Teaching backwards: why we don’t focus on the basics.

While researching different curriculum options for our homeschool, I was deliberating between two alternatives: stick with the basics or follow our interests .

“Back to basics!” “Everything is built on the basics!” These cliche messages were repeated often enough throughout my life, they became thoroughly ingrained in my mind.  In traditional education reading, writing and arithmetic are considered the basics. They are the bare minimum needed to function in today’s society. This is where we decided to start.

January, 5th 2017 @ 8:00 am. Sharp pencils, unmarked workbooks, shiny new maps; sensory box, pompoms and measuring spoons for the toddler. I got this!

January, 5th 2017 @8:05 am. Kindergartner is working hard tracing letters; toddler is happily digging in the sensory box; mommy is drinking still warm coffee while simultaneously patting herself on the back. I got this.

January, 5th 2017 @8:12 am. Bright morning light shining through the window bounces off the reflector’s surface  (why is it even on the table?) and captures 110% of my 4 year old’s attention.  It leads to the discussion of light properties, electromagnetism and time travel (Einstein’s theory of relativity, not wibbly-wobbly timey-whimey…stuff.) Toddler is happily emptying the contents if his sensory box onto the floor. I don’t got this.

And just like that,  12 minutes into our homeschooling journey,  we had to change our entire approach to home education .

It has been nine months since we shifted the main focus from basics to interest led learning. When asked about out homeschooling style, I often compare it to falling down the rabbit hole: we find a fascinating subject and explore it, we often go off in a tangent and take unexpected turns. Why not, who doesn’t like plot twists?


What was  included in box curriculum


Math is universal! It is beautiful.  It is fun.  It grows from common sense. Everybody loves math! Right?


What do you mean “No?!?!?” Don’t break my heart! But why?

In traditional education, the teacher introduces numbers to the students.  He then shows them how to add, subtract, multiply, divide. Each new concept is followed by dozens of repetitive problems and a test.  Drills. Memorization. Confusion. Boredom.

What we do instead 

Beast Academy 2A

Life of Fred

Khan academy


Basic principles of math are simple. Some calculations may be tedious, but math makes sense.

Preschoolers easily grasp ideas behind fractions,  number lines, geometry and algebra elements. I see 3, 4 and 5 year olds exploring difficult concepts and taking on the challenges. Silly kids, they weren’t told yet that they hate math!

Kids love the challenge of games. Why not use this attribute and incorporate games into learning? Instead of using endless worksheets and tests, give them problems to solve.

According to Piaget’s theory, “children acquire mathematical knowledge…by constructing them from the inside, in interaction with the environment,” in other words, given the chance to explore and experiment, they will use their knowledge to  invent new ways to find solutions, explore patterns and make connections.  Let’s make math fun!


What was included in the box curriculum 

Spelling You See

What we do instead 

Dictations, copy work, reversed dictations, poetry, word games, narration, using writing in every day lives.

Most children’s fingers aren’t developed enough to hold a pencil and write until the age of five, but most parents would agree that kids have PLENTY to say before. I tried to make a video of my son telling me a story; about twenty minutes into the most imaginative tale, my phone’s battery died. He kept talking for another 20 minutes. Shocker!

Young minds are capable of creating amazing worlds, but lack of transcription skills can lead to frustration,  and that in turn can lead to a writer’s block.

Brave Writer program incorporates copy work, dictations, reading aloud, storytelling, art appreciation, nature study, poetry tea time, word play, music exploration, movie review and discussions, recitation and narration. It is perfect for a reluctant writer. I’ve been told by my five year old that he doesn’t need to learn how to write: we could just use voice-to-text technology or hire a scribe to do the writing. Clever, kid! You want a scribe? You got it!

I love writing down his stories, and he gets reassurance that what he has to say is valuable and worth being written down. Sometimes I have to resist the temptation to correct the grammar and truly LISTEN to the content. Talking is brave, being interrupted and corrected all the time is discouraging. Even as an adult, when somebody unkindly points out my mistakes, I shut down and stop talking. Most of us are tactful enough with the adult, to either ignore the mistakes or point them out kindly, in private. Why does that tact disappear with our children?

Foreign language

What was included in the box curriculum

Elementary curriculum box did not have an option to add foreign language.

In his book How Children Learn, John Holt describes what would happen if we tried to teach children to speak. “First, some committee of experts would analyze speech and break it into a number of separate “speech skills.” We would probably say that, since speech is made up of sounds, a child must be taught to make all the sounds of his language before he can be taught to speak the language itself…Perhaps, in order not to “confuse” the child…we would not let the child hear much ordinary speech, but would only expose him to the sounds we were trying to teach.”

I spent 10 years learning French in a classroom setting from amazing teachers: grammar worksheets, memorizing vocabulary words and dialogues, drills. I was so excited when a foreign exchange student from France visited our college class. Two hours with that student in class was eye opening: while we could understand each other,  a lot was lost in translation.  The conversation didn’t flow.  In that moment I realized how far I was from speaking French fluently. What was missing?

What we try to do instead
In contrast, I learned English backwards simply by being in a language rich environment. Surrounded by books, radio, TV with subtitles, newspapers, magazines, and native speakers. I was forced to figure out how to communicate with the world around me.

In our homeschool we use songs, stories and read aloud in foreign language. We discuss similarities and differences between our native language and the one we are studying.

Free play

It’s our favorite subject! It’s THE most important subject! Learning that happens during unstructured unscripted free play is invaluable. I love watching my kids’ spontaneous improvisations: odds and ends from my husband’s wood shop, random treasures they find in their toy boxes and kitchen cabinets becomes see-saws, ramps, balance beams, bridges, catapults, slides. In less than an hour they explore math, physics, engineering, team building, physical education, effective communication, decision making, risk taking, self-regulation and so much more.

Preschoolers in our co-op also enjoy engineering challenges and loose parts play.  With a handful of open ended prompts, they learn vital skills. Cooperative games and messy sensory play let them explore the world through experiences using  their senses such as, taste, touch, smell, sight and sound whilst having fun. Their creativity is mind blowing and we learn so much from them!

It is very easy to underestimate the intellectual capacity of children, but they have the ability to learn complicated concepts even if they’re still struggling with the basics. In the words of the famous Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus “take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” Students (that includes grown ups too!) in the School For Peculiar Children will continue with interest led learning and continue to enjoy our crazy and fun adventure.

*Yes, I’m watching Magic School Bus Rides Again as I work on this post. I mean the kids, the kids are watching it!*