What is minimalist homeschooling? I define it as a style of education where the wide array of choices for “what to include in a normal day” is purposely limited and prioritized for a simpler lifestyle and for a greater practicality of use. Families might aim for fewer physical supplies within a learning space, fewer subjects to focus on at a time, the choice of multi-use or reusable items, and/or the careful planning of how often and how much depth or detail per topic (or even if they think it is worthwhile to include at all). The idea is to provide a great educational experience which is not dependent on “all the bells and whistles” marketed in the education world.
The result is often a more relaxed way of homeschooling. It seeks to take steps to avoid overwhelm. It aims to use time and possessions better and not waste them on something that isn’t of personal interest if it is not helpful or needful, in order to free up greater time, space, or energy for things which benefit, encourage, and/or are important for the present or future life.
Click here for a set of (free) downloadable/printable pages for taking notes on “How to Prune”.
A number of years ago, I compared our “Peppermint Stick” style with other commonly-known educational approaches or styles. You can find those comments and charts through this link to “Our Twist” page and more specifically, on this page entitled “A Comparison with Other Styles or Approaches”. I had not yet heard of the term of “Minimalist Homeschooling” so it was not a part of those charts. So I’m blogging about it. (This one’s a long blog post, Friends. It’s too much for a chart this time. The stuff related to this topic has been on my mind for many years.😉)
From what I can gather from a bit of online research, a homeschool mom named Zara Fagen was the first person to create/popularize this term and wrote a book about it. Another blogger, Carrie Willard, also has written her perspective on it in how she uses it in homeschooling. Karen Debus is a Christian homeschool mom who sometimes speaks on it and I’ve heard her before. But I personally remember first hearing the term as a style through Lisa Marie Fletcher (“The Canadian Homeschooler”) as she described it within her Homeschool Methods video presentation at a conference (which, by the way, was a tremendously good overview of the main styles of homeschooling).
My ears especially perked up as Lisa Marie began to talk about this particular style. Until then, I had not realized it was an actual title of a style. Rather, I had thought of it as just one of the descriptive words for those of us who purposely minimize and plan for simplifying a number of things in our homeschool to allow more for what we do find of value. (One of my mottos: “Keep it simple and sweet!”😁)
My personal take on this is that more moms today would like to incorporate partial aspects of this “style” alongside whatever other educational approach they are using; in other words, have a mix of styles. It’s flexible enough to do that too! You can use these ideas to whatever extent works best for your family. For my family, it’s quite a bit. For others, it is less or perhaps more.
Last year, when I had mentioned a few tips for keeping things simpler within my video tour of our yurt-school, a viewer had asked the question, “How do you stay minimalistic in homeschooling?“ I had already begun to answer that by putting additional tips into a blog post. (Now I’m getting that typed here.)
Many characteristics of what is now becoming known a “minimalist homeschool” style are actually what I’ve personally aimed for (and still do) in our family’s education since 2008 and in designing of the PSLC curriculum! If this is now an actual name of a homeschool style, I’m going to say that it is probably the closest “fit” I seen to-date for what I’ve called our “Peppermint Stick” approach, compared to any other mainstream term. (It might not be a “perfect-everything fit” but it looks fairly close. I know we’re not traditional, Charlotte Mason, unschooling, or eclectic. I wanted something simpler yet full of purpose for what our family values in life.)
In this post, I’ll give some general suggestions for how to head in the direction of a minimalistic homeschooling style. (Note: I use the terms “minimalist” and “minimalistic” interchangeably.) Then in the next post, I’ll provide specific examples of how I apply these ideas. (Click here to reach that post.)
Aspects of a minimalistic style for homeschooling can especially appeal to those with large families, health issues, those with small resources (spaces for “school” or tighter budgets), homesteaders, as well as parents who find the materialism in their culture overwhelming to the extent that they want to lessen that characteristic in their own home. I think that as long as the minimalism is not taken to the extreme (e.g. if it doesn’t become a goal that controls and snuffs out a joyful life), then it can be helpful for us homeschoolers to consider the following points occasionally, regardless of our primary homeschool style. Many of us likely can think of something that could be “pruned out” to allow more healthy growth in the family.
First, I just want to clarify a couple of things about trying to be more minimalist. Glancing over the surface of this idea, one might think that this means “less homeschooling”, rather than a neat way of “managing homeschooling effectively”.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean “less time” although it should mean that in the sense of less redundant busywork or less studying on topics which aren’t a priority. Minimalistic shouldn’t mean that we’re eager to check off a “school done for the day” box after only an hour. Education should be something that remains a priority and we should expect it will take significant amounts of time. But how that time is spent, matters.
And while there is definitely an aspect of decreasing the amount of “stuff for homeschooling”, having nothing for educational resources is extreme and in my opinion, not recommended. (We don’t do that in the kitchen. Keep reading.)
A good homeschooling style should be about what choices can we make to be more effective in teaching good things so that they “stick” and are beneficial overall to the growth of our children.
Minimalist homeschooling shouldn’t be just about making our clean-up tasks go quicker or shrinking our expenses for homeschooling drastically. It shouldn’t be about de-valuing education and doing a bare minimum of passing along of knowledge and wisdom. (In my opinion, that would reflect poor parenting.) Expanding the idea of “less time” mentioned above, it shouldn’t be about a stressful squeezing of schoolwork into a smaller amount of time so that we can ignore relationship building with our kids in order to get more “me time”. (I wrote about the benefit of Planning Days with Margin and Time here.) Any good style of homeschooling should not add burdensome stress to the experience of education.
So think with me for a moment about our kitchens: Now, too much of prepared junk food, bean cans, tumbling boxes and bags of cereal selection, way too many dishes, small appliances, and the “must-have” gadgets, can be quite overwhelming and difficult to work with and around. And sometimes our homeschool life might feel like it’s like that kind of kitchen – we want to ignore the time needed to sort through the messy situation and go for the “take-out”! That might relieve for the short-term but we know that isn’t a good plan for long-term. Somehow, that kitchen needs downsizing and it needs “the mom” to make it less confusing – not necessarily perfect but at least some resemblance of order.
Well, what could we do? We could make a kitchen “very minimalistic” with the exact amount of dishes needed (but none for inviting company over). The food we could offer from a kitchen could just be bland ingredients (e.g. cornmeal mush) or the inexpensive kind, easy-to-prepare food like those little packages of flavoured noodles eaten by college students. I mean, that IS “minimalistic” for sure. But is that really a “good” solution for the long-term? Most of us would say, “Of course not! It’s missing good, balanced nutrition. That’s too stark.” There must be a healthy balance to experience an appealing sense of simplicity!
As pruning encourages growth and beauty by carefully choosing branches to cut or train/shape (rather than allowing all to grow wildly or cutting a bush down too much), minimalist homeschooling very purposely prunes and shapes aspects of education for the purpose of benefiting the individual family.
Any homeschool style can benefit from some pruning. So since I’ve been asked about “how” one could keep it minimalized, so here are some points to consider:
Pick out what is actually useful for life (including personally, practically, and prep-for-career options), what is interesting to your family. Then either briefly overview what is left or ignore it so that you get time/space to add more fun topics of interest or more outdoor exploring or work.
Plan to DOWNSIZE: Most curriculum includes more than what you will want to use. When an effective teacher teaches, he/she doesn’t expect to use everything or assign every suggestion, so we should also expect to downsize our education resources into what fits our situation most effectively.
Plan to SUPPLEMENT: If a teacher want to be a great teacher, he/she also expects to sometimes supplement the curriculum with his/her own ideas or other resources such as posters or hands-on fun. (Look for a reasonable amount of supplemental resources rather than going overboard.) Choosing a curriculum or program which allows you the freedom/flexibility to make these kinds of choices can help to maximize personalization (while still getting the assistance of having curriculum for guidance and suggestions)! Another advantage of using occasional supplemental items is to minimize the time it takes to understand something. The purpose of using pictures in homeschooling isn’t just for adding beauty. Look for resources with pictures that explain or describe something to teach with, since visuals (and real life experiences too) tend to make stronger impressions within fewer amounts of pages compared to resources with no or few pictures. Consider adding little toys (e.g. manipulatives, blocks, “Little People”, puppets), multimedia (video or audio, songs to sing, stories from own life), non-books things to read (e.g. maps, brochures, food packaging, good magazines, cartoon strips) to the “regular homeschool stuff”. Did you know you can teach counting and non-standard measurement with flopping a banana over and over around things in your yard or park?! 🍌 Look for curriculum that encourages you to use common things in a home for fun learning!
Think of the topics and skills you are planning to provide. Do you actually NEED any “tool” (curriculum, story, supplies) to teach it well or can it be better learned naturally? (Example: To teach that peas and carrots are vegetables, you don’t need a scripted lesson or printable worksheet!) Ask: “What is the easiest and most effective way for me to provide that knowledge to my children so that I only need to teach it minimally (e.g. once or twice with a review in later years) in order for them to grasp a significant amount of what I’m covering?” (And, is it better to discuss that topic, assign a research report on that topic, watch a video about it, do worksheets on it, read about it, etc.?) IF you need any “tool” to provide a lesson, do you have it around your own home already, able to be taken out and put away by your students? Does the curriculum require lots or few speciality supplies and where would you store those supplies? (In upper levels of science, some specialty supplies will be generally needed for a sufficient completion of coursework however some homeschool programs have fewer or less-expensive ones compared to others.) And does the curriculum require lots or little of your time as a parent to prepare lessons (to research lesson material online if the curriculum doesn’t provide enough knowledge, to print/cut/glue items, to read a manual ahead of time), read aloud, take library trips, clean up messes, mark evaluations? For these reasons, I avoid curriculum with frequent tests, most kits, most flat paper-based manipulatives, most read aloud-styled lessons, most studies which require specific book titles to complete discussions or worksheets, and most curriculum with teacher’s manuals. I generally want the curriculum to contain the information so that I (as “the mom”) don’t have to research extra or run to a library. After those preferences, I look at the resource to see the layout of the lesson pages or its methodology.
Think of the method of learning in a curriculum resource. Do you value that method? How much or often would you value that method? Is it balanced with other methods that you plan to use for the other subjects you’re doing? Example 1: Online learning – how many hours of screen time do you value in your family? When you think of any video component in each of the subject areas for all of your children (including DVDs and media websites such as Youtube, Vimeo), what is the amount of time that you are comfortable with for screen-learning opportunities? Example 2: Do you value some computer games and if so, what limits does your family value for how many subjects offering how many games? How many games are needed to remain as effective in learning? Delete apps or disks if you need to minimize these.
Think of how easily and quickly you will be able to figure out a lesson in order to help your student understand it. Do you have to sit down to read paragraphs or can you see large print points from standing with a broom in your hand? (I’m assuming moms want to multi-task during the day, such as sweep while kids are working at a page.) Can you easily skim the material? Are there visuals (e.g. diagrams, maps, drawings, photos, video links) to help explain something in more detail? (“A picture is worth a thousand words.”)
Avoid wordy curriculum if you want a minimalist homeschooling. Sometimes, homeschool moms feel they “just can’t teach” and so they might come across what is known as “scripted lessons”. In these, a publisher types out verbatim, what exact words to say so that all the parent needs to do is to read all the words and it should cover the content. In my opinion, scripted lessons waste a lot of time (for both parent and student) and I often avoid any curriculum which advertises itself as “scripted”. Even in telling Bible stories with flashcard scripts, I was trained (by my mom, my aunt, etc.) to instead pick out occasional sentences and fill in the rest in my own words – to make the story shorter and more meaningful because it comes from a more natural language/telling which is better listened to in general. But if we can use a more effective method of presenting new topics or skills, the intention is that there should be less time needed for review later. If I aim for more effective teaching where a lesson sticks in the first place and we focus on significant depth and breadth at that time (learning in “chunks”), that means an overall win-win for learning because it minimizes much of the frustration/boredom from tedious practice or too much repetition instead of moving ahead. In times when I have tried to use the style of “conversational lessons written all for the teacher to read to the students”, we have all been bored and find the wordiness is too much to continue beyond a few lessons. Even textbooks “written in a conversational style” for students to read for themselves are often too wordy in our opinion, since it takes more pages than necessary before getting enough of the points of the real lesson. (Furthermore, some of the “conversational style” add so many ideas of side remarks that there can be a loss of focus for some students to retain the main points. I’ve particularly noticed this in some science resources where the conversation of the text often brings in history and writing/grammar/phonics to the extent that the science portion of the lesson is weakened in memory.)
Think of your archiving method: What is your goal for storage as a record of your child’s learning? Do you take photos of large projects or keep the actual project? Do you get rid of all papers at the end of a school year or do you keep some of them in a portfolio box (or similar)? How do you balance your actions and choices to demonstrate that your child’s work is indeed valued without keeping unusable clutter? What can a child’s record of learning be used for in the future beyond great memories? For our family, a number of the items that are kept can be used as examples to younger siblings (e.g. what to expect in effort towards a similar assignment as well as simply the content of a project which might be a different topic that we haven’t dived into as much this time) and possibly to help in teaching the next generation. (I’m thankful my mom kept a number of my school items so that I can pull these out from storage to help teach my children or get ideas for designing curriculum. But if all my lessons had been just consumable workbooks or copywork of quotations, there wouldn’t have much left to use to teach with. “How” your children learn homeschool lessons will impact how much is kept in storage.)
Rewards: If you use rewards, consider easy ones such as stickers, time to play with playdough or water, or time doing something together such as a quick game of x and o’s or “Pass the Pigs” or snowshoeing around the yard. These kinds of rewards don’t require points to add up, tokens to keep track of, or shopping trips to get cheap items which clutter a room.
Assign every other question or less on work that only needs reviewing or if it looks too overwhelming or if it isn’t a topic that you prioritize. Consider skipping a page occasionally if it is not of interest. Read the fine print if there is a teacher’s answer key to long tests. It might actually tell you to choose from the test questions and to not assign every question! Regardless, if your curriculum has long tests, reduce them to something that is reasonable and manageable for your student. And if your curriculum is taking too long to move ahead or is too frustrating, try to change it to something better for your family. (Been there, done that)
Avoid oodles of copywork and practice worksheets – Think: “How much copywork or practice is needed to learn that skill or topic? And is the content being copied or repeated over and over really interesting to the student, relevant, and useful?” Consider occasional project-based studies (which has fewer photocopies of fancy blank writing paper) and asking a student to respond at times to “teach what was learned back” through a visual or oral presentation or simple discussion.
Look at pdfs before printing to print only what you want to print. How many of us moms are attracted to download something because it is a “free sample” and has cute graphics? How many of these printables do we really need to look at every Christmas for teaching the same Christmas story? How many matching activities or colouring pages? If you want to be more minimalistic in your approach to education, it’s a good idea to just choose the ones you would really like to use and would be likely to repeat again with other children and hit “delete” on the rest. Lessen the time it takes to find something by getting rid of those distracting file names you’re skimming each time you open the folder. (Note: Again, this takes time to do if you have collected lots of these. Be patient with yourself!) Sometimes, if a file of several pages has only one or two useful pages in it, I’ve also simply deleted all but the good pages in it and then saved those pages in a folder according to the topic of that selection. (I now often “walk away” from free samples since most of the time, these are busywork or “fancy blank writing papers”, which I don’t need more of for “school”. If I don’t save them in the first place, it’s less to sort through “later”. Occasionally I do find a good “freebie” or “cheapie” to supplement something.)
Building relationships is not inputting a computer to just cover a topic and then you’re done for the day. Think about what you’re sharing with your kids. Enjoy the journey. Laugh often.
I think this describes both a “peppermint stick” and a minimalist homeschool style!
P.S. You might also have interest in the following blog posts:
Tips for Reducing EMFs in a Home School Environment
Tips for Reducing Chemical Exposures in a Home School Environment
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