Homeschool This Year: A Minimalist Approach

It’s countdown to baby time over here, but I really wanted to get this post up before things get too crunched! (For my readers, but also for me!) I read last year’s post about our first grade plans, and it was fun to see how much things have grown and changed in our homeschooling life. And how different our homeschool space looks now!

Wrapping up a major renovation (you can see that here), homeschooling two, and preparing for our fourth child has caused me to embrace minimalism in our schooling even more! 

Last year I was fighting a strong instinct to throw away my lists and plans and lean into my unschooling side.  I have done that this year and it’s been right for us.  It’s true, I am not a homeschool planner!  I tried a few times and got frustrated with the minutia of it.  My planning ends up leaning heavily on daily routines and an intentional environment. I do have one list, which is a running list of book titles I want to read to my kids!

Our Minimalist Approach

My main goal for the early years of homeschool is really simple:  create a home environment that is conducive to organic learning.  (That of course includes helping them build skills in reading, writing and math!)  Our long-term goal is to eventually have our girls disciplined enough to self-educate on whatever interests them.  The majority of the planning I do is researching good books, making sure we have materials for creative projects on hand, and coordinating our schedule to keep the necessary margin in our day for learning.  I may also plan for special nature or seasonal craft projects. These are things that come naturally to me, so I think that’s why they work for our homeschool.  The hardest part for me has been nailing down the right phonics and math curriculum!  I refer to my style as being on the unschooling side of Charlotte Mason. 🙂  (Alternatively “Books on Books on Books.”)

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We enrolled again with a charter school this year.  We have a wonderful teacher who allows us a ton of leeway in our learning style. However, I really wanted to file as a private homeschool next year to remove the low-grade pressure of meetings and documentation.  It just sometimes feels like our homeschool isn’t 100% ours. For this reason, we decided to pull our oldest and file a private affidavit for her next year.  My husband convinced me to keep our youngest daughter in so that we could still benefit from having some of the funds. He also volunteered to take over doing all the meetings and deal with turning all of my minimalist homeschooling into work samples for the school.  That seemed like a good compromise to me!

We are pretty light on things like toys, printables, and extra learning materials.  I find it too overwhelming.  Too many materials seem to only serve as a reminder of what all we are not doing. I really just love our simple routine of morning basket and table work. My girls like having the time to organize their own hands-on activities, which they do naturally through their free play.

That said, in order to really make the minimalist approach work, I need the discipline of a schedule in place.  Without a list to check or a pace to fulfill, a schedule ensures that we really are prioritizing learning every day.  For the first time ever, our day is running on an hourly schedule, which our whole family loves!

Morning Basket

We start our day with free play, breakfast and morning chores. Then we transition into school with our Morning Basket time at 10:30.  This is literally a basket filled with books that cover the following subjects:  science, history, geography, literature and Bible. We usually have one book from each category and read a few pages or a chapter from each book every day.  I started doing this two years ago (you can read about that here) and it has grown along with us, just as I hoped it would!  Everyone is allowed to play quietly on the floor with toys or coloring, as long as they are engaged in what I’m reading!  I really allow these subjects to be interest-led and have not yet presented any concept or time period in any particular order. When we finish a book in a particular subject, I send my girls to the book shelf to pick another one.

Every morning Junie picks a picture book for us to start our reading time with.  I use lists of recommended picture books from Read Aloud Revival (it’s probably our third time through her seasonal picture book list). It’s a motivating transition for everyone, including me! A book with pictures is a sure-fire way to get my girls to break away from their play and gather ‘round the page.  Of course, we always have a children’s poetry book in our basket and a read aloud chapter book for bedtime!

I get the majority of my book ideas for our morning basket from SonlightAmbleside Online, and Beautiful Feet book lists.  I buy them with charter funds or check them out at the library. This year we actually bought all of the level 1 books from Sonlight (aka Bookshark). 

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For Bible, we are working our way through the children’s devotional book Leading Little Ones to God.  Once or twice a week we also read a story from Egermeier’s Bible Story Book. We found some some free printed scripture memory cards from Seeds Family worship (we printed the Faith pack) that we laminated and put in our basket.  We memorize about one verse a month.

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Table Work

After that, we move over to the table where we pull out the snacks and spend some time working on the skill building portion of our homeschool (phonics, math and writing).  My three-year-old has a “school book” (a dry erase preschool workbook) that she takes to her spot at the table.  She sits at the table and mimics what we are doing with her markers and book by tracing letters and circling pictures.  According to “school”, my two older girls are technically kindergarten and second grade, but that is kind of irrelevant here at home since I let them each go at their own pace.

Reading/Phonics

The short version is that we have a looooot of books and reading time at our house.  Last year I put both of my girls into the same level of Explode the Code because of their differences in learning styles. 

The long version is this:  If there’s one thing I’ve read over and over in my research, it is that reading to your children and providing a print-rich environment are the keys to learning to read.  I can now personally attest to the truth of this, and I cannot tell you how happy it makes me!  Reading daily to my girls, keeping our home stocked with good books, and maintaining a low-stimulation lifestyle has caused them to take a natural interest in reading (some earlier than others, but that’s ok).  Picking up a book is something they do probably dozens of times a day, even if it’s to look at pictures.  This means we have been able to go easy on the formal curriculum and major on the act of reading.

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My oldest girl is creatively gifted, and does better with a slower academic pace.  Reading has not come easily to her.  My kindergartener, on the other hand, is very verbally oriented and was already beginning to take interest in words at age four.  (There was almost nothing that could stop her!)

So I made the decision last year to put them in the same phonics workbooks together. (They were preschool and first grade at the time).  We started them with the earliest Explode the Code series (consonant sounds).  They are doing only about 2-3 pages a day.  We combine workbooks with reading practice. I also have sight word and phonetics flash cards from Memoria Press that they really enjoy doing together.  They are in our morning basket, and we pull them out whenever it sounds fun.

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One great tip for getting them interested in reading on their own was to buy some good early readers on audio for them to listen to first.  Once they got familiar with those stories, discovering the hard copy on our shelves was really exciting, especially for my kindergartener, who is reading everything in sight!  (Their favorite stories are all Arnold Lobel I Can Read Books!)

Math

Math is not something that comes naturally to me, so it has been one big, ongoing experiment over here! If you’ve been seeing my Instagram stories, you know!  The short version of this is that we combined both girls on the same level of Math U See, and we love it.  Here’s the detailed version for those who asked!

Last year we used Right Start Math for first grade, which I really liked, especially the script provided in the teacher’s guide.  However, the approach is very manipulative and prep-heavy.  With more to juggle, I needed something simpler.

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This year we tried Math Mammoth workbooks for my second grader.  While I like the simplicity and approachability of the workbook format, it confirmed that my lack of mathematical genius requires a scripted teacher’s guide! (Something Math Mammoth does not have)!  The experience also confirmed that my daughter does best with a multi-sensory approach to math. The pencil to paper version was frustrating for her and I ended up spoon-feeding her nearly the whole thing.  Finally, when we began to work with the common core portion of the book, that was the nail in the coffin. The mixing of symbols and abstract mathematical concepts had my girl so confused, she couldn’t remember basic subtraction.  Math just became plain miserable.  Cue another round of math curriculum research!

My kindergartener has been using a workbook which was far too easy for her. Because of this, I recently decided to take my oldest back to basics with a more manipulative-based curriculum and let my younger one move ahead with us. I am starting them both on the Primer level of Math U See.  Thank you to all of my Instagram friends who recommended this.  And to my homeschool neighbor, who gave me an unused curriculum to try!  It seems to be good middle ground between RightStart and Math Mammoth.  It has a little bit of worksheet, a little bit of manipulative work, and of course, a script for me.  Not to mention, video lessons with a teacher!  He explains the concepts with clever illustrations and analogies, which I can then use.  

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For those curious, Math U See claims to meet common core standards by showing kids “why”, but they keep concepts isolated instead of trying to mix them together to show relationship.

I love doing math as a group.  Never did I think I would put both of my girls in the same math level, since they are two “grades” apart.  I became more comfortable with this idea from a Wild and Free podcast with Nicole Schiffler, a mama of seven children.  She does the same math with all of her school-age children at once!    

Writing/Handwriting

The short version:  our writing and handwriting is all done in the form of note booking.  I love how multi-purpose this practice is! It covers writing, handwriting, and narration for all other subjects in one activity.

The details for those who asked:  Each of my girls have a notebook with space to draw a picture on top and lines for writing on the bottom.  Once or twice a week I ask them to choose something to narrate from our reading time.  Then, they draw a picture and formulate 3-4 sentences to go along with it.  My kindergartener dictates to me and then copies what I have written.  My second grader has moved from copy work to writing by herself.  I sit next to her helping sound out words and use proper grammar.  This is hard work and it usually takes them a few days to complete one narration!

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We have never used a formal handwriting curriculum because I feel like it’s redundant with this practice in place. Since I am right there next to them while they are writing in their notebooks and Explode the Code workbooks, I can help them with correct letter formation on the spot.  No need to add another thing our list.

Other Things

We put aside nature journaling until writing becomes more fluid.  Right now the hands-on portion of science is done for us by Kiwi Crate!  My oldest daughter is very into STEAM activities.  Having that little box come in the mail once a month is a huge highlight for her (and a relief for me!)  She can dive right into it and do most of the activities herself in her free time. 

Hikes and nature walks have been few and far between this year due to our schedule restraints and being pregnant.  I took a leap and started a Wild and Free group in my area.  This has been a great motivator to do a field trip at least once a month.  Aside from this, my girls play outside in our yard every day. This year they have played for hours in all weather in the cul-de-sac riding bikes, scooters and making up games with our neighbor.  Not exactly nature study, but it makes me happy to see how much they love playing outside!

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The girls also love tolisten to fairy tales, folk tales and children’s classics up in their room while they play or rest.  They especially love anything that is narrated by Jim Weiss!

Afternoons

By the time this is over, it is 12:30 and everyone is ready to play and eat lunch!  This year I made some changes after I came to realize that afternoons were a source of frustration in our home.  Because our afternoons are “free,” I was feeling pressured to fill them with errands, appointments, socializing, and my own “urgent” to-do’s.  This was leaving me crunched for time when getting dinner on the table and starting our bedtime routine. I will be honest, I really criticized myself for this struggle.  What could be so hard about two hours of school a morning and using afternoons as catch-up time?  Shouldn’t I be able to handle that?

Well, in reality crammed afternoons always bleed into the next morning for me.  Usually school (because it takes so much mental energy) would be the first thing to suffer. I had to give myself a lot of self-compassion here.  When I really thought about it, I realized that my sister who has all four of her kids in public school would never feel the obligation to socialize or take on projects in those crucial afternoon hours. I realized needed to do the same for myself.  It is still very hard to protect our afternoons, especially in a culture that really glorifies the “hustle,” but I am learning to value afternoons as necessary margin.

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Our afternoon starts with time of quiet rest after lunch (which we all need).  Then I prep dinner early and clean the kitchen.  I set aside 4:00-5:00 to do something fun with my girls.  Since we started homeschooling, I always imagined I would have free, focused time with my girls. I found out that I actually have to schedule it into my day or it will not happen.  Maybe this is not very romantic, but it is true!   Our play time could be anything from playing dolls, to go going on a library date, to doing a craft together.  For January, two days a week it was watching them at gymnastics. (The first time I said “Hey can I play with you?”  They looked at me like I was from outer space, which tells you how often I played with my kids!) I am so glad I started doing this. One day they will be older and this routine will be replaced with work, projects and other pursuits.  

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Of course, none of this runs perfectly smoothly all the time, since people are not robots and life does not come with a remote control (darnit)!  In fact, today we ran about an hour behind schedule and I had an ugly cry over making copies of math worksheets. (Which of course was not about math worksheets at all.)

Last but not least (because I know some of you will ask) here is our hourly schedule.  It doesn’t include our chore lists, but it gives you a good idea of what our day is like! Since hitting my third trimester I rarely get up before 7 am, but we hit our schedule about 80% of the time, which is alright with me.  We school Monday through Thursday, with Friday being off for errands and housework.

Mon-Thurs Routine

6:30-7:00: Mom’s Walk

7:00-8:00: Mom’s Morning Basket/Kids Free Play

8:00-9:00:  Breakfast

9:00-10:30:  Morning Chores/Free Play

10:30-12:30:  School

12:30-1:30: Lunch

1:30-2:30:  Rest Time/Administrative To Do’s

2:30-3:00: Snack

3:00-4:00 Afternoon Chores

4:00-5:00: Extra Curricular/Outdoor/Free Play

5:00-7:00:  Dinner/Evening Routine

7:00-7:30 Story Time

7:30: Bed Time

7:30-9:30: Self Care/Social Media/Reading

Friday Routine

6:30-7:00: Mom’s Walk

7:00-8:00: Mom’s Morning Basket/Kids Free Play

8:00-9:00: Breakfast

9:00-10:30: Morning Chores

10:30-12:30:  Grocery Store/Errands

12:30-1:30:  Lunch

1:30-2:30:  Rest Time

2:30-3:30:  Home Blessing Hour

3:30-5:00: Kids Movie/Office Work

5:00-6:00: Dinner Out

6:00-7:00: Evening Routine/Sheets on Beds

7:00-7:30: Story Time

7:30: Bed Time

7:30-9:30: Free

Overall, homeschooling this year has been a joy to me.  I love being with my girls and getting to know who they are as they grow. As spring approaches, we are looking forward to a nice break from our hard work!  Summer will be all about pool time and new baby snuggling!  Then it will be on to a new year of discovery and growing together.