Occasionally a mom will meet me and say she wishes she could have been a fly on the wall to observe my family when we were homeschooling. I wish it, too—not because I’m so certain that my homeschool experience would be ideal for her, but rather, I remember how helpful it was to me to live next door to a home educator I admired. Dotty Christensen and her three kids (and sweet husband) became that family for me—the unwitting tutors of how to live a life of learning as a family.
Dotty’s kids were a little older than mine. They homeschooled in an apartment in the opposing balcony to ours. I got to be a part of their daily life, and they a part of ours. I discovered what it felt like to let life unfold, to be proactive in activity (crafts, arts, baking, play, dress ups, face paints, reading aloud, beach trips to tide pools, nature hikes at local parks).
This particular friend was expert at creating
pleasing spaces for children.
She had a big table of art supplies (in her tiny apartment!) in the living room to be used at all times. She would move pillows from sofas to the floor, or out onto the balcony with red futons and cuddly blankets so a child could snuggle up and read or listen to a music tape. Library books went inside a milk crate and followed the pillows around. I remember one time, in a desperate attempt to make more space for her children, she converted her husband’s single outdoor parking space into a fort! Without any backyard, we were always scrambling for ways to create new places to stimulate imagination or to create personal coziness.
Trips to Farmer’s Market were bi-weekly, we took walks in an outdoor preserve where we observed spider webs, collected owl pellets for dissection, and gathered wild blackberries for pies. Library visits were weekly and overwhelming. I usually spent my library time following a toddler, pushing books back onto the shelves where they belonged as the human cannon ball banged his or her way through the stacks. In my case, it took a laundry basket to haul all our books to and from the library each week. It was a weekly treat to be able to turn my kids loose and say, “Get anything you want!” despite the challenge of corralling them into a cohesive group.
The daily nap, read aloud time, and history project became
the warp and woof of home education for us.
I watched my friend teach times tables tossing a Frisbee (passing it back and forth, calling out problems and answers). I remember how Dotty cut shapes out of brown paper and then we’d finger paint on them. We used Family Fun magazine as our main source of ideas for how to enhance our home experiences—so many great activities and creative projects!
Dotty and I made a huge solar system using our kids. We organized our children and those of other homeschooling friends on our cul-de-sac, using their human bodies as planets, spacing them apart in approximate distances (of course, we couldn’t put Pluto as proportionately far away as we wanted to or that child would have been miles beyond our reach!). We celebrated that evening with a celestial teatime, complete with moon slices of apple and star cut-outs of cheese.
Another time, we made a pony express with bicycles, and another time still, we held a gold rush party with real sieving for fool’s gold.
Food became essential to happy home education—Japanese tea parties, picnics, muffins and pies from scratch, daily lunches that were the same beans and tortillas for years (cheap, predictable, and easy).
Hours of dress-up clothes and face paints turned any day into a party. Everyone learned to knit. Board games and cards, pipe cleaners and Play-doh, sidewalk chalk and jump ropes—these were used as frequently as they could be. We watched movies together and listened to books on tape.
Sure, we carefully selected a math curriculum and Xeroxed handwriting pages; I made a halfhearted attempt to teach grammar to my not-interested kids. We managed to get reading taught despite the angst that our kids would never learn (Dotty and I both had late readers and it helped knowing we were not alone in that).
We jettisoned various workbooks, tried others, and as it turned out, we each reinvented homeschooling every year. We weren’t identical in our choices, but we were sharing the experience and drafting off of each other’s successes. In those early years, what stands out to me now is that the family I hung around invested fully in living—
being together, creating warmth and affection,
humor and projects, outings and traditions.
We enjoyed the arts, nature, music, literature, play, and the company of each other’s family in this unique journey. The dads were friends and we often took family trips on weekends to the beach or shared a meal on a week night. It helped that we lived on the same street for five years!
There were days of exhaustion, times when my kids were bored, frustrated, and whiny. Some days I wondered if we were making any progress. Pregnancies slowed me down, naturally. Dotty’s kids were older so they didn’t always have the same needs as my younger ones. We had to find a rhythm in our relationship as surely as in our homeschools. Yet as I look back, those were sparkling years. We had the energy of “new-to-homeschooling,” we didn’t have the Internet to tell us that we were doing it right or wrong. No one yelled at me or suggested I was somehow “not a real (fill in the blank – unschooler, Charlotte Mason-ite, Konos-user, classical educator).” Dotty and I had each other, we had our kids, we had sunshine (it was California, after all), we had a few good books about learning and children, and we had the daily joys and struggles. Those struggles were ordinary passages in life, actually—not a failure to master some “gold standard” of “the right kind of home education.”
My primary discovery in my relationship with Dotty was that homeschool is a LIFE lived—richly, fully, with crafts, activities, face paint, the arts, books, and lots of cozy eating times with the people you love.
I will write about the hard parts another time. They are real, too. For now, though, I wanted to cast a little vision for
the joy of shared schooling—knowing that you have a friend in the trenches,
scratch that—in the SANDBOX of home education.
That’s a far better way to grow as a homeschooler than trying to go it alone or follow scrupulously a specific educational model. Trial and error, with lots of forgiveness toward yourself, and a willingness to enjoy your kids NOW, is key. Don’t wait until later when they’re “better human beings.” They’re great human beings already, in this stage of development, just as they are.
So if you feel a little at sea or emotionally spent, get a partner. Find that someone who helps you be your best homeschooling self. It does help. And remember:
Right now, you choose your memories.
Later, your memories choose you.
Be deliberate. Create good ones. Your children will thank you, and you’ll be able to reminisce fondly when the day comes that it’s all finished.
Images by AForestFrolic (cc cropped, tinted, text added)
What a wonderful article. A good reminder.
Nice to hear from you again, Julie. Nice post. Sweet times.
We are privileged to have Dottie at our church and she has been encouraging to us as homeschoolers. She also speaks warmly of those days. Thanks for this wonderful reminder of the long term reason we are homeschooling. It goes fast. Hold onto those memories and love our kids!
This is a fantastic description of homeschooling at its BEST, especially with younger kids.
Sometimes I think this approach is getting lost in all the programs now available.
THANKS for a great reminder!
Julie, I love it. A perfect description of homeschooling as a rich life, wherever and however we live. As someone who had lived in small and large spaces, rural and city, and often on a limited time and money budget…this rich life that you write a out is the one constant.
I couldn’t agree more with Deb Y about this approach being lost to “programs”. It deeply distresses and saddens me. Sometimes I think I am done having kids but when the day comes when I have to put away the play-dough… it may make me want a dozen more- sniff.
In fact, this relaxed, joyful type of homeschooling for younger ones is becoming so rare, you may not be able to find a partner at all! I mean that so many families are spending SO MUCH TIME shuttling young ones to and from choir, art lessons, sports, you name it….
I consider being too poor for all those lessons and teams QUITE the blessing for a young family!
Great having feedback. I spent this past weekend with homeschool families in IL at the APACHE convention. It struck me again how thirsty for a positive, life-enriching experience of homeschooling families are. Curriculum has taken over joyful learning. I hope we can get the message out to more families.
Thanks this was awesome. I will choose my memories, enjoy more and stress less.