“And what about socialization?”
That is the second most common question that I get when I drop the homeschool bomb. Honestly, I find it a frustrating question. When did being in structured activities with your same aged peers for six hours a day, five days a week become the gold standard for adequate socialization?
From a pure numbers perspective, my kids come in regular contact with about the same number of kids as their schooled peers. Between the homeschool drop-off program, Pennsylvania Girlchoir, chess club, soccer, tennis lessons, sewing class, t-ball, etc., they are around other kids nearly every day. They each have a core group of about six close friends – some of whom are homeschooled, some of whom are not – that we get together with regularly for playdates.
Unlike schooled kids, they spend a lot of time with people of all different ages. We visit my parents weekly. We spend two hours each week talking and visiting with the homebound elderly as part of volunteering for Meals on Wheels. At homeschooling events, they may spend time playing with a toddler or talking to one of my adult friends. I think that homeschooling offers another social advantage for us. While we have some activities that we stick with all year long and therefore see the same kids each week, we also participate in lots of classes, workshops, and clubs where my children will not know any other kids. My children therefore get plenty of practice in being thrown into new social situations.
Then there is the issue of quality. My friend’s daughter made a new friend on her first day of first grade at a Main Line public elementary school. When the mom asked her daughter after the second day how her new friend was, the little girl replied that she didn’t know. The teacher had separated them for talking. Of course, teachers can’t let chatty first graders distract other kids from the lesson. But it does raise a point. Are kids in school to learn? Or socialize? Are those two things really best done in the same setting? My understanding is that recess at public schools is often no more than 20 minutes. Is that really enough time to have a rich social interaction with your peers?
It seems that there are new research studies emerging almost weekly about the importance of imaginative play for early elementary children. According to these studies, this kind of unstructured, self-directed play develops important social and academic skills that are directly related to school performance in the following years. A friend of mine was a third grade teacher for years, and now homeschools her two children. She has confirmed my sense that kids do not get unstructured time together at school. “The interactions at school are all scripted,” she says. “It’s important for kids to have time together without adult direction. When I was growing up, we called it childhood.”
Talking Stick Learning Center, where my kids attend a program with other homeschooled kids twice a week, allows plenty of time for unstructured interaction with peers. The facilitators provide a rich environment filled with open-ended materials to explore, and then allow to children to create their own games with one another. When there is conflict – which of course is not uncommon – the facilitators don’t try to simply shut it down. Katie O’Connor, Talking Stick’s director, is fond of pointing out that conflict is always a rich opportunity to learn. When a tearful dispute arose over a broom which two five year old boys both wanted, Katie sat down with the combatants and patiently heard both sides. “I wonder if there is any way that you could both get what you want?” she asked, encouraging the boys themselves to come up with potential solutions to the conflict. The boys recognized through their discussion with Katie that one wanted to sweep, while the other wanted the pole to use as an oar in his imaginary boat. They realized they could unscrew the bristled bottom of the broom for the one boy, leaving the pole for the other.
At home, playdates typically last for hours. When we have friends over, the kids burst through the door, scrape off their shoes, and scramble upstairs with my kids. Sometimes, we don’t hear anything for hours except for exaggeratedly deep, shrill, loud, etc voices that signal that the kids are in their own imaginary world up there with each other. They have the freedom and the time to co-construct whole worlds together. When I overhear their play, I am impressed by their ability to negotiate disagreements. “How about we pretend that this is part of the kingdom?” one child asks. “No, I would rather everything be made of paper,” says another. “Okay,” agrees the first. And the game goes on.
I remember playing like that – getting lost in a world of our own creation. This is what kids naturally do, but these days structured activities, television, and video games are leaving less and less time for this vitally important endeavor. Experts often bemoan the demise of play. Back to my friend with the first grader at a Main Line elementary school. The principal met with parents at the start of the new school year. “Recess is our hardest time of day,” he told parents. “It’s not what you remember from your own childhoods. Kids these days haven’t learned how to play together.” In my opinion, the play experiences that my children have several times a week are better quality social experiences than the brief opportunities they would have to interact with friends in a school setting.
Next: Resources for families considering homeschooling
Past articles in this series