Natural Life Magazine

It Takes a Community to Help Children Learn

It Takes a Community to Help Children Learn:
Creating a Community Learning Center for Homeschooling Families
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 learning center.

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.

homeschool learning centerStep 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 learning center.

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?”

Madeleine (14): “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 learning center!”

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 homeschooling 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 simpler structure.

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.

Chore coordinator – 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 not mesh.

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 people.

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.


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