Confessions of a Nerdy Homeschooling Dad

Are you unexpectedly home-schooling your kids? Every family is different, and every kid is different. But I think anxious parents who are in unexplored territory probably need to hear this: you won’t hurt your children if you don’t keep them academically occupied for a block of 7 hours.

On a typical brick-and-mortar school day, kids spend a lot of time lining up and walking from one place to another, waiting for their a turn while the teacher helps someone else, waiting for everyone else to settle down, etc.

Most homeschool families can get through a day’s formal instruction in a lot less time.

I’m looking back on almost 2 decades of homeschooling. My kids certainly have their opinions about what they did and didn’t like about our methods. During his high school years, my bookish and introverted son would sometimes complain that with all the activities packed into his day, he didn’t get much time at home to study. By contrast, my daughter the actress/dancer/singer thrives on social interaction. (Social distancing has been hard on her.)

It wasn’t always easy balancing the needs of our two very different children. (It still isn’t.) But now they both take their college classes very seriously.

We never tried to make their homeschooling environment replicate the school-building structure of sitting at a desk doing formal instruction for 6 or 7 hours a day.

Every family is different, so you need to find what works for you. We came pretty close to unschooling, making free reading and cultural outings (to museums, historical sites, theatre and music events) central to their education, downplaying formal lessons and workbooks.

When my kids were small, we would play “the book game” — where I asked them each to pick a book. Usually I would make “the book game” a condition for letting them watch a video or do something else they wanted to do, so they were usually excited about reading. I would pick a book myself, I’d read the book my son chose, and then he would read the book his little sister chose. Then they would go on to whatever activity was the reward for completing the book game, which occupied them for the next 45 minutes or hour.)

Kids learn so much from unstructured time reading, playing educational computer games (even semi-educational creative games that mostly involve building or social interaction), drawing/crafting, watching a movie adaptation of a literary classic (especially if your older kids have already read or are currently reading the book).

During the academic year when I was at the office, my wife would typically let the kids start the day however they wanted. She’d show an educational DVD while she made lunch, teach a block of lessons for two hours, and take a break for errands (doctor appointments, shopping, a library trip, maybe a music lesson or a play rehearsal) and fun.

When I got home in the evening I’d take one kid and she’d take the other, for another block of instruction. Then she’d go off duty, and I’d supervise baths and bedtime, which usually involved reading them both a chapter book (Carolyn was six the summer I worked through The Hobbit and the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy), and telling them a bedtime story (more like an interactive role-playing campaign that lasted for years). After Carolyn went to bed I’d read a different story to Peter (he usually chose nonfiction or historical fiction). We let them sleep in as long as they wanted, so I was often reading until 11pm.

Peter happily played educational math and science games, and developed great literacy skills reading the in-game help files for Civilization. Here is his review of Civilization III, recorded when he was 10.

And here we are during the 2010 Snowpocalypse, playing through the classic 1970s text-only computer game “Colossal Cave Adventure.”

Here’s Peter’s enthusiastic review of Timez Attack, a game that teaches multiplication tables.

Carolyn thought of playing Times Attack as a chore, but here she is at age 11, demonstrating how she programmed a point-and-click adventure story using Scratch.

(Look at how much hair that young nerdy dad has!)

In addition to what the kids learned from gaming, these game-adjacent activities (recording a thoughtful review or tutorial) really amplified the educational benefits. Your kids could make and share videos on whatever interests them — cooking, sports, etc.

So those are some reflections of a nerdy homeschooling dad.

How are you managing?