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Practical Homeschooling® :

Organize Your Homeschool On a Budget

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #60, 2004.

Frugal organization tactics can be fraught with cluttered obstacles. Here are six tips for eliminating those hurdles.
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Melissa Morgan

Throughout our homeschooling adventures, our family has accumulated more books, educational resources, games, papers, hobbies and projects than the average family. We've struggled to create a home somewhere between "so cluttered it might be a fire hazard" and a "too perfect - don't touch anything" museum. In order to prevent either extreme, I've learned that it pays to organize. Try these six tips on for size:

Don't Organize More Than You Must

Work smarter, not harder. Try to downsize both housework and homeschool recordkeeping. How much detail do you really need to include in your lesson plans in order to satisfy legal and family educational standards? Find out from experienced homeschoolers in your area; then only do the minimum required recordkeeping. If possible, reuse the same information and records (altered to meet individual goals) for each child. Why reinvent the wheel?

You don't need a complicated or expensive file system. Save homeschool records, catalogs, and lesson samples in folders or boxes. Keep each file category simple, such as "field trips" and "curriculum catalogs." If you make your system too hard, you'll pile instead of file.

Space limitations may make your home difficult to manage; small spaces can only hold so much. Use space creatively and efficiently. Many families have found that a seldom used dining room, living room, basement or garage can be converted to homeschooling space. Perhaps a card table or work table would be more useful than a dining room table. Maybe family members seldom sit on a couch, but would appreciate room for bean bags and exercise balls.

When we were between houses, we ended up in a small apartment for a year and a half. We sold our living room furniture, and used the living room in our apartment like an office. Surprise - we really didn't miss our living room that much, as we only used it for company. Now that we're back in a house, the larger unused space means more work cleaning and straightening.

Do we really own things, or do they own us? Less is more. You can save money and time if you borrow seldom-used supplies instead of owning them. My mom-in-law taught me that if you get something new, get rid of something old to make room for it. Use season changes as a signal to eliminate clutter. Attack household goods, books, clothes, toys, and educational supplies. Give each child three boxes. Use one box for throwaways, one for good things to give away, and one box for things to keep.

Don't Organize Less Than You Must

You'll waste money and a lot of time figuring out what to do if you don't have a plan. Over the years, I've considered the required notification to our local school board as an opportunity to plan next year's curriculum and course of study for each child. Our family looks at what worked last year, and what we need to change. I know from experience that it is difficult or impossible to reconstruct details and documentation for past schoolwork.

My oldest child decided to study on his own and completed high school at age fifteen. By the time we realized what had happened, he had documented more than twenty-eight credits - more than enough to graduate. However, he could have received additional credit, if we had documented it as high school work. Now I know to keep track of high school level material, even if a child is not high school age.

At a minimum, keep track of book titles and authors. In our area, we receive a "slip" from the library, when we borrow books. Keep these slips in a file folder (one for each child), as well as receipts from books that you purchase. You may wish to photocopy the table of contents of textbooks, to document what your children learn.

If you're like me, you need - and want - to keep everything your child creates. Instead of cluttering up your refrigerator with papers, find frames or bulletin boards for each student. If you put something new up, take something down. Keep it in your child's portfolio, or package it and give it as a gift. Think of all the people that would love a sample of your child's work - grandparents, aunts and uncles, Sunday school teachers, next door neighbors, friends, even librarians! Community-minded retail stores may even consider displaying your children's art - it makes them seem friendly to their customers. Your child will feel like a professional artist.

Preserve work virtually. If you don't want to give away or throw away your child's work, keep it on a computer, and throw away the hard copy. If you don't own a scanner, borrow the use of a friend's computer, or pay a small fee at a copy store. With the high cost of printers, ink and paper, we have enjoyed our kid's artwork mounted electronically as a background on our computer monitor.

Digital cameras are getting less expensive. Take pictures of your children's building projects, before they take them apart and build something else. You can also save writing samples on a computer hard drive, floppy, or CD.

Teach Independence

Within limits, many kids can help organize and plan their own homeschooling. If your child can read well, share curriculum guides and scope and sequence information with your kids. Show your children what you expect them to learn, and when. Begin offering simple choices, within clear guidelines.

As your youngsters approach middle school, you might want to give them an inexpensive planner, either hard copy or electronic. Teach them how to record their own schedules and goals. Find inexpensive homeschool organizing and planner ideas in my co-authored book, Homeschooling on a Shoestring.

Include even young children in choosing school materials. Try to attend a homeschool resource vendor fair with your children. Show them three different math workbooks (that you approve), and let them decide which they like best. Do the same for other subjects.

Do you read stories before bed? Take turns choosing which books to read. First mom picks a book. Then it is the child's turn to choose. Even young children can take turns "reading" a word or phrase to you. You might be surprised at what your child can do!

Often older children can help teach younger siblings. Previous generations made practical use of this in the highly successful one-room schoolhouse. Although sometimes children can feel overwhelmed by too much childcare responsibility, most mature youngsters love teaching their siblings - in fact, it can turn into a potential pride problem. With proper supervision, however, siblings teaching siblings can help all family members learn to work together.

Don't Try to Be Supermom or Superdad

Most of us really need our spouse's help, and even our kid's help. In addition, we can teach health, safety, economics, business, and science, through real world chores. Chores also teach responsibility and foster a sense of worth in the family. We try to assign housework and home maintenance jobs according to ability and interest, whenever possible.

Often simple changes to the environment make it easier for your children to help. For instance, if you want small children to help set the table, provide a low cabinet, with lightweight dishes. You'll spend less time and money if you make your home easier to organize. Find the right size tools for kids and small adults, such as small handled work gloves, mops, and shovels. If possible, purchase a sturdy toy shopping cart. It'll make picking up toys fun for little ones. Use a timer to see how fast you can clean up the mess. Toy baskets also make it easier to carry toys from one room to another. A laundry basket can carry more than just laundry. Square baskets usually store more compactly than round baskets.

I love large containers with lids. Buy them on sale in quantity. Find container sales after holidays such as Christmas (red and green colored containers) and Easter (Spring pastels).

Don't just toss items into a large box, never to be found again. Nest small boxes into larger bins. Recycle containers, such as coffee cans, large plastic snack jars and baby wipe containers. Clear plastic containers make great display cases, and are easy to keep clean. Use them to sort small items such as rock collections, shells, foreign coins, building blocks, and art supplies. In this way, you can combine academics and organizing skills. Pick up old lunchboxes at garage sales for pennies. They make great portable storage containers, and the handle makes it easy to put them away. (You might occasionally come across a collectible lunch box.)

Make cleanup simple; store books, toys, household and homeschool supplies near where they will be used. If you read fiction books at bedtime, put a basket or box of favorite books next to your child's bed. Devote a book cabinet to social studies, travel, and science books. Store them near the door, handy for explorations. Use baskets instead of book shelves for books, if your kids are small. It will be much easier for your children to put books away.

Box up those dishes that you only use once a year and store them in the garage or basement. In their place, neatly store school books, clay, craft supplies, bubbles, or whatever else you play with in the kitchen. Don't forget the bathroom - known in many homes as the "reading room." Bathrooms should come equipped with a moisture-proof magazine and book bin, within easy reach of all necessary appliances.

Organize family vehicles, too. Most homeschoolers don't just homeschool at home. They also learn in the back yard, car, grandparent's house, with friends, and at the doctor's office. Our kids always kept backpacks stocked with art supplies, literature, and games. Shop thrift stores to locate quality backpacks at one-tenth the price. Inexpensive lap desks or clipboards with storage, purchased as a holiday gift, can be used in the car, yard, or at home.

What can you do if family members create a hurricane of discarded toys, books and projects in their wake? You may think that you can get things done yourself more quickly and easily, but unless you're in an emergency situation, resist the natural urge to step in and clean it up yourself.

It takes consistent reminders to teach children to put away one thing before they get into something else. If they forget, then consequences, such as removing privileges until they clean up, can help them learn. It also helps moms and dads find time to read with, play with, and teach their kids. As for messy adults - well, that's where the next tip proves especially useful.

Learn to Compromise

I try not to worry if my home doesn't look like a magazine cover. I'm sure those homes, if people really live in them, do not house homeschoolers! Most households combine messies with neatniks, in various combinations.

If you really can't stand a family member's super neatness or extreme messiness, address the issue tactfully. Instead of "You need to stop being messy," try "I'm exhausted and need your help with the picking up around here." Or if you're a messy, instead of saying "Don't touch my stuff!" - when someone cleans it up - try "Please help me find a place where I can keep my stuff, and not have it moved." Don't expect the whole house to be left alone.

Plan a place for messy activities, such as painting, building blocks, shoes, and other clutter. Confine messy activities such as sand, clay, counting rods, nature study, etc., to certain areas. Provide trays (such as the kind for eating on your lap) for play with small objects. The objects won't roll around, and will be easier to pick up. One family worked on a puzzle on the table. They tossed a clear plastic tablecloth over the puzzle when it was time to eat.

Plan one place to keep neat all of the time - a beautiful neat oasis in a desert of disorder. Don't worry about the size of your oasis. Even if you only keep one part of a room neat, it will help. Ban toys and messy activities in the Neat Oasis.

Finally, Celebrate a Job Well Done

God rested on the seventh day, and enjoyed His work. We need to encourage each other to enjoy even small improvements in the organization and maintenance of our homeschool. I hope you can share some of these with your family soon:

  • Take turns reading a good book aloud, together as a family.

  • Borrow a high-quality movie and make popcorn.

  • Watch a sunset together on the porch.

  • Have a music festival - pick your favorite songs and instruments.

  • Plan a picnic and eat outside.

  • Do nothing - sit, rock, and talk with friends. Most of us don't remember the fine art of relaxing. Watch an old episode of Andy Griffith, to learn how they did nothing in Mayberry.

To learn more about the art of organizing, read books by Bonnie McCullough such as 401 Ways to Get Your Kids to Work at Home and Totally Organized. I also recommend Sandra Felton's book, The Messies Manual. In addition, try out these frugal resources:

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