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What do kids really need to learn?

What do kids really need to learn?

Maybe it’s because it’s February. Maybe it’s my focus on being intentional and reevaluating everything right now. Whatever it is, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what my kids really need to learn in school—especially during their early elementary school years—fueled in part by articles like this one, videos like this one, and posts like this one.

Math seems like a no-brainer since they’re all learning fairly foundational stuff at this point (no theoretical algebra happening here!).

Learning to read is important.

And because I personally love language arts—and I think being able to communicate well is pretty helpful in any field—we also prioritize things like grammar, spelling, vocabulary and writing during the “Essential” years (4th-6th grade).

Beyond that…well, I’m just not convinced that there is anything they really need to learn. Because here’s the thing: I loved school, yet the amount of history, geography and science I retained from my early elementary years is pretty small. The things I do remember were the things I enjoyed learning about and took ownership of. Things like Magellan’s trip around the world and the classification of animals.

At the same time, I do believe in the value of memory work—memorizing pegs like dates, names, places, and key facts while their minds are ripe for memorization. My hope—and what we’ve seen happen again and again—is that as they get excited about various topics, they naturally fit them into the framework of their memory work. Things like, “Mom! Did you know Louisa May Alcott was treated with mercury for typhoid fever? Mercury is an element on the periodic table, and it’s toxic, so the medicine made some people more sick.” {Always with lots of shouting and virtual exclamation points because they get so excited about those connections!}

But beyond that memory work, and providing lots and lots and lots of books that I hope will capture there attention, I’m less worried about unit studies on specific topics. We haven’t made models of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. We haven’t traced Lewis & Clark’s journey across the United States. We haven’t colored and assembled a human body.

In fact, we’ve dropped even more subject areas since my mid-year curriculum update. For example, I believe in the importance of Latin, and I enjoyed studying it in junior high, but my kids are not into it at this point, which means doing it is sucking their enthusiasm from all of their schoolwork. I just don’t think the benefits are enough to justify that cost. While we’ll approach Latin again later, we’ve dropped it for now.

We’ve also dropped handwriting and copywork for the older girls since I’ve seen that they’ll naturally practice those things—in letters to friends, while collecting facts on their current favorite subject, etc.—when they’re not assigned as part of their schoolwork.

On the other hand, we’ve never done a formal science curriculum—at least not for very long—but since our oldest is showing a lot of interest in chemistry and our middle girls are obsessed with animals, we’ve decided to add the Apologia chemistry and zoology books to their schoolwork. Honestly, our kids pick up enough science through their own curiosity, reading, and exploring the world that I’m not too worried about formally studying it at this point. But because they’re interested, it seems like a good time to dive deeper with the fun activities that Apologia offers on those topics.

It’s not that I’m against unit studies or opposed to formal academics. But as a classical unschooler (whatever that really means!), I’m trying to find that balance…how do I provide a solid foundation that teaches them how to learn and gives them a strong academic education so that they can pursue college or career opportunities in the future, but still leave them plenty of time to play, explore, be bored, pursue their own interests, and make their own discoveries?

I’m confident in our decisions, but I don’t have all of the answers or know exactly how this is going to play out in the future. So for now I’m just following my gut.

How do you decide what your kids really need to learn? Has your answer to that question changed over time?