By Shweta S
Every new home educator (and non-home educator) is always concerned about the social life of the home educated child. I think the concern is valid, especially from those adults who had an active social life at school and still enjoy life-long close friendships with their childhood friends. For many families, a school gives an out-of-the-box community that you can plug into. Children get an opportunity to form long-term connections because they meet the same people year after year. They also interact with diverse adults and children without parental involvement. This can be perceived as an opportunity to find your own identity and social circle away from the influence of your immediate family.
There are equally as many downsides to socialising in school—bullying by adults and children is rampant, excessive peer influence is a challenge, and many families would be concerned if the school community’s value system is diametrically opposed to their own. Yet, when confronted with the concept of home education, most adults tend to paint a rosy picture of the school social life and imagine a lonely, isolated existence for the home educator.
To be honest, when I started my home education journey six years ago, I, too, had several concerns about socialising. I have two boys, 9 and 6 years old, and we have been home educating from the start. My boys never even went to kindy or long day care. In the early days, I would reflect deeply on my personal school social experience. It hadn’t been very positive for me—I studied in an all-girls catholic school, and I was too nerdy to fit into any of the cliques. I had few friends and quickly lost touch with them once school ended. Today most of my childhood friends are scattered all over the globe, and I only message my school best friend once a year on her birthday. I immigrated to Australia at 23 and had to rebuild my social life from scratch. Everyone knows how hard it is to make new friends as an adult (especially for introverts).
I did not have a diverse social life when my older son was born. When we decided to home educate, my primary concerns around socialising were about not giving my children the “Australian school experience” and not giving them an opportunity to mingle with people from all types of backgrounds. Of course, I was also concerned about how my child would cope without being around children all day, every day.
When my eldest was a toddler, I ran a family daycare at home and kept him around other little ones for most of the week, giving all the kids several play-based learning experiences. I also remember taking him to a local gentle Steiner playgroup where we sang songs, the kids played with wooden toys, and the mums sat and sewed or chatted. Then everyone had morning tea together. That playgroup was my first experience in a shared social space— where adults and children socialize together instead of being artificially separated.
A few months after, though, I found myself with a three-year-old and a new baby. I had stopped the family daycare by then as I wanted to focus on home educating. My older one had outgrown the Steiner playgroup, too, as most mainstream three- year-olds start kindy by then. So again, I found myself facing the socialisation question. My goal was to:
- Find a peer group for shared learning experiences, so my children can practice skills like turn-taking, exchanging ideas, experiencing differences of opinion, and creating/making something with others in a team.
- Build a consistent social circle so my children get to meet the same children over a long period and get a chance at long-term friendships.
- Find adults and older children role models/ mentors whom my children can look up to, learn from, and connect with.
- Add some diversity to our social group, so my boys meet people from non-immigrant backgrounds.
As you can imagine, these were rather daunting goals for an inner-city mumma of a toddler and a little bub! The first thing I did was find some local playgroup-style paid opportunities for my three- year-old. We found a bush/nature playgroup for preschoolers and another homeschool-style learning group called Earth School that a lovely lady ran at home. Both groups were terrific, and my children thrived. They were several hour-long sessions, so my children got time to interact with peers, and goal one was met. But I could see that most children attending these get-togethers were headed for school.
“I believe the home educating parent needs to seek community intentionally. No one will come knocking on your door; you have to go out and find friends! Being a part of the community is also about give and take—you can’t expect everything to fit around you and your kids. You have to stretch yourself in some way to contribute.”
In my quest for an home-ed community, I enthusiastically joined several home education Facebook groups and sought local opportunities. We attended a fair few park meet-ups and even met with some families for one-on-one play dates. However, I noticed that park meet-up attendance was irregular (we attended irregularly, too!), so meeting the same families frequently was challenging. Besides my kids being on the youngish side, we found ourselves being rebuffed by some of the more consistent co-op style meets. Also, being an inner-city family, I found I would have to drive a fair distance to find any groups, which was challenging too.
Yet again, I found myself with a five-year-old preppie who had outgrown those lovely bush kinder groups, a toddler who wanted more friends to play with, and no regular groups to be a part of. That’s when I decided to start a group, and Port Melbourne Homeschool Co-op was born. I kept the format simple and reached out on Facebook to like- minded families. Amazingly, it all started very smoothly. We would pay a teacher to come in and run an activity for the kids, and then the children played in the park for two hours.
One year into running the co-op, Covid hit, and things took a setback. But by then, we had a little community going (3 families—but hey, it was something!) I pushed through post-Covid, and the community’s grown a fair bit since then. Five years on, we’ve had people come and go, but we’ve also had some of the consistency and diversity I wanted for my children. And the combined purchasing power of the group has allowed all the children to access some fantastic learning experiences together. For instance, we have done activities like stop- motion animation, Robotics and STEM, African drumming, Yoga, French circus, mosaic art, cooking, drama, nature journaling, Capoeira (a Portuguese dance form), sports, and so much more. We also celebrate birthdays, Halloween, Book Week, Diwali, and many share-a-plate picnics and little outings. It’s also been wonderful watching the children grow together and seeing their friendships mature and thrive over time. It finally feels like I am giving my boys the ‘Australian school experience’ just with all the good parts thrown in!
Of course, now that my boys are more grown up, our social life has also expanded beyond the co-op. For instance, my younger son is really into chess, so he attends local after-school chess clubs twice weekly. He even convinced his older brother to join him in attending one of them. Both are into swimming and spend hours at the local pool each week. I can see new friendships emerging in both of these settings. They also attend the Victorian School of Languages on Saturday mornings. They are learning Spanish and Spanish culture and interacting with Spanish families and teachers who grew up in Spain—a very diverse experience from their everyday social life. HEN events have been wonderful for the large group learning experiences—we’ve been to a fair few, like the Yakult factory trip, iFly experience, museum trips, and Ricketts Point Marine Sanctuary.
Our local temple community also offers many experiences for children. They hang out with schooled friends in the temple’s weekend class, at festivals, and for local picnics. Here they experience their home culture in a deeply personal manner. For instance, they learn to play traditional musical instruments and Indian music. They also perform dramas where they dress up in colourful traditional costumes and re-enact stories from Indian culture. They are also learning to contribute to the community. For instance, all temple festivals are free of cost to attend and entirely organized by volunteers. Everyone who attends gets to enjoy a free, delicious Indian meal. My nine-year-old spent hours cutting vegetables for meal prep with his friends in the temple kitchen last month!
We travelled to India for two months last summer and had a vibrant social experience there. The boys interacted and played with large groups of children just playing on the streets after school. (Yes, that’s still a thing in India) And, of course, they spent a long time interacting with grandparents and extended family, building new connections. We’ve also travelled with home educators to a few places within Australia and made new friends there as well.
The last six years have been quite an adventure in home ed socialisation. I can see that some of my initial fears were quite unfounded. Children don’t have to be around other children all the time. Some days are lonely but some days can be so full and social that the week just balances out in the end.
As children grow, their social needs change and mature, so new people and experiences emerge organically. You can also plug children into your own social circles and vice versa. Because the whole family hangs out together more often, everyone experiences more new friendships and connections.
At the same time, I believe the home educating parent needs to seek community intentionally. No one will come knocking on your door; you have to go out and find friends! Being a part of the community is also about give and take—you can’t expect everything to fit around you and your kids. You have to stretch yourself in some way to contribute. Just small things like showing up regularly for meet-ups and events, organizing an incursion/excursion, researching what’s going on around you and putting yourself occasionally outside your comfort zone—all can go a long way in building community for your children!
Otherways 176 (May 2023)