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Bring Learning to Life with Hands-on Homeschooling: An Interview with Kris Bales

August 15–19, 2016   |   Vol. 128, Week 1

Is your child tired of dry history textbooks and boring math lessons? Then you won’t want to miss this week’s Homeschool Heartbeat as our guest Kris Bales chats with host Mike Smith about how to make learning come alive for your kids.

“The more senses you can engage, the more the activity becomes cemented in their memory.”—Kris Bales

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Is your child tired of dry history textbooks and boring math lessons? Then you won’t want to miss this week’s Homeschool Heartbeat as our guest Kris Bales chats with host Mike Smith about how hands-on homeschooling can help you make learning come alive for your kids.

Mike Smith: I’m joined today by Kris Bales. She’s a homeschooling mother of three, and the creator of the blog Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers. Kris, welcome to the program!

Kris Bales: Hi Mike, thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Be a learning buddy [0:32]

Mike: Well I’m glad for that, Kris, because I want you to tell us a little bit about yourself first. How did you get involved in homeschooling?

Kris: Well, I had a very good friend who homeschooled her children, so I’d been intrigued by the idea for years. But my oldest really wanted to go to “big school,” and my husband and I weren’t completely sold on homeschooling. So when my daughter turned 5, off to big school she went.

And by the end of first grade, I think we were all ready to give homeschooling a try. She was struggling academically, clearly needing more one-on-one instruction and bringing home three and four hours of homework each night. So we decided to try homeschooling for a year. By mid-year it was clear homeschooling was exactly what my daughter needed and was a good fit for our entire family. That was back in 2002, and we’ve been homeschooling ever since.

Mike: Well, Kris, let me ask you something. Of all the things about homeschooling, if you could center it on one point, what has been the most beneficial part of homeschooling to your family?

Kris: Well, I think my absolute favorite thing about homeschooling is learning alongside my kids and being able to really spend some time with them. As far as my own education, I don’t think you realize how much you’ve forgotten or how much you never learned until you start teaching your own children. And I usually learn as much as they do. Lately, I’ve discovered that Algebra wasn’t nearly as bad as I remember it most of the time.

Mike: Good. That’s helpful, because I didn’t do that well in high school myself.

Kris: I did not either.

Bake a cake [1:57]

Mike: Kris, one thing you talk about on your blog is the value of hands-on homeschooling. Can you explain why it’s so important for kids to touch, see, hear, and smell the things that they’re learning about, especially when they’re very young?

Kris: Well, I think kids learn more when they’re fully and actively engaged in what they’re learning. And sensory input is a huge part of that. Hands-on activities are fun, so kids are focused and their minds aren’t wandering. Plus, the more senses you can engage, the more the activity becomes cemented in their memory. So hands-on activities make facts relatable. That means that after the activity, such as the cell cake we made a few years ago, when a child is trying to recall the facts, they have those touch points for them that make it easier to recall.  

Mike: Well, does homeschooling enable you in this process of hands-on learning? 

Kris: Absolutely. Probably one of the biggest ways that homeschooling makes that easier is the practical fact [that] our class size is smaller. That’s more conducive to hands-on learning and it’s just really a simple matter of crowd control. And because school and life are so entwined we have the time and the means to easily incorporate hands-on learning. The kitchen is readily available for activities involving cooking, we can easily take the messy activities outside, plus we can zero in on what sparks our kid’s interests.

And it’s easy to capitalize on the everyday learning moment. If dad is working on the car the kids can go out to the garage and help and learn. Even a simple trip to the grocery store, as much as we joke about that becoming a field trip—it really can become an educational opportunity.

Make it a game [3:29]

Mike: Kris, how can parents incorporate the idea of hands-on homeschooling into regular academic subjects?

Kris: Well, I think a lot of parents make the mistake of thinking they have to be super crafty or turn every learning moment into a hands-on activity, but that’s not true. I suggest that parents look for opportunities that suit their family’s personality. So if you’re studying a country, consider making an edible map or preparing a meal. Consider building models or trying experiments for science projects. You can take a field trip related to your topic of study. Find an art project or put on a play to show what you’ve learned in history. 

Mike: Well, let me ask you this: What are your children’s favorite hands-on school activities?

Kris: Our absolute favorites, and probably mine especially, are edible projects or games. Edible projects are great because you don’t have to figure out where to store the finished project. One of our favorites that we did recently was a model of the cell that we made from cake and candy. We’ve also done edible maps from cookie dough, and of course we’ve made a variety of recipes that relate to our topic of study.

I also love games. When the kids were little we used to play a fishing game to practice sight words. We just attached a magnet to a dowel rod with string, and put paper clips on index cards that had the sight words written on them. Whenever the kids caught a fish, they had to read that sight word to keep the card. We’ve also really enjoyed bingo—it’s a very versatile game for all ages. We’ve used it to practice math facts, sight words, vocabulary terms, letter recognition—just all sorts of things. 

Mike: Well you know the good thing about bingo is you can actually win some money too, can’t you?

Kris: I didn’t win any money, but they probably won candy.

Mike: Well, that’s great. Those are really great ideas, Kris.

Limitless learning [5:08]

Mike: This time of year is perfect for exploring the wonderful world of outdoors. Now, what are some of the ideas and activities that you have used to help your children learn about and experience the natural world?

Kris: Well, I’ve got to be completely honest and confess that we’re not huge fans of the great outdoors, and that is probably because it stays so hot for so long here in the South. However, when the kids were younger, we really got into nature study and enjoyed it much more than I thought we would. We live in a subdivision, so there really wasn’t much to capture our interest in our literal backyard. So we joined a nature preserve. That was perfect for us because there were trails and creeks to explore, and a wealth of trees, insects, birds, and wildlife. So, I had to make sure we were always ready to go at a moment’s notice because we would easily talk ourselves out of it if I wasn’t. So, we kept a nature study backpack in our car. It had sketch pads, a well-stocked pencil box for each of us, along with some kid-friendly field guides, binoculars, and magnifying glasses.

A huge source of inspiration for me was the Handbook of Nature Study blog because it hosted a weekly challenge to encourage families to get out in nature. It was broken down into easy to manage ideas, even for a nature novice like me. Even though the weekly challenges aren’t still being posted, all of the old ones are still there and easily accessible.

Another suggestion is just to be aware of your surroundings and capitalize on your kid’s interests. We love to watch birds on our feeders. I’ve got a son who’s really into constellations. So if you’ve got a kid that loves the stars, get outside and study them. If you have one who likes the idea of treasure hunts, try geocaching. I think, as with just about any other aspect of homeschooling, getting your kids excited about the world around them is often just a matter of paying attention and capitalizing on their interests.

More than a field trip [6:48]

Mike: Kris, hands-on homeschooling isn’t just for younger students. Do you have any fun and maybe unorthodox field trip ideas for high school students?

Kris: Yes, absolutely! Field trips definitely aren’t just for younger students. The great thing about teens is that they have a longer attention span and they’re often able to go on field trips that younger kids can’t do due to the safety restrictions. Plus they often have more adult interests so their field trips are interesting to their parents as well. Some ideas include going to the symphony performances, living history museums, plays, auto manufacturing plants, food processing plants, even court rooms, space centers. Also with teens you may want to consider extended field trips such as traveling to historic locations out of state or even, if your family can manage it, going to foreign countries. 

Mike: Well, Kris, do you have any tips for parents that might want to get more seriously involved in this with their older students? In other words, really get into it?

Kris: Absolutely. I once heard someone say that the teen years are the perfect time to explore possible career paths. So that’s a great thing to pull in with field trips and hands-on learning with teens.

I like to let my kids explore their interests as much as possible, as much as our finances will allow, while they’re still at home and don’t have a lot of adult responsibilities. I suggest looking for opportunities within your community, such as Community Theater or classes. Local business often offer classes such as art, cake decorating, sewing, or photography. And there are probably many opportunities from private instruction for things like music and dance. Check your local community college online or on campus for adult education classes because these are typically open to the community and are usually fairly reasonably priced. Ask around within your local homeschooling community. That’s one area I think where apprenticeships are still around if you just ask around. Other homeschooling parents are often willing to share their areas of expertise with homeschool teens. We had a dad who taught a high school level drafting class, and another took my son to a local forge and taught him blacksmithing skills. So, be sure definitely to ask around.

Mike: Well, Kris, you brought up the issue of career paths, so my question to you is, as it relates to your children: Did you help them choose? You’ve got a 21-year-old and you’ve got others coming up. Did you help them choose a career path or look toward a career path?

Kris: Yes, definitely. My daughter who’s graduated is really artistic and has been very interested in theatrical make-up and hairstyling. So we really encouraged her to consider cosmetology school starting out, because we thought that’s a trade that she can learn that she can fall back on no matter where she goes. She can always find work in the cosmetology field while she pursues her other interests. It kind of falls in line with the direction that she wants to go.

Mike: Well, Kris, it’s been such a pleasure having you on the show this week. Thank you for joining us and sharing some great tips and ideas for hands-on homeschooling. Until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Kris BalesPhoto of Kris

Kris Bales is the author of the popular homeschooling blog Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers, and is the Homeschooling Expert at About.com. She and her husband of 25 years are the parents of a 21-year-old homeschool graduate and two high school students, ages 14 and 16.

Kris has homeschooled her children since 2002. Residing in the southeastern United States, Kris claims a pretty serious addiction to sweet tea and Words with Friends. She also seems intent on becoming the crazy cat lady long before she’s old and alone.

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