It Takes a Community to Help Children Learn:
Creating a Community Learning Center for Homeschooling
by Marilyn Firth, Mona
Sobkowich, Karen Ridd
Envision this: It is a bright fall day and, as you drive up to a
beautiful old church in the downtown part of town, your children call out to
friends playing on the grass. You pull in and they leap out of the car,
gathering board games, snacks and project materials, and soon join their friends
for an outdoors game. Soon, everyone gathers inside for a community opening and
programs begin. On offer this week are sculpture, electricity, baking and
clay-animation. Opportunities abound for self-directed interests: drawing,
reading club, board games. It is the beginning of another day at your community
There are many models for learning centers, but in my
experience, they are dynamic places for life learning families to gather weekly
to share learning and social opportunities. Rather than a drop-in, a community
learning center is a cooperative community of families who gather together
weekly for programs, discussion and games, field trips, science fun and music.
Children learn with other children of all ages, led by parents in the group.
Sometimes, children lead programs, patiently showing others how to make chain
maille or design a clay-animation.
I have enjoyed helping create two such learning centers,
one in Kitchener, Ontario and the second in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Over the
years, I and the others have organized many enjoyable programs at those
learning centers, including electricity, bridge design, rocket science,
drawing, painting and sculpture, slime science, tie-dying, history
fairs, baking and candy-making, French and Spanish and many more. They
involve the things that real learning is made of: interest, opportunity,
fun and sharing.
There is a recipe for starting a learning center and
another recipe for running one. These two go hand-in-hand, of course,
and one is not complete without the other. The path is not always
smooth. People being people, there will be conflicts that need to be
resolved and occasions when people will struggle to find their needs
met. But there are also many great moments, in a place where the goal is
to provide our families with wonderful learning opportunities and a
strong, positive community model. So here are some basics steps required
to create such a place, followed by some suggestions that will ease your
way in running one.
Step One: You and a friend have decided that you
would like to start a learning center in your community. Take some
time to think about your goals. A learning centre can be a place
that allows much freedom or it can be scheduled in a more
school-like fashion. Try to determine what level of organization and
scheduling makes you comfortable. Do you want a place where children
can meet, play and go to stations for crafts and games? Or do you
prefer something more scheduled, with classes at specific times? Do
you want to meet for a full day or half a day? Allow yourself to
imagine a day and use that as your starting point.
Step Two: Reach out within your community to find
like-minded parents who will want to work with you. The word
“like-minded” is important here, because it is difficult to create a
learning center among families with very divergent homeschooling
styles. If you are an unschooler and another parent is strongly
schedule and curriculum driven, you may quickly find that you cannot
come to agreement on how a learning center should look and run.
Describe the day you imagined and find others with similar dreams.
Our original visioning group in Kitchener consisted of seven
members. Of those, for various reasons, only four ended up using the
What the Children Say
Daniel (10): “I like that you can get the choice of what you
want to do. Chess Club was different from the learning
center because you couldn’t choose what you wanted to do.
But at the learning center you can do chess or something
else. I also liked the egg drop because I like to build and
it was fun trying to find the stuff to build something soft
so the egg wouldn’t break. You get to do lots of things with
a whole group of your friends. That’s one of the best things
about the learning center.”
Aaryn (11): “I liked the animal presentations and I liked
that time we all brought food from around the world.
Sometimes I feel like I am up for more of a challenge and I
don’t want to be around people when I am working. I like my
friends and what we do at the learning center, but that
concentration stuff is hard for me in big groups. Everyone
is nice at the learning center. Sometimes the kids get on my
nerves but that’s normal, right?”
“The Learning Centre is definitely a good
thing for homeschoolers. It’s good that we get to say what
we want to learn and the parents will get that to happen.
It’s nice that we get to teach, too! My favorite things are
the fact that it is regular, that we see friends and
everyone brings their favorite snacks and we all get to try
them! It’s also great to have enough people together that we
can have interesting people come in, like the person from
the Recycling Council or the Organic Foods group. I like
that it is not sorted by age and anyone who wants to try
something gets to do it. I know that in schools people are
sorted by age and ability, not by interest – but not at the
Ursula (10): “It was neat being around all these
homeschooled kids since lots of my friends go to school. I
especially liked the “sleep over” where we all got in our
PJs and watched a funny silent movie – and I loved the egg
drop out the church window. I doubt that school kids get to
throw eggs out of windows! Picking up garbage on Earth Day
was cool and so was all of us going to the beach. The worst
thing about the Learning Centre is the noise! It is really
loud and can get really hot in there. I also like the circle
time: We all sit around and get to talk. I like to talk so
it works for me!”
Hannah (11): “What I really enjoy about the Learning Centre
is the variety of different things we learn and do that we
normally wouldn’t do, like claymation. We were able to bring
the clay to life by moving it by small inches and taking
many pictures. I also really enjoy seeing my friends every
week and having time to talk with them about things.”
Olivia (3): “I like to play with the girls and I like the
play structure and I like snack time.”
compiled by Karen Ridd
Step Three (optional): In Kitchener, we sent out a
survey to our home- schooling community to determine interest and to
understand what people would look for in a learning center: Should
we run one day or two; is outside play important; what kinds of
programs should we run; how much can each family afford to pay each
week? In Winnipeg, a group of 12 families quickly came together and
they all knew each other well enough to begin without this step.
Step Four: Finding a space. On the material side of
things, this may be your most challenging step. You need a space
that is large enough to accommodate a number of families but that is
also inexpensive. Some of the elements we considered essential were
a large kitchen, separate rooms so that more than one program could
run at once, a large space in which the whole community could
gather, some outside play space. We dreamed of a place with a gym
but never found one.
Renting a space directly leads to cash flow. Since
most homeschooling families are single income, keeping the cost as
low as possible is essential. Seek out churches and community
centers as your most likely possibilities. In five years of being
involved with learning centers, we have never paid more than $5 per
week per family, and that money covered both the cost of space
rental and materials for all programs.
Step Five: You have a group of families, you have an
idea of the structure and you have a space you can afford. Now you
must determine how you will run your center and what kind of
governance you will require. In Kitchener, we initially attempted a
complex structure that involved various levels of governance.
Complicated governance requires frequent meetings,
consistent communication and good organization. If you have a leader
and a motivated group who love to do this sort of work, all is well.
But for many busy homeschooling families, a complicated system takes
time and energy that is just not available. We quickly shifted to a
In the week-to-week running of the center, we
consider these roles essential, to be filled by volunteer parents:
Co-ordinator – this person tracks the big picture of
the programs running at the center and outlines the daily structure.
If you decide that each family must commit to running two four-week
series of programs each year, then they will provide this person
with their plans so that a schedule can be developed. Even if you
choose a more relaxed “stations” structure, families will need to
bring ideas and materials.
Facilitator – this person handles the little
details, like waiting lists, waivers, contact lists, communications.
Treasurer – tracks cash flow.
– when you rent a space for a
little money, it is always wise to leave it cleaner than when you
arrived as a token of appreciation. We created a chore chart to make
sure that all the cleanup details were taken care of and that no one
was left at the end of the day with a lot of small chores that added
up to a big job.
Hand in hand with running the learning center are
some simple tenets we felt were just not negotiable:
The center is not a drop-in. In committing to
regular attendance, members of the community meet weekly, and
families get to know and appreciate one another in ways that
occasional meetings cannot encourage. In both Kitchener and
Winnipeg, members were delighted to discover that as the learning
center grew, so did a very distinct and supportive community group.
Commitment to the group is essential for this to take place.
The center functions as a cooperative. This means
that every family assists in running it. All parents are expected to
attend meetings, run programs and ensure space is kept clean and
orderly. Every family signs an agreement at the beginning of the
year stating that they understand their commitment.
Each learning center day will begin and end with a
gathering of the whole community, and families commit to staying for
the whole day. At our center, we meet for an opening and closing
circle, lead by a different family each week.
Know that there will be some conflict and that it
can be resolved. It’s important to keep lines of communication open,
and to meet regularly to air opinions. It is equally important to
understand that the learning center will not be the right place for
every family. Some members will join, find your structure either too
tight or too loose for their style, and leave. Accept that this
choice simply reflects that their learning style and the center do
by Marilyn Firth
Catching the Community Learning Center Tidal Wave
My journey as a homeschooler has been full of many rich and
wonderful experiences and as well, many gut wrenching, soul
searching and difficult times! As one of my friends put it so well,
homeschooling is really more like riding a wave that sometimes goes
up and down gently, other times crests beautifully and then at other
times crashes! We have often talked about riding the tidal wave of a
learning experience as being a great way to describe to others how
we do this home school stuff! I can now appreciate all the waves in
my homeschooling experience and how they have brought me to a
community-minded learning center.
In 2002, we decided to homeschool our little Aaryn despite having
him enrolled in a wonderful private school for kindergarten.
Kindergarten was very difficult for him; he had a hard time
concentrating, attending to the task at hand and making the transfer
of attachment to the Kindergarten teacher. I knew he was a very
bright and creative boy, with a kind heart and great communication
skills, but I could also see that these attributes were not serving
him well in this environment. His joyful inquisitive spirit was
beginning to change. He cried almost daily before and/or after
school for one agonizing year. This was such a frustrating time
because we just could not find solutions to all this, despite all
the support I had from my dearest friends. Although I knew very
little about homeschooling, I was intrigued by the idea of learning
about the world around us and using ‘The world as our school’
approach. I was anxious to get back to our old way of learning and
knew deep down that this was the more natural way to educate little
So we officially started homeschooling five years ago with great
enthusiasm. My little boy and I created bridges out of mounds of
toothpicks, we explored the architecture of our city, we purchased
countless basic skills workbooks (including a curriculum that we
have yet to open), we visited any farm that would have us and
attended every homeschool field trip humanly possible, of which
Winnipeg has many. Attending these trips was where I first got
connected with the homeschooling community. I met countless
wonderful families and met many for tea and play dates. But
something was still amiss that I could not put my finger on.
After three years of this and two more children I was exhausted
and needed a more balanced rhythm and sense of community. Although I
loved the field trips, they did not give the kids or me the space or
consistency to develop deep and lasting relationships, much less to
exercise ourselves creatively in a group. Now that I had a little
more experience as a homeschooler, I was feeling like digging deeper
roots and connecting more regularly with like-minded families to
create a more community-minded homeschooling approach.
For our next wave of experience, we joined a chess and games day
club. We really loved the kids and moms and noticed a couple of
different needs could be filled with a regularly attended group. One
important need was to gain much needed support and community for our
children. It also appeased the minds of family members who were on
the fence regarding homeschooling. Finally, I really wanted my kids
to develop the kind of long-term relationships with other
homeschoolers that can only be developed by spending regular time
together. Something magical started to happen with these two groups:
for the first time I felt I was with “my people,” people who were
like-minded, at ease, creative and wanting to enter into community
and friendship. Unfortunately, as with the natural rhythm of all
things, these groups were coming to an end and I was filled with a
great sadness and a strong desire to create something new.
As I started to talk to others about this need I had for a
community-based homeschooling approach I found many people who were
already on this journey. Marilyn Firth, who had headed up a learning
centre in Kitchener, was new to Winnipeg and eager to begin another
center. I was so excited about the possibilities of such a group,
and we quickly had our first meeting of six families. Everything
fell into place quickly. One mom knew of a church where we could
meet, another mom started a web page for our group to gather
on-line, yet another started gathering ideas for what we would do at
our newly created Winnipeg Learning Center.
Today, the Learning Centre is a place where I can celebrate
homeschooling out loud, a place to be creative, a place to share
science, art, friendship, resources and give and receive support. It
has given me the sense of community that I have been looking for. I
have developed friendships with like-minded homeschoolers in my
community and with those who are committed to the work involved to
develop this. I feel like I have taken my next step towards
developing those deep and strong roots in my homeschooling
experience. The Learning Centre is not a ‘one day a week’ event – it
has profoundly affected my entire experience of homeschooling. I am
grateful to all my friends at the Winnipeg Learning Centre for
sharing their wisdom, insights and creativity as we journey together
on the next homeschooling wave!!
by Mona Sobkowich
Marilyn Firth and her partner Bruce have enjoyed life-learning
with their three children, Noel, Liam and Graeme, since 1993. A few years ago, they
changed careers to become market-gardeners. Mona Sobkowich is a community
minded, organic loving, stay-at-home mother of three energetic kids.
Karen Ridd is an activist, educator, retired clown, and delighted unschooler who appreciates her children for tossing her the biggest growth
curve in her life.