A Little More Structure

An essay of my thoughts as our approach modifies… (2004)

When I first decided to home educate my children, my automatic assumption was that it would be desks and workbooks at home. I assumed that we would loosely follow the “National Curriculum” used in the UK’s public school and that I would keep records of what was done and when and how. It was difficult to imagine how else “learning” could take place.

My main influences in those early days were the various HE email lists and in fact the first person who influenced me in “real life” was someone firmly committed to the “autonomous” way of HE although she too had gone through a period of “schooly” organisation in the early days. Autonomy is something I have never been able to fully define, in fact if I am honest I am not sure that “autonomous HE” as a stand-alone entity really exists. It seems to be rolled into one with a type of parenting, a way of life and a particular notion of how a family and its members might work and while I have to say that all the “autonomous families” I have known have been happy and successful, I’ve not achieved a concrete notion of how it comes about or works in three years of being close friends with various people who make it their way of life. However it IS true that I have at times felt a little threatened by it being seen as the “only right way” and somewhat pressured into adopting it as “our way.” (Not I hasten to add, by my friends, but more by the wider community in a non-personal way.)

Having decided to HE while my eldest was only 3, I did however feel that I had time to relax about how we did things. For a while I really loved the Montessori methods but my eldest soon showed me that that was not for her. She was and to some extent is, immature in her ability to concentrate and much more interested in play than “formal skill gathering.” And that was fine. We settled into a routine of being what I describe as “child-led” – following her interests, doing mini projects based on things that caught her interest, casually offering opportunities for trying new things (like reading and writing) but backing off at the first sign of disinterest. I suppose this was “my” notion of autonomy – giving her the right to change or move away from anything not to her interest as well as offering up new fodder when she expressed interest.

During this time I suppose I developed a very negative idea of what I imagined “structured” to be. I saw it as slogging at workbooks, desks, amounts of work that “had” to be done, following an imposed timetable and someone else’s idea of what was interesting. Our “child led” approach seemed to be much better than anything like that. (And indeed it WAS much better than that would be, it suited us and we were flexible to the absolute end to keep our “learning” fun.) Much is made of labels and ways of being in the HE world; I had to make my own label really, but I quite liked it describing us a “child-led” because it seemed more concrete and graspable than “autonomous.

Sometime around her 6th birthday this stopped working quite so well. One or both of us lost interest in mini projects and with baby number 4 approaching I lost patience with a child who at 6 was neither reading, writing or able to “do sums.” I can honestly say this had nothing to do with external pressures or feelings of failure. I was well aware I had a bright, able and interested child who had a general and cultural knowledge way above what she might have gleaned in school but I was beginning to feel frustrated at the amount I had to feed in and at the feeling that if only she would acquire those skills, she would get so much more from the world that was on offer; books, puzzles, games etc. I knew she “could” do those things but she just hadn’t been, at that point, ready to piece together the skills into something useable. With a feeling of gloom I decided that we needed to settle down and make it happen.

And to my surprise she has loved it. We started to work through a phonics reading scheme and its coming together slowly, we started to do some number workbooks and (like my husband had as a child) she got a kick out of doing a page of sums. In fact, one of my real “kick in the bum” moments was when I talked to my husband about how negative I felt about “workbook style HE” and he said “when I was a kid my favourite thing was for someone to write me out a page of maths. If we have kids like me is it fair to deny them that pleasure because of our notion of HE?” To my relief the practical life maths we had done was translating easily into written number work and when writing was hard and arduous I was pleased to find that written number work did the job well enough to give her word writing a real boost. In a month her maths was almost up to the levels required of a child a year ahead of her in school and if the reading and writing was slower, it was happening. And that was fine by me; I have no issues with uneven levels. We began HEing wanting to prolong our children’s early childhood and give them the right to expand in a way that suited them. I came to the conclusion that I had not compromised this; I had simply, unconsciously tapped into a “readiness” and provided an opportunity for it. I do know that had it been rejected I would not have persisted or made it something we fought over.

Her readiness to accept this “let’s sit down and do some reading/writing/puzzles” approach led me to think further about what I wanted to provide in the future. I had been drawn from early on to the Charlotte Mason approach that I had been taught with and I was drawn back to Ambleside Online for another look. I liked the look of the reading list and felt we were ready for it and much of the “daily lessons” that it advocates was now becoming part of our day anyway, albeit in a far more informal way that “home schooling” approaches might advocate. The idea of incorporating music, art and nature properly into the day appealed; they were major pluses for me when I began to HE and yet somehow they had fallen by the wayside. I don’t think I am someone who leaps at opportunities as they happen all the time, things pass me by and sometimes I feel anxious that I have missed opportunities that would have been great. I’ve found a reading list, used flexibly a real boost to my confidence and my interest in what happens in the house.

At the same time that it occurred to me that maybe what *I* needed was a prompt to do those things, so it began to occur to me that even the most formal curriculum only has to be followed as much as *I* want it to be and that its quite irrelevant whether I do a week of curriculum in a week, or a fortnight or a day or if I do that bit at all. I could have a plan, thoughtfully provided by someone else’s hard work and ignore it, embellish it or stretch it as I saw fit. I think there is a world of difference between that and a “formal structured approach” and certainly an enormous difference between us and school – we work together for one thing, we get full enjoyment out of whatever is going on (even a list of sums!), we stop if something is boring or unpleasantly hard, it takes less than an hour a day in chunks of time that suit the general mood and most importantly we are completely flexible about it. If friends are coming, we leave it, if everyone is hyper/ill/its sunny/we have an HE day to attend, we leave it. I’m using a plan but it’s a fairly randomly applied plan. It’s made a difference to the sense of satisfaction nonetheless and I’m spending more quality time with my children. These are good things.

A month of using the Ambleside Online Curriculum as a reading list has been incredibly positive. In that month I have read more to my children, spent more time with my children, listened harder to their interests and exposed them to more interesting literature than ever before. And they have loved it just as I did at that age. In that time I have looked harder at places like Sonlight and realized that I could use what they provide in whatever way I choose, adapting it to how we already work with interest and pleasure. Funnily enough, I am not convinced my approach has changed that much in that time. My children still play most of the day, have complete control over whether they do listen to something or try something but I personally feel much better about the experience they are getting.

I wonder what my label is now; I think it’s still “child-led” actually.