A Few of My Favorite (homeschool) Things

I get asked often about any curriculum, tools, philosophies of education, books, etc that I recommend new homeschoolers look into. Mostly I get asked about curriculum and philosophy.

Opinion: I think all methods of education are valid so long as the method is focused on the student learning rather than the teacher teaching (I’m looking at you, NCLB).

It’s hard (read: impossible) for me to say what will work for someone else’s family or, even more, what will work for each of their individual children. But that’s not to say that I don’t have a handful of tools that I think are essential to our homeschool. Tools that I would have on hand whether we were radical unschoolers or classical educators. Whether we were Waldorf inspired or military school inspired.

1. Support. We are lucky to live in an area with several local groups. KC Homeschool happens to be the group Lara and I run so I can steal our image without having to ask permission. But whether your support is in person or through an online forum, it is important. There are times where I feel a single conversation was the difference between sanity and insanity.

2. A library card. Again, I’m pretty lucky. Our family lives in an area with 3 large library systems in easy travel distance and some of them even have special programs for homeschoolers (as do many nature centers as do some gymnastics centers as do some dance schools as does at least one fencing schoool). We live in what must be the homeschool capital of the US.

Note: The Wonder Woman keychain is optional.

3. Manipulatives for math. We have quite a set but you don’t have to invest much money into these. Beans work just as well as counting bears. In the above picture, Eden is using our centimeter cubes to do subtraction. The idea is to give the kids a visual representation of math. Tangrams are another great tool as are geoboards.

My kids use the manipulatives first without any guidance or worksheets. And then, when they start saying “give me some subtraction problems!” I dust off my next tool and print them up.
4. The mighty computer. I know that a computer, let alone high speed internet, is a matter of privilege. But we use it daily in our homeschool. There are terrific websites and programs for the kids to play games, look things up, watch videos, and otherwise explore parts of the world that would be closed to them because of our lack-of-a-jet-setting lifestyle.
Did you know that you can use Google maps and “walk around” foreign cities? Go to maps.google.com right now. Type in the name of a major city like Copenhagen, Denmark. Drag the yellow (or is he orange?) guy over to a street and you can now walk around Copenhagen. I now know that on the corner of Dirch Passers Allé and Finsensvej is a place called Lidl. My mind has expanded.
And speaking of foreign cities…
5. Maps. We have a world map and a US map displayed in our homeschool room. If I had more wall space, we’d have more maps! Having them handy aids in conversations such as “What is the difference between England and the UK?” and “there is a crater in Siberia. I’ve never heard of Siberia.” Also shown in the above picture are lizard tanks which I do not recommend to everyone. Maps, yes. Lizards, maybe.
6. Noise. Specifically I recommend noise of the musical variety. Your kids surely make enough without any help but I still recommend handing them an instrument or two or three regularly. Lessons can be costly and are, again, a matter of privilege. But access to even basic instruments as well as listening to music regularly is important. I try to play a variety of music in our house daily. Pandora radio is really where it’s at — I got two turn tables and a microphone! (breaking out in song in a post about music. Awesome.) We have stations from Esperanza Spalding to Rufus Wainwright to the Chordettes to Mozart to Adele.
7. Back to school sales. Crayons for 25 cents? Yes, please. But wait until school is in session and they drop down to 20 cents each. Wha? That’s right. Every year, I buy crayons, markers, watercolors (I have nice ones for nice projects but for just playing around, the cheap ones are great and low on the mess), pencils, and pens. I spend less than $10 and we’re set for a year. Speaking of things I buy at back to school sales…
8. Index cards. I love index cards. Punch corner holes into several cards, use a binder ring to connect them, and you have a mini book. Grab them when your daughter says, “I want to learn how to read number words” and make up some flashcards she can use. Use them for idea lists. Use them for supply lists when you realize you are running low on something or the project your son decides to work on requires some “common household product” that isn’t common enough for you to keep on hand.
9. Newsprint paper. Cheap, versatile, and recyclable. I buy reams of it at a time.
10. A compass and a straight edge. These are among the tools that aided the discovery of mathematical concepts. No graphing calculator, computer program, or pre packaged curriculum can give your kids a stronger understanding of geometry than these tools. After they’ve explored as much as they can on their own with these tools, I will recommend Hands-On Geometry  to guide them deeper.
11. Letter and number posters. I tried, like a normal person, to hang these on the wall. But we aren’t normal people. Eden is the one who still uses these, and they have been USED. They are dog earred and torn and spilled on. We lay on the floor with them, and we sit at the table with them. What we don’t do is stand in front of the wall looking at them. Eden has taught herself how to write all of her letters (a little guidance from me on where to start so that she avoids bad writing habits). She has taught herself how to count to 100 with only having to ask me for help each time she reached a new set of 10s. Multiplication charts are super helpful too when your kids are still playing around with the concept.
12. Magnifying glasses. These get used all the time by all of us. We have the cheap ones for individual use on hikes and backyard adventures but keep the nice one on hand for further evaluation. Being able to guide your kids through the basic scientific process — starting with observation and moving to “why do you think that is?” and then to “how could you find out if you’re correct?” — and having a fantastic conversation in the process makes these magnifying glasses worth any price. But the good news is that the price is usually low.
Last but not least:
13. Dice. We have dice for math and dice for language arts. We love our math dice and use them regularly. But we LOOOOOOOVVVVVEEEE our Story Cubes. Love. Love, love, love, love, love. They are creative and funny and everyone can play regardless of reading ability.
What homeschool tool can you not live without? Leave your ideas in the comments!

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