How to Create an Engaging, Homeschool(ish) Environment for Kids

Joseph Sarosy
·9 mins read

As many parents face yet another round of remote learning, homeschooling, or something in-between, anxiety is in the air. Most of us recognize that the risk of COVID-19 remains high, but we’re also increasingly aware of the assaults on our mental health and that of our children. It’s simply not possible to be a competent parent, professional, and teacher all at once. But we must try.

Last spring, parents saw this disruption in normalcy as a temporary solution. We were willing to make sacrifices, hike up our boots, and be strong for our kids and the community. But today, as stories once told in the news have stepped into our personal lives, we are beginning to simultaneously wear down and gear up for the long haul. A different set of attitudes is required for us to persevere.

Homeschool, or anything like it, has had negative connotations for decades, but now every parent in America is looking it straight in the face. As someone who has made a profession of teaching out of the home, I’d like to offer a few helpful ground rules that will help to create an engaging and intellectually stimulating remote learning environment at home – with as little stress as possible.

Now, I am not a professional teacher. I have a degree in engineering and a second in philosophy. I have written frequently on parenting topics, and am widely respected for my way with kids. My second book, How to Tell Stories to Children, has received international praise and is currently being translated into four languages. None of this matters. I’m still a doofus. I’m just stating this to demonstrate that I’m a competent person, not a fanatic. This is important, because homeschool has a history of mistrust.

I teach a group of kids out of my home who range in age from six to nine. I’ve been doing it for five years, and I have about 350 square feet in which to do it. I happen to have the luxury of a great tract of wilderness within walking distance of my house, and we use it frequently. The guidelines that follow are not intended to help you build a school like mine. They are, however, intended to help you kindle the love of learning in your child. I hope they help.

Build Trust

If you do nothing else, do this. Don’t waste your time over-focusing on worksheets and curriculum. Start by thinking back on some of the teachers who lit you up in childhood. How did they do it? They may have been strict, fun, smart, or whatever, but none would be worth a damn if they didn’t have your trust. So be nice, be faithful. Be patient. Remember that you’ve got a little human being there, not a mailbox to stuff with information. Teaching new skills to anyone, adult or child, is stressful if you haven’t done it before. Slow down and make sure you have their trust before plowing on. If all you do is accomplish this over the course of the year, you have succeeded.

Develop Smart Routines

Routine does 80 percent of the work for you, because you and your child know what to expect. This might be a detailed schedule that you follow from 8AM to 3PM, but who has time for that? Be realistic, then stick to it unless there is a very good reason to deviate.

If you’re able, start the day with a walk. When you return, it’s school time. Changing location, even for 15 minutes, can be very helpful. If going outside isn’t possible, put on your favorite music and dance, find a tai chi video on YouTube. Wrestle a snake. Whatever. At the end of the day, make sure there is a clear event that marks it as clearly as the beginning.

Within the structure of your day, try to create short times or activities that mark any changes in structure – say, 20 minutes for a specific lesson, then 10 minutes to run in the yard. When you come in, give 5 minutes to memorizing a Shel Silverstein poem, then it’s time for Zoom with the teacher, homework, or whatever. Maybe you build a snack into your routine. These small markers will make it easier for you and your child to follow the course of the day. It’s your road map.

Finally, don’t compare yourself to others. Just find your routine and value it.

Teach By Example

Kids like to learn from people who are excited about what they’re doing. Adults too. Alternatively, it’s very hard to learn from someone who doesn’t care about what they’re saying. Students will read frustration or lack of enthusiasm as an assessment of the subject’s value (wouldn’t you?).

Children don’t avoid learning because it’s hard. That’s a myth. They avoid subjects their elders have indicated are useless or boring. The solution isn’t to pretend that everything is gloriously fun. It is to avoid wasting time by teaching subjects that bore you.

But what about the important things, you’re going to ask, that are sort of boring at first? The trick is to reframe the subject around a story or something else you care about. Help your child see the bigger picture of why it matters. How do you use this skill in real life? How does it relate to current events, or a subject they find interesting? Don’t lie. Be honest. Your kids will love that kind of honesty. It will earn their trust, and that trust will spark their interest.

Honest inspiration beats everything else, because a child who has ignited a passion for a subject will have little trouble filling in the boring details for themselves. They’ll do it on their own, and ask for help when needed.

Have you ever seen a child self-teach because of a recent passion for, say, dinosaurs, Legos, or medieval pronouns? That’s what you’re trying to recreate.

Convey Confidence

Don’t give the impression that it’s possible to fail. Most parents won’t do this obviously, of course, but many of us treat our children as if they might not learn something if school isn’t managed properly. Not my students. I’m so confident that they’ll learn everything they need that I actively mess it up. I try to prevent them from learning things. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I might say, “you can’t learn that. You’re going to become too powerful.” This sends a funny and positive message. You are to be like the evil villain in cartoons, trying but always failing to spoil their greatness.

Kids are experts at reading implied social messages. The implied message of anxiety about having everything right at school is that if it wasn’t that way, they might not learn what’s important. What a terrible message! The opposite, the implied message of an evil genius parent bent on ruining their kids good fortune is that they must possess something wonderful. No one can stop them from learning!

This must be balanced with real challenges. Education progresses along a fault line of challenges. On one side, the successes. On the other, the mistakes and failures. The goal is to help a child have confidence and learn from both – neither too inflated with success, nor deflated by difficult lessons.

Children who learn to see their inner failures as a goad for future success become confident and capable. They are self-directed. Those who see their inner failures as a sign of their own inadequacy suffer needlessly. Our goal as teachers and parents is not to stuff the right information into the right brains. Our goal is to cultivate brains that believe in their own value. Then plug them into bodies.

Explore

Use the extra time at home to explore subjects your child might not otherwise encounter. Set out a tarp in the garage and help her take her bicycle apart, then put it back together. You’ll both learn stuff. Or maybe your mother can teach your child how to knit. Find the breaker box in your house and make a map of the circuits. Teach your child how to cook a meal from start to finish. Anything. Choose something that excites you. It may not turn into a lifelong passion, but exposure to new skills and subjects has been shown to increase our capacity for knowledge as a whole.

(this is a reference if it’s wanted – https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/05/05/309006780/learning-a-new-skill-works-best-to-keep-your-brain-sharp)

Leave Room for Self-Development

If you approach teaching as the process of adults passing along information to children, you will encounter many opportunities for frustration. If instead you approach teaching as a process of mutual development – theirs and yours – difficult moments open into pathways. There’s a reason I get frustrated when a student doesn’t remember yesterday’s lesson. What is it? Likewise, there’s a reason that students withdraw when I get frustrated. What can we both learn?

The goal is to not beat yourself up for making mistakes or encountering challenges, just like you wouldn’t take it out on your child. Isn’t that the lesson you want your child to learn? There is room for mistakes and figuring it out along the way. She’s paying attention. She’ll notice exactly what you give to her. So make room for your goofs. You’re growing. She’s learning. Do it together. Be the example.

Joseph Sarosy is a freelance writer, father, and teacher. He is the co-author of How to Tell Stories to Children.

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