Home Education Doesn’t have to Look Like School

When you first start home educating, you may well have something like “school at home” in mind. I certainly did, particularly as back then we were intending for my son to return to school. Since then I have come to the conclusion that the “school at home” version of home education rarely works. I’ll explain why and explore some other options for home education.

How do Schools Get Kids to Work?

When children are in school, there are a whole plethora of things in place to force them to do the work. My youngest child is, for various reasons, still in school. At parents evening last week her teacher said to me “She enjoys working hard and doing her best”. I know from various conversations that I have had with my daughter that this isn’t the case. She works hard and does her best because of the fear of what will happen if she doesn’t.

Schools have a variety of ways of “punishing” children who don’t do the work they are set. There are overt consequences like detentions, having their peg moved down on the behaviour chart, loss of privileges and poor reports home. There are also more subtle punishments at play. There is breaking the social norms of school, everyone else does the work, so you must too. There is the risk of public humiliation, if the teacher asks you a question and you don’t know the answer. There is the fear of the long term consequences that are drummed into them. If you don’t work hard you will never amount to anything. If you don’t pass your GCSEs, you’ll never get a job. For my daughter, it’s the fear of letting down her (perfectly lovely) teacher that motivates her.

Girl and her father playing chess shown from above

How Can Home Educators Get Kids to Work?

When you take a child out of school, the situation changes. Lots of these fears are gone. Even a child who worked hard in school may suddenly have no interest in doing “school work”. You might be able to recreate some of the fear they experienced in school to get them to do the work but you have to take into account the cost of that. What will it do to your relationship? And how much will your child actually learn if they are forced to do work they have no interest in?

We started off with very structured days and initially my son went along with it. He was so grateful to be out of school he’d have gone along with almost everything. I say went along with it because he certainly wasn’t enthusiastic. Gradually he “went along with it” less and objected more. We argued, I tried to find ways to make him do the work. I tried to make it fun. I tried threats. I tried bribery. I tried Begging.

Then I did what I always do. I started reading. I read everything I could about home education and concluded that child led learning was the only way to make this work. I realised that being forced to learn things he had no interest in, both at school and at home, had made my son hate learning. For him, learning was a miserable experience to drag himself through. I didn’t want that for him and so school at home went out fo the window.

Starting Child Led Learning

Child led learning will of course look different for every child that does it. They all have different interests and attitudes and will choose to spend their time differently. While it’s important to ensure they are making progress in numeracy and literacy to satisfy the local authority, there are lots of different ways to approach that.

After a few months where I let him do whatever he wanted with his days and made note of the learning I was seeing, he realised he needed a bit more structure. We talked about what he wanted to do and put a loose routine in place that he was happy with.

If you’re just starting out then it’s likely your child will just want to play/look at their phone/watch YouTube/play video games for a while. Try not to panic. Talk to them about what they are doing and you’ll find that learning is still happening. Over time they are likely to become more open to other activities. By talking to them about what they are doing you’ll likely get ideas for other activities you can suggest when the time is right.

When they’re ready you can talk to them about their longer term plans. If they have a career in mind you can investigate it together and find out what is required.

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Different Ways of Learning

If you’re struggling to see learning as anything other than listening to a teacher talk and then answering questions, this list can help you widen your view. Remember that more formal courses or study for GCSEs can still represent child led learning, if your child has chosen to do them.

  • Reading Fiction – including Manga, comics or graphic novels. Reading is reading! If they aren’t reading for themselves yet, reading to them is just as good.
  • Reading non fiction – including magazines, news paper and online reading like blog posts, articles and gaming instructions.
  • Play – If your child is on the younger side (and even if they aren’t) a huge amount is learnt from play.
  • Sports – Depending on the sport they could be learning teamwork, commitment or goal setting as well as the actual sport skill.
  • Gaming – A huge amount can be learnt from gaming, the best way to find out what they are learning is the play with them or at least watch.
  • Typing – There’s every chance your child will be dead set against putting pen to paper but will regularly be typing away on their phone or tablet. From chatting to friends to emailing Etsy sellers to ask when a football shirt will be back in stock (spot the real life example there!), all of it practices literacy.
  • Cooking – Most children and young people like to cook and it’s a great learning opportunity. Weighing ingredients, using ratios to increase or decrease a recipe and reading the instructions are all great learning. We even discussed lines of symmetry when filling Cornish Pasties.
  • Boardgames – There are lots of boardgames out there (try your local charity shop to save money) and they will all teach you something. We play an “open book” version of scrabble where we can check words online so that we are learning new words and spellings. Card games can be great too.
  • Trips Out – Learning can often be more enjoyable if you’re out and about and many museums are really interactive these days. Cadbury’s world is a great example, we learnt history and science and got to eat chocolate! You could also go to Zoos, the theatre, the library, art galleries, country parks and loads of other places.
  • Conversation – Conversation is a great way to learn, when they ask you something, follow the question wherever it leads, with the help of Google if necessary!
  • Bedroom redesign/reorganise – I loved redoing my bedroom when I was a kid and my children love it now. Measuring for furniture, calculating paint volumes, budgeting for new things, its all super educational.
  • Television/ YouTube etc – There is so much available these days that you should be able to find something to watch that ties in with your child’s interests. It’s likely that will then lead on to other interests to explore.
  • Hands on stuff – Making things is always a great learning process. My son loves woodwork and using the sewing machine. My daughter loves crafts and they both learn lots from these things including measuring, planning and problem solving. If your child lacks confidence you can always start with a kit.
  • Reality TV – We have watched quite a few reality shows and have found it great for understanding human motivations and how people get along.
  • Holiday or day trip planning – By planning a family trip children can learn about geography, transport, budgeting, calculating time and distance and getting the best value.
  • Socialising – Developing social skills is an important part of childhood so time spent on this is never wasted.
  • Going Shopping – Comparing value (price per 100g) and calculating percentage discounts are great maths practice.
  • Building flatpack furniture – Reading and following instructions, the same goes for putting anything else together, my son recently did a punching bag.
  • Convincing you of something – If there is something your child wants, to go the shop alone, to get a particular game or app etc, ask them to do research and present a case for why they should get it.
  • Life Skills – Children are often interested in learning what they need to be an adult so you might want to help them learn how banks work, what insurance is, what tax and national insurance are, how to maintain a car or bike or how to do some DIY.

What About Exams?

The panic most people have about child led learning is “what about exams?”. The idea is that when the time comes that your young person decided what they want to do with their life, they will be motivated to work towards whatever exams are necessary. You have to keep in mind that GCSEs don’t have to be taken at 16, if your young person isn’t ready then, that’s fine. If it turns out they don’t need them for what they want to do, that’s fine too. If they change their mind in the future, they can always take them then. This post discussed post 16 options for young people without GCSEs.

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Girl and her father playing chess shown from above, text reads, "Home ed doesn't have to look like school"

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