Salting the Oats
This article first appeared in Little Treasures Magazine in 1991
Picture any typical Monday morning in late summer. The school holidays are over, things are settling down again and routine takes over. Mum may be doing any one of a million different things, but we know where the children are. They're in school, right? Wrong!
Twelve year old Beth has just finished touch typing a letter to her pen-friends, she will use the word processor to personalise the text and make several copies. She is chatting with me about the merits of Jane Austen's character, Elizabeth, in "Pride and Prejudice" while we make muffins to take with us when we go out for a beach picnic. I think she's in love with the hero of the book, Mr Darcy.
Nine year old Kieren is busy making a pattern of all the square numbers up to one hundred, on the number board. He has been telling his younger sister about stick insects, giving her a detailed account of their life cycle and special abilities, including the ability to grow another leg if they lose one.
Five year old Celia has been making up sentences using magnetic letters on a metal baking tray. She is very pleased with her work and is reading it aloud again and again. We'll probably make a little book with this sentence tomorrow. She notices we're baking and comes to help measure and pour, then settles down to lick the mixing bowl clean.
The baby has had a morning sleep and is now eager to join in. Beth gave him a bath first thing this morning, and Kieren took him for a walk in his pram. I'll nurse him before we set off for the picnic.
Unusual as this description may sound for a school day, this has been a typical school morning for us. You see, we're a home-schooling family.
More and more people are choosing to teach their children themselves, and they do so for various reasons. Some may take their child out of school for a short time to help them through a difficult period. Others choose to home-school as a way of life, maybe for religious reasons or because they believe that home is the best place for their children to be and to learn. Often they have felt very happy having their child at home for the first five years and see no reason to send the child off to school on their fifth or sixth birthday.
People usually ask me three things when they first discover that we are a home-schooling family. They ask if it's legal, they ask if I'm a teacher, and they ask about socialisation.
In reply I tell people that it is legal to teach your own children in your own home in New Zealand. Because education is compulsory between the ages of six and fifteen, parents must obtain an exemption certificate for each home-schooled child. This comes from the Ministry of Education. It is helpful to find out about the procedures in detail before making an application for an exemption.
It isn't necessary to be a teacher to teach your own. Of course some parents of home-schooled children have teaching qualifications, but they don't always see this as an advantage. I have a teacher's certificate and have found it helpful when my children have been in the five to eight year age bracket. I've been able to adapt some of the ideas I used in school for my children. I've also been able to pace myself and have reasonable expectations of the children much more easily because of my teaching experience.
The third question takes much more time to answer. Socialisation doesn't occur just because a large group of people of the same age are put together all day. In fact the children are very often competing against each other for teacher attention or peer approval, to the extent that much of the socialisation in school is quite negative. To "socialise", a child needs to spend time with people of all ages, including their peers. What school does provide is the opportunity to meet other children in order to make friends. But there are other places children can meet new people. Sunday School, clubs, neighbours, Guides and Scouts, and home-schoolers' meetings can provide opportunities to meet, and start friendships. This has worked so well for us that we have a pleasantly full social calendar.
Once people know the "whys" and "wherefores" of home school, they are keen to know HOW we actually accomplish it. For example, how do I do the housework, cooking and shopping if I have the children present and in need of teaching or attention all the time? Learning is seen in terms of book work and sitting down writing. Teaching is seen in terms of policing the children, and setting written tasks.
If we were to spend our days imitating school imitating real life, it would be tedious. As it is, life with the children is anything but musty and mundane. Our learning isn't limited by classroom walls, but by the number of hours in a day.
As our family's perception of learning and home-school has developed, so has our vocabulary. The children see themselves as home-educated, rather than home-schooled. We talk about "written work" rather than "school work", and our timetable is tailored to suit our needs, varying as our requirements alter.
Despite these changes and the refining of ideas and ideologies we still have to live with the day-to-day chores which come from having four children, including a baby. And this is part of our children's education too.
In a practical way, I let the children help with housework. I teach them how to do things, and consider that learning to help is important for 2 reasons. First the children are learning home skills. They need these skills in everyday life right through life. Secondly, they learn about sharing and helping and being part of community. This is different from dashing out to school and leaving mess for me to tidy up each morning. It also helps spread the work load. Four out of six of us in our house, for example, know how to use the washer and drier and hang clothes on the line.
Food shopping is another shared chore. And the supermarket is a great place to teach home skills and mathematics. Which cheese is the best buy? How do you make rough estimate calculations of how much you've spent as you walk round the shop? Can you pick the cheapest jar of honey, looking for best value per 100 grammes? And which box of tissues is really the cheapest?
Preparing meals is an excellent time to teach cooking skills as well as the obvious mathematics. For example, fractions and decimals are notorious for catching out a lot of children when they are learning maths. Doubling or halving quantities, sharing things out onto plates, cutting cakes and pies, estimating food quantities, all give a wonderful lead-in to teaching these concepts.
And so it goes on. I call these times "teachable moments" and they crowd into every day, whether we are listening to the radio news, reading the paper over breakfast, riding along in the car or looking through a natural history magazine. These things go on in many homes, the difference for us is that we have so many of them simply because we are together such a lot.
Life can be relaxing and family paced for home-schooling families. Our trips to the library are often leisurely relaxing visits, when everyone gets time to browse, and I can spend time with each child, discussing their choice and helping them make a selection. It always feels good to walk round a book case with one child, to discover another child lounging on cushions with a couple of library teddies for company, enjoying a good book.
Like anything in life that's worth doing, there are ups and downs, and home-schooling parents have to make sure they get the support they need. There are two main sources of support; books and periodicals which offer practical advice and support, and a network of friends.
I have been building up my own library of good books on this subject and I subscribe to various home-schooling periodicals. It's good to compare notes, and identify with the problems of home-schooling, while at the same time seeing that there are solutions to the problems.
A good way to build up your own network of support is to advertise in your local library, community centre or supermarket that you are homeschooling and would like to meet other homeschoolers for support and friendship. Also, don't be afraid to tell people that you are home-schooling; you'll find that they will pass on your name to other interested people and tell you of any home-schoolers they know.
When there are a few families in an area, you can meet together regularly, say every month and discuss the aspects of home-school that are of special interest to you. For example, in my support group we have recently looked at the teaching of reading, mathematics equipment, and good books for reading aloud to the children. We also plan trips and outings for our children. This way the children build up their own homeschooling friends.
Some groups organise specialist teachers to run courses on topics like art, creative writing or science. In my area we even have swimming lessons for homeschoolers.
As the children get older and are ready to move into high school, arrangements can sometimes be made with a local high school for a homeschooler to attend the classes of particular interest, for example Japanese or Technicraft.
The best part of home school for the children is that they do just what is needed, and no more, to get through the learning and practice of skills. They know that they have to learn skills of reading, writing, grammar, numeration, but that they are learning them for their usefulness, not to keep them busy. Then they spend the rest of their time working on other projects which do interest to them; applying the skills as they need to.
Another important skill I teach is how to find the facts they need. By knowing how to use the library system, look up in encyclopaedia, and ask the relevant question of the appropriate person, the children have a vital skill they will always find useful. A motto applied elsewhere fits well here: "Give a child a fish and he can eat today. Teach him to fish and he can eat for a lifetime."
To sum up, the children are learning about many things because they are interested. This is the essence of home schooling. We all learn well when we are enjoying learning or can see the point of why we are learning something.
There is an old proverb which goes, "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink." To paraphrase, we could say, "You can send a child to school but you can't make him learn." There is another proverb I heard recently, which goes, "You can't make a horse drink but you can put salt in his oats." To paraphrase again, "You can't make a child learn but you can make him so interested he will want to learn." For my children I've salted the oats by teaching, and often learning alongside the children myself, at home.