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Homeschooling: the Muddy inside guide

The kids are off school indefinitely thanks to coronavirus. You're at home indefinitely thanks to coronavirus. Here's your insiders guide to surviving homeschooling.

Until recently I home educated my two children. Home education as a lifestyle choice is very different from being forced to keep children off school, and it usually involves a huge and active community, lots of groups, and social activities. For all of us, home educators or not, the new situation is a challenge but luckily there’s loads of help and support out there.

Here’s your insiders guide to surviving the coming months and making the most of the unexpected time with the kids at home.

The school bit

First and foremost it’s important to clarify that if your child is registered at school, the school still has a responsibility to provide education to your child. You’re not on your own, homeschooling the National Curriculum with no advice, help or support! So check with your school as to what their expectations are. If children have to continue to follow topics or the curriculum, then the school will need to make resources available.

Resources are also being prepared and put online by the minute by everybody from karate teachers and sports coaches to national bodies, so to list them all would be impossible. Here however are some starting points to cover the basics:

Twinkl: This is a great site used by teachers and home educators alike, bursting with resources, plans, activities and learning resources for all ages, on every subject under the sun. To support parents and schools during the coronavirus crisis many resources are now completely free.

Science Sparks: Run by the wonderful Emma, friend of Muddy, former teacher and author of several books, Science Sparks is one of the best and most comprehensive resources out there for all things science. There are activities and experiments suitable for all ages and using all sorts of easily-available materials.

Imagination Tree: Another absolutely legendary site that has been sustaining parents and home educators for years, Anna at Imagination Tree has activities, games and educational resources for all ages, particularly younger children. She’s also put together a fantastic self-isolation survival guide for anybody at home with kids.

Learning through Landscape: This outdoor learning charity is preparing and releasing resources for parents at home with children. There’s also a series of Facebook groups.

The BBC: Ah, Auntie. Keeping our children educated, informed and entertained. BBC Bitesize is a great resource for curriculum support and is poised to bring daily updated content for everybody juggling school at home.

Khan Academy: A brilliant nonprofit free online learning site which also has a range of resources and daily schedules for children aged 4-18.

Audible: Has just announced a collection of stories for free, for all ages, while school’s out.

Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Older children may enjoy the challenge of planning and carrying out their own learning. For younger kids, there will be a degree of help and supervision required but rather than have them writing out spellings and doing sums all day long, try and look for the learning in their play. Are they writing letters or drawing treasure maps? Counting out their little collections? Then they’ve got writing and maths covered.

But do I have to sit down with my child for 6 hours a day and teach them? How will I answer all their questions?

NO. And you don’t need to be a teacher, or have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Ancient Greece, trigonometry and French grammar either. Take a deep breath and repeat after me, that’s what Google is for. There is so much available online, in so many different formats from games and TV programmes to quizzes and activities. There is also absolutely no shame in not knowing the answer to any one of your child’s 100,000 questions. Remember, at school, questions are restricted and kids have to raise their hands to ask them.

It’s a hugely empowering and useful learning experience for children to have an adult say ‘gosh I don’t know. How do you think we can find out?’ rather than watch them wearily Google the eight billionth question that day. It’s an equally empowering and useful learning experience for frazzled parents to say ‘I’m afraid I can’t answer any more questions for an hour’ if children are having a particularly ‘inquisitive’ day.

The home bit

For many of us, it’s not so much a question of teaching children at home, as simply keeping everybody moving through the day so that everything that needs to get done, gets done.

To routine or not to routine?

OK this illustration takes it a *bit* far but let’s be honest, there’s going to be a gap between expectation and reality. I suspect the person creating the schedule on the left didn’t also have to cram in eight hours of work a day.

A routine is essential if you have commitments that absolutely have to be fulfilled. If your children are too young to be able to supervise themselves, draw up a schedule that makes it absolutely clear which parent (if there’s more than one of you) is responsible for the children at what times. Make sure you both have enough time to work but also enough time to decompress. It’s not realistic to assume you can spend all your waking hours either working or entertaining/educating your children.

If you’re following curriculum learning agree how much you want to do per day and remember that at school, children do not sit and learn for six hours straight so don’t try and recreate that at home. Once you knock off time for lunch, snacks, settling down, assemblies, other kids messing around, and other non-curriculum activities you’re probably looking at around two hours a day, maximum, for most age groups. Split across the day or in a big chunk at the beginning, it’s totally manageable. Totally.

As to the most common working-from-home-with-children question, it is perfectly OK to give your children the iPad while you make work calls and this is how everybody works from home with children so drop any guilt you have over it right now.

Whatever routine you draw up, your family will settle into a natural rhythm as the days pass, which is more sustainable over the long-term.

Get the right environment

It’s likely we’re all going to be at home for quite some time so your environment is vital. Rather than aiming for polished perfection think user-friendly. Can your children reach everything they need to keep themselves occupied and do they know how and where they can use it?

Shuffling things around, even temporarily, to create an environment in which your children can be as independent as possible is going to save you hours – days, even – of ‘Mummy can I have…?’. Have toys, games and arts and crafts supplies within easy reach and show your children where they can use them, for example arts and crafts are best done on a table or desk surface or a wooden floor, not a thick creamy-white carpet. Put snacks in an easy-to-reach cupboard. Refill it a lot. Have a jug of water handy if they can’t reach the taps, or fill up sippy cups and line them up ready to be grabbed.

Drop the housework expectations. Children create mess and it’s impossible to mitigate this, but look on the bright side, it’s not like you’re going to be hosting any dinner parties any time soon.

If you have a garden, use it! Hand over a little part of it to your kids, give them old pots and pans for a mud kitchen, let them mix and poke and dig and play around with it, the mess is more than worth it to keep them entertained (and learning!) for hours on end.

Get outside as much as you can

As long as it’s safe and we’re allowed to do so, take your kids out. Playgrounds are probably best avoided but this is the perfect chance to explore your local area and find the hidden, secret places that have so much to offer children. Wander down footpaths, explore fields, poke around in ditches and really get to know your local area. You’ll be amazed at the amount of nature that’s on your doorstep, once you start looking for it. Try and avoid the temptation to set goals, such as a four-mile walk, and instead slow down and let your children spend as long as they like exploring and pottering.

Let them be bored

Intersperse your pre-planned enriching activities with plenty of down time that includes, but isn’t limited to, screen time. Creativity and imagination thrives in boredom, children are much more capable and resourceful than we often give them credit for. Yes, there will be whinging. Rather than shame your children (‘only boring people get bored!’) tell them you have every faith in their ability to find something fun to do. Try not to get drawn into arguments, but don’t always leap up and suggest something or reach for the remote. You didn’t die of boredom when you were young and your children won’t either.

Chill out about screen time

Your children won’t spend all their waking hours watching TV. They honestly, honestly won’t. Promise.

Chill out in general

The hardest bit, if we’re all being honest.

Remember everybody else is in the same boat, so your child won’t be ‘behind’ or unduly disadvantaged, they won’t miss out on a university place while their mates all swan off to Oxbridge, and the world won’t end if they don’t take their phonics test or Key Stage 2 SATS.

Remember also that learning happens everywhere, not just in a classroom, on a piece of paper, supervised by a teacher. Children learn all the time, from all of their life experiences. They learn from books, sure, but they also learn from TV programmes and video games. They learn from ‘experts’ imparting information to them and they learn by carrying out their own little games and experiments in the garden. They learn from helping you with the cooking and washing up.

Look after yourself

Having your children home 24/7 is wonderful but it’s also exhausting and it doesn’t make you a bad person if you’re craving space or a break. Everybody needs down time – including the children, including you. Switch off notifications from the school mum’s WhatsApp group if the smug photos of art projects are making you feel guilty that all your kids have done this morning is eat biscuits and watch Go Jetters.

Try and do what works for you. This is so important, and it saves you so much stress and wasted energy when you adapt to suit your own family rather than try and recreate those gorgeous Instagram accounts bursting with wholesome crafts and activities on scrubbed wooden tables.

Words by Cathy Wallace, Editor of Muddy Stilettos Sussex.

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