“No school today?”
We are at the coffee shop, and my seven-year-old daughter has been asked what has become a typical question for her. It’s not all that surprising, given that she’s school-aged and conspicuously not in school.
“Nope, I’m homeschooled!” she responds cheerfully, before the conversation proceeds in its predictable fashion. The questioner looks up at me with awe and a touch of pity.
“I could never homeschool.”
I usually smile and respond with a snippet or two about homeschooling that might clear up some misconceptions. “It’s not as scary as you think! There are so many resources these days. You might be surprised.”
The term “homeschooling” often conjures up images of Christian conservatives isolating their ten children from the secular education found in public schools, teaching “traditional values” at the kitchen table. While these families do exist, they do not dominate the homeschooling community the way they once did. I sometimes have to explain to skeptical friends that our brand of homeschooling may not be what they picture. We don’t recreate the school environment at home; I’m not spending all day teaching lessons at the kitchen table. My role is more that of facilitator than teacher. I often mention the classes and groups we’re a part of and that “homeschooling” is a misnomer; we are hardly ever at home.
What I’m trying to communicate is this: Actually, you could homeschool.
While opting out of institutionalized education takes some nerve, homeschooling is not just for the naturally rebellious. For the majority of my life, for example, I marched in lockstep with conventional wisdom—I took challenging classes in high school, graduated from an art college, took a job in graphic design, got married and bought a house. When I became pregnant with my first daughter is when mainstream dogma came to no longer serve me, or more importantly, my child.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what changed. Maybe it was the OBGYN who spoke condescendingly about my desire for a natural birth, or the measly six weeks of unpaid maternity leave offered by the small studio where I worked. Maybe it was the totally unprecedented, powerful, and fierce love I felt for this brand new being growing inside me. All I know is that I was forced out of my go-to structure—I left my job and the condescending gynecologist, had a natural birth, freelanced so I could stay home, co-slept and breastfed for two and a half years, and then repeated the process with baby number two and three.
By the time my eldest approached the age where children normally start school, the question couldn’t be ignored. Children should start full-day kindergarten at five years old. Or should they?
My first daughter had a rough start in this world. She cried hour after hour, day after day, for months. She had what is commonly called colic. It was hard on all of us. My quest to alleviate what was causing her misery led me to study human health and happiness through the evolutionary lens—and many of the ideas I read about influenced the way we began to eat, move, and relate to each other.
It became clear that this understanding—that the way different kids learn and grow is not uniform—applied to formal education systems, as well. In a regular public school system, children might be hopelessly over-scheduled, more energetic or reserved than their peers, or brimming with questions that require time to answer. How would my husband and I deal with those separate issues? Maybe we could homeschool—we could choose to cut back on a pile of activities to opt for a slower rhythm instead, spend days outside instead of indoors, and set aside time to indulge our kids’ more eager curiosities.
It turned out that the way our family chose to homeschool could directly reflect our needs and values. We learned that homeschooling is what you make it, nothing less and nothing more.
It’s a fact: Schools are institutions, and institutions are not flexible. No Child Left Behind is seen as a failed effort, yet schools continue with standardized testing and a one-size-fits-all approach. We’ve known for years that rewards—gold stars, red checks, and praise—can often result in decreased intrinsic motivation (a child’s self-sustaining want to succeed based on fascination or accomplishment), yet the reward model still holds strong in our education system. It’s become overwhelmingly clear in recent years that children are suffering from decreased free play time, yet many schools continue to only offer 20 minutes of recess per day.
When you homeschool, any new understanding or need can be integrated into your education model. After a few straight weeks of rain this spring, when the sun finally came out, we spent a full week outside with friends. It was what we needed, and we were able to make that choice. This year, I’ve been studying mindfulness—i.e., focusing your awareness in the present—and have been able to weave this idea seamlessly into our days. We set the stage for the practice through keeping a calm and orderly home and limiting distracting technology. Our days follow a regular routine that the children can relax into, allowing them to be truly present during meals, play, rest, and work—and without any concern over grades or test scores, all their focus can be on the process of learning.
This kind of flexibility supports each family member’s individual needs and encourages lifelong learning and growth. And days can change to reflect new needs or information without fighting the slow-moving bureaucracy of a school. Instead, much of a typical school day is spent negotiating and managing the needs of the group. We are able to spend more time on focused learning tailored to our child’s interests and level, and often cover the same amount of information as traditional school while still leaving hours every day for daydreaming, playing, and reading for pleasure. In many ways, this learning method can give children the gift of time.
One undeniable quality of this method of learning is the emphasis it puts on family relationships. When things are going smoothly, it means hours of play among siblings, lively and engaging conversation, and a solid foundation of trust that we are in this together, and that all our needs matter. When my oldest daughter was interested in learning everything she could about space last year, it became a family affair. My husband took off work for a family field trip to the Air and Space Museum. We read countless books about space before bedtime, and created our own solar system (even the toddler painted some planets).
When parents take back responsibility for their children’s education, the ripple effects are significant. In the role of formal educator, parents face the reality of how their children actually learn. Efforts to force-feed knowledge are met with resistance and parents are continuously required to rethink their methods, and often, their core beliefs about education. Naive plans to “do math lessons every morning after breakfast” or “only keep toys in the bedrooms” crumble before the reality of everyday life. Our homes, schedules, and attitudes must truly come to reflect our needs and priorities. This means carving out space and time in our home and schedule to meet each family member’s needs. Our family room is a playroom and our kitchen doubles as the kids’ studio space. Many of my husband and my books are stored in boxes in the basement to make room for kids’ books on the main bookshelves. We respect the needs of our youngest members by spending time at playgrounds every day and setting aside time for naps.
I’ve found that in a world where people feel increasingly alienated from one another—where even children communicate largely through screens, even while in the same room—our method of schooling shines a light on the areas where our relationships break down. Sibling quarrels must be worked out, parental disagreements must be addressed. When children don’t spend the majority of their day in school, limits and expectations about how we treat each other must be consistently set at home. We simply spend too much time together for conflict to be ignored. It is in these struggles to come back together that we lay the foundation for lifelong, fulfilling relationships.
A big misconception about homeschooling parents is that we’re responsible for every aspect of our child’s education. That’s simply not how it goes! My family lives in the city, so we attend nature school once a week to balance out the dynamics of metropolitan living. It’s a five-hour class led by a trained nature guide, spent in the woods with other homeschoolers, experiencing, connecting with, and learning about the earth.
With a toddler at home, it is a challenge for me to sit down and lead structured lessons, so this year, my dad (he’s a retired teacher, conveniently) has taken on that role, leading math and language arts twice a week. The subjects that I lead are the ones that fit our current circumstances and in which I am knowledgeable and skilled. Any holes can be pursued through a class, family member, friend, or tutor.
As for the oft-asked socialization question—we have a large community of friends who we see many times each week. I sometimes wonder if people think it’s just me and my kids day in and day out. It’s not! We regularly gather with other homeschoolers for casual meet-ups, field trips, and classes. In fact, a huge benefit as a parent is that you begin to build a supportive community around your kids that also becomes a strong network for parents. Often other parents, tutors, or community members become friends and the kids are already integrated into those relationships.
At this point, you may think this all sounds interesting, but still feel fuzzy on the technical aspects. Let’s get to the practical information—how would a parent even get started with homeschooling?
Some families choose to use a curriculum. There are a ton of homeschooling curriculums available with a range of educational approaches, including Traditional (which revolves largely around a private school style of manuals, texts, and workbooks), Waldorf (a study that includes body, mind, and spirit and involves art, movement, and nature), and Classical (a “learn for yourself” method that focuses on a foundation of “reason, record, research, relate, and rhetoric”), to name a few. Our family takes inspiration from a curriculum based on Waldorf Education, which we also combine with a more interest-led, project-based approach.
Some families—unschoolers or project-based homeschoolers, for example—choose to not use a curriculum at all. These families use the world as their classroom and take an interest-led, experiential approach. In practice, however, most families combine several philosophies and approaches.
In addition, you’ll want to look for groups and classes that may be available in your area. It sounds obvious, but these are fairly easy to find via Facebook Groups and plugging into other community centers or groups in your neighborhood that have classes or tutoring for children. Where we’re from, there are several homeschooling centers and co-ops that offer classes, field trips, and other gatherings. You can find a variety of classes offered to homeschoolers at science centers, museums, and nature centers. Generally, once you find one homeschooler, many other groups, tutors, and parents will follow.
Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states. Each state’s requirements are a little different—in some states, no notification is required, while in others, parents must give notification, and log reviews and test scores with their local government. (There are also state-by-state laws on the primary teaching parent’s education, vaccinations, and state-mandated subject coverage.) Here in Maryland, I register my homeschooled children with the state and participate in mandatory twice-yearly reviews, either directly with the city or through an umbrella group, an organization that helps families comply with local laws. Our reviews include checks to make sure that all required subjects are being addressed and that students are making progress.
Unfortunately, homeschooling doesn’t provide much of a cost benefit, especially when compared with public schools. In Maryland, for example, homeschoolers don’t receive any tax breaks—which means that loss of income for the primary homeschooling parent, plus cost of classes and activities quickly adds up. However, when we compare homeschooling to a private school education, we find that we can often spend less while experiencing more. This understanding, combined with a belief that we are providing the best possible education and lifestyle for our children, supports the net benefit of this choice.
Well, let’s address the elephant in the room. There are families that might find it very difficult to homeschool—single parents without any other help, or families dealing with serious health or financial issues, for example. But in many cases it’s an option worth pursuing.
For my family, homeschooling became not only an educational choice, but also a lifestyle one. Our decision came from questioning some very long-held beliefs, and was borne out of the conviction that our children would benefit from this method over others. What we’ve found, though, is that with hard work and dedication, we have redefined what modern childhood, family life, and education is for our household and community. Together, we have forged a path of discovery and connection that I’m not sure we could have otherwise.
Miranda Wulff Altschuler is an artist, wife, and mother of four living in Baltimore. She homeschools her children while running her illustration shop and posting a little too often on Instagram @mirandamakes.