Homeschooling Your Young Child: Is it “really” homeschooling?
Homeschooling your young child is an important choice. Don’t let people discourage you from calling yourself a homeschooler! Parents are under intense pressure to place their children in school at earlier ages, and focus more on academic skills. By bucking this trend, you’re safeguarding your child’s childhood!
How I Became a Homeschooler When My Son Was an Infant
I decided to homeschool my son when he was a baby.
I was a full time classroom teacher balancing a demanding teaching schedule and emotional burnout, and I wanted to come home. As much as I liked my students and wished them well, the only child I really wanted to teach was my own.
I had been in schools for 15 years by that point. I knew what worked for my students, and what didn’t. Especially what didn’t. I went into teaching thinking I could change the profession, make schools better. But I saw very clearly that the system was set up to be resistant to change.
I could fill this post with disappointments and setbacks from my teaching career, in which I tried to change how things were done – even writing entire curricula – only to have my work dismissed. One of my programs, a musical theater club, was even shut down because it was too popular, and therefore not convenient to schedule.
I didn’t have the power, as an individual teacher, to influence education for all children.
The only child I could truly make decisions for was my own. So, I decided to homeschool my young child.
Making Child Care Decisions
Many parents of very young children and preschoolers start thinking about homeschooling well before their child reaches “compulsory” age. Why? Because the need for child care doesn’t wait until a child reaches kindergarten age.
Here in America, we are woefully short of affordable, high quality child care options for babies and toddlers. Quality care is expensive, whether you are hiring a nanny or enrolling your child in a program.
If you’re like me, before having kids, working outside the home was a source of satisfaction and ambition. I didn’t ever picture myself leaving full time work to stay at home with my child. But when I realized I would need to give over my entire take home pay towards a daycare or nanny? The situation didn’t add up.
Many families question whether they even want to hire caregivers or use day care programs. Will their child get good care? Will it be as good as being at home with family? Can we really trust this person? What if something happens and our child can’t tell us? What if our baby forms a strong attachment to a caregiver who then quits – will it hurt him emotionally? The worries go on and on.
Making educational decisions for our young children doesn’t start when the government says they must attend school. It starts when we’re shopping around for Montessori day cares or interviewing graduate students who are nannying on the side. It starts when we’re not sure we can afford to go back to work AND pay for child care. And it starts when our friends, family, and neighbors start asking when parents are headed back to work, and we realize that the answer we want to give is, “Not now!!”
“When does he start kindergarten?”
My community is extremely academic. People enroll their children in after school programs, immersion language programs, weekend programs, spring break camp programs, programs of every kind. Tutoring services abound – there are at least three tutoring businesses on our main street alone.
Even when my son was a toddler, I was regularly asked, “When does he start kindergarten?”
Or “Is he in preschool yet?”
Or even “Why isn’t he in school yet?”
My well meaning neighbors really wanted to know when my little child was starting school. To them, it was normal and natural for a young child to attend preschool, basically as early as possible.
At the time, I wasn’t ready to drop the h-word – homeschooling. Very few families homeschool in my town. So I said, “Oh, he’s only 2.” This just delayed the conversation, but it showed that people expect young kids to start school as soon as possible.
Taking the Plunge: Speaking Up About Homeschooling
My choice not to send my child to pre-K was a big deal. Especially when he turned 4 and most of his little friends started going to full-day preschool. It’s very clear that we aren’t following the path that most of our friends and neighbors are on. We’re all doing what works for us, and that’s ok. Our respective choices have just become much more obvious now that the kids are getting older.
People have begun to ask my son directly why he isn’t in school.
“Is today a day off?”
“Are you on spring break?”
“Are you starting kindergarten in the fall?”
My son, being 4, will say something like, “Well I’m going to camp this summer,” or “I go to library storytime!” The word “homeschooling” is still pretty new to him.
So I’m usually the one who explains.
To my relief, the reaction we get is almost always positive. Sometimes people will spontaneously share stories about their grandchildren or friends who hate school or who are finding success with homeschooling. It doesn’t take much to open the floodgates of complaints about the school system.
Sometimes people will question a little, until they hear that I’m a teacher. This isn’t really fair, since most homeschoolers probably aren’t former teachers, but it makes the conversations a lot easier (and quicker) for me.
Though I’ve thought of us as homeschooling since our son was little, I’ve been “homeschooling in public” for about a year now. It took a while to transition to the schedule we have now, where my child who is not enrolled in any program, and I’m home with him on most days. And although we have a very relaxed homeschool, as would be appropriate for a preschool-aged child, we are definitely going against the grain where we live.
Not “really” homeschooling?
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that
many some in the homeschooling community don’t consider preschool “really” homeschooling. It pops up regularly in Facebook discussions, when a new family will post asking for advice. Something like this:
Hey! I’m _____ and my kids are 3 and 1. We’ve decided to homeschool and I was wondering where to start with my 3 year old? What curriculum do you recommend? When should she start learning to read?
Inevitably, the person is inundated with responses like “She’s too young to do anything, just let her play” and “Read to her, play with her, take her out into nature, and don’t worry about anything until she’s much older”. Someone usually references Finland and its lack of formal academics before age 7. (They don’t mention France, which is lowering compulsory school age to 3.)
All of this is fine, as far as it goes. But lately I’ve noticed people expressing irritation that someone with a young child would call themselves a homeschooler. You see, children are not required by law to attend preschool (at least here in the United States), so it doesn’t really count. According to this point of view, this isn’t homeschooling, “just parenting”.
Lack of Respect for Early Childhood
My very first teaching jobs were in early childhood classrooms, so I know the lack of respect that early childhood education often gets in American society. We pay daycare and preschool teachers less than teachers of older students, and tend to think of them as babysitters. It doesn’t help that the profession is still overwhelmingly female, which has contributed to its lowly status.
When I was a preschool teacher, I actually had people say, “You’re lucky, you get to play all day!” Um, what? Lucky, yes. But where did they get the idea that the teacher was sitting around playing with the kids’ toys?
The fact is, teaching early childhood is extremely rewarding, but also mentally and physically exhausting. It is not letting the kids run around doing whatever they want! Teachers aren’t sitting around sticking Mr. Potato Head’s nose into his eye. They’re actively engaging the children.
If you’ve ever encountered a young child, or been one yourself, you know that they require energy, patience, and diligent supervision. Many teachers of older students have told me that they would “never” be able to be patient and energetic enough to handle a class of preschoolers.
The idea that homeschooling a young child isn’t “real” homeschooling isn’t much different than the stereotype that teaching early childhood isn’t “real” teaching.
I would have thought that homeschoolers, who may encounter a lack of respect because of misunderstandings about homeschooling, would be eager to make sure that all homeschooling parents are acknowledged and appreciated. But it seems that, in fact, homeschooling with young children is sometimes dismissed.
I have always cringed when I hear people say that young children are “just playing”. As a teacher, I heard coworkers contrast playing with “working”, which they saw as more legitimate in a learning environment. I wrote a whole post about the vital role that play serves in a child’s life, so I encourage you to check that out. But here’s the three-sentence version:
Saying a child is “just playing” is like saying that the child is “just reading” or “just doing science”. Playing is the work of childhood. It is how children learn.
Sometimes I see homeschooling parents of young children given advice like “Just let them play – they’re too young for real academics.”
It’s good advice, but the Just….. has a connotation that can sound “off” if taken in the wrong way.
What I think people are trying to say is “Don’t try to do traditional school, like worksheets and flash cards” but at times it comes across as “Don’t try to do anything.”
That’s not what a new homeschooling parent wants to hear. Plus it isn’t exactly accurate.
Setting up a stimulating, fun environment for your child to thrive in at home is very different from the idea that you shouldn’t be doing “anything”. There are all different varieties of homeschooling styles, so there’s certainly no need to panic or buy All The Things out of the educational catalog.
But when parents ask how to homeschool a young child, they’re looking for a starting point, and that deserves respect.
So, what DOES homeschooling your young child look like?
What I do with my son at home is quite similar to what I’d do with a preschool class. Lots of open ended play, block building, LEGOs, puzzles, reading aloud, pretending, going to the playground, nature walks, the occasional outing to the zoo. Although my son is beginning to read, I haven’t tried to start formal instruction with him. I don’t push handwriting at all. Since I’m a science teacher and he’s interested, we do some science just about every day. But we don’t do as much art, since that’s currently not his thing.
The major difference between my homeschool and an early childhood classroom is that our schedule is much more flexible. We can drop everything to go visit a museum or watch trains go by at the light rail station. My son can also stick with an activity as long as he wants – I try not to interrupt him to switch activities unless we’ve got a time commitment. The books and toys we use are developmentally appropriate for him – so while I would never think to read Magic Tree House to a class of preschoolers, it’s a good series for my son right now.
For every toy my son plays with, or every activity he chooses, I could rattle off a whole list of skills that he is picking up. People who haven’t deschooled – gotten out of the traditional school mindset – might feel comforted to know what pre-academic competencies are being practiced in our home.
Since I still have a foot in the school world, as a tutor and curriculum developer, I understand the anxiety. The ethos in our society seems to be that everything must be in service of academic achievement – those all important test scores, the checklist of “what top colleges want”.
But the key is to know what works for YOUR child. What your child is ready for and not ready for. No two children – but especially no two young children – are exactly the same. That’s the beauty of homeschooling, being able to meet your child right at their developmental level.
Re-Choosing Homeschooling, Year After Year
Homeschooling is something we continually choose to do. It isn’t set in stone.
If a family decides to homeschool young children for preschool, and then send them to a private or public school later on, that’s fine. That still counts!
If that same family decides to bring the children home at any point after they’ve attended school, that’s fine too. You don’t get points taken off for changing your mind! Families are always evaluating and re-evaluating the choices they make for their children – it’s actually the right thing to do.
People have asked me if I plan to homeschool my son all the way through high school. My answer is that I’m open to that, if that’s what works for him. He’s only turning 5, so we have yet to see what his interests and aspirations are, and what educational environments might be available for him as a teen. Does that make me less of a homeschooler right now? Uh, I don’t think so!
Homeschooling At Any Age
In my (not so humble) opinion, if you choose not to place your child in a day care, preschool, or formal school program, you are homeschooling. I don’t care if the child is 2, 5, 10, or 15.
Homeschooling is a lifestyle and a way of thinking about education, not a number. It isn’t “just parenting” or “just playing”, or “just” anything.
Don’t let anyone tell you you aren’t “really” homeschooling because of X, Y, or Z. The beauty of homeschooling is that we can get away from labels and rigid structures, instead of reinforcing them.
How old was your child or children when you became interested in homeschooling? Are you currently homeschooling your young child? Leave a comment below!