Home Education Magazine
January-February 2004 - Articles and Columns
It's Perpetual Recess! - Linda Jordan
with Fran Chickering, Jeanne Fogg, Beth Nelson, Katy Wiggin and Rachel Williams
It's early afternoon on a beautiful fall Thursday at a Friends meeting house in southern New Hampshire. Outdoors, about ten children ages eight to fifteen are playing kickball, while a few parents bask in the sun on the front steps of the building, discussing math curricula. Three girls ages five to seven are running full tilt down the driveway (blocked off to traffic), screaming and giggling, wearing a conglomeration of apparel that suggests they've recently come from the dress-up corner. A few children and an adult or two are still engrossed in paper-making, the morning's optional craft activity, set up on a rock wall just outside the downstairs entrance. A group of young children is under a tree making something with sticks and rocks.
Inside the building, a couple of under-fives and three preteen boys are absorbed in construction in the "Lego room," a three-year-old girl is drawing at a low table, and several mothers are sitting in a circle of mismatched chairs, chatting--Them knitting, one thumbing through a catalog, one nursing an infant in a sling and simultaneously comforting a crying toddler. Other toddlers are rolling a big red plastic tube across the floor, playing with stuffed animals and littering the floor with miniature plastic food from the play refrigerator.
The posse of giggling girls tears through the room and up the stairs as The mothers reminds them (to no avail) to slow down in the building. They head straight for the social room snack table, which is laden with the last grape tomatoes from someone's garden, homemade chocolate chip cookies, the remains of a supermarket coffee cake and the makings of tea, coffee and hot cocoa. In a corner of the social room, two families with young children are having lunch together, spread out on a cloth on the carpet. A small group of older kids and preteens are playing cards at a long table, and at the other end of the table, several adults are conversing quietly. Two parents are washing up a few dishes in the kitchen, where baking projects will start to happen as the weather turns colder.
For once, nothing is going on in the meeting room, which in bad weather gets cleared for supervised games of snake-in-the-grass, and also hosts show-and-tell, magazine day and various child-organized play rehearsals, performances and readings. On the third floor, one parent is giving another parent and a couple of teens a tin whistle lesson, while in a separate room, all the teens (ages 13-20) who aren't busy elsewhere are talking, telling jokes, playing guitars and engaging in other teen pursuits (generally dismissed by younger visitors as "boring").
Is it Thursday?
Is it always like this at the Homeschool Resource Center?
No, but it's pretty typical. Kids look forward to it so much they have been known to ask, "Is it Thursday?" every morning of the week. Adults also look forward to Thursdays as a time to get together to relax and chat with friends, as well as to pick other homeschoolers' brains about every issue from unschooling science to standardized tests.
In January 2001, a parent put a notice in support group newsletters to see if anyone else was interested in starting a homeschooling resource center. A few others responded, and we had several planning meetings during the next few months. A couple of members of our group who attend the Friends meeting house got permission to use it on Thursdays for a small fee. We set an opening date of September 13, 2001, publicized it with flyers, newsletter announcements and word of mouth, and waited to see what would happen. We weren't sure whether any families but our own would show up.
As it happened, we hosted a huge crowd of homeschooling families that first day--some we knew, some we had never met, some who had driven as much as an hour to attend. Clearly, a place for homeschoolers to gather regularly was a need in our community. We had all encountered other homeschooling families on field trips, at homeschool classes and at support group meetings, but never before had we just picked a place and invited people to show up every week--no age limits, no classes, no presentations, virtually no infrastructure.
We were fortunate that fall to have warm weather all the way into December, unusual for New Hampshire. The kids got to play outside most days, which greatly relieved what would be the first real problem we had to deal with: overcrowding, which occasionally threatened violation of the building's fire safety code, made it hard to keep track of who was there and frayed the nerves of adults and children. Some days it seemed like we spent all our time giving new families the tour without getting to know anyone.
In addition, not everyone was on board with our lack of infrastructure. Though we have always had some loosely organized optional events, some parents would prefer a structure based on classes and ongoing activities to give the days a predictable format and make the time more "educational." Early in our first year, one parent described the resource center, not complimentarily, as "perpetual recess." Nevertheless, attendance continued to increase throughout the year, and everyone seemed to be having a great time.
Creating a Space for Families to Gather
Those of us involved in planning the resource center had naively assumed that all we needed was a place for families to get together, and everything else would take care of itself. This is no doubt true when you are talking about just a few families who know each other well getting together at someone's house every week. But we consistently had 30 or more families, each with its own needs, expectations, parenting styles, personalities and diets. We realized we needed to re-examine our vision for the resource center and perhaps provide some minimal structure and guidelines.
We had started out as a loosely knit group of mothers who just wanted to get together and provide some social life for ourselves, our children and other local homeschooling families, to create a kind of once-a-week neighborhood where our kids could play together and we could just hang out, chat, vent and seek advice. By halfway through the first year, it became apparent that we needed to meet regularly outside resource center hours to plan and to resolve issues that inevitably arose.
It also became apparent that we needed to put our vision into words, in order to explain it to others and to evaluate how other people's ideas might fit in. What we came up with was this: "Our vision is to create a space for families to gather where all feel included, a place where children are free to decide for themselves what activities they will be involved in; and to encourage development of a homeschooling community."
We have revisited this statement numerous times in response to specific requests or issues, and so far haven't felt a need to modify it. We actively embrace the idea of "perpetual recess," because we feel that's what is most lacking in our homeschool experience. In southern New Hampshire, children have ample opportunity to participate in classes and field trips, but it's very hard to find time for them to just hang out with other kids and do kid stuff.
Our laissez-faire approach has also brought up a few challenging issues we might not have had to deal with in a more structured environment. Our angelic children, when left to determine for themselves when, how and with whom to interact, do sometimes hurt each other's feelings, leave each other out, call each other names, invade each other's space and occasionally have to be pulled apart. On a few occasions, we have had to give time-outs, and once or twice we've even had to meet with a child and parent in order to make it clear that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. In the end, we consider this kind of experience extremely valuable for our kids, as educational as any science lab or museum visit.
Some Nuts and Bolts
Some of the things that have helped us maintain a high level of cooperation in our large, rambunctious "neighborhood" are an official code of conduct (created largely by the children with the help of an adult peer mediation counselor), written rules for use of the meeting house and grounds, a brief weekly mandatory community meeting during the resource center day and a monthly committee meeting. We expect all participating families to contribute a small fee each session toward rent and supplies, to take turns bringing snacks and to pitch in with end-of-day cleanup. Parents are not allowed to drop children off, and must have a designated adult sign up to be responsible for their children if they cannot be present.
Our committee of five to seven parents is informal and without hierarchy, with occasional turnover in membership. In addition to meeting monthly, we share and rotate resource center tasks such as opening and closing the building, leading the community meeting, buying supplies and organizing cleanup. We try to assemble an agenda before each meeting and to dispose of simple or pressing items between meetings by email. We eventually instituted a fall-back plan for resolving issues by vote in the rare instances when consensus eludes us. At the end of the first year, committee members went on a weekend retreat together to celebrate and unwind.
Solving the overcrowding problem has been controversial but effective. Rather than have our doors open to all comers every week, we now split the year into three sessions of about 10 weeks each (with breaks) and ask families to sign up in advance for each session. We limit sign-ups to a total of 90 people, still a large community but one where we can all get to know each other. Though previous attendees are given dibs on signing up for each new session, so far each session has also brought new families into the mix.
We haven't found the perfect scenario yet, and maybe there isn't one. The first year felt too chaotic, while the second--inaugurating our advance sign-up plan--occasionally sank to the other extreme, underpopulated and even--ahem--dull, especially in the dead of winter when half our families were out sick. It is sometimes hard to get adults to help with necessary supervision, especially outdoors; and while some weeks cleanup goes fast with lots of helping hands, other weeks it seems as if one or two people are left to do it all. Committee members occasionally suffer from burnout, but even when it feels like a job, it still seems like The best jobs we've ever had.
More than just a place to go on Thursdays, the Homeschool Resource Center feels like a true community as we begin our third year. It is a place where local homeschoolers of all persuasions interact, have fun and learn from each other, and where deep friendships have been forged. Many families and/or kids who meet there get together outside HRC as well.
HRC isn't perfect or right for everyone, but it's transformed our lives and those of our children in a very positive way. That's why, at the end of each year, despite a full schedule of other commitments, we all look at each other and agree, "Let's do it again!
© 2004 Linda Jordan
January-February 2004 - Articles and Columns
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