I can remember the first time I sat down to home school Reuben while we lived in Hungary...
I had an 18 month research sabbatical and wanted to ensure that it would not impact on Reuben’s education. He had completed Reception and Year One at primary school in England and I knew he would enter Year Three on our return. I carefully researched the National Curriculum to see what kind of work he needed to be doing in the belief that I would shadow Key Stage One with our home schooling.
Diligently, I prepared a session based on Key Stage One spellings that we would undertake after lunch one day. We sat at the kitchen table and as I started to pull out bits of paper from my bag, Reuben announced he needed the toilet. Then he needed a drink. Then he wanted a snack – we’d literally had lunch all of 10 minutes before sitting down to the lesson. Then he needed to sharpen his pencil. Then he wanted to ensure that he had a rubber – “just in case”.
I think we got through maybe three or four spellings before I needed a large, strong coffee, at which point my carefully planned lesson fell apart as Reuben took my getting up to make coffee as a sign that he could go and play with his Lego.
I sat drinking my coffee and reflected on what happened and as someone who focusses on early childhood education, I felt rather silly for not seeing what was right in front of my nose. Early childhood education is broadly premised on play and following the child’s interests and yet I had failed to account for these in my planning. It was almost as if I had reverted to playing schools as a child, where I was the teacher in control of the teddies sat in front of me. The only thing I had missed was a clipboard with a register on it!
Home schooling was not about playing schools with well behaved teddies sat obediently in front of me. Instead, I had a child with ideas, interests and a desire to move around in front of me. Home schooling needed to be about being playful in our approach to learning and following Reuben’s interests.
Reuben’s father and myself played to our strengths – he did Maths and Science based things, I did Art and English – and we had an amazing time. For example, Reuben was (and still is) obsessed by Octonaughts, so he was tasked by his father to come up with a quiz about sea creatures. Admittedly, it became a quiz about sharks, but it included its own theme tune – “shark quiz, it’s a quiz about sharks” – and had him reading and writing. He even made a shark costume out of boxes and paper and was able to carefully explain how different parts of the costume related to the anatomy of a shark.
On another occasion, we were story agents. Reuben had to collect evidence (i.e. photographs) that would enable him to tell a story. Reuben ran around the apartment and took five photographs. The photographs were of his favourite things and following a discussion on planning stories, he decided how best to order them in order to compile a short story.
While these were one off activities, we also developed projects. We asked Reuben which periods in history he was interested in, which led to a whole project on the Romans. I came home from work one day and asked Reuben what he had been up to, at which point he said “went to the Colosseum”. I was taken aback for a moment, mentally checking my geography for the proximity of Rome to where we lived in Hungary, at which point Reuben showed me on the computer how he had visited the Colosseum via a virtual tour online.
There has been a lot in the press about home schooling as children are largely at home due to COVID19. Some friends from my university days messaged via Facebook fearing how they were going to manage home schooling their children, but there need not be a fear if we follow the principles of early childhood pedagogy – play and following the child’s interests.
Sitting down to a lesson, such as the one I planned, was never going to work. I needed to be playful in order for the ‘lesson’ to be engaging. Building on Reuben’s interests also helped to sustain his engagement in the different tasks we undertook, but I strongly feel that he also learnt so much more than what the National Curriculum offered.
The 18 months in Hungary have parallels with the world that we find ourselves in due to COVID19. Communication with friends and family was limited to online and having play dates was restricted in the early days as we took time to get to know people and the language. Therefore, in the early days there were long periods where it was just the three of us at home.
Talking with Reuben, now aged 10, even he reflects that he thinks our time ‘home schooling’ has given him a different outlook on life. I know there are worries about what this current phase of home schooling might mean for children, but in many ways I feel they are learning more now – about people and society – than the curriculum offers.
Admittedly, Reuben’s age leant itself to being guided by the principles of early childhood pedagogy, but three years after returning from Hungary I am still guided by those principles of play and being child led as we once again undertake home schooling.
Reuben is currently disappointed he will not sit his SATs this summer. How I ended up with a child who likes tests I will never truly know, but I think part of it relates to him having a confidence and interest in learning. All of this suggests to me that there are hundreds of possibilities that can come from a playful and child led approach to learning that will see children through these current times.
In early childhood education we are very aware of education based transitions, and certainly children and families around the world are adjusting to this current education transition. However, as we reach a point where children are able to return to school, I think it will be just as important to think about how that transition is supported in the best interests of the child.
Dr Verity Campbell Barr is Chair of Trustees of Early Education