Part Five: Home Education? Help!

Make a mess and get creative!

Artillery Row

Well, maybe it’s time to take down the yurt and pack the lute away. Amid the witty and often insightful takes on home-schooling on many social media platforms are signs that unrealistic and unsustainable expectations of achievement are beginning to take their toll. Balancing the competing demands of home, workplace responsibilities, and children’s education, some accidental home-schoolers find that they are being stretched too thin. Yes, home education can support excellent learning and teaching, and it’s certainly important to focus on such subjects as reading, writing, nature studies and maths. But don’t fetishize the delivery of facts, like some latter-day Thomas Gradgrind. Remember the character who responds to tightening restrictions on social life in The Plague. “Instructions!” he protests: “what’s needed is imagination.” Camus’s character was right – in normal times or crisis, we are sustained by creative arts.

In this mundane, pragmatic world, few of us have the time we need to develop creative work.

This point has been established in recent debates of the pedagogical value of creativity. The issue is now firmly on educationalists’ agenda: Sir Ken Robinson asked whether schools quash creativity in pursuit of academic achievement in a TED talk that has garnered almost 65 million views. Of course, it’s impossible fully to answer the problematic question that he posed. But some older approaches to teaching do give cause for concern. That’s why Philip Pullman highlighted the longer-term effects of creative starvation. “Every child has a right to the experience of culture,” he has insisted. “We must fully understand that without stories and poems and pictures and music, children will starve.”

It’s telling that this warning about creative starvation comes from a novelist – because those of us who don’t depend upon imagination tend to underestimate its role. You’ve likely experienced that for yourself. In this mundane, pragmatic world, few of us have the time we need to develop creative work. This is why timetabling matters: a timetable may be a good servant, but a very bad master. So be flexible. Give your children creative space, and watch them work and play with resourcefulness and intent, while you light up the lock-down with your own creative spark.

Start with a search for inspiration. It’s easy to enjoy great art from the comfort of your home. So why not introduce your children to your favourite artist or tradition? Browse online exhibitions, take part in online tours, and watch videos of the places that have inspired great work. Then get to know your favourite paintings: select an interesting artist and print out their most familiar work. Pin it up on your inspiration board, and think about what you see. Close your eyes and describe the details, then reach for a pencil, and reconstruct the principal themes. Make it fun. Grab some props, and recreate this piece of art with whatever comes to hand.

Make a mess. Children love to paint, and to show you what they see. You can validate their work when you display it on the wall. If you can, invest in some inexpensive A4 frames, and have your children contribute something new for a weekly exhibition. Or hang up a piece of string, and peg up their efforts beside print-outs of work by your favourite artist. Use good quality materials whenever you can – and make them easily accessible. Can you clear out a couple of shelves that you can dedicate to art supplies? These resources don’t need to be expensive. Raid your recycling as often as you can. Discover the amazing potential of egg cartons. Paint on pebbles, dried leaves or seashells that you find around your home. You’re already half-way to your first mixed-media triptych. Are there other things that you can make? Remember the older crafts that have been making something of a comeback. There are any number of Youtube instruction videos showing you how to embroider, crochet, knit or whittle. Make some jewellery, or arrange some flowers. Make something beautiful. Handicrafts are holistic – education isn’t just about ideas.

Then sit down and listen to some music. Get to know your region’s musical tradition – and classics from Monteverdi to Mahler and the Monkees. If the children are new to more formal styles of music, introduce them to Prokofiev’s “Peter and the wolf,” Britten’s “The young’s person’s guide to the orchestra,” and fun stuff from the last night of the Proms. Watch an orchestra in action, and live performances from your favourite bands. Can the children identify the instruments, by sight, and then by sound? How does the music make them feel? How do they want to respond?

Adopt a composer or musician of the week, and listen to their work when you eat, paint, or draw. Check out Classics for Kids, and learn about famous works. Dig out your old recorder, and make up whatever tune you can. If you find two recorders, make your own bagpipes. If nothing more obvious comes to hand, set up your percussionists with jam jars, pots, and pans. Pretend to be the Drummers of Burundi. Sing along with New York’s amazing PS22 primary school chorus, with their ever-expanding range of celebrity guests. Join an online choir, like The Sofa Singers. Record your efforts to put new words to a well-known tune: it might even go viral. Remember that music appreciation doesn’t just promote cultural literacy. Listening to music helps with early brain development, and music lessons may have a similar effect. So start your children early, if you can. Dedicate large chunks of unstructured time to the pursuit of music and other creative arts. Forget that idealistic timetable. Don’t be afraid to slow down and experiment with something new. So what if Gradgrind won’t approve? Creative pleasure and artistic fulfilment should be at the centre of a happy home-school life.

Of course, as you’ve been encouraging your children in music and other creative arts, you’ll have noticed what they do and don’t enjoy. One of your greatest discoveries in home education will be that your child has become your subject. As the weeks go by, and you work together at reading, writing, maths, and science, you will notice what inspires your child, and what might be their gift. And you will understand that their passion might not be related to anything that a standard curriculum might address. But as their teacher – even as their accidental substitute teacher – you will have the chance to connect the experiences that make for successful education with your child’s creative gifts.

That’s why, like Camus’s character, you don’t need more orders. Whatever the next week brings, remember: “what’s needed is imagination.”

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