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Organised and simplified: minimalist home education

by Beverley Paine, March 2015

I'm not a hoarder at heart, it's a conditioned response within me, part of my youthful education I am holding onto and having trouble letting go. It's fed by my insecurity, of not knowing what I need to feel okay about life, and worrying about missing out on opportunities now and in the future because I don't have what I need on hand. I surround myself with stuff 'just in case'.

As a home educator it was very easy for stuff to accumulate. In no time my house looked more like a hyperactive classroom stocked with enough resources to keep thirty children busy, not just three! However, deep discontent and a sense that things weren't 'right' kept overriding the pride I felt working within our awesome learning environment.

I was lucky: for several years, while building our house, our family of five lived in a converted garage and this meant developing strategies for managing and storing educational resources and artifacts. Lack of space naturally set limits to what could be collected. And my need to hoard was balanced by a need to be organised: what is the use of stuff if it can't be found in a timely manner?

Living a less-cluttered life means less mess to clean up every day. It's easier to find what we do have too. We save money by not buying things we don't really need. Life is simpler and less busy, feels more peaceful.

Coping with the clutter is a theme that arises frequently in home educating support groups. We chat about what works for each of us and share photos of our learning environments: 'before' and 'after' photos are especially encouraging and reassuring. Recently though I came across a list of tips that made me think differently about the de-cluttering process. Here's my take on Morgan Shanahan's 'minimalist hacks'.

"Purge, don't organise."

This was very counter-intuitive for me! And difficult. I am attached to the stuff I've collected. Being the kind of person that doesn't buy on impulse, everything I own has a use and meets a need, or has the potential to meet a probable or potential need. That's an additional difficulty we home educators face: anticipating what resources our children might require given that their personalities and talents are developing. I opted for the 'smorgasbord' approach, a little bit of everything on hand just in case my children showed any kind of interest in anything, resulting in a collection of rarely used resources and materials which I defended by saying they may 'come in handy one day'.

Instead of asking questions such as, "Do we really need it?" or "Will we actually use it?" perhaps the question I needed to ask myself was "What is motivating me to collect this stuff?" I would have seen that it was my insecurity and questioned what was giving rise to it much sooner than I did, and then focused on repairing the damage to my self-esteem instead of spending countless hours organising and re-organising the shelves, cupboards and drawers!

Purging the underlying motivating factors as well as the clutter ultimately eliminates the need to organise. I'm not sure if purging the clutter will naturally fix the underlying causes without mindfully working on them but I suspect it will help.

Something I've read recently that really appeals to me was "discard everything that does not spark joy", being grateful for whatever role those objects have played in my life as I let them go to a new home.

"Consider your 'reducables'."

Recently I trimmed my collection of colour pencils. I'm not ready to get rid of all of them, despite the fact that the grandchildren prefer the marker pens. And I reluctantly relegated the crayons, which evoke fond nostalgia of my childhood, to the craft tray because the grandchildren never touch them. But I had to accept that five pink pencils weren't necessary, one was enough. It's easy to collect way more of anything than we really need, especially as so many of those handy resources and learning materials are so cheap and available. My justification to have more than we actually needed used to be, "What if friends came over? We have plenty to share." Share those extras now, give them away or repurpose them, like the crayons.

"Stop bargain hunting."

I actually found it easier to not go shopping because, when out and about, my eyes automatically zoomed in on the words 'free' and 'discount' and I'd succumb. Like most people, I love a bargain and my brain works overtime to justify the purchase: "We could do such and such with the grandchildren when we visit" means my daughter's house cops the clutter!

It took me a few years to realise that bargain hunting is another conditioned behaviour reflecting the values of my parent's generation, not mine. Born during the great depression and living through war-time rationing their lives were framed by limitation in two ways: items were either not available or were too expensive. Frugal living strategies such as buying in bulk and when items were on special meant what little money they had went further. But this natural frugal lifestyle can easily become corrupted during times of plenty. The question I now ask when confronted with enticing potentially educational resources or learning materials is, "Can I use it now? Will it be used soon? Is it likely to be available when I do need it for a reasonable price?" More often than not I don't purchase the item and don't miss not owning it afterwards either.

"Repurpose your time."

Managing our collections of educational materials takes time and effort. If we spend an hour a day in total picking up and putting away said items that's an hour we're probably not exploring, investigating, creating, building, chatting, dreaming or laughing with our children.

Often I'd find myself creating activities to use materials I'd purchased simply because they were sitting on the shelf waiting to be used. The children weren't drawn to them naturally: they didn't have any need to use them. So I'd invent one. And then find ways to motivate the children to join in with the activity. As I eventually found there is a more efficient way to use our time and energy. With lateral thinking a few basic essential materials can be used to cover most situations and needs.

Not owning and needing to manage, organise and tidy the clutter regularly creates time. Time spent purging unnecessary clutter reappears as opportunities to relax or be creative together. And time is our most precious resource!

"Use it or lose it!"

Confession time! My cupboards and shelves are still full of items I don't or seldom use and it is very hard for me to give them up. There are boxes of toys, puzzles, art and craft materials, and games for when the grandchildren visit. There are books about home education I've read and some I haven't read as well as many other topics. There are collections of DVDs and CDs I need to go through and thin out, though no one listens or watches either any more. And although I went through my wardrobe recently there are still items I probably won't wear in the next 12 months and haven't worn for years. On the plus side, my continuing efforts at simplifying and minimising are beginning to have a definite effect: space is beginning to appear on my shelves and cupboards and my drawers are no longer jammed full. Letting go, giving away, repurposing and recycling gets easier the more we practice it. If an item has sat around for months without use consider if it is needed at all. Sometimes when we make space in our lives by de-cluttering new clutter suddenly finds us! I'm practicing staying vigilant by saying no thanks!

"Start small."

So don't give up because the mess is overwhelming or the collections of items too vast and too many. You'll get there eventually and the trick is to start small, in one corner, on one shelf or one drawer. Go through it, make three piles of the contents: 'treasures' and must-keeps (nostalgic items you can't bear to give up yet, items you currently use and items likely to be used soonish); could-be-useful or needed items (ones you're unsure about); and not needed or useful items (these could include items not yet used or unlikely to be used). This process of evaluating is difficult and can be stressful. I usually get grumpy and irritable - making decisions about my possessions isn't my forte, especially when emotional. And don't underestimate your emotional attachment to the items you've collected: be kind to yourself. I find a few pieces of chocolate and listening to my favourite music helpful! And if it starts to feel too much I put everything except the definitely-not-needed items away again and vow to have another de-cluttering session soon.

Because education is very important to me and I'm passionate about creating learning opportunities it hard to let go of items, especially ones that are valuable or cost a considerable sum of money. There's a telescope in our shed that hasn't been used for years: one day we'll let it go, though if we'd done it earlier another family would have enjoyed it before it was superceded technologically.

We have an 'op shop' box in the house, somewhere to put items we decide we no longer want but are too good to throw out. Some things are sold on Ebay or Gumtree and there is a box for those items too. The boxes make it easy for us to remember to stay focused on our minimalist goals.

"Look to the future."

Imagining using an item or what role it will play in our lives six or twelve months from now is a useful strategy when considering acquiring it. How many times will it be used? Can it be used in different ways to keep it fresh and interesting and useful? Does it only have a single purpose and once used will its attraction fade? There are very many educational resources that fall into that category, for example books and DVDs. Perhaps borrowing them might work better for your family? Belonging to a cooperative home education library (maybe starting one?) could be a solution. Ebay and Gumtree make it easy to purchase and sell items and there are many homeschool buy and sell groups that circulate a wide range of educational resources.

Ask other families to share a list of their favourite 'must-have' educational resources and materials, the ones their children enthusiastically engage with or use over and again.

"Do it now."

The art of procrastinating isn't easily unlearned! As a school child I was conditioned to think that life happens in the future, not now: everything I did at school was preparation for my career or my life as an adult. I got stuck in preparation-mode! Which meant I delight in collecting things rather than actually using them. And my head became full of lists of 'things to do' when I find the time or opportunity. This led to a cluttered life, both physically and mentally. The antidote? "Do it now". Most things only take a few moments: putting away things after I've used them, cleaning up straight away, tidying a shelf as I put something back onto it, simple mending tasks, or tossing into the recycle bin or give-away box something no longer needed or wanted. It may seem counterintuitive but 'doing things now' creates time and space in my life to do the things I enjoy most. It led to a subconscious rearranging my priorities which served to lessen my overall anxiety that I couldn't keep up with the never-ending array of tasks that needed to be done each day.

"Keep your counters clear."

Although I learned the benefit of this strategy when my children were little it is still something that dogs me: the clutter gradually builds up on the kitchen bench and the dining table until both become unusable for their original purpose! Clearing horizontal surfaces regularly, if not daily, is a habit well worth developing and it's helped by having homes for everything. Labelling those homes helps too: when the children were young and not yet reading I used pictures to show what goes where. My friend had a sign on her fridge that went:

"If you get it out, put it away.
If you open it, close it.
If you finish it, replace it.
If it's full, empty it.
If you take it off, hang it up.
If it's dirty, wash it.
If it's garbage, trash it."

Invest in experiences and services instead of things

Something nearly every home educator I have ever met has in common is a passion for finding and accumulating all manner of resources. I promised my granddaughter a year's supply of sticky tape the other day because she loves using it. But that's okay because I'm over my need for her to use it to produce something: watching her concentration as she pulls it off the dispenser and adds it to the whatever-it-is she's creating with it reminds me learning is a process. I want to invest in all that 'doing' and 'being', both valuable verbs in my home education vocabulary.

There are many ways we can enrich our children's lives and education. Items designed with edu-tainment in mind beckon every time we visit the shops or open a catalogue. Friends share endless links to awesome resources on online support groups. Clever marketing seduces us with emotive advertising. But what our children want and need most of all is connection: the time we spend being with our children doing something with them, chatting to them as we play and work together is priceless educational value. It's what we'd want from a teacher if our child was at school, personal attention tuned into his or her immediate needs. Save the money and buy a zoo pass instead, an annual subscription to the science museum, a whale watching tour, or perhaps even an overseas holiday.

And finally, remember that this is house full of busy, active learners constructing awesome educational experiences every day. Enthusiastic happy learners use a lot of resources and play lots of games. That's the kind of home educating home you want. At the end of the day it is going to look a little messy and untidy. If you follow Morgan's 'hacks' for working on de-cluttering your life above little by little you'll conquer your despair and disquiet and find a rhythm and balance that works for your family.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine


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