Reading in PJs meets the dress code just fine; a trip to the grocery store becomes a lesson in addition and fractions; a forest walk morphs into a meditation on the circle of life. Zookeepers have time to answer loads of questions on a weekday afternoon. The same goes for gallery staff, store owners and the guy who drives the Zamboni—he might even take you for a spin on the rink if no one is watching. These are just some of the simple freedoms home-schooled kids and their teachers (usually moms) enjoy on an average day.
Classes happen at or around the home for more than 26,000 Canadian kids, and their ranks are growing. Between 2008 and 2015, that number jumped by more than 36 percent, says Fraser Institute researcher Deani Neven Van Pelt, one of Canada’s top home-school experts. That’s fast expansion for a 50-year-old movement. “Home-schooling is becoming more sophisticated,” she says. “It taps into parents’ imaginations about what’s possible for the education of their children.”
What began as a largely Christian movement (by parents who wanted a religiously informed education for their children) has since become more of a secular pursuit and has definitely evolved. Families who home-school are diverse, not necessarily religious and quite entrepreneurial when it comes to finding novel ways to teach old lessons; they do it because they can, because it gives them more time together and because it’s more practical than ever before.
“We can all be self-educators in ways that weren’t possible even a decade ago,” Van Pelt says. “Digital technology has changed the way we learn and even the way we teach. You can access great programs and instruction for all sorts of topics online, either at a low price or for free. You don’t have to rely on school, look in a textbook and have a teacher teach you a lesson anymore.”
Here’s how one resourceful, tight-knit family is un-schooling their kids.
Since they had their first baby a decade ago, Rebecca Spooner and her husband, Jonathan, a corporal with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, have been relocated four times. That means every two to four years, the family, usually with a new member on the way, pulls out the moving boxes.
But wherever they go, school comes right along with them. A home-school graduate herself, Spooner has been educating her five children since the beginning. Home-schooling tightens their bond, gives them more control over how their kids learn and allows them to pass their values along, while also helping to smooth the bumps that come with their nomadic lifestyle.
While the practice is definitely more widespread than it used to be, Spooner still encounters people who don’t quite get it. “Even if your family supports you, there’s judgment from everybody else. People don’t understand and think that home-schoolers are backward—that you sit at home and have zero interaction with the outside world.” she says. “It used to be that home-schooling was mainly done by Christian families. People have this perception that it’s old-fashioned—girls wearing skirts and not leaving the home—which is no longer the norm. Home-schooling is much more mainstream and so, so different today. My Christian faith plays a huge role as to why we choose to teach our value system to our children at home. However, my husband and I are not segregating our children from the world in fear, nor are we teaching them only one point of view.”
Days at the Spooner house start slowly, with a snuggle and reading session on the couch. Each child chooses an item from the “morning basket,” which is stocked with tons of books—classic literature, books on art and culture, the Bible and other library books the kids are interested in. From here, the kids move into more structured activities, like quiet copy work (practising writing letters and words) or a group math lesson. While one or two are absorbed in one task, a younger kid might get some one-on-one time. “I make it about keeping them all together as much as possible, because otherwise, with five of them, some get left out.”
Afternoons are often filled with outings, both to enhance the kids’ learning and to run errands or do chores. “It’s not a scheduled day—it’s more free-flowing,” she says. “Home-schooled kids have the unique opportunity to go out and explore the world while other kids are stuck at their desks. They get to go on field trips, talk with professionals, help the neighbours shovel their walks and babysit. They are constantly being pushed out of their comfort zones and experiencing new things.”
Home-school moms are often pushed out of their comfort zones, too. It can be a demanding, relentless and messy task, something Spooner is transparent about to anyone who asks. “As a home-schooler, your house never gets clean. Ever.” Although she loved doing science experiments as a kid, she finds prepping for them and myriad art projects pretty joyless—but she’ll do them, after mustering extra patience. “Gearing up for things like that is not fun for me. I’m always trying to break out of my box and relax into it.”
Subscribe to our daily newsletter! Teaching her kids in the way that each one learns best is another challenge. Spooner has embraced it by researching different learning styles—one kid is an auditory learner, so he takes in more from verbal lessons; another is visual and learns best by reading; and yet another is a kinetic learner and needs to get her hands dirty and immerse herself in a concept. “I’m constantly tweaking things to work for them and not just teach in the way I personally learn.”
Between lessons, sports and music activities, breaks are rare. Keeping this schedule with five kids has forced Spooner to be inventive in how she steals quiet moments: whether it’s 10 minutes with a cup of tea, working on her blog, or—on exceptional days—a quick nap. “I’m not getting out for three hours of spa time. I have to find ways of boosting myself quickly so I can pour more out,” she says. Spooner’s husband works shift work for the RCMP, so he is able to take on lessons and outings, but the bulk of teaching falls to her—and finding the energy for the constancy of it all, particularly when there’s no family nearby to help, can be hard. It’s one of the main reasons many home-school moms look to connect with other families who can relate and meet up so the kids can play while they chat, swap strategies and, on bad days, commiserate.
One persistent myth Spooner feels compelled to address is that home-schooled kids aren’t well-socialized. “It’s the most common question we face,” she says. But learning at home doesn’t mean living in silos. “Somehow, in today’s culture, we’ve equated socializing children with putting them in a classroom with kids of the same age,” she says, adding that she feels school can be a bubble that doesn’t prepare children for the real world. Her kids are exposed to people of all ages and walks of life, from their siblings, with whom they learn to be gentle and empathetic, to professionals and people in their community. In other words, while they spend part of their days at home, they spend the rest exploring the world.
It can be isolating for parents, though. Like many other home-school moms, Spooner finds support in her people online. Hundreds of women reach out for help and support through her blog, Hip Homeschooling. “Even though it’s a lonely road at times, getting involved in the community of home-schools can be a huge help.”
Spooner often finds herself nudging other moms to relax and enjoy the experience. “I walked into this thinking there was a perfect approach. There isn’t. What works one day might not work the next,” she says. “Kids absorb so much, even on the days you take a break and go to the park. They find a caterpillar and bring it home, so we talk about the life cycle and watch it turn into a butterfly—and they learn!”