It Takes a Village: It Takes a Village: How Co-Ops Can Take the Edge off Homeschooling
The first homeschool co-op I was ever part of was so small that we didn’t even call it a co-op. At the time, my oldest son was 4 1/2 years old, and for a variety of reasons, my husband and I had recently made the decision to pull him out of his brick and mortar pre-K class to attempt homeschooling. I was also toting my second son, who was 3, and my third son, a toddler whom other co-op kids had fondly nicknamed “giant baby.” The couple of mom friends I met up with each week had children in the same age range and none of us were a hundred percent certain that homeschooling would be the best path for our families. But there we were, meeting up each week, playing group games and making crafts, doing the best we knew how to teach and raise our kids together.
Privately we called the group Mini Mu’mins (Mini Believers) and while our focus was on teaching our kids, I always felt like we benefitted immensely from one another’s company, support, examples, and sincere advice. Eventually, families moved, and that first co-op came to an end, but it will always be dear to my heart, and the moms and I keep in touch. Since then, I’ve tried my best to keep co-ops an integral part of our homeschooling journey, not just for the benefit of the kids, but for my own benefit.
Benefits of Joining a Homeschool Co-Op
1. Being Part of a Community
Homeschooling can be isolating when you try to do it all on your own. Joining a co-op can provide a much-needed sense of community for both parents and children. By definition, a co-op is a group of families coming together to share resources, help in the planning and execution of classes, outings, and events, spreading out the load so that everyone’s plate gets a little lighter. It’s essentially a micro-community, a village, formed with others who share your values, providing a regular outlet for social, emotional, and educational support.
Being part of a co-op also introduces your child/ren to other children, normalizing the homeschool experience so they don’t feel left out for “not being in school.” I’ve seen first-hand how children transitioning from traditional school to homeschool have formed wonderful friendships with other co-op kids who went through similar transitions. They connect deeply through shared experiences and struggles, and gain confidence together as they progress through their homeschooling journey.
2. Child-led Learning
Allowing children to have some authority over what they study can fuel passionate learning. Many co-ops allow their students to have a say in the topics and classes that get covered. Some co-ops allow students to enroll based on a selection of available courses, like choosing classes for college. Other co-ops, like the one we currently manage, Wildflower Homeschool Collective, even allow students to pursue projects and passions independently, helping them learn to define and work toward their own goals.
Opportunities like this not only help children learn more about the things they’re passionate about, but also allow them to take charge of their learning experience. When my children’s friends ask them to describe their co-op experience, they often answer, “It’s kind of like mini-school, but we get to have a lot more fun and do things that we like to do.”
3. Exposure to Topics Not Covered at Home
Co-ops provide an excellent opportunity for children to pursue new ideas and topics they may not get at home. Not focused on history this year? Not a problem! Sami’s mom at co-op loves world history and is willing to teach a course. Your kid loves biology, but you hate it? No worries! Co-op is covering anatomy and dissections for the next six weeks. Suzie wants to bake every week but there’s not enough space at home. The co-op kitchen has two ovens and space for 6! From academics to life skills, handicrafts, arts, sports, and more, a co-op can provide students a wide variety of conceptual to hands-on exploration.
Parents can navigate through all the learning experiences with their kids and see first-hand which ideas are simply fleeting curiosities or which ignite a real passion in their child. They are also able to enjoy these activities at a fraction of the price of traditional boxed curricula or individual classes for the same subject.
4. Small Group Learning
Many of the co-ops I have been part of separate students into small working groups. Depending on the co-op’s organizational approach, these groups could be separated by age, interest, or ability. Regardless, the small group dynamic provides an excellent opportunity for children to learn in ways different to how they approach learning at home. These settings help homeschooled children cultivate important skills like cooperation, considering others’ perspectives, building off others’ ideas, and more.
5. Bonding with Other Adults
When children are young, they enjoy spending all their time with their parents. As they get older, they begin to crave more opportunities for learning from someone other than mom and dad. Co-ops provide the perfect opportunity for them to learn from, and build bonds with, other adults.
The rotation of parents pitching in to teach, plan activities, and make things happen for your child give them a steady stream of trusted adults, who aren’t you, who they can look to for knowledge and answers to their questions. Those same trusted adults can also share wonderful insights about your child and parts of their behavior or character you may not notice.
Your kids won’t be the only ones learning! Coming together in a co-op gives participating parents ample time to hear different perspectives, ask questions, and learn from one another. Some of the best curricula, practices, and routines I have implemented originated as recommendations from other homeschooling co-op parents. Spending this time with others who have been in your shoes, who have tried, failed and tried again, just like you, can be vital.
Things to Consider Before Joining a Homeschool Co-Op
As wonderful as co-ops can be, sometimes they can also not be a good fit for your family. Before you take the plunge with any co-op, consider the following:
1. Intentions and Expectations for Yourself and Your Children
Ask yourself: What are your intentions with wanting to join a co-op? What do you expect to get from it? What can you reasonably contribute? There are no right or wrong answers; but your answers can help steer you away from co-ops that do not fit your criteria, so you can easily find the one that is right for your family.
2. Values and Approach
A major question you will want to ask yourself is this: Does this co-op meet my family’s values and needs?
Co-ops vary in their values and approaches. Some co-ops are classical and teach “by the book,” while others are akin to unschooling. Some are faith-based and insist upon written declarations of a member’s beliefs while others are completely secular. Some focus on only a couple of areas of study while others mix in learning from all subjects. Some co-ops are equipped to deal with neuro diverse learners and others are not.
Know your values. Know your children. Know your needs and never commit to a co-op you think will not be able to accommodate and fulfill them.
3. Structure and Organization
A co-op is only as good as the effort the families put into it. I wouldn’t recommend signing on to any co-op that is not well organized, unless you are capable and willing to take on the task of turning it around. It doesn’t have to be strictly organized, but everyone should be able to work well together so things flow smoothly, and the children have an engaging and beneficial experience.
Ask about structure and look for signs of organization. Is important information being communicated in a clear and timely fashion? Are adequate resources being used for the benefit of the children’s learning or do lessons and materials seem as though they are thrown together haphazardly? Do children have the space, tools, and support they need? Is the workload being evenly distributed or does it mostly fall on a dedicated few? Are disagreements and disputes being promptly addressed and resolved in a respectful manner?
It may seem that these questions are only “behind the scenes” issues, but kids sense when the environment around them is not stable and it can affect their experience.
Homeschool co-ops usually require varying levels of commitment. Before you dive in, you want to make sure the commitments are something that you and your family can easily manage. The first commitment is usually a financial one. Ask well in advance how much enrollment fees are per child or per family before you join. Also ask about possible additional costs such as class materials and trips.
Another commitment is time. Does the distance, day(s), schedule, and frequency of the co-op work for your family? Is your child required to have near perfect attendance? — (Which means you may not be able to go on vacation when you want.) Does enrolling require a full year’s commitment or are you free to attend on a per session or per class basis? Co-ops that require a lower overall time commitment are usually more flexible for families. On the other hand, co-ops with a longer time commitment could mean more opportunity for your child to build stronger, more lasting bonds.
The final commitment to consider regards teaching. Most co-ops function on a system of parents rotating as teachers and/or assistants. How often will you need to teach or assist? How many classes? Can you choose the topics you want to teach or are you being assigned a subject? Is this kind of commitment something you can do easily? Or will it add more stress to your already busy schedule and lifestyle?
Homeschooling can be both incredibly challenging and immensely rewarding. It is also a full-time commitment on the part of both parents and students, and often parents need to connect with other homeschoolers to share ideas and resources. A homeschooling co-op may be that village you need to help raise your children. However, keep in mind that in order for a tribe or village to be sustainable, it requires that all members work together harmoniously.