Interest-Based Groups: How to Launch a Favorite Homeschool Activity

There’s a distinct pleasure in spending time with people who delight in the same thing that fascinates us. That might be running marathons, understanding Civil War strategy, making homemade cheese or writing mysteries. Who doesn’t love talking about a favorite topic? It’s certainly easy to build friendships that way. Shared interests also foster greater enthusiasm and motivate us to expand our knowledge. That’s why interest-based groups make so much sense for our children.

For my family, interest-based groups are an important part of homeschooling life. We have formed a number of these groups over the years. Some, like a history club made up of eager parents and not-so-eager young children, barely lasted long enough for a few meetings. Others have lasted for 10 years.

The most successful is our boy’s science club. It was started by five families with 9 boys between the ages of 7 and 11. When we began it was highly structured. We met regularly at each other’s homes. Parents took turns planning a project or experiment, got the materials, explained the educational principles underlying the activity, and if things didn’t turn out as planned (actually quite frequently) it was usually a parent who searched for answers.

As time went by more and more control over the science club was naturally taken over by the boys. They planned what they’d like to do and figured out what they’d need in order to do it. They decided whose house was best for that activity, then together carried out the project or experiment, often improvising with different approaches.  If things didn’t turn out they searched for their own answers. Although nearby, parents didn’t hover to assure their safety nor insist that they learn the principles behind each activity. Our boys remained safe, happy and increasingly savvy about many branches of science while running their own science club. Their projects included various propulsion systems designed to shoot tennis balls, a 12 foot high trebuchet and a hovercraft which managed to get off the ground but not (as they’d planned) with a passenger. Over the years one family moved away and another was welcomed to the club. Now the youngest members are 17. The older boys have gone on to college, several into the sciences and one to Harvard on a full scholarship. Since they shared the honorary title of Science Club President over the years, it probably didn’t hurt to put that on the college application.

There are some lessons we learned that can help make any interest-based group successful.

First, build on what your children love to do. If they adore taking hikes it’s easy to expand on that. Depending on what your children and others who join in decide, the group may expand to bird watching, letterboxing, geocaching, nature sketching, Volksmarching, any number of related activities. Or they may choose to stick to the simple pleasure of hiking. Your children may not be hikers, but prefer fashioning swords from household objects to joust with their siblings.  There are plenty of ways to expand on those interests as well. Consider forming a special-interest group to enjoy fencing, foam fighting, Society for Creative Anachronism, writing and enacting scenes from the times of knights or high seas pirates, or live action role-playing games. Just about any interest can spark friendship and learning in a group of children.

Second, consider factors such as age range, group size and location before starting a group.  What factors are likely to contribute to interesting, enriching and fun experiences?  How far are you willing to travel? Flexibility is important. For example if your daughter is eager to start up a journaling group for girls ages 11 to 13, you might consider forming a group for younger siblings who can meet at the same time for their own interest-based group (as long as they leave their older sisters alone!).

Third, invite potential members. Some interest-based groups develop out of casual get-togethers between friends. Some are formed as sub-groups within larger organizations such as a churches or homeschool support groups. And others are the result of invitations spread on forums, lists, library bulletin boards and across homeschool networks.  How do you want to form the group?

Fourth, get started. For older kids, you may want to hold an informal organizing get-together at the local park, library meeting room or your backyard. Gather ideas from the kids in attendance by encouraging them to brainstorm what they’d like to do and how often they’d like to do it.  Toss out questions to keep the ideas flowing and write down their suggestions.  If they’re teens, let them run this meeting on their own as much as possible. This first get-together is also the easiest time to get some guidelines established.  Consider questions such as: Do you want to be open to new members once you’re established? Do you prefer to agree to some basic rules or accommodate as the need arises?  How will responsibility for group activities be shared?  Or simply launch into the first session instead of holding an organizing meeting. After making apple butter and dipping candles with your new heritage club, or enjoying an afternoon making puppets and putting on an impromptu puppet show with other new members they’ll understand what group sessions entail. Their suggestions for activities, group name and potential rules will more easily flow from that initial encounter.

Fifth, once your get-togethers begin make sure that unstructured time is included. Leave ample time for kids to spend together after the activities are over. Friendships are a strong factor in homeschool happiness. Whenever possible, be open to the inevitable plans your children concoct with friends in these groups. It’s a powerful acknowledgement of one’s worth to spend time with friends who are equally crazy about model trains, skateboarding, Guitar Hero, horses or cake decorating.

Sixth, recognize that the group will grow and evolve.  It’s important to be open to changes. Get-togethers between friends often naturally drift toward other activities as interests change. More formal groups tend to continue on long after the originators have moved on. An interest-based group your children start may last only a short time, but it still provided learning as well as enjoyable experiences. Some families launch quite a few such groups as their children grow up. You may be doing the same thing without recognizing that toddler playgroups and older children’s regular enrichment activities function just as interest-based groups do.

Here are 12 examples of successful interest-based groups.

  • A cooking club for preteen girls which meets at members’ homes to make (and eat) themed foods and plan recipes for next club event. They’ve made various ethnic meals, fancy desserts and food to donate.
  • A multi-age group of stop motion movie-makers (youngest member five years old). They chat online about individual projects and collaborate on movies. They have hosting screenings of their short films for an appreciative audience of relatives.
  • A nature sketching and journaling group made up of families who schedule hikes in different wilderness areas to write, draw and share their work.
  • A boys’ book group based on sci-fi and adventure books. They vote on which book to read, read it the month before the meeting, then after the discussion take part in activities such as scavenger hunts, making costumes and re-enacting scenes, testing tactics used in the book, or using repurposed materials to build something mentioned in the book.
  • A multi-age rock climbing group which practices at indoor climbing walls as well as outdoor locations.
  • A young children’s hands-on science club.
  • A youth and adult fiber works group with projects, farm trips and visits to other spinning/weaving guilds.
  • A group of families who get together to make costumes, chain mail and armor for re-enactments.
  • A beachcombers group where young children play along the waterside while adults and older children monitor ecological conditions for a non-profit organization.
  • A debate and elocution society which prepares for regular memory-based recitations as well as occasional debating society competitions. The members’ aspirations include acting, politics and law.
  • A cartoonists’ meeting. Young members work on graphic novels, cartoon strips and cards.
  • A multi-age sculptor’s group. They meet to hear guest speakers such as welders and mineralogists. They go on field trips and occasionally meet at one another’s homes to work on projects together.

You may find, as my family has done, that interest-based groups are a favorite homeschool activity with extraordinary benefits. You may even notice that your child’s eagerness rekindles interests of your own. Maybe it’s time to enjoy the fellowship of other enthusiasts as you get train for that upcoming marathon or learn to make cheese.

Portions of this article are excerpted from Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything (Hohm Press, 2010).

Laura Grace Weldon lives on Bit of Earth Farm with her husband, their four homeschooled offspring, and too many creatures to count. She’s the author ofFree Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything and editor of The Homeschool Reader Series. Stop by her blog, Relentless Optimist http://lauragraceweldon.com/blog-2/, and say hello.

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