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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

So You Want to Homeschool?

By Kerrie McLoughlin

Homeschooling has become quite a popular education choice. More than 2.3 million students in the United States are homeschooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. But deciding to homeschool your children can feel overwhelming. There are so many questions: How do you get started? What does a typical day look like? How do you keep toddlers from emptying the cabinets while you teach your older kids? What about socialization? As a veteran homeschooler of five, I have a few answers.

Multiple approaches. The first thing you need to know is that there is no “perfect” or “right” way to homeschool. Teaching methods are as varied as the families who homeschool. Homeschooling parents range from the super-structured to “unschoolers.” The former may start at the same time each day, teaching solely from textbooks and giving weekly tests, while the latter do not try to replicate a classroom but employ child-led learning, using field trips and outings to create teachable moments. There are so many ways to instruct your kids, and you’d be surprised at how well most of them work.

Structured curricula. To get started, some homeschoolers buy an entire packaged curriculum. These packages, which usually come with lesson plans, work well for parents who are unsure about what to teach or where their children are on the academic spectrum. It’s also great for those who are co-teaching with spouses, family members, or babysitters. Curricula packages come in a variety of choices, including religious, secular, classical, K12, Latin-centered, and more. The choices can be overwhelming, so do some Internet research and join some online groups, where you can find out about the programs others are using. Even better, find some local homeschoolers (see Resources) and ask if you can come over to check out their curricula in person.

Child-led learning. “Unschooling” or “natural learning” is a homeschooling philosophy that allows children to decide what and when they learn. In an unschooling home, children let their parents know when they are ready to read, add, write, etc. “Science class” could mean field trips to nature centers and zoos, along with walking around the neighborhood to explore trees and plants. Grammar is learned not from language arts texts, but from reading books on a variety of topics and from conversations with people of all ages. Similarly, history is learned from stories and historical fiction, or even animated movies (think Prince of Egypt). Unlike homeschoolers who favor structured days, unschoolers have free-flowing schedules. Unschooler Jessica Mattingly says, “There is no typical day! Our schedule is generally determined by our outside commitments (classes, work, field trips, etc.), and when we are home we relax and pursue a variety of projects/interests.”

Favorite things. If your kid has a fascination with a particular topic, a unit studies approach can make learning fun. Unit studies use kids’ interests as vehicles for instructing on a variety of subjects. For instance, if your child is a dinosaur fanatic, you can incorporate reading, writing, spelling, history, geography, math, etc. into a unit study on dinosaurs. Your child could use a world map to learn where dinosaur fossils have been found. Then she could read a historical book about dinosaurs, on which she could write a book report. Math lessons might feature word problems like: How would you split 5,000 cookies among 1,000 dinosaurs?

Little and big kids. So how do homeschoolers handle the challenge of balancing the needs of younger and older children during the teaching day? “While our ‘homeschool’ time is not separated from the rest of our life, balancing the needs of the youngers and olders is a persistent challenge,” says Mattingly. “When my kids ranged in age from two to tween, we employed a variety of strategies. Sometimes one of the kids would play with the baby/toddler while I focused on one or more of the older kids. If we can involve the younger kids in the activity (or a parallel activity), we will do that.” Another idea is to have a special tub of activities—blocks, play dough, puppets, coloring books—that younger children use only during homeschool time.

Just say Hi. Socialization isn’t usually a concern among homeschoolers. If you want to join a homeschool group, head to the Internet where you can search for groups based on how you homeschool, the ages of your children, where you live, etc. Not every group will be a good fit; so don’t be afraid to move on if you aren’t getting what you need. Your kids can also hang out with other children at library programs, parks and recreation activities, co-ops, and play dates with school-going kids. 

Kerrie McLoughlin, mother of five, has been homeschooling since 2006 and is happy to answer readers’ questions at