Do you remember the first time those little eyes peered up at you pleading for you to read them a book? Or how fascinated your kids were with seeing new things and asking 5 billion questions about them?
The other day my friend Leslie shared one of these stories with me. During the normal course of everyday life, his son Noah asked a simple question. “Daddy, where does the food go?”
Like any dad, he answered the question. But you have to understand something about my friend. He’s not just ANY dad. He’s a dad who invests in his kids and wants to see them grow. He also just happens to have the title of former “Biology Professor” on his resume. So, he didn’t just answer the question. He ANSWERED the question.
He and Noah spent a great deal of time talking about the esophagus, the stomach, the small and large intestine, and yes, even poop. The next day during playtime, Noah drew a picture of the digestive system and brought it to his dad. (Enter proud parent moment we all long for.)
I talked him through the basics of homeschool laws and what he would need to do to get started. But the conversation stuck with me. I’ve met a lot of people who homeschool for more reasons than I could probably list, but I don’t recall anyone specifically stating their desire to homeschool with the intention of cultivating a love of learning that never goes away.
It was beautifully inspiring.
He wasn’t worried about his son getting into Harvard, learning to socialize with others, or even about how to manage the house when everyone is home 24/7. (He now works from home teaching people how to blog.) He was only worried about how to make sure his children LOVE to learn.
As a former educator and veteran homeschooler, my friend’s question really plagued me. Why is it so many kids (and parents) hate learning things? Why do they hate school so much? Why is this thing that we spend almost our entire lives doing such a dreaded thing to so many people?
The more I thought about it, the more I began to realize how much we’ve crushed the spirit of learning in our attempt to “educate” our children and at the same time traded the sacred for mindless entertainment.
We’ve put education in a box and labeled it into neat subjects with textbooks and guidelines that dictate and label who we are. We’ve taken learning out of the equation and exchanged it for test-taking skills, self-defense strategies against bullies, and political agendas. In exchange, we’re more engaged in gaming, television, and social media (3 of the best ways to completely avoid thinking and learning new things).
The question is… does homeschooling fix that?
If we choose to homeschool our kids, will they love learning new things and delight in educating themselves on topics for the rest of their lives? The answer is a big fat no. Homeschooling isn’t a fool-proof method for anything. In fact, our tendency to think homeschooling fixes problems sometimes causes even more.
The trouble is, we pull our kids out of school, but then we do things just exactly like they did in school. Minus the bullying part. Mostly. (Sorry to step on your toes, but know that I have been just as guilty of this!) Instead of making homeschool different than what they would get in a traditional setting, we keep on doing the things that just DON’T WORK…
We do things that don’t fit our vision simply because we “should” or because “everyone else does.”
We push, pull, prod, and force knowledge into the heads of our children, because after all, the more you know, the more you’ll grow, right?
We BORE our kids to death with stacks of books, worksheets, and subjects that rarely affect real life.
We beat the dead horse of curriculum because everyone else loves it and so surely we will too (even if there are tears every single day).
We fill every moment with agendas, must-dos, and busy work because if it doesn’t look to other people like we are learning, then we might get judged.
Who can relax like this? Who can learn like this?
You know… it’s no wonder the percentage of ADHD children is drastically on the rise, kids hate learning, and parents feel desperate for change. It’s no wonder some homeschooling families are really struggling to enjoy the journey. I wish I could say homeschoolers have learning figured out.
But the truth is, most homeschooled kids I know would never want to go to school in a traditional classroom, yet they still hate “school.” They still look forward to getting it over with and refer to subjects with disdain. So do their parents.
Which brings me to the question at hand. Is there any hope for fixing this?
What real learning should look like
It’s funny how God uses moments to answer our cries and teach us. With this heavy subject on my heart, I carried out the rest of my week as usual. This particular week we had planned to go to Charleston, South Carolina to speak to a homeschool group. I typically look for ways to tie in our trip with something fun and interesting to see, so it’s not all work and no play. This trip was no exception, promising a historic carriage ride through the city and the afternoon in a real battle fort (you know, for the boys and all).
I’ll be honest. The carriage ride was an hour around a city where we mostly saw houses and a lady stood up in front of us and shared specific facts about Charleston’s involvement in the Civil War. Now I consider myself kinda geeky in the learning space (like my friend Leslie), so I loved every single minute of the tour. But my kids sat silent and didn’t say a single word. I had to wonder if they were bored to death, but thankfully too polite to show it.
We walked down City Market and found a place to grab lunch. Once the orders were taken and everything was settled I pondered asking them how the carriage ride went. I didn’t have to ponder long as someone offered up her thoughts. “That carriage ride was the coolest thing ever,” she began. The rest of them chimed in with facts and details even I didn’t catch. The whole lunch conversation was filled with discussion of presidents, speculation about succession from the union, and the impact of slavery.
Although the kids at this table were 7, 10, 13, and 14, I doubt a high school level history class could have rivaled our discussion. They were filled with the energy and excitement of actually seeing how the history of their country unfolded.
My plan for the afternoon was to tour Fort Sumter. A month ago when I told the kids this they all said “sure.” But after the carriage ride, they were begging to hurry up and get there. Suddenly the connection was made and they were on fire to know and see more.
That evening as I drove home I saw the beauty of God’s lesson to me and His reminder of what real education looks like.
Learning is authentic. It’s FUN. It’s what you do when you are interested in knowing something that has an impact on your life. If I had given my children a textbook on Civil War history, I’d be lucky if they remembered 3 facts from hours of “lessons.” But driving down the street and looking for the places where cannon balls were shot into the church steeples, houses burned down, and real people lived, creates a hunger for knowledge no book can compete with.
Now I’m not suggesting that the only way to learn something is to go there in person and experience it yourself. What I am suggesting is we have to bring back the INTEREST in education. We have to find ways to weave everyday life into the things we are learning, so that our children are actually interested in knowing them.
Life, God’s creation, the story of our universe… all of these things are fascinating. They are things we want to know more about, until they are pushed, forced, overcrowded must-dos on our list. Then they become boring chores to be endured.
How to Cultivate a Lifestyle of Learning in Your Homeschool
Whether you are just starting this journey like my friend Leslie or still finding yourself looking for better ways to cultivate learning in your home, there are some very intentional things you can do to create the environment you are looking for. It’s true that some kids naturally love to read more than others and some will find science more interesting than math. But all kids have something that sparks that curiosity and fuels them to want more. Let’s look at some practical ways to grab hold of that spark.
Redefine how you think about school
First things first. We need a serious change in the way we define school. I always tell people school is life and life is school. You never stop learning. The smartest people in life don’t check off the box with a college degree and whittle away on the sofa with video games and soap operas. The world’s most renowned “thinkers” and successful business people can be found with a book and highlighter in hand. The people who truly succeed in life aren’t the ones with all of the answers; they are the ones always asking questions.
How does this work? How can I make that better? What would happen if…
Imagine if Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Newton, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, or the countless other scientists, inventors, and businessmen had compartmentalized their thinking to “subjects at the desk in a classroom” and spent the rest of their time on the sofa with a controller. Let’s just say we can all agree that their names would most likely not be known to us today.
Learning is a lifestyle. It’s something that permeates everything we do from the moment we wake up until the moment we sleep. It describes everything from proper technique for brushing your teeth to the science explaining why the water always flows down. It’s time we redefine “school” and ascribe to the idea of a lifestyle of learning.
Often, parents get uptight about marking off attendance or hourly requirements for state regulations. To be honest, if I added up all the hours we learn things, we’d have enough for double what is “required” and then some. Stop boxing yourself in and let your child enjoy a lifestyle of learning.
We have school every day because we love it. Sometimes we get out workbooks. Sometimes we catch crayfish in the creek and diagram them because we want to. Some days we tour a historic city. And still other days we read a billboard and talk about how to view it in light of our worldview. All of these things are equally valuable and impactful.
Keep your schedule simple
If we want to be intentional about a learning lifestyle, we need to take as much out of the schedule as possible. Don’t overcrowd your moments with things that don’t fit your vision. Don’t try to keep up with all of the activities your friends do or the things offered to you. Be selective and go only for what is BEST for everyone in your family.
Usually the sore spot for people is sports. Just remember, Michael Jordan didn’t play organized basketball until he was in middle school. Trust me, your 4-year-old won’t be forever doomed if he isn’t on a team. But I can promise you learning is deeply hindered by the overcrowding of stuff in our schedules, so be very careful to build in down time and family time as your priority.
Focus on the basics
Don’t buy too much curriculum. I can not stress this enough. It is heartbreaking to me when I see homeschool families walking out of the vendor hall with a pile of books for their kindergartener. Just don’t do that! Only buy the curriculum you can’t live without and do your best to make it as light and authentic as possible. Remember, kids don’t need to know a zillion facts. They need to know HOW to learn.
During the elementary years (yes, all the way until 7th grade), your primary focus should be on becoming a strong reader and mastering math facts. If you can conquer those two MASSIVE tasks, the rest should be ALL interest-driven. Don’t drown your kids with a bunch of textbooks on subjects they don’t want to study, full of facts they refuse to remember. A great foundation in math and literacy will be the only tool they need to succeed in other subjects as they get older.
This doesn’t mean you won’t learn science, social studies, geography, history, Bible, and so much more. You will! Just do it naturally and as interest guides your family. When you go to the aquarium or beach, study the ocean. If you are pregnant, study the human body. If your child is obsessed with construction vehicles, learn their names and how to draw them. Just be sure you keep your focus on the basics in the process.
Books are tools to help us gain information, but sometimes they are treated as the ONLY source of good information. Nothing could be further from the truth. Allow your child to read authentic books about everyday heroes, historical game changers, and amazing places. But also allow them to experience as much as possible through field trips, museums, websites, and any other means you can think of.
The bottom line is to read and learn about REAL things from REAL things. Don’t exchange an awesome trip to the gem mine for a book on sedimentary rocks. Couple them together for a powerhouse of lifelong interest. This, my friends, is what real learning looks like.
Allow your kids the freedom of choice
Although I would never advocate a family environment where kids get to make all of their own choices, there are some places where choices are critical. This is one of them. Let your kids MAKE choices about what they are interested in learning. Not everyone is gifted the same way and God never intended for every human to excel in the same things. We would be missing a lot of wonderful strengths if everyone was a math scholar, an inventor, or a Pulitzer Prize winner. Don’t box your kids in like that.
I strongly recommend a weekly trip to the library. From an early age, my daughter would choose horse books every single time we went to the library. To date, she has probably read no less than 1000 horse novels and many more picture books. She could tell you anything and everything you would ever want to know about a horse. (Trust me, there is a lot more to know than you think.) But there are other benefits to this. Because I let her read about her passion and didn’t force her to read about snakes or sea turtles, she was almost never found without a book in hand.
As a result, she has a huge vocabulary (which will serve her well on the SAT) and she is an amazing writer. Much of this came simply from the fact that I let her read and enjoy without limiting her by subject or even quality of literature. I can’t stress this enough. Be free with your kids and let them explore the subjects they want to know more about. Make it easy for them. Help them get the resources to do it. Their natural desire to know about this will grow them academically more than anything else could possibly dream of doing.
One way we do this is by keeping a Reading Journal instead of having a formal reading curriculum. As soon as my kids are strong readers (usually about 2nd grade), I let them move out of a reading curriculum and into the Reading Journal where they can decide what they will read about. Each day they complete 10-15 minutes worth of higher level thinking about what they read and then they can spend the rest of the time enjoying it.
Learn about things that matter
Remember when you were in Algebra and kept asking, “When am I ever going to use this?” It’s a fair question. We want to know that our time is being spent on something worthwhile. So let your kids learn about things that really matter to them and things that make a difference in their lives.
We learned this when I first found a book on Hudson Taylor. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t too excited to read a nonfiction biography about a missionary in China. It just wasn’t my thing, but there were so many people in the booth buying them at the homeschool convention, I felt like I had to at least get a few to try. This is one of those things that worked out for the better, as not only did I love the story, my kids couldn’t be peeled from the couch.
Learning about the lives of missionaries has become a regular occurrence in our house because their lives matter to us. Their faith and strength in hard times is an example we need. We learn about their lives in many ways including PureFlix videos and books. I even wrote a study (To Every Nation) to go along with the books because we loved them so much. Just remember to ask your kids if they are interested before you dive in, deal?
Keep tests at a minimum
Kids need to learn to take tests. It’s a necessary part of the educational process if you ever plan to go to college. But that doesn’t mean your 1st grader needs to practice just yet. Be really intentional about this. Instead of rushing to test or quiz your kids on what they have learned about something, engage them in meaningful “adult-like” discussions. Treat them like this information they know really matters and help them use it in conversations with real people.
To be honest, this is the most important test to pass anyway! (Oh, and it’s totally ok to geek out at dinner and talk about the Civil War or the digestive system. Both are pretty awesome topics. And hey, you might learn something!)
Know your purpose
Back to that “why do we need algebra” question… do your kids know and understand why they need to learn things? Do you? Have you ever had a discussion about the purpose of being educated? Perhaps you have a different purpose, but I’d like to propose one of highest importance: God.
I teach my kids the purpose for attaining knowledge is to be able to better know God and His Word so we can better articulate it to a hurting and dying world. We will need all kinds of skills to do this, from reading, math, business, geography, finances, history, and more. When you embark upon a new subject area, ask yourself how knowing this can help you to know God more and share Him with others. You’ll love this viewpoint and perspective on why all of this really matters!
Just remember, we don’t yet know the path God has for our children. Perhaps He will call her to become a medical missionary. If so, she will need that Algebra so she can take Calculus. She will need Chemistry and Physics, too. While those things may seem meaningless, we have to remember that God uses these things for His glory. Not everyone will need to follow that path, and God will use us no matter what we’ve learned, but we should be sensitive to the possibilities and eager to prepare ourselves.
Capitalize on every moment
Moments are precious and we never get them back. When your 5-year-old asks about where the food goes, it’s easier to blow him off. Trust me, I know. Parenting is exhausting. But in the end, the moments you take to satisfy their curiosity are the ones that matter the most.
Be like Leslie and answer the question. Take an extra day and stop at the National Park or tour something you normally would have driven by. Make a day trip bucket list. Find people who want to go on field trips with you or just go yourself. By the way, yes I know this costs money. Don’t forget I’m a single mom! That’s why it’s so important to capitalize on the opportunities you do have.
We ask for experiences as gifts instead of toys. I scrimp for museum passes and excursions because I know my kids will never lose or break those memories like they would a toy. It’s worth the extra effort to experience things first hand. Start small. Skip the amusement park or beach trip and marvel at how much your kids will enjoy the learning!
Keep your attitude in check
I hate to admit it, but as parents we are often the biggest problem when it comes to the way our kids think about school. Don’t let your “baggage” of bad experiences get in the way. Let it grow you. Use it to help your kids fall in love with the journey instead of dread it. Don’t make negative comments about subjects, learning, school, etc. Don’t count down the days until your next break or fraternize with friends about how glad you are it’s over. Kids hear this. And it molds them.
The Call for a Lifestyle of Learning
I pray this post has encouraged you deeply as you journey to cultivate a lifestyle of learning with your children. It’s tempting to look at a list like the one above and become all legalistic about putting it into practice. It’s also tempting to become overwhelmed at the very thought of it. Don’t let either of those extremes define you.
The process of cultivating a lifestyle of learning is gradual and intentional. Take one day at a time. At the end of that day, celebrate your wins and resolve to fix one thing for the next day. Small change is the key to long term success. No one is perfect, and yes, the rest of us mess this up just like you do. Don’t let the enemy steal your joy. Keep fighting.
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