When I first had children, I imagined my little ones would enjoy many opportunities for free play with other children as they grew up. I presumed children would naturally come out to play in their yards during the day. Kids would join in spontaneous games of “kick the can,” kickball or “capture the flag” just as they did in my childhood.
I soon realized I needed to navigate a new contemporary suburban landscape. Children lived in our neighborhood, but most were in structured child care programs during the day leaving few opportunities for free play with other children. I now understood why parents had to pre-arrange “play dates” for their kids. Spontaneous opportunities for social interaction were rare.
Playground structures were different too. As my children grew older, I searched in vain for playgrounds with see-saws. I never found see-saws, but I happily found a playground with a merry-go-round that had never been taken down. Children crowded onto it and spun with wild abandon.
So few families at home during the day also meant a soul-crushing isolation at first as a stay-at-home mom, a level of isolation that I had not anticipated in my naiveté. Thankfully, I found respite in the friendship of the only other stay-at-home mother in my neighborhood. We crossed paths one day at our mailboxes and were so excited to find another adult human being in sight during the workday.
Our children became playmates. It was the sort of old-fashioned playtime where we could just call each other up and they could come over with a simple, “Sure, after lunch.” What a joy that felt.
I adapted to the cultural shift in neighborhoods and playgrounds during my boys’ preschool years before I began to realize how much had changed in the socio-cultural landscape of kindergarten and the early school age years.
Our county had moved to all-day kindergarten as a result of pressure from parents. In my childhood, my twin brother and I hopped off our kindergarten bus at 11:45 in the morning, ran to our backyard and played away the afternoon. Nowadays, children who were not in after-school programs until 5 or 6 pm hopped off the bus at 3:15 with older students. The day did not end there because schools in our county now assigned homework to kindergartners. Schools had also shortened recess for early elementary students. Kindergarten was the new first grade and first grade the new second. Our excellent local Catholic schools naturally felt the pressure of these contemporary forces and adopted many of the same changes.
The “push-down effect” had brought the phrase “kindergarten readiness” into modern parlance, with parents worried their children would not be able to make it in that oh-so-stressful world of 5-year-old learners. Rather than stress over “kindergarten readiness” in the preschool years, I just wanted to spend afternoons with my boys watching autumn leaves fall from the trees or tossing pebbles into the lake behind our house.
I am lucky to live in a region of the country where homeschooling thrives and is growing. Thousands homeschool in the area and countless local museums and cultural institutions reach out to them with classes, activities and “homeschool days.” I knew homeschoolers and never looked down on that choice since I believed in educational choices in general. I just never saw myself personally taking that path. Now that I was a mom the path started to look more tempting.
I spent my eldest son’s pre-K year exploring the social world of homeschooling and fell in love. My boys and I joined a nature club where homeschooled children spent Wednesday afternoons building forts in the woods, wading in the stream and watching tadpoles. I thought how lucky they were to spend these beautiful days in the fresh air instead of behind a desk.
We discovered that parents within many local Catholic parishes had formed vibrant homeschooling communities actively contributing to Church life. I started a cooking club for Catholic feast days where the little ones made easy recipes in honor of a saint that month. We would make Italian pizzas for the feast of St. John Bosco or tea sandwiches for a small tea party in honor of Cardinal John Henry Newman.
Homeschooling families took care of one another, delivering regular meals to moms with new babies or families experiencing illness. Local parish homeschool groups prayed for everyone’s needs and intentions each week. One parish did so at a weekly rosary hour for children.
Homeschoolers are not bowling (or praying) alone. In many ways, it is a movement which naturally recaptures a sense of community lost in contemporary times as a result of numerous economic and social forces.
My stay-at-home neighbor friend became a homeschooler the same year I dived into full-time homeschooling. She transformed her entire basement into a Montessori classroom for her children.
I was no so ambitious, but I did become a fan of many of the ideas of 19th century British educator Charlotte Mason who believed that music, art, poetry and nature studies were as critical to a child’s development and education as phonics and math. She also advocated teaching through “living books,” learning through stories rather than dry textbooks.
I soon discovered that my kindergartner had a passion for classical music. He would wake-up each morning saying, “Let’s do music first!” We would plunge into Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” or Saes-Seans “Carnival of the Animals.” I read picture books of Vivaldi’s life in magical Venice. Then my son sat back on the sofa and smiled as I turned on “The Four Seasons.”
I also felt adamant about introducing my children to great art. By mid-year I was organizing a field trip to the National Gallery of Art on the Feast of the Epiphany. Delightful docents, who often coordinated tours for homeschoolers, introduced the children to Fra Angelico’s “Wise Men” through a language of childhood imagination, asking them to find hidden details in the painting.
Another mom I know had children who became interested in the Middle Ages. They built a trebuchet (a medieval catapult) for a science project and joyfully flung objects across their backyard.
You may be wondering: trebuchets? Vivaldi? What sort of curriculums are these? They are the curriculums that create family memories. Homeschooling has given me and my family freedom I never imagined. The freedom to spend the day exploring dinosaurs rather than hunkering down to homework. To cuddle up on the sofa in pajamas and recite a decade of the rosary in the morning rather than hurry to get out the door.
That freedom extends to countless aspects of our lives. Our “after-school” activities usually begin at 1:00 in the afternoon and end by 3:00. Our evenings and weekends are free to just be a family. Rather than prepare for soccer practice on a Saturday morning, we can stay in the house and take time munching “daddy’s perfect pancakes” as the boys call them. We thrive on this timeline and I could not give it up for the world.
An older neighbor who had homeschooled her now-grown son saw me outside one day with my children. “You know, back when I did it twenty years ago everybody thought you were crazy. Now it’s no big deal,” she laughed.
She is right. I rarely get the bygone “socialization” question. Now the most common response when people hear that I homeschool is, “Oh, I admire you. That would be too hard for me.”
Whenever I hear someone say homeschooling would be too hard for them I always offer the same response: “In many ways, I feel I made my life easier.”
No mad dashes in the morning to the school bus. No evenings spent rushing from activity to activity before homework, dinner, bath and bedtime. No concern about peer pressure or potential bullying.
I feel so blessed to spend my days with my children immersed in a world of prayer, art, music, Greek myths and wide-eyed wonder where the daily phonics and math naturally mix in with a day of play. To any parent who asks my advice on educational choices for their children my answer is swift: choose joy, choose homeschooling.