How we hybrid schooled first grade

If parenthood had a motto, a good candidate would be, “it didn’t go as planned.” When our kids were born, we had every intention of sending them to the local public elementary school as soon as they were old enough for kindergarten. We had even bought a house that was within walking distance to each school our kids would attend through high school. Like so many others who are not yet parents, we thought we had it all figured out.

It didn’t go as planned. After we had kids, we started on a path of non-traditional education. As our oldest kid approached kindergarten age, it was obvious that she wasn’t going to thrive in a highly sedentary, indoor-centered, worksheet-heavy environment 35 hours per week, which is what our local public school was offering. As we started thinking more carefully about our educational goals for our kids, we settled on unschooling. We had an amazing year unschooling kindergarten and had big plans to continue for the long haul. Our kids were young and thriving. We were lucky enough to have careers we enjoyed that still left plenty of room in our lives for family time. We had quality child care through the au pair program. Things were working. Again, we thought we had it figured out.

That didn’t go as planned either. The routines that had been working well for several years — lots of time at parks, playgrounds, and the library — were suddenly not working quite as well anymore. Our oldest daughter was approaching six years old and she was showing us she needed more than what we were offering. Our culture tends to recognize toddlerhood and teenagehood as two life phases that can be rocky for kids and parents alike because they are a time of rapid growth and rising independence. I’m convinced that another one of these transitions occurs around age six. Indeed, Waldorf philosophy recognizes the six-year transformation as a first adolescence of sorts, when kids transform “physically, intellectually, socially, and emotionally.” We certainly saw this happening.

For years our daughter had been thrilled to spend the day at the park playing with her little sister and perhaps another kid or two who she just happened to meet at the park that day. That was no longer exciting. For years she had resisted drop-off classes, preferring to stay with one of us at all times. Now her Friday three-hour dance and theater class had become the highlight of her week. For years her life had centered exclusively around us, her family, but now her world was expanding. She still needed plenty of family time, but she also needed more. More time with friends. A wider community. Bigger projects. She needed to stretch her wings.

Thankfully we live in a city with lots of homeschooling enrichment programs and alternative schooling options. We toured everything that was within a reasonable distance of our house. Eventually we found an amazing alternative school for her to attend three days per week. The school day runs approximately from 9am-4pm and includes a minimum of two to three hours of outdoor time each day on the school’s wooded, two-acre property. Each class has no more than ten students, and often fewer. Our daughter’s class of kindergarteners and first graders had only six students. In a departure from unschooling, the school does use a curriculum and work with students on reading, math, science, and other basic academic skills, but there is never any homework, there are no tests, and students are never assigned any kind of grades. When we toured the school for the first time, we realized that the school building itself was a regular house with bedrooms converted into classrooms. It was relaxed and unpretentious. It was exactly what our daughter needed in this next phase of childhood.

What did daily life look like?

Mondays. During our year of unschooling the year before, we had been part of an unschooling co-op and made some good friends there. For various reasons some of us were moving on, but wanted to continue the friendships we had formed through the group. We decided to start our own informal co-op with just three families. Each Monday we got our group of six kids together at one of our homes, a nature center, a park, or other area where kids could run around and be kids.

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Looking at fossils at the Austin Nature & Science Center.
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Hiking with co-op friends.

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. These were school days for our daughter, which conveniently overlapped with my full days at work. My husband normally dropped our daughter off at school and our au pair picked her up (along with hanging out with our 4 year old who didn’t feel ready for school yet). That gave me full 10-12 hour days to focus on work so that I could be home on Mondays and Fridays.

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Making wildflower seed bombs at school.

Fridays. Fridays were our forest school days. Free Forest School is a national program that gets parents and kids out hiking and exploring nature. As its website puts it, “Free Forest School ignites children’s innate capacity to learn through unstructured play in nature, fostering healthy development and nurturing the next generation of creative thinkers, collaborative leaders and environmental stewards.” It’s a unique program in that it’s entirely free, run by volunteers, takes place outside rain or shine, and lets kids explore without adults getting in the way (unless required for safety, of course). I liked the program so much I decided to become one of the volunteer facilitators who keeps it running. This meant committing to hosting a meetup every Friday morning at a nearby park with some woods and a creek. The main tasks were to show up on time (probably our biggest challenge) and bring a couple of books to read during circle time (optional for the kids, but always offered).

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Forest schoolers at work.
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Little forest schoolers exploring.

Why we need more hybrid schools

Although we are fans of the philosophy of unschooling, we found it difficult to make it work past age six, especially as a two-career family. Like many parents today, we have concerns about the public school model that too often offers too little in the way of outdoor time, exercise, and free play and too much in the way of testing, homework, and sitting. We also place a high value on family time and want to have as much time as possible together during the day when we have lots of energy, enthusiasm, and patience. One of the most difficult parts of being a working parent is having many of yours hours together limited to times when everyone is exhausted and it’s all you can do to eat dinner and get ready for bed without major frustration and meltdowns.

As much as we value family time, we as parents also have a desire to spend some time in the adult world, having uninterrupted conversations, nurturing friendships, and building careers. We are happy to share some of the responsibility for educating our children with a few well-chosen experts who are devoting their careers to helping children learn and grow both academically and socioemotionally.

The great thing about hybrid schools is that they offer the flexibility to do both. Our hybrid schooling schedule included three full days of school during the week, but other options abound. There are a few schools offering shorter in-school hours combined with take-home projects. There are schools that are open full-time each week but require students to attend a minimum of only 20 hours each week in whatever configuration the families choose, with more hours always welcome. This setup allows working parents to send their kids to school with no need to research (or pay for) separate after school care programs, while allowing stay-at-home or flexible-schedule parents to pick their kids up early or attend fewer days  if they so choose.

As family life shifts to accommodate more dual-earner couples, work-at-home parents, single parents, and other work and life designs, schools will need to change as well. As work and life become increasingly blended, school and life need to blend as well. Flexible schooling in a safe and supportive community is what families need in the 21st century.

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Playing on the lawn before Austin Symphony Orchestra’s free outdoor concert.

 

 

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