As homeschooling parents, we cannot rely on schools to take care of our children’s educational needs. We are the ones in charge of planning and executing the entire curriculum. Schools and camps seem to be buzzing with activity, so homeschoolers may feel compelled to match up and shell out money on activities and resources to keep their kids occupied, entertained, and stimulated.
However, not every family can afford all these lessons, products, tickets, and museum memberships. Classes are expensive, not to mention hidden costs of supplies, uniforms, and registration fees. And if you sign up multiple kids, costs will skyrocket even more. Museum memberships are expensive too, and hidden fees like parking are a deal breaker for some. Most prominent museums in the Boston area are in downtown or in other prime locations where parking is very limited and costly, even with membership discounts. Public transportation is a cheaper option, but if you live in the suburbs and have young kids, packing all their stuff and dragging them across town on a long and crowded train ride is just not pleasant. As for activities and events, I used to scan community calendars for events marked “FREE” and let me tell you from experience: most interesting and good-quality activities are far from being free. The rare ones that are both interesting and free are usually so overcrowded that it’s hard to see or experience anything. Bottom line: education is quite expensive, even for homeschoolers.
True, families can live frugally and save on big houses and luxury items. Homeschoolers enjoy an even greater flexibility in choosing cheaper real estate, because we are not tied to expensive school districts with good schools. But in today’s economy, even families with a frugal lifestyle don’t always have lots of spare cash for homeschooling activities. After all, there are other priority expenses such as decent housing, means of transportation, and healthy natural food.
How can we still provide our kids with engaging and meaningful educational experiences without breaking the budget? The challenge is to come up with a strategy which is sustainable, flexible, and easy to execute. The key is to take advantage of what you already have, keep your eyes and mind open, be ready to jump at opportunities, and put things in perspective. Everyone’s situation is different, but here are some tricks we came up with in my family.
We recently considered purchasing a pricey electronic circuits kit, but could not make up our minds due to the cost. One day the kids visited with their grandfather (an engineer) and came home with a beautifully designed circuit plate they built together with grandpa. The plate had lots of features and was made with simple cheap elements, thanks to grandpa’s creativity and skill. Why spend money on an expensive commercial kit if kids can get creative and build something similar with a relative’s help? Much more fun and cost-effective.
The other grandpa is good at woodworking and fixing things around the house, so we try to bring the kids to observe and help whenever he fixes something or works on his carpentry projects. This way we are saving money on woodworking instruction, while the kids receive the same learning experience and, hopefully, help out their grandpa.
Whenever we do chores or play a hobby, we always make sure the kids are around to observe and participate. Cooking class? Check. We cook all our meals from scratch, so the kids learn everything simply by being involved and helping out in the kitchen. Drawing, music, and math classes? Check. Mommy draws occasionally, math is daddy’s specialty, and he also plays his guitar every day, so the kids have every opportunity to try it out. We also capitalize on our extended family’s skills and passions whenever possible. Relatives don’t have to make regular commitments to teach. Even on a once-in-awhile basis, kids get a tremendous boost of inspiration from being exposed to interesting things someone else is doing. Involving extended family opens up lots of possibilities for meaningful learning without spending a fortune on classes and materials.
Does any adult in your family have a Take Kids to Work Day at work? That’s another great learning opportunity. One of the best (and most educational) childhood experiences I recall was visiting construction sites. My dad worked as a civil engineer and often took me along on his site inspections. Experiences like that take kids out of their sanitized “kids-only” classroom world, and connect kids to real adult work life, with its complexities and challenges. We try to take kids to our client meetings and business trips, if appropriate. Our kids are too young so we cannot yet do it often, but in the future we will get them more involved in our work life. As I know from my own childhood, these experiences are most valuable and memorable, and best thing is, they come free of charge.
When someone asks for birthday gift ideas for our kids, instead of toys and clothing we always suggest giving a gift or an experience that has educational value: a trip to an expensive museum or performance, a workshop or a set of lessons, a musical instrument, a robotics kit, or a road trip to some interesting place. That way, if it’s something not easily affordable in everyday life, kids get to enjoy it on their birthdays and treat it as special. It also teaches them that birthdays don’t have to be about consumption and instant gratification; rather, birthdays are about personal growth and learning, and gifts can come in the form of meaningful experiences or creativity tools.
Activities and events
Based on my experience, activities that are both free and interesting are very hard to come by. But it’s possible, and I’ve hunted some down. The key is to search off of the beaten path and jump at opportunities. Often, activities that are truly educational and inspiring are not the ones advertised to the general public. They happen casually, often behind the scenes, and are not widely promoted. Promotional events, intro lessons, product demonstrations, prototype tests are often held free of charge and offer plenty of opportunities for kids to closely observe and participate. This is how we got to attend some free one-on-one fencing and jewelry making lessons, watch an antique steam car demo with a super fun ride afterwards, observe a printing press in action, and participate in a robot prototype testing.
Also, consider substituting fancy events and performances with cheaper low-key alternatives, which are usually free or very low cost. Want to take your kids to a ballet performance but tickets are too expensive? You can have them observe a ballet class practice. Cannot afford Disney on Ice? Take kids to watch a local skating competition. Instead of paying for tickets to a full-scale classical concert, consider going to a student recital at a local music school. We’ve done all these and I would argue that watching a practice, recital, or competition is even more educational for kids than going to the actual full-scale performance. Ticketed performances are too polished, too perfect, too staged. Practices give kids a glimpse of what’s happening behind the scenes, and kids learn a lot by observing other kids and adults trying, competing, failing, and experimenting. Of course, it’s a pleasant experience to go to a fancy performance one in a while, but as far as saving money and providing an educational experience, the value of behind-the-scenes activities should not be overlooked.
We don’t rush to enroll our kids in classes or buy fancy tools and supplies whenever they say they are interested in something. One day they want one thing and the next day it’s another thing. So, our approach is: try it out, make kids really want it, and keep it small.
Whenever they want to learn something, we teach them the basics ourselves. With almost anything, you don’t need much skill and knowledge to get kids started at the beginner level. Adults are pretty savvy at lots of basic things, and where it’s not the case, we can quickly figure it out with the help of books, manuals, and internet. Be it guitar or violin, chess, clay, geography, astronomy, martial arts, tennis – instead of paying for classes right away, we show our kids the basics and make sure they get enough information and inspiration to start exploring on their own.
After giving kids basic information to get started, the next stage is self-directed exploration. If kids are interested enough, they will explore the matter further on their own. They will tinker, play, and experiment. We provide basic low-cost supplies or tools, and occasional help and inspiration. From time to time, as a reward for persevering, we may buy them a more expensive tool or get more learning materials.
If we see that, after a significant period of time, our kids still show consistent interest in the topic, continue to explore, and ask for more learning help which is beyond our skill level, then and only then do they deserve to be enrolled in a class. Before our daughter enrolled in her regular jiu-jitsu classes, she had to prove her interest and go through lots of mat drills at home with us.
Even then, we keep things small, go at a slow pace, and avoid long-term commitments. We don’t purchase lesson packages. We start with one to two classes or workshops, usually trying to get a private lesson, so kids can get one-on-one instruction which will give them a boost to continue independent learning on their own. After a couple of private lessons, the kids go back to their self-directed learning. Once they reach a plateau again and ask for help, we may get them another couple of private lessons or, at that point, sign them up for a set of group classes.
This approach allows us to stay in control of our education spending. Young kids rarely sustain long-term interest in something particular, so we don’t want to spend too much on classes if it soon becomes apparent that we waste money and time. We also don’t want the kids to feel like they are being dragged to a class they don’t care about, just because their parents want to keep up with the trend. Rather, we try to keep lots of basic tools and materials on various subjects lying around: pencils and paints, inexpensive musical instruments, kits, simple sports equipment, books on many topics, apps. If the kids want to be signed up for a class, they have to really want it and work towards that privilege.
It’s important to keep things in perspective. If your homeschooling budget is tight and you can’t afford classes and activities, don’t worry. So your kids don’t get their drawing or music lessons right now–big deal. They can always catch up later and buy lessons themselves when they grow up. I never had formal gymnastics training when I was a child, despite my dreams to do the splits. So after I started working and earning money, I finally hired a personal trainer and got my splits at the age of 26. No one is ever too old to learn anything.
The most inspiring and educational things are intangible and come with no price tag, because they are invaluable. A simple walk in the park while talking about life beats any structured activity in a classroom. Visiting an elderly relative, helping a parent, playing with siblings – those things can teach more than any class can. The gift of time is the best thing you can give. Even if we cannot afford some things, we homeschoolers are blessed to have the time and flexibility to give more of this gift to our children.