There is a myth in the homeschooling world, one that is pervasive and divisive, and I have been wanting to write and address this for some time. I recently came up against this issue personally, and decided that now is as good a time as ever to broach this subject. I’m a part of quite a few homeschooling groups online, some secular-specific and some more open and some even faith-based. I’ve noticed this idea popping up in ALL of these spaces: a relaxed homeschool environment cannot possibly include structured curriculum. Nothing infuriates me more than when someone tells me “Oh. We don’t use curriculum. We prefer to let our children learn through life and experience a joyful, relaxed homeschool”. To which, I usually shake my head and laugh because honestly – there are days where if we were any more relaxed, we’d be in a coma over here.
Let’s talk about this, shall we?
The Myth of the Academic Homeschooler
In the years since I’ve been homeschooling (or thinking about homeschooling, which has been since my kids were just wee babies), I have noticed a shift. There seems to be a big push lately, away from school-at-home and towards eclectic, child-led, delight-directed, DIY kind of style. Honestly, I think it’s great. I think that it’s really valuable for parents to understand that there isn’t one right way, no prescription. School can be fun, it can be interesting, and we really should try to keep it relevant and engaging for our children. I see nothing wrong with this line of thinking.
Where it becomes a problem is when we find ourselves looking down at anyone who dares to follow a curriculum. We look down at homeschoolers who prefer following a particular methodology or boxed set of resources. It used to be that if you weren’t using a structured curricula, you were often looked at as if you were doing a disservice to your children or worse, neglecting them. The problem now is that we’ve flipped the judgment around.
I have experienced, many times, judgment in real life and in online spaces, because we prefer to use structured curriculum. Others react as though, for me to do all of the subjects and resources we have, I must have my kids chained to a desk. As though I must be a whip-crackin’ school marm who forces my children into drudgery.
“I could never force my kids into all of those workbooks. I prefer my kids to learn through joyful experiences”. Yeah. Me too, sister. That’s called living LIFE.
What if I told you one can have a joyful, relaxed homeschool and family life – AND still have academic expectations?
What Is Relaxed Homeschooling, Anyway?
So, before I go any further we should probably define our terms. I get the definite vibe that for some people, relaxed homeschooling means one thing while for others it can mean something very different. Some equate relaxed homeschooling strictly with unschooling, or child-led learning. I also know others who, when they discuss relaxed homeschooling, they mean the approach to their parenting and schooling is relaxed, unstressed, follow rabbit trails as they come up, but still use resources that help guide learning.
There really does seem to be a whole spectrum of what it means to have a relaxed homeschool. For the purposes of this post? I do not automatically assume that relaxed homeschoolers are unschoolers. While I see a lot of value in that particular approach to learning, unschooling is not the only way to have a relaxed homeschool. Unschoolers may be relaxed homeschoolers, but not all relaxed homeschoolers are following an unschooling philosophy.
I think that is a very crucial point to keep in mind. Some of my most hurtful judgments have come from unschooling parents who have flat out said “there is NO way you can have a relaxed homeschool if you use curriculum”. I do not ascribe to that definition.
That said, let’s carry on.
When A Relaxed Homeschool Includes Structured Curriculum
Some of us value academics. Some of us have children who value academics. We may have children who have goals that mean the possibility of highly competitive university programs. Some of us have one child who wants to be an astronaut, and another who daydreams about going to university in Oxford. Are these the big hairy audacious goals of young children? Of course. Will their dreams and goals change as they get older? Most likely, yes. But these dreams are attainable, and absolutely possible. Only, however, if a student values and works hard towards certain academic goals. And, only if their parent recognizes that for some kids, structured curriculum is part of working towards those academic goals.
Listen, I want to say here – I know plenty of unschooled students who have gone on to follow their dreams, whatever they may have been. I know super relaxed homeschool parents whose kids are doing amazing things. I am not saying here that a parent has to have an academic focus in their homeschool in order for their children to be successful. What I am saying, though, is that some of us do choose to utilize structured, rigorous curricula in our homeschools.
Maintaining a Relaxed Homeschool – While Focusing on Academics
Ok, so how does this play out in the day to day of a laid back, relaxed homeschool? How can we use structured curriculum, with a focus on academic learning, and not lose our “relaxed homeschool street cred?”.
I remember hearing Sarah MacKenzie say once: “curriculum is not something you use, it’s something you teach“. Remembering that a piece of curriculum is one of the tools in our toolboxes is one way of staying relaxed while homeschooling. So, if you know you want to teach a particular subject – say, Latin, for instance – you might go out and do some comparisons, ask for advice, and choose a curriculum that fits your family’s needs and values. You use it to teach your children the joys of learning Latin. What you don’t do is let your homeschool be ruled by it. Nor by ANY curriculum or resource you decide to use.
You do not serve your curriculum, you are not ruled by what the schedule says you should do. You are free to use that tool in whatever way works best for your child(ren) and family. Do not let your curriculum become the master. Let it serve you, let it be useful and make your job as an educator that much easier. And, if one day comes and it no longer serves you or no longer brings joy in learning and academic growth? Move on from it. Don’t feel tied to it. Let it go. We are really lucky to be homeschooling in a time when there are, truly, many curricula to choose from in just about any subject area. So use it, change it, move around and find what brings joy and calm to your homeschool.
So What Does MY Relaxed Homeschool Look Like?
I mention a bit earlier in this post that when this topic comes up, I often joke that if my homeschool were any more relaxed, we’d be in a coma. It’s true. If one looks at my pictures of books and resources and curricula that we use – particular right now as we’ve made our big curriculum switcheroo – ‘relaxed’ might not be what first comes to mind. However, for me, I am much more relaxed and laid-back when I feel prepared. I don’t always have the energy or wherewithal to constantly create my own resources. It is easier for me to be chill, relaxed, and truly joyful – when I am using resources that help me feel prepared.
Here’s how I use curriculum, but still keep our days laid back and fun:
- I follow my children’s natural sleep/wake rhythms. They wake when their body is ready, unless we have somewhere to go or an outing to go take part in. I don’t enforce wake up times or ‘school start times’. Each person gets to do what feels healthy for their own bodies.
- I start school when I know my kids are fully present and their brains are most active. For my youngest, we get most of our work done in one block of time from mid-morning to lunchtime, as that’s when she’s most engaged and able to do the work. My oldest, the teenager, naturally works best after he’s had a quiet morning, a big hearty lunch, and a little time to do his own thing. We work after lunch for a few hours, while little sister goes off and reads, creates, follows whatever rabbit trail she’s on.
- I explain to my children that I value certain academic subjects. That I want them to be ready for whatever path they choose to take after our homeschooling days are finished. At a minimum, I feel like education is never a waste of a person’s time and our minds and hearts are made fuller by studying and working. So, together, we discuss the subjects we need/want to learn, and how we’ll do that. I let them be part of that decision and discussion. Truly, it’s quite rare that I pull rank and force them to do a subject they don’t want to do.
- I keep our subjects under control. Yes, it probably appears as though we must sit at a table for hours, in drudgery and misery. While the reality is, actually, we have very short days. I expect three ‘core’ subjects done each day, and then we rotate one or two subjects beyond those each day. We have a short time of ‘together learning’ at the end of the school day, and that’s it. I have decided which subjects are my focus and really important, and the rest we hit once, maybe twice, a week. I am in control of my pile of curriculum resources, not the other way around.
- We fill our days with joy, laughter, fun, and loads of opportunities for life learning. My kids are involved with all sorts of outside activities, they have a fantastic circle of friends, and as a family we value laughter and fun.
- Our weeks can look very different – we follow the fluidity of this homeschool life. Some days, we are locked in and excited about what we’re working on and learning. Other days, one or both of the kids (and sometimes Mom) just aren’t feeling it and we’d rather just chill and read or watch documentaries.
We enjoy our days, we enjoy our lives together, and yes – we enjoy all the amazing curriculum that is out there to choose from. I like structure in some subjects, but I’m not ruled by a need to follow someone else’s prescriptive ideas about how we should learn.