Updated: Apr 21, 2022
If you are already homeschooling your children, I don’t think I need to tell you that there are a TON of resources out there. There are lots of different ways to approach homeschooling too. It can be downright overwhelming for anyone.
When I was studying education I was able to learn about a lot of different kinds of educational philosophies and I started to really develop a sense of what mine was. I came to really believe children are capable of learning and constructing meaning from their environment (This is part of the constructivist theory). Learning about how children learn as I said in my last post was actually what led me to believe home education was one of the best ways to educate children. However, philosophy can be kind of abstract, and transitioning from a traditional school setting where everything is pretty much laid out for you to a homeschool environment where ALLLLL the choices were wide open was kind of scary to be honest. In some ways I think people who don’t have a background in education have a leg up in this area because they are less likely to think education is “supposed” to look a certain way.
At first, I have to admit I tried to do school at home. Even though I read about deschooling and tried to implement a very relaxed structure, everything I did intentionally ended up being forced. My children, coming from a public school environment, were literally begging me for worksheets.
The truth is it has taken me a very long time to develop my style of homeschooling, and I don’t know if there was any way around that. This is because I was learning too, and learning is a dynamic process. Looking back it is clear to me now that my own philosophy has been a guiding factor in every decision I have made and has really helped me to choose the way I homeschool. In many ways coming up with the philosophy was the easy part, but figuring out how to best carry that out is the journey I am still on. I call my philosophy Gentle Holistic Learning. This way of thinking about learning is the core I build the resources I create around.
What is Gentle Holistic Learning? At the core of this philosophy is the belief that human beings are always learning and that human beings learn very much the same way from birth through old age. People are whole beings and need to be educated as such. Mental learning does not happen separately from physical or social and emotional development. Children are capable just like adults of constructing meaning from their environment. Learning takes place actively from the learner because they choose to learn. Because of this it doesn’t make sense to make children learn, but rather to take a gentle approach to teaching, such as offering choices, and letting children be an active part of. As I said above we learn the same way from birth throughout our lives, and I believe this can be broken down into three aspects:
One: Sensory Experience Even in the womb babies become aware of their surroundings. Once children are born they immediately begin to actively take in the world around them. Babies and toddlers literally taste, touch, and smell everything. A lot of information about the world becomes layered into their subconscious as children grow based on what they experience in their environment when they are young. Children tend to think of their first experiences as the “way things are.” and really base everything else they encounter off of this. Even as adults when we walk into a room we immediately take in our surroundings and these perceptions, whether we are conscious of them or not (and perhaps more so if we are not conscious of them) form the premise of each situation we encounter.
Understanding this important aspect of how people learn gives us great power as educators since we are deeply involved in the environment our children experience. I believe that the first thing any teacher should consider when embarking on educating a child is what kind of environment they are creating for that child.This can also empower you as an educator to think about your environment and engineer it in a way that helps you be your best self. A simple example is people who fill their homes with healthy food tend to eat healthier. Or putting books around your home and creating a print rich environment is going to facilitate your child’s literacy development.
Sensory experiences, particularly the power of observation, hold another key to your texting and learning journey. Your child is always watching you and what they see you doing is the behavior they are going to imitate. We can use this power by intentionally deciding to act in a way that we want to see our children follow. This power of observation also goes two ways. We can observe our children and learn so much about them and how to help them grow.
Two: Interaction I see interaction as the “heart” of gentle holistic learning, because the other two aspects connect with it. Like sensory experience, children begin interacting with the world around them from day one. For example, when the child pushes a block, it falls down. They are able to experience an action and a result. They are still observing their environment, but they are a part of it. This is another facet of learning that begins even before birth, you can see how the bat responds to different stimuli while in the womb, like moving around more when their mother is lying still. You might notice the word interaction has the word action in it. You cannot have inter-action without acting. For our entire lives, we are acting within our environment and experiencing the results of our actions. We learn and adjust our actions based on these results. If a baby cries and their mother responds they learn their needs are met and they can feel secure. If they are ignored they may stop crying and sit passively instead.
Much of teaching revolves around this aspect of learning. Watching and imitating someone is an amazing way to learn something, but being able to receive genuine feedback in the moment is a game changer. Like observation, interaction is a two way tool. As you give feedback to your child about the skills they are learning they will be giving you feedback about how they learn best.
There are so many ways to use interaction with your child as a key to their learning. I remember once a veteran teacher, when speaking about teaching young children, said, “It is a conversation that begins the moment the child walks into your classroom and continues until the end of the school day.” I really believe this to be true of all teaching, not just with young children. It is an ongoing conversation. Conversations however, don’t always have to be talking. There are many ways to communicate non-verbally. Perhaps however, my favorite type of interaction, and the one I think offers the best chance for effective teaching, are the ones that happen when your child instigates it. Whether they come to ask about something or to show you what they are working on, if you can stop, even for a moment and give them your full attention, you will learn so much about them. These can become springboards for further study at a later time.
Three: Critical Thinking One thing, and perhaps the thing, that sets humans apart from other animals is that we aren’t just creatures of instinct. We can make choices and solve problems. Both of these attributes are part of the third aspect, the power of the mind. You have probably heard the phrase, “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” In the same way we can offer our children the very best knowledge that is out there, but we cannot make them absorb it. This is because from the day we enter the world there is simply too much stimulation and input for our brain to process, therefore our brain immediately begins to lick and choose which things it will process. As we notice things, critical thinking is at work constantly as our brain chooses what is worth our attention in the first place, then as we interact with our surroundings we commit the parts that matter to us to memory.
So understanding that children take an active role in deciding what they will learn, and we can not force them to learn something they don’t want to, should we simply let them choose everything they want to learn about and not try to intentionally teach them anything? Some people feel that way. Others take the opposite approach and try to use bribes, punishment, and other forms of coercion to attempt to persuade their child to learn the things they believe are important. I have decided to take a different approach than either of one of these. I do believe there is knowledge that children should learn, and I do believe that it is our responsibility as parents and educators to give our children the opportunity to learn it. Have you ever seen a movie you saw years before and noticed an actor in it that you didn’t remember being there the first time you saw it? Or maybe a song was played that somehow you missed the first time, but now you are aware of it? Chances are the actor or song somehow caught your attention in another context between the two times you saw the movie. Now they are “on your radar” so to speak. In fact you probably will continue to remember that the actor is in that movie in the future. This is because our cognitive learning processes are built to favor things that are meaningful to us in the context of what we already understand. In other words our brain is biased to learning MORE about what we have already learned. So if our brain can find some bit of knowledge we already possess and make a connection between that and the new information it is receiving, we are going to be far more likely to retain it. We are also far more likely to enjoy things that are familiar to us in some way. In this way knowledge and learning becomes a self feeding cycle. The more we learn the more we know, and more we know, the more we WANT to learn. So as parents and teachers, understanding the power of the mind and choice can help us to intentionally present new material to our children in the context of what we know is meaningful to them personally. We can also use creative means of making things interesting that we know are going to lay a foundation for further knowledge later on. We also can and should offer them choices, but we need to make those choices appropriate to where our child is developmentally. Asking a toddler if they want to wear green socks or pink socks is an example. Involving an older child in choosing which science topic they want to study next is another one.
So to come full circle back to the beginning, if we see to it that our child’s environment is filled with good things, like wonderful books, quality interactive materials, healthy food, and nature, they will be able to make choices and no matter what they choose it will be something good. I know I love going to parties that have a delicious and healthy spread of different finger foods to try. I can pick what I want to eat and walk away nourished no matter what I choose. I really like what Charlotte Mason said about how we should present an “abundant feast” of knowledge and let each guest assimilate what he can. If we give our children a feast of ideas and they are all good ones, they can have the power to pick and choose what they want to learn and no matter what they decide, they will have something of value to build on later.