For many families, “homeschool” is a misnomer—so much of our learning happens outside of the home. With the right materials, your family can make every trip out a chance to deepen learning, develop existing interests, and discover new ones. Some families fill a bag, and others fill the whole trunk. But when you lock the door behind you, what exactly do you bring?
It goes without saying that your family’s interests and the adventure ahead of you determine what you pack. The buckets and spades you take to a day at the beach may not be what you take to your local natural history museum. Nevertheless, there will be some items that you’ll want to take everywhere, and if you have them assembled and ready, you’re more likely to take them.
Some basics can make or break a trip. Spare clothes for children, if they are likely to get wet, waterproofs in the wet season, small bottles of sunscreen, and insect repellent and bite/sting cream during the drier months. You’ll need water and plenty of sustaining snacks. It helps to have a backpack to put it all in (children can share the load, appropriate to their size and age), but I know one family who takes it all in a basket on the hip, and another who pulls everything along in a wheeled trolley.
It’s a great idea to take some basic art supplies to record what you find and foster creativity on the go. Katie Pybus, who home educates her three children in the South of England, and has been blogging about it every day for the past four years, says that she never leaves home without a sketchbook for her youngest child, a keen drawer. If you’re not lucky enough to live near an art supply outlet like Katie, you could make sketchbooks by folding copier paper in half and stapling the fold. Bring along a pencil case filled with pencils, a sharpener, mini-ruler, crayons, markers, a glue stick, small scissors, and small roll of tape. If your children like to paint, a travel watercolor set makes the perfect pocket-sized paint palette, accompanied by waterbrushes (paintbrushes with a water reservoir in the handle). Having all of these small items assembled in one zipper-case has saved my bacon on more than one occasion when I’ve had to bolt out of the house at a moment’s notice.
If you’ll be spending the day outdoors, in addition to the right gear for the weather (and replacement gear for when socks get wet!), consider taking along a few light items to take your family’s learning even deeper. Very young children sometimes struggle to use binoculars, but a monocular is a lot easier to use and often cheaper and lighter to carry. A field guide for your area will help you identify flora and fauna, and you can keep a record of what you find with a camera or camera-phone. If you think you’ll be sitting down for a while, consider bringing a foldable sit-mat, but if you have a big family, an old shower-curtain makes the perfect water- and dirt-proof outdoor learning space.
Dawn Suzette Smith, of the Mud Puddles to Meteors blog, and co-author of Whatever the Weather, recommends carrying a small tin container for collecting specimens—leaves, insects, lichen, feathers—whatever treasures your child finds can be popped into the tin for examination later. Luckily, even if you forget your tin, any secure container or baggie does the job. I’ve taken to collecting plastic hummus containers and juice bottles for my son’s collections. For a collector, anything will do.
For the older child who loves the outdoors, a pocketknife and a length of rope can give great pleasure. Various kinds of pocketknives are on the market, from round-ended blades to clasp-less knives in leather sheathes. Once they know how to use a pocketknife safely, many children love to whittle and fashion walking sticks from twigs, and in an emergency, the tweezers are really handy for extracting thorns or splinters from little fingers. With a length of rope, you can make a tightrope between two trees to test your balance, play limbo, throw the rope over a sturdy branch to make a make-shift rope swing, or use it as a harness for a little tree-climbing. Or take a trip down memory lane and teach your children your childhood skipping songs and watch their eyebrows lift higher and higher as you demonstrate your skipping prowess.
Getting out of the house might be a great way of getting kids away from the TV or tablet, but don’t forget that those electronic devices can make excellent recording instruments. Most contain voice-recording software, so if your child can’t write yet, or is reluctant to, she can still take verbal notes on what your family is up to. The video footage and photographs your child takes can be brought home and spliced together to make a video of your trip out. For the naturalist, a photograph facilitates the identification and recording of species. Finally, photos can be printed and glued into a scrapbook—rather than only having snapshots of family vacations or holidays, you’ll have a priceless record of your day-to-day life as well.
Speaking of scrapbooks, Dawn’s family has a neat idea for a homemade scrapbook kit for longer trips. She says,“Before leaving we create a small scrapbook that is held together with rings to easily add things we collect along the way. We keep our book in a bag filled with extra paper, a hole punch, glue dots, tape, markers, colored pencils and other supplies used to build our scrapbook as we go. After each stop we punch holes to add things like postcards or brochures to the book, we tape things like business cards and receipts to the pages, decorate borders and write a little something about the location.”
Dawn’s rustled-up kit is a fantastic way to create a really unique souvenir of a family trip, and one idea I’ll definitely be using this summer.
There are two things I never leave the house without: a small journal with a pen. Jotting down what we see and do, along with my children’s questions and observations, has been invaluable in helping me to bring their outdoor learning back to our homeschool. As their mentor, I don’t want to miss an opportunity to remind them of what we did, encourage detail in their narrations for daddy later, and help them remember the questions they asked. We once spent an entire afternoon trying to figure out the difference between crickets and grasshoppers after a previous day’s walk when the chirruping creatures had been leaping around us at our every step.
Whatever you take, the right materials for your family’s outing can help you dive beneath the surface and immerse yourselves in your not-at-home school.
This article was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of home | school | life as part of our big nature study feature. We’re reprinting it on the blog because (1) summer is a great time to have an outdoor kit handy, and (2) we really like it.