Are you considering homeschooling? Read our best homeschooling tips and tricks along with our top homeschooling curriculum choices!
Over the last few weeks, several friends have approached me with questions about homeschooling. With the uncertainty about school reopenings, many families are considering this alternative and looking for more information from friends.
This post is essentially just a tidied up version of the correspondence I have had with curious friends. If you’re considering homeschooling, I’d like to be such a friend to you!
We have been homeschooling for three years. That is not all that long, but that makes it so I can vividly remember the teeming questions from when we first started. Sharing the answers that we have found for ourselves is something I can offer. Every homeschooling families will settle on their own solutions, but I hope that this will help you find them.
In this post, I have included a list of general homeschooling tips and tricks that came to mind, but also a very specific list of secular resources on different subjects. It may be difficult to know where to start when you first consider homeschooling, so I would be happy if you looked at them as a starting point.
General Homeschooling Tips and Tricks
Homeschooling doesn’t have to take very long. As a work-at-home mother, this was one of my biggest concerns. But, after a few years of homeschooling my son and talking with other families of homeschoolers, I believe that few families do more than 1-2 hours of focused studies a day. At least, that is the case for elementary students. It may be more for older students, but they also do more on their own.
When I say “focused homeschooling”, I don’t mean rigorous mathematics exercises either. We read books aloud, both fiction and non-fiction, discuss them, write stories, play educational board games, follow art tutorials on YouTube, and work on crafts. I often see it as family time with a self-improvement agenda. As for math, my children mostly do that on their own. How?
The educational environment matters. Let there be books and board games, LEGO and wooden blocks, art supplies, embroidery hoops, woodworking tools, microscopes, and telescopes! Just keep them around, and sooner or later children will gravitate to them and make use of them.
If you allow screen-time in your family (and we do), use that strategically, and fill your children’s tablets with math apps and reading/writing apps. For three years, my son has been using a math app as his main curriculum. We’ve used supplements and tried deviating from them a few times, but in the end, the apps have worked best.
Audiobooks are another big part of our family’s life. We read aloud for about 1-2 hours every day, but the rest of the time, our children can listen to audiobooks as much as they want. My son fills about eight hours in his day, listening to one of his favourite books while keeping physically active. Like last month, when he listened to the How to Train Your Dragon series (12 books, about 60 hours of listening time!) on repeat. At the same time, he usually draws, builds with LEGO, or even jumps on the trampoline outside.
Homeschooling doesn’t stop all day long. While focused learning only accounts for a few hours a day, the actual process of learning never really stops. In my opinion, this is one of the best things about homeschooling. We live in an era when information is readily available to us, so it is the desire and ability to self-educate that matters.
I personally believe that it doesn’t even matter much what children learn. Of course, there will be some necessary standards for math and ELA. But other than that? There can be lessons on princesses (that would combine history and geography with studies of etiquette and conversations about feminism) or lessons on dragons (that could include mythology, biology, and creative writing)! In the end, it is all about developing a love for learning and encouraging curiosity.
Children learn better when they are having fun. The truth is, we all do. So, try to make learning fun. Watch documentaries, play games, read good books, build a pyramid from Lego and animal habitats in Minecraft. Of course, there will likely be some topics or some exercises that will not be fun, no matter how you try. Remember the genius educator Mary Poppins and add a spoonful of sugar. Have a platter of cookies or plan a pleasant activity for afterwards.
Relationships matter more than education. When choosing to homeschool, many families do it because they want to stay close to their children. Then, math problems strike and the illogic of English attacks, and suddenly it may be difficult to keep calm. Be prepared for that, and have a plan. Sometimes a little treat might help you get through a sticky spot; other times, the promise of some fun activities afterwards. There may be days when it is better to call early quits on the topic and try again another time. We take a break from structured learning during the summer, and it is amazing to me that, while my son forgets some things, he also seems a lot more developmentally ready to understand other things when we get back to it.
If a schedule doesn’t work, try a routine. While a schedule is more rigid, with certain times allotted for certain activities, a routine is more flexible. Where a schedule states “reading at 9:00, math at 1:00”, a routine generally says “we will do reading between breakfast and lunch, and math between lunch and supper”. It does relieve some stress.
When planning for a year of homeschooling, you can also consider a block schedule (dedicating months instead of days to certain subjects) and loop schedule (instead of assigning certain days to certain subjects, put a number of subjects, such as history, science, geography on a rotation basis). Both ideas are described in detail here!
Plan sparingly. Choose a few things and do them well. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the choice of curricula, not to mention all the fun finds in homeschooling groups! Plan for things that have to be done, like math and ELA. In addition, choose one or two more things that matter to your family. Rotate a few others. Leave plenty of room for spontaneous exploration and fun activities.
Even if you plan for your children to eventually return to public schools and want to make sure that they don’t fall behind, the science and social studies curriculum in elementary grades is generally pretty easy to complete, and that should leave a lot of time for interest-led learning.
Check your state/province/national requirements. They can vary significantly. We live in Canada, and in our province, we have to write an educational plan at the beginning of each year and submit a year-end report, but within these guidelines, we are free to make our own choices and choose our own philosophy. By the way, as far as homeschooling philosophies go, you can read about them more and take a test. It helps to know where to look for ideas, but in the end, most homeschooling families I know end up being eclectic.
In other states/provinces, the rules may differ. Some don’t ask for a plan or a report; others do. Some will pay a small subsidy for your homeschooling needs; others won’t.
Homeschooling can be done on a budget. Cost is a concern for many parents thinking about homeschooling, so I will give you some ideas. Last year, for grade 2, we spent $135 on our reading program, $50 on our spelling program, and $90 on math. Those weren’t tight-budget choices, but they were the things we used on a regular basis. We also acquired a history curriculum for $60, which we enjoyed, but only used sparingly. Instead, we read a lot of library books. I plan to revisit that history curriculum though, in a few years. We also tried a science curriculum for $80, which got mixed reviews from us and wasn’t a big success overall.
I would very roughly estimate $500 per child for curriculum needs per year. Of course, if there is a budget for more, it is nice to be able to treat your family to extras, but in a pinch, homeschooling doesn’t have to cost much to be enjoyable and effective!
Our library system is definitely our biggest friend. My next favourite resource is a printer that is compatible with HP Instant Ink services. Buying materials digitally and only printing what you need can sometimes be a way to save money, not to mention all the free printable materials available. HP Instant Ink is the most cost-effective way to do printing if you print at least 50 pages a month.
Make homeschooling your own. All the tips and tricks that you read above are based on what we have chosen for us and for now. We love books, we love art, and we also choose to use electronics sparingly, but enthusiastically. Those are the things we do a lot at this point, so it is no surprise that I added pictures of Mount Olympus, a tuk-tuk, the life cycle of plants, and Harry Potter to our last year-end report.
Your homeschool may be completely different in that regard. There may be lots of baking or slime experiments. Or, possibly, there will be more outdoor exploration and photography. We would like to do more hiking and nature exploring ourselves but currently live in a city with long, harsh winters. When we move, our homeschooling will probably change. It may even become travelschooling for a while! Homeschooling is pretty flexible, and it’s great!
Read books and find communities that reflect your views on homeschooling. One of the books on homeschooling that inspired me was Brave Learner by Julie Boggart. It speaks about developing a love for learning and a need for enchantment in education. It is very engaging and reassuring. I highly recommend it.
One of my favourite groups is Secular Unit Studies and Homeschool Baskets. I also follow a couple of local groups to know what is happening around here. There are, of course, many more amazing groups that you can find, based on your interests and philosophical beliefs!
Homeschooling Ideas for Different Subjects
Homeschooling families often divide their attention between a few main areas of study. They are Math, English Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies. Some families may add Art, Drama, Music, Sports or Second Language as additional subjects. Other families may focus mainly on Math and ELA and do science and social studies whenever the opportunity arises, like when going for a walk, gardening, reading historical fiction or watching a documentary.
While multiple variants are possible, in this post, I’d like to give ideas for four main areas of study – Math, ELA, Science and Social Studies. I will give suggestions for a few full curricula that I have either used or heard positive things about, as well as some interesting supplemental materials to make the learning process more engaging.
Math Homeschooling Tips & Tricks
Math is one of my favourite subjects to teach. Not because I am particularly fond of math (though I never hated it either), but because nowadays there are actually a lot of fun ways to teach and learn math. There is a good choice of curricula for different needs, and it is always great to add math video games and math board games for more engagement!
Study math with comic books and engaging puzzles! You can do it with books alone, but if you want, you can add an online subscription that will include videos and online games. It is an innovative curriculum that is recommended for children who enjoy math and like a bit of a challenge.
Beast Academy used to only start with grade 2, but they recently added grade 1 as well! Just in time for my youngest. We have been doing it with my oldest for two years now, and we love it.
Format: Traditional with the possibility of online supplements
One of the most hands-on math curricula on the market, it uses a set of blocks to show very tangibly how math works. It is recommended for kinesthetic and visual learners who do well with slow-but-steady progress. We used it as a supplement for grades one and two, using a digital video subscription and a set of used blocks we came across. Those videos are great!
In our experience, it is a little repetitive to use on its own, but some families do just fine, possibly with a bit of supplementing. It is most popular for the lower elementary level, rather than the higher grades.
Another hands-on curriculum that uses games and makes math a part of everyday activities. While it is highly regarded for lower elementary grades, we have not tried it, because even those homeschooling families who were fond of it admitted that it required a lot of parental involvement. Still, it would be great for children who hate worksheets!
What with comic books, blocks, and games, the three curricula above offer a pretty innovative approach to learning math. The truth is, some children simply prefer worksheets for math - the "just sit down and get it done" approach. Singapore Math would probably be the best choice for them. It is also the most economical choice on the list.
That being said, is a very good math curriculum, with innovative explanations and interesting puzzles that instill a deep understanding of math concepts.
While it is not a widely known program, this is what worked for my son for kindergarten, grade one and grade two. It was just enough to make math practice engaging, challenging and colourful so that he didn't mind doing it regularly. That was the key to his steady progress.
We did have to supplement a little in grade two since the program didn't offer a lot of explanations. It was still very good for practice.
From what I can tell without actually owning it, Smartick is a good continuation of Todo Math. The lessons are reasonable and short, and the puzzles are various and engaging. Besides simple calculations and geometry, it pays attention to critical thinking and logic, which is a rarity. The downside of this curriculum for us was its price.
Life of Fred is a series that puts both fun and meaning into studying math for children since the mathematical concepts are tied in with the adventures of Fred. It goes as a read-aloud for children, and my children are always up for reading it. Admittedly, we do not get to it very often, since it doesn't seem to be the most effective way to learn math.
It is also worth noting that the author of this series is religious, and the Life of Fred series is not entirely secular. However, religious references are few and benign.
We all know it's wonderful to read bedtime stories to kids, but what about doing math? Inside this book, families will find fun facts about the world, accompanied by related math problems to tackle. Each fun fact features four math problems - for wee ones, for little kids, for big kids, and one extra
My son loves listening to this series of books! It satisfies his curiosity about the world.
Many of the good math curricula on this list offer innovative techniques for teaching number sense, addition and subtraction, but have very little content for developing critical thinking and logical skills. This series of books does that instead and introduces children to deductive reasoning, patterning, flexibility, brainstorming, and many more.
Like many kids, mine are fond of video games, which I use freely to supplement whatever we are studying. The selection of math apps on the market is particularly great! There are quite a few on the list that my kids chose to play for fun, while learning to count, add, subtract, solve logic puzzles and even as an introduction to algebra.
Teaching ELA is not as straightforward as math. Children of the same ages can have strikingly different reading abilities. Some second-graders have no difficulty reading chapter books, while others are still working on phonics. While this isn't usually a problem as abilities tend to level out in the long run, it does make the recommendation of ELA programs difficult, without knowing the particulars of every student's situation.
While there are a lot of skills to teach, it's generally considered best to take it slowly. Teach phonics, but find children's books that they could not bear to put away or let them play video games where they would have to read. Many of the skills - spelling, grammar, and vocabulary - will often come naturally to children who read a lot.
I'm going to put down our first choice for a particular skill set and then a couple of alternatives.
Arguably, the best reading program on the market. It is well-paced, multi-sensory, and it offers amazingly logical explanations of the intricacies of English reading. Every level includes a teacher's book with scripted text for parents, so preparations for every lesson take less than five minutes. It also has a book of activities and a few readers with stories. I am very happy to recommend this program. It even taught me a few things about reading in English!
What are the downsides? The price is pretty steep. With that in mind, I would recommend it for children who are slow to figure out reading. I would also suggest it to parents who want to spend a minimum of time preparing for lessons, while still giving their children a very solid reading foundation. But if you have a natural reader, who tends to figure out the technicalities on their own, it is probably better to get a less exhaustive program and focus on something else.
Whenever someone asks for early reader recommendations, I suggest early reader comic books. The reliance on mostly visual storytelling in them makes it so that the story can be pretty complicated and engaging without many words, which is something that cannot be said about many other early reader we tried.
Skill: Literature appreciation (combined with grammar, punctuation and spelling)
Format: Digital (parents print parts of it)
Once a child can read, what is next? Reading good books, of course! This set of programs helps make the experience meaningful. It combines the reading of an excellent book, either aloud or silently, with meaningful discussions about the plot and the use of literary devices.
Another important feature of this innovative program is that it relies on the idea that a lot of what children need to learn about grammar and spelling can be obtained from reading literature and noticing/discussing the grammar and spelling that authors use. Each issue offers passages for copywork and dictation, as well as a writing project.
It is a good program for creating a rich literary environment. The books in the program are diverse, and you can choose a yearly bundle or select individual titles. Some families do it year-round as their main curriculum, while supplementing it lightly with other spelling and grammatical materials. Others do 4-5 books a year and include more supplements.
Dart offers books for elementary school, Arrow is for middle school, and Boomerang is for high school.
Good alternatives: Five in a Row. Simply reading books and discussing them works too!
While spelling and grammar have their application, their need only becomes apparent when children aspire to write. Brave Writer is the program that will make children fall in love with writing, even before they are ready to write themselves.
This is a great program for creative families, since it requires some input from parents on all levels, but especially the early ones. I personally love it, but I can see that it may not be for parents who have little creative writing interest.
I do recommend getting the book Brave Learner by the creator of the program though. It is chock full of ideas for how to make learning an exciting experience while retaining the best relationship with your children.
An extension of the All About Reading program, this follows a logical approach to learning how to spell. Instead of relying on memorization and copy work as the primary means of learning spelling, this program relies on rules, tricks and common patterns in English spelling. It is well-paced and easy to understand, and the lessons are quick to complete. While at times I would like more variety of practice activities, I like that it's to the point and fits easily into our days. Most importantly, it really is successful at teaching spelling!
Format: Traditional & digital (need to be printed)
While using this program, students hunt for and correct errors in daily passages that cumulatively tell a story. All of the work takes a maximum of ten minutes a day. Vocabulary enrichment activities are included as well. Fun, quick, and effective! Recommended for grade 3 and up.
Format: Traditional and digital (needs to be printed)
If you'd rather do a combined study of spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, which is especially appropriate for lower levels, here is a program that outlines everything that a child needs to learn every year.
Both All About Spelling and Fix It Grammar are not graded, so it is preferable to start them from book one, but Language Fundamentals is graded, so pick a grade-appropriate book and see if it seems right.
Practicing spelling words can be boring. Diagramming a sentence can be intimidating. But it doesn’t’ have to be! By using educational language arts board games, you’ll add some excitement to your learning.
Last, but not least - audiobooks are always great! They pair well with art, LEGO building, and a selection of other crafts, and my son even manages to listen to them while jumping on the trampoline. It's a surefire way to develop a love for books, as well as an impressive vocabulary, with minimal help from parents.
Some years we've tried a curriculum-based approach, and other years we've tried interest-based exploration. I must say that for the lower elementary levels, interest-based exploration has worked better for us.
If you would like a more structured approach, you can also pick a few (five or six) topics of interest and acquire study guides for them. Some of the topics we did, were anatomy, birds, and space.
We love getting books on a subject of interest from the library (DK Publishing, National Geographic, Usborne, etc.) and watching documentaries. (Planet Earth, Cosmos, Blue Planet, etc.)
While each of these science courses spans a range of grade levels and topics, the content can be modified based on your student’s academic needs. The courses incorporate mathematics, scientific method, and science terminology, at age-appropriate levels. The programs come with many hands-on projects that will make learning memorable.
While offering detailed lesson plans for many topics, BFSU does more than that. It provides a good overview of science teaching methodologies so that parents and children could potentially tackle any topic, following this program. This program is somewhat less open-and-go than others, but it offers a fantastic guide to teaching science in elementary classes!
This program offers two choices for curriculum, both of which provide a solid foundation in the five core disciplines of science: chemistry, biology, physics, geology, and astronomy. Exploring the Building Blocks of Science is a year-long graded program, while the Focus Onseries is a semester-long unit study program.
Science Lessons and Investigations presents science learning through investigation and observation. Each unit includes a hands-on engagement activity to allow students to explore and investigate science concepts.
Curiosity Stream is a streaming service devoted to documentaries. As far as we have seen so far, most titles in the selection are family-friendly or at least neutral enough, so it is a far better option in that regard than youtube.
Science graphic novels are a great way for kids and adults to combine educational and enjoyable reading into one! There is a series called Science Comics that we have been enjoying a lot. They add a few new titles every year. There are some other great ones available from other publishers as well. This is a list of our favourites, but the available selection is far bigger!
Each of the kits in the list offers a fun selection of science projects that inspire children to become creative problem solvers. Basing your whole science curriculum around a subscription box is another way to do it in the elementary school years. It is definitely an engaging and hands-on alternative.
What are social studies, anyway? Well, it depends! Many homeschooling families tackle history on a spiral basis (Ancient times one year, Medieval times next year, and then Early Modern and Modern era), but some years they do geography instead. You can also include psychology and sociology, on a level that would be understandable for children.
The biggest challenge for me is to choose one thing, so that we would not get too overwhelmed, and to ensure that we leave plenty of time for interest-led exploration.
Focus: History, Science, and Geography Through Literature
Type: Full curriculum
Format: Traditional and digital
A very interesting program that offers a curriculum based around literature, but with the focus on geography (studied in Kindergarten and grade 7) and history (studied in grades 1-6 and grades 8-12). A great choice for book-loving families!
The downside is, of course, that you will have to acquire all the books in this program separately. They're great books though, judging by the lists that everyone can see before buying the program. The fact that you can cover four areas of study with one program core can't easily be beat.
Each weekly unit takes a chapter of History Quest and turns it into a unit study with a week’s worth of engaging activities. In addition to the engaging chapter, you will generally receive a list of comprehension questions, an activity idea, such as a craft, a recipe, or an experiment, and a list of further books/videos to consider.
As far as history goes, it is my favourite program. We enjoyed History Quest Early Times and Middle Times, and we are now anxiously waiting for the Modern Times. And while it focuses on elementary students, I learned A LOT from this program, and I plan to repeat it again with my oldest when my youngest is ready for history.
This innovative history curriculum is written in the form of a dialogue between two children. The format seems to engage some students, but not others. We enjoyed listening to the audiobooks that came with the program. The suggestions for hands-on activities and further exploration of topics were also fun.
When doing Ancient History with this program, I felt that there was definitely some need for further reading with this program. It is pleasantly diverse and not as Eurocentric as some others, but it does not explore any particular civilization in great detail. It's also more prone to focus on ideas and inventions of a certain time period, but only gives a very vague sense of daily life and material culture. I preferred History Quest Early Times, which we got later.
However, we returned to Curiosity Chronicles for the Early Modern Times. We found that it was a lot easier to imagine life at that time. The exploration of that period also seemed much more detailed (it focused on 250 years instead of 10,000 years, after all!). We enjoyed using it, and we are waiting to see what they come up with for Modern Times.
For a while, this was the most prominent history program among homeschooling families. It probably still is, because it is an easy-to-read but detailed fundamental work that is readily available from many books stores and libraries.
While offering a mostly neutral and objective exploration, some parts view history from a distinctively Christian perspective. I believe that secular families can still make use of this program, but for that reason, I would hesitate to use it as the only history curriculum.
An entertaining and informative illustrated guide that makes world history accessible, appealing, and funny. There may be parts included in this book that some families would skip with younger children - unfortunately, much of history isn't pretty. It is still a great addition to the library!
Irreverent, humorous and full of details on violent, gross and questionable parts of history, this set may not be for everyone... But it just may get some children actually interested in history! We have read some books selectively, and I have not spotted anything particularly inappropriate.
Basing your geography curriculum around a subscription box, such as Little Passports or Atlas Crate, is another way to bring some fun geography time to your family. Not mentioned on this list, but also popular are Universal Yums.
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