Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Too Much Stuff Out There...

... How do I choose the right educational materials?

by Marty Layne

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the materials available to help your child succeed at homeschooling?  Items that promise to help your child learn better, faster and more….  As homeschoolers have increased in numbers, companies that sell educational products have jumped into the burgeoning homeschooling market.  Homeschooling parents are willing to spend money on educational materials, hence the ads.

If I were just starting to homeschool, the sheer volume of these educational products would overwhelm me.  I’d be panicking about how to choose just the right materials to facilitate my children’s learning.  I’d be worried because my budget could in no way cover the price of all the material I might need.  I’d be worried that I’d make the wrong choice of material and then jeopardize my child’s future.  Because I am not just starting out (I have adult children), I hope that my perspective can help you approach the search for the “right educational materials” from a confident and relaxed position rather than an anxious one.

Before thinking about what materials you might need or want to homeschool, I think it’s important to have in mind what you hope to accomplish in homeschooling.  Then you can begin to search for material to help you achieve those goals.  Much of the material covered in the elementary years, K-8, is repetitive.  The end result being to create children fluent in reading, writing, arithmetic, and children who understand that there are various parts of the world where people of different cultures live in different ways.  The high school years bring more detail to these basics, expanding on them and building new skills.

There are many approaches to how to get all of this information across to young people, from “back-to-the-basics” to “child-directed learning” and everything in between.  You will probably experiment with many ways and various materials trying to find the right method and the right material for your particular child and your particular family values.  There is no one way that works for everyone.  Recent brain research has finally recognized what many mothers have observed for years, that people learn in different ways at different times.  One of the great things about this research is that new educational materials are being designed that takes this into account.

Before buying any extensive, expensive educational program, talk to other people in your homeschool community or on the Internet and ask for feedback on this material.  You’ll probably get a variety of answers.  Somebody probably loves this material and somebody else probably hates it.  That’s what makes all of this so tricky.  Explore the possibility of trying a small portion of any material before committing yourself to a large expenditure, it might be a less costly way to make a mistake.  One of the important things to keep in mind is that you are going to make mistakes.  We all do.  It is a natural part of learning.

Some parents find that toys are the best learning materials for their children - toys that encourage building things, imagining things, or creating imaginary worlds.  Many families find that sets of wooden blocks, trains, Playmobile and Lego are more productive for understanding number concepts than mathematical learning programs.


Library cards are one of the best and cheapest learning resources in the world.   You have access to an untold wealth of books to read out loud to your children that will transport you all into various places, inform you about lots of things, as well as expose your children to the many ways language works -  how it flows, how it sounds, and how it can be used to express emotions, describe events, and create illusions.

Conversations are one of the most important resources of homeschooling, a resource that is not often mentioned anywhere.  Parents provide a tremendous amount of information in conversation with a child at the same time that they receive a lot of information about their child.  We give the child words for colors as he or she draws or puts on a shirt.  We give children words for numbers and number concepts as we set the table with plates and silverware.  We read stories that describe people and places far and near and relate the story to our own lives or the lives of extended family members.


No matter what form or learning style you use when homeschooling, your input, your relationship to your child, your conversations with your child are the most important.  This is not something you can purchase.  It is freely available for you to give.  The quality of your relationship with your child colors everything that happens. That’s why it 's so important that you enjoy the homeschooling process.

So when you look for homeschooling materials, look for things that build not only your child’s confidence but yours as well; material that helps you learn to listen to both yourself and your child.  You may find that instead of the picture you had of doing school at home that you’ve hired an engineering student for a few weeks to work with your 8-year-old who is fascinated with machines so that they can build a simple machine together.  Or you may find that you’re reading the Harry Potter series of books out loud everyday for hours on end.  Or you’re spending a lot of time climbing trees and looking at the sky or sitting and relaxing at a deserted beach as your children build things with driftwood.

It's so easy to get bogged down into thinking that you need to be doing “educational” things all the time when you homeschool.   It’s similar to how you felt when you had a new baby and you felt like you never got anything done.  But, when you look back you realize that you accomplished quite a lot – your baby stayed alive, in fact more than likely thrived, as you brought your baby along to the grocery store, sang as he or she fell asleep, played goofy rhyming games with your infant and fed him or her.  Then low and behold after a few years of days that felt at least 10 years long, you have a six-year-old.  And you are homeschooling.  Again – you feel like you are not accomplishing anything.  You make lunch, clean the bathroom, think of something to make for supper while worrying that you’re not doing anything to educate your child.  And maybe if you only bought that curriculum you saw advertised you’d feel better.

You drive to the grocery store and your 6-year-old tells you all about the spider she saw in the bathroom this morning and how he was going home to his family carrying a brief case.  Your mind comes back from thinking about curricula and you ask your child to repeat what she just said and she says, “I was just kidding Mom ‘cause you weren’t really listening.”  And then you listen and she tells you things you had no idea she knew.  You walk go into the grocery store together holding hands talking about what kinds of foods people ate before there were grocery stores.

This conversation and others like them are much of what homeschooling is about.  In the process of daily life, our children learn all sorts of things in conversation.  It seems so very radical and scary to let learning take place in such a seemingly haphazard way.  But that is how learning takes place - in an organic serendipitous fashion - regardless of our attempts to control it.

Just like you can’t “teach” a baby to crawl, crawling comes with the appropriate physical development and desire, you can’t really “teach” a child to do anything.   You can show a child how letters make sounds, make words, make sense, but a child must learn this, understand this for him or herself.  You can create a situation in which it is safe to crawl or read or do other things, but the child is the one who is learning.  Of course, you, too, are learning.   You can’t help it.  It is a natural part of being alive.  We take in new information.  We process it, draw conclusions based on previous experience, and then decide to act on this information in some way or other.

And so those times spent in conversation with your child, perhaps even over the ads that appear in homeschooling publications for educational materials can be just as, if not more, educational then the products the ads are trying to encourage you to buy.  I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t have stuff for your child to do, play with, manipulate, etc.  But remember, conversations are one of the most important parts of homeschooling – and they are priceless and impossible to buy, yet free to anyone who takes the time to listen and converse with a child.


© 2010 Marty Layne, reprinted by kind permission

Photos by Marty Layne

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Marty Layne is the mother of four adult children who learned at home. Her book, Learning At Home: A Mother’s Guide To Homeschooling, now in its third edition, is one of the loveliest and gentlest guides to homeschooling on the market.

"Reading it really gave me a sense of how I wanted our life of learning to look and, more importantly, how I wanted it to feel. When I read her book I felt as though I was sitting down for coffee at the kitchen table of a wise friend, someone who was able to gently guide me to where I wanted to go...even though I didn't even know that place existed yet. She gave me a real insight to how gentle, loving, fulfilling and natural learning at home could be...for my kids and for myself." - Heather of A Handmade Life