Are You an Organic Homeschooler?

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by Kara Murphy

You don’t need to buy a goat to be an Organic Homeschooler. If you believe that education is discipleship and that people learn best from real life and real books, you are a good candidate. Explore these ways to use real life and real books to teach your children at home.

Use Picture Books

Picture books aren’t for little children only. Packed with accurate, understandable information,  they have introduced me to a staggering amount of content. Writing coaches encourage professional writers to find children’s books at the library covering topics they need to learn. A picture book introduces a topic, generates interest, and teaches detailed content in an enjoyable format. Older children learn, appreciate the information conveyed, and learn writing techniques from the author. An older child’s learning may not end with picture books, but it certainly should begin there.


Don’t miss rereading opportunities. Preschoolers often teach themselves to read a few words from a well-loved book that you read to them repeatedly. All children benefit from repeated exposure to quality picture books’ language, style, and illustrations. The words and pictures become part of their mental furniture from which they will later draw their own unique ideas.

Build in Variety

Boredom is one reason many homeschoolers hop, skip, and jump from curriculum to curriculum and from one style to another. There is a fine line between creating a comfortable routine for your family and getting into a rut, which makes learning drudgery. Using a variety of real books helps as does varying the amount of daily work and modifying the order in which the work is accomplished. Schedule academically heavy and light days throughout the week.

Incorporate Fine Art and Music

Fine art is one area where the “drip” method is particularly helpful. Homeschooling Today magazine makes this easy. Our “Exploring Art” section provides six full-color works of art. Focus on one each week for five minutes at a time. The classical music section follows the same pattern, including a short biography and listening suggestions. Throughout each issue, find reprinted poems to read aloud. Drip by drip, over many years your child becomes familiar with the world’s greatest artists, composers, and poets.

Teach Ages Together

Discipleship is the heart of homeschooling. The core of discipleship is relationship, your relationship to your child and your child’s relationship to his siblings. Separating your children and sending each to work alone defeats this goal to a degree. Obviously, in some areas, your child will work independently, but the more you work and learn together, the stronger your relationships will be and the more effective your discipleship. Isn’t that what homeschooling is about?

Teach Skills Naturally

Some view children as blank slates on which to write the appropriate information at the right time. It doesn’t take a trained teacher to see that children are humans with strengths and weakness. One child reads at five, another at nine. This child is strong in writing; his brother can work mental arithmetic rapidly. No prepackaged curriculum can account for this variety. Even within specific skills, a child’s ability may vary. One child may have poor handwriting skills but be full of exciting compositions; another may have picture-perfect handwriting but cry when instructed to write an original story.

Let your child focus on the skills he needs to improve. If he speaks using good grammar, don’t worry about grammar instruction until junior high. Work at the cutting edge of your child’s ability. Formal curriculums can’t plan this for you. I know many ten-year-olds but few who are at exactly the same place in their skill proficiency. Without a classroom to manage, we are free to individualize our teaching. Don’t let concerns about your child’s “grade level” negate this benefit. Really, what does it matter? The goal is to arrive at a certain place before your child leaves home, not match what we think other children are doing elsewhere. Natural methods are more efficient and lessen the time spent acquiring and practicing skills. If you tutor your child faithfully, he will still be further in his mastery than if he spent most of his time completing workbook pages.

A Few Crafts Go a Long Way

Projects and crafts are fun, but you don’t need many to add spark to your teaching. It is unnecessary and distracting to have to complete a follow-up activity after every picture book that you read. The work of gathering materials and planning lessons discourages most homeschoolers from doing this.

Often moms object to using a real-book curriculum because they believe they are not creative. It doesn’t take creativity to read a book aloud, ask your child to repeat it in his own words, and occasionally discuss something the book brought to mind. You don’t need to add a scale model of a castle or costumes assembled from brown paper sacks and sequins. These activities, when they occur, should be child initiated and independently executed (occasionally with oversight). Otherwise, you will not continue this style of homeschooling during difficult or stressful seasons.

Don’t Overplan!

Most curriculums marketed to homeschoolers plan more work than any family can possibly complete. Unfortunately, this “smorgasbord” mentality leaves parents feeling inadequate, assuming they are unable to do everything they are “supposed” to be doing. Curriculum is a tool that should make the homeschooling parent’s job easier, not create false guilt. Rare is the parent who has learned to underplan, leaving margin in the day’s activities. Leave room for the unexpected, whether calamitous or pleasant. Allow time for your child to explore outside or play with craft supplies. Let your child become bored so he can learn to be creative. While you are at it, give yourself some time as well. An unhurried life and sweet memories of childhood will be the result.

Keep Learning

Continuing education is important in many fields but more so when homeschooling. In addition to your Bible, read books on parenting and homeschooling, and apply the advice given here. Choose your reading material carefully; focus on books and articles that encourage you and help you become a more alert, sensitive teacher.

Wrapped in a loving, responsive relationship, natural methods for teaching skill, such as narration and copying plus quality literature and the best in art and music, form a foundation for discipling your children. Incorporate these principles into your day, and you will reap the harvest of an organic homeschool.

—Originally published in Homeschooling Today magazine, January/February 2011 © 2011 Kara Murphy

Let’s Discuss: The Artful Parent chapter 6

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One of our optional books for Mom’s reading this year is The Artful Parent: Simple Ways to Fill Your Family’s Life with Art & Creativity by Jean Van’t Hul. Read my review here. Over the next few months, let’s read and discuss this resource to see what we can learn from it and how we can apply it to our families.

Read Preparing for Art: Chapter 6 “Sustaining Inspiration” pages 91–114

Consider the following thoughts and questions:

In what areas do you already make your everyday artful? In what ways would you like to improve? There are many practical ideas in this chapter, too many to apply all at once! Evaluate and begin incorporating ideas into each of the larger areas: cooking together, getting outside with your children every day, encouraging play and imagination, doing science experiments, incorporating storytelling, poetry, literature, and music, and going on artful adventures. (Sounds a bit like OH, doesn’t it?) Choose two or three practical ideas to implement into your day.

Link to Busy Box Ideas

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This blog post is from a mom of twelve. I like her easy to implement ideas. Our family will be taking the next two weeks off for travel and visitors, but when we return, I plan to use Charlotte’s list to fill our two- and four-year-olds tubs. Enjoy!

Charlotte’s Busy Box Ideas

Let’s Discuss: The Artful Parent chapter 5

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One of our optional books for Mom’s reading this year is The Artful Parent: Simple Ways to Fill Your Family’s Life with Art & Creativity by Jean Van’t Hul. Read my review here. Over the next few months, let’s read and discuss this resource to see what we can learn from it and how we can apply it to our families.

Read Preparing for Art: Chapter 5 “Encouraging Your Budding Artist” pages 79–90

Consider the following thoughts and questions:

Practice talking about your child’s artwork—what you see your child doing—and ask him about his artwork. How does he respond to this kind of conversation? Does this type of conversation feel natural to you? How can you apply this advice to other areas of life?

Let’s Discuss: The Artful Parent chapter 4

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One of our optional books for Mom’s reading this year is The Artful Parent: Simple Ways to Fill Your Family’s Life with Art & Creativity by Jean Van’t Hul. Read my review here. Over the next few months, let’s read and discuss this resource to see what we can learn from it and how we can apply it to our families.

Read Preparing for Art: Chapter 4 “Gathering Art Materials” pages 49–77

Consider the following thoughts and questions:

It is easy to let the ideas in this chapter overwhelm you. Use the top ten lists to begin building your stash. Which of the “Art Materials You Already Have” (pages 73–75) commonly live in your home? If you are interested, make a marker holder (pages 71–72). Make sure you choose a brand of markers that is easily accessible so you can replace them. Notice the essentials list on page 73:

  • Some sort of paint [we like watercolor cakes] ideally in red, yellow, blue, white, and black
  • Something to draw with (such as crayons or markers) [crayons preferred]
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Playdough
  • A glue bottle

I would add:

  • Pencils, no. 2 and colored
  • White paper
  • Colored paper (construction)
  • Card stock or index cards

Three Little Habits that Simplied My Life

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Perhaps these simple tips will not be as revolutionary for you as they have been for me, but since it took me fifteen years of homeschooling to develop these strategies I might be able to save you some time and frustration.

Clearly Mark Assignments

Since I do not use a planning book, I would often give assignments for independent work for children. Either I would forget to check the assignment or the child would forget to complete it. Tweaking the way I indicate assignments has helped with this.

During my one-on-one time with a child, I write the next day’s date at the top of the pages I want the child to complete independently. I also mark the page (or the first page in a series) with a post-it note. This works as well for preprinted workbooks as it does for blank pages a child is to use for copying or written narrations.

Hoard My Own Stash

How many times did I want to begin a lesson with a child only to spend the available teaching time looking for scissors, a bottle of glue, or markers? Of course we owned all these supplies and had them—somewhere—in the house, but I never seemed to be able to find them when I needed them!

This year I by-passed all that frustration. I purchased all the supplies  I would need and placed them in a “Mom’s Only” container (far from the place where we keep the readily available supplies, I might add). I still have my permanent markers and sharp scissors, but I also have my set of twistable crayons and colored pencils, several sets of Crayola markers, two decks of playing cards, a couple of (sharpened) pencils, index cards, alphabet stamps, all the variety of supplies I use when teaching the children.

Sunday Evening Family Meeting

Now that we have adult children, the family schedule and calendar has become much more complicated. Who works when? Who’s turn is it to drive? What are the upcoming outside-the-home activities?

Also since all the children are not home all the time, it is easy to miss important family announcements such as “don’t leave clean clothes on the dryer” and “we will celebrate Rich’s birthday two days late to accommodate his work schedule.”

Throughout the week Steve and I keep running lists of things to address. (OK, I have a list; Steve has an item or two.) On Sunday evening, we put the little ones (under five-years-old) to bed a little early and we all sit down with the family calendar and our lists and plan our week.

Even though we have missed a few weeks, this regularly scheduled pow wow makes a big difference on the functioning of the household. We often cover everything from which day is a child’s laundry day to how to handle a disobedient little sibling to who can babysit little ones on date night.

These moments together has also become a special time of fellowship and fun that the children look forward to (unless they’re the one that left the clean laundry on the dryer, that is).

What organizational habits have you implemented that impact your daily family life? Share your ideas with us!

Let’s Discuss: The Artful Parent chapter 3

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One of our optional books for Mom’s reading this year is The Artful Parent: Simple Ways to Fill Your Family’s Life with Art & Creativity by Jean Van’t Hul. Read my review here. Over the next few months, let’s read and discuss this resource to see what we can learn from it and how we can apply it to our families.

Read Preparing for Art: Chapter 3 “Making Space for Art” pages 29–47

Consider the following thoughts and questions:

This is a fun chapter to read, full of ideas for organizing and carving out space for art. If you do not have the room in your home for a dedicated art space, let me encourage you. Most of our homes have been small. Our art supplies are currently kept in bins and tubs in a hall closet. Most of our artwork happens at our dining room table (our only table) or the high counter in the kitchen. Children learn to clean up supplies when there isn’t a dedicated art space, but this will not inhibit their art making.

Try making an easel (page 34). In what ways can you plan for an easy cleanup? We find placemats and smocks invaluable in this. How do you currently organize your art supplies? In what ways could you improve? (If our closet had doors, we would use the over the door shoe organizer!) Don’t forget to organize your supplies with your child as sorting is a valuable thinking activity. Re-read the paragraph under “Keeping it Real” (pages 43–44). Have you found this to be in all of your parenting and homeschooling? Before reading the next chapter, make a list of which art materials do you consider your staples. If you don’t have them already, make sure each child has a smock. Use the instructions on pages 46–47 to make them or purchase them already made. For many years we recycled my husband’s undershirts and used a clothespin at the base of the neck to shorten the neck opening while they worked.

2013 Advent Ideas

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It’s the first week of Advent and the beginning of December. This year we did not create a special Advent download (sorry!) because we ran into unexpected events in November—two funerals and two unplanned trips.

I did did want to share a couple of simple resources I am using with the children this month in addition to our December OH reading.

I found Very Merry Christmas: Activity Book is full of reproducible cut-and-paste pages that are fun and focus on the biblical account of Christ’s birth rather than secular stories. This purchased saved me a lot of time searching the Internet for reproducibles and filtering out the silly ones.

As she did last year, my mom purchased a Jacquie Lawson Advent Calendar for our family and the children have a lot of fun interacting with the creative computer-based activities. Since we rarely allow the children to be on the computer this is a treat that frees me to be busy at other things.

Several years ago we received a copy of Advent Calendar on DVD. For each day in December there is a short video segment. Most focus on one Christmas tradition and explain the background behind it. If I remember correctly, one segment toward the end of the month inches toward Universalism which we will either skip or explain at the time, but I still find many of the “history behind the traditions” segments helpful.

In addition to our reading in our Wondrous Works of God story Bible, we will also pull out our copy of Mighty Acts of God from last year to get a more full-orbed view of the Christmas story.

Also for the preschoolers and early elementary aged children I like White Wonderful Winter! by Elaine Good, part of the Good Books season series. It’s currently out-of-print, but there are inexpensive used copies available.

As I am sure you do, we have a busy season ahead of us. I hope these ideas will enhance and encourage you to enjoy this time with your children!

Thanksgiving Cookie Idea

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Since many of our children aren’t big fans of pies, we’re going to try these pumpkin-flavored cookies. We even found a cool leaf cookie cutter to use to cut them out.

Pumpkin Roll-out Cookies

I’ll post pictures of our creations to the Facebook page.

December 2013 Overview

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For those who are subscribers or will subscribe on the 15th . . . the December  Overview will be e-mailed on Saturday, November 16. I (Kara) will be out of town on the 15th which will delay my being able to send it.

Thank you for your understanding.

P.S. How’s November going?

Thanksgiving Bonus

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We hope you enjoy this free book study based on the book Three Young Pilgrims by Cheryl Harness.

What Are OH Book Studies?

The primary method for teaching our children is conversation. The second is reading aloud. Book studies combine these key methods as we talk with our children about the books we read aloud.

Each book study offers ideas for conversation starters and activities to engage your children with.

How Should a Parent Use an OH Book Study?

Begin by reading the book (or chapter) aloud. Pick an engaging subject from the list of topics. Read from the guide or reword the section in your own words.

Some mothers like to preview the guide to spur ideas for discussion as they emerge naturally.

Re-reading picture books offers many advantages including diving deeper into the topics the book provides.

A book study can be a one-day diversion or a weeklong unit, depending on your family goals. If you stretch out the study, make sure you begin each day by reading the title aloud.

Why Do You Offer OH Book Studies Free?

We believe that parental discipleship is the heart of homeschooling and these guides encourage and facilitate parents in their calling. Each book study is also a mini-study in how to engage your child in book conversations and how to draw important life lessons from the books we read aloud with our children.

Our book studies illustrate one way to organically homeschool children through real book and life.