Contests are an educational experience especially suited for homeschooled students. What can contests do for your child academically? Consider:
Contests are Great Motivators
Envision a typical homeschool assignment. Mom asks Henry to write a composition on "What Valentine's Day Means to Me." Henry is not particularly interested in Valentine's Day and knows his finished composition will go no further than Mom's eyes and then into the three-ring binder on the schoolroom bookshelf. As a consequence, his motivation level is mediocre and his effort half-hearted.
But suppose Mom tells Henry she wants him to draw a scene from intergalactic space and write a scientific narrative of that scene. Henry, who is the local expert on space exploration, lights up at this idea. When she tells him they will enter his drawing and narrative in the Intergalactic Art Competition (part of the Space Science Student Involvement Program), and he might win an all-expenses paid trip to the National Space Science Symposium in Washington, D.C. ... well, the fire is lit; and look out world, Henry has a lot to say on that subject. It was a combination of good topic, competition, and reward that did the trick.
Contests Develop Research Skills
To be sure, writing a scientific narrative on space exploration will take more than your 1952 Encyclopaedia Britannica, so off to the library you go. Here is the perfect opportunity to teach the lad how to research. You will want to use a good college or university library along with your own local library. Arrange for personal interviews. And don't forget to tap into the Internet.
The Great Online Research Challenge is an interesting new contest for 11th- and 12th-grade students. Students are given a time limit to solve problems by researching Lexis/Nexis, a "database of databases" which includes massive full-text libraries. What is attractive about this contest is the prize: two years of Lexis/Nexis for your family. Now, that's what I call a prize. Go, kids, go!
A contest can bring together all the skills you've taught your children into one exciting finale. To write this paper on space exploration, numerous subjects will be covered: grammar, spelling, punctuation, science, penmanship or typing skills, logic (construction of arguments), and rhetoric (expressing your point in an eloquent manner). So this one essay contest is not just "another composition" to write, but an entire unit study in itself, with the final product bringing - as Jessica Hulcy says - "closure."
Contests Develop Character Qualities
Many of these contests take a long time to complete. Some, such as a Science and Engineering Fair science project, will take an entire school year. It develops perseverance and diligence. Contests can seem overwhelming and unmanageable if you only look at the whole picture, but by planning and organization the process can be broken down into bite-size pieces. The student strives toward his goal, doing his best, and in the end can obtain the "satisfaction and pride of a job well done" (as Ranger Bill would say).
Some contests require teamwork. The National Written & Illustrated By... Awards Contest provided an opportunity for my oldest daughter Johannah to teach her younger sister Helena watercolor techniques.
Because of their flexible schedules, homeschooled students are at an advantage in contest participation. The first contest we ever entered was a local science fair. I learned about this competition only two weeks before it was held, so we devoted those two weeks full-time to the contest. What an exciting experience! That was back in 1989, but all the kids remember the fun of those days. Two weeks of pure science, not to be distracted by Latin declensions.
Picking the Right Contest
A word of warning about contests. Avoid politically correct contests. If the registration form requires you to list your race, then it is possible that winners will be chosen on the basis of race, not simply merit. Some contests require you to travel long distances or cost large sums of money. MathCounts, a very popular math competition, recently started charging $40 per school. Avoid contests that just want to sell or promote a product (some of the poetry contests will do this) or build a mailing list. Some of the Internet "contests" are sweepstakes and not really contests at all.
Which contest should you pick for your child? If your child is extra good at math, then any of the numerous math competitions will stretch his skills, and there are plenty of art contests for the artistically inclined.
To integrate contests into your curriculum I suggest this plan. For the first year, pick one of the fun contests that coincide with that child's interests: Make It Yourself With Wool Contest, chess competitions, Tandy Leather Art Competition, Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, Rocky Mountain Philatelic Exhibition, National Association of Rocketry contests, or one of the American Morgan Horse Association contests. Check out the deadline for the contest and make out a rough schedule for progress. For example, by October have the project topic decided, have outlines finished by November, rough drafts by December, etc. Break the process down into manageable bite-size pieces.
The next year, have the student enter one of the project contests (National History Day, science fairs, or invention projects). By the third year you will be considered a contest pro and can even make contests a major part of your curriculum. The student can enter a writing contest, a speech contest, and a project contest each year, making for a well-rounded curriculum. You can also use contests to help your student work on areas he is weak in.
Contests let the student bring together the skills he learns at home and apply them in his everyday schooling. This is the ultimate in practical homeschooling.