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Practical Homeschooling® :

10 Ways to Prepare Your Home for Joyful Learning

By Jeannette Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #96, 2010.

Sacrifice a little neatness and make your home a place where kids love to learn
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Jeannette Webb

Traditional educators would be horrified at my methods. I hate textbooks, rigid routines, and checklists. However, I’m not a laid-back kind of a gal. My family will verify that I’m definitely a Type A personality, but with one degree in child development and years as a Youth Development Specialist, I know that truly embracing knowledge is a choice made by my child, not a demand I can place on him.

Therefore, when my children were young, I decided to take the sneaky route and filled my home with interesting things that would invite investigation.

This wasn’t easy for me. I’m a tidy person and prefer to have neatly labeled boxes (with lids) lining shelves and everything in its place in an impeccably decorated home, but I had to step out of my comfort zone and settle for a bit of a mess in order to invite discovery.

Here are some ways I set up learning opportunities. They weren’t on the school assignment sheet. There were no requirements that the children participate. I didn’t feel like a failure when an opportunity was passed up.

The Art Studio

Our schoolroom had a walk-in closet lined with shelves. On the lowest shelves, within reach of little hands, I filled clear containers with every kind of craft item imaginable: pipe cleaners, polymer clay, sculpting clay, construction paper, craft foam, cardboard, paint, sketch pads, sketching pencils, colored pencils, crayons, fabric, glue, yarn, fabric swatches, knitting needles and crochet hooks, embroidery thread, etc, etc. My daughter loved working with her hands and learned to crochet at the tender age of five. She spent hours happily creating projects. My son never ventured near the closet. He preferred the workbench his grandfather built for him on the back porch. There he hammered nails into wood and glued wood scraps together and created more manly things.

The Science Lab

While my daughter lost track of time in the craft closet, my son spent hours in his “lab.” His affinity for science asserted itself extremely early and his burning questions occupied hours a day. He used a magnifying glass as a toddler to examine things. As soon as he had the fine motor skills to handle it, we purchased two microscopes: one with a platform for three-dimensional objects (rocks, butterflies, etc.) and one for use with prepared slides. They were always out and ready to reveal a wonderful microscopic world. He had test tubes and butterfly nets and batteries and wires. I had to give up my work area on the back porch as his experiments and equipment took up every square inch and filled every drawer, but a man must not be kept from exploring the mysteries of the universe.

The World at our Fingertips

While most of our walls were lined with bookcases, we kept one wall free in my son’s room to place a large world map and a U. S. map at his eye level. There was a globe nearby for perspective. Anytime we were reading about a particular place, we would stop and find it on the map. Several times throughout the years, the kids made their own maps as part of a particular study. I have a feeling that my son spent a great deal of time with these maps on his own, because today his knowledge of countries and geographical locations is astounding. But I shouldn’t be surprised. He looked at it every day and the countries on our planet just became a part of his world.

Trapped in the Bathroom

Years ago, a new homeschool acquaintance emerged from our bathroom on her first visit to our home shaking with laughter. She couldn’t believe that I actually hung posters on the wall directly opposite the, um, throne.

Well. What else are they going to do while they are sitting there??? I thought they just as well be learning something new or thinking about something interesting.

So through the years there were bathroom posters of cloud formations, U.S. Presidents, Oklahoma trees, fish, wildlife and other various topics. I figured that if efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth (of Cheaper by the Dozen fame) made his kids listen to French lessons while they bathed, surely I should make good use of bathroom time, too.

The Museum of Natural History

Some people collect priceless art. My kids collected the work of the Master Artist and decorated my kitchen bar with it. Snake skins, bird eggs, abandoned cicada shells, pretty rocks, and bird nests (when the birds were through with them). Sometimes I had to avert my eyes while fixing dinner, but they loved their treasures and wanted to learn more about them. They would bring a bird book, climb up on the stool, and compare their nest with those in the book or a find a book about snakes and figure out why they shed their skins.

The Zoo

My kids were transfixed with the ant farm and the fish aquarium inside the house and the hummingbird feeder and birdbath they could watch from the window. So much activity! They had a ball watching nature in a created environment that was easily accessible to them. Through the years we had bird feeders and squirrel feeders and planted bushes that attracted butterflies.

We were also fortunate to live in the country, so had access to a wide variety of beasts and birds. We watched the wildlife on the canyon rim through binoculars (which were always by the window to be grabbed quickly) and traced their tracks in the mud. We found their dens and watched their broods of babies from a distance.

The Garden

We planted fruit trees, blackberry bushes, strawberries, tomatoes, and green beans. Each child had their own little garden space where they could plant what they wanted. At an early age they had responsibilities to weed and water, harvest and preserve. They learned about plants firsthand and were so proud to serve food that they had raised and prepared themselves.

The Art Museum

We had a continually rotating art print on a low table where the kids could see it as they galloped by. We would take it down and talk about it once a week for a few minutes. Often I would rotate three or four prints from the same artist over a month’s time, so the kids could learn to identify the style and subject matter of particular painters.

If we visited an art museum, I would tell them to pick out their favorite picture and we would try to find a postcard of it to display. My daughter recalls paying careful attention throughout the museum because she wanted to find her favorite painting and take it home.

The Concert Hall

There is a lot of maintenance that has to happen to keep a home functional. Meals need to be prepared and the house needs to be cleaned.

We always did these things together (the shortest kid dusting the baseboards, the taller kid dusting everything in his reach, and Mom handling the high stuff). We fixed meals together, each having their own job. Usually I had classical music going while we worked. Sometimes they asked what the piece was, but usually they just enjoyed.

Today my daughter still loves the music she grew up with while she worked: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, and Handel’s Water Music.

The Spontaneous Unit Study

By inviting my children to discover the world for themselves, I assumed the responsibility for being ready to deal with their questions when they popped up. A teachable moment is precious, and I always tried to make the most of it.

While our home is loaded with books, I did rotate books in and out so there would always be something fresh. I also held certain types of books in reserve in my unit study boxes. Over the course of the year I would find treasures to fill my boxes: books from library sales or homeschool conventions, science kits or themed art projects from museum stores, posters from national parks, documentaries, games, etc.

I’ll give you some examples of how this system worked.

One day my children discovered a badger den, so we pulled out the box on mammals, which contained wonderful books about various types of animals, their homes, and their habitats. There were posters identifying different Oklahoma wildlife (which went up in the bathroom). We started the book The Wind in the Willows.

After visiting Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, I pulled out my volcano box. There were books about how volcanoes worked, a picture book about the buried city of Pompeii, some ideas torn from a magazine that featured experiments that replicated a volcano, a National Geographic video, and a poster identifying all the volcanic hot spots around the world. We set to work understanding all we had just experienced.

My family emigrated from Sweden three generations back and wound up in Oklahoma making the Land Run. My Swedish box contained a book of native crafts for children, Swedish recipes, maps, children’s books about immigration, Ellis Island, and adjusting to a new country. When our little family suddenly moved from the farm to the heart of Dallas, the Swedish immigration box went too. While we were adjusting to a strange new world, we studied how other displaced persons felt, ate the food that my great-grandmother would have had in Sweden, made dala horses, studied Swedish customs, read her letters, and tried to let her courage infuse our days.

A Place of Joy

While all this may sound like a random jumble of stuff, it was really a very calm existence filled with little discoveries that were pursued and thoughts that were discussed. Some of our school subjects were very sequential, but each day was rounded out with little surprises that created a joyful learning environment. Our lives had few extracurricular activities, so there was plenty of time to follow up on things of interest.

My husband and I are curious, industrious people and we wanted to cultivate that in our small children. It was a lot of work for us to set up situations that allowed them to “stumble upon” something exciting, but I think it was worth it.

As young adults, our kids have been wildly successful academically, but it has not been from following the grinding checklist experienced by many of their peers. Their success has been the result of their curiosity continually propelling them into new territory. As my daughter recently remarked, “I still love to learn. That is a fairly rare thing, even on a campus like Princeton.”

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