If you’re a home educator, it is likely that you’re working with kids of different ages all at the same time. Most folks get the hang of this and in fact find that working with kids of different ages is actually a strength, not a weakness. However, families just starting out often wonder how to offer a meaningful education experience to both their first and third graders simultaneously. Though my kids are getting older now and are fully invested in their own worlds, there was a time when we spent our entire days together. We had a blast, and I’ve got a few tips to get you started too.
1. Keep the activities varied.
Variety in any day is a good thing, so be sure to plan for it. Using your intimate knowledge of your kids, arrange your day to reflect their natural ups and downs. A lot of kids are fresher in the mornings; this was the case for my own children, so we would take on our more challenging work then, when their minds were clear. We liked starting together, because that helped us begin the day connected. We took breaks for active time, play, and lunch, and the afternoons were filled with independent and creative pursuits.
This isn’t to say that all our mornings were spent together and all our afternoons were apart; our days actually moved back and forth, following the kids’ natural rhythms. The important thing to remember here is to keep things moving. Change it up! And feel free to follow moods if you need to.
2. Identify the subjects best studied together and those best studied independently.
Normally, we found that discussion- and project-based topics were more accommodating to a group effort. History, science, philosophy, and English were always at the top of our list for “together work.” Discussion is crazy fun with kids of multiple ages. And think of activities like engineering projects, experiments, writing plays and acting them out, raising earthworms, planting gardens, creating history timelines, getting that great outdoor exercise… all of these easily work for kids of a wide age-range.
In fact right now I’m teaching an online class for kids ages 9-13 over at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum. We’re an intimate little group – there are only about half a dozen of us. But everyone has worked so well together! They each are assigned individual projects, but I’ve encouraged them to rely on each other for help and advice. The camaraderie is wonderful, and age doesn’t really play into it at all.
Back in Homeschool Land, the subjects that fell into the individual work category included music, writing, and math (though sometimes, even those activities worked best with more than one mind). Music and writing were individual activities simply because Ian was fiercely interested in music in ways that Eva was not; Eva, in turn, wanted to be an author, and Ian didn’t. So I created time for each of them to pursue their own unique interests independently.
And math? Well, some math activities actually worked great across the age gap. Watching Vi Hart videos, figuring the linear footage of holiday lights we would need to line our front door and garage, measuring volume for cooking: all of these were fun activities to do together. Others, like learning traditional math skills, worked best as independent activities.
3. Create your own curriculum, incorporating your kids’ loves and strengths.
If you allow yourself to create a curriculum that is completely individualized to your particular students and situation, you will find you have a lot more freedom to create a day and study environment that fits everyone.
Take history for example. When I started homeschooling, my kids were 6 (Eva) and 9 (Ian). I think back to our studies in Ancient Egypt, and I remember bringing home a huge crate of books. I put in selections for a wide variety of ages, and didn’t specify which books were for which kid. They took it from there, inhaling picture books, early chapter books, and more advanced non-fiction selections.
I strongly believe you shouldn’t tell kids that books are too easy or too hard for them. If I had told my nine year old to steer clear of the 1st grade picture books, he would have missed out on some incredible imagery and simple language that made lasting impressions on him. And my six year old would have been discouraged from taking on more challenging titles, and would have felt intellectually inferior to her nine year old classmate. In my crate of treasures, I did provide one required title of a longer length for each child that best fit their level and style. I gave Eva the Magic Tree House Research Guide, Mummies and Pyramids and Ian Horrible Histories’ The Awesome Egyptians. They both were of course invited to read the other’s assigned book.
Beyond the reading assignments, I created related activities that appealed to both kids. Eva was a physical artist; Ian was more of a script-writer and musician (some things never change!). Sometimes that would mean I gave the kids two or three activity options, so they could each (or together) pick what appealed to them most. Other times, we alternated group activities, doing visual art one week and writing a history-related play the next.
Writing assignments also work well across the age spectrum. In that Ancient Egyptian history unit, Ian, as the older child, was expected to write a full essay; Eva, more expressive in art and still learning basic penmanship, created a homemade picture book that explored some interesting facts of the era.
We explored each history topic like that, and science as well. English consisted of reading assignments (often read-alouds), essays, movies, theater, and discussion, all of which are frankly more interesting when you involve people of different viewpoints and ages.
4. Be patient as you find your rhythm.
Most importantly, be patient with yourself! As homeschooler and writer Line Dalile says in her wonderful article “Taking Back Your Freedom To Learn: The Guide to Becoming an Independent Learner“:
To forgo school and seek alternative forms of learning is to be ready to experiment with building one’s own infrastructure and finding structure in freedom. The key to becoming an independent learner is discovering how you learn, figuring out the methods that work best for you, and creating the conditions that support you. This is all a matter of trial and error. Identifying the methods that don’t suit you is just as crucial to sustain your motivation.
The first year of homeschooling is a learning experience in and of itself! Relax, enjoy the ride, and be reassured that we all eventually figure this out.
This is a fun activity that both Eva and Ian took turns trying – a great physical science experiment for any age!
What do you find challenging in educating your kids across a variety of ages? Or do you find that it’s more rewarding than difficult? If you need other ideas, let me know in the comments!
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