Homeschooling in New Zealand: one family shares their story
Kahu de Beer recently interviewed kiwi homeschool mama, Hannah Wanhill on what homeschooling looks like for their family and why they chose this path.
KD: Tell us a little bit about your family.
HW: We are a family of six. Our children are aged from 5-12 years old and we live on a rural property in the Western Bay of Plenty.
KD: How long have you been homeschooling for and why did you choose to do it?
HW: We have been homeschooling for around five years. We noticed pretty early on that our parenting style lent itself toward homeschooling but our oldest two children were super keen to follow their cousins to a great little school in Tauranga - which they did for a couple of years. There are many reasons why we chose to educate in our home environment. One simple and perhaps selfish reason was we had FOMO – we felt like we were missing out on so many cool moments in their childhood and felt that if we could make it work at home, then why wouldn’t we? We loved being around them, and apart from small stays with close family they had been with us 24/7 – the thought of sending them off with someone we barely knew (however awesome of a person they were) seemed like an odd concept.
Another reason was that it just seemed to be a natural progression from our ‘parenting toddlers’ phase and we perhaps didn’t see a great need to follow the ‘turn 5 and send them to the school’ culture. It made sense for us to carry on assisting them in their natural curiosities that automatically lead to the foundational aspects that we base ‘formal education’ around (reading/writing/math concepts etc). In other words, we had watched their learning evolve at a rapid rate ever since they were born and we didn’t want to box that or their own learning style in in any way. There are many other factors: the inevitable use of comparison to gauge ‘how well a child is doing’, the child to teacher ratios that seem so unfair on all involved, and the sitting down for long periods of time.
KD: What do you think the benefits of homeschooling are for your kids and for your family as a whole?
HW: Oh so many! Our days feel less rushed than when the older two were at school, the learning can be more tailor-made to suit each individual child, they have more time and more freedom to work on projects that energise them, so many opportunities to practise respectful communication and to help guide them in tricky friendship situations, healthy ongoing friendships not only with their peers but with other adults and whole family groups. I feel so lucky to be able to have them at home.
KD:What does a typical weekday look like for your family?
HW: Oh golly, our routines are held very loosely but there are a few constants in there that happen most days. We usually have breakfast together before my husband, Jake goes to work (he leaves around 7am). At some stage I sit down with them individually and help them work on what we call ‘book work’ which is different each term depending what skills they are focusing on. They have responsibilities to sort depending on their situation (some have animals to feed/clean etc, or athletics/parkour practise to work on for different groups) and they usually do these while the others are doing ‘book work’.
Most days we will go on an outing to the beach, the library, a trip with other families, but not always – sometimes we just stay home and play.
We have great friends who are our neighbours that also homeschool and we see them every other day or swap kids etc. One of us usually bakes something for morning tea or lunch for everyone. The kids usually have a project or something specific they keep going back to that they spend time on in the days. For example our daughter loves animals and at the moment she is figuring out how to train the chickens and their young. She is often out there for hours at a time with them. They go through phases – they have seasons of riding motorbikes for hours, or push bikes, or building tracks in the bush or researching and trading Pokémon cards – it just depends what they are into. We always end the day chatting over dinner together when Jake gets home which of course isn’t a ‘homeschool thing’ but it is an important rhythm in our day.
KD: What are some of the biggest challenges you face with homeschooling?
HW: Probably the main struggle is also the main attraction. We are all together, all the time. That is hard to navigate at times, to find the balance of having and giving enough space. We can annoy each other and get short with each other and we have to constantly evaluate how to deal with that. Another struggle is that every now and again I get overwhelmed with the responsibility of it – feeling the weight of the fact that it’s ‘all on me’. You know it’s hard to blame anyone else if your kid ends up not being a nice person and you’ve homeschooled them their whole life (laughs). Perhaps that’s a parenting in general feeling, but is amplified with homeschooling. I think there is a mind shift I’ve had to have personally as well, my peers who had babies at the same time as me, when their last child turned five and went to school, they all had a time of ‘re-finding’ or ‘reinventing’ themselves. They’ve rekindled old jobs or started new businesses and found something that, in a way, they could attach a bit of their identity to. Telling a new acquaintance that you’re a ‘homeschool mum’ doesn’t sound as badass as some of the things I could have dreamed up for myself. I love love love it – but I’m not sure it’s given me any street cred.
KD: Are you part of a wider homeschooling community, how do you deal with the socialisation aspect?
HW: Apart from online forums/groups, we are not a part of a formal homeschool group. We have like minded families that we have ended up ‘doing life’ with on a daily basis and we are close with our extended family who have children similar ages to ours.
I do think we tend to get hung up on the socialisation aspect. The goal should be to have the kids interacting regularly with people of all ages and to help foster friendships as they happen. As adults we are barely ever (perhaps never) put in situations where we are in a room filled with people of exactly the same age as us. That would be a little strange – yet it’s somehow become a benchmark for how we socialise children.
Our kids do meet and interact with other kids during extracurricular activities like athletics, rally or sports teams but their long- term friends so far have been formed through our family groups, probably because we see so much of each other.
KD: How do you feel that teaching them at home sets them up for their adult years?
HW: I think to be a well- rounded individual who can function effectively in the world shouldn’t be a tall order. As far as jobs go I don’t know what the workforce will look like when our children hit adulthood. Industries are changing and being created at a rate we haven’t seen before. The ability to retain set knowledge is no longer an important aspect of the workforce. I think if they know how to learn, how to create and know how to work hard then they are set up to face the world however it evolves.
KD: How do you navigate being both mum and teacher? Do you share the role with your husband?
HW: I am just Mum. I don’t try to emulate a teacher role – I’d be terrible at that and I don’t think there is any need for me to be that. When our kids are toddlers we don’t sit them down and tell them that we are going to teach them some nursery rhymes and to repeat after me etc until they have them memorised. We just sing to them and we repeat the ones they love and we listen in awe when they one day start singing them back to us. I think our home learning environment is much the same as that. I introduce them to things, ask them to give some things a go and help steer them toward things they might find beneficial but it's mostly just woven into our normal family interactions and not because I suddenly put on the ‘teacher’ hat. Jake approaches things the same when he is home – in fact he’s much better at it than I am!
KD: Do you notice a difference between your kids and those that are in mainstream school in terms of how they relate, behave, or learn?
HW: This is where ‘every child is different’ really comes into play. I couldn’t make blanket statements about ‘mainstream schooled children’ just from limited interactions here and there. Kids can thrive in either situation for sure.
KD: Do you follow a curriculum? How many hours a day do you usually do focused schoolwork with the kids?
HW: We dabble in different curriculums depending on what the goals are for that term for that particular child. There are so many great resources online and in hard copy and we change it up regularly. There isn’t a stop/start to our learning and for the most part it is applied/practised through normal everyday life.
KD: What would be your advice to parents thinking of starting this journey?
HW: Just like when you are flooded with ‘new mum advice’ – the well-meaning ‘homeschool advice’ can hit in the same way so I’m reluctant to say anything here!
Maybe just to enjoy your time with your kids. I think we can get overwhelmed with our role as a ‘homeschool mum’ and forget the main reasons we are doing it.