What counts as homeschooling?

Written by contributor Sarah Small of SmallWorld at Home

At a recent roundtable discussion organized by our homeschooling support group, a brand new homeschooling mom raised her hand and asked the perennial question: What counts as homeschooling?

I have heard the same questions dozens of times through the years: Can I count playing board games? Can I count hiking as PE? Can I count the afternoon we spent talking with a veteran about WWII? Can I count our trip to Washington DC? Yes, yes, seriously? and YES!

I know the question that is being asked. It comes from a deeply ingrained assumption that if it is school, it must be ___________ [boring, tedious, difficult, taxing, mind-numbing, repetitive—you choose]. For some reason, we feel that we must put an official stamp of approval on an activity in order for it to “count” as “school.”

At this point, a redefinition is necessary. Since most of us were public schoolers ourselves, we have trouble confusing the word “school” with its intention, “education.” Education is, at its core, developing the abilities of the mind: acquiring general knowledge and skills, developing clear thinking and good judgment, and ultimately working toward navigating in the world at a mature level.

Instead of asking ourselves “does this count as school?” we should be asking, “Is my child learning something worthwhile?”

Our job as educators is to be able to recognize what is worthwhile. Ask yourself if a particular activity serves to help your child acquire general knowledge and skills, or develop clear thinking or a new perspective in some way.

Did your six-year-old learn how to crack an egg into a bowl while you were baking cookies today? That is a skill that some adults haven’t yet mastered. Does your teenager lead devotions at youth group? She is learning organization and leadership skills that absolutely “count.”

Geocaching counts!


Some use the mantra “learning happens all the time.” I’m not convinced that any learning goes on while a child is watching “Sponge Bob,” but the idea behind the mantra is valid.

The world is full of opportunities for learning new things. Seize them. That is what counts!

Some of us will need to mentally (or physically) check a box: museum field trip = history; letter-writing = language arts; going for a nature walk = science; finding and measuring every rectangle in the house = math. Don’t apologize if you need to keep track of these things in a formal manner. Some of us are wired that way.

If you have someone in your life who is skeptical that “learning happens all the time”—or if you are doubting yourself—try recording every little detail of your child’s daily life. Put each activity into a category (math, language arts, science, health, art, music, etc.). I think you’ll find that those things that seemed so un-school-like are, indeed, worthwhile learning opportunities.

As home-educators, we need to focus on the “worthwhile” part and not on the what-looks-like-school part.

We shouldn’t be teaching to the test; we should be teaching to the mind, to the heart, and to the soul.

Because that is what truly counts.

Do you have trouble deciding “what counts”? How do you define learning?

About SarahS

Sarah has graduated one child from homeschooling and is happy to have miles left on the journey with her 11 and 15 year old children. With a master’s degree in English/creative writing, Sarah enjoys teaching writing and literature classes at her co-op and blogs about learning at SmallWorld at Home.


  1. Amen sister! Well said.

  2. This is so true, even – or maybe especially – for those of us whose children go out to school. My son goes to school, but I still say we learn all the time at home, complementing and adding to what he does at school. While playing in the woods last weekend, he asked me a dozen questions about the English Civil War (he’s seven, and we’re English) and I dredged up everything I could remember there and then before encouraging him to dig out the encyclopedia when we got home. Learning does happen all the time, and not just for homeschoolers!

  3. Hello,
    along those same lines, I remember reading an article where a homeschooling mother explained how they homeschooled during difficult times (I think she was on bedrest or had a family member in the hospital or something like that). Since she couldn’t give her children much time for “school”, but didn’t want to throw out all forms of learning either, she compilled a list of things her children could do on their own (they could choose which actiovity they wanted to engage in, but had to report how they had spent their time) and classified them as “school subjects”. For example, reading a book counted for litterature, building something or cooking counted as science, writing a letter counted for grammar practice, etc. BUT, her list was rather broad and very creative, and I am so frustrated that I didn’t bookmark it because she had some great ideas… would anybody know what article I’m talking about (not on simplehomeschool I don’t think…) ?

  4. I do agree that learning does occur all the time in our house but I would drive myself crazy trying to count it all as school. So in our house we have school time where my boxes for days and subjects get checked off and the rest is considered life skills or experience. When we go on vacation (as we recently did) that was vacation–not an extension of our homeschool where I could count classifying shells or a trip to the museum as educational. We did those things but these were considered fun in my book (and also by my children).

  5. Exactly!!!

    Our oldest is 11 & we’ve been unschooling for the most part… Which was my plan til he turned 10-12 & needed more ‘structure’. We’ve been working with more workbooks this year so I can gauge what he ‘knows’, and it’s as I thought – he managed to learn what he was ‘supposed to’ learn on his own through real life lessons.

    Both of our kids (11 & 8) are avid readers, nature loves, very inquisitive by their very nature… My husband & I are always available to answer their questions, & we are honest when we don’t know the answer offhand – but we go straight to Google or the library & learn the answers together. In this way, we’ve taught our children that you’re never too old to learn something new – and how to go about learning no matter what your age.

    • This is very much how we’ve done things as well. Every year I have curriculum that never quite gets done because we are just too busy living & learning. My son is 9 now and we are much more focused on the curriculum this year so that we have a good routine when stuff really gets tough. 🙂

      Education can happen any time, but ‘school’ happens only when specific things get done. Thankfully we don’t have to report attendence or anything in Oregon, so I don’t have to stress over what subject a certain activity might fall into. I just take it one day at a time. If something comes up and we decide to learn outside of the books, then so be it. And some things just can’t be taught from books. The bonding my son and I got the other day while on our walk was of way more value than anything in a book!
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  6. I struggle with this on a daily basis. I began homeschooling my youngest this year (she is in 6th grade). She has been in public school up to this point and it is hard sometimes to get away from the mentality of public school. But everyday is getting a little bit better as I try to be more relaxed with it and not on such a strict schedule.

  7. EXCELLENT! I loved this article, and totally agree with all that you said! Now, I’m off to share it on my facebook wall and page!

    I love the idea of recording what my children do throughout the day and see what category each activity would fit under. 😉 They are learning every day!

  8. Yes! Maybe a better question would be, what DOESN’T count as homeschooling?

    And, I dunno, there might be some learning gems from SpongeBob…I’ll have to think about that. 😉
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    • All of my kids are artistic–one is studying animation in college, and another one wants to. I love SpongeBob, and think it is valuable for the humor, writing, animation, and family time spent watching.

  9. Amen! Learning doesn’t have to be boring and that one of the reasons we are homeschooling – I don’t ever want my kids thinking that learning and self-education is boring! 🙂 You nailed it 😉
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  10. Perfectly put, I really enjoy your clarification “Is the child learning something worthwhile?” That’s a distinction that is worth remembering! I’m currently wrangling just these questions, looking at what counts, what doesn’t and how I want our days to look. Thanks for a great article!
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  11. I was quite pleased that our virtual academy (technically public school) allowed us to count our recent trip to NC to help get out the vote as school time…eight hours’ worth. Sam helped us go door to door to hand out materials and also watched about five hours of election returns, not to mention having to listen to his dad and me talk politics for two hours each way in the van! If this isn’t “school-worthy,” what is?

  12. I couldn’t agree more. The funny thing is that almost nothing we ever do looks like that image of school that some people still hang onto, yet our kids are many grade levels ahead of where they’d be in school. Hmmm! 🙂
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  13. Elizabeth Kane says:

    I agree. Not all work is created equal! There’s a lot of noise we have to deal with on the way to learning what it means to be truly productive and successful. I feel like I’m constantly questioning what’s worthwhile in all parts of my life because I followed a hard line script in education for so long.

  14. Charlotte says:

    My definition of school is whether or not there is output related to the input. For example, a day at the river isn’t complete without an art project created out in nature, pictures taken with the snails, discussions taking place about erosion and pollution, etc. For a book to be consumed it should also be discussed or drawn or reviewed or acted out to be considered school – reading Harry Potter for the 20th time isn’t really advancing knowledge anymore. I want my kids to be creators. They need to be able to consume information and then discuss it intelligently, write about it, and create additional information from it (whether it be incorporated into a pretend game, expanded into an art form, used as a jumping-off point for an internet search or library trip, etc). Math has problems solved, but real world application is the best test. So if the history museum visit ends with a review of what we saw, favorite exhibits discussed and drawn, then I know that learning was absorbed and those hours “count.” My daughter read Animal Farm this week but couldn’t tell me any more except that it was “good” and “interesting” – she didn’t grasp the story in a meaningful way. We could pursue it further – reading SparkNotes, for example, or talking about Communism and the Cold War. If she decides that it’s too advanced at this time, then no harm done, but I also acknowledge that real learning didn’t take place. This isn’t public school, where putting an hour in your math class or language arts class equals learning. If you’re concerned if it’s “really school” then gauge the output. This year we went to the state fair. My three year old was absolutely an engaged learner; my ten year old had a nice fun day, having seen the exhibits for several years in a row. In order to be school, we’d need to do something new for her – enter an event, spend an hour with an artisan instead of just browsing each booth, etc.

    Anyway, my two cents. I hope it helps someone!

  15. Whew! Now I can feel better about counting various parts of our trip to Disney World as school. LOL . My husband and I after each vacation day will often have a mini school meeting and discuss how much of that days events might qualify as school and then decided whether it should count as a full day or a half day or a quarter day, so that we can get our 180 full days in as required by our state.
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  16. Thank you for this article. I love the question about “is my child learning something worthwhile?”. I am hanging that quote/question on my refridgerator today for a reminder. 🙂

  17. We homeschooled for 8 years. For 5 of those years we ran a full-time business that our kids were involved in. They learned so much during that time. My younger kids were all elementary to middle school while we were homeschooling. Three of those years we also were raising 3 young grandchildren, which definitely was a learning experience. I think that most anything we do can be a learning experience. And, I think that those lessons learned by doing are the ones that stick.
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  18. Paula Nix says:

    Great article! And timely for me : ) I have had several conversations with folks lately who think that it’s “fine” for me to homeschool because I went to university to be a teacher, but most people are simply not “qualified” to teach their kids at home. So frustrating! I definitely my kids learn much more effectively when I take off my teacher-hat and put on my mom-who-is-invested-in-her-kids hat. I believe that homeschool should be intentional, but it doesn’t (and moreover shouldn’t) have to be school at home. It counts : )

  19. Terrific! I just came back from a great homeschool field trip to Washington, DC which my 14 year old daughter planned all on her own. Which box do I check: Event Planning?

  20. Awesome!

  21. Great Post! I love homeschooling!!
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  22. Love this article. Thank you for the inspiration.

  23. Posts like this encourage and validate our hands-off approach to homeschooling. Our kids learn so much as we simply do life together. Doing it “by the book” rarely seems to teach them as much. Thanks for the encouragement.

  24. What a great reminder. I completely agree that we need to ask ourselves if this is worthwhile and our kids are truly getting something out of it.
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  25. Thanks so much for writing this article, it was definitely needed today!! I do have a question I would REALLY appreciate anyone’s input on. My husband and I have VERY different ideas about how to homeschool and what “qualifies” as homeschooling. For example, I want to take our kids to a meeting with my mom and the ALS clinic where my dad was treated. I thought it would be interesting for them to be a part of the planning meeting because the clinic wants to set up a garden for the families who come there for treatment. After the meeting, I was planning to take them to the Museum of Arts & Sciences near us. However, my husband says “No” because they won’t have time to get their “schooling” done before we need to leave…really? Am I wrong to think that this would be a good, educational experience for them? I’ve already told him that he could either let them do some of tomorrow’s work today to ease up on the amount they have to do tomorrow or I will cover it with them on Friday, even Saturday if needed. However, he is adamant that they should not go out tomorrow but finish their schoolwork instead. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were just this one thing, but we have this argument frequently. I am just feeling very discouraged right now and wish that somehow we could get on the same page, or at least close pages, when it comes to homeschooling. Any suggestions, input would be greatly appreciated!! And if anyone would like to share directly, my email is greyleigh@hotmail.com

    Thank you for letting me share!

  26. What subject woukd I count board games under? Like trouble, connect 4, sequence, etc.

  27. Oh, yes. I live in a state that requires certain subjects. I’ve started writing down what we do just to make sure that if they ever ask, I can say, “Yup. Not every day, but here it is.” It’s been really helpful for me to sit down at the end of those days where we didn’t do much school type work and write down what we did do and assign a category, and think about how valuable it is. Playing outside as PE, kids telling me what they’ve figured out in math or reading signs, social skills when playing together or with friends, watching Wild Kratts, listening to the Narnia Chronicles on audio book in the van – it all counts. Playing in the mud pit is totally science. So is finding a dead snake on a walk. There’s really very little we do that doesn’t count. And when I write it down, it encourages me that the kids really are getting what they need. And much more than a lot of kids.

  28. The idea of Always Learning is paramount. With a teacher-student ratio of 1:6 (all on different grade levels), I can’t be “teaching” everyone all the time. There are subjects that are mandatory each day (reading, math), but when I’m working one-on-one with someone, the others tend to putter about exploring, creating, experimenting and (most of the time) it’s all okay. It doesn’t look like the local school, but that’s one of the reasons they are at home.

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