This time a year ago, I was pondering whether or not to use a pre-school curriculum. My eldest son was three and a half, and where we live, would have been due to start 15 hours of pre-school per week if we had wished. Suddenly I wondered whether I should be doing something more focussed or quantifiable than currently. I felt daunted as I looked on the internet and spoke to others, since there seemed simply so many options available. Those who had been homeschooling longest tended to gently reassure me that we were already covering most of the bases and that we need not look for anything more structured or formal unless we really felt strongly that there was some necessity to do so.
What I did at that point was to continue much as before, but to have an approximate timetable in my head, making sure that we maintained a good balance between subjects and disciplines. I have a mental list of things which we will do daily, those we will do a couple of times per week, and those which are less frequent. More recently, I have started a notebook where I summarise what we have done each day, and comment on anything that is in any way unusual or remarkable (for example, ill health, challenging behaviour or attainment of a milestone, particular joy or focus or anything else). For now, that seems to be sufficient structure.
As many of those around us take a summer break before progressing to the next level, I thought I would pause to reflect on the past year educationally. I’ll go topic by topic.
Bible. We start the day with a Psalm. This is something we have done since they were babies. There is so much depth there, and it has been exciting to hear them apply specific verses to their daily lives. When my eldest heard the Psalms that speak of writing ‘a new song’, he started to write his own collection of new songs. These often display remarkable theological accuracy and show us how he is processing the truths he learns. There is something delightful and innocent about this child-like worship, and it causes me to remember how Jesus said that we must all become as little children if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. On other occasions, they hear of how life was not always easy for the writer of the Psalms, but that God was faithful. They memorised Joshua 1:8, ‘Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go’ – and they often remark that this was true in the life of David. It is not always a spiritual victory: the words of Psalm 139 tell us that the Lord sees when we lie down and when we get up, which means He sees and knows when we are disobedient at bedtime and climb around the room rather than sleeping! In the evenings, we have been having family devotions (sometimes one parent is working, but when possible all are together), working through books of the Bible. We did Genesis, Joshua, Luke and are now going through the life of David, linking it in with our studies of Psalms. We ask the boys to choose songs that they think go well with what we have discussed, and sometimes they write one of their 'new songs'. Then we all pray together. It's been good to have that routine. Admittedly, this is the most consistent Bible routine I have had for years, and as with other areas, I am seeing new and fresh things as the boys learn these exciting stories for the first time.
Games. Over the past year the older boys have began to understand and enjoy games more. Things like snap, pairs, counting games and other simple ones. We tend to play these after breakfast when the baby goes for a nap because he is at that toddler age of disrupting things carefully laid out on the floor. We cover quite a bit of basic literacy and numeracy in the games we play.
Drawing, painting, writing. Several times per week we sit up at the table and get out boxes of paints, coloured papers, crayons etc. I tend to be quite free in what they do with these, rather than telling them there is a right or wrong way to draw or paint. I show them how to hold the brushes, and how not to mess up the different colours, but that’s about it. Interestingly, the middle boy who is quite passionate (either very happy or very sad) does far more delicate and intricate paintings than the older boy; this took me by surprise at first, and I realised I had stereotyped them already. It is interesting to watch the different styles develop. More recently, some of the shapes and squiggles are starting to form into letters. We aren’t pushing them to write, but rather taking things a natural step forward. We have some workbooks aimed at children aged 3-5 which help make lines and shapes building towards letters. I’ve got them off the shelf a couple of times, but when the boys have shown little interest, have reverted to the more free approach. This week something changed, and they were very pleased to sit at the table each with his own workbook. The toddler has just started to make scribbles with crayons.
Reading. It’s been delightful to see their interest in books. Again, my boys are developing both shared and individual interests; I see this clearly when we go to the library. The four year old is particularly interested in ancient civilisations – he loves books on ancient Egypt, Rome or Greece. He was extremely excited to see the map of St Paul’s missionary journey in both a history book and in the Bible. He gets excited whenever there is a mention of the Romans in the Bible, and you can see him piecing together the events that occurred. It is a good time to build upon this interest, and one idea I saw recently at a friend’s house was that of a Bible timeline across a wall in their front room. It is helpful for all of us to remember which events occurred concurrently. We haven’t focussed hugely on independent reading, but through games and reading signs out and about, they are recognising most letters and basic words. We are starting to focus a bit more on this now, and it is an area I see progressing over the year ahead.
Spanish. For a while we were uncertain which language to choose, and in the end went for Spanish as it is new to all of us, widely spoken in diverse parts of the world, and is a country we are likely to visit. We enrolled them in a Spanish class near where we lived for four months; there were only two other boys in the class. They loved it, and enjoy singing along to their CD in the car. We have bought some more CDs, and hope to find a Spanish speaking student who might come and spend an hour with us once a week to continue learning.
Cooking and baking. We generally just ask the boys to help out with whatever tasks they are capable of. Slowly they are becoming more independent, and as well as learning to cook, they are covering quite large areas of science, nutrition, world cultures, etc as they do so. There are also the elements of literacy and numeracy in reading the recipes. Previously I reflected on just what a broad curriculum can be covered by something as simple and day-to-day as baking acake. For me, keeping a diary, keeping notes, writing this blog – all these tasks help me to realise that life is learning, life is an adventure, but that to try and break it down into quantifiable distinct tasks somehow loses this beauty and continuity.
Music. We don’t tend to have background music on at home, but often we will listen to Classic FM whilst cooking or during specific times. I was astounded about a year ago when they boys were able to easily distinguish the sound of a violin from a cello. When I thought about it more, I realised that they are quite different sounds, different tones, but that as an adult we tend to apply a filter - first it is a stringed instrument, then we use logic and reason (range of notes, piece of music, other instruments etc) to try and work out which (at least that’s how I do it). The children are learning from the start that instruments simply sound different. They don’t see what the challenge is. Its a bit like different sounds in learning new languages. We hope to have a piano soon (we always did, but sold it when we left Africa and haven’t yet replaced it). They enjoy me putting on a CD and getting out the box of instruments (rattles, triangle, glockenspiels, tambourines etc). I hope to build on this. Many of us learned instruments as children, my husband and I both did. We were both a bit discouraged by teachers who wanted rigidity, the need to focus on one or two key pieces, sometimes the need to sit and pass a grade or exam. I would love the boys to embrace musical creativity without stifling their childlike freedom. A bit like with my son’s ‘new songs’ - I don’t correct the grammar or the tunes, but rather let him explore and see how things develop!
Poetry. Psalms, new songs, enjoying words that rhyme. We try to avoid dumbed down ‘twaddle’ (as Charlotte Mason would have termed it). There are some childrens’ books out there which are really trite – the words are not good, the messages conveyed are either meaningless or assume that all children will seek to be disobedient and that this is OK, and I can barely see how they were published. Others, mostly slightly older books it must be said, although some great new ones do exist by writers such as Julia Donaldson, really seem to enjoy using words.
Geography. The boys can tell you where they were born. They can point to different countries where we have lived on a map, and tell us a bit about the time-zone, the culture, the languages and the food. They know about seasons – when we were in West Africa, it was watermelon season, and we sought every creative recipe for using the whole of the watermelon, flesh and rind. Similarly, it you end up living through the mango season, you almost become tired of them too. I say almost. Has anybody ever really tired of eating mango? I appreciate that our life is a little unusual in the way we move; but at the same time, through choosing to home educate it becomes a little self-perpetuating as when an opportunity arises we can respond to it rather than face concerns about disrupting the childrens’ education. We are able to seize opportunities which others with a similar size and shape of family, might feel compelled to turn down or not even consider.
History. Whenever we visit a place, we look at the old buildings, visit any local museums and try and find out a bit about the history before we go. Often a simple walk around a town leads to a discussion of what happened there (we’ve recently spent four months living in a part of the country which was important during the Industrial Revolution, for example, and there was quite a bit of evidence of this around us.) I am often astonished, and feel that I have been living life with eyes only half open until now, and places which are familiar to me take on a new meaning.
Nature studies. Probably could be better categorised as science, or geography perhaps, but we spend many hours out of doors exploring the world around us. Last year, it was good to see them making the links between certain types of tree and their fruit, such as acorns to oak trees. There have been some interesting discussions about the times where the Bible speaks of fruit, of bearing fruit, of recognising a person’s true nature by their fruit. When you think about it, much of the Bible was written to people with far more of an agricultural background than urbanised children of today. Some of the lessons become strikingly clear when you consider farming life (and many others shone out with a new depth when we spent time in a West African village, which I have described previously). It is wonderful to see the boys gently collecting insects (the gentleness has taken a little bit of work, and some insects have met a sudden unexpected death at the hands of my little entomologists), naming flowers, marvelling at butterflies and realising that these are all part of God’s wonderful creation, each tiny detail planned by Him.
Sport. The boys can easily manage a 5 mile hike that I find tiring as an adult (and I routinely run 3-4 miles twice a day); it’s great, as there are no whines or gripes about being tired or having sore feet, but instead each loves the responsibility of carrying water or a snack in his backpack and going exploring. They also learn agility through climbing trees, jumping off rocks, balancing on stepping stones and navigating different types of styles. This year they have also started to play together well with a Frisbee or a football, and this is an area where the toddler loves to join in just as much. One of his first words has been ‘ball’. It has been really satisfying to see their strength, agility and stamina, and it pays great dividends in terms of daily routine (walking several miles is not a challenge, carrying shopping is seen as fun etc).
I could probably go on. But the point is to celebrate with you some of the delights of a relatively unstructured, naturally developing pre-school curriculum. Your children and your circumstances will differ. You don’t need many resources, vast amounts of space, great riches, but rather to know your children well, and to embrace the opportunities as they unfold day to day. Recently I visited a friend with four children of similar ages who took quite a different approach. She did more from home, and made more use of video clips and internet resources which she had downloaded onto a hard drive. Her children were more advanced in terms of pure literacy and numeracy, and I could have compared our experience unfavourably. However what I did was see the differences in styles, have decided to embrace some elements, but incorporate it into what we are already doing rather than chopping and changing to an entirely different style and method. I think that is key. Your family is unique, you are unique, the opportunities which present themselves to you today are unique. By all means use curricula and resources, and prayerfully consider the academic year ahead. But trust also that God will guide you, and pray that He inspires you to use those things which surround you to teach your children.