Homegrown Learners

Homegrown Learners

Home schooling my children was never on my radar. Ever. Well, at least not until this September when my son moved up from the free flow play of Reception to the phonics driven madness of Year 1. The leap was just one too far for my active, creative May born baby boy.

I guess a good place to start is why. Why choose to withdraw our son from mainstream education and take him out of a school that other parents are fighting to get their children a place at? Why make life harder for myself when I already struggle to balance work and family life?  I have no background in teaching so what made me think I could do a better job than Jenson’s teachers?

My issue wasn’t so much with the school but with the system. Okay, St James’ is big and Jenson was missing out on a few opportunities, but the problem lay much deeper than that. I talked to other parents with children further up in the school and listened to their stories. I didn’t have to dig very deep to unearth substantial unrest and concern. After looking at the alternative options, even my own husband thought I’d gone mad when I suggested home education just a few weeks into the start of the new term. Yet it was his reservations that made me think: I can do this. I can help our children to learn. Sometimes the best motivation comes from the most surprising place. Proving a point is as good a motivator as any. It was a difficult decision whether to pull Jenson from school and not one that my husband or I agreed on. Eventually I won because, as my husband put it, he could see I wasn’t going to back down.

My husband now fully supports what I’m doing. For us, learning extends beyond the four walls of a classroom. A child learns out there in the real world. They learn by their mistakes and their achievements; by doing things wrong and right; by winning and losing; by watching how the adults do it and copying, God help them. They learn about themselves and others through their environment. They work out what their social capabilities or limitations are and how they fit in to this big scary world simply by being in it and absorbing everything it has to offer.  Children were built to learn. That’s what they do best. Just ask our neighbours in Scandinavia.

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Don’t get me wrong. I think teachers do a fantastic job given the pressure they are under, but that is where I feel the problem lies. I believe that education is no longer for the benefit of our children and is instead about ticking boxes and hitting targets. Pitting schools against one another to encourage competition and better league table results is not the right way to get the best out of our children. If education really was to their benefit they would all be outside enjoying more forest school and more play based learning.

We realised we had a problem on our hands as soon as the new school year started. Homework rolled in on the first Friday back along with two reading books. Jenson was showing cracks and I was feeling the strain of an emotionally charged, over tired and over worked 5 year old. Jenson’s Dad did his homework with him because I refused to on the basis that children as young as him shouldn’t be given it. Things went down hill pretty quickly from there.

I remember one Sunday morning recently. It was about 5.30am and I could hear Jenson rummaging through our extensive craft cupboard. We would hear little footsteps patter across our bedroom floor then an excited voice saying, “Look what I’ve made Mummy.” In the dim light I could just make out a guitar, constructed from an old egg box, kitchen roll and masking tape that he had hashed together brilliantly. A few minutes later he presented me with a thank you card for a birthday gift he had been given and soon after that he was proudly showing his Father a paper aeroplane he had made. That is where school is limiting. It’s great if your child really enjoys the more academic side of it, but what about those who don’t? What about the ones who get up at 5.30am and don’t stop crafting until 5.30pm? Is there room in the curriculum for what those children want to learn?

The guidelines that my husband and I lay down for our children are very different to the ones that the Government set. We recently spent a thoroughly enjoyable day at Pittville Park. It would have been a school day for Jenson normally. We arrived at 9.30am and didn’t leave until 4.30pm. Jenson very quickly befriended a few children and soon enough they were all running around playing tag and What’s The Time Mr Wolf. It was great to see him not only joining in but also confidently taking the lead and setting an example to the little ones. This was in stark contrast to school, where as one of the younger ones, Jenson would follow the older children around and be easily impressed by their not so great behaviour and choice words.

People who say home ed kids miss out on social connections should take a look at their local park. Friendships are being made every minute of the day with different ages and characters. That’s the real world that our children are growing up in. If Jenson can have the confidence to reach out to strangers from all walks of life now, I hope it will give him the compassion and ability to treat others as equals when he’s older. It beats the bland, unrealistic social classing that school dictates, where children are classed by age and not ability and certainly not by friendships.

Like every parent, I only want the best for my children but I often wonder if I really know what that is. When I asked Jenson if he wanted to stay at school or be home schooled he instinctively told me that he wanted to stay at home with me. The sceptics would say, well of course he’s going to say he wants to stay at home with his Mummy all day and play: he’s a kid, and that is where I would agree with them. I think he really does know what’s best for him in that respect.

He’s a child and children were born to play. He knows he wants to play; it’s what feels right. It’s instinctive. I think the older our children get the more we realise they’re not going to be babies forever. I’ve become very conscious that my children should be embracing their childhood with every ounce of energy they have. Childhood isn’t something just to get through; it’s there for a reason.

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As Jenson’s Mother, I’m here to support and encourage him and now we are home schooling that is something I am able to do so much more of. I believe in him whether he’s right or wrong. We can pick up the pieces if it all goes wrong but we can do it together. It will be okay because he’ll know it’s good to try and okay if it fails. I hope that by choosing this path of education for him and his sister that I’m setting an example to them both. Dare I say I hope I am an inspiration to them. They should always follow what they believe in even if everybody else is doing something different. That’s what will take them far in life: the courage to make their own choices.

Even if it doesn’t work out and Jenson ends up back at school next year, my biggest failure would be to not have at least tried. Before embarking on this journey I had huge concerns. I was anxious about the days they would be sat watching Paw Patrol because I was having a bad day or let’s be honest, feeling hungover, but my biggest fear by far was that my children would be missing out on their childhood if I didn’t act; waving goodbye to it at the school gate every morning. So they’re an inspiration to me really. They’re the ones pushing me to places where I don’t feel entirely comfortable. Jenson has never once turned around and told me I can’t do it. He just looks at me with a sense that I can.

To be honest, I’m the first to admit that I am totally surprised that not only are we doing it, but also we’re actually doing pretty well! We’ve taken control back and in turn we’ve given it to our children. They are great kids who are currently thriving in the classroom of life. It is giving them the space to evolve naturally and mature into well-rounded, intelligent young people. They are learning through their own interests. By taking this path we hope to give them more credit and more confidence that what they know is perhaps what is best for them. If we believe in them, they’ll believe in themselves. Let them follow their instinct. Let them fall over and learn to get back up on their own. I want our children to grow up with open minds. We are giving our children the space they need to do this, to be guided by what they know and to love what they learn about.

When I tell people I’m home schooling I get many comments about how brave I am and how much they admire what I’m doing but really I’m doing very little. It’s the kids who are doing all the hard work. I’m just there to facilitate ideas; to help them cut out a circle or to find a book that can tell us more about Space or what happens in a marine research centre. It’s my job to simply guide and encourage them on their journey.

So this is us: official home schoolers. We embarked on this exciting new journey just four weeks ago and we all love it! We don’t follow any formal curriculum and Jenson has no formal lessons. The unschooling approach is working really well for us right now: the kids learn through life. That may well change as they get older, but for now, our days are led by what the children want to do, which is often far more interesting than what I might have had planned.

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Saying that, I have organised a few trips and events. I’ve set up a new Lego club, which I run from our house. It is in its fourth week and on average attracts around fifteen children. It is hugely popular and the kids absolutely love it. It is all Jenson’s Lego and is a great lesson in sharing for him. I’m also in the middle of organising a trip to the MAD Museum and a home ed helping out day at the Cheltenham Animal Shelter. Next week there is a group of us heading up to Crickley Hill for an informal Nativity reading. The children are being encouraged to dress up in their favourite fancy dress costumes on the basis that the journey the shepherds and wise men made was a super human effort, so yes, bring on Batman and his friends or anyone else the children feel inspired by. It beats standing on the school stage as some forgotten star on the back row.

In between these events and restful days, I organise little outings for us as a family. They don’t always go to plan. Just the other week we were driving back from a day trip and the car broke down. It didn’t spell disaster but instead resulted in a spontaneous lesson about the human body using a book I had bought earlier that day in the boot of our car. Last week we were down in Wiltshire at the Glass Hub to do some glass blowing after Jenson asked about how glass was made. Next week we are going to Nature In Art where Jenson can continue to explore his love of arts and crafts. We have a small bolthole by the sea and I remember one blustery morning spent on the beach. Afterwards we took shelter in our favourite café and Jenson pulled out a book about castles. It initiated two hours of reading and drawing portcullises and knights. Everything the children do is delightful, self initiated learning and surely that’s the best kind?

Jenson and Wren also help out much more around the house. Jenson knows where the hoover is and isn’t afraid to use it! I stepped out of the shower last week and was led with my eyes shut into our living room to find he had hovered and tidied the whole space! He makes his bed of a morning, and helps his sister to make hers. He knows about plugs and switches and understands how the washing machine works. Without the pressures of school there is so much more time to enjoy the animals too. The children occasionally help me to clean them out but enjoy collecting the fresh eggs much more! We’ve become members of the Woodland Trust and The Wildlife Trust and hope to explore the beautiful countryside that we live in further. The children are surrounded by a wealth of learning material far richer than any school could ever provide.

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There is of course the subject of work. I’m a photographer and have spent the last five years building up a very successful business. Mouse About Town has a great reputation, which I’ve worked hard to create. I cover thirty five weddings a year and work most weekends on back to back photo shoots both in the studio and on location. Before Jenson started school, editing and post-production would take place most evenings and well into the night. I’m still working but it’s fair to say there has been a massive shift back to those working hours, however it’s one I feel completely comfortable with. Right now my children need me and I’m here for them more than I’ve ever been. It’s a bit scary to be honest.

It is well documented that children taught at home have been found to be more confident than those taught at school. There is also much evidence to suggest that children learn far more about life skills such as communication, resilience, interpersonal skills as well as self-esteem and responsibility. I’ve only been home schooling for a month but I can already see a massive change in Jenson in all those areas. He’s having the time of his life. I’ve never seen him so happy. The change in him is remarkable. Without school, Jenson has time and space to flourish. Just last month, at the beginning of November, he was running around the beach naked and it summed up his life perfectly: he’s free. He’s growing into a remarkably considerate and caring little boy who shows great compassion and consideration towards his family and friends. There are days when this doesn’t happen, but we all have days like that.  Without the hard slog of school and the silly homework he is able to engage fully in his life and his interests. He is showing great passion and enthusiasm for so many things that before were just getting kicked under the doormat as he threw off his school shoes in a sulky rage. Eruptions of anger have subsided and instead been replaced with a calmer and more resilient approach to life when things don’t quite go his way or people don’t do what he wants. He is able to talk more openly to strangers and shows more confidence in social situations. It is clear to all of us that at this stage in his life he is far better off at home. That may change in the future and he may well ask to go to school. If he does we will of course respect his wishes because this is his life after all and he’s got a say in how he can play it.

If home school life sounds good, that’s because for the most part, it is. I’m doing this because my children need me to and if I don’t try, what kind of example is that setting to them? We’re making memories and they’re happy ones. This is our journey so let the adventures begin.

A Guest Blog from Gill Thomas

About Gill

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Gill lives in Cheltenham with her husband, who is an architect, and their two young children, Jenson and Wren, whom she currently home schools. To read more about their home schooling adventures visit Home Grow Learners

As well as being a full time Mum, Gill is also really busy with her established photography business, Mouse About Town. For more information visit her website.

Gill and her family enjoy a quirky life tucked away in a quiet corner of Tivoli. Their extended family consists of one dog, seven chickens and two rabbits. Gill has a love for all things vintage and when not working or looking after the children, can often be found rummaging through treasures at car boot fares!

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