There are a lot of studies right now looking at the right age at which kids should start kindergarten. These studies are done regarding the public schools, which add elements that we, as homeschoolers, don’t need to consider. There’s a trend that says “early is better.” This is not the case with every child, with plenty of evidence to suggest this trend can be harmful to some students. So, what is the right age to start homeschooling? What do we need to consider? I find that it’s not so much a matter of when to start, but how much time is spent at what age.
If you read my previous article on building strong foundations, you know that learning is an innate ability. Learning increases when pathways through the brain are created and frequently used. At a very young age, we can prepare our children for a formal education by giving them rich and varied experiences upon which further learning can be built. Play is one of the most important gifts we can give our kids. Letting them just be a kid, nurture their imagination, and explore new things will do more for their development than hours in the school desk. Play with your child outside, go to new places, visit the zoo, splash in the water at the beach, star-gaze at night, plant gardens, visit a farm, the fire-house, the library. These experiences will grow your child’s understanding of the world around them, and develop new interests.
Schooling can begin in stages. For example, reading is a complex skill that requires proper development of the eyes, brain, and cognitive understanding. Students must be able to decode the words, interpret the meaning, and make connections. Not every child is ready for all of these parts to work together at the same age. Some are early and eager readers at five years old, while others aren’t ready until seven, eight, or even nine. The challenge to parents is allowing kids to be outside the range of “normal.” This freedom to develop at their own pace means that when they are ready, they will take off! Forcing kids to perform a skill before they are ready can result in frustration, power struggles, and a dislike of learning.
Learning letters, sounds, numbers, and shapes usually start around three to four years old. This should be done at the child’s pace through play and games. Avoid highly structured settings at this age if the child is not developmentally ready for sitting still and staying focused for long periods of time. Attention spans at this age run from five to ten minutes. Keep the sessions short and fun.
By five years old you may find that your child is ready to start putting letter sounds together to form words. Again, pay attention to your child’s tolerance for structured schooling, and keep it light and fun. The same goes for handwriting. This is a fine-motor skill that can be developed through lots of play, and doesn’t have to be done through structured, sit-down work. However, if your child is excelling in one or both of these areas, follow their lead. You may find your child loves learning about science, but they aren’t ready to read on their own. That’s ok! There is plenty of learning and exploring that can be done without that skill.
From five to around seven years old, I recommend no more than an hour or two of structured, sit-down schooling time (workbooks, writing, math, etc). You may find they have a longer attention span for content-based learning. Yes, this is very different than the public school! I find that kids are usually ready to add about an hour of work per grade level after Kindergarten. So, from five to seven I recommend one to two hours (of high interest schooling), the following year would be around three hours, up to no more than five or six hours by the end of middle school. I find that six hours is a lot of work when homeschooling. This time includes practical life activities (cooking, taking care of animals, gardening, etc.), focused bookwork, and hands-on learning activities. You might still be concerned that this isn’t enough time (especially in the younger years). But consider how the rest of your child’s day is filled. Learning is not isolated to “school,” keep the enrichment activities going! Sports, 4-H, music lessons, art lessons, Girl Scouts/Boy Scouts, you name it. All of these activities will enhance their schooling, without having to be sit-down structured work.
Don’t be afraid to experiment as you learn what best suits your child. You might find out the hard way that twenty minutes of sit-down work is way too long for your six year old. Break it up, change the activity, or ditch that program altogether. As the teacher parent, it’s your job to create a program that meets your child’s developmental needs. And all areas of development must be considered – emotional, physical, social, and cognitive. Allow the pieces to fall into place on their own. You will be astounded to see what your child can accomplish when they are ready!