Temporary Homeschooling Tips, Part Two: Schedules

Yesterday I published a post with some general advice for those who may be temporarily homeschooling children due to the coronavirus outbreak. The most frequent question I have gotten since then is about our schedule – how do we organize our day?

First, a disclaimer – we are homeschoolers, but by no means does that mean that we usually spend the entirety of our days at home. All four of our kids usually swim two to three times a week. The big kids and I usually ride horses at least a few times a month. We take “field trips” – we go to the zoo, we go to art shows, we go to the pumpkin farm, we go to parks. FangFang usually has weekly PT, and it feels like we always have a pediatrician or dentist or eye doctor or specialist appointment coming up for someone for some reason! All four kids participate in a homeschool enrichment group 3 mornings a month. Spending more time at home is a change for us, too.

That said, we do have a general routine to our days. Note that a routine is different than a schedule. To me, a schedule is based on specific times, and one of the things I appreciate about homeschooling is that it allows for flexibility and freedom to spend more time than planned on an area that is particularly difficult or especially interesting. Plus, I’m a control freak, and I get stressed out about schedules. Routines work well for us, though!

We divide our academic work into two different categories, loosely called “table school” and “couch school.” Table school is for subjects the kids do at the dining room table but also includes, for the older kids, any subjects on which they do their work independently. Couch school is for subjects we do together on the couch. For the older kids (4th grade and 3rd grade), table school is math, independent reading, and sometimes Language Arts. For the younger kids (kindergarten and pre-k), table school is math and Language Arts.

Each night before I go to bed, I write out assignments for table school for the older two kids for the next morning.

If I’m on top of things, I might get out school books for everyone the night before, as well, but that’s not super frequent 😉 The older kids are quite capable of getting their own materials.

The older kids’ job is to come downstairs when they wake up, get themselves breakfast (or ask for help getting breakfast), and get started on their table school work. I’ve found that they find table school more challenging than couch school – perhaps because they are expected to do more independently – and so it goes better if we start with that. There is no specific wake-up or start time – my kids all usually wake up once they’ve gotten enough sleep, and they just start once they are awake (usually by 8:00 or 8:30, sometimes earlier or later).

After I have breakfast, I start table school with the younger kids.

Everyone gets a break after table school. I would say, on average, we’re all finishing up table school between 10:00 and 10:30, but it can vary pretty widely. What that break looks like depends on the day and whether everyone is ready for a break at the same time or whether the big kids and little kids are finishing up their work at very different times. Regardless, each kiddo definitely gets a break, though I may stay busy working with one group and then the next. Sometimes that break is just free play time. Sometimes we all go for a walk. Now that we’ll no longer have swimming as part of our regular weekly activities, we will need to be sure we’re getting enough physical activity, so I’m hoping we can go for walks more frequently. Otherwise, we might play outside or do some Cosmic Kids Yoga, or I may put together some more active work-out type activities to do with everyone.

What we do next depends on the time. Often times we can move on to couch school, but sometimes we need to break for lunch at that point.

Couch school subjects are always History, Science, and Bible. For the little kids, we also do Literature and Reading as couch school subjects; for the older kids, Language Arts is sometimes a couch school subject, depending on what we need to do that day. Whether the big kids or little kids do their couch school subjects first depends on who finished table school first that day. Usually I sit together with each group on the couch, and we read each of our books and discuss them. Often times the big kids will join us for the little kids’ books – I’m reading the same books with the little kids that I read with the big kids 5 years ago, so those stories feel like old friends to them!

After we’ve finished lunch and our couch school subjects, we do some clean-up. In particular, the common areas of the house (the living room and dining room) need to be picked up. Sometimes I’ll also have kids work on cleaning their own rooms or doing their family teamwork jobs (things like sweeping, unloading the dishwasher, vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms, etc).

Then we have our afternoon downtime. Sometimes we’ll all have independent quiet time in separate rooms. Sometimes we’ll all sit in the living room for half an hour and read our own books. After that, almost every day, the kids are allowed to watch 1-2 hours of tv while I work. I have a very flexible part-time job, and I try to get in at least an hour of work each afternoon.

What happens after that really depends on the timing. Sometimes we’ll transition straight from that downtime into dinner prep. Sometimes there will be time for a fun activity together. This is another window into which I’m hoping to fit some free play and time outdoors and exercise.

We all have dinner together as a family, during which we go around the table, and each person shares their high of the day, their low of the day, their buffalo (something strange or interesting), something kind they did that day, and something they’re looking forward to.

After dinner we might do a family activity, or the kids might all play independently. Every child also needs to finish any family teamwork jobs that they did not do earlier in the day. Atticus really likes to play Wii or Xbox, and this is the only window of the day in which we allow that, and sometimes MeiMei or FangFang will play with him.

Around 8:00 Matt puts the little kids to bed, and between 8:30 and 8:45, the big kids and I head upstairs for their bedtime routine. After they’re ready for bed, they snuggle with me in my bed, and that’s when I do Literature with them, reading to them as bedtime stories.

The routine is subject to adjustment, as needed, but it’s the general structure we follow for each of our days! As always, feel free to ask questions and let us know if I can help in any way 🙂

Some Tips for the Temporarily Homeschooling

We, like most Americans, are wondering what the coming days and weeks hold, as we wait on the brink of the coronavirus spreading more widely within the States. Three of the six members of our household have medical conditions that could complicate our prognosis in the event that we were to contract the virus, and we also find the argument for flattening the curve to be highly persuasive, so, when possible, we have started limiting our interactions with those outside of our household.

We, of course, already homeschool, but a number of families may be facing unexpected days or weeks of children being home from school. I posted on Facebook that I would be happy to give suggestions and/or resources to anyone who will unexpectedly have children home for some period of time, and I received a number of comments and messages requesting advice, so I’m sharing here some general suggestions.

First of all, I don’t think that any unexpected time away from a school setting has to be spent 100% focused on academics. This can be a great time to build relationships and just enjoy spending time together as a family. Additionally, there are so many fun ways to learn.

My older girls practice math skills by playing games (some favorites are Yahtzee and Masterpiece)…

…and baking (an activity we are hoping to resume soon – but one of the tasks on our list for today is to order a new range, as our oven died last week!). My oldest likes to make up her own recipes, which used to cause me a lot of stress…until I realized that even if the result was terrible, the worst consequence would be that I was out a couple dollars worth of ingredients. She would have had a great time and had the opportunity to explore an area in which she is interested.

Art projects are another great option for fun learning!

But also, I recognize that many families will want to continue some more formal academic pursuits for their children, and I think there is wisdom in that.

For the pre-school crowd, kids truly learn best through play, so my suggestions would be pretty simple – have some good toys available (puzzles, blocks, magna tiles, art supplies, play dough, railroad tracks), and avail yourself of those, in addition to reading to your children. Reading aloud is truly the most academic that I would get with young children. Many kids do best with some structure, so it might be helpful to create some sort of routine that will work well for your family, but it is simply not necessary to have a very detailed schedule focused heavily around academics.

For children in early elementary school, much of what they learn does not rely on prior knowledge – it doesn’t build on itself in a way that is entirely necessary. The same social studies or science concept can just as easily be taught to a 6-year-old as to an 8-year-old and vice versa. Kids can learn about plants, animals, chemistry, and space in any order at all. And I can think of no essential concept in those areas that is going to be taught to an early elementary school student and never revisited. That means that unless your school gives you specific guidance, it is not of paramount importance to study any particular concepts in an exact order. Doing some study of science, history, and social studies would be lovely, but really any area of interest of yours or your children’s would be a great focal point.

Beyond those generalities, if I were going to be temporarily homeschooling my children, I would focus my attention on 3 areas –

(1) Reading. I’d figure out where my child was at with reading and continue working with them to build their skills in those areas. You probably have a number of resources in your home already that will allow you to do that. If you’re wondering what a sample reading program might look like, we’ve used Sonlight’s programs for years. You can check out their offerings here (we’ve used every program listed here from Kindergarten through the E Readers). Obviously you will not need a full year’s program, but looking at these books can give you an idea of what sort of books you might already have at home that you could use in working with your child on reading. For kids who can do some independent reading, those with Kindle Freetime Unlimited have access to huge numbers of free books on e-readers. The Epic app is also a great resource for e-books for kids.

(2) Math. This is another area in which skills do build on one another, and it is helpful if your child continues to learn and grow. Ideally, you could figure out what curriculum your child is using and where they are with it and work with them there, but even doing some workbooks at your child’s general level or reviewing math facts could be helpful. The math app that we find most helpful for our older two kids is Xtra Math – it’s a game that helps kids build their addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. It learns which facts your children need to practice most and works with them on those.

(3) Reading out loud to your child. Children, especially at young ages, can comprehend so much more than they can read themselves. They learn so much by having their adults read to them. You can read literature or non-fiction science or history books or any mix thereof. Reading with children is a great way to bond, to share experiences, to have great discussions, and to learn together. Our times curling up on the couch or snuggling in bed and reading together are some of the highlights of my kids’ and my days. My older two kids and I recently read through the Harry Potter series, and it was such a joy for all of us to share that experience together. You can also use those times of reading aloud to teach your children about history or science. Our core curriculum is from Sonlight, and many of their read-aloud packages include some great historical fiction that truly brings history alive in a different way than textbook reading does. We’ve read books like the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, Caddie Woodlawn, Johnny Tremain, and The Witch at Blackbird Pond, among many others. My kids have also greatly enjoyed reading books about science (Sonlight packages here) – books about space, animals, plants, how things work, and much more. You may already have a lot of these books or others that are similar in your home, or you could consider ordering a few that look interesting to you and your children.

You could also do some writing – practicing handwriting or just having kids copy out a sentence or two of good writing – to keep kids learning in those areas, but my top three areas of focus would be what I’ve listed above. If you’re a more fun mom than I am, doing science experiments together could also be a great option for learning!

For older children, I’d try to find some creative and fun ways to challenge them to grow while also keeping them engaged and interested. For instance, even children as young as 8 or 9 can do research projects – MeiMei and Miranda both wrote research papers last year about animals (MeiMei’s was on hummingbirds and Miranda’s was about cats). This year they each tackled a different science topic, with MeiMei learning about how sharks’ gills work and Miranda focusing on the planet of Mars. We’re about to dive into a project in which they each research and write a report about a state. Obviously older children would be capable of learning about even more complex topics or delving into them in more detail in a report or presentation.

Students might also read and learn and think and perhaps write about historical or philosophical topics – comparing and contrasting the Jesus of the Bible with To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch and/or Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt. There is more than enough classic literature to reach well beyond what any middle school or high school curriculum can include fully, and this would be a great time for students to check out some of the books on Sonlight’s readers lists or google a list like, “100 books to read before college.” Reading and discussing books like these would be a great learning experience.

This spring would be an excellent opportunity for students of any age to learn about the election process in the United States, following primary voting, learning about any current issues that interest them, or researching the history of suffrage in the United States. Sonlight has a free downloadable unit study or a US elections lapbook kit.

This time, facing the unknowns of a global pandemic, can obviously be stressful. However, it can also provide a beautiful opportunity for us to spend time together as families, and there are so many ways in which we can nurture our children’s minds even outside of school settings and large group gatherings.

Please let me know if you have additional questions or if there are other ways I can help! And if you’re local and would like to borrow some resources from our homeschool library, we would be happy to loan out whatever we can!