3 Quick Tips from a Seasoned Homeschooler: Simple Ideas for Learning at Home

It was a dark and stormy night (true). After a long day of battling her miniature t-Rex/ empress (toddler), the exhausted superhero (mom) got her to sleep and disappeared to her fancy office (the kitchen table) to write exquisite literature (a blog post).

Well, isolation isn’t really that isolating when you have 7 kids. It’s actually tricky to find a moment alone, so I haven’t found much time to blog. My luxurious hour and a half I used to have each Thursday to write at a cafe is obviously over. So, like everyone else…re-adjusting.

But as a homeschooler, I’ve been really wanting to reach out and share tips on learning at home with your kids, because so many people have been unexpectedly thrown into having their kids home all day, instead of in school. You might be feeling a lot of pressure and stress, but really, you don’t need to. Kids are amazingly creative and resourceful, and are actually able to learn a lot on their own. Here are a few tips and ideas:

Homeschool Tip # 1: You’re not a babysitter or a clown.

In other words, you don’t need to entertain them all day. They are home with you, but you don’t need your eye on them every second. They might make a mess building a fort or a giant LEGO tower, but that’s ok. Creative, unstructured play is great for learning.

Two of my girls made a Coronavirus vs the good bugs board game with play dough and thumbtacks.

Homeschool Tip #2: Boredom is a good thing.

Say what?? Really, many of the most interesting things my kids have done happened because they were at loose ends and needed to find something to do. So while educational shows and documentaries are awesome and helpful, there comes a time to turn them off, and let your kids figure out what to do next. For example, here’s a few things my kids have been up to lately, while I stocked the cupboards and cooked meals:

1. Putting on simple plays. The other evening, the kids put on a hilarious version of Little Red Riding Hood, complete with costumes and make-up. It was so funny that my hand was shaking from laughter while to tried to film it. It was great to see all their personalities coming out in acting.

2. Practicing music. My 9 year old daughter loves to play piano and spends lots of time composing new songs and practicing her lessons. My 11 year old took ukulele lessons for a few months, and taught her 13 year old sister to play. Now they learn new songs together and do duets.

3. Creative writing. Two of my daughters have been working hard on kids chapter books (their own idea). One is on chapter 6 of her island adventure story, and the other just finished her ballet story, which is 9 chapters. After we comb through and do some editing, we are planning to get some copies printed with Blurb, which is a great self-publishing company. The nice thing is, you can just order as many copies as you like; there’s no need to buy 1000.

4. Mini-Marketplace. The other day the kids came up with a fun game: gathering up things to make little stores for their siblings to shop at, using old postage stamps as currency. They had a great time doing it and kept busy for hours. My friend’s daughters spent a morning making a restaurant at home, complete with menus and meal plans.

5. Creating Cartoons. My kids love to do art, and one fun project is to fold a paper into little squares, unfold it again, then use each one to tell a piece of a story in cartoon. Maybe this seems like fooling around, rather than learning, but actually, literacy skills like planning ahead, creating a cohesive story, and self-expression though different mediums are all there.

6. Making an animal habitat. The kids love to make toys and tunnels for their hamster, so he can have a gorgeous home, and the other day used their interior decorating skills to set up a terrarium for a caterpillar we found outside.

7. Dance and move. We are huge fans of living room dance parties, and with two girls in ballet, they like to practice a lot. We also do exercise videos together, even the toddler. It’s adorable to see her trying to do the plank, with her tiny bottom in the air. Another daughter does Tae Kwon Do, so we practice her latest moves, too.

Homeschool Tip #3: Fill their minds with greatness. Read aloud together.

Filling your kids heads with great ideas might seem like a tall order, but the method is actually simple: read great books aloud to your kids and talk about them together. Think about your favourite childhood books, how much those characters stuck with you, how you changed because of participating in their adventures through your imagination. Lucky you! Now you get to experience them again, through the eyes of your kids.

This shared experience helps build family culture and closeness, and gives a frame of reference when discussing life’s problems. For example, “Remember when Frodo was struggling to carry his burden, but Sam really helped him? Your brother is really stressed…I need you to be his Sam right now.”

You might think reading aloud is only something for little kids, but no; it’s beneficial for everyone, even your teens. Reading aloud gives your kids a chance to hear words used and pronounced properly, to develop more complex speech patterns and vocabulary and to work on concentration skills. Books are not Twitter or Snapchat. They require slowing down, focussing and being quiet. These are good life skills.

You might think it’s too hard when you have little kids who won’t sit still, but try to not get hung up on that. Your baby and toddler might be rolling around on the carpet, but as long as the others can hear, it’s ok. We got through “The Hobbit,” a few months ago and my four year old loved it. He’s super tough so he was ready to take on orcs with his imaginary sword.

Books don’t have to be long to be good. Poetry, short stories and picture books can be wonderful, too. There’s lots of beauty, truth and wisdom to be found in all of those. My kids and I love the Gregor the Overlander Chronicles by Suzanne Collins. It’s fast-paced and easy to read, but full of interesting content to discuss, from loyalty and betrayal to discrimination and what is just in war. One of the best ways to help kids develop critical thinking skills is to discuss things with them…and since we don’t only want to talk about the news and current events, literature is a great spring board for discussion.

Well, that’s plenty for one day! Soon I hope to make a list of some of my most recommended read-alouds, and talk more about the importance of story in helping our kids learn. Take care everyone, and all the best!

Thoughts on Being Home

We all find ourselves at home, due to the need for social isolation right now. For me as a homeschooler, it’s not that different than usual, with the exception of no play dates and extra classes, but it’s still bizarre to not even be able to invite people into my home. Especially since I’m the kind of person who meets someone new almost every time I go out, and who loves to have potlucks. Even my wedding was a potluck, so everyone could come!

So I’ve been thinking about what it really means to be home. Here’s a few things to ponder as we all adjust:

Is our home merely a parking lot–a place we leave our car between activities, or is it a destination in itself?

Is our home merely a hotel, a place we rest before we go off to live during the day, or is it a place we are truly alive, and most able to be ourselves?

Each person is a universe unto themselves. How much we have to explore!

When you can’t go farther, go deeper. During this period of physical limitations, let yourself grow on the inside.

The plants lay hidden under the snow. And the farmer, the owner of the land, observed with satisfaction: ‘Now they are growing on the inside.’

I thought of you: of your forced inactivity…

Tell me: are you too growing ‘on the inside’? St Josemaria, The Way, 294

While it is strange to not be able to go out, do we realize how lucky we are to have homes to be in, unlike so many refugees around the world? Let’s all pray for each other in these difficult times.

If home is where the heart is…how healthy is your heart right now? What can you do to make it better? For a great and timely read, try Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home.

Home is where our children learn to love…can you learn to love being home with them, at least for now?

Children have such a beautiful way of seeing the world. Being home is a chance to re-enter the magic of childhood with them.

“Oh, look, here’s a big bee just tumbled out of an apple blossom. Just think what a lovely place to live–in an apple blossom! Fancy going to sleep in it when the wind was rocking it. If I wasn’t a human girl, I think I’d like to be a bee and live among the flowers.” Anne of Green Gables

How we can extend the warmth of our home to others when we can’t visit with them? A phone call just to check in, a text, meeting on FaceTime or Zoom, a little card or letter, a surprise parcel, a chat over the fence with a neighbour…these little acts of love make everyone happier. My generous eldest nephew really took the cake when he sent my kids a Nintendo Switch to brighten their days at home. Their old Wii had conked out, and this was, in this time of crisis, actually a solvable problem. Hurrah for those kinds!

Are we open to receiving help and love from others, and letting them be the hero for the day? The other day my younger kids made a surprise breakfast with Earl Grey Tea, my favourite.

Love to you all our there, and despite the struggles, may your homes be places of love and laughter.

Post-Partum, “Femachoism” and the Need for Mom Buddies

A buddy and I were chatting tonight about motherhood and vulnerability, and how tough it is to get some some women to open up about how they’re really doing, for example after having a new baby. There seems to be, especially among women who are hoping to have multiple children, a feeling that they need to pretend it’s easy…like “Of course it’s great! Otherwise why would I do this again? I don’t look crazy…do I?” And these kind of sentiments shove any post-partum struggles way down out of sight.

Sometimes, in hopes of attracting others to motherhood, moms will put on a brave face and only present the good. But this is a bit like trying to recruit future Olympic athletes by pretending that it’s a cake walk. Not effective because it’s not authentic. It is better to admit the difficulty and affirm that it’s worth it. As G.K. Chesterton insisted, a mother’s task is challenging not because it is minute or unimportant, but because it is gigantic.

Where does the pressure to pretend that one of the most physically and emotionally challenging life experiences– new parenthood– is a smooth ride, come from? It’s part of what I like to call ‘femachosim’–the tendency to be competitive about motherhood, and to shy away from admitting any vulnerability or suffering which would seem to indicate weakness. There is an underlying insecurity in this attitude…a fear of being told their suffering is their fault, and that they shouldn’t have wasted their time having kids. These kinds of things do get said.

In an essay in the anthology “Love Rebel: Reclaiming Motherhood,” I discuss this devaluation of motherhood and femininity in general. I question the validity of a feminism which looks down on the intrinsically feminine power of bearing and nurturing children, and only values professions that have typically been done by men.

A friend of mine who recently returned from maternity leave has heard comments at her workplace like, “being a stay-at-home mom is for lazy, lost losers.” This attitude can make new moms feel parenting should at least be an easy ride and not a challenge. “How hard can it be? It’s just changing diapers…right?” So they hide their struggles.

The fact is that motherhood is extremely hard, besides being beautiful and rewarding, but that we moms choose it anyway. We choose the sleepless nights, the intensity of labour, the vulnerability of having our hearts walk around outside of ourselves in tiny little bodies we are totally responsible for. It’s overwhelming and exhausting and challenges every fibre of our being. And we choose it anyway. We choose to love. We choose to give of ourselves constantly. We choose to have enough hope in our world to believe that life is worth living and worth sharing. We don’t choose it because it’s comfortable. We choose it because it’s transformative. If that’s lazy I need a new dictionary, because I can’t imagine how those things are at all connected.

So you new moms out there, if you’re struggling, reach out. Don’t suffer alone and isolate yourself, for fear of not being a super mom. I saw a great t-shirt tonight that said, “World’s Okayest Mom.” It made me laugh so hard! None of us are perfect. But we’re in this together, and it’s a lot more fun that way. Spend time with other moms. “Waste” time visiting over coffee. The laughter and conversation you have there can save you hundreds at a therapist later!

Many people suffer from post-partum depression for a time after birthing, and there is help. A good place to start is postpartum.org, which also has great materials for your spouse to read. Your hormones are raging and sleep is a distant dream…so don’t beat yourself up if that takes a toll. Reach out. Talk to your doctor. Talk to friends who are supportive. Take steps to get help. And don’t be afraid to ask for it. Lean on others, so they can one day lean on you. That’s what friendship is. It enriches life so deeply.

With a support network of mom buddies, your life with kids is really awesome, despite the difficulties…there are so much opportunites to share, grow and love together. So next time someone asks how you are, think twice before you pop out “Fine.” Your honesty might open the gate for the other women around to share their struggles and find the support they really need as well. How rewarding is that?

Mothers of the world, unite!

I’ve just spent the weekend immersed in inspiring talks from an online conference for moms and what struck me most as a common theme was the need to support and encourage each other. A kind of professional solidarity, but without the competitive spirit. More like a sisterhood of moms.

In order to live this, we need to set aside our performance anxiety and quit comparing ourselves to other moms. It is not a competition. 

How much grief we could spare ourselves and others if we let this need to measure up go. If we instead tried to really believe that we are enough for our kids, and that’s all that matters. They are a gift, and they were given to us for a reason, because of all the women in the history of the world, only we are meant to be their mother.

In other words, we don’t have to earn the right to their love. We should, of course, do all in our power to love them, but knowing that our brokenness is simply part of being human, and that they weren’t meant to be raised by angels. Angels wouldn’t know how to teach them to be human: to struggle, to make mistakes, to sacrifice, to forgive.

If we could quit trying to outperform ourselves and others, we could be more open to responding to other moms as friends, as sisters who share a common life. We could stop being afraid to be vulnerable with each other. And in this atmosphere of support, of friendship, even of encouraging mentorship, we could grow…far more than in a place of isolation, comparison and fear.

So I challenge you all to take a moment to reflect on how you support the other mothers in your life right now. Do you call them just to check in? Do you do little kind deeds for them just to make them smile? Do you make time to listen when they need a heart-to-heart? And above all, are you brave enough to be vulnerable with them, thereby giving them the freedom to be authentic with you as well?

This is what friendship is, and this is what all moms, and in fact all people, need. It think when it comes down to it we all share the common goal of making the world a better place for our children, and a better place because of our children. How about supporting each other in it? If we do, we can bring each other such joy!

Mothers of the world, unite!