The Ever-Elusive Perfect Learning Environment

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In my most glowing pink, rose-colored dreams about home education, my children are perfectly groomed, sitting attentively around the table, smiling or perhaps looking intrigued, as I speak articulately and passionately about faith, academics, or some other important subject matter. Every word out of my mouth is being absorbed into their spongy brains, for permanent retention and life application. The room is quiet as I speak, or perhaps there is soft classical music providing some white noise in the background.

Well, that’s my personal fantasy. It’s a far cry from reality.

Here’s a fairly common scenario, around here, just to provide you with a glimpse into my very imperfect life.

We start the day with Bible reading, memorization, maybe reading a poem, and then reading God’s World News. Some mornings this takes 15 minutes. Other mornings, I’m almost positive that it takes a very frenzied hour because we are interrupted no less than 14 times.

About 30 seconds into our family reading time, the first interruption happens. The two-year-old’s attention span has come to an end. He cries out to be released from his booster-chair prison. The only reason he lasted even that long is because his instant oatmeal kept him occupied. He ate half of it. The other half was smeared all over the table, himself, and three other random objects nearby.

After he is all cleaned up, he goes to play with toys, and we proceed with our reading. About 90 seconds later, if we are even that lucky, the five-year-old complains that she should be able to play with toys too. I give her the same ol’ speech about maturity and responsibility, and that she is older now and needs to sit for a few more minutes, and proceed with my reading. A few seconds later, the five-year-old has either snuck off to play, and therefore needs further disciplinary measures, or she has thrown herself on the floor in a full-fledged protest.

After five minutes, she is finally either calmed down or carted off to her room for a quiet time, and I am finally back on track with the older two kids. I read for a few more minutes, if I am lucky. I ask my kids a question and then realize that my seven-year-old wasn’t really listening to anything I just said. Instead, she was distracted by her brother and starts to comment on how cute he is.

I could go on, but I will spare you all the painful details.

It is hard some days. I have doubts and wonder what on earth I am doing! I wonder if I am cheating my older children from an excellent education somewhere else because of all these interruptions. I wonder if I am cheating my preschool-aged children because I have to ignore them so much to teach my older children. Basically, I wonder if I’m cheating all of my children and they will all hate me and put me in a dirty, ugly nursing home someday, and I will have all this guilt seared into my conscience forever.

But, here’s the thing. When my older kids aren’t learning the Bible, poetry, and current events during our morning family time—because they are waiting out yet another interruption—they are learning other things. They are learning to be patient. They are learning what it means to be part of an imperfect—but loving—family. They are learning to be flexible. They are learning to show deference. They are learning that life is not all about them.

Because it’s not. And it’s not about me, and my preconceived, fantasy-world agenda either. I had to figure that out a long time ago, or else I would have already gone completely unhinged.

Let’s be clear. I am not saying that all interruptions are okay, at all times, indefinitely. At some point, drastic measures might need to be taken to ensure that older children get what they need academically. Every family has to figure that out and decide what is best for all their children, individually and as a whole. But what I am saying is that in the course of a homeschool day, especially if you have little kids, there will be lots of run-of-the-mill interruptions. As long as it doesn’t completely, consistently derail your instruction, it’s okay to roll with it and even find learning opportunities in the middle of it.

What is the perfect learning environment for children? I’m pretty sure this is a topic that has been debated a lot amongst educational elitist philosophers. And I doubt they would come to my house and say, “This is it! We have found it at last! This is the ideal learning environment for children.”

But what I do know is this: I can see my children learning and growing week by week. I can measure it, not just with standardized tests—although they do fine when it comes to that—but also in other ways. Their character is being shaped and molded, not in a sterile, far-off classroom, but in a living, breathing, organic family.

The way I see it, that’s the best kind of learning environment there is.

-Amy Koons

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