Managing Multiple Ages: Schooling as a Family

One of the beauties of homeschooling is the opportunity to learn together as a family. If your children are close in age, say about 2 years apart, this works beautifully. For us, this is a little challenging because our kids are farther apart, but it can still be done. I've been reading The Hidden Art of Homemaking by Edith Schaeffer this month and she makes a comment that resonated with me. She writes,

[box] "One reason for the loss of family life today, I believe, is the incessant emphasis on dividing ages into tight categories. There are the kindergarten group, the juniors, the intermediates, the seniors, the young business people, the young married ones, the older married couples, and the 'senior citizens'. There are high school groups, college groups, university groups, and professional groups; everyone segregated from everyone else who is not the same age, and often of the same occupation! This seeps into the family unit, too, so that people just do not expect to enjoy each other or really communicate unless they are exactly the same age.

"The family should be the place where an opposite trend is begun. Families ought to spend more time finding out how much fun it is to do things with a variety of ages, each contributing his or her originality and creative talent to the whole. The exchange would give a far wider understanding of life and people, and the present moment of history." [/box]

This is possible with homeschooling!

So what can we do then to make the most of this unique opportunity that we have at home with multiple ages together under one roof...without Mom going batty? Here are a few thoughts:

bro21. Think family-style.

If you are just starting out in homeschooling, I encourage you to use your older child as the guide in planning. I have found it a lot easier to make sure my older child is getting what she needs and then simplifying it for my younger kids than going the other way around. That way, my older child is appropriately challenged, and the younger ones get a little taste. For example, I've been reviewing a product (review coming up!) focusing on music appreciation. While the product is geared for Matthew, Jonathan has been joining along. I found books that were more appropriate for Jonathan while Matthew was able to handle the more advanced material. The boys listen to the music together, and while Matthew will write about it, Jonathan may simply draw. When the little ones' eyes glaze over, that's a good sign to stop and let them play!

There are many curriculum companies out there that offer multi-age learning options. These tend to be homeschool-family created and not textbook companies. I generally focus on either history or science one at a time, both of which can be done as a family, with reading, writing, and math being more grade-specific. We have used Sonlight for many years and that has been helpful for our family. They are not the only company, so scope around. We are looking into Truth Quest history and Illuminations as other possible options.

If you really want to streamline your lesson planning, I strongly recommend you look into options like these. They are more family-friendly and despite the initial price tag, much more economical, allowing your children to learn together. I then take the general lesson and scale up or down to fit the needs of my children (e.g. more or less writing, copywork vs. research papers---I know, I know...more posts to explain what these are!).

anahbooks2. Train your younger children to play independently as you work with the older kids.

From the moment they were born, I have set aside time each day for my children to learn how to be alone. (Yes, I was one of those moms!) Janna often was stationed in a bouncy seat near me as I cooked dinner. As she grew older and was able to sit up, she learned how to spend time alone in the playpen. I gradually lengthened the time she was alone, while keeping an ear out for her. I did the same thing with each of my other children. Training Anah to do the same is my current challenge as she has not received that kind of training.

This takes time, so count that in as part of your "school" for the younger ones. While it is great to do things together, there are times when your children will need focused one-on-one instruction, such as in math, reading, writing, etc.  For those times, I have put together a variety of independent activities for the younger ones, such as sensory tubs of rice, sand, or other materials, activity bags, themed books from the library, or whatever I can think up or find on the Internet that would suit my kids. We would play with these together first or I would explain how they should be handled (e.g. don't throw the rice out of the tub) and then let them play nearby.

3. Train older children to work independently so you are free to work with younger kids.

This is the flip side of the last suggestion. Eventually, your little ones are going to grow up and start school too. How will you handle both? This is the situation for us now. Janna has already been studying 95% of her work independently, but that was her personality. She didn't like me hovering over her. Matthew, on the other hand, loves to sit with me. It has been a challenge this year as I have had to prep him to learn on his own. His personality was not so organized and independent as his older sister, so I've had to take the time to slowly train him to monitor his assignments, check them off, and complete tasks without me nearby. All this so that I can have time to start working with Jonathan, who is still a non-reader and will need more help.

My suggestion is that I would let go of one or two subject areas or activity types at a time for independent work. For Matthew, we started with math, as that was a subject he was comfortable with. For Janna, it was independent reading. Later on, as they showed they could handle it, they would start to complete workbook assignments on their own. I would think through what was acceptable work and communicate those expectations. Of course, when they started out, it wasn't always up to standard. But with repetition and time, they would eventually get there. When they had mastered that on a consistent basis, I would let go of another area. I wouldn't suggest dumping all of it at one time on them. That isn't very fair, and may end up working against you. Take your time and remember that this is training in learning independent study skills.

4. Don't underestimate what your little ones can learn.

I remember one year, when Janna was in elementary age. Matthew was still not officially in school yet. But he loved to listen in to all the stories we were reading while sitting nearby with his Legos. It didn't look like he was listening, but I distinctly remember one day while we were going through our botany lesson. When my husband got home, I overheard Matthew telling him all about the stems of plants, basically covering what we learned in school that day!

My point? Don’t kick the little ones out, just because they don’t understand. Train them to play quietly with learning tubs, activity bags, and help them to work quietly as you work with the older kids. Each year, or even earlier if your kids are little, kick it up a notch. Keeping your family together, learning together, growing together, is one of the best things about homeschooling. Music, art, field trips, and as mentioned earlier, history, geography, and science all lend themselves to family-style learning. The older kids learn to care for the younger ones. The younger ones get to learn from the older ones. But remember: It doesn't happen by accident though. With prayer and careful thought and planning, this can be something your family can enjoy too.