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How to ‘do school’… at home

So, we’ve talked about deciding what’s important and finding your rhythm. And we’ve talked about how to pull those into a general plan for your days. And I’ve touched on the idea that ‘doing school’ as a separate thing, isn’t always necessary or important – more on that in this dive into our educational philosophy.

However, there are also all sorts of reasons why you might want to dedicate part of your day to more formal learning activities – to something that looks a bit more like school. Not least if you’re in the temporary situation where schools are closed and you have work that your children are expected to complete. If that’s you, here’s some tips on how you could approach it.

It doesn’t need to take hours

School includes lots of things that aren’t directly taking in and exploring new information – settling in, moving around the class, listening to someone else having an explanation of the bit you understand, waiting to ask a question about the bit you don’t, messing around with your friends. These are all part and parcel of the experience and have some equivalents at home, but they mean the actual ‘learn about the structure of an atom’ or ‘practice your times tables’ bit may not actually take very long, and you’ve still done it. Or the flip side, if something needs more time or a different explanation, you can do that too.

Reading and talking counts

You can read about (or watch) something, maybe talk about it, and learn that way, just as well as through filling in a worksheet (sometimes better if it’s more interesting and joined up and sticks more). Writing something down is reassuring because it’s tangible evidence that something happened, but it’s not a requisite to learning. That said, doing is usually the best way to get to understand something, if that’s possible – actually needing to use the information in some real way helps you understand and retain it better. Some forms of writing and answering questions are good ways to get the doing in, but they’re not the only ones. Discussing something online with your friends is doing. Doubling a recipe is doing. Working out change is doing. Arranging cards into the reactivity series is doing. Some educational philosophies (like Charlotte Mason) are based almost entirely around reading, narrating back, and maybe discussing, and then getting out in nature to explore for as long as possible.

You can only focus for so long

…and this goes double for your kids 🙂 The sort of sustained focus you get in a one-to-one session is hard to maintain for very long. The actual time will vary but many educationalists suggest stopping before everyone has lost focus and either taking a break (which could just be a quick jump around the room or getting a drink) or switching to a different sort of subject – reading counts as a break from maths, etc. Opinions vary on what is realistic – I’ve seen estimates of as little as one minute per year of age plus a minute (eg a 7-year old has about 8 minutes of focused attention), or to keep to only 10-minute sessions for primary aged children, up to the usual adult suggestions of 25-45 minutes. Now, I have to heads up say that I don’t really follow this – we have 45 minute sessions for maths with my older three (ages 10-14) and roughly that for science with my teenagers – and I never had anything that looked like ‘school’ when they were a lot younger. Mostly because we seem to have a lot of faffing around in-between and we’d just lose too much time if we switched up that frequently. But, they’re older, they’re working together, and they usually are not 100% focused for that whole time – and we only do two of those sessions a day. It’s definitely worth experimenting to figure out what’s realistic for your particular crowd.

’Morning time’ can fit lots in

Various home educators do some sort of morning time, which consists of starting your day with a (relatively) quickfire family time where you go through a few things together. We read a poem, sing/listen to a song, read a short chapter from a history book, read something from another non-fiction book, look at a painting, practice some chemistry facts, do a logic problem together, put a quote up on the wall, etc. Some families do prayers, hymns, meditations, drawing sessions, memorisation, birdsong of the day, language vocabulary practice, skip counting… all sorts. We don’t do everything every day – I have a set list of what I do each day of the week but you can also just have a few different books or activities and pull from them as you fancy. Sometimes this works and can tick several boxes in half an hour or so, and sets everyone up for moving into ‘work mode’. Sometimes everyone just protests and hates it – we’ve gone through phases of both!

You can split things by ‘work to do’ or ‘time spent working’

Different kids will prefer different setups. I used to set a page of maths for my 10-year-old to do, and then he could stop. I figured this would encourage him to just get it done and move on to whatever else he wanted (and for some kids it would). If he focused it could be done in less than half an hour but he rarely did and sometimes it would take hours. So we switched to running a timer and spending 45 minutes working through the maths book, and stopping wherever we’ve got to. He’s much happier and gets more done. Worth experimenting.

Figure out how often you need to review to keep on track

Setting up a detailed daily amount of work to do seems logical but can end up really stressful when life inevitably gets in the way and you fall behind, or get a bit ahead so let it slide and then realise you haven’t done any for ages. Or the kids are into something and you want to let them run with it for a bit longer. Setting up (small, easy!) checkpoints each week, or longer term like every 6-8 weeks once you get into things, gives you notice to change up the plan if you’re going more slowly, or to think of a new plan if you’re going too quickly, while still giving flexibility. Or you can review daily but not have too set a pattern – some homeschoolers swear by writing out a daily assignment list for their kids the night before. I know I would never get to this so we have a set ‘do the next thing’ plan for maths and the GCSE sciences I’m doing with the girls and I check up where we are roughly every week or block (I do 6-8 week blocks, a bit like halfterms).

Not everything has a ‘track’

It’s perfectly fine for, eg, your English work to consist of just reading books together, and all you do is remember which book you’re reading, try and get to it most days, and have an idea of the next one and move on when you’re done. It’s only really when you have external pressures – like exams or school assignments – that you need to pay particularly close attention to what you’re doing when. Even then, at the moment, be aware that the school’s plan may not be realistic for you and you’re free to say that you’re not going to follow it. Everyone is going to have different circumstances and schools will need to cope with a wide range of who did what when they go back.

Loop and block schedules

A structure doesn’t have to mean ’on Monday morning we do maths and science, on Tuesday we do English and geography’. Particularly if you have a lot of things you want to fit in, there may not be time in the week to plan them all in (plus – flexibility). A loop schedule is where you work through things in order, and just go onto the the next thing whatever the day of the week. So instead of doing history on Thursdays and Art on Fridays – when Friday is the day that often gets messed up with other things so Art often gets skipped – you could have a general ‘school block’ a few days a week and just go through History, Geography, Art, Music, and then back to History (you can do this in a morning time sort of timeslot too). I’ve done this with children’s project times – then they each got an even amount of time even if the end of the week got messed up several weeks in a row. A block schedule is similar but on a longer timescale. So maybe you do Art for a week (or two, or six) and then Music for a week. Or you do Science over the summer when you can take experiments outside and do history by watching documentaries in the winter.

You don’t have to plan in all the school subjects

Just because schools have a wide range of different subjects that they need to fit into a timetable, you don’t have to. They’re catering to a wide range of children – you’ve just got your own, and you have a better idea of what interests them right at the moment. You can also see how things fit together, and reading one book may fit in history, science, geography and business as you read a story about the gold rush, say. Often families want to make sure they fit in some maths and English, possibly science, and everything else falls in as the children are interested in it. For example, I’ve never actually ‘studied geography’ with my children. We’ve read about different cultures and places and had maps around and travelled (when we could!) and talked about landscapes that we’ve seen, but just as it has happened, I’ve never planned it in. Obviously school assignments will play into this, but you can use your own judgement too.

There are a million different ways to do this, and none of them is Right

You know your family. You know what pressures you’re working with. You know – roughly – when to gently encourage and when to step off. You know whether your aim is to settle into a new way of living, or to just get through however long this takes and get back to as much of the old normal as you can, without everyone going too crazy in the meantime. Your way won’t look exactly like mine, or like those photos on social media, or like your friend in the WhatsApp group. And that’s exactly how it should be. You’ve got this.

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