In the 1980's my husband, Dean and I, with our two preschool girls, flew to London with six suitcases. We were sent by the church. Dean worked at the literature mission, Send the Light, to help supply Christian books to third-world countries. It was my first year of homeschooling. We lived in a third-floor flat on London Road situated eleven miles south of Tower Bridge. The flat was tiny, but when we emptied the living area of its ancient, dirty loveseat and chair my two little girls had room to stretch their limbs. After Dad took the red doubledecker bus to the literature mission, the girls and I walked three blocks to the playground for daily exercise.
A Frugal Beginning
Each child had two cherished toys apiece which we had brought in our suitcases along with their favorite story books. I had no recognizable curriculum with me, but the girls enjoyed hearing their storybooks read aloud to them over and over again. Although they were content with the same stories, one Saturday, for my sanity, Dad took us by bus to a large library in our crowded, busy, town. This familiarized me enough with the route so that I had the courage to venture there myself by bus with the girls. I borrowed all sorts of picture books, fiction and non-fiction. There were short benches next to wooden boxes filled with Beatrix-Potter-sized books for little children to look through and handle themselves. I also borrowed a few books on how to teach phonics and simple math concepts. These books showed me how to make my own phonics cards with sandpaper letters to trace. I also taught numbers and we made sets with small household items.
Although the British generally live in row housing with little to no front lawn, they love to plant flowers between the crevices of concrete. Along the sidewalk we would see daffodils in April. I'll never forget the enormous variety of roses of all colors which seemed to happily soak up weeks of drizzle so that when the sun did shine - what a display! This was our nature study, as well as watching the squirrels and pigeons in the park eating our breadcrumbs, the ants who ate the even smaller crumbs left over by the birds, and the wasps that flew around the empty soda cans in litter baskets.
I know you can homeschool on a shoestring for at least the kindergarten years, because we did it. We had to. We were living on a missionary budget. I was an amateur teacher. My services cost nothing. The paper, pencils, and crayons cost very little, and the library books were also free. I do remember buying a few music and story cassettes and we did take a trip by bus to the London Zoo, but these did not add up to very much. I estimate that the entire year of education cost under $200.
Atmosphere, Discipline, Life of Ideas
When we returned to America we had Charlotte Mason's books with us. I began to read in more detail about education being an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. Applying what I was learning about Charlotte's sensible, simple and direct method of education became my goal. Creating a pleasant home atmosphere for learning didn't cost anything. Establishing good habits of mind and body one by one didn't cost anything either. Inspiring my children by living a life that feasts on ideas from "living books" wasn't very costly. But these things do cost something - patient, loving, dedicated, caring service. Indeed, the essence of motherhood is self-sacrifice. And although a homeschool mother may be an amateur - has no degree in teaching and is not paid for her tiring labor - she should not feel demoted. An amateur is not the opposite of a professional. Inside the word amateur is the little word "amare" which means "to love." A homeschool mother teaches her children for the love of it. And she works at her task with devotion, reaping the fruits of her labor after the patient passing of years. It is a wonderful calling. This is important to understand at the start of any homeschooling endeavor.
Back in America we were no longer on a missionary budget, but it was a tight budget nonetheless. We rented a small house with a back yard and kept our one-income family cost-efficient by having one car. We freed up money for home education, heeding the adage, "wear the old coat, buy the new book." I had a copy of The Big Book of Home Learning, so I started ordering materials for my homeschool - learning toys, math manipulatives, etc. I also found the perusal of a homeschool magazine encouraging and informative. This I enjoyed reading with my feet up while experiencing another pregnancy. Life was beginning to become more complicated, and has continued to become more complicated over the years.
A Wide Curriculum
What we now do is a mixture of inexpensive and a little expensive. Taking nature walks, observing nature, and creating personal Nature Diaries filled with drawings, poems, and descriptions has been an inexpensive way to expand my children's horizons. (I like to think of education this way; expanding horizons rather than worrying about filling in holes with all the biggest and "best" comprehensive courses on each subject.) The thick coffee-table art print books we have bought over the years are on the expensive side, but you get a lot of picture for the money.
It wasn't until my eldest was age 13 that we began private music lessons. The cost of the instrument (violin), music books, and teacher bumped up the school budget to almost one thousand dollars a year! The children didn't have music lessons while they were very young. Instead, I economically played beautiful classical music in our home as well as folk songs and hymns. They now take pleasure and accomplishment in actually being able to play some of it.
Visiting museums of art, living history museums, planetariums, and natural history museums does cost, but the experience has a value not measurable in money. Charlotte Mason believed that education is more than what takes place while sitting at a desk. Children come into Charlotte's wide curriculum with "a keen desire in the heroic past, with a desire to know about everything that moves and lives, about strange people, about how and why things work, with a desire to handle material and create, to run, ride, and row, and do whatever the law of gravity presents." Many homeschoolers today understand this. Education is a life, a life of ideas from books and things, experiences, culture, and religion. It is not only that of acquiring courses and things that cost money.
All Those Brilliant Books
I'm not very good at keeping accounts, but I do know that even with purchases made at used book shops we must have (over the last decade) spent quite a bit on the gradual building of a home library, the size of which we probably wouldn't have had if our children attended school elsewhere. When I think back on that tiny British flat I marvel at how simply we once lived. Never (gasp I) would we be able to fit a portion of the stuff we now have in that place. Perhaps a kind of mid-life crisis is the problem of living with accumulation. Clutter is cumbersome. But oh, how we have loved all our beautiful, brilliant "living books." These are biographies, historical fiction novels, fiction and nonfiction picture books, classic literature, and books that teach facts in a story form. Using Charlotte's natural method of narration (a retelling in the child's own words) can cost more time and attention than assigning and correcting a quiz book or questionnaire. With narration, however, the power it gives a child to be able to express himself in good English is tremendous. He will remember what he was impressed by long after any test.
A Budget with a Relaxed Fit
My assignment for this article was not only to proclaim whether it is possible to homeschool on a shoestring but also how to homeschool if you had a thousand or more dollars to spend on each child. Here is my answer to this budget with a relaxed fit. I would still keep to a mix of the inexpensive with the little expensive. Added to this, with the savings, I would arrange a trip to England, Ireland, or Europe. It wouldn't have to be a long or large tour - just enough to connect my children with a few places they have studied in history and religion and let them experience how other people now live.
A Cost I'd Gladly Pay
Whatever you spend on your children, never be ashamed of being an amateur teacher. Don't grow weary in sowing seeds in your children while they are young, because in due time you will reap. God will be your guide and help if you ask Him believing. Over time the fruit will bring you joy. Home education will cost you more than money but when your children are precious to you it is a cost you will gladly, and often unthinkingly, pay.