Sometimes, the way to get the homeschool community you really want is to build it from the ground up. If growing community is on your to-do list, try some of these strategies to make it happen.
What if you planned a field trip and nobody showed? For homeschoolers, this happens more often than you might think.
Easy volunteer projects your family can do together make community service part of your everyday homeschool life.
Have you dreamed of building your own homeschool co-op but don’t know where to start? In the second of a three-part series, guest columnist Melissa Robb walks you through the first steps for adding classes and activities to your group.
Previously, I covered the basics of how to start a homeschool group. Once you are established, it’s time to add the fun! Have you decided to keep your group small? Or are you going big? Either way, you can expect to have some or all of these types of activities: field trips, classes, and co-ops. Here are some how-to points that can help you with organizing these activities.
Field trips are perhaps the simplest activity to arrange. Many venues have information on their websites about school or group visits. Usually, there’s an option will fit the needs of your homeschool group, but sometimes, you’ll need to ask the venue to tailor a program or create something from scratch. Education departments, at museums or elsewhere, may be new to the idea of a homeschool group. They may need encouragement to go outside their usual form—for instance, grade levels. If a site has a menu of field trip offerings arranged by grade, you can ask them to expand that. So if a program is for 3rd and 4th grades, you can ask them to expand that to include 2nd and 5th grades. I have often talked a museum into welcoming all ages, from infants to teens or tailoring a program to meet our group’s needs. It’s worth asking. Follow these steps to set up a successful group field trip:
1 :: Choose your destination. Museums, factory tours, nature centers—the options are plentiful.
2 :: Make arrangements with the venue. Be wary of places that require an upfront deposit; aim for a location that allows you to pay in full about two weeks ahead of time. Gather information from the venue, including:
- the name and location (note whether it’s different from the venue’s street address);
- contact info for the venue, including your contact’s name, email, and phone;
- what forms of payment the venue accepts;
- a detailed description of field trip;
- cost per student and cost per adult—per person costs are much easier to work with than a group flat fee, which can get messy;
- recommended age range (and whether that age range is flexible or set in stone);
- any minimum or maximum numbers required for attendance;
- expected start and end time; stroller- and carrier- friendliness;
- date for final head count (if you can choose, I recommend two weeks before the field trip date);
- lunch or snack details;
- and parking information.
3 :: Share details with the group, and start collecting payments with a clear due date.
4 :: After your sign-up deadline, contact the venue with the final headcount and pay.
5 :: Final confirmation with venue should be one or two days before the field trip. Be sure you know how the venue will contact you if there they need to make an emergency change the day of the field trip.
Arranging a class is usually going to be more involved than a field trip. To put together a class, you’ll need to add these items to your to-do list, in addition to the field trip steps in the previous section:
1 :: Find and secure a teacher—be sure to get a teacher bio to add to the class description.
2 :: Find and secure a venue—a free venue is best, especially if your group is new.
3 :: Arrange for at least two parents to stay in the classroom with teacher and students.
4 :: If the class is a drop-off, be sure one of the parents staying for the class has all the phone numbers for parents or guardians who will not be sticking around.
Co-ops (co-operatives) can be big or small. They can be casual or highly organized. A co-op, generally, refers to a set of classes/ activities led by parents who do not get paid. Every adult is expected to do something to participate, though everyone doesn’t necessarily have to teach. A group doesn’t have to have a co-op—and a co-op doesn’t have to be part of a group.
- Co-ops should be organized so that the workload is spread out and information is clear and easy to access:
- The schedule should reflect who is teaching what, plus any relevant details about the teacher and class.
- People should know their roles ahead of time—teacher, hall monitor, second adult in classroom, clean up crew, etc.
- Don’t forget behind-the-scenes jobs, like collecting money, posting the schedule, monitoring communications, etc.
- Finding a location may be challenging for this many people. Consider
- social halls (you’d need some sort of real or imaginary partitions between classes)
- church buildings or libraries—many have classrooms available for use or rent
- restaurants or supermarkets with community rooms
- parks (though you’ll need a bad weather plan in place)
There are two basic co-op models, and each has its pros and cons:
SMALL CO-OP AMONG FRIENDS (2 to 6-ish families)
- Location can change week to week or stay in one place
- Simple communication (email may be enough)
- Share the workload (take turns teaching, cleaning, providing a venue)
- Cost of supplies can be easily shared
- A strong sense of commitment to the other families will emerge
MEDIUM TO LARGE CO-OP (More than 20 kids)
- Can grow to 100+ kids
- Lots of different skills and personality types
- Need an official central communication (email is not enough)
- Insurance may be necessary depending on your venue (more on this in a future column)
You’ll also need to decide whether teachers will get paid for the classes they teach, get reimbursed for supply costs, or simply volunteer their time. Co-ops most commonly don’t pay parent-teachers, but a benefit of a large co-op can be a pool of parents with a wide variety of teaching skills.
TIP: Don't give surveys too much weight. Surveys seem like a good idea but they aren’t as helpful as you’d expect. If you ask homeschoolers what activities they want to do, they will want to do everything. Everything sounds wonderful, and they will tell you so enthusiastically (and mean it).
Based on that enthusiasm you arrange activities, and fewer than expected sign up. When the day of the activity arrives, only a portion of those who signed up will actually attend.
Do not take this personally. Expect it.
MELISSA ROBB has seven years of experience homeschooling her now-12-year-old. Since 2010 she has held a variety of positions in her favorite homeschool group (which has blossomed to 320+ member families).
My problem with homeschool conferences is a lot like my problem with homeschool magazines: They’re out there, but they seldom feel like they’re really for me. That’s why I’m so excited about SEA’s homeschool conference, a totally secular homeschool conference that has the potential for real staying power—as long as we secular homeschoolers give it some support! Toward that end, I’ve asked Blair Lee, SEA’s founder and HSL’s high school science columnist, and two of her cohorts—Kat Hutcheson, vendor coordinator, and Tina Harden, conference organizer—to give us some details on the upcoming conference, which we at HSL are THRILLED to support.
Most of us have been to a lot of homeschool conferences. What specifically makes the SEA conference special?
There is real value to the camaraderie one can experience when gathered with others who share similar objectives, standards, and purpose. The SEA Homeschoolers conference is that gathering for those who seek to provide their children with a secular, academic, innovative home learning experience. As secular homeschoolers, especially in certain parts of the country, the challenges are unique in the homeschooling world as we seek to immerse our children in an education that doesn’t use religion as a focus or a foundation of their educational experience. The encouragement one can feel empowered by after attending such a gathering is immeasurable; having the opportunity to learn that you are not alone, that the challenges one faces are being faced by others, and solutions are available. This conference will help give participants the energy, motivation, and confidence we all need and seek for our homeschooling journey.
Blair Lee: The SEA Homeschool Conference is a secular, academic conference, which is pretty special. It isn’t all about academics though. We have worked hard to make this a fun and exciting event for conference attendees of all ages. There are also three service projects going on during the conference: Teens can receive community service credit by volunteering for the conference; we have a blood drive on Saturday, June 3 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and we have partnered with non-profit group Bringing Food Forests to NE Florida to raise money for a permaculture project on the Lakota Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. We have a raffle during the conference to raise funds for this.
What are some of the talks you’re most excited about?
Tina Harden: The college offerings: The college fair, how to write a college essay, questions for college physics
BL: I hate to pick favorites. I am honestly excited by the breadth of talks at this conference. I will have to admit, though, I cannot wait to hear Michael Clay Thompson speak. My son is excited by the college essay workshop, Sytil Murphy’s physics talks, Ian Guch’s workshops, and wilderness training.
Kat Hutcheson: Blair’s Project-Based Learning talk is definitely something I can’t miss. Homeschooling 101 and Homeschooling High School with Beverly Burgess should be great, too—Bev is even giving her new webinar package free to everyone who attends her Homeschooling 101 talk. Mari Buckroth of NASH and The Inappropriate Homeschooler is on my list, as well as talks by Zinn Education Project and workshops with the National Parks Service. Amanda McClure of Groovy Kids Online is giving talks on Transitioning to Independent Learning and Creating a Culture of Learning in Your Home, both of which I’m looking forward to, along with Lauren Connolly’s talk on using comic books and graphic novels in education and a talk on Permaculture, Biodynamic Soil, and Compost from Bringing Food Forest to NE Florida.
What opportunities will attendees have to connect with other homeschoolers?
TH: Games for children and teens, blood drive, vendor hall, bookstore social
BL: We have worked to include several activities to connect, but honestly, this happens naturally at homeschool conferences. My favorite way to connect at conferences is to sit down and just talk to people. I have made some great friends that way.
KH: Community is a big part of SEA Homeschoolers and a big part of this conference. There will be lots of opportunities for homeschooling families to socialize with new friends and familiar faces. From the meet-and-greet at the local bookstore to the parents mixer to just grabbing lunch in the dining hall, we hope everyone makes lasting connections within the community.
Would this be a fun event for families to attend together?
TH: My family is joining me, and this will be a great rejuvenative endeavor for our whole family.
BL: Absolutely. We have worked hard to make this weekend a highlight of the summer for conference attendees.
KH: Absolutely. Conference organizers have worked really hard to make this a fun event for the whole family. There are tons of kids and teens programming, a Magic the Gathering tournament, Smash Brothers contest, children’s book readings with author JR Becker, teen formal, art show, talent show, and some really wonderful opportunities for those starting to plan a path to college.
What else will be happening at the conference that people should be sure to check out?
TH: The talent show, blood drive, Smash Brothers tournament, game room, magic tournament, the college fair, and the raffle.
KH: Book signings by JR Becker, Beverly Burgess, and Blair Lee. Blair will have the prototype of her new book to check out. You definitely won’t want to miss the raffle. We have so many cool books and products donated from our vendors and sponsors, plus Blair’s new book and a SEA swag bag.
BL: Wilderness training and the history of fire.
Who do you have lined up for the vendor hall? I’m assuming they are all secular homeschool resources?
KH: We have 27 secular vendors and sponsors. For a new homeschooling conference that is a big number. It means a lot to those of us planning the conference to have the secular vendors and sponsors in our community support our group. We have trusted favorites like Royal Fireworks Press, Pandia Press, Build Your Library, Teaching Textbooks, Shiller Math, and more, as well as some new and lesser known companies that we are excited introduce to the homeschool community.
What do you hope people will be saying on their way home from the conference?
TH: Let’s do it again next year! I got to spend time with my friends, and we all made great new ones too!
BL: About two hours into the drive home from a homeschool conference we had just attended, my son said, “You know my favorite thing about homeschooling?”
“What’s that?” I replied.
“The homeschool conferences,” he told me.
That is what I hope the kids and teens are saying. I hope parents are talking about the new strategies and materials they discovered and the new friends they made.
I know conferences depend on people power to keep going, and this is a conference that we’d really like to see keep going! If people just can’t attend this year, is there anything they can do to support the conference from afar?
There are two great ways to support this conference. Please share about the event on your social media platforms and on any homeschool groups you belong to on Facebook. That sort of grassroots messaging is important to any fledgling endeavor. The second way to support us is to support our vendors. We will be sharing about our vendors into the group, and purchasing through them using the conference links ensures that it is worth it to those vendors to come back again next year.
And nuts-and-bolts: Where can people sign up, how much does admission cost, and what else should attendees know about the conference?
You can buy tickets (Adults $100, Teens $65, Kids $50), one-day passes (Adults $45, Teens $30, Kids $25) and vendor hall passes ($25), rent dorm rooms for on campus accommodations, and purchase meal cards to save money in the dining hall at seahomeschoolers.com
While you’re there be sure to check out our updated conference schedule. Also, our college fair, starting at 11 a.m. on Thursday, June 1, is free to all who would like to attend. If you come to the college fair and decide you would like to see more of the conference, you will receive $5 off the purchase of a one-day or vendor hall pass.
I want my kids to be the kind of people who value diversity, but our homeschool community is pretty homogenous. How do I raise open-minded global citizens when our opportunities to experience other cultures are limited?
One of the more rewarding learning experiences I’ve had with my 14-year-old son this year has been participating in We the People MN, a series of community teach-ins about the Constitution held at Solomon’s Porch, a Minneapolis gathering space housed in a former church. Run completely by volunteers, We the People MN bills itself as “A Community Conversation to Understand the U.S. Constitution.” I wanted to share a little about our family’s experience with the series in the hope of inspiring other programs like it across the country.
The idea for the series came from Cara Letofsky, a South Minneapolis resident who posted on her neighborhood Facebook group that the 2016 election made her want to learn more about the Constitution. About 60 people responded that they shared that desire to come together as a community to educate themselves politically. A small group of about ten volunteers followed up to plan the series, deciding what amendments they especially wanted to learn about and collaborating to identify community experts who might be willing to tackle leading a discussion of particular amendments. Working their community connections, they lined up a group of highly qualified presenters willing to volunteer their time, including a law professor from a local university, a Minneapolis city council member, attorneys, law students, and organizers from groups that are deeply involved in such contentious Constitutional issues as gun control laws, the right to vote, and reproductive rights.
The organizing committee decided on a format of 10 two-hour presentations, spaced out every two weeks from mid-January 2017 to late April 2017. The first program was a kick-off potluck (because everything always goes better with good food) and a public reading of the entire Constitution, with participants taking turns reading sections aloud at the mic. The organizers also distributed free pocket copies of the Constitution, donated by one of the organizers, Constitutional law professor Matt Filner. Finding free or cheap pocket Constitutions isn’t difficult, luckily. The National Center for Constitutional Studies, for instance, offers a bulk purchase of 100 pocket Constitutions for $40 on their website.
Cara Letofksy, the woman who’d sparked the idea, expected perhaps 20 people to show up to the first presentation. To her surprise, over 80 people attended that first event, and attendance has usually averaged between 100 to 150 participants at subsequent events.
In their initial planning discussions, the organizers knew they couldn’t cover the entire Constitution, so they decided to focus on Constitutional rights that might be most directly challenged under a Trump administration. Other communities might want to choose a different focus, such as looking at ways the Constitution directly impacts local issues and controversies.
The We the People MN series has covered such issues as the branches of government and separation of powers, as well as the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of expression and assembly and the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms (as well as the limitations implied by the wording of the amendment). One program was devoted to the right to privacy (and the limits on our privacy). Another event focused on the Fifth, Sixth, and Thirteenth Amendments and their relevance to criminal justice today. The series’ last presentation on the amendments will look at the right to vote guaranteed by the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-Fourth Amendments—and how that right to vote is being steadily eroded today. The series’ last gathering, planned for the 100th day of the Trump administration, will feature a community potluck and “next steps” discussion.
Each event has included a “TED”-style talk by an expert to set the stage for further discussion, followed by time for participants to talk in small groups and share their thoughts and bring up questions for the expert presenter. Almost every presentation has also included brief talks by local activists working in some way on problems raised by ongoing Constitutional debates. Often, these activists have given participants in the programs concrete ideas about how to get involved. For instance, at the event devoted to Second Amendment issues, a presenter from the group Protect Minnesota passed out factsheets about upcoming gun legislation and tips for creating effective talking points. The group highlighted that the most effective advocates usually find a way articulate their personal connections to proposed legislation.
Each presenter also typically sends out readings ahead of time through the We the People MN Facebook page for participants who want to take a deeper dive into topics, though the readings aren’t required to understand the presentations. The readings have ranged from excerpts from the Federalist Papers to summaries of key Supreme Court cases to up-to-the-minute news articles about contemporary Constitutional controversies.
For my son and me, attending these events has been a bonding, highly relevant way to study civics together. Throughout our week, we often find ourselves still talking about what we learned at the most recent We the People presentation. The series has given us new tools for understanding how the Constitution relates to our everyday lives and the lives of those around us.
I’ve also found the series personally helpful as I’ve stepped up my own game as a citizen this year. I’m calling my legislators and attending more public hearings, meetings, and protests than ever (and when I can, hauling my son along with me). Studying the Constitution in this way has given my son and me a clearer sense of what people fighting for change are up against and how we as citizens can make the best use of our time and people power.
Above all, I love that my son has seen people of all ages and backgrounds getting together every other Sunday afternoon to educate ourselves about our Constitution. To me, that’s been such a powerful example of lifelong learning and civic engagement, one I hope will stick with him the rest of his life. I think another crucial piece of the whole experience has been learning from people who are actively involved in the conversation about how to define our Constitutional rights and who are fighting to preserve those rights.
The volunteers who set up We the People MN are hoping to export the model elsewhere. They have plans to create a curriculum to help other people set up their own series, ones that will be relevant to their local communities. If you’d like to learn more, see videos of the presentations, and keep apprised of curriculum developments, you can visit the group’s public Facebook page.
Have you dreamed of building your own homeschool co-op but don’t know where to start? In the first of a three-part series, guest columnist Melissa Robb walks you through the first steps for starting your own group.
You’ve tried a local homeschool group, or two, or three, and they haven’t been a good fit. Or maybe there aren’t any groups in your area. You feel alone.
You aren’t the only one. If you feel alone, if you haven’t found a homeschool group that fits your family well, then there are others who feel the same.
It’s worth your time to find people who “get” it. It’s important to find the people who get you and your kids, your family and your way of life. People who speak your language. The language of homeschoolers.
It may seem intimidating, to create a group, large or small. Build it. They will come. I promise.
The first steps in starting a homeschool group are the easiest. It only takes a small investment of your time to begin.
1. FIND A PLACE TO MEET
I can’t stress this strongly enough. Putting a shout-out for a new group without a place to meet already set up is almost setting yourself up for failure. Starting a Facebook, Yahoo, or Meetup group without a plan in place will result in a lot of people saying “Yes, yes, we will join, sure, we want to meet.” Everyone will have different schedules, different geographical areas, different age groups, and it goes on and on. Everyone will show true enthusiasm. Then nothing will happen.
Find a place and date and time to meet, then go public. All those things can and may morph over time as the group comes together, gels, and grows, but the first steps really need to be decided by one person (or perhaps by you and your best homeschool buddy). You are the organizer. You are starting the group. Make it work for your needs. This doesn’t mean you have to take on all the work involved in making the group successful. But to start, keep it simple, and keep it right for your family’s needs.
Some places homeschoolers find to meet (for free or for a small fee): library meeting rooms, community centers, some retail stores that have space for groups to use (grocery stores, retail stores and restaurants), religious buildings, local social halls, parks, senior centers, playgrounds. Where does your local Rotary Club meet? They may have a great, cheap, location that you could use as well.
What if you can’t find a place to meet? Your group could focus on just field trips, never needing a set meeting space. That’s a very doable and workable homeschool group situation. But, in the same vein as step 1, you’ve got to actually set up places to go before you start the group. Have two or three field trips arranged before you go public. Again, make it places/dates/times that work for your family. Arrange only things you will attend yourself. Later, others can join in to arrange activities, but at the very beginning you need a plan in place or (as stated in step 1) it will all fall apart. Everyone will have ideas going in a thousand directions, and nothing will end up happening.
2. PICK A NAME FOR YOUR GROUP
It’s important for your group to have a name. It can be simple or catchy. It can be descriptive or general. It may be inclusive or very specific. The name of your group can be a help or a hinderance. It should help people find you when they are Googling. (Unless your intention is to create a sort of “secret” group that you only invite friends to. Maybe you are splitting off from a larger homeschool group, and you aren’t looking to be easily searchable—in which case, keep that intent in mind.)
- Homeschoolers of San Jose: easy to find when people are Googling or searching on Facebook/Yahoo/ meetup; inclusive
- HOSJ: not as easy to find
- Unschooling Boise: easy, not inclusive, specific
- Laid-back learners: not as easy
- Teen Homeschooling Long Island: Yup, it’s clear who this group is for
- Long Island Teens: not as easy (could be any type of teen group)
3. GET THE WORD OUT
Once you have a place to meet or field trips arranged, it’s time to let people know. You can do this via a variety of ways:
- Create an email address that you will use just for the group mail. It can be a simple Gmail address. This is helpful if you ever leave the group. You wouldn’t want your personal email address out there on flyers and websites.
- Create a Facebook group (great for chatting and for creating events), and start inviting homeschoolers you know. (Ask them if they want to be invited as many people really resent it if you add them to a group without asking first.) If Facebook isn’t your favorite option, then consider Meetup (great for organizing events but not as good for general chatting) or Yahoo Groups.
- Post info about your group in public places like the library or grocery store community bulletin boards. Online, try Macaroni Kids or other local sites frequented by families looking for activity information. Consider adding your group to some of the many online national homeschool directories. Those sites usually ask you to fill out a form, and then they will add your group to a list organized by state.
- Have a flyer or business card with you at all times. While you are out on errands, if you see a family with kids during the day, ask if they are homeschoolers and hand them a flyer. This can cost you next to nothing. Find a place that offers 50 or 100 free business cards, or print your own.
- Word-of-mouth is the cheapest, easiest and fastest way to pass along information. Once a few homeschoolers know about your group, they will tell other homeschoolers. It can take a while to get things started (especially in remote areas with few home- schoolers) but once it does, word of mouth spreads like wildfire!
SOME THINGS TO AVOID
In my years as a board member of my homeschool group and as a leader of many Introduction to Homeschooling sessions, I have met some people who thought that they would be able to meet local homeschoolers via their district school department. They imagined that the school department would have a plethora of useful information about homeschooling or a contact list of local homeschool families in the area. They don’t—or at least it’s very rare if they do, because it’s not their area of expertise—and it would be illegal for the school department or any government agency to provide that kind of personal information. Homeschool family names should be kept private and not appear in school committee minutes and certainly should not be handed out to other homeschoolers.
You may be tempted to start by holding group activities/meeting in your home. It’s accessible, available, and an easy commute for you. That’s where the good part ends. You would be inviting strangers into your home. People you may not gel with would be on your turf. If your children were having a difficult time on a given day, you couldn’t gather them up and leave. If you were ill, you’d have to cancel the whole group’s day rather than just not attending yourself. Additionally, some people are uncomfortable going to a stranger’s home, which could add to difficulties in getting a group started.
However, if you have some space on your property, like an outbuilding that has enough space for a group, that may work. You could still retreat to the more private areas of your home if you needed to. Homeschoolers you haven’t met yet may be more willing to come to a craft day “in the barn” as opposed to in your living room. Your home doesn’t have to be avoided; it’s just not usually the optimal situation.
Stay away from creating a group website. It may be tempting, to hop over to WordPress and make something pretty and interesting. But then you are stuck with maintaining it. Keep that sort of thing off your plate for now. Stick to existing group sites like Meetup, Facebook, and Yahoo Groups. They are easy to maintain, and easy to add moderators as you grow and need help behind the scenes. If you grow large enough to need or want your own website, you can approach that when the time comes. For now, keep it simple.
Let the fun begin! You’ve done the work. You are ready to start meeting new friends. Welcome them!.Start listening to their needs but don’t bend too far from your own needs in order to accommodate others. Not yet. Once you’ve gotten a few months (at least) of meet-ups/activities completed, then it’s time to consider what the next steps are.
This column was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of home | school | life.
Melissa Robb has seven years of experience homeschooling her now-12-year-old. Since 2010 she has held a variety of positions in her favorite homeschool group (which has blossomed to 320+ member families).
Introverts need people, too. Just not all the time. Grow your community by strategically investing your social resources.
Take advantage of online groups. Email and internet forums let you communicate when and how you want to.
Be proactive. Volunteer to help with an activity, and you’ll get a conversation topic and a purpose at events.
Look for activities with a clear start and end time. Open-ended activities can stress you out because it’s hard to pace yourself, so always go into an activity knowing when you plan to leave it.
Bring a conversation topic. Stash a book you’re reading, a curriculum catalog, or a knitting project in your bag. You’ll have something to do and something to talk about.
Know your comfort zone. It’s okay to skip a crowded homeschool day at a museum and to set up a field trip for a small group another day instead.
For more strategies for building your homeschool community—including tips for extroverts in search of homeschool pals—read “Socialize Yourself” in our fall issue.
Q: I’d like to make community service a regular part of our homeschool, but I’m not sure where to start. My kids are 6 and 8 years old, and a lot of organizations seem to want volunteers who are at least 16. Do you have any suggestions for homeschoolers looking for volunteer opportunities?
A: Yes! Volunteering is a great family project, and it’s definitely worth the effort of seeking out opportunities for your kids to contribute to their community and the world around them.
With younger kids like yours, the volunteer driver will be you: You’ll choose activities you care about and bring your kids along for the ride, whether that means carrying trash bags at your local park’s annual clean-up days or decorating the box for your family’s food bank drive contribution. Let your kids know that their contribution makes a difference — say things like, “Isn’t it great to clean up the park? It’s a lot of work for one person, but it’s easier when we all do it together. We’re lucky to have such a fun park to play in. I’m glad we can take care of it.”
Some organizations welcome younger volunteers as long as their parent sticks around: Check with animal shelters, nursing and retirement homes, community gardens, and food banks, which are often family friendly volunteer zones. Or consider volunteer work you can do at home, such as making blankets for Project Linus or drawing pictures for Color a Smile.
It’s great when kids get the bigger picture at a younger age, but don’t be disappointed if your children don’t immediately appreciate the importance of volunteer work. For most kids, a developed sense of empathy and interest in the larger world around them don’t really start to kick in until they’re 10 years old or so. That’s when kids will really start to appreciate the positive impact they are having on their community as a reward on its own—until then, try to keep the projects fun and give your young volunteers plenty of positive reinforcement for their community service efforts.
We’re all familiar with the tired old myth of the “unsocialized” homeschoolers, spending their days locked inside, interacting only with their family members. I’ve certainly spent my fair share of time disputing these myths (earlier this year I even wrote a post addressing every possible misplaced socialization criticism I’ve ever heard). Yet while there are plenty of wrong ideas on home education and socialization, I find myself pondering how unschooling has impacted the friendships I make and the communities that I’m a part of now, as a 20-something adult.
Like many homeschooled families, when I was young my family participated in a range of activities, from homeschool coops to French classes, group hikes to choirs. What set us apart from many other home educating families in my area at the time was just how much input my sister and I had in the activities and outings we were involved in, and on whether we stuck with those activities. I knew that my mother would step in when asked (and occasionally when not asked!) to help solve a problem—such as when the musical director of a production I was involved in was trying to use me, a “good” kid, as a human buffer between the two most disruptive children in the group—and that if there wasn’t a good solution that I was free to quit. If I didn’t like a group of kids, or found that certain adults treated me and other children unfairly, I was never forced to spend time around those groups or individuals.
That doesn’t mean I never had to deal with bullies or other unpleasant people, or that I didn’t on occasion feel trapped by commitment into continuing to participate in something that made me unhappy. What it does mean, though, is that I was never subjected to the type of forced association faced by children in school, who often have little to no recourse when faced with regular harassment and even physical violence from other students, or teachers who treat their students badly. It seems to me that too often children learn early on that they just have to suck it up, no matter how toxic an environment is or how frightened they are about seeing people who have harmed them in some way. They learn that they can’t act on their own feelings or judgement about a person or situation in order to protect their emotional or even physical safety. My feelings were treated as important by my parents, and my judgement was trusted (with plenty of discussion and guidance from them). As a consequence, I feel like I never had to learn, as an adult, to trust myself and my instincts. I already knew how to do that.
In my teen years, and now as a young adult, I often marvel at those who are dating people they don’t like very much just because they don’t want to be single, or hanging out with groups of people who make them feel bad because they just don’t want to spend time alone. I’ve grown up in such a way that, barring the occasional bad decision, I generally surround myself only with people who I genuinely like, care about, and who make me feel good about myself. And when I’m not spending time with people, my introverted self is mostly okay with being alone or with family. It’s not that I don’t sometimes feel lonely, or experience the struggle of meeting new people at an age where it’s no longer easy to find “peer groups,” or that I don’t sometimes find it hard to join new groups because of plain old shyness. But I do feel that I’m good about setting strong boundaries with less pleasant people, being choosy about the communities I become a part of, and surrounding myself with people who make me happy.
It’s always hard to know how much to attribute to unschooling, since by the very nature of such a personalized education, my life and my experience is pretty unique to me, my family, and my geographic location. Perhaps no matter what education I’d experienced, I’d have reached the same conclusions that I have now. I think that being able to grow as I did with so much freedom in my interactions, so much trust in my choices, and so strong a message of how well I (and others) deserved to be treated, definitely had a positive impact on how I build (or find) my social life now.
I guess what I’m saying is that, contrary to what many people seem to believe, I think unschooling actually helped me to develop healthy social skills. I genuinely enjoy meeting new people, but I’m very grateful for also having good boundaries, strong feelings about mutual respect, and the strength to walk away from individuals or groups that are causing harm in my life.
That’s the type of socialization I want, and the type of socialization I hope many other life learners can develop through our marvelously self directed, trust-filled, and respectful upbringings!