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Why We Homeschool, part 6 September 17, 2007

Posted by Laura in Faith, Family, Homeschooling.

The Work of Young Children is Play

Left to their own devices, children come up with very creative and educational ways to play. (I should stop here and say that I mean children that are encouraged to get off the couch, turn off the TV and game systems, and use their imaginations. We’ve all heard studies about the shocking rate of obesity in children and the dangers their sedentary lifestyles may lead to in adulthood. I’m talking about the children that still play the way we did).

On a rainy day, they can look at a set of dining room chairs and a blanket and suddenly they are pioneer kids from the Little House book series. They see a fallen branch in the back yard and become pole vaulters or jousting knights or javelin throwers. A box of costumes can keep them busy for hours. And this “play” isn’t just a frivolous way to pass time. They are learning and solving problems and loving every minute of the education.

Our nation’s schools focus on concrete and measurable work. They have to do that to prepare kids for standardized tests and to create grade reports. Test-taking and documenting progress are necessary to prove proficiency and prepare kids for higher learning, but we don’t feel time allocated to those goals leave enough room in the average public (and private) school day for other important things. Children really need time to invent their own games and play creatively if we want to foster their creativity. Certainly time must be spent teaching them to read and write and add on a regular basis, but we must not overlook the importance of play (for young children especially).

The school day is typically from about 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Those hours break down roughly this way: 1 hour for lunch and recess; about an hour altogether of lining up, going to the bathroom/getting drinks, walking from place to place, etc.; 30-45 minutes of an art, music, or physical education type class; and the rest of the time is mostly spent sitting (quietly, if the teacher is lucky) at a desk for passive instruction or independent seatwork. There aren’t many opportunities for collaborative work- discussion and exploration. Once the children get home from school, most will have homework that may take up to 2 hours. Dinner comes along, then baths, and bed. Most children won’t engage in much creative play on a typical day.

Homeschooling meets our children’s needs in a lot of ways. One of the benefits we see is the increased time they get to spend in informal learning and exercise (play). Since I work one-on-one with each child, I know how each is progressing and can tailor our formal school time accordingly. If Benjamin knows all the vocabulary words from the story already (which I can assess quickly), I probably won’t make him look them all up and write the definitions. That wouldn’t be the case if he were one of my 25 students. Skipping that task just freed up half an hour. With two students, we don’t line up and wait for everyone to go to the bathroom- more “found time.” And so on. Benjamin and Rachel get far more creative play time this way.

As I mentioned before, there is a lot of value to the ways they play also. We don’t have any video game systems and we restrict television (the kids “earn” their carefully selected TV shows by working for tokens they use to “buy” them). What we do have are several large storage totes of toy instruments, puppets, costumes, Legos, chess sets, and other similar toys and games. Benjamin and Rachel put on puppet shows of their own creation. They pretend they are gladiators, astronauts, vets, and so on. They build castles (Rachel’s have princesses in them while Benjamin’s have dueling knights 🙂 ), play with clay, make marching bands, and do origami. We enjoy watching them almost as much as they like playing.

Besides the “free play,” I try to provide plenty of exploration time with materials we use for lessons. In the school classroom setting, the time is broken into small increments that are allocated to particular subjects. Science (when it’s taught) may only be from 1-1:45. During that time, if the teacher is going to attempt an experiment, she must work quickly. She needs to introduce the lesson, give background information, and then instructions. The students probably will need to be put into groups and then take turns using the materials since most likely there won’t be a set for every child. Each child’s turn will be only a couple minutes at most. Enough time to spark their interest but probably (hopefully!) not satisfy their curiosity. Our kids frequently “play” for hours recreating and extending the lessons after “school” is over. We think that’s great.


(We took our home-made marble tracks outside so we could have more room. We should have anticipated that the chickens would want in on the lesson, too. We kept having to chase them to get our marbles back- that’s why the end of this section of track is now in Benjamin’s lap.  I believe Benjamin is saying, “Go away, chicken!”).

The kids tried out different designs of marble tracks to study gravity and momentum. Although they had a great time doing it, they learned a lot- gravity pulls things down toward the ground (not uphill); if you put a hill in the middle of the track, the marble may not have enough momentum to make it over the top; the heaviest marbles go the fastest and travel the farthest off the end; centrifugal force will keep a marble on the track around a curve if the track is tipped sideways. They made configurations with loops in them and were able to get the marbles to go all the way around without falling out. They found out that the higher the top of the track is, the faster the marbles are going when they reach the end. They also invented a motor skills game where each held an end of the open track. They lifted or lowered their side to allow the marble to roll back and forth, but tried not to let the marble touch their hands. I only occasionally prompted their thinking or discoveries. They were naturally curious and constructed almost all of their own learning.


(Here is the game they came up with- the object was to get the marble as close to your hand as possible without actually touching it. The game was easier or harder depending on how much slope was in the track).

It doesn’t take a lot of fancy equipment or expensive toys to entertain kids. I got a few foam pipe insulators (the kind you may put on pipes coming out of the water heater) in the plumbing department for about $1.25 each. I cut one in half and left the others whole. The kids used different kinds of marbles (light plastic, medium glass, and heavy steel) to test out their track configurations.



1. Amy - September 17, 2007

Homeschooling at its best. The opportunity to really get involved in experiments is one reason why I want to home school. We already do little science experiments, like seeing what happens when we put a bottle of water in the freezer, or sit a cup of ice out on the counter or boil a pan of water with the lid on. Three years old and she understands more about the water cycle than many who are already in school. When I was young my dad and I measured the water volume and velocity of the backyard creek. This is a really fun experiment because who doesn’t love splashing in a creek in the name of science?

2. chickenmama - September 17, 2007

Wow! Your dad was really ahead of his time! And what great memories to cherish of time spent with him!

I’m really impressed that you have done so much science work already- what a blessing for your children!

A fun one I remember doing was freezing small toys in dishes of water and then putting the “ice cubes” in the bathtub at night. They had fun trying to figure out how to get the ice to melt faster so they could get the toy. And then some toys would sink after they were released from the floating ice.

Another good one is making colored ice cubes with vivid food coloring and letting them swirl different colors together while they melt.

A few years ago, you used to be able to buy completely clear liquid dish soap. I would put food coloring in it and let them paint the bathtub walls. We stored the different colors in old butter bowls and such. If we wanted thicker opaque paint, I added cornstarch. I haven’t been able to find colorless dish liquid in a while, but I suppose if I wanted to buy a whole lot of different brands, I could get the different colors that way. That’s a lot to store, though.

3. Amy - September 17, 2007

Science seems so intimidating, but its really easy to work into “family fun time”. For example, backyard bugs: find and identify them; keep an ant farm; keep bees; plant a butterfly garden; build a ladybug house, observe the stages of a butterfly from a caterpillar. Pond life: study the life cycle of a frog; catch crawdads; identify water bugs and aquatic plant life. Plants: identify trees by their bark, seeds, or leaves; grow a vegetable garden. Geology: collect rocks; observe soil layers in a deep creek bank; explore a cave or climb a bluff. I could go on an on. There are good inside science projects too, such as studying light refracted through a prism, or sound from the vibration of strings of various thickness or tautness. Science was my least favorite subject in school but that’s because I think it is best taught hands-on and “in the field” so to speak. Also, it easily blends with art or p.e. by keeping a sketch book or writing entries in a nature journal, taking wildlife photos and by hiking, climbing, fishing etc.

4. chickenmama - September 18, 2007

Yes, I really like when we have a topic that lends itself to multiple subject areas. We did some magnetism experiments and ended the lesson with art.

I cut paper circles the size of the bottom of a pie pan. I gave each child a steel marble and a strong magnet. We dropped primary colored tempera paint in globs on the paper inside the pie pans. The kids put the marble in the paint and made designs and mixed colors by guiding the marble from beneath with the magnet. They had a ball.

After they had the basic idea down, they thought of different methods. They tried tipping the pan to roll the marble without the magnet. They varied the amounts of the colors of paints. They spun or shook the pans to mix the paint and then used the marble to make tracks in the paint that spelled their names. All kinds of worthwhile experimentation that went beyond even what I had thought of. They spent an hour on the activity even going into their “recess” time because they were having such a good time. I wish I had learned science that way.

5. Brandy - October 12, 2007

I found your site through a friend. I am just beginning the homeschooling journey – actually haven’t officially started yet, but am thinking through it. Thanks for sharing your ideas and suggestions. I am beginning to get a better grasp of what this can look like. After teaching in the classroom, rearranging my thinking about how to educate, I think, is the hardest part!

6. Sheryl - October 17, 2007

So true about classroom experiments!!! Even at our “good” private school growing up. The stuff barely worked and most kids didn’t lay hands on it. Usually only the “me first” type who typically dominated the class anyway.

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