The question I get most often about homeschooling is not what curriculum we use or how we teach math, but how do we spend our days? How do we fit in homeschooling along with getting everyone fed and maintaining our sanity? What does a typical homeschool day look like? How do you organize your life so that homeschooling works?
The answer is rhythm.
I first discovered the concept of rhythm when my oldest was young and I was first learning about homeschooling, and especially Waldorf-inspired homeschooling. Rhythm is the idea that we can bring structure to our days by finding a balance between different types of activities. Some have used the terms “in-breath and out-breath” to describe the different types of activities.
Rhythm is not a schedule. I’ve heard it called a “flexible framework” and I think that’s an apt description. It provides the scaffolding for the day and that framework will be filled in by our always changing and evolving home and family life.
The concept of rhythm has not come easily for me and is only something I continue to strive for because of the amazing dividends it has paid in our home.
And it is no wonder that rhythm is tricky for so many of us:
“It is a challenge for us to incorporate rhythm into our daily lives. To do so, we must commit ourselves to order and routine; to a slower, more deliberate pace; to intention rather than to happenstance. In other words, we must develop a sense of ritual. Only a few generations ago, human activity was, by necessity, informed by the rhythms of the natural world: we slept when it was dark, rose with the sun, planted and harvested according to the seasons, experienced profound connections between the cosmos and human consciousness. Modern life has severed those connections. The pace of our society has speeded up to such an extent that many of our lives are, in fact, arrhythmic – frantic, stressed, cut off from nature and from one another. Yet if we are to create rich, meaningful family lives, we must find ways to bring rhythm back into our days.” – Katrina Kenison, Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers In a Hurry
I like to think of rhythm from three perspectives: daily, weekly and yearly. I’ll chat a bit about each of those and talk about how they support our homeschool life.
Every family already has a daily rhythm. If you wrote down what you did every day for a week you would probably find that the days shared lots of similarities. You might find that you usually eat three meals a day, tend to fold laundry when you watch a show in the evening, or the toddler takes a nap every afternoon … these common threads that connect one day to another provide consistent anchors for your day that you can build a more robust family rhythm around.
When building a rhythm I think it’s helpful to start with the must-dos for each day. My family eats three meals and my kids have an afternoon snack every day. My children nap or have a quiet time after lunch and we start our bedtime routine after dinner. Eating and sleeping happen each day so building some more intentionality around those areas is a great place to start. Once meals and rest times feel consistent then it’s time to think about what happens in between those anchors. When you’re adding elements to your family’s days, keep in mind that it’s ok to layer it in.
But what to do when?
A recent Wall Street Journal article explored the idea that there’s an ideal time of day to do particular activities, and that humans experience the day in three segments – a peak, a trough and a rebound. Studies have found that we are at our best and sharpest in the morning – this is when we should do our analytical work (or our academic work for us homeschoolers!). Our peak ends in the late morning or midday, when energy flags and we are best off doing mindless work or resting. Then we experience a rebound in the late afternoon, when we find ourselves more alert and in a better mood – this is an ideal time for creative pursuits.
I found this article fascinating because this is essentially how we have structured our homeschool days for years. In the morning we focus on academics. We use a Waldorf-inspired curriculum in our home, so my second grader and I do a ‘main lesson’ in the morning, which means we focus on one subject intensely for a month at a time. This is also a time when my younger children do what they are designed to focus on – play! After lunch time we break for an afternoon quiet time. My older children play quietly (and separately!) and then come join me when their hour is up. My toddler naps at this time. This is the best time of day for me to do tasks like catch up on email, schedule appointments or flip through cookbooks for meal planning. After quiet time we have a snack and then this is a time for creative pursuits. Sometimes we will do handwork (knitting or sewing or another craft), other times we will get out to see friends or play outside, and other times my kids are going to a class like ballet or a nature program.
One of the gifts of homeschooling is that we have the opportunity to tune into our own rhythms and take advantage of these windows of time. Often when I talk with people about homeschooling they are surprised by the number of hours we dedicate to academics, compared to a typical school day. But as I get further down this homeschooling path I’m convinced that my kids are not lacking anything, and a key to the success of our “short” lessons is that they are timed for when we are most primed to learn.
So what does our typical day look like? Here is a basic outline of a weekday in our home:
Wake, get ready for the day
Breakfast & clean up
Circle time and main lesson (“school time”)
Kids play while mama makes lunch
Lunch & clean up
Quiet time / toddler nap
Errands / playing outside / playdates / housework / classes / arts & crafts / handwork
Bath & bedtime routine
Mama & Daddy hang out
If that looks simple or effortless and I just want to say that for many years it did not feel that way! Especially in seasons of pregnancy and newborns and nursing and illness – there are times when maintaining a daily rhythm feels impossible. When in one of those seasons I found it was really helpful to just jot down a simple list of how I wanted the next day to go. (Note: not a list of how every perfect day in my future would look.) I kept my goals small and specific. In one of those seasons, my note in the morning might have looked like this:
Wake, get ready
Breakfast & clean up
Start a load of laundry
Baby nap, read books with kids
Lunch & clean up, put chicken in the crockpot
Quiet time / baby nap / try to nap
Bath & bedtime
Days don’t always go to plan! One potential misconception about rhythm is that it is a monotonous schedule. The best thing about rhythm is that is is there waiting for us when we stray from it. If we need to be out of the house all morning (not typical for us) we can return and slip back in where we left off. We jump back in with lunch, or books and quiet time. This predictability is so calming for children, especially anxious ones and especially when a day has been off the normal routine.
“Scheduling, like so many things in life, is an art that can easily slide away from balance, becoming regimented and inflexible on the one hand, or being completely abandoned, encouraging a situation that can become chaotic and completely unformed. My opinion is that schedules are best employed as guides and reminders: that they are useful but mustn’t become straightjackets.” – Donna Simmons, The Christopherus Waldorf Curriculum Overview for Homeschoolers
Some things don’t happen daily, but weekly. Creating a weekly rhythm means looking at commitments like classes for the kids, regular plans with friends, or maybe school subjects you don’t need to do daily.
In our current season of life our weekly rhythm includes ballet lessons, speech therapy appointments, outdoor immersion programs for my big kids and a regular get-together with homeschool friends. Other things we try to make room for weekly are visits to the gym or yoga for the parents, a weekly date night and an evening set aside for boring stuff like paying bills.
In the Waldorf world there’s a lot people who do certain tasks on certain days like a baking day and a laundry day and even eating certain grains on certain days of the week. I have attempted these things and found them to be too fussy, personally. It just didn’t feel like ‘us.’ It felt like me trying to fit us into someone else’s idea of a rhythm and so after a time I dropped it. And I give you permission too to drop things that don’t work for your family. The whole intention of rhythm is to simplify your life and give clarity – especially for your children – about what is coming from one day to the next. So don’t muddy the waters trying to follow someone else’s idea of rhythm. Start with where you are.
There are certain things my family does each year, and I bet yours does too. For my family, those things include visiting the tulips on a spring day, going to our neighborhood’s summer concert series, making pancakes on each child’s half birthday, apple picking in the fall and berry picking in the summer, sharing Thanksgiving with extended family, decorating the Christmas tree and making gingerbread men for Santa.
Creating a yearly rhythm takes attention and intention. When I am planning our year in stolen moments during the summer I try to think about those yearly traditions that mean the most to all of us and set them down on my calendar so I don’t forget to do them. If I just keep it in my head that I want to go apple picking in September it’s a lot less likely to happen, compared to putting it on the calendar and making sure that time is protected. (And we all know some years things just come up and instead of cutting down the Christmas tree like you always do, you save your sanity and go grab it at the corner lot – that’s ok too!)
As years go on, I find it helpful to notice the things we do that are tied in with the seasons that feel good and resonate with all of us. Last year, for example, I thought it would be fun to use no artificial light after the sun went down on the day of the winter solstice. We used candles for dinnertime, bath time and bedtime. Watching my children go up the dark stairway holding candles for bedtime really was magical, and it didn’t take any extra effort other than remembering the plan ahead of time. These types of rituals can be so simple but so meaningful to children as we help ground them in the rhythm of the year in a way that speaks to them so much more profoundly than just pointing to a calendar and telling them it’s the winter solstice.
I think the yearly rhythm stuff is the most fun. This is the stuff that makes memories. Daily and weekly rhythms serve a purpose and are so helpful but they can often feel mundane and monotonous to me. The things we do just once a year are so special but they do take some planning to make sure they happen. The yearly rhythm stuff feels like the frosting on the cake.
One last thing I want to mention, at the risk of being obvious, is that rhythm should serve the whole family. Where are you, mama, in your family’s rhythm? It is my opinion that a homeschool day should not revolve 100% around the children. If I get stuck in that situation for too long I end up shouting things like “I am not a cruise director! Figure out something to do!” and nobody wants that. This is an area I’m paying extra attention to this year as I move out of a demanding season with my third baby. Where am I finding time for myself in this very full season?
Daily I make sure my family takes an hour in the afternoon for quiet time. After spending YEARS getting interrupted every five minutes by a kid asking if quiet time is over, I invested in a Time Timer, which helps visual kids who aren’t yet reading clocks, and now have 60 blissful minutes of quiet in the afternoon. I do often spend this time catching up on email and phone calls, but I also try to take time to fill my own cup and do something frivolous. This often looks like knitting a few rows, watching a clip from a favorite comedy show (obsessed with Carpool Karoke at the moment) or eating a square of dark chocolate.
Weekly, I get a break from being ‘on’ as a homeschooling parent. Some weeks we meet up with friends and go for a hike and even though I’m with my kids, they are busy playing and I’m filling up my own cup with great conversations with friends who know and share my struggles and my joys in this homeschooling gig. Other weeks I take my oldest to a drop-off nature program. Just recently my husband and I decided to invest in a weekly babysitter and so that is another weekly time I know I can count on to feel like an adult.
Then there are the ‘big ticket’ self care moment that happen a lot less frequently but are so important to make sure I get on my calendar yearly. That includes planning vacations as a family, asking grandparents to take the kids for an overnight or getting a massage.
The essence of rhythm is that there is a time for all things. Life can feel balanced when we know that there will be a time in the day for washing the dishes and there is time for sitting on the couch and reading together. When I’m doing either of those things, I don’t feel guilty that I’m not doing the other. There will be a time in the week to get outside and play with friends and a time in the week when we sit down and learn math and reading. There is time in the year for fun vacations and travel and there is time for being grounded at home.
“Once we begin to see our lives within our families as opportunities for spiritual development, the possibility of inner growth is unlimited. Home is no longer just a place to eat and sleep, but a school for our souls and spirits. Each day yields its lesson, and our children and partners become our teachers. We find our rhythm and learn to harmonize. We learn how to cherish and care for one another and how to care for our own souls as well. We learn to dance together, how to lead and when to follow. In so doing, we bring about changes both large and small, for our children, nurtured by rhythm, may ultimately heal and restore the rhythm of the world.” – Katrina Kenison, Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers In a Hurry
If you’re interested in reading more about rhythm, here are some resources that have been formative for me: