I guess cleaning house was a first step for me in homeschooling because I knew I was going to be spending a lot of time in it, and I knew that it was either going to be actively working against me or silently blessing my efforts. I recently picked up Slim by Design by Brian Wansink (head of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab) in the library—not because I was looking to go on a diet, but because I was intrigued by his project to use environmental design to promote healthy behavior. (“The solution is not mind ful eating but to make a few changes so we can mindlessly eat better.”) Reading it has helped me think about what I was trying to do at home… and what I might continue to tweak in the future.
Figure out what you want and don’t want
I know I want a space that is amenable to learning, something inspiring but not distracting. I don’t want to take away my kids’ homes or make them feel like they are constantly trapped in “school,” but I also want them to feel like learning is seamlessly integrated with their life. A place where a mind can wander just as easily as it can concentrate.
I thought about the activities I want my kids to engage in regularly and they include: reading, writing, research, art, science experiments, music, coding, games, puzzles, watching films, eating, sleeping, daydreaming, make-believe, inventing, construction, and spiritual reflection. I want my kids to easily switch between these activities, but to also not do a bunch of them half-heartedly at the same time.
I also want a place that is easy to maintain. I’m not naturally orderly or neat, and I know I need simple, manageable routines that I could learn to habituate.
Focus on a few key areas
I knew in my heart that I wasn’t able to get the whole house top-to-bottom the way I wanted it over a mere summer. Wansink talks about focusing on a few critical locations within a five-mile “food radius.” I had to think about what were going to be high-use areas where changes were going to have the most impact.
I decided to focus on communal areas and generally ignore bedrooms and bathrooms for the time being. The whole house was already being lived in and, therefore, livable, so I could afford to turn a blind eye to my son’s rock collection scattered next to his bed. Instead, the big open spaces that dominated both floors would be where we spend 80% of our time during the day.
Make desirable behaviors convenient, attractive, and normal
A big part of Wansink’s approach is to make preferred choices the default, and if not the default, the most visible, convenient choice available. One of the things one comes across a lot when reading material on habit-formation, procrastination, or happiness research is the notion of how your present self treats your future self. Oftentimes you defer onerous decisions or tasks, hoping that your future self will be able to handle it better than you can now. Good design, conversely, tries to set things up now so that there’s as little friction as possible for your future self to do the right thing.
That’s why I try to make cans of pencils, trash cans, and laundry baskets ubiquitous, as well as having a simple, accessible system for tidying up through catchall baskets. Having the keyboard in the living room, I’ve found, makes it easy for Biggie to plink out some practice when the mood strikes. Whenever we work on projects, I try to have a box or container for it, so all the materials are within reach. Whenever the kids are at the table on the lower floor, they’re within arm’s length of books, supplies, and the computer. Having all the library books near the couches on the first floor encourages impromptu reading. I keep a well-stocked diaper bag by the door as a go bag for trips.
Order and cleanliness is also beautiful and encourages a positive atmosphere. De-cluttering has helped signal that there has been a marked change, a good one. I generally rig up quick-and-dirty solutions with a “whatever works” mentality, but I fought against that impulse here so that the spaces looked appealing — as I said before, inspiring but not distracting.
Finally, I tried immediately to set the expectation that things needed to look a certain way, that certain things needed to be put in certain places, that particular activities should be done in designated spots. No eating, for example, away from the kitchen table. Clean up the detritus from one activity before starting another one. Drawing on the furniture is frowned upon but forgiven.
Allow the freedom of choice with a simple system
Wansink talks about how effectively designed programs are less like boot camps and more like summer camps. Draconian controls only encourage resentment and rebellion… or, worse, hapless dependency. And an overly complicated system is tough to maintain, enforce, and keep clear. It’s better not to outlaw less-than-ideal behavior outright but to make it less convenient, attractive, and normal.
I keep the television off and iPads out of sight for most of the day. We talk over the day’s plans over breakfast and, if I’m on my game, I try to have items out already in anticipation of different activities. This is also part of the purpose of tidying up; if it’s not on deck for the day, it’s kept out of sight. So, yes, Biggie can choose to read through a stash of comics for a good chunk of the day, but he would have to go seek them out first.
Make a few effective changes at a time
I keep telling myself that I don’t need to do everything at once, that, unlike regular school, I don’t have to make sure everything is shipshape and accounted for. If Biggie spends three hours on a game on the iPad one day, I would certainly give myself a demerit, but I don’t have to fire myself. I miss a blog post? It happens. We have lunch at McDonald’s? It’s okay. Haven’t enforced chores or done laundry all week? Tomorrow’s a brand new day.
Instead, I’m trying to nail down a few things at a time. Tidying up. Morning meetings. Weekly trips to the library. Cleaning up after activities. It’s nice that it’s summer so there’s some psychological leeway.
And I’ve tried to take one day every other week to sort through one more mystery box, one more dark corner of the storage room, one more thing on my never-shrinking honeydew list. And occasionally, I’ll even “do” instead of “try.”
Get support and celebrate
Why the heck do you think I’m writing this?!