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How to Afford Homeschooling and Other Alternative Education For Kids on a Budget

Finding funds, making the most of your budget, and using free resources

A friend told me recently that, after watching my TEDx talk on how kids learn through curiosity and intrinsic motivation, he's excited about creating an "environment of opportunity" for kids—especially his own. I imagine this environment might resemble existing unschooling resource centers (some listed here), democratic schools (such as Sudbury schools), and self-directed education communities.

My friend said he's been thinking on and off for years about creating this sort of environment. He has ideas aplenty for activities, materials, indoor and outdoor spaces, and more. But funds? How would he afford it?

His concern about fundings points to a broader question that I think will resonate with many parents. At any scale—whether we want to create environments in our homes that support our kids' intrinsic curiosity and learning, or whether we want to build schools, centers, and communities—how do we afford all the resources we would like our kids to have?

A home of opportunity

At home, opportunity is available on any budget. Whether you homeschool, unschool, or follow any other education path that includes helping your kids explore whatever is that currently fascinates them, there are plenty of low-cost and no-cost resources you can use. The two most obvious: the library (for books, audiobooks, movies, kits, 3D printers, educational programs, and so much more) and the internet (articles, videos, games, software, tutorials, etc, etc).

As unschooling mother of four Tiersa McQueen explained in a New York Times interview:

"There’s a narrative that makes people feel, if they don’t have resources, they can’t do it, and that’s not true,” Ms. McQueen told me. “I’m doing it, and I’m not affluent.” She works 8 to 5 at the headquarters of a retail chain in Bradenton, Fla. Her husband works two jobs, nights and weekends, at a convenience store and a grocery store.

Here are some sites with more ideas:

Sprout, Squidge, and Moppet details where to find resources/materials for projects on the cheap, such as sourcing 'free resources for teachers', using free software, and being creative with kids' interests (e.g., an interest in karate does not have to mean karate lessons—it could also mean watching videos, attending a local tournament to watch, dressing up and playing at being Karate Kid, etc), and also includes a list of places to go—museums, libraries, parks, "taster" classes (many places offer 1-2 free classes before you have to sign up, which lets kids sample their interests before committing), going places at off-peak times, and much more!

Unschooling Mom2Mom lists resources such as the library; thrift stores and garage sales; museums that have a free day each week or each month, libraries that lend passes to museums and art galleries; local groups for trading or bartering goods, knowledge, and skills; local book and material swaps; and more.

Sandra Dodd suggests a range of low-cost activities, such as making paper airplanes and paper bag puppets, homemade play-doh, and going on adventures to local parks. She also talks about getting a friend in a distant state to send them collections of stuff from nature that they'd never see otherwise—different kinds of leaves, snakeskins, dead bugs.

Life with Joanne has a long list of activities you can do with your kids, many of which involve few or no materials (or materials you may be able to easily source from a thrift store).

Natural Born Learners suggests you trade skill lessons with other families, make things at home, use free online resources, take classes at local public schools for free, arrange group lessons to get discounted rates, help your kids get jobs (dog walking, babysitting, etc).

Verde Mama writes about a day in the life—a trip to the library, music lessons, playing in the mud, playing dress-up, and more.

Rickshaw Unschooling talks about living frugally, working from home, forgoing expensive activities, and still being a very happy family.

shelves of picture books at a library
Libraries are great resources

Lifestyle changes

Affording opportunity is not only about how much money is available to pursue kids' interests. Time is also opportunity. You will probably have to make tradeoffs in order to support your kids the way you want.

The most obvious example is a mother who decides to stay home to facilitate her children's learning, forgoing full-time income and career. That can be completely worth it in terms of flexibility, quality of education, and the relationships you build with your children. (Plus, staying home can involve continuing a part-time career; I know many, many women who have their own part-time businesses, blogs, consulting gigs, or other work.)

Some families choose to uproot and move to lower cost-of-living areas, to areas close to extended family who can help out, or to areas with a specific, desired community or culture. Some parents change careers in order to have more flexibility, such as a husband taking a job with a shorter commute (or no commute) and increased control over his daily schedule (like Randy did), or take second jobs to help pay for what matters. Some focus on building up passive income streams to help support their families.

Scaling up: Opportunity beyond the home

If you are wondering how to fund an environment of opportunity on a larger scale, it would definitely be worth researching the many kinds of schools, centers, and communities that exist around the world already. Some, such as the democratic Sudbury schools, are formed as a replacement for conventional schools; others are designed as supplementary communities where families can come together to learn whatever it is they want to learn.

Most schools and centers, maybe all, charge tuition for kids or families who attend some number of days a week. Often, some of the tuition will go toward financial aid for lower income families. The rest will go toward sustaining the school/center.

What about initial start-up costs? Usually, groups that go on to found schools/centers will initially meet in a shared or rented space. The group may raise and pool money to purchase a property and officially start the school, or a wealthy individual may bankroll startup. There may also be federal or state grants for supporting novel means of education or for programs that supplement children's education.

The Agile Learning Centers provide detailed materials on how to start your own center, with advice about finances, infrastructure, and administration. Their information is likely useful and applicable for starting other kinds of schools/centers as well. Finally, here's an essay on creating democratic Sudbury schools, which talks both about the philosophy of the schools and about the practical monetary aspects.

Bottom line: It's doable!

Regardless of your situation, if you want to take the leap away from public schooling, don't let money be an obstacle!

Not sure how to make the leap? If you'd like help figuring this out and create a personalized plan for you, email us whoo@deliberateowl.com. We do consulting! We'd love to help you plan your next steps and support you along the way.

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

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