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Home Education Magazine

Messy Homeschoolers - Mary Kenyon

You've heard of eclectic homeschoolers and relaxed homeschoolers. How about messy homeschoolers? I once read an article in a now-defunct magazine aimed at large families, detailing how to give a good impression in public. The premise was that if your large brood was well-dressed and well-behaved every time they went somewhere together they would be a positive testimony to the merits of large families. I've also read the many articles and books that maintain that without strict schedules and structure, homeschooling cannot work for a large family. In these articles, mothers of large families detail their chore charts and carefully scheduled days. The mother typically rises at 5:00 AM for her Bible study and to prepare the home-cooked breakfast. The children are up by 6:30 to begin their morning chores and seatwork. Everyone has their schoolwork completed by 3:00 PM, just like the neighboring schools. If the family ventures a trip into town, the girls don matching dresses (hand-sewn by their mother) and the boys wear dark slacks and dress shirts. I read in awe, imagining their clean, organized homes and the many busy hands that are never idle. I imagine the same thing in my home. Then I wake up.

I wake up before 6:30 AM to a nursing baby Abby snuggled up against me. There is usually no "alone" time and my morning prayer is often an under-the-breath utterance, "Please, Lord, help us get through this day unscathed," as I start the coffee maker. Our other children tumble out of bed at varying hours throughout the morning, depending upon how late they were up reading or working at a paid job in town. Our standard wardrobe of sweatshirts, flannel shirts, t-shirts and jeans are pulled from drawers whether we are going to town or not. Skirts and dresses are saved for church or family holiday get-togethers. Ours is not a scheduled home, and without those aforementioned posted chore charts, it is none too neat, either. Abby by herself can whip the playroom into a frenzy in less than one hour each morning and everyone has a tendency to start playing in between her messes.

Frankly, if neatness and organization were a vital component of successful home learning I'd have thrown in the towel a long time ago (probably atop a pile on the bathroom floor rather than in the hamper).

Can a homeschooling family live and learn successfully amidst an environment that is "organizationally-challenged"? It's not squalor, but our "Home, Sweet, Home" is typically messy. I am the mother who sits in a bathtub of lukewarm water amidst floating toy army men, nursing a baby. I have bought brand new packages of socks at Wal-Mart when I couldn't unearth a matching pair in our large laundry basket of un-paired socks. Our kitchen table generally holds more books and on-going projects than dishes or food. Shoes, jackets and toys rarely make it back to their assigned places and laundry is always piled high. We are artists and writers in our home so there is always the inherent mess that goes along with creativity.

I liken our messy environment to the healthy black dirt unearthed in the former cow pen near our house where wildflowers now grow abundantly. As a child, I have a vivid memory of a kind of freedom that was completely stifled in a classroom setting. I remember the summers after third and fourth grade, sitting for hours in the warm sun, my toes wiggling in delight in the cool grass as I read book after book after book. Still too young to be assigned the many chores that filled my older sibling's days, I reveled in a freedom I haven't enjoyed since, the freedom to read whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I learned more during those summer reading binges than I ever did in a classroom. It gives me extreme pleasure to give my children that kind of freedom in their days. I believe that surrounded by an abundance of, or even an excess of creative materials, my children's own interests and creativity will thrive like those wildflowers in our pasture.

There are excesses in our simple life, excesses that could be deemed wasteful or shocking to others. I admit to providing them an excess of paper, books and time. The paper is bought in bulk, cases of inexpensive white copy paper that the children are allowed free access to. It horrified my dear mother when she watched my children after the birth of my seventh and she saw my children liberally drawing and writing on only one side of the paper and discarding sheets as fast as they could get more from the cabinet. The same daughter who had to resort to drawing with crayon on brown grocery sacks or old newspapers now allowed her children the liberty of using as much paper as they liked, with no rules about drawing on both sides or filling the paper! The truth is, it is liberating for me to see the wealth of paper my children use, as if there is no end to their creativity as long as there is no end to the supply of paper.

The ready availability of books and magazines gives me that same sense of satisfaction. I never owned books as a child and thought only a rich household would have shelves of books. Now, I have my own shelf of books, two shelves of educational books in our playroom, and each of my children have a shelf of books to call their own. We attend a dozen library book sales a year, paying for our own habit with the extra books we buy to re-sell on eBay.

Books are not just relegated to shelves in our home, either. They fill nightstands and end tables and are piled wherever a person sits. Junie B. Jones, Harry Potter and the Magic Treehouse Club members reside on the shelves of my children's beds. We even have a rack of books and magazines in our bathroom. Magazines have become another vice: dozens of magazines arriving in our mailbox each month, most ordered at deep discounts on eBay, sometimes weekly magazines for as little as $9.95 for a three or four year subscription.

Time is by far the greatest gift I can give to my children: time to play; time to explore their interests, to learn what they like and who they are; time to think and dream; and of course, the time to read book after book as I did those summers long ago. What I felt as an incredible freedom back then I strive to give to my children now.

So, is it all confusion amidst the chaos in our home? Surprisingly, the answer is a resounding No! An unexpected visitor to our home might have to shove a pile of books to the side to sit on our couch, but if she asked my younger children to show her their schoolwork, the kids could immediately run to the book shelves in our playroom and pull a bin off the shelves with their work in it. The sock laundry basket might be overflowing but the drawers are organized and out-of-season clothing is stored away in boxes labeled by size. My desk is piled high but I know where the pens, scissors and pencils are, and I have most of my papers filed away in the file cabinet. My 15-year-old daughter who couldn't care less about clothes but loves reading and writing has a mess in her closet but her bookshelves and desk are immaculately neat and well organized.

While we don't have chore charts, my kids pitch in with dishes or cooking when I ask or when the help is really needed. We also regularly have five-minute clean-up sessions in the evening and we all pitch in to clean the house for family get-togethers or parties. Sometimes we clean to the beat of a fast-paced CD, other times I only ask each child to pick up as many items as their age and put them away. I'll even resort to paying one of my children $1 or a candy bar for watching the baby while I rush to finish up an article I'm writing.

There is a method to our madness in our feeble attempts to keep our house under control and the secret is in keeping our priorities straight. What is important for us to function as a family and what is important to create a rich environment for learning, those are our priorities. Do I clean the grout in the bathroom with a toothbrush, have my children stand topless in the shower to eat a popsicle, or wash the kitchen floor daily? No, but I know mothers who do those things. Do I dress my little girls in fancy dresses and spend hours on their hair? No, and it really wouldn't fit our family style to live like that. As cute as my little girls look when they are all dressed up, I wouldn't want them to miss out on the fun they have playing with mud pies or rolling down the grassy hill in front of our house.

And when we go into town for grocery shopping or to the library? Do I see myself and my children as a poster family for homeschooling and large families? Nope. If I did, we have failed miserably. I don't hesitate to pull out the baby wipes and give their legs and arms a good swipe if we are going straight to the store from the sandbox and I keep a brush for their hair in the van for the same reason. But we aren't wearing matching clothes or our Sunday best, either. Clean, happy children with big smiles on their faces, dressed in comfortable clothing and clutching the paperback book they were reading or the notebook they were writing in on the way to town--now, that's what I call a testimony to homeschooling!

© 2005 Mary Kenyon

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