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.
To peek into the whimsical world of the Sons and Daughters Homestead, a cedar shake-clad cabin nestled deep in northern Ontario cottage country, all you need is an Instagram account. If you were to imagine the home-school ideal, it might look like Erin Ellenberger-March’s chronicle of home-schooling and farming with “three wildings and one bearded gentleman.”
Watch tiny Clementine dancing on the forest floor, or a weakened bee being nursed back to life with a teaspoon of honey atop a reclaimed wood table (the family’s quail was also rehabbed here). There are homemade ice cream (strawberry) and pasta lessons, crocheted doilies, twinkle lights on the bookcase, ducks in the yard, baby chicks in china teacups and a bounty of harvest veggies. There are children’s watercolours, musical instruments and even a big, old dog that seems to have sprung from a storybook (his name is Huck, and he is huge). Mid-scroll, maybe at the post of the kids curled up by the wood stove with their dad, Mike, reading the illustrated version of Harry Potter, you start to wonder: Is home-schooling really as dreamy as all this?
“No! Home-schooling is wild!” says Ellenberger-March. “I’m with them 24-7. And I’m not perfect, by any means. I vent to my husband; I lose my patience; I yell at my kids; I lose it because the house is a mess. I just get through it and then my head hits the pillow.”
Still, she wouldn’t trade it. “There are those moments that pull you back from the edge—when you see them grasp a concept or be really kind to each other, then it’s like, all right, I’m not doing this wrong. It’s working out. The kids are OK.”
Her plan to home-school had been in the works for a while. After Poppy was born, Ellenberger-March decided she didn’t want to return to her job as a dental hygienist (which she hated), so she began quietly working through the logistics. She wanted to spend more time with her kids, foster their bond and avoid going back to a job she disliked. “It was scary. My husband was even a little more nervous than I was,” she says. “But I was going to make it happen, no matter what.”
When the family moved six years ago from Lindsay, Ont., to more remote Gooderham to be closer to Mike’s job at the county office, Ellenberger-March knew she needed to find her “people.” She’d started connecting with other home-schoolers, but meeting online had its limitations—she wanted real-life friends, for her and her kids. So she put up a homemade poster at the local post office (as you do when you’re new to a sleepy town), inviting other secular home-school families to drop her an email. She’s since built up a network of about 60 members who stay in touch over Facebook and meet regularly in small groups for playdates at the beach or daytime dance classes for kids.
Her Instagram community has swelled, too, to about 3,000 followers. Ellenberger-March admits she likes to post the pretty pictures, but she intends to “keep it really real” in the captions (the laughing-crying emoticon makes regular appearances). “The other day my three-year-old was tantruming and the mosquitoes were eating us alive. When the memory fades, though, I’ll have beautiful pictures of these days.”
For now, the days are shaped around the two-page list of topics her kids wish to learn more about this year, which has essentially become Ellenberger-March’s custom curriculum (Ontario, which has some of the loosest home-school regulations, requires a letter of intent to home-school but no progress reports). Their list includes learning how to grow and preserve food, build structures, cook, bake and care for the family’s animals; reading up about India, Egypt and France; why food rots; and how cavities and digestion happen. Mike often handles math, science and world history lessons. “We just do life learning at this point. We kind of fly by the seat of our pants and answer questions, define words and explain concepts as they come up. We want them to learn skills that seem to be dying out, like gardening, preserving food, basic building and cooking,” she says.
Ellenberger-March has found an unexpected sense of empowerment in teaching. “Helping them learn to read is such a big one. Once it happened, I felt so relieved…it’s such a source of pride.” She’s also buoyed by witnessing the small moments—kindnesses her children show one another or the little light bulbs going off as their brains connect dots—that she says she would miss if someone else was their teacher. “I also find the sibling dynamic fascinating,” she says. “If they were in school, they might not have the same bonds.”
Already, the family is planning lessons for next summer, when the kids will run the family’s farm stand, selling eggs and produce (those are math, sales and social studies lessons right there). “Our ultimate goal is to raise lifelong learners,” Ellenberger-March says. “I can’t know what their world or workforce will look like in their lifetime. Our goal is to foster their happiness, passions, confidence and curiosity. With that, they can adapt to whatever comes their way.”