Originally published in the Parade – October 23, 2019
Do you ever dream about chucking it all—the crazy morning routine getting the kids to school, the fast-paced lifestyle, the piles of homework—and moving your family to an island? That’s exactly what homeschooling mom Kristina Garner did.
In late 2015, the now 37-year-old Garner, a kindergarten teacher and assistant director for an early childhood education program, made a big decision with her husband to move their family from Colorado to Maui, Hawaii, where she made it her goal to spend every single day outside with her daughters Blake and Brice, now 8 and 5. It was in Maui that Garner first fell in love with homeschooling.
“We went on forest hikes, we visited the beach, we frequented Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge to observe all the birds,” she tells Parade.com. “We did everything we could to spend time learning about the plants, animals, and unique geology of the island.”
The experience led her to launch Blossom and Root Home Education, which started as a blog in 2015 and grew into a full business by January 2019. Blossom and Root is a nature-based, secular curriculum for elementary school children that Garner developed based on her experience as an early childhood educator and a homeschooling mom. It’s available for download online.
Take a look at Instagram and you’ll see that Garner is one of many parents who’s made the decision to try homeschooling, whether to get out of the classroom for more learning through play, to avoid bullying, to focus on religious education, or because of traveling due to the military, elite sports or performing arts pursuits, or to experience #vanlife.
In fact, homeschooling rates nearly doubled from 1999 to 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This most recent data shows about 3.3 percent of US children are homeschooled.
It’s not hard to see the appeal: Imagine you start your day waking up naturally. No alarms set, no crazy rushing around to get the kids out the door. After breakfast, you spend a little time working on math or reading with the littles, then you all go out for a walk. After a main lesson in science or history, you have a creative lesson in music or art after lunch. Then, the kids get to play outside for the rest of the afternoon, exploring fields, streams and forests.
This is exactly how Garner’s family, now back in the mountains of Colorado, spends the day. “I wanted to continue that nature-based focus we’d established on Maui—I felt like I came back with fresh eyes,” she says. “We are outside for a significant amount of time, almost every day of the year.”
If you’re totally jealous right now (I know I am), let’s break down exactly how to make online homeschooling work for your family, using resources, educational activities or even classes from the internet, so you can explore the choice more.
How does online homeschooling work?
Online homeschooling can actually mean a bunch of things, from downloading digital curriculum to incorporating interactive videos into your lessons to having your child attend virtual schools.
“Thanks to the plethora of online resources out there, home education is easier than ever before,” homeschooling mom Jamie C. Martin, co-founder and editor-in-chief of SimpleHomeschool.net and author of Introverted Mom, says. “There are programs where a child’s entire curriculum is online for every subject, which might work well for a family in which both parents work and a child needs to take their schooling on the go. There are virtual schools where a certified teacher provides guidance and oversight, which can be helpful as you’re learning the ropes. And other sites offer downloadable curriculum, which you then print out and complete at home.”
Having so much available online is really helpful for easy access to materials. “Digital availability has made so many resources available on a global scale,” adds Garner. “It also provides a degree of convenience—you can access your parent guide while in the library, picking up the books for the weeks ahead. You can take it with you to the store so you can grab what you need for science. You can pull it up while visiting family in another state, or review the next day’s lessons while your child attends their ballet rehearsal.”
Plus, for families who travel or live in remote locations, “these online communities and curricula have helped to connect them with other homeschoolers.”
Visual learners may also benefit from the multimedia opportunities of online homeschool. “I wanted something that could help my very visual child understand upper-level math all the way through high school,” Garner says, so she chose a visually-based online math program. “Right now, it’s helpful as a supplement that reinforces new concepts in a very visual way for her.”
Plus, going online can be fun for kids. “We’ve always had boundaries on screen time, so when our children were younger having permission to use a computer or educational app felt like a genuine treat to them,” Martin says.
How to do homeschooling online
There isn’t one right way to do homeschooling online. “One of the biggest perks of the homeschooling lifestyle is the freedom to choose a program that fits your child’s unique learning style, and the freedom to change things up as necessary,” says Martin. “I also love knowing that I don’t have to be the teacher for every subject, but can outsource whatever topics don’t come naturally.”
With online resources, you can put together your own custom lesson plans so you can teach how you want. That’s how former teacher Garner ended up creating her own digital curriculum.
“We knew we wanted a secular, nature-based, hands-on approach that encouraged creativity, and played around with various pieces we liked from different methods until we felt like we had a good balance,” she says. “I decided to write our own curriculum because I couldn’t find anything available that looked [exactly] like what I wanted. I had a thought that I might not be the only person looking for what I was writing, so I started a blog where I could share our journey and resources with the homeschooling community.”’
You can also decide how much of your homeschooling is online-focused: Maybe it’s just one subject you don’t know (like Spanish, for example) or feel confident teaching. “Math was never my strongest suit, and it was important to me to begin with a program that I knew could support us through our full homeschooling journey,” Garner says. “We use Beast Academy from The Art of Problem Solving for part of my oldest child’s math, which has an online component. In the future, it will become more of a foundation as the material becomes more advanced. It’s actually one of the reasons I chose this particular program. The online aspect was a big draw for me.”
Another option isn’t actually homeschooling at all: You child can attend a virtual school, which is a public or private school that’s partly or entirely online.
“Different from the homeschooling many may be familiar with, these virtual classrooms are facilitated by real teachers, and students connect using chat and webcams to collaborate on projects, turn in assignments, and form friendships,” says Joel Medley, Leadership Development Director at online school K12, whose own children have attended virtual schools. “We hear from many parents that online public school at home offers the assurance that their students are getting a high quality public education, without the stress of having to put together the curriculum or have a mastery of the content themselves in order to teach it. For many families, online public school at home offers the best of both worlds.” Licensed teachers use state-approved curriculum; online “blended” schools offer some classes online and some in a physical classroom.
What is the best online homeschooling method?
There isn’t one method for online homeschooling that’s the “best”: It really depends on your family’s homeschooling needs. “From personal experience as a parent of an online leaner, my wife and I had to sit down and think through exactly what our son needed,” Medley says. “We wanted him to receive public school education, but without the anxiety that came from a large face-to-face setting. Without a doubt, this was the right decision for him and for us.” He flourished at North Carolina Virtual Academy, an online school where Medley was formerly Head of School.
Garner also says think about your child’s learning style and your teaching style. “Ultimately, every child and every family is unique, and what works for one may not work for another,” she says. “Embrace the pieces of the curriculum that work well for you, and let go of the elements that don’t.” If a program offers a trial period, test it out and see how it goes.
You can also involve your kids in deciding what online resources to use. “A child’s motivation is one of the most important parts of any curriculum, so be sure to include them,” Martin says.
How much is homeschooling online?
The cost depends on how much of your curriculum you’re using online. Some programs have a monthly or yearly fee, and some offer discounts for multiple children. For example, Home Learning Institute is $29.95 for up to six courses, or $249.95 per year; Time4Learning’s fee is $19.95 per month and $14.95 each additional student. For both of these, you can pick and choose interactive courses to incorporate in your child’s curriculum.
For downloadable materials, Blossom and Root offers early years and elementary curriculum for individual subjects or a full bundle of topics, with prices ranging from $6 to $162. Moving Beyond the Page, which also has hard-copy materials, offers downloadable curriculum at a reduced rate, since there is less overhead of printing and shipping. A full-year online curriculum for ages 4-5, for example, costs $193 and includes a materials kit. You can also buy individual subjects .
Outschool has live, interactive, teacher-led classes on unique topics such as learning architecture through Minecraft or biology through Pokemon, along with traditional subjects, for $5 to $15 per session.
K12 offers online public schooling that is completely free, just like your local brick-and-mortar public school. As one of the largest providers of online schooling, they also offer homeschool curriculum for purchase as well as three tuition-based online private school programs.
Private online tuition is the most expensive option; Oak Meadow, for example, costs $2,700 a year for grades K-4 and increases to $1,800 per high school course (they also offer curriculum for homeschool purchase).
“With so many [online] options there is a possibility that fits every budget,” Martin says. “My teens still use the free foreign language app and site Duolingo as part of their Spanish curriculum, and then there’s Khan Academy, whose mission is to provide a free education to anyone, anywhere.”
Are there any downsides to homeschooling?
How children learn best is notoriously difficult to measure, and with homeschooling, it’s even trickier. National data on homeschooling students’ achievement is especially lacking because different states have different regulations and assessments, and many homeschooling parents don’t want their children’s education to be driven by test scores. Some states, though, do require standardized testing, so you can see where your child is at; for parents elsewhere who also want learning benchmarks, you can order or download tests to use.
Being responsible for your child’s education can also feel like a huge responsibility. “The downside is that it feels seriously overwhelming when you’re just starting out,” Martin says. But, “the wonderful thing about homeschooling in our technological age is that there are so many options.” All of the resources available online can help make coming up with lessons a lot easier.
It’s also important to carve out time for yourself, as it can be stressful to be with your little ones 24/7. You can join support groups for homeschooling parents as well.
With homeschooling, you’ll also want to make sure your child has enough socialization, so joining activities and getting together with other children, who might be homeschooled as well, is important.
“Many places, like the museum, local historic sites, and the botanic gardens host regular homeschool days or homeschool workshops,” Garner says. “They also attend enrichment programs and forest play groups with kids of many ages, from many different backgrounds. Even just spending time in our community during an average day, they may have a conversation about how the post office works with the man behind the counter, or visit the library.”
What are the best online homeschooling programs?
Again, this is going to be an individual decision of what’s best for you. But in addition to the programs we mentioned such as Blossom and Root and K12, we also got some recommendations from homeschooling mom Martin. “When I had young children, we used a handful of play-based learning sites and apps like Reading Eggs and Todo Math,” she says. “Now as high schoolers my teens do all their math via an online curriculum called Teaching Textbooks, and my daughter even did an online filmmaking course that she loved!”
Plus, “for the past two years at least one of my teens has been enrolled in TJEd High, an online liberal arts mentoring program for youth designed to inspire their high school studies,” Martin says. “Each week they read one classic, thought-provoking book, which they discuss in a private, online forum with other teens and leaders.”
The best part of homeschooling is the flexibility it gives you to think outside the box. “Learning is personal, and education shouldn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach,” Medley shares. “Every child has unique needs, gifts and goals, and that they should have the opportunity to learn in ways that work for them.”
Don’t feel locked into your decision either. Martin says to pick one program and go with it, and if it doesn’t work, try another. Garner says to think of online resources as a roadmap: Ask yourself if they fit your flow of life as a homeschooling family.
“My best advice is to remember that, no matter which curricula you choose, it works for you—you don’t work for it,” she says. “The first step is to be honest with yourself about your child’s needs as a learner, but also your own needs as a teacher.”