Relaxed Elementary Education (2011 Curriculum Fair)

Written by contributor Renee Tougas of FIMBY

Ages of my children: 12, 10, and 8

Educational Philosophies I pull from: Leadership Education, Literature-Based, Charlotte Mason, Unschooling

When Jamie first proposed this series I thought, “That will be easy to write. We don’t use much.”

Then I saw all the questions from the introductory post and realized I might actually have something useful to say.

A few of your comments jumped out at me:

  • The repeated request to know what has worked and what hasn’t, and why.
  • How to “make your own” curriculum.
  • How to use readily available resources (like the library) and literature as materials for learning.

I can answer these because of our own eclectic and interest-led elementary homeschooling experience.

Defining Curriculum

My Random House College Dictionary defines curriculum as:

  1. the aggregate of courses of study given in a school, college, etc.
  2. the regular or a particular course of study in a school, college, etc.

The simple definition of curriculum is a course of study.

Homeschoolers often refer to curriculum as learning materials that are packaged, prepared and prescribed in a certain order to teach a particular subject or subjects.

There is a difference.

I don’t mean to get hung up on semantics, but I want to make sure when I talk about curriculum we’re using the same definition. For the purpose of this post and to keep things clear, when I refer to curriculum I mean packaged, prepared and ready-to-use materials.

homeschool curriculumPhoto by Renee Tougas

Elementary Education

I believe the focus of the elementary years is to foster, grow and develop a child’s innate appetite for learning and life.

This is the love of learning phase.

As such, we don’t use a lot of pre-determined (learn certain things at certain times) curriculum because we want our children to explore their world from an internally motivated perspective. We want them to learn about things that fascinate, intrigue, puzzle, and interest them.

To this end we use a lot of literature. Both to explore our interests and to expose ourselves to new ideas. Most of these books we access for free from the library.

However, there are some academic skills we teach our children to help them as they explore and make sense of their world.

Reading, writing, and arithmetic are the academic basics that we purposefully and actively teach our children during their elementary years. To do this, I use curriculum.

I use this curriculum very loosely and on our own timeline, but it helps me provide structure and skill building practice.


Reading is foundational. It’s one of the most important pieces of building an education.

You learn to read. And then you read to learn.

It’s easy as homeschool parents to get panicky about our children learning to read. I’ve written a detailed post about our family’s experience. And let me tell you it hasn’t been an easy process – talk about what has worked and what hasn’t!

Here’s a quick summary:

  • With all three of our children we used Teach Your Child To Read in 100 Easy Lessons. This curriculum worked the best with our oldest who was reading independently by the time she was six.
  • With our other two it’s been a lot of trial and error and in the end I just let it go until they were really ready to try again.
  • My ten-year-old just finished his first chapter book all on his own initiative. Reading has not come easy for him but he’s internally motivated to keep doing it. And that’s the real goal – to foster a child’s natural desire to learn.

boy writingPhoto by Renee Tougas


There are two parts to writing – mechanics and composition. We’ve used two curricula to teach writing mechanics.

We use Getty Dubay to teach our children handwriting. We choose this program mostly for how easy it is to transition to cursive and for its aesthetic appeal.

When she was eleven our oldest daughter “graduated” to a typing program after learning cursive handwriting. For that we used Ten Thumbs.

We teach spelling, grammar, and vocabulary in the context of everyday life composition writing. This includes letters to penpals and grandparents, e-mail, secret codes (these are the kids’ absolute favorite), book reports, science reports, poetry, story writing and more.

In the past I tried both Spelling Wisdom and Natural Speller. Many people really like these programs and I liked them quite a lot also. My daughter was less enthusiastic though, so we’ve taken a life-learning approach for spelling.


Our family likes Math-U-See and it’s the only math curriculum we’ve tried.

One of my children struggles with math more than my other two and I am considering a different curriculum for him, perhaps I’ll try Teaching Textbooks.

girl doing mathPhoto by Renee Tougas

You can find an extensive post on FIMBY about how we teach math.

What about the rest?

This is a list of the subjects we study through reading (together and individually), discussions, travel, outdoor adventures, relationships, play, experiments, community involvement and otherwise everyday living:

  • World Study – history, geography, and cultures
  • Science & Nature Study
  • Art, Dance and Music Appreciation
  • Handicrafts & Home Skills
  • Physical & Outdoors Education
  • Bible & Character Formation

You can visit Homeschool Help at FIMBY for more posts on building an interest-led elementary homeschool course of study.

What resources or curriculum do you use for elementary education?

About Renee

Renee is a creative homemaker and homeschooling mama of three. She loves to write, take pretty photos, and be in nature with her family. Her mission is to nourish, encourage, and teach; build relationship and create beauty. FIMBY is where she tells that story. Drawing from her years of experience and training, Renee also offers individual and personalized Homeschool Coaching.


  1. I blogged about my views on Elementary Education here:

    I stopped using any “curriculum.” There are no books. No lessons (that mom starts/directs). I do give *some* direction in the books I bring home from the library or bookstore, the outings I plan, the seeds I scatter, so to speak. We have decided even “unschooling” doesn’t fit what we do. I call it, “Free Range.”
    Amy’s latest post: Get Out!

  2. this is wonderful renee! well, you know emily went to montessori school for her elementary years – and our number one reason for choosing that was the particular school’s primary goal of developing interested, willing learners. not one child in all of her years there felt “less than” or “behind.” no child thought they “struggled” (even if they did). that’s not to say they didn’t feel at times that they needed to push themselves or apply themselves more diligently in order to grow and stretch… they just felt “learning” was a good and positive part of life. it was not drudgery, they truly had the freedom and support to become engaged, self-directed learners in their own (gently guided) time. it was beautiful.

    i feel in some ways that i have it easy now. bringing a seventh grader home who has a firm love for learning and “school” is quite a pleasure. in some ways, i think the elementary years are harder… i know you have a relaxed approach (we did too that brief period for part of 4th grade when we homeschooled), but i think in order for your children to have the relaxed environment in which to foster a love of learning (very montessori), there is a good amount of work (physical, mental, spiritual) on your part to set the stage and provide opportunities. so good job, mama! i’m always inspired after reading about your homeschool journey.
    heather’s latest post: the little things

  3. I really find that I am the one who has to be reminded to “relax” and “unschool” my attitude. I love learning and my children do too. When it works well, we usually find ourselves in a discovery phase. When it doesn’t it is often because I am looking at what is left of the curriculum. I’m lucky to have a husband who works from home. He is able to offer some gentle reminders when I get all “school-marm” that we aren’t on anyone’s schedule but our own. Guide, but don’t goad is what I aim for. reading posts like these really helps keep that front and center.
    Jennifer’s latest post: The Math We Love

  4. I have 4 kids and my oldest is 5. You summed up exactly what I have felt the early years should be – give them the foundational skills and a passion to keep learning the rest.

    I would just like to tell about my personal experience with Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons: I started with my oldest 8 months ago when he was 4. He was excited to start reading and 100 Lessons was amazing because it did teach him to read very quickly and systematically. I think it was most helpful to me who had no idea where to start. After about lesson 30 he got very bored. I had to develop new schemes to get him to do it willingly. I would let him stay up after his siblings went to bed to do our lesson, then he got an extra 15 min of playtime. This helped us get through another 20 lessons then we went to “I’d rather go to sleep!” So I ditched the book in order to hold onto his love of reading.

    100 Easy Lessons has given ME the confidence that I can teach my children to read and IT IS EASY! I plan to use it in the beginning with all my children but will put it aside the moment they get bored and see it as a chore.

    • Yes, we found 100 easy lessons was a good way to get started but even with our oldest, who liked it, we only went to lesson 75 or so.

      That’s the beauty of it. You can use what works and leave the rest.

  5. Thank you for sharing Renee. We are going to be newbie homeschoolers in the Fall.
    I am curious about how you all organize your books when homeschooling? I noticed in one of your pictures that you have magazine holders for the your children’s curriculum. Have you found that useful? I have this fear of getting all our curriculum and books and not knowing where to put it all. 🙂 At the same time where to keep their notebooks and papers. Any suggestions would be helpful.
    Sara S’s latest post: Trial and error with chocolate

    • Here’s how I do it:

      I use magazine holders (the kind you buy at Staples or maybe IKEA – we don’t have one of those here) to hold all our homeschool curriculum.

      Curriculum currently in use is accessible to the children. They each have their own labeled holder for their current workbook and notepapers, composition books etc. Curriculum waiting to be used (the next math program) or resources I keep for reference are kept on higher shelves in a craft/school supplies closet.

      As far as books… We keep a barebones library:
      and use the local library extensively:

      Our own small collection of classics, reference books, guide books etc. have specific spots on our bookshelf. We keep an apple crate (wooden box) for that week’s library books so we know where to grab them to return them.

      Hope that helps I LOVE talking organization. One of the keys for me is keeping the materials simple and they are easy to keep organized.

  6. I’m so curious about the “secret code” thing you do with your kids that they love so much. Can you describe? Great post!
    Sarah G’s latest post: Growing Bacteria in My KitchenOn Purpose

    • The kids love to make up secret languages and send messages in code. So, for every letter of the alphabet they make up symbol and then write messages in code that need to be deciphered. These are word “games” but I consider them part of the language arts curriculum since they develop and foster a love for language, words and experimenting.

      Jennifer Hallissy, author of The Write Start has provided a list of writing templates, including a secret code master.
      It’s a great resource.

  7. This was a wonderful post Renee 🙂 Very inspirational! I am a teacher by trade (now SAHM) and part of me so wants to homeschool my children (I am homeschooling for preschool right now and my husband was homeschooled) but I struggle with the social piece. My son is such an introvert and I worry that being isolated will hurt him. I feel that my sister in-law still struggles socially with peers after being homeschooled. I am so on the fence…..
    RaisingZ’s latest post: A Whale of a Time –

    • Of interest I have my degree in education but never did teach as my first child was born one month after I graduated.

      As far as your socialization concerns, here’s my take on that. The family and family within the context of community is the place for “socialization”, especially pre-young adult years. If you are worried about that you can seek out social opportunities together as a family. That’s what has worked for us.

      We are less concerned about relationship with “peers” and more concerned about relationship with people.

      • I, too, have been concerned about socialization. I want to believe that the family, extended family, church family, and neighborhood friends are enough. I, too, want to be “less concerned about relationship with ‘peers’ and more concerned about relationship with people” as you wrote. It is very encouraging to me that I am not the only one! Doubts creep in when I listen to others’ criticism and compare the way we do things with the way other families we know operate.

    • This coming year I will be taking a leave from my teaching position to homeschool. I had some concern over my son missing school (he’ll be in 3rd grade) but he will continue to do boy scouts and I know there are several homeschool gatherings to join in on during the week to get to know other kids, as well as our church family and good friends and his sport teams, between it all there should be plenty of socialization. I, too, would not worry about ‘isolating’ him as I am sure you will be out and about during the week!

      • We do have a couple of posts about socialization in our archives if you’d like to take a look:

        In my experience, this seems to be the issue prospective homeschoolers worry about most–while those who have been at it for a while realize it is almost a non-issue once you get into it! But it takes courage to face those fears head on.
        Jamie ~ Simple Homeschool’s latest post: Relaxed Elementary Education 2011 Curriculum Fair

        • As the homeschooling, elementary-education-degreed mother of an introvert, I have just a couple of thoughts on the socialization process for introverts. My daughter has come a long way, but is still anxious and shy at the beginning of any group activity … it’s just who she is. She was like this in public school. She is still like this while being homeschooled. She is like this at church, and at large family gatherings. It’s just *who she is.*

          One way I’ve helped her is by just letting her be this way. I model friendliness, I encourage her gently without pushing (usually), and I often give her the words to say (because I freeze up when I’m anxious, I understand that part of not knowing what to say). And I try to maintain any friendships she develops. Making new friends is hard enough, without being an introvert!

          I don’t know if this will help at all, but I wanted to share since I have seen progress, and much of it came after we left the public school.
          Jane’s latest post: Why I Homeschool Post #1

  8. I always appreciate your perspective! We use very little curricula and even then it’s sporadic. Much more of our learning has been through real life together — gardening, building, budgeting, playing, experimenting, traveling, volunteering and billions of projects we’ve undertaken together over the years. I love how much my kids truly love learning and life, and that I don’t have to fight with them to get them to do sit-down drudgery for so many hours a day “school style.” 🙂
    Magic and Mayhem’s latest post: A Few Good Reads

  9. Thanks for the resources! I do a lot of reading with the kids, but Nemo has been more interested in what those letters on the page actually mean, so I’ve been thinking that in the next year or so (he is only 4!) that I’ll start teaching him more than the sounds of letters. But really, there is so much they can learn just by living! Following their curiosity about life offers lessons in all subjects, if you’re just willing to watch out for cues to their interests.
    Naomi’s latest post: A New Life for Us

  10. I, too, used “Teach your child to read in 100 easy lessons” for my daughter who was reading well at age 4. We loved it! I plan on using it for my son as well. He is almost 4 and showing no interest yet and, of course, I am not going to push it. I think we are going to use Math U See as well for my daughter this next year. We have used Sonlight for my daughter the past two years because we LOVE all of the reading. Both of my kids soak it up. I love that there isn’t too much workbook assignments involved this early on.
    Great post!


  11. We tried the 100 Lessons too, but my daughter got bored with that. My son was just to frustrated with it and never made it past the first few lessons. He just wasn’t ready.

    I used Progressive Phonics with my daughter and she loved that. On the other hand I borrowed Hooked on Phonics from my friend and my son loves that and is progressing well wanting to read more on his own. Now my daughter is using it and reading on her own. It’s all trial and error.

    I use worksheets for math and everyday life, going to the bank, grocery shopping, paying the bills, cooking. We also do a lot of projects, volunteer work and library visits.

    Like you said right now I just want them to enjoy learning about learning.
    Rana’s latest post: School at home or something like it

  12. Thank you so much for this post! I regularly need these reminders (to relax, to enjoy the journey with my family, and to remember the key is guiding/instilling a love of learning). I’m greatly encouraged by the comments shared. We mommas have such a huge responsibility – AND THE GREAT BLESSING – of rearing our little ones. Thanks to you ALL for sharing.

  13. This was an excellent article with a lot of gret info-thank you! But, I have to comment on your DD’s photo. Based on your daughters sense of style she and my DD would be fast friends. The photo made me smile. 🙂
    Our Country Road’s latest post: Im Going on a Cruise!

  14. I am so happy to read this article and a few that you linked to. This is quite similar to my approach to homeschooling and I haven’t found anyone similar in the 5 months we’ve been schooling at home. You made my day!
    Becca’s latest post: Reading

  15. I don’t love curriculum except for Saxon math. A few other books I quite like for beginning years include the Five in a Row, Draw Write Now, and Bob books. We’ve tried others and sometimes liked something here and there for one child or another (for instance my son who struggles with spelling greatly improved using the Phonetic Zoo/Excellence in Spelling). Mostly, we read tons, do lots of varied writing (letters, reports, essays…), have our kids do reports or lapbooks on topics of interest to them, play games, enjoy music and hands on art/craft activities,and more reading. Not very helpful. I guess I pull things together as I go but just don’t believe that it is necessary to purchase a real curriculum to successfully homeschool in the elementary years.

  16. thank you for another great post. I really enjoyed reading it. So far we’ve tried a bunch of things but nothing has really worked well for my daughter. She’s still young (only 5) but she is advanced on her own initiative. I find packaged curriculum very hard to get for her since so far its been boring or too basic. If I try to get something more advanced sometimes it seems to mature (its made for older kids maturity). So right now we are just going with her interests and studying about them and with that comes the other skills. Its working well for right now.

  17. I’m a little late to the party. (We were away camping with our homeschooling group for four days. Who says homeschoolers don’t socialize?)

    I was glad when you responded in a comment to me that you’d be writing this post, Renee. We seem to homeschool much as you do, and have never used much pre-packaged curriculum. Sometimes I worry that too much talk about curriculum leads newer homeschoolers to believe that purchased curriculum is an integral part of homeschooling. You can always find lots of talk about which curriculum is best, but less talk of whether curriculum is necessary–unless someone is talking about radical homeschooling. What concerns me most about curriculum is that it tends to make us think in school terms, rather breaking outside the box to *really* look at our kids and their needs.

    I especially appreciated how you mentioned that while *you* liked a few spelling programs, your daughter didn’t like them, so you moved on. Lucky girl!
    patricia’s latest post: the ultimate guide- ultimately

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