Advice on "Teaching" Your Kids at Home

A professional home-schooling parent is here to calm you down

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This doesn’t have anything to do with politics (besides the fact that it was politics that has made our current mess as bad as it is), but knowing that many of you are parents, I thought this might be a helpful read.

I’ve known Katie Boyle and her husband Bill since 2009, when I moved to Oxford, Miss., for a reporting gig. Since I left town, Bill’s published a string of critically acclaimed novels (including one out last month that would make great quarantine reading), and Katie turned her experience as a professional outdoor educator into running a small forest school called Wonder Walks for pre-school and home-schooled children. But not only has she done that the past five years, she’s also home schooled her own two children, aged 9 and 5, since they were old enough to learn.

I thought I’d ask her if she had any advice for parents suddenly forced to play teacher, and her advice was so great that I’m printing most of our entire conversation. And if' you’re on Instagram and looking for projects to keep your kids occupied, Katie is posting weekly nature experiments and lessons; you should check them out.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So if you could only give parents new to homeschooling just one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t try too hard to mimic your child’s environment in school. I would say, be flexible and sensitive, especially now. In normal times, that would be my advice as well, but right now we’re all under stress, and we’re out of our routines, unsure about what’s going to happen next. We’re all trying to rework our lives, and I think there’s going to be a lot of grace that’s required from all aspects of [our] education and work to get us through that. And I think if we’re gentle about our expectations with our children and don’t try to get too caught up in the need to be educating them at every minute, they may return the favor when we may (or probably will) lose it a bit and be gentle with us.

For example, right now my kids are staying up pretty late, like 10 p.m. And that’s when Bill and I are usually done working for the day and we’re trying to watch a show together or something while the kids sleep, but instead we’re having that time together. And the kids drift off to sleep, and they’re sleeping really late, until 9:30 or 10. And Bill’s getting up at 5 a.m. to work and I get up a little later, while they’re still sleeping, and prepare what we’re going to do for the day. And I find having time for myself in the morning is much more productive than at night when I’m already tired and want to relax. But it also means the kids might relax in the afternoon for a couple of hours, and we can still do school later in the day. Like, school doesn’t have to be, “Everyone get up. Have breakfast. Brush your teeth. Get dressed. Come to the table.” We can create a different environment, and take all those things that are wonderful about school, but also take the comforts of home and adjust our schedules in the way that we need to. If that’s helpful. 

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Relatedly, I know that structuring schedules greatly depends on the age of the child and the attention span of the child.

And what grown-ups have to do, too!

Yeah, people are working from home! So for parents trying to set that balance between like, “We’re going to do reading here, we’re going to run around this afternoon or do a online yoga class,” how do you do that where there’s some kind of structure, but it’s not overwhelmingly structured to where it’s just gonna fall apart after a week?

I think that, yes, a routine is important. The way that we typically would do it is that after breakfast, we have a solid little time for doing our math. And we always do reading in the morning as well. And then before you know it, it’s lunchtime. I think one of the important things is to remember that in a school day, the kids are there for that chunk of time, but they’re not doing education that entire time. You can condense what they do in school into a couple of hours in your house, because they spend time getting to school, they spend time walking between classes or getting to the lunch room, and all of that can be condensed. We do most of our schooling in a couple of hours.

After that, again, I would say to be gentle with yourself. These are stressful times. So if you pick up a chunk of time during the day that you’re going to do sort of the nitty gritty [work], if someone has to write an essay or something like that, for us it works [better] after breakfast. We do better with most things in the morning. And then, you know, if you need the kids to watch a movie in the afternoon, or play one of the hundreds of thousands of educational apps that are available, I would encourage people to not feel guilty about that.

We’re all under stressful times. And I can’t emphasize enough, as someone who went through a childhood trauma, that kids cannot learn when they’re stressed out. They can’t. They can’t do it. They can’t take in as much as you think that they should be able to. So I think being aware of those emotions that might be happening would be really helpful. And giving a lot of time — as much as you can as a parent who is working from home. I know some parents have really intense jobs. My sister is one of them and really needs a ton of time to do it. But giving yourself time to have that family time and to have time to play outside or to take a walk together or to play a board game.

I think that for Bill and I, one of the things that we realized in our homeschooling experience is that learning is everywhere. We play board games a lot. We play Yahtzee and Scrabble and this card game SET that is an amazing math game. We do puzzles together a lot, which is activating a different part of your brain. But also if you need a break, and you need to have them turn on the TV, there are so many wonderful things for that kind of break period that can be learning.

For example, my kids a couple of months ago turned on The Kid Who Would be King. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, but it’s a retelling of the King Arthur story. And they were so into it. So it kind of led us down this journey of thinking about all of these things related to King Arthur. First of all, we looked for more King Arthur stories, and we read and listened to other stories about the same thing. And we started talking about castles, and we found this amazing multi-part PBS documentary about a group of people who are building a castle exactly as they would have in the Middle Ages. And we talked about knights and their codes, and the kids made their own shields and crests. And we talked about the Round Table, and how it compared to our democracy, and what do we do better now, and how could we learn from the system Arthur created. And we also talked about other myths and read other myths from other cultures and times and talked about why were they created and what do they tell us about that time and place — you know, specifically, but also about humankind. Anyway, this is all to say that they watched this two-hour movie while I worked or read or took some personal time, and it sparked this amazing learning journey.

I love the idea of this one thing — exploring all of it, hitting all of these different criteria of education. So we were reading, and we were learning about history, and we were learning about the math that they use to create these castles before they had modern technology. And we were learning about myths and culture. So I think sort of seizing those opportunities when you see it makes education so much easier. 

So what mistakes do you think are most common with parents just starting out homeschooling? 

I think that there is a stress that they are not enough. That parents are not the best teachers for their children or that they don’t know how to do the right things. And I think — I don’t know how some people would feel about this, but I think homeschooling is for most of us, how you would parent otherwise.

So, most of us want the best for our children. We want to expose them to things that might speak to them and spark an interest and create joy in them. And homeschooling is really about creating those opportunities to do that. So we just cast a really wide net and see what sticks.

And I think that I’ve often heard from people going into homeschooling, like, they just don’t think that they can do it. But they in fact are doing it for the other hours of the day that they’re with their kid. They’re reading to their kid. They’re talking about interesting things. They’re always there. They’re getting them interested in music. You know, that’s just what parents do who want to do the right thing by their kid.

And thankfully, during this time of social isolation or distancing, we like never before have the resource of the entire world at our fingertips. So there are museums giving free tours. There are colleges that are giving free courses. But also just Google is your friend. We have a question wall in our kitchen, and anytime my kids ask a question — doesn’t matter how crazy it is — we put it up on the question wall. And then eventually we get to it and look it up. And, you know, maybe it starts something from there, and we go on.

But I think just not putting too much of a burden on the teacher aspect and more just focusing on the learning and the opportunities to be together and to read the books together that you don’t have time for. You can take a whole chunk of time in the afternoon to start the Harry Potter series. Reading out loud and cuddling on the couch and having that connection brings me such relief in normal times. But especially now just having that physical contact and sharing something with my kid is so important.

And I swear, if they look, they will see that spark of learning happening in their child’s eyes. And they’re not just learning about whatever you’re talking about. And they’re not just learning about what you’re reading about. They’re learning how to be an adult from you. Or learning how to be a person in the world. 

So that’s what I would say — for parents to look at the big picture, to try not to focus on, “How am I going to teach trigonometry?” and focus on what you can do, and use the abundance of resources out there for the rest. Then just make sure that your kid knows that you just want to be with them.

I know you’re a great believer in getting your kids out into nature to learn and discover, but for parents who might not be particularly outdoors-y, what advice do you have for them? Or for families who might be in an apartment without a yard in a city where maybe the parks are closed?

I would say that if you have a window, you have access to nature. Right now, all across the country, migration is happening. It’s an amazing time to literally just look out your window. And if you do that, you will see birds. You can see how they behave. You can probably, if you have a tree around, see a squirrel.

But for sure with bird migration, it is an exciting time to be learning about birds and to be watching for birds and to be listening. Certainly if you open your window and listen for birds, you’ll hear how they each make a different sound. How they call back and forth from one another. And some of those are like songs, and some of those sound like calls, and some of them sound like warnings. You’ll see them doing a dance of trying to figure out a mate, trying to figure out a place to meet, or you may see different birds fly by every day. And I think that a connection to nature is really important. Even for someone who is not outdoorsy.

Maybe you go and buy a plant from the store with your kid — when it’s safe to go to the store, of course. Or maybe you get a package of seeds, and you add a little bit of dirt — and it doesn’t take much. And you can actually put seeds in a plastic baggy with a little drop of water and tape it to a window, and they will sprout. (I think it might be bean sprouts that do that.) And that’s super exciting to watch. It’s also an important conversation about the water cycle and how that works. But just being able to see life and how it works, I think is important. Even if you don’t have access to the outdoors or even if you don’t like being outside.

But I think for most cities in our country, a great effort has been made to at least make sure there is a tree nearby. If you start with one tree and start thinking about that tree and start noticing — right now is a great time, because in the more Northern States, the leaves haven’t even budded out yet — and you can watch as the tree gets ready for spring. And every single day, since now all we have is time, you can go and check your tree every single day and watch the littlest teeny things happen daily that make that tree ready to have leaves and to practice photosynthesis. And you know, even if it’s not something that you’re particularly into, I would just keep in mind that it might be something that your kid is into.

Last question: Do you have any other general advice for being stuck at home with your kids for who knows how many weeks or months to come?

I don’t know if there’s anything more than I’ve already said, but just take breaks as you need to. Try to be understanding that it’s very hard for them not to see their friends as well. We’ve been FaceTiming our friends, which I’m sure lots of people are doing. My kids are talking to their friends for like an hour in the afternoon, which has been really great.

And don’t be afraid to just leave something for a little while. My general rule is if it’s making a kid cry, then it’s time for me to let it go. And it’s usually because the kid is not ready. Ending in tears? That’s a good sign that you don’t need to be doing that. And having the confidence that that’s okay. It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to say, “You all go watch a movie.” It’s okay if something’s not working to try something new, and it might spark a new idea.

Oh, one more thing I would say would be to include your kid in their education. Like I said, everyone’s going to have a ton more free time, and I think a really important question is, “What are you interested in?” There’s this writer called Julie Bogart who wrote a book called The Brave Learner. And she gave me this idea that you make this map of all the things that your kids are interested in, and you just do it on a big piece of paper and everyone in the family gets a different color marker, and they can write down what they’re interested in. And then you figure out ways to do them, and you also relate them to the subjects that they need to learn for their education. And my kids get super excited about that stuff, and it’s things that I would have never engaged them with because I hadn’t thought they were really interested in them.

Like, my daughter wanted to learn how to sew, and my son wanted to learn how to play the ukulele. And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know to do either one of those things. So let me figure out how we can do that.” And use the resources in your community. You would be surprised, I think, if you put out a call like, “Does anyone know how to sew? Maybe you could take some time FaceTiming with my kid and teach them how to do it.” I think that we’ll all be surprised at how willing people will be to create those connections in a time when we can’t physically be together. So that would be my advice. 

Okay, well, thank you so much, Katie! This is all really great. 

Oh, good. Oh! And also, just reading! If all else fails in your house, and you’re having a terrible, terrible morning or afternoon or whole day, just getting a book and cuddling up on the couch and reading until everyone falls asleep — that has saved our day many, many times. And I feel like it’s totally legitimate. Reading out loud is one of the great pleasures that often get lost as we get older. So I would even encourage people who have older children to make a time for that every single day, where everyone reads out loud. Of course people can pick shorter things, or maybe you have an older kid who can read to you. It’s such a lovely way to connect with your family, especially during a hard day. 

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