Home School Co-op Ideas

As a follow-up to my home school co-ops post, here is a list of some of the group learning activities we’ve done over the years.  Some are not technically a co-op, but they still present excellent opportunities to learn together with other families.

HISTORY PARADE -Gather together a group of creative families with each family committing to creating an entry for the parade.  Each family’s entry displays what they are studying in history that year.  This could involve costumes, banners, wagon floats, perhaps even a musical piece from that period of history.  Set a date for your parade (I suggest February, to alleviate those mid-year blues.) and arrange to march through the halls of a local senior living complex  or assisted living facility(or several of them). Just parading through the halls will greatly bless the residents, but if you want to go further, have some families take responsibility for handing out notices ahead of time to the residents to guarantee a great audience.

A parade in the nursing home is a fun and unique experience which will delight the residents if you're not too noisy.

A parade in the nursing home is a fun and unique experience which will delight the residents if you’re not too noisy.

Other families can organize refreshments which you share with the residents while you visit with them or give presentations about what you are studying.

PRAIRIE PRIMER – In this wonderful year-long co-op we went through the Prairie Primer and decided what activities we wanted to do together as a group.  Each family read through the corresponding Little House book for the month and did whatever other activities out of the book they wanted to cover as a family. We met twice a month for group activities, with different families hosting each gathering and all 6 families contributing assigned duties for each meeting.  Some of the terrific things we did together included:

  • making cheese
  • non-electric night in which we had a night of entertaining activities by candle light and the punched tin lanterns the kids made at the previous activity.
  • doing a shadow theater which was really awesome
  • a prairie Christmas celebration
  • making silhouette portraits
  • making leather mocassins
  • a night with the grandparents which included square dancing and a “Farmer Boy”  banquet of recipes from the Little House Cookbook
  • a campout weekend at Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in Pepin, Wisconsin

MIDDLE AGES – This one was a two-month commitment.  Families studied the Middle Ages in whatever way they wanted, but our group gatherings included the following activities:

  • designing a family crest and making it into a banner

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    Human Chess Players

  • playing human chess and learning what the different chess pieces represented
  • building a 3-room castle complete with drawbridge out of refrigerator boxes
  • visiting a Middle Ages re-enactment
  • taking a field trip to Medieval Times
  • hosting a banquet in which the children were assigned parts to play (minstrel, jester, server, cup-bearer, juggler, etc.); we ate cornish hens, multi-grain bread, venison and other fine fare off of (pita)bread trenchers; we decorated the hall with our family crest banners, and thoroughly entertained all the grandparents as we tried to prove that yes, their grandchildren were getting plenty of social exposure and were, indeed, learning a great deal.
    Family Crest Banner

    Family Crest Banner

    Castle Building

HEALTH and NUTRITION-  One field trip included a trip to the grocery store where we were given a guided tour through the produce department and got to taste some of the more exotic fruits.  After that, we were allowed to roam the aisles on a scavenger hunt where the kids were to read labels to find items with very specific nutritional content.  Another field trip included a tour of a dentist office and some education about good oral health habits.  An activity day focused on the five senses and included crawling around in a model ear, dissecting a cow’s eye and other sensory activities.  There were also fitness tests, keeping food diaries, and a day of learning about balancing fun with work in which the kids learned to do fun things such as face painting and juggling.

YOUNG PUBLIC SPEAKING – In order to ease the (elementary aged) kids into public speaking we met monthly with a group of families to recite memorized poems and to give short speeches within assigned parameters — for instance one month it might be “How to do something,” another month, “describing my favorite place,” or “our family tradition”.

BOOK DISCUSSION GROUPS – In addition to our literature discussion groups, especially at the high school level, we would tackle the tougher subjects by going through the same books together and creating presentations, quiz questions, and other challenges for each other or just generally discussing the matter together with other students and their moms.  In this manner, we covered such topics as American government, psychology, worldviews, logic, and science labs.

"Blood and Guts" group on "Nervous System" day

“Blood and Guts” group on “Nervous System” day

BLOOD and GUTS –  That’s the name of the book we used.  In this co-op group, one of the moms (a registered nurse) taught the lessons — each month focusing on a different body system; one mom set up arrangements with a local butcher to get a pig heart, lungs, digestive system, and whatever other body parts we were studying that month “strictly for educational purposes” — we had to sign a form each month promising proper handling and disposal; another mom organized snacks for co-op days (How could we eat?); and one amazing mom agreed to host our monthly meetings in her home.  Additionally, each mom contributed a variety of experiments and activities to further expand upon that month’s particular body system.

Our plastic tarp version of a tipi

 NATIVE AMERICANS – In this two-month co-op, each family chose a different region of the country and studied the tribes that lived there.  Our group activities included

  • learning Native American games, dances and crafts
  • making costumes
  • constructing a 12-foot tipi
  • studying the various types of houses in each region
  • visiting the Indian Summer Festival
  • culminating in a night where we gathered together to share foods from, model costumes of, and present reports about our chosen region’s tribes.

WORLD TOUR –  Each family takes a turn hosting the group and chooses  a country for their family to study.  On their host day, they provide food, crafts, activities and presentations about that country, teaching what they’ve learned to the other families.  Each child gets a passport and marks off the various countries as they learn about them.

Alternatively, this can be done as a one-time event.  Rent out a gym or other large hall at a church or school and host a World Tour night.  Each family chooses a country to study.  They put together a display about that country and stand at their table ready to talk to visitors about their chosen country.  Optionally, families might provide food from that country to give out in small samples.  They are also instructed to bring stickers, a rubber stamp or some other form of representation of their chosen country with which they can mark passports.  When visitors arrive  they receive a passport with all participating countries listed.  As they “tour the world” they get each county’s sticker placed in their passport at the appropriate spot as they gather information from the kids about the country they studied.

SCIENCE FAIR –  Whether you want to run this as a co-op or class in which the students learn how to do a science fair project, or otherwise leave it up to the families to study that themselves and just organize the event, a science fair is a great way to get kids excited about science and the scientific process.  Be sure to provide judges and awards.

WILD WEST – Work together with other families to recreate the Oregon Trail, the gold rush, the Pony Express.  We went to a nearby Wild West Museum and learned all kinds of things.  The Pony Express and the Oregon Trail were two of our favorite memories.  I will write more about them in another post.

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Hopefully, I’ve inspired you to give this co-op thing a try if you are a home schooling family.  If you are not a home schooling family, perhaps I’ve given you a window into our world that explains why we are so sold on educating our children in this manner.  This is why I try to explain that you can’t compare home schooling to public or private schooling as easily as some people like to believe.  It’s just a very different approach to educating.  It’s not for everybody, but I’m so grateful we chose this route for our family and feel very blessed to have been able to share the adventure with all of the wonderful families we’ve met along the way.

If you’ve participated in home school co-ops, I’d love for you to tell us what you did and how it went in the comments below.

Home School Co-ops:  How and Why?

 Australian and Asian Animal parade at Milw. Zoo 1990

Australian and Asian Animal Parade

If you are looking for a way to break away from the monotony of textbooks and wish to add a little life to your curriculum, co-ops are the way to go!  I’m not referring to such things as enrichment classes which can serve something like 80 families and 150 students, though in a sense, they are a co-op.  What I’ll be discussing here is small co-ops of a handful of families focused on studying the same topic for a set amount of time.  When planning a co-op there are several things to be considered:  How do you go about choosing families for your co-op?  How controlling should you be?  What type of problems might you run into?  How can you choose and limit activities?  I will give you the basic model we created that has proven very successful for co-ops I have been involved in, and then go on to answer the other questions and concerns.  In another article, I will share some of the different events and activities we did as a group.

Ideally, the co-op should enhance your chosen topic without putting undo time and energy constraints on its participants.  Your co-op doesn’t have to be a year long thing.  You can plan a 1 or 2 month commitment if you want. Truthfully, I can’t co-op continuously.  At most, I can do two years in a row.  Co-ops expend a lot of creative energy and can burn you out if you don’t take occasional breaks from them.

Civil War

Civil War Co-op

We’ve been involved in a number of co-ops over the years. Some have been wonderful.  Some have added extra stress to our home school. Some were just for a social outlet. By the grace of God and the pioneering spirit of the early home school families, we managed to create a beautiful model with the first co-op we attempted.  For the most part, we have used the same basic set up for all the other co-ops we ran.  Here is the model we created:

  1. Keep it limited to about 6-8 families (You will likely need to “close” your group at some point to keep it from ineffectively growing out of control.)
  2. Choose the families carefully; you need to have similar expectations and similar commitment levels.
  3. Choose a topic to study together; let each family study the subject as they see fit at home, but focus on being prepared for upcoming co-op activities.
  4. Lay out a schedule for the semester/year appointing two families to organize the events for any given month. (It works much better to have two moms working together rather than assigning one mom to take on all the planning for any given event.) Every month a different set of moms steps up to the plate so there is not too much burden on any one family.  Alternatively, we had each mom team take two months in a row and then they were done hosting for the year.
  5. We liked to meet twice a month, once for a field trip or speaker pertaining to our topic of study and once for a group event (a themed banquet, learning new skills, an art project, each family giving a presentation, etc.).
  6.  Limit your activities.  Weed out those that are less valuable or too demanding in time, money or energy.  Even still, it is possible to incorporate several different activities into a single group activity day.
  7. While only two families are involved in the organizing for each month (Be SURE to rotate this responsibility!), ALL the families are assigned a contribution of some sort whether it’s bringing supplies, bringing food, preparing their own presentation, etc.
  8. Make a clean “end” to your co-op, thereby freeing yourself to move on and/or create a new co-op with other families (or some of the same). Things get stale if the same 6 families keep trying to carry on co-ops together year after year.
Prairie Family gets a visit from Mr. Lincoln

Pioneer Days

CHOOSING FAMILIES

The chemistry of the families involved can make or break a co-op.  Be a little exclusive here.  If you have a friend or two that you know would love to do this with you, invite them privately and let each of the 3 families invite one other family to the group.  You don’t have to advertise that you are starting a co-op.  Personally, I have a hard time saying no to anyone, but when it comes to co-ops, if you’re not willing to draw some lines, you may as well skip co-oping.  Completely open co-ops are dsestined to fail.

You have to have somewhat like-minded families for this to work.  If one family wants to be really laid back and focus on crafts and another family wants to have each child deliver a 10 page report, you’re going to have problems.  If two moms are working their bottoms off and the other 4 are sitting in the other room just chatting with one another, that’s not going to work well either.  You need families committed to participating and not just taking.  There’s nothing wrong with focusing on crafts OR research papers; just make sure the group is like-minded.

Castle Construction

Building Castles with the Middle Ages Co-op

Another question is what to do about younger siblings.  We have always allowed preschoolers to participate.  And it was an unspoken rule that parents would keep their younger children involved or otherwise involve them quietly in a corner of the room so as not to disrupt the activity or stress the hostess.  It is also important to understand the necessity of respecting the home and belongings of the host family.  Again – Keep your co-ops small and manageable.

There are other reasons for limiting the size of the group.  First of all, if you are meeting in somebody’s home, it’s unreasonable to have 30 kids show up.  Secondly, it’s important that everybody does their fair share.  If every participating family doesn’t have to carry a share of the load, you will end up with uncommitted families that will take advantage of those that are willing to put in the work.  Usually you want at least 2 families working together to “host” any given event, but if you get more than 3 or 4 families hosting, it becomes “too many hands in the pot”. Finally, you will find if you limit the number of families, it will be a more intimate group where real friendships have a chance to blossom and grow and it is unlikely that anyone will be ignored or left out.  Also, it’s less intimidating to plan and activity or make a presentation before 12 peers than it is before 30.  Big enough to share the load, small enough to avoid cliques – that’s my recommendation.

If you don’t know many families, you may have to just publicly put your feelers out there on your local home school forum or facebook group.  If that’s the case, really spell out what you are looking for – something like this:

Oregon Trail Day

Oregon Trail Re-enactment

“Fun family of upper-elementary students looking for 5-7 other families to co-op for two months on the Solar System and two more months on the Oregon Trail.  You can choose to join us for either or both studies.  We will not be following any particular curriculum.  We will have a planning meeting for each co-op to decide exactly what we want to do as a group, but other than that focus, you use whatever materials you like to study the subject.  We will meet twice a month for each co-op alternating between field trips or speakers and hands-on activities and presetnations.  You must have a student in the 3rd – 5th grade level to join.  Older and younger siblings are welcome to participate as well.  We expect all children to be kept under control and to be respectful and cooperative.  Each family will commit to helping organize one of the two events for each study.  Failure to hold up your end of the bargain may result in asking you to leave the co-op so other “cooperative” families can fill your spot.  We will limit the co-op to a maximum of 8 families.  If more families than that are interested and willing to commit, we may break into two groups.  If you are interested, please call …”

You can also put out a more general announcement such as, “Is anybody else studying The Oregon Trail or the solar system?  We might be interested in doing a few group activities together.”  Gather whoever is interested, then split into groups based on ages and/or levels of commitment.  It’s possible only one or two families end up responding and it becomes evident you won’t work well together.  If that’s the case, just graciously decline and say you’ve decided a group might not be best for you at this time.

With a little planning, a good dose of commitment, and the careful choosing of participants, co-op groups can add tremendous depth and fun to your home school experience.

Next time, I will share some of the things we’ve done together in co-ops and other ideas for group activities.

Craft Gathering for Families

We tried this idea out with our home school group as a Christmas Gathering with mostly Christmas themed activities, but you could do this any time of year with other craft/activity ideas.  It’s a great way to share talents and enjoy a multi-generational afternoon with friends.  Our Christmas Gathering, by the way, was a grand success and included about 50 families.

Ours is a 3 hour event with multiple craft/activity stations set up all around a large hall allowing children of all ages to freely move from station to station creating projects or participating in games/activities.   Naturally, we provide a snack area as well.

All participating families “fund” this event by either providing the supplies and supervision for a craft OR  by bringing 2 liters of juice, 3 dozen cookies (or equivalent amount of healthier options), AND $5 to go toward the cost of paper goods and rental or donation for use of the hall.   My goal is to have at least 20 craft/activity stations set up.  Any last minute families are expected to choose the juice, snack and cash option.

While teens enjoyed some of the activities, it is probably a better idea to include them as assistants.  They can man the food area, be in charge of or assist a craft/activity table, or assist moms with multiple children in taking their children to the various booths.  Don’t forget about the older generation either.  Invite grandparents along to teach a craft or participate with their grandchildren.

I let parents come up with their own crafts or activities, but also supplied a list of possibilities for those who were willing to host a table but were lacking ideas.
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Here is a plethora of ideas, but be sure to read all my TIPS at the end of this article as well.

CRAFT IDEAS

  • Beaded bracelets
  • Bookmarks
  • Cake pops
  • Christmas Origami
  • Christmas ornaments
  • Cookie Decorating
  • Gift jars (This one could get pretty costly though.)
  • Gift Coupon booklets.  (Coupons good for help with a chore, providing a service, guaranteeing a good attitude, etc.)
  • Graham Cracker “Gingerbread” houses.
  • Hot Cocoa in Bag (Provide a variety of additions to layer.  Use the clear, cone-shaped, decorating icing bags with curling ribbon to tie them shut.)
  • Little gift boxes made from old Christmas Cards
  • Marshmallow Corn Flake Crispy Wreaths (with red cinnamon candy “berries”)
  • Paper chain for the Christmas tree OR a count down ‘til Christmas chain (rip off a link every day)
  • Potato Print Wrapping Paper
  • Puzzle Piece Wreaths
  • Refrigerator Magnets
  • Scrapbook paper cut in triangle flags and paper-punched to string together for a wall banner.
  • Scrapbook Style Christmas Cards
  • Sock snowmen
  • Snowflake Cutting
  • Snow globes – using baby food jars

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ACTIVITY IDEAS

  • Balloon Animals
  • Christmas Jigsaw Puzzle
  • Coloring / word search table
  • Face Painting
  • Grand Prize Game
  • Guitar Accompaniment to sing Christmas Carols
  • Hand bells or xylophone  with charts to follow to play Christmas Carols
  • Kid’s’ Karaoke
  • Letters to soldiers
  • Nativity Costume Corner (just a dress up corner to act out the Christmas Story – not take home costumes)
  • Puppet Booth
  • Temporary Tattoos

TIPS Image

  • Be sure to give families at least a 2 month notice of this event to allow them time for preparation and to watch for sales for their crafting supplies.
  • It’s best to do this somewhat messy activity in a tiled rather than carpeted area.
  • I do not run this as a drop-off activity.  It is expected that every child in attendance will have an adult that is keeping an eye on them.
  • You may want to station a worker at the door to take the cash donations and keep children from leaving the area.
  • Keep the food and drink contained in a specified area.
  • Be sure to assign someone to oversee the snack area.
  • I hate for families to miss out on the fun, so I ask “food families” to register, but also allow last minute families to show up as long as they bring the required food and cash donation.
  • Set a deadline for craft families to register their craft at least a week before the event.  (Most will need more time than that to prepare anyway.)
  • If two or more families have a very similar craft idea, the 1st family to register their craft gets to do it.
  • You may want to allow 2 families to sign up to do a craft together for two reasons.  1) It allows the expense and preparation time to be shared.  2) One of the moms can keep an eye on both families’ children as they move from station to station and the other can man the booth.
  • I wouldn’t allow more than 2 families to work a craft together or you will not have enough activities to keep the children occupied.
  • I suggest craft families be prepared for about 100 kids to visit their booth.  This is based on 50 families.
  • My other suggestion for crafters is that their craft can be completed in less than 10 minutes.
  • I try to have a number of crafts for every age group and some that are fun for all ages.
  • We suggest each family bring a box or bag in which to collect all their children’s creations, but also have on hand a supply of plastic grocery bags for whoever needs them.
  • You could alternatively set up a concessions area to sell snacks and charge admission if you want to do this as a fund-raiser.  I know WE were working with large families on tight budgets so I tried to make it as economical as possible.  Know your participants.
  • Reminder for the organizer – don’t forget nametags, ice, cups, plates, napkins, plastic table covers.
  • This is a big event for a single person to organize.  Find yourself an organizing buddy.God bless your efforts.  May your event be as much fun as ours have been.