kids are left to their own resources, they find books to read, things to play with and stuff to do outside. If you steal their iPads, they soon get creative, curious and learn things all by themselves: unschooling in action.
Here’s what’s hard at first:
1. Convincing your partner or your parents, friends and sometimes, complete strangers, that homeschooling is a good idea.
2. Getting your head around the paperwork – the application process, understanding and writing curriculums, and reporting on your child’s progress.
3. The comments you get from strangers when you nail your lessons by 11.30am and hit the park….“Shouldn’t she be in school today?”.
After a while, even your child will roll their eyes!
But lets just say you are ready to take it all on: ready to shake off the naysayers who tell you your child will never get into university, tackle your first learning program, and give up a fair chunk of your own personal time to invest in your incredible kids. Here’s how you do it.
Becoming a home educator is easier than you might think, you just need the motivation to do it. The paperwork involved is different depending on where in Australia you live, but it basically comes down to this:
1. Registration: Start by lodging an online application with the department that handles home education in your state or territory. Some states request home visits at the outset, but others have dropped this since Covid started.
2. Learning programs: Next you’ll be asked to supply a learning program for each child in your family who is going to be homeschooled. You can choose to pay for a ready-made program (there are plenty for sale online) or draft your own curriculum, outlining what you are going to teach and how (through what kinds of activities or projects), and what resources you intend to tap into. These can be text or workbooks, online lessons or games (there are lots available free online), private sports, music or art classes, plus trips and excursions. Your program doesn’t have to involve tutors or paid classes; teaching your child yoga or working your way through a science experiment book from the library all counts as great learning.
Don’t feel overwhelmed about interpreting your child’s curriculum, there’s plenty of help online and you can download samples from your home education unit website. ACARA (the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority) produces two helpful documents that drill things down: “Achievements on a page” is helpful when trying to understand what learning the curriculum is shooting for, and I like the “Content for Year 4” documents (there’s one for each year level).
I loosely follow the Australian Curriculum, but I use it to inspire our learning, not dictate it. I don’t stick rigidly to the smack of skills and knowledge that each child is expected to have grasped in any predetermined year.
To me, education is not a list of things to be taught and ticked off. Instead, I try to create learning situations and projects that are accessible to my child, that I know she will enjoy and benefit from, and will hopefully stimulate her independent thinking.
3. Reporting: At year’s end, all home educators are expected to file a report, providing work samples and feedback to the home education unit (HEU) that you’ve registered with. Again, there are slightly different expectations about how you do this, depending on where you live. In Queensland, reporting happens on paper, and I’m yet to have so much as a phone call, let alone a face-to-face with anyone from the HEU.
What does a homeschool week look like?
The simple answer is, you decide. You can choose to teach and learn about whatever interests your child, in whatever order they decide to learn it, in whatever place seems to teach it best, be it outside, with a mentor, within the pages of a book, as an audience at a play, listening to a podcast or while playing with a group of friends.
When you home educate, you abandon the ‘rules’, so try letting your child decide what to learn and when. There are an awful lot of things to know about the world and ourselves, and assigning a timeline to this acquisition of knowledge simply makes no sense. I truly believe that children learn things at exactly the time they are ready to grasp them.
My daughter used to hate writing: frustrated, rolling her eyes, head-on-the-desk hated it. One day she discovered my old travel diaries and without a word from me, started writing the most amazing adventure tales, just like that! It was the same thing with music. When I introduced the recorder, our lessons were miserable and short-lived, and we both felt like failures. I buried that recorder at the bottom of the school box, and a year later, a gifted keyboard became the thing my daughter loved to play, singing away merrily to her own, made-up songs.
7 years on, here’s what I know….
When you homeschool, you naturally look for opportunities to learn in everything you do. Hone in on your child’s passions and stimulate their creativity. Teach them what they want to know, not what you think they should. Treat cooking and beachwalks as seriously as you would maths and science, and discuss with your child what’s happening in the world. Get outdoors and learn to do real things, like lighting a campfire, knowing the stars, recognising birds and using a first aid kit. Most of all, find the fun in everything because a really engaged child learns 10 times more easily, and the lessons stick.
I used to ask my then five-year-old what she wanted learn for the day, and she’d tell me to teach her something ‘off-the-page’. That meant, of course, to go out into the world where things felt real and multi-dimensional, and where learning was lots more fun.
This grand adventure of nurturing our kids is so, so worthwhile. It’s daunting and time-consuming and sometimes it feels like you get nothing else done in a day, but it’s worth every bit of effort you can throw at it. Personally, I’m a big fan, and just secretly, I’m convinced that just by teaching, I’m getting smarter every year, which is a nice little perk for me too.