After making vague noises about being really quite keen on home education for quite some time, earlier this year things became much more real. Cherry will reach school starting age in September and at the moment she has a place confirmed at our first choice school.
At some point I will probably blog more about why I'm so drawn to home education and the concerns I have about school, but this isn't the time. The decision-making process for Noel and I is still very much an active one and we may still choose school. At the moment however we are leaning towards home educating until seven.
With that in mind I wanted to start recording our home education journey, even if it does turn out to be a short-lived one. I see home education as learning through real life, in an integrated and connected way. For the past month or two Cherry, Violet and I have been on a fact-finding mission attending local groups and meetups to see what the home education community is like around here - in short, it's extremely active! I have also been intensively researching home education and feeding back thoughts and findings to Noel, who has been doing his own research based upon his own particular concerns. It's all very busy and very exciting. I have learned so much through this process alone that even if we don't choose home education my views on education, learning and children's development have become much clearer and will continue to inform and shape how we parent in the future.
At this stage we haven't yet honed in on an educational philosophy and an approach. To an extent this will be open to debate and change as we progress but I think we want to be clear from the outset what our expectations are, and whether we will be fully unschooling (my preference), following a curriculum (Noel's preference) or somewhere in the middle (the most likely option).
So without further ado, this is what May looked like for us.
Oh how I love spring and summer! Cherry, Violet and I spend lots of time outside throughout the year but in the summer months we have so much to do and explore it can be difficult to actually get any time in the house at all. This month we have been to the seaside, one of our favourite days out, to the woods with a group of home educating families to pick wild garlic, spot giant Roman snails and admire stunning bluebells, to our local city farm where Cherry and Violet fell head-over-heels in love with a lamb, to the ecology centre for a spot of pond-dipping and to our allotment to water plants and pick gooseberries before the birds eat them all, as well as the usual daily trips to parks, streams, woods and other outdoor haunts. Over half term (Cherry is still at preschool for three mornings a week although I've been taking her out a lot to go to groups and events) we hit up the nature trail at Box Hill with friends for possibly one of the best afternoons we've ever had, and Cherry and Violet also fell in love with a friends' Jack Russell after a morning park date. We had a visit from Noel's parents who along with Noel took Cherry and Violet into London for a ride on the Emirates cable cars and a play at the O2 water park. We've taken them into London a few times recently and Cherry has been asking about Big Ben and we've also had lots of interesting discussions about various forms of transport available in London and which is the fastest way to get around. We're extremely lucky to live so near the big city in such a rural area, so I'm sure we'll be heading into town more in the coming months, hopefully starting with a visit to a beehive installation at Kew Gardens.
On days when the weather hasn't been so delightful we've done a lot of art and baking. Cherry and Violet are both sweet fiends much like their mother so we do a lot of cooking and baking and it's always felt like a great learning experience, from the measuring of ingredients to discussions about what temperature does to various ingredients and how they change forms from liquid to solid and vice versa. Plus we all get something delicious to eat at the end! We've also spent a lot of time at the table working with materials ranging from paint, glitter and glue to pipe cleaners, tissue paper, lolly sticks, clothes pegs and wool. Cherry's drawing is really progressing and she is suddenly able to draw quite detailed pictures with recognisable objects instead of the usual scribbles and doodles. She has become very confident with art materials and completed her first ever solo project, a flag. It was only a simple little thing made from tissue paper, sellotape and pipe cleaners but it was significant because it's the first time she's thought of something to do with the available materials without copying me or needing prompting or guidance. Violet is still at the stage of wanting to pile or pool heaps of materials onto paper (or the table, or the floor....) but she's been having great fun making works of art with all sorts of bits and pieces and mountains of glue. She's also become absolutely obsessed with cutting and will happily sit for ages snipping away at paper, stickers, pipe cleaners, straws - whatever comes to hand.
Our adventures outdoors have been informing our work indoors and we have made maps of our trips and journeys, models of some of the animals, flowers and insects we've come across and we even made scones with the wild garlic we picked in the woods.
English, maths and science
These seem to be the areas most people worry about when we talk about home educating. 'But what about maths and science! What about English?' So I thought it would help to explain how these three 'subjects' fit into our everyday lives and natural everyday learning.
We read books every day, mainly picture books with the odd longer story. To date despite a few attempts we haven't managed a longer chapter book than a Horrid Henry early reader, and I have to remind myself not to get anxious when friends talk about children younger than Cherry blazing through the entire Roald Dahl catalogue and more besides. To me one of the basic principles of home education is trusting your children as natural learners and knowing they will get there in their own time. Both Cherry and Violet have a voracious appetite for reading and stories and I read to them throughout the day as well as at bedtime, so I keep remind myself that we have years ahead to read chapter books together and it doesn't matter that they don't seem ready for it right now. Cherry's writing and spelling is progressing and we make a lot of lists, to-do lists, shopping lists.... I also write down a lot of her and Violet's (seemingly endless) questions and we return to them now and again to find answers together. I am conscious that this usually involves Google and that I need to broaden my repertoire of resources!
I'm letting Cherry and Violet pay for things in the shops and talking about how much things cost and whether or not they can expect change when they buy something. Noel and I are keeping a budget at the moment to fund our upcoming trip to Singapore so there is lots of general numbers and prices chat going on most of the time. Cherry's got quite an affinity for numbers and we've been introducing basic fractions (halves, quarters and so on) and measurements in inches and centimetres. We made a rain gauge and the heavy flash showers we've been experiencing lately have provided the perfect opportunity to put it to use as well as talk about weather.
Our science activities tend to be nature-based, both Cherry and Violet are already proficient flower and plant spotters, budding gardeners, keen bug hunters and pond dippers. I have started volunteering at a wildlife shelter and they are always desperate to know what animals I've been looking after. I spend a lot of time with baby birds so we've been watching videos of eggs hatching and nests of chicks being fed, and they enjoy flicking through my bird books to see what they can identify. Violet identified a black-headed stilt the other day, then later on a blue tit. OK so what she'd actually seen was a sparrow, and a budgerigar in a cage, but I'm counting it all as learning! It's all quite talk-based at the moment but we are moving into creating outputs like maps and sketches and basic models and even a chart to record rainfall.
I picked up a few jigsaw puzzles at a charity shop recently and Cherry has completed all of them by herself numerous times. Violet enjoys puzzles too but she needs much more help and guidance from me of course. We also did a very short finger-knitting session and later some bracelet-making with loom bands and I think we will return to these activities more often in the future, they are excellent for fine motor skills and it's so satisfying for them to be able to make things for themselves.
Looking ahead I am aware we don't do much in the way of building and construction. Noel, along with the rest of the planet, loves Lego but it leaves me cold and as a result I rarely, if ever, get down on the floor to build stuff with Cherry and Violet. It shows, because they hardly ever reach for the Lego spontaneously any more. Ditto the wooden blocks. We don't really have any other construction toys like sticky bricks or those things that connect up (I don't even know what they are called!) and we don't have many cars or even a train set. It's a massive area of weakness for me but it's too important to overlook so I will be looking at ways to bring it into our day-to-day life and learning to love Lego. Ish. One of the things I love the most about home education is the way it forces you to look at yourself and takes you along on the learning journey. I'm well aware my practical skills are poor to nonexistent, I'm terrified of anything DIY-related and absolutely loathe following instructions, even cooking I will always branch off and add my own twists and touches. I am already planning some low-level DIY projects and basic woodwork to bring the practical into every day. That sounds like an IKEA tagline doesn't it?!
To date we've attended a few different home education groups or learning communities and informal meetups. We are starting to see the same people at various different events and meetups and get a feel for the community locally. None of my friends, either those made pre-children or locally through my children, home educate so it's really important to me that we find like-minded families and I feel a bit more supported and insulated through the home education journey. I know loads of home educators online but most of them seem to live in Bristol! We desperately need home educating friends locally we can meet with at short notice for those days when the children clearly need other kids to play with. If I'm honest the social aspect does worry me a bit, there's lots on formally through groups but it's that informal network we will really be missing - the BFF's to have a play-date with or go on an impromptu trip to the park or the woods - and that's the network we currently have to build from scratch. It's also important to me that Cherry and Violet have friends who attend school so it doesn't become 'them and us' and they have an understanding of what school is.
I've been doing lots of reading around home educating, I read How Children Learn by John Holt a few years ago but I've recently picked up Learning Without School, Free Range Learning and Project-based Homeschooling which I absolutely loved. I have already taken a lot from the book and put it into practice with Cherry and Violet and it feels like the kind of resource I will return to again and again.
At the moment I feel a bit anxious about resources, when I talk to or read blogs by other home educating families they mention resources I've never even heard of and I worry about being out of the loop or missing some massively well-known learning opportunity out of my own ignorance! I'm sure most of that is just general fear around home educating and doing something so against the grain, and at the moment I'm trying to just sit with those concerns. I know there's a big risk I will panic and overbuy lots of unnecessary learning aids that may not be right for us and will ultimately end up cast aside or just ignored.
One thing that I do need to get on top of however is the house, and how we use it and the garden to create a learning environment. Storage is an ongoing issue. We've never had heaps of toys by any means but those we do have tend to end up scattered across three floors (we live in a narrow townhouse) and it's all very disorganised. In fact I've noticed recently as we've been out so much Cherry and Violet are slipping back into being reluctant to entertain themselves when we're in the house, and will just ask for TV instead. Most of their play is currently imaginative and they rarely use the Lego, blocks or other traditional resources but can often be found lugging around a range of assorted crap, for want of a better word, they have assembled from various corners of the house. I'm sure the Happiness is Here blog or similar would have a better word for it - loose parts, perhaps.
I really like the Reggio approach of the environment being 'the third teacher' and environment is definitely currently something that school has covered that we do not! So over the summer we will be giving more thought to what resources we need, how to arrange things and what kind of learning spaces we can create.
Forgive me for making this all about me here but as I'm pretty much the lynchpin of this whole home education lifestyle we are starting to build, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the thoughts, feelings and concerns I've had so far. Currently I swing between being incredibly excited about the journey we have ahead of us to completely terrified and convinced I'm not up to it.
For a while Noel was really quite against home education and in the course of presenting a case to him, I became absolutely gung-ho and 100% convinced home education was right for us. Then he suddenly agreed that yes, it sounded like the right thing and I instantly started to backtrack internally and think longingly about packing Cherry off to school in September and not having to think or worry about how her learning journey will continue. We visited the school to hand in some forms and it did look lovely in the sunshine with children maypole dancing on the daisy-studded playing fields and I began to let in water big time. At preschool Cherry has been doing a lot of role play and general school preparation so she instantly announced this was where she was going to come to learn to read and write, to eat her lunch every day, and that she'd have a school outfit and bag 'packed with all the things I need!'
I am sure these doubts are normal but it does help that, at the moment, school is still a perfectly feasible option. Of course school is always an option, it's not going anywhere, but at the moment I am glad we haven't deregistered Cherry yet because I feel we still have a bit more thinking and learning to do before we make a final decision.
We have however told both my and Noel's parents that we are fairly confident we will be home educating for now and although they clearly do have concerns they have also been very accepting. We've mentioned it to a few other friends too, most of my good friends have been extremely supportive despite not being home educators themselves, but others have given me detailed arguments as to why they personally would not home educate. One or two acquaintances have actively tried to talk me out of home education. And others seem to assume I have made this decision without doing any research or knowing anything about home education at all. I find these kinds of interventions unhelpful at best and upsetting at worst because I don't recall them seeking my opinions on how they should educate their children. It also makes me not want to discuss the reasons we are drawn to home education and concerns we have about school too much because people can tend to assume we are then inviting debate and opinions, and our decision is going to be based upon our own research, experiences, opinions and feelings, not by canvassing the internet. Of course sometimes people do genuinely have helpful input and I am hugely grateful for it but as a general rule if I want somebody's opinion I will ask for it and I tend to find those with the most vocal and extreme opinions usually speak from a position of the least knowledge. (Also both Noel and I are well aware that the more people tell us we shouldn't or couldn't home educate the more we want to, and that's not the soundest basis for a decision this important!)
However, I know they mean well and I have tried not to let it affect me too much, once upon a time I probably would have done the same thing to any friends of mine considering home education and I know their concerns come from a good place.
At the moment it all feels like a bit of a novelty and I am keen to make the most of this lovely period of time when we seem to be breaking new ground and learning and growing so much, but with the comforting safety net of school in the background. I'm also aware that home education feels very appealing right now in the glorious summer months, when groups involve catching tadpoles from shimmering lakes and eating a lunch that's been freshly cooked over a campfire. I have concerns about how we will cope in the long, dark winter months. Will my children drive me crazy? Will I drive THEM crazy? I have doubts about myself as a home educator, about my patience, my energy, my tolerance and my faith in myself. I have worries about Noel feeling unduly pressured as the breadwinner and concerns about how home schooling will impact upon what little time I do get to myself. I worry there is some great piece of the learning jigsaw that can only be gained at school, that my children will miss out on and suffer for the rest of their lives. (I never said any of this was rational!) I have fears about bleak days when 'everybody else' is at school, Cherry and Violet are fighting madly and showing no interest in anything other than TV, and the house is in disarray.
But to be fair we've had plenty of those days to date regardless, and we've always managed to turn them around. And I also have to keep reminding myself that school will bring its own very distinct set of challenges, it's by no means an easy option.
Finally, my thoughts keep returning to something Noel said to me after he'd come to the conclusion that home education might suit us after all. I said that he must have a lot of faith in me and he said 'well of course. You're really good at whatever you decide to do.' As much as I doubt myself sometimes, in my heart of hearts I know he's right and that if we do commit to this journey, I will put my absolute all into it. When I look at the two incredible people we are raising, it seems obvious that my all is more than enough.