Our 2018-2019 Homeschooling Principles, or A Curriculum Post That's Not Really About Curriculum

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Our First Day of School 2018

Two weeks ago, we celebrated the first “official” day of our homeschooling year. I marked the occasion by making as big a fuss as I could—I hung a birthday bunting from our bay window, crowned the dining room table with a bouquet of Trader Joe's flowers, and wrapped up dollar store presents to surprise the boys. After enjoying a special bagel breakfast, we snapped this picture to commemorate the day: 

And then we took a picture with our scary faces for good measure: 

Afterwards, the boys skipped off outside to play with their new water table while I finished my morning chores. We re-grouped mid-morning for a family devotion (Bible reading, memory work, and hymn study). My oldest then helped me prepare lunch while the baby puttered around pretending to vacuum (his favorite activity), and after eating, we all read aloud together snuggled up on the couch. Following nap, we had a playdate with friends and then re-grouped for “teamwork time” (i.e. more chores!) and dinner. To close out the day, the boys chose their bedtime stories (Xavi: Usborne’s Greek Myths and Felix: Sandra Boynton’s “Doggies” in Spanish) and I sent them off to sleep well before my husband arrived home from a typically long day at work. 

It was a day pretty much like every other day. In fact, I think that my oldest is a little bit confused about this whole homeschooling thing. He keeps asking me, “Mommy, when are we going to do homeschooling?” and I honestly think he’s expecting me to give him some worksheets or start drilling him on letter sounds.

However, I’ve read enough child development literature to know that this time in my boys' lives is precious and irreplaceable—and that it is best spent not doing formal academics. After all, Xavi and Felix are four and almost two; they will have plenty of time in the future for more structured learning. 

Principles first, curricula second

And yet, even without formal lessons, I still want my children to encounter many different learning opportunities within our home and in our wider community. I want them to grow in their knowledge of the world and its Creator, in their sense of wonder, and in their character. 

So, how are we making that happen? 

Back this summer, when I was planning out our homeschool year, I found myself reciting a mantra of sorts:  “principles over curricula.” There are a lot of attractive and well-designed homeschool curricula on the market, even for preschoolers, and I admit that I was exceedingly tempted to buy at least one box set. I wanted the checkboxes, the structure, and the “proof of progress” that they appeared to offer. But I also knew that deep down, those things—as attractive as they are to me, an INTJ—weren’t what my boys needed at this moment in time. 

So, in an attempt to hold myself back from purchasing all. the. shiny. things., I decided instead that I wanted to write down a set of principles that I would use to guide our school year and then—and only then—make a purchase if I felt that it would be of real service to those principles. 

Today, I’m sharing those principles, but before I do, a brief qualifier: I don’t assume that my educational principles are the same as yours—in fact, I expect that they’re probably not, and that’s the beauty of homeschooling. Therefore, I’m sharing these in the spirit of openness, not prescriptiveness. If your family does something different, that’s okay! I trust you to know what’s best for your kids. 

Our early years principles and (yes) curricula choices for 2018-2019

Here are the three simple principles that are shaping our homeschool this year. Pretty much everything that we’re doing comes out of these. As you’ll see, we are using some curricula to convert these principles into practices—and I think that’s okay. Most of the curricula that we’re using does NOT translate into formal lessons for our boys; instead, it is a support to me, to help me develop as an educator (now, of my own kids!). I’m mostly used teaching college students, not preschoolers, and I am woefully underdeveloped in my ability to design hands-on activities, so I really need this support! 

1.) Build a solid routine of informal learning. 

One of my most significant goals for this year is to give our days a rhythm that will help us transition to formal lessons next year—as much for my oldest as for my two-year-old, who is just starting to want to sit in on read-alouds and family devotions. I’d love to include him in as much as possible in the future (without starting formal lessons too early), so I want the idea of “school” to be natural to him. 

To that end, I’m working on moving my boys into a daily routine that includes our essential practices:

  • Daily devotions with the Big Picture Story Bible (Spanish), La Biblia Para Exploradores, and the NIV Spanish Bible; we are also memorizing psalms and other scripture in Spanish and learning one hymn per month with the free resource Happy Hymnody.    

  • Read-alouds based on the interests of both children (and a few chosen by me). Most of these come from our wonderful local library or from Mexico, since I hauled an entire suitcase of books in Spanish back from our August worldschooling trip. 

  • Math games with Preschool Math at Home, which I can’t recommend enough! I’m actually learning new mathematical concepts from it myself, and I can’t wait for Kindergarten Math at Home to be released. 

  • Outdoor play that includes lots of backyard time, adventurous hikes, and preschool science classes at our local nature center. I’m using Richard Louv’s Vitamin N for innovative and age-adaptable nature exploration ideas and this guide to hiking with kids  in the DC region to support me in this area. I’ll also be doing special Portuguese walks to help us fit a third language into our schedule—post on that coming soon!

  • "Beauty time"to honor my oldest’s artistic spirit and my own love of classical music. Despite my own weakness as a visual artist, our days include lots of drawing, painting, and crafts. We also listen to classical music during dinner and learn about composers with the wonderful free podcast Classics for Kids. In the summer, we’ll be doing free kids classes offered at the National Gallery of Art and some relaxed picture study with this book

2.) Ignite creativity and wonder with (reasonable) exploration activities.  

As a teacher, this is probably the area that I am weakest in. Left to my own devices, I would likely just read to my children all day long and never do a single other thing for them academically. It is hard for me to think of creative ways to engage their sense of wonder, and I actively resent messy, high-prep crafts. Bless you homeschooling parents who are naturally good at these things! 

And yet, whenever I do make the effort to plan something out of the ordinary, I find that we usually all enjoy it. So, for that reason, I made one BIG curriculum purchase this year, investing in a copy of A Year of Playing Skillfully (AYOPS) from Classical Academic Press. 

I was on the fence for a while about this purchase, but now that I have the book in my hands, I love the activities that AYOPS offers. I am picking and choosing from them as we go, scheduling about two activities every week. We don’t use the other parts of the curriculum (life skills, character education, and Scripture memory), as I already had a system for those, but the activities have been a hit so far. Since I’m only doing those that my nearly-two and four-year-old can complete together, there will be plenty of new activities left over for the future. I love that this curriculum will grow with our family over the years and that it’s something that we can come back to again and again. Though it’s not cheap, its long-term usability helped me justify the $150 price tag. I’ll report back on our use of this curriculum as time goes on, but in case you’re considering it for yourself, this review of AYOPS really swayed my decision. 

3.) Develop good habits—both for parents and kids!

You might be surprised to hear that my focus on this principle is actually more for myself than for my kids! My four-year-old has a number of daily chores that he completes, and the baby—a natural helper if there ever was one—gamely participates in those. But there are a few habits that I need to work on myself, if I want our household to run smoothly. Want to know my number one? It’s dead simple: staying at home. 

You experienced homeschool moms might laugh to hear that, but I love to be out and about, dragging my kids all across DC. It’s a habit that I developed while parenting young children in an extremely small apartment; since we never had much to do at home, we would spend our days traipsing around museums and monuments. And for three years, we enjoyed those adventures—perhaps minus the time that my toddler jumped into a fountain at the National Gallery of Art (he was fine, just very wet). 

Now, however, that we are living in a house—a house whose upkeep I need more time to manage—that habit needs to change. Furthermore, as we prepare for formal lessons in the not-so-distant future, I want our kids to see our home as an engaging and productive learning space, rather than somewhere that we need to escape from for most of the day. For all of those reasons, I’m ratcheting back the outings. We’re still doing one big adventure a week—since I could never sacrifice all of the amazing resources DC has to offer—but also soaking in the chance to enjoy our own space. 

In sum: principles first = freedom

Focusing on principles over curriculum choices has been liberating in a number of ways. 

First, it has freed me up to do some necessary deep thinking about what I value most for my children’s education. Developmentally speaking, what do my children need in these early years? Can I offer them those things—or do I need to grow as a teacher in order to do so? What do I want to be the core practices of our future homeschool? Answering these questions has helped me to articulate what I feel is most important for our homeschool this year—without the pressure of considering what other people (including curriculum developers) might say.  

Second, it has reminded me to keep curriculum in its proper place—as a tool that works in service of our educational goals, rather than as our homeschool’s driving force. It has helped me to relax, both as a teacher and as a mom, and to enjoy my children at this (ever-so-fleeting) stage of their development. 

How do you make major planning decisions in your homeschool? Do you have particular principles that guide your choices—and what are you planning on this year?