You and your kids have spent an awesome day learning together. Spotting a squirrel in the backyard led to questions about where certain animals spend the winter, which led to an Internet search about migration and hibernation, which turned into an hour spent watching wildlife videos on YouTube. Before you realize it, it’s time for dinner, and you’ve spent all day going down these great educational rabbit trails – or squirrel trails?
It’s great. This is what you always imagined homeschooling would be.
And then comes the inevitable worry. “How on earth am I ever going to document that?”
Documentation is one of the biggest worries I hear about from many homeschoolers. Some states require it, and other parents just find it reassuring to know that they have a record of their children’s learning in case they’re ever questioned.
It can be hard to start for anyone to start documenting, but for relaxed homeschoolers or unschoolers, it can seem even more daunting, as for many people, “documenting” can be completed by saving a handful of worksheets, tests or essays.
Then there’s the idea of setting a plan for the homeschool year. Again, some states require you to submit objectives or a curriculum plan, and in many cases, parents just like the idea of knowing there’s a structure in place to ensure learning.
Once again, relaxed homeschoolers may struggle with this more. One of the best things about a less structured homeschool style is.. less structure! A lot of parents move toward relaxed homeschooling because they want to be able to more flexibly follow their children’s interests, changing their focus as needed throughout the year. How do you plan for that?
Both of these issues – documentation and planning – can get a lot easier with an office-store planner.
Getting started with planners
Entire planner sections are blooming at my local office supply and craft stores. (And I love it! If you can make it with paper, I’m in.) But it can seem overwhelming at first – so many choices, each with their own accompanying stickers and washi tape and other accessories.
So while for me this can be a ton of fun, I know it can also sound like work. If so, don’t worry: There is no “wrong” planner, and there is no need to do anything but jot a few things down. Decorations not required!
The only thing you need is some kind of planner that has both a monthly grid view and some kind of expanded space for daily notes. Many people like the MAMBI Happy Planner system, which is bound with rings that allow pages to be added, removed and repositioned. Other popular styles are the Erin Condren LifePlanner system and the Orange Circle Studio Flexi Planner, and most office stores offer very simple, economical planners in their own brands. Or you can opt for a digital download that you print and assemble yourself like the The Best Homeschool Life Planner.
Daily planner ideas
Some people are afraid to document or don’t know where to start. But there’s another documentation problem: OVER-documentation. I’ve met homeschooling parents who I think spend more time writing down what they did than they spent time doing it, it seems like!
Daily planning and documentation is not about that level of navel-gazing. Daily planning is simply a chance to take a few minutes to note what has happened, and to look ahead at what’s coming.
Tips for planning and documenting your days:
- On your planner’s day-by-day pages, make notes of any time-sensitive appointments in one color. (For instance, 11 a.m. – Outschool class.) Don’t go overboard and make each person’s appointments a different color. Just make sure that things that have to be done at a particular time stand out. You can do this at the end of each month for the month ahead, and as new appointments come up, add them as you know about them.
- Day-by-day pages are also a great place to keep a simple task list. Again, less is more. Even for structured homeschooling families, this is not the place to list every assignment; this is just an overview. For relaxed homeschooling families, this might include non-time-sensitive things like going to the park or the library, family game night, or other things beyond the day-to-day churn. Use a standard color, like black or gray, for these. Again, ballparking days for these at the end of the month for the month ahead will help you make sure things are spaced out around appointments and other needs.
- Bonus tip: If you like a sense of accomplishment, as you do things, highlight them. It’s a lot more cheerful than crossing them off, and it makes it easier to look back and see when you did specific activities.
- On your monthly overview page, take a moment at the end of each day to jot down a “highlight.” This might be a big activity, like a family field trip, or something like a movie you watched or a topic you explored. Using the monthly overview page is important here – because it has a very limited space for each day, you can’t over-document and give an hour-by-hour breakdown. It also gives you an easy way to see your month at a glance (important later). So don’t use your day-by-day pages to do this! If you’re working with multiple children, you may need to adapt this a bit, but often in relaxed homeschooling families, you’ll get a lot of topical overlap.
- Before bed each night, check tomorrow’s list to make sure you know when any appointments are and what other things are coming. If there is anything you didn’t get to today, find a future day to “migrate” it to. SUPER CONTROVERSIAL PLANNER POINT: You can use correction tape to cover anything you didn’t get to, so that your daily page is a record of what happened, not what was supposed to happen. Or don’t, if that makes you itchy. It’s your planner!
Weekly planner ideas
Most planners group the day-by-day blocks into either one page or a two-page spread for the week. While there isn’t usually a separate “this week” section, some planners hve sidebars where you can list weekly goals, meal plans, etc., so feel free to use those if they’re helpful!
What else can you do on a weekly basis?
- If you have routines, habits or regular goals you’re working toward, as you plan out the coming month, sit down and set out time each week for that thing. Maybe it’s something as simple as remembering to water the houseplants once a week. As you sit down to plan the month ahead, just make sure that’s reflected appropriately. Maybe it’s every Monday, or maybe it’s slotted on either Saturday or Sunday depending when errands are. It’s much easier to look at these once-a-week tasks for the whole month than it is to try to remember on a random Wednesday what you’re supposed to be doing that day.
- Once a week, look back over the “highlights” you noted on your monthly calendar. You don’t have to write anything down, but use what you see to help plan your days ahead. Relaxed homeschooling is all about connection. It’s not about “everyone doing whatever they want,” it’s about pursuing learning and goals together. So if you see that you haven’t had many highlights this week because your kids were off doing their own thing and you were tied up at work, use that realization to figure out how to set aside some time to catch up and see what they’ve been doing in the coming days.
Monthly planner ideas
Have you noticed that we’ve been using the monthly calendar view in the planner for day-to-day things? That’s the key to a great planner system. First, you start with the “small but important things” and make sure they’re all accounted for. Then, you go back and take a big-picture view: What else needs to fit in?
Similarly, when you look back over things, it’s nice to review the individual days each week, then review the weeks at the end of the month, and the months at the end of year. Having everything “roll up” makes it a lot easier to get an overview. Can you imagine digging through 364 daily logs to create an end-of-year portfolio or update a transcript? Ugh.
Here are some tips for making the most of monthly planning and documenting:
- As you plan for the year ahead, consider “themes” for each month. In a relaxed homeschool, these may be learning themes, like animals or World War II, but there are lots of others, too. Maybe your theme for January is gratitude following the winter holidays. Maybe your family’s April goal will be to explore spring in your neighborhood. Maybe you know that there’s an arts festival in your town in August, so you’re going to spend July making projects to enter. (And if you’re a 4-H family like ours, you might as well know that you’re going to spend Roundup month in August doing nothing but finishing the projects you swore you were going to get done earlier this year… righhhhhht…) At any rate, these monthly themes can help give a relaxed homeschooling year a sense of order and flow, and a chance to talk with your family about what everyone is hoping to learn about and accomplish. And if these themes change, that’s OK too!
- At the end of each month, take some time to plan the month ahead – and plan this planning in your planner too! (Confused yet?) All that means is that if you’re planning on Dec. 30 for January, make sure to pick a day in late January and note in your planner a task to plan February on that day.
- Going back to that big, scary idea of homeschool documentation: Have you noticed I didn’t mention creating any mandatory documentation in the daily or weekly planning sections? That’s because you will run yourself ragged trying to do that. At the end of each month, look over your monthly calendar grid with the daily highlights, and think back on the main topics you noticed at the end of the various weeks. Whether it’s on a blog, in a document or sketched out in a notebook, create a short summary of the month that works for what you need. In Pennsylvania, we don’t need to log work by date or month, so I actually keep a topical list (for instance, “science”) and just add to the various sections as appropriate each month. At the end of the year, all I have to do is edit it down and boom, the science section of our portfolio is halfway done!
- I hope this goes without saying, but if you do have legal documentation requirements, please make sure you plan them step-by-step when you do your overview planning for the year. Don’t write “do all this year’s documentation” the day before it’s due, no matter how many times you tried that strategy when you were in school yourself. You know it didn’t work!
Above all, experiment to find a planner system that works for you. You can jazz it up and join planner groups on Facebook and search for specific layout guides on Pinterest (and I think that’s a ton of fun!) but don’t let fancy decorations distract you from using a planner as a tool to help making planning and documenting relaxed homeschooling a bit easier.
If you want to see this system in practice, take a close look at our family’s unschooling planner system here. We used this to document our unschooling from seventh through 12th grades! We also worked together as a family to create unschooling “curriculum plans” each year, which helped us see where we wanted to go.