How to Homeschool Children 3-12 years old With Less Stress and a Lot More Fun!

After homeschooling for over 25 years, I am sharing the best system for how to homeschool children 3-12 years old. By “best” system, I mean the most versatile system that is adaptable by almost anyone, for less stress and more fun. Oh, how I miss this season of homeschooling! My “baby” (youngest of 7 kiddos) is now 13 so I officially don’t have anyone in this stage anymore. Sob! At least I can keep interacting with young children at my weekly homeschool co-operative meetup, and with my grandchildren, when they visit from out of state.

I learned precisely how to implement this wonderful system after I had been homeschooling for over 14 years. If I had done this from the start it would have made homeschooling a lot more fun and easier to boot.

May I introduce to you..(drumroll, please!)…

the Spark Station System! (Otherwise known as “The Closet” in Leadership Education circles.)

First of all, it’s important to know that The Spark Station is best used in a home that is based on the Thomas Jefferson Education Philosophy (TJEd). These books pictured below elaborate the TJEd Philosophy in detail. A basic overview is here. A one sentence summary of TJEd is that it honors the child as an individual genius with educational needs that change as the child goes through natural seasons of learning. I explain what the seasons of learning are over here.

Image Credit:
Image Credit:

So basically, in a TJEd home, the parents are focused on teaching children ages 0-8 the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and good and bad through work and play, mostly at home, with lots of love, according to Oliver DeMille. Then during ages 8-12 parents focus on fostering a love of learning in the children. These two phases prepare children with a solid foundation to build intense academic work on during the teen and 20s years.

The Spark Station is the name Mary Ann Johnson gave to the “closet” which is Ingredient #20 in the list of ingredients to make a successful TJEd homeschool, as outlined in Chapter 4, pages 108-109 of the Leadership Education: Phases of Learning book by Oliver and Rachel DeMille, pictured above.

What is the Closet or Spark Station? It’s anywhere that you keep a collection of learning materials, to be used during your family’s structured learning time, or dedicated “school time.” In the Phases of Learning book this time is called “kidschool” (Ingredient #4, p. 70) The Spark Station can be a closet, but it doesn’t have to be.

Photo Credit: Mary Ann Johnson’s website

It can be a suitcase, a set of drawers, a set of shelves, a trunk, a chest, a plastic bin, or even a cardboard box. It’s ideally a closet that you can lock up when not in use, but if you don’t have a closet to dedicate to this, use one of the other options I just named. If shelves, they can be shelves that are too high for the children to reach. If it’s a box, bin or suitcase, it doesn’t come out unless you, the mom, gets it out.

To repeat, the #1 rule is that you only let it be used during your family’s “school time.” All other times, it is locked up or put away. So if all you have is a cardboard box, you might have to put it behind locked doors, even if that means putting it in your car or garage. Or in the case of shelves, the shelves are high enough that the kiddos can’t access them without your help. So if the children want to use the Spark Station when it’s not school, you just kindly let them know that they have to wait until school the next day. This, plus adherence to the rule that you rotate the items according to your children’s sparks of interests, keeps interest and anticipation high, so that your kids beg for school time.

Photo Credit: Mary Ann Johnson’s website

What do you put in the Spark Station? Anything your children have a spark of interest in using or learning more about, within reason of course.

Suggested items for the Spark Station are the following:

  • crayons
  • construction paper
  • scissors
  • glue
  • musical recorder and how to play recorder book
  • lap harp
  • Tangrams with a book of tangram designs
  • pattern blocks with a book of patterns
  • picture book about whatever your child is interested in learning more about
  • gyroscope
  • materials to make puppets
  • origami book and origami paper
  • paper airplane book
  • puzzles
  • globe
  • maps
  • compass
  • rock specimens and a rock identifying book
  • educational card games like Set, Sleeping Queens, 24, Timeline, or Reverse Charades
  • educational board games like Scattergories, Cash Flow Jr., Scrabble Jr., Taboo, or Trekking the National Parks
  • binoculars
  • field guides for identifying birds, trees, flowers, etc.
  • magnifying glass
  • science experiment kit
  • how to draw books with sketch pads and quality sketching pencils
  • microscope
  • quiz games like the Professor Noggins sets
  • flash cards to memorize the times tables, constellations, U.S. state capitals, and other facts
  • wipe erase boards or handwriting books to practice handwriting
  • magnets
  • even a bag of chocolate chips with a recipe to make cookies on days when you feel ambitious, especially if you anticipate the baby having a nap time during cookie making time 🙂
  • a read aloud book that generates high interest, that you can read aloud while the kiddos engage in quiet activities from the closet. Go here to get read-aloud book ideas, and see below to get quiet activities
  • Klutz activity books
  • Usborne books

The next three sets of images below, from, show quiet activities that can be done while you read aloud a book you get from the closet, to your children.

Image Credit:
Image Credit:

The sky is the limit! I had soooo much fun playing with my kids with our Spark Station. Moon dough with little molds to make replicas of fruit? Yes! Magnetic pattern blocks with designs to make animals and vehicles? Yes! Lacing cards? Yes! A mini sandbox with a bulldozer and tools? Yes! I even put cap guns and ammo in my closet along with library books about the history of guns for my little boys.

The next important thing, after having certain times when it’s available, is to put things in there that you suspect will spark your child’s interests. So it’s important to observe what they like to do, scout out materials that go along with the interests and stock the closet. You don’t have to be fancy. Even a picture book about amphibians from the public library will do if they are asking questions about such creatures. You don’t have to find a frog to dissect it with a scalpel, but if you want to, by all means, go for it! It’s also OK to put things in there that you want to help your children master, like phonics games (I highly recommend Diane Hopkins’ Happy Phonics kit) and math materials, even if they aren’t begging for such things. (It is OK to have daily math and phonics lessons if they are developmentally ready at this age, another post for another day.)

The supremely important thing is to be present. Be there with them when they use the materials. Show them how to use the adult tools (things like the compass, microscope, binoculars, etc.) if they ask questions. Let them experiment with the materials and don’t rush in to “help” unless they ask. Take note of what sparks interests, and change out weekly, taking things out that aren’t being used. Yes, that means you have to find a separate space that is your homeschool storage place, but it will be worth it.

You can get all the rules for using the Spark Station over here. Mary Ann Johnson has created 5 rules for the Spark Station. I’ve covered some of them here but you will want to check out her resources to get all the rules. Scroll down to the bottom of the PDF and you will see all the rules. Watch the video below to get an intro and use all the materials in the PDF too, and you will be having one happy homeschool time!

If you think the closet is a new idea, I have news for you. It’s not. Louisa May Alcott shows her characters using it in her book Little Men, illustrating what Jo did with the “little men” on Sunday afternoons. In the italicized quote below, just substitute the words “homeschool time” for “Sunday,” and “conveyor belt education” for “common study and play,” and “conveyor belt school” for “school.” Then you will have a perfect vision of the results of homeschooling using the Closet/Spark Station.

“This is my Sunday closet,” she said, showing him shelves filled with picture-books, paint-boxes, architectural blocks, little diaries, and materials for letter-writing. “I want my boys to love Sunday, to find it a peaceful, pleasant day, when they can rest from common study and play, yet enjoy quiet pleasures, and learn, in simple ways, lessons more important than any taught in school. Do you understand me?” she asked, watching Nat’s attentive face.

“You mean to be good?” he said, after hesitating a minute.

“Yes; to be good, and to love to be good. It is hard work sometimes, I know very well; but we all help one another, and so we get on. This is one of the ways in which I try to help my boys…”(Little Men, Chapter 4 “Sundays.”)

Now, if you want to keep reading, I will tell you all the mistakes I made with the Closet/Spark Station early on before I learned the rules for using it.

#1. I didn’t have a dedicated space with boundaries to close off the materials. When I first started homeschooling I lived in my in-laws’ home while they were away serving missions for our church. All the closets of this home still stored my mother-in-law’s stuff. So I didn’t have a spare closet to store my educational materials, and I didn’t want to pack up her stuff to replace with my stuff. I ended up putting all my educational materials in plastic crates that I had arranged on the long table in the informal dining room. We ate at the kitchen island bar and didn’t use the table for meals, so that seemed to work OK. The result from this mistake, however, is that the kids saw the stuff all the time and didn’t ever get wowed and didn’t really engage when it was school time.

It’s such a mess with all the educational materials I owned in the same closet all at once!

#2. I had all the educational materials I owned in the closet all at once. When we moved from my in-laws’ to our own home, I finally got a closet where I could stash all my homeschool stuff and close a door on it all. No more open crates on the dining room table! But…the same result came as with Mistake #1. The kids had access all the time and got bored of it.

#3. I didn’t lock it. Same result as above.

#3. I never rotated out the materials. Same result as above.

#4. I never took notice of their sparks. I put in stuff that only I thought was interesting. Same result as above.

Are you seeing a pattern? So when I heard Mary Ann speak at homeschool conference AND applied the rules, things changed. By this time, the three oldest kids were scholars so they didn’t get to benefit from my new-found knowledge. Oh well. The four youngest have never been to Disney World, like the older ones have, and I am not as strict about food with the youngers as I was with the olders, so I guess it all evens out, :-). Anyway, I started changing stuff out.

My decidedly Pinterest-unworthy, humble “Closet/Spark Station” that I learned to lock. And yes that is a child’s scribbling on the wall, with painting smocks stuffed between the closet and the wall. Oh what days those were for me as a busy mom of 7 all at home!

I locked the closet. I opened it every day during dedicated school time, which was usually 10 AM to 12 noon. I added new stuff often. I was present with them as they used it. Then I started hearing the words every homeschool mom wants to hear, “OK, well, we just better have school tomorrow!” My then-10-year-old-boy actually said that as I was locking the closet up so we could go have lunch. Those days were truly magical!

What about if you have a baby that you don’t want “getting into everything.” I finally learned with my last baby, that if I woke him up when we had family scripture study, early at 6 AM, the baby would be ready for a nap just when I wanted to start our Spark Station time, at 10 AM, after breakfast dishes were done. That was a game-changer for sure. If the baby stays awake, such is life. Just remember, as Diane Hopkins wrote, that the baby IS the lesson.

Happy homeschooling with the Spark Station! This is definitely a HUGE way to foster of love of learning in children. It works and it’s so much fun!

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