Commentary on questions about how to create and maintain a local support group
During some discussion on Always Learning about local support groups,
Rippy Dusseldorp sent me a note that said:
I apparently have lots to say about homeschooling groups, and what I've learned by starting Leiden Home Learners. Shall I just go ahead and post it or is it better to send it directly to the anonymous poster (through Pam) who asked the questions?
I told her to send it to me or the discussion list, and I would put it on a page. So here are Rippy's experences with starting a group in the Netherlands, where home education isn't as simple as it is in some other places. The indented parts are Rippy's responses to the questions and comments of others.
This is a long post. Probably only helpful for those who are interested in starting an unschooling-friendly homeschooling group. Especially if you live in a low homeschooling population area.
I've also read that unschool/homeschool play groups are invaluable and contribute greatly to the success of the family's unschooling journey.
This has certainly been the case for my family. We live in a city (and country) with very few homeschoolers. Our homeschool group, Leiden Home Learners (LHL) has become like a little intentional community for us. We meet one afternoon a week, although different families show up different weeks. Most of the time there are about 3-6 families that come and that is a nice sized group for little children to get to know each other better. The meetings are officially only three hours, but sometimes some families come early, some families leave late, some families decide to have dinner together, sometimes we organize potlucks, and sometimes birthdays are celebrated together. Gianluca and Gisele are good friends with some of the children and friendly with others. All the children's friendships seem to be deepening as they spend more relaxed time together.
My son is beginning to want to meet more children to play with, but he needs support and Lots of time to warm up.
Then make sure you follow his lead and be there for him when he wants support and give him space when he wants to run and play with other children. When we do activities with LHL, it's usually only the first 30-60 minutes of the meeting where there is some sort of loose plan. If a child doesn't feel like participating in the activity, that's no problem at all. They are free to take materials home if they would like, or just do something completely different. The rest of the time is for free play. Often parents play tag, follow the leader, what time is it mr. wolf type games with the children if they are having a difficult time connecting.
I'm thinking about where to put my energy.
... trying to build up more of an active homeschool/unschool group somehow,
You could hire an outside facilitator (or do it yourself) to run a theater, art, nature, destination imagination, etc. workshop. That's how LHL started and people paid money to cover the costs of the room rental, supplies and facilitator (when we had one).
or planning outings/parties and advertise on homeschool lists
In the beginning, I tried to 'market' LHL as a cool place to come and hang out with homeschoolers. I felt like it needed to be something special to compete with things like the Scouts or Ballet class that people could do in their own cities. I spent a lot of energy offering interesting activities every week. I wrote up little blurbs of the types of activities we'd be doing, similar to the write ups that museums and children's classes sometimes do. Here is an example blurb: 'Ringing in the New Year! Children will be ringing in the new year by creating their own musical compositions and playing their compositions on musical bells and jars.' I found the inspiration for the activity from a blogpost (https://nettleknits.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/colourful-music/), but I didn't send the parents the link because I wanted them to be curious about the activity and come to LHL ;-)
I was very motivated and convinced that LHL could be fabulous, so I worked hard. Most people did not know me or my family and some had to travel about an hour to reach Leiden. We planned some razzle dazzle activity weeks (burying a time capsule, Diwali party, felting) mixed in with some simple games and crafts weeks. After the first few high intensity months, I ran out of energy and we changed the format to a cooperative with monthly fees. Perhaps if I lived in a place with more homeschoolers, so much work wouldn't have been necessary. But the hard work paid off and several families committed to being paying members of LHL :-)
All of this was volunteer work on my part, although I didn't contribute financially to the group in the beginning. Doing a different meeting every week, communicating with different homeschooling parents, finding affordable facilitators and spaces to rent, etc. was a lot of work, responsibility and commitment. It took a hefty chunk of my time and energy and that is a all a serious disadvantage of starting your own group. The biggest disadvantage for me was that sometimes my attention was distracted from the children while I was running the group. In the first few months, the 3 hours of the LHL meetings were usually the most stressful hours of Gianluca's and my week. He often needed my help with playing peacefully with some of the children and it was frustrating when I was distracted and had a slower response time than he was used to.
These days LHL is not much work and me and the children find it a relaxing place to visit every week. We made a lot of changes to the group to make it run better and smoother. We used to be an open group, but now we have about 10 member families. Since we have the same regular families, and different parents run different sessions, I'm much more available and on the ball with my children. Another big change has been cost reduction. In 2010, the weekly charge for facilitated meetings was 7 euros per meeting and for parent facilitated meetings was 5 euros per meeting. We were continuously able to reduce fees after my group partner organized a couple of successful fundraisers, and we had some generous members that donated money to buy supplies and help out with rent, and we started using more public spaces with no fees (although we still occasionally rent). In 2012, the LHL fee is 25 euros for a six month period. In addition to the fee, each parent is asked to facilitate one session in a six month period.
This is a fantastic deal because we as a group have acquired lots of resources and we can sometimes subsidize meetings that can be quite expensive. In fact, we have come to the point that the members have access to more perks than if they would spend their yearly fees themselves. Recently we went to the European Space Agency and one of the LHL dads who is a space scientist who works there was able to organize free tickets for all the LHL children. The children dressed up in space suits, learned space tricks about how it feels to be an astronaut dealing with zero gravity, learned about the Mars rover, Curiosity, and shot water rockets.
We also have a shared book and toy library from which we buy things with group funds. We have a regular budget of 50 euros for each library (toy and book) per six months. We have several homeschooling books (including signed copies of Sandra Dodd's books!) and expensive resources that we rotate among the group members such as the slackline (https://www.amazon.com/Gibbon-GIFL1015-Slacklines-12M-Funline/dp/B001RCIMHS), the Wildcraft game (http://www.learningherbs.com/wildcraft.html), and this creative wooden puzzle is on our autumn/winter wish list (http://www.grimms.eu/en/include.php?path=content/produkte/lege/koenner.php). We have shared memberships to things like Nature Detectives and group discounts to things like Mercurius supplies.
Other advantages have been that we're able to take advantage of off season rates and go on holidays or camping together. Something particularly wonderful about this has been that we've vacationed with families who share a similar relaxed philosophy about bedtimes, media and food, which our children loved. Several of us have also done family sleepovers and a couple of us plan to do weekend house exchanges.
Even though we're a closed group, there are still things we do to help other homeschooling families. We invite new homeschoolers to meetings when they have questions, we invite international homeschoolers to meetings when they are in town, we have some open meetings, we try to coordinate some bigger meetings between other homeschooling groups, we connect families who want to start homeschooling groups in the same region, we support and advise new leaders and help them set up new groups, and we make any materials we've created (brochure, charter, etc.) available for other groups to copy and adapt for their own purposes. I think the bigger meetings will be a nice place for our children to find a larger potential pool of homeschooling friends, especially as they are growing up.
We also created a Leadership Intern Program for teens. This was to encourage older children to come to LHL, since most of our children are 7 years old or younger. With the internship, teens are meant to write us a simple application letter letting us know a bit about themselves, what skills they will be bringing to LHL, what skills they would like to develop, and what type of activities they would like to do. Then I would do a short, friendly interview with them and become their mentor and help support them in any way that I can. The volunteer teen would lead six different 30 minute sessions on their own timetable and they would receive a budget of 40 euros for any costs associated with their sessions, plus the full use of our LHL craft and art supplies. After they satisfactorily complete their sessions, they would receive a LHL Leadership Intern Certificate, a reference letter from me based on their volunteer work and if a future employer wants to contact a reference, I would be happy to be that person.
A few things that helped LHL thrive:
- - highlighting the principles of kindness, safety and respect
- having a partner to run the group with
- - when we offer activities, children always have the choice on whether or not to participate. Parents and siblings are free (and encouraged) to join in.
- - having a relaxed, happy atmosphere
- - most meetings have a majority of time allotted for free play
- - meetings are either on a Friday or a Tuesday afternoon. This gives us all some flexibility and some people are only able to make Tuesday meetings or Friday meetings.
- - finding locations that have both indoor and outdoor space to play
- - making a charter where the group expectations are clearly stated
- having a shared google document database where people can let each other know if they will be
- attending the week's session or not, sign out books and toys from our shared library, and share other interesting and helpful links and resources.
- - matching LHL t-shirts for all the children
I think this would be easier to do. You could start with one or two activities and see how it goes. Maybe plan a super fun halloween party or organize a potluck picnic with games.
or pushing ourselves to join the co-op....????
Or you could be more ambitious and make a children's passport (or coupon book) with different activities listed—experiments, crafting, going on a bike trip, dress up party, baking valentine cookies, dance party, etc. and/or with different outings to cool places which families could purchase for each child. Each activity and/or outing could have a specific date. You could sell the passports for a fee and then use the money to buy the necessary supplies and/or give group discounts to activities like swimming. I find that once people make a financial commitment, they are more likely to come join the activities.
Maybe this would be the easiest thing to do? You could focus on how making the travel there be fun for your child. Research simple games to play. I keep a tiny notebook with me with game ideas and we play all sorts of quiet games (rhyming words, I Spy, dice games, riddles, ...) when we travel. Sometimes when we travel by train, other children (and their grown ups) ask to join in our games, and that is always nice! We've even had parents/grandparents ask to take a photo of the game or record it so they remember it for later.
Ideally, I'm picturing having a group of nice kids who can meet to play together—like play tag, etc. regularly, plus a friend or two to play with individually at our house sometimes.
Is there some flexibility in the type of commitment required by the co-op? Maybe talk to the leaders to explore possibilities. Maybe if you're making a little booklet of games for yourself, you could ask the co-op if you could contribute such a homemade booklet to the other children as an alternative co-op contribution. The plus side of this would be that the co-op children would be learning the same games and might be more likely to play those games together at the meetings.
For us, it took almost a year of attending weekly meetings regularly for the children to really mesh with such a large group of children. This might have been because we started LHL when Gianluca and Gisele were 3 and 5 and they still needed lots of help playing peacefully with other children. Seeing the same children regularly helped them relax and feel comfortable. It took a lot of dedication and thoughtful effort on the part of the LHL parents to get most of the children to this point. I believe that all the parents that joined LHL did it with the intention of having a group of potential friends for their children to play and meet up with. I am really happy it worked out so well.
I just don't want to go overboard trying all of the above and end up over my (introverted) head.
I am an introvert myself and so is my group partner, so it can be done ;-)
I've seen mixed reviews of homeschool/unschool play groups
Maybe don't do it by yourself and be creative and flexible when things don't work. I started LHL and then 'quit' leading the group twice because it was using up too much of my energy. Actually, it wasn't so much as quitting, but more of a scaling back of my responsibilities. I still continued to come to all the meetings.
The first time I quit as leader, a good friend of mine took over some of my responsibilities to give me a break and became my partner. The second time I quit it was because making all decisions together was also too much work for me. Another stressful element was dealing with the occasional difficult or antagonistic parent. We solved the issues by closing the group to new members while our children were young and by both me and my group partner becoming paying members of the group so we could feel less responsible. We also have separate leadership roles within the group—I'm the one who coordinates and organizes and comes up with most of the ideas for the group and my group partner is the one who deals with all the financial matters, and creates and maintains our shared google documents database. This new format has been much easier for me. We've made lots of changes in two years to keep everything light and manageable for both of us and I'm sure we'll change the format again if it's not working.
Once we closed the group, if any new spaces would open up, we gave preference to parents that were a good match for the group. Relaxed, easy going parents that prioritize play and friendships over educational activities.
One of the most significant advantages of our homeschool group, Leiden Home Learners (LHL), is that Gianluca and Gisele have a group of children to hang out with during school hours. This was huge for them because school hours felt long and lonely when they were in the mood to play with other children. Before LHL I only knew two homeschooling families and if they were not available for some reason (holiday, illness, family visit, child/parent didn't feel like company, etc.), I couldn't come up with a satisfactory solution for Gianluca and Gisele if they wanted the company of other children. Since LHL started two years ago, if they feel like playing with other children, I can almost always find them some kids (most often from LHL) to play with.
I'm hoping to see a discussion which helps me think about where to spend my energy.
I've read some people indicate that kids really make friends based on their interests, not on their type of education.
Gianluca and Gisele make friends pretty easily and like hanging out with different people. I spend energy on making sure they have lots of time and space to play with their different friends. I make longer play dates, have sleepovers, share holidays, camping trips, etc. with the friends that they can play with for long periods of time with little or no friction. Friendships that help them grow strong and confident in their ability to be a good friend. Friendships where they feel 'successful' at being a good friend—being kind, considerate, happy, fun-loving. They learn a lot about how to treat another person well and how they like to be treated themselves. They learn and practice new skills when little conflicts happen on how to (mostly peacefully) resolve them.
They also have friends where there is more tension and where blow ups can happen more regularly. They love spending time with these friends too, because they have a lot of rambunctious fun with them and/or share interests with them. But the time spent together is usually more stressful for everyone. Gianluca, especially, has a difficult time with this since he often feels misunderstood, rejected, hurt, and anxious. He wants to play with those friends, but he just wishes their time playing together went different. I'm always there helping as much as I can. Over the years, I have noticed how much they are using the skills they learn with their more stable friendships to help them with the challenges of their more stressful friendships. At 7 years old, Gianluca can play with together with *all* his friends more peacefully and for longer periods of time than he could when he was 4 years old.
(Gianluca 7, Gisele 5)