2020 and the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic have forced the world to focus on a core element of being human- the need for human contact. We are social creatures. At no other point in our recent history have scientists had such a global and dramatic ability to study the many complex issues surrounding the simple word ‘socialisation’.
Newsfeeds, scientific journals, social media have all been full of theories, studies, and data on the topic of the effects of isolation and a lack of opportunity to socialise; mostly the negative effects have been promoted by mass media, although signs of the positive effects have been occasionally reported. For many, it has been an opportunity to explore something that home educators have known for a very long time.
Forced association is not socialisation
Home Education and socialisation
If you are new to home education, or simply curious, then ‘How do the children socialise?’ is the number one question and concern that most people from outside the community have. The answer is essentially very simple; we open our doors and either walk outside or let people in (when we can).
The simple act, one that has been limited for billions of people worldwide in the wake of the pandemic, is the start of all physical interactions and the foundation of meaningful, physical social interactions with other people that we do not live with. Video chats have been successful in opening these opportunities up even further but cannot match the full sensory experience of real-world contact. A real focus on talking to your neighbours, the dog walker, the delivery driver, has swamped humanity- and maybe we are all better off for focussing and appreciating those.
We open the door and we meet people. We go to parks and we meet people. We go to the shops and we meet people. We go to specific group meetups and we meet people. This part of life is remarkably easy for most of us under normal circumstances.
The way that home educators (HE) often socialise is very different from ‘socialisation’ in schools. Here are a few of the main differences that while obvious, once considered, create an entirely different look and feel to daily life-
- The state does not provide, or control, finances, spaces, or opportunities for HE families to meet.
- There are no restrictions or limits as to when and where meetups can occur, except for practicalities and the law (Covid-19 restrictions guidelines should be observed).
- There are no overriding ‘conformity’ expectations- individual groups have their own character, behavioural expectations, and activities or focus.
- Social interactions occur by default with a variety of age ranges and with a high adult:child ratio- there are commonly children under 5 present, and all children have a responsible adult with them.
At school, parents arrive at the allotted time (or they are potentially fined), send their children into the building, then go about their day. Overall responsibility for the interaction and behavior of the children falls largely to the classroom teacher, and policy on those matters is dictated by senior management teams and passed down the chain. There is little room for autonomy or freedom.
Activities and resources are provided by the school and controlled by the teacher to a specific end, except for break time where children are allowed outside and supervised, but free to choose the activity to a greater extent than indoors. Unfocused talking during lesson time is frowned upon and often punished. ‘Bad weather’ often means no time outside at all, and heaven forbid there be snow!
All of this is time sensitive, each phase of the day being carefully structured and portioned out as mandated either by the state or by the senior management. The timetable is the ruler in these circumstances, and deviations are rarely tolerated. Spontaneity is severely restricted.
Human behaviour is driven by innate, biochemical, and physical phenomena, millions of years in development, and also by the environment and the experiences they have there. To believe that being in the (generally) very adult controlled environment of a school setting will not shape and alter the child is to ignore reality. The child is expected to conform, and the whole system is built around the premise that they will. Problems occur when the child does not ‘fit’ and the system handles the child as the problem that needs to be altered.
Expectations and differences
Home education, in stark contrast to school, is not location specific or time sensitive. It is most usually an environment of greater democracy, greater flexibility, and where the circumstances are easily changed to adapt and problem solve when the need arises. The very nature of the flexibility contributes to the diversity of parenting and social capacity in the home education community at large, and more specifically to how the community conducts and organises itself in order to facilitate social opportunities.
If you have never experienced a home education social gathering before, then it will look markedly different than a school or after-school gathering. There may or may not be a level of conformity around a purpose, such as a guest speaker or person providing a directed activity. Most notably at first, children are unlikely to line up, sit in rows and put their hands up awaiting permission to speak, be heard, or to share their thoughts- they are far more likely to just get on with whatever it is they are wanting or needing to do.
Another notable difference is the general expectation that adults and children are equals. This often means children have no ‘reverence’ for adults and no problem approaching and talking to them at their leisure, or ignoring what they say as they would any other child if they are not interested. They also don’t expect adults to intervene in their activity unless requested, and often don’t appreciate ‘help’ when it was not invited. In a school setting these traits would usually be seen as disrespectful, rude, uncooperative, and even confrontational.
Don’t be surprised or put off by the adults accepting these differences to school settings as the norm, because in home education they are. It can appear as chaotic, disorganised, and ‘out of control’ to the uninitiated- it is simply differently organised. Adults are responsible for the children they bring along, for their welfare, and their conduct. Returning to each meet up will help you to understand the enormous difference in social opportunities in this community, where that the lack of state control provides a more natural flow.
Although schooled children do have opportunities outside for greater freedom in clubs, meetups and with friends and family, the larger part of their days are without those freedoms and are structured around deliberate attempts to shape behaviours that suit a well regulated school setting. The assumption that this type of conformity is better preparation for adult social life is highly contentious and under researched. EO does not agree with the assumption.
Home education meetups are organsied by families, for families. They are generally not a drop-off and leave affair so you will be expected to stay or have someone else act in loco parentis. It is not the organisers job to provide entertainment or care for your children unless stated. Yet another contrast to school where someone else is responsible for almost all aspects of the child’s day; it is now all down to the parents.
Finding your tribe
The Community page here is a good place to start if you have no local knowledge, or don’t know quite where to start. Joining local and national social media groups is the faster, easiest way to start finding people to connect to.
Education Otherwise Facebook is, like most groups, a private group for those home educating or considering home education and can act as an ask/answer page and a hub to finding local people in the know. There are usually a number of questions or a filtering process before you are allowed to join such groups for obvious reasons of privacy and security, but each group will have its own set of rules so make sure you read those first. For example, many groups will not allow people to advertise personal services for financial gain as their purpose is social, but will allow people to recommend tutors and activities so as to help people find services.
If you are known to your local authority, and they do not have a list of local groups on their website, then approaching the local Home Education Officer for a list of groups, activities and any people willing to act as a contact point is also a place to start. Be warned, however, that the competency of EHE personnel across the country varies wildly, with an increasing number acting outside their legal remit and encroaching on family privacy.
Find out as much as you can about the meet up ahead of time. If it’s advertised on a social media group then make sure you understand the basics and ask if specifics aren’t given.
- Is there a strict starting time or is arrival time fluid? If there are specific guests or activity providers then turn up on time.
- What are the basic facilities provided and do they suit your needs? Nappy change, disabled toilets, areas to eat, quiet corner, and seats may not be available if you meet in the woods!
- Is there an outdoor space if it’s an indoor meet? A square of tarmac behind a fence provides different opportunities to a grassy play park open to the public.
- If there is an end time, do people usually leave straight away? Often families play and chat outside after the group finishes making it a very long day- bring water!
- Is there someone in charge or a nominated contact to talk to when you enter the first time? If you are nervous at all this can make a huge difference, being introduced to people can either be helpful or intimidating depending on your personality.
- What is the cost, who and how do you pay, and does it include snacks and drinks? Cash was common before lockdown, but change might be an issue so try and take the exact amount at first.
- Are their resources provided or are you expected to bring something along to share? Groups are self-funding, and may not have storage on-site, so toys, pencils and paper might be a shared endeavour.
- Is the focus of the meet social, activity based or a mix? Dress for mess and movement! Expect lots of noise, so take ear protectors if your child gets easily overwhelmed.
- Any altercations between children should be taken to the responsible adult, not the organiser, to deal with. Unless you know the other families well and have an understanding, other than stopping immediate danger, leave it to the other parent to handle in a way that suits their family.
For your first meet up, take a book. You can use it to hide behind if you and your child are feeling overwhelmed, and a book attracts a lot less attention than toys, a gaming device, or a mobile phone making noises. Taking any of those as shield may well result in the opposite happening if you were hoping to sit in the corner and observe for a while. It also means the ‘Can I have a go?’ question is less likely to result in a difficult interaction if you or your child don’t want to share things. Understand the nature of the group before you put yourself in that position.
Note as well that reading a book is often a signal to other parents that this is the only 5 minutes of quiet you get! So if you do want to talk to people, signal willingness by looking up from the pages and asking the easy questions, “How many children do you have here? How old are they?” Many a lifelong friendship has started there.
Make friends fast by staying behind and helping with any tidy up! Often parents used to school and after school facilities will leave without considering this point. Everyone there is a parent with their own children to care for, and the organisers have already made an unpaid commitment by organising everything outside of the meet in their own time. So, get them a cuppa when they seem to be flagging and muck in, honestly, it’s the fastest way to endear yourself to those hard working, long term home educators who keep the meetups going year after year.