When someone first envisions homeschooling, the first thought is often a family replicating the school environment at home. Lessons start promptly at 8:30am, with children working studiously around the kitchen table until a break for lunch at noon. After the lunch break, lessons continue until 2:30pm. Then the homeschool day is over. But, for a large and growing number of families, homeschooling looks absolutely nothing like this. For example, homeschooling families who identify as unschoolers make no distinction between living and learning. Children learn from the day they are born. You can’t stop them. Other homeschooling families believe in incorporating some structured academic activities into their days and weeks. Even so, these families tend to have a lot of free time to play, explore, and go on adventures compared to families with children in traditional schools. Homeschoolers are often asked how they have time to do everything. Where does all their time come from? Let’s compare the amount of structured learning taking place during the school year with the time it takes for homeschoolers to accomplish the same thing.
How much time is spent on formal instruction in schools?
Our local public school district has 181 school days per year. There are also two scheduled half days, bringing the total full school days to 180.
The district also has 14 days of scheduled standardized testing, with each individual student spending no more than 5 days on testing. Let’s assume that our hypothetical school students will spend 5 days in testing and not have their education disrupted by testing on the other days. That brings the number of school days to 175.
Based on my personal experience attending school, I will also subtract the first day of school, the two days before winter break and spring break, and the entire last week of school, as those days are usually spent watching movies, having class parties, and managing a large group of children who are some combination of giddy, exhausted, and hopped up on sugar. That brings us to 165 days per year.
What happens in schools each day?
Let’s get down to the daily level. Our elementary schools begin at 7:45am and end at 2:50pm, which makes the day 7 hours and 5 minutes long. Students get half an hour for lunch and half an hour for recess. That leaves 6 hours and 5 minutes of instruction. Nothing gets done in the last 5 minutes of the day, so let’s call it an even 6 hours.
In our local elementary school’s first grade classrooms, there are five blocks of morning lessons in the four hours before lunch. Subtract 10 minutes for the beginning of the first lesson and transitions between lessons, which includes explaining instructions to a group of 20+ students, handing out supplies, and getting everyone organized. That brings us down to 5 hours and 10 minutes.
After lunch there is another block of academics. We can subtract another 10 minutes for getting organized again after recess, bringing us down to 5 total hours per day.
Next, they have 50 minutes of “specials,” which is usually art, physical education (P.E.), or library time. We already spend several hours at the library each week, so I can subtract that time. My kids also spend at least an hour a day doing art projects and at least another hour or more running around outside, so I’m going to subtract those minutes. That takes us to 4 hours and 10 minutes a day.
The final 20 minutes of the school day are read aloud time. We spend far more than 20 minutes reading together each day, so we can subtract that too. We’ve arrived at a total of 3 hours and 50 minutes of formal academic instruction each day.
How much total instruction takes place in school?
To sum up the calculations so far, kids in our local school system are spending 165 days per year engaging in 3 hours and 50 minutes of formal academic instruction. That’s 632.5 hours of instruction per year. We can lop off a few additional hours for morning announcements, school picture day, dealing with crowd management, that half hour lecture every teacher gives the class at some point when they are losing their minds (who can blame them?), the Halloween party, passing out the Valentine’s Day cards, pizza parties for “good behavior,” celebrating birthdays, and so on. If all those things together take an average of one hour per week, in a 36-week school year, that’s 36 more hours gone, bringing the total instruction time to 596.5 hours.
For homeschoolers who have a relaxed lifestyle, the weekend/weekday distinction is not as important as it is for schooling kids. There is no stressful week to recover from. There is no need to catch up on sleep or finally get some time in nature. These things happen throughout the week. When the living and learning divide isn’t so stark, formal lessons can happen throughout the week without much stress. But, even homeschoolers need a break sometimes. Suppose a homeschooling family does a little schoolwork each day of the week, but takes one month off each year without any formal lessons. That leaves 335 out of 365 days.
Fitting 596.5 hours of instruction into 335 days requires 1.78 hours of formal lessons per day. That’s about 1 hour and 47 minutes every day, with an entire month of vacation each year. Let me say that again. ONE HOUR AND 47 MINUTES. You could do an hour in the morning and another hour in the evening. Or double up with 3.5 hours one day and take the next day off.
To replicate the instruction taking place in the school system, you can homeschool in one hour and 47 minutes per day.
Homeschooling is also more efficient.
Many homeschooling families take this a step further, noting that some of the instruction that happens in school is not particularly efficient. For example, you can spend hours upon hours teaching a young child what a noun or a verb is, with no guarantee that the information will stick, or you could tell them once a few years later when they are interested, and they will remember it forever. It’s also the case that many of the current instructional practices are not empirically validated. For example, lists of spelling words organized by content area vocabulary tend to have only temporary effects. Translation: learning words for spelling tests usually goes in one ear and out the other. On top of that, students who are either ahead of or behind the rest of the class in any given subject will not get much out of some of the lessons in school. Homeschooling allows you to target the learning to YOUR children’s abilities, which makes for much more effective learning.
With the above scenario in mind, you can easily lop off another hour and bring your homeschooling lessons down to about 45 minutes a day. Homeschoolers can spend their free hours learning to play musical instruments, playing sports, cooking, volunteering in the community, reading, watching documentaries, learning a foreign language, spending time with friends and relatives, traveling, taking lessons, or simply relaxing.
With all those opportunities out there and waiting, it’s hard finding the time to go to school.
Special thanks to Monkey Mum Blog for the inspiration.
Nina Palmo is a Nordic-born, Midwestern-raised, Texas denizen. She teaches sociology at a major university and blogs about attachment parenting, unschooling, alternative schooling, and intentional living at Pocketful of Pebbles. She lives in the Austin, Texas area with her husband and two daughters.