The Learning That Happens in the Spaces Between

The following is a guest post written by Kara Anderson.

I was talking with a new friend recently. She is the first person who I have actually met who uses the same curriculum I do and it was a relief to connect with someone familiar with the work we were doing every day.

I was telling her how much we enjoy using our curriculum resources, but that I did have a mid-year panic attack over the feeling that I wasn’t “doing enough.” To clarify, this was not panic that my children were not learning enough. It was fear that as a parent, I was not doing enough formal teaching.

And that is how we started talking about the “spaces between.”

So much learning takes place in the time that is not formal home schooling, but sometimes as parents we feel like that doesn’t count, or even (if we are record keepers) that we are not allowed to count it.

I am homeschooling a 4 year old and a 7 year old. There’s a lot we do when we are not sitting at the dining room table — cooking, crafts, field trips, chores and spending time with friends.

But the following are the learning experiences that stood out to me, and they embody what I think we will all remember when we look back on these years spent learning at home.

1. The Birds

It began with a bird book, gifted at Christmas from a friend. And it started something amazing. My children have become amateur birdwatchers, and much of their free time revolves around winged friends.

We have checked out countless library books, we have built bird feeders and bird baths. We have talked migration (geography!), feeding, size (math!) and about the process from nest building, to incubation, to baby birds (science!). Nowhere in our curriculum did it say “comprehensive course study in birds,” but somehow, that is exactly what has happened.

2. Literature

I first noticed this with Curious George. Without me doing anything except taking them to the library, my children were falling in love with the works of H.A. and Margaret Rey. They identified deeply with George, who often learns himself through exploring the world around him.

Next, it was Beatrix Potter. I have an old set of her books from my childhood, and my kids love curling up together to read them. But this winter and spring, my children became interested in learning more about her and her works (Beatrix herself was homeschooled.) We read many biographies, and searched out some of her lesser known rhymes and stories. They also began incorporating her characters into their play.

3. Art

One of the things I love about our curriculum is the focus on art. But I also love watching my children create on their own artwork, separate from school. When we make basic art supplies available — crayons, markers, colored pencils, paper, scissors, yarn, glue — my children spend afternoon hours drawing and making cards, books and other works of art.

Often, I see a current interest or beloved character reflected in their drawings — right now Louis (from the Trumpet of the Swan). This is another example of how they are going deeper into a subject, and reinforcing what they are learning throughout the day by processing it in their own way.

4. Writing

Along the same line as art above, my son enjoys writing books. It’s a hobby he loves, and we recently bought him a type-writer so that he could build an “office” in a corner of his bedroom.

Often, he writes about the things that interest him (birds, coins). He also likes to create “sequels” to famous works that pick up where the classic tale left off.

I see that for him, this is a way to continue a story that he enjoys. Often, if I ask him what a story is about, he feels shy trying to explain it. But I can tell that he is taking in what he reads through what he puts back out — beautiful adaptations that show a deep connection to the characters and a developing writing style all his own.

I feel like a lot of what we see happen here in the “space between” comes down to one thing — having time. When I resist the urge to pack their days, my children have the time to go deeper into experiences through reading, play, art, and writing.

As we approach the long days of summer, and I begin to plan for the next school year, I hope I will remember to allow time for my children to explore the world separate to the formal schooling that we do.

Because so many wonderful (and deeply educational) things happen in the spaces between.

What have you seen your children learn in the spaces between formal lessons?

About Kara Anderson

Kara is a freelance writer and homeschooling mom, with a goal of encouraging fellow mamas in real-life homeschooling. She also's the happy co-host of The Homeschool Sisters podcast. Grab her free ebook: 7 Secrets the Happiest Homeschool Moms Know here.


  1. My girls are only 3, and so we haven’t done much formal teaching, but I am amazed at what they have learned so far! They have learned their alphabet (reciting), names in print, some letters in print, shapes, colors, and one to one counting all through play. I have, from time to time, done some direct instruction (like reciting the letters in their names as I write them on their latest artwork creation), but most of it has been interacting with their toys, being given time to create new ways to play with things, and playing games with us. I look forward to watching them create their own learning experiences as they grow!

  2. My daughter has a similar bird book. We got it at Sam’s and I remember not wanting to buy it, because it was costly. However, she showed a lot of interest in it. She still enjoys that book and it’s been at least a year since we bought it. She knows so many bird names and can make bird calls that sound real! LOL!
    Jenny’s latest post: Wordless Wednesday: Fourth of July Fun

    • Hi Jenny,

      I love hearing my kiddos talking to the birds! I never realized until we received that book that knowing their calls helps a lot when it comes to spotting and identifying them! It’s something I might not have thought to buy myself and I am so grateful that my friend found it for us!

  3. They do learn a lot in between. I hate to admit this one, but it may even come in form of television and videos. My son is becoming a nature lover. While on vacation, even though he didn’t have permission, he would turn on Animal Planet. At one point, he came up to me and told me all the wonderful things he learned. He actually retained the information. He loves to read about all this too. He collects bugs outside and loves to gather different flowers as well.
    Rachel E.’s latest post: Menu Planning

  4. We unschool so we have learning all the time; there are no spaces for us! 🙂 I’ve talked with so many parents that marvel at what their children do outside of formal curicculum that I wonder what would happen if they let their children’s interests just guide the learning. I think some people think unschoolers don’t have an agenda or a plan. In our family, anyways, that’s not true. By watching closely what my kids are interested in when we go new places, find new things to watch, or find new books at the library, I get a good idea of what they’d like to learn. Then I find as much of that to bring back into the house as I can. I also bring in resources that they haven’t asked about, too, to see if they would be interested in them. Unschooling may not be for everyone, but what I love about it is that I know my kids are not doing things just to get them done with so they can do the things they’d rather be doing. They don’t see anything as “school” but everything as learning.

    • Hi Christina,

      I love the way you talk about unschooling! :o)

      Although we use a loose curriculum, I think we lean towards unschooling a bit too!

  5. I always try to allow time in our “school day” for independent projects. It seems like having a little bit of structure works as a springboard for more self-directed learn, at least in our case.

    Recently my son has been working on drawing and writing his own comic book. It’s very detailed, and I’ve promised to have it bound when he’s done. Who knows what this may lead to?
    Hannah’s latest post: Look Back at Me

  6. I always felt like my kids made huge learning leaps during summer when we weren’t doing school at all. I love that…it’s like learning to walk….we didn’t really teach them to walk…they walked when they were ready.
    xo Jana
    Jana Miller’s latest post: Classical Education for Homeschoolers

  7. Christen says:

    I love this, and I think it is vital! Perhaps the most important aspect of this is the parental shift…we have to watch and SEE, not just plan and initiate. It is so hard to do this when we feel so much pressure to make the right amount of education happen. We worry about being “good” homeschooling moms and teachers, and it can be hard to really see our kids, their passions and interests, and all that they are learning apart from our plans! I am trying to make this shift right now, and it goes against the tidal force of my background and inclinations!

    • YES Christen!

      Exactly! It can be easy to miss the learning that is happening when we are so worried about not doing “enough.”

  8. What a great post! We’ll be starting 1st grade this fall and I know just what you mean about allowing time. Many of our most elaborate homeschooling projects have come from something as simple as finding a bug on the floor. “What kind of bug is this?” led us to the computer for identification and the library for an impromptu unit study which included every subject imaginable…even cooking! We even found some bug literature and made the little guy a habitat. I was planning to school through the summer but I’ve recently decided to just go with the summer breezes instead. We’re learning all the time, whether we log it in a notebook or not! 🙂

  9. I think the majority of our time last year fell into those ‘in between’ spaces, with a 6, 3, and 2 year old. I do get discouraged at times and feel like I’m not doing ‘enough’. But a little time with the majority of HSers will set me straight to realize that learning isn’t filling in worksheets. I find we are so conditioned that way and it’s been something I’ve had to battle in my own head. 🙂 I can’t wait to implement all the fun Summer experiments and crafts about Nature we’re doing in the next few months! 🙂

    xo Cass @ Unplug Your Family
    Cassandra’s latest post: Saving a Bird, Losing a Life, Learning those Lessons…

  10. Just the other day my 3 year old son was writing on the computer (he likes to practice his name and a few words he is starting to know by memory) and he came across the question mark. He said, “What is this?” And the spaces between were filled for me!

  11. Horses. My third grader knows the difference between about eight different types of horses. She was developing a love of them, and got a great game for Christmas. She’s hooked, now.

  12. I love a well-timed blog posting! I’ve been thinking a lot about this very thing.

    I often feel very conflicted that I’m not doing “enough”, and yet when I relax and begin paying attention to all of the real-life, important, interesting, fulfilling, creative learning that takes place outside of our “school”, I realize that sometimes the “in-betweens” are the best use of our time.

    I’m still not fully confident enough to make all our life “in between”, but I’m going to look for more and more ways to incorporate “less” into our days.

  13. My daughter learned a lot in her free time by owning a horse! My son was a builder and spent hours building with legos and then graduated to building a large tree fort in the backyard. And then my older daughter spent hours at a community theater as a teen. Space is VERY important to learning!
    Living the Balanced Life’s latest post: The successful woman’s guide to NOT doing it all

  14. We do a lot of unschooling with a bit of formal mixed in. I always felt that same pang about not doing enough and came up w/a clever solution for my state paperwork. I feel such peace now…that I can just let them have that space they need! How often as adults do we need that too? Ever read an intense non-fiction book only to need a few days of mindless T.V. or a “braincandy” book while your brain is sorting out all that new info? I have to remind myself the same is true w/my kids!
    Amy @ simply necessary’s latest post: Hollow Overtures and H.O.R.S.E.

    • That’s wonderful Amy! And I really enjoyed your book analogy. I like to have two books going — something that makes my brain really work, and something that is just fun and light and stress-free!

    • Amy, what did you do to satisfy the state paperwork but still incorporate unschooling? I am stuck in a situation where we are in our first day of term after an awesome summer holiday and wishing we could continue our lives as it was the last few weeks – my own anxiety was so much less and my boys were so happy and following their interests so beautifully. Sigh.

  15. As DS is only 4, the formal stuff is a ways away. But I love seeing him do things like spontaneously start drawing faces when neither DH nor I ever sat down to show him how. It shows how much kids can do/ learn just be being developmentally ready.
    Emily’s latest post: Lazy Chef’s Grass-Fed Pot Roast

  16. I LOVE the idea of your son writing sequels to stories he enjoyed! This technique works well even with older students (I have mainly high school ages now). This post was really wise; as an “older mom” with a lot of years to look back on, many o the most important learning experiences happened without my orchestration. That’s one of the coolest things about homeschooling! (Love this site, by the way! I’m really glad I found it!)
    This link is to a blog I wrote recently about learning to notice and celebrate those unplanned moments. Hope it encourages someone!

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