Where

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When you’re home educating your child,
is it essential to have a designated work area?
Are there strictures around study environments?
What if my child refuses to sit at a desk?

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The truth is that learning can and does happen any place.

While it is clearly beneficial for a child to have good lighting for reading, computer work, writing, etc., and it’s not good for children to spend too much time tucked away in a tiny space like the hall cupboard, home education can take place in a thousand different places. Some children thrive with having their own space, while others have to be in the thick of things at the kitchen table or constantly under your feet. It’s always a matter of finding what works for you.
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On the Fly

Starting out, stuff everywhere, but having fun! (June 1998)

When we started home educating (pre-school age), we didn’t live in a very large house. We didn’t have space for a designated ‘school’ area, so the dining room table was pretty much ‘it’.

Back then, we had a small trolley which stored all our books, stationery and school-specific items, and that was packed away and stored in its little corner at the end of each day. The wall about the sideboard was festooned with all our letters – letter C was filled with coloured cotton balls for clouds, F was filled with fuschia-coloured fluffy feathers, W was filled with wood-shavings from Brad’s shed, etc.

 

The trusty workbench (at right in picture) in its weekend mode, as an actual workbench. (June 2000)

When we moved to Canberra, Hayley was just six, and we began renovating. Our dining table was the workbench from Brad’s shed and our dining chairs were the garden- plastic variety. We had a bigger school trolley, but everything had to be mobile because things moved around so much from one weekend to the next.

 

The workbench in its midweek daytime role, as a location for home education activities. (June 2002)

Home education still happened, though – sometimes it was on a designated bench, other times it was on the specially cleaned  workbench/dining table, and things were pinned up all overthe place. At one stage, we had a self-painted scale model solar system pinned onto a black queen-sized sheet, which was literally nailed to a wall which was destined for later demolition.

 

Even if you follow a more formal style, as we did back then, home education can be conducted quite successfully in the midst of renovations or major travels.
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Tips if you’re Home Educating On The Fly

  • keep everything associated with your home education in one readily recognisable box or trolley (for each child, if necessary)
  • have a designated place where that box or trolley is kept
  • put things away properly every single time
  • the old “a place for everything and everything in its place” routine works wonders when you’re living in upheaval, whether it’s from renovations or because you’re moving about a lot
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Formal Settings

Just as some families prefer a more formal curriculum, some students prefer to have a designated work environment. Larger families will, from sheer necessity, have a very different dynamic to single-child families. Just as the approach to home education must be child specific, the setting must be family relevant.

 

 

The first time we'd ever had a designated work area. (June 2006)

In our family, the allocated ‘school’ area became available as our renovations progressed. Because Hayley worked best with me at least nearby, we set up our room with two desks, side by side. If she was happily working away, I could get on with preparing something for future study, and I was handy if she needed help. I was also handy to the laundry, to keep things moving in that department – I’d often do a quick bit of housework while she was having a scheduled break. That arrangement worked well for us for several years.

I read somewhere in our early days, that if you have the opportunity, arrange for the home education workspace to be fairly central to the laundry and kitchen in your home. That way, the general business of running the household has a better chance of ticking along. If the primary home educator is trying to get a jump-start on cooking dinner up one end of the house, but the home educatee is up the other end of the house yelling for help and stuck until help arrives, it doesn’t do much for anyone’s peace and equilibrium.

Our house is neither ideal nor a total nightmare in the layout regard. The laundry is relatively close, but the kitchen is yelling distance. I’m not fond of being yelled at, which is why I tried to be in the room as much as possible while Hayley was completing her more formal lessons – it helped us both maintain our composure.

Tips if you use a Formal Setting

  • keep your formal workspace as close as you can to where the practical running of the house takes place
  • maintain as much order in that space as you can
  • keep textbooks and resources in the same room in a readily accessible order
  • do at least an annual re-vamp of the area to keep it fresh and relevant
  • a mini overhaul of the space each term can help tremendously
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Informal Settings

Informal work-spaces for home education take on a wide variety of forms. The most popular is possibly the kitchen table, but spread out all over the floor or the child’s bed is popular too.

Use informal settings liberally, even if you have a more formal approach to home education – it’ll help maintain your sanity and your joy.

Of course there are all sorts of informal settings, too. Up trees, in coffee shops, on rugs on the lawn, in the middle of the trampoline … you’re only really limited by your imagination on that score!

Really, interspersing any style of learning with a spontaneously different location can lift spirits tremendously. Never hesitate to take lessons outside into the sunshine, or even off to McDonald’s – wherever you feel like. Arguing favourite Shakespearean quotes over a burger and fries can even be quite good fun, believe it or not.
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As an aside …

Officials were historically reputed to be concerned about lighting or ventilation of work-spaces for home educators, but as one long-term Canberra resident assured me, “almost every house in the ACT has good lighting and ventilation!” In the midst of renovations, I’d have had to disagree, on a purely personal basis. Our lounge room was sorely lacking in both, hence it wasn’t a popular work-space for either Hayley or me.

I’ve also heard concerns expressed, that children who don’t do their lessons sitting bolt upright on straight-backed chairs will end up like Hunchbacks of Notre Dame. I have a sister, two nieces and numerous  friends who are school teachers, and all of them snort at such suggestions, saying, “There’s no child in my class who sits bolt upright at any time, or even mostly upright, unless they absolutely have to!” Generally, children who are well nourished and active aren’t likely to have problems with posture.
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Tips for using Informal Settings

  • keep the majority of home education resources in a designated area so you know where to find them
  • train your children to tidy up after their study time, especially if they work in a public area of the home (like the kitchen table or the lounge room floor)
  • relax about how your house looks – if people come into a pristine, uptight house, they feel on edge, but if they come into an active, happy home, they feel welcomed
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Mixing It Up

Possibly the best ‘place’ to home educate is all over the place. By that I mean:

  • have a designate area where formal study can take place if and when desired
  • do some work informally
  • take it to the coffee shop sometimes
  • take it out to the park sometimes
  • take it up a tree sometimes
  • have a cup of tea outdoors with it sometimes
  • set a formal tea-table with yummy food with it sometimes
  • just don’t feel stuck or that it has to be done in one place and one place only
  • be inventive with your thinking – it adds to the fun

As 2007 progressed for us (Hayley was 13-14yo by then), the whole designated area thing was fast losing its appeal for Hayley. While lots of learning still took place, it got to be a rare occurrence for us to be in the allocated room at the same time as each other. It startled me somewhat to realise just how much Hayley suddenly felt that our room had developed a highly contagious disease of some sort.

Instead, I’d find our girl curled up on her bed with a book, or sitting cross-legged on the lounge avidly researching something or other. Sometimes we’d take something out to the side patio together and share the sunshine as well as the subject. It worked well, providing I didn’t try to orchestrate it too much.

Honestly, I hadn’t realised just how house-bound we’d become. Perhaps I thought that now we had this nice room to work in, we didn’t need all the alternate locations.

At one point during that year of change, Hayley said to me wistfully, “Do you know what I miss?”I miss when I was little, and after my morning break, we’d go around the side in the sunshine and you’d read the story to me and I’d try to catch lizards while you read and then I’d answer the questions.” I did remember that. It was a particular comprehension series we did, and I remember learning back then that Hayley listened best when her fingers were busy.

For us, taking lessons down to the river or to a coffee shop didn’t work so well. If she was out, Hayley preferred the freedom to explore, or talk, or watch the people go by. There were, however, plenty of alternate locations around the house that we could use and enjoy, which all helped to keep the learning fun. Like Mary Poppins used to sing, “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down …”

Towards the end of 2007, Hayley began to talk about having her own writing space again. She didn’t want to use her desk in our designated room, however, as that was ‘shared’ space – which it was, and is. Our solution, after some discussion and research, was that Brad made Hayley a small desk for her bedroom, which became well used throughout 2008.

Teenagers often crave their own space, and their writing can become quite private and personal during this time. We feel that needs to be respected and provided for within family life, as much as possible, hence our desire to find a solution that was agreeable to all of us. A friend who has studied psychology tells me that this is a valid part of a teenager’s ‘individuation’.

Like most things in our home education, I’ve found that I’m often tweaking and revising where it takes place, in some way or other, just to keep it fresh. Sometimes that’s simply prettying up an area with a lick of paint or a new curtain. Sometimes it’s cleaning out no-longer used resources. Sometimes it’s a full re-think – like old Fagin in Oliver!, I find myself thinking, “I think I’d better think it out again!”

Families are always growing and changing, even when there
are no more children being added. Mixing up where we conduct
our home education helps us and our children not to stagnate.
It keeps the air fresh, even if only metaphorically.

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Rich Environments

I love the concept of a ‘rich environment’, one where a variety of resources and stimuli from all sorts of mediums are part of the everyday world.

This quote comes from Julie Bogart from Bravewriter – I adapted it from a blog entry from several years ago:

“Rich living leads to happier people. Happier people make good writers because they have more stories to tell, more experiences from which to draw when they do write. Happy people like to share themselves with others, and they are better equipped to do it in a way that brings joy to those they share themselves with.”
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Here are a handful of ideas:

  • a variety of things on the walls – interesting to look at
    disparate artworks, sayings, poems, etc. – changed regularly
  • good coffee table books – just for flicking through
    (Readers Digest or Dorling-Kindersley books are great for this, and the Library is a great source for regular changes.)
  • an array of interesting people coming through the home – exposure to different and ideas and approaches, just so long as they are people your child feels safe having around
  • parents who read newspapers and discuss current affairs in an open, considered manner, rather than a bigoted or closed way
  • parents who read widely and discuss what has interested them
  • involving children in the general functioning of the household – develops their sense of “I’m part of this”
  • not too much order and not too much chaos
  • valuing what the child produces – displaying their best efforts (but not everything and not forever, unless you really love it)
  • family reading time a variety of interesting stories, plays, biographies, adventures – whatever appeals to the family
  • audio books – in the car, and in the house too if you all really love them
  • family rituals and shared laughter
  • bookshelves filled with loved books – the dog-eared, stained, well-thumbed variety, not those which are so revered that they may only be touched with gloved fingers and dust masks
  • access to tools and things to pull apart – this doesn’t have to be a fully equipped shed laden with old bikes and cars – a small zip-up tool set and an old clock can suffice, depending on the child
  • access to trees and rocks and dirt and outdoor space – these may not be available at your house, but around Canberra we have plenty of public spaces that can provide those things

Most of the suggestions listed above involve physical aspects of the home or family life. Even more important however, is valuing the person your child is, as they are. It won’t matter the tiniest scrap how impressive your home education environment looks if your child doesn’t feel loved and valuable to you. Make sure you look your child in the eyes often, and speak their name lovingly. 🙂
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Rich Environment in Action

In 2008 I visited the home of a very dear friend whose oldest child was a baby last time we saw each other close enough to hug. When they moved to just a few hours drive away, we did a wonderful day visit, and us mums talked our children bored-silly! We’ve done it often since, too, especially precious as we are both home educators now.

This family may not appear to be “rich” by the standards of this very consumerist society we live in. They are rich, however, in every way that matters.

  • their walls were decorated with the children’s artworks and copious pictures of happy family times, which the children led us to and gave us a running commentary on
  • the books lying around were those that were currently being devoured, but had clearly been devoured by other families in previous times. the favourite tomes were acted out in a variety of ways by the delightfully creative children
  • the children chatted happily about people they knew of all ages, shapes and opinions – conversation was peppered with “My daddy says this” or “My friend thinks that”, “but I think …”
  • the house was neat and tidy, but clearly happily lived in, too
  • each child helped with the various jobs, and clearly understood that their assistance was valued
  • there was plenty of eye contact and affection between parents and children
  • even firm words from parents were gentle and the respect between family members was obvious
  • both parents are very musical, and the children were learning all aspects of playing, singing, recording and producing, interspersed with their other studies

I’ve shared this example of my friend to point out that you don’t have to “be rich” in order to create a “rich environment”. Second hand furniture, resources and decorations can be every bit as functional as brand spanking new stuff.
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Your rich home education environment will be shaped
by who you are and what your resources allow,
and transformed by your ingenuity and your
enjoyment of your children.

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The whole purpose of education is
to turn mirrors into windows.
~Sydney J. Harris

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