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6 Learning Tools to Use Instead of Textbooks

Enhance Your Children's Learning with Alternative Resources


Many new homeschoolers assume that teaching your children yourself means buying textbooks. After all, that's how the schools do it, right? Well, even traditional schools are coming to realize that there is educational value in non-traditional learning tools.

For homeschoolers, the advantages of using alternative resources are many: they usually cost less, are easier to find, don't require a teachers' manual or special training, they exercise a multitude of skills aside from passive reading -- and they're usually a lot more fun.

What's more, if you feel the need, you can often find teaching suggestions or even entire unit studies to go with many non-traditional resources. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

1. Math Manipulatives

Cuisenaire Rod play
Kathy Ceceri

Even before kids are old enough to do math on paper, they can be learning about addition, subtraction, multiplication and division just by playing and making designs with math manipulatives. These can be identical items that you buy (tiny plastic counting bears are a popular version), or just things you have around the house in easy-to-handle multiples, such as buttons or Cheerios.

Or kick it up a notch and use graduated manipulatives, such as Cuisenaire Rods. They're the ultimate teaching toy: they help kids absorb math concepts before they ever encounter them in a book.

2. Science Kits

ScienceWiz Inventors Kit
Image: Kathy Ceceri

Some science kits may look more like toys than serious lab materials, but that doesn't mean they don't have a lot to teach. My kids built a working radio from the ScienceWiz Inventors Kit that we still talk about to this day.

Even simple demonstrations like the Diet Coke and Mentos experiment popularized by science showman Steve Spangler can get kids thinking about how and why things work -- and perhaps lead them into further exploration on their own.

That goes for electronics kits too. Lego's homeschool kits, for example, include curriculum for a six-week unit on robotics.

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3. Board Games

Teen Board Game
Wolfgang Weinhaeupl/Getty Images

Table top games -- including board games and card games -- can teach kids all kinds of skills, even if they don't claim to be "educational." Simple games like Chutes and Ladders or Hi Ho! Cherry-O help little ones practice counting. Many games, such as Risk or Settlers of Catan, are based on real or imaginary geography. Both can get kids thinking about what is needed to survive and prosper in a society.

Word games like Scrabble help develop spelling and vocabulary. Trivial Pursuit and similar games like reward players who possess arcane knowledge (which homeschoolers often tend to do) -- but also expose kids to factoids that may inspire them to dig deeper.

Just as importantly, games (of all kinds) provide a chance to work on turn-taking, delayed gratification, and other social skills. Not to mention, they show kids different ways to have fun with other people!

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4. Movies

NOVA video box
Image: PBS

Who says you need to absorb information in written form? There are many ways to homeschool with videos. Nature films, history documentaries and computer-animated science specials can make otherwise dull or difficult subjects come alive. The PBS series NOVA (available on DVD and online) and The Civil War by Ken Burns are obvious examples.

And don't discount feature films. You can find many worthwhile adaptations of classic literature, from Pride and Prejudice to Disney's The Lion King (loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet). Or look for biopics about heroes like Marie Curie, Helen Keller, or Nelson Mandela. These can be thrilling entertainment as well as educational and inspirational.

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5. Picture Books and Graphic Novels

Mill by David Macaulay
Image: Houghton Mifflin

Virtually any book can be used as a homeschooling tool, and that includes picture books and graphic novels. Simple picture books like those by Doctor Seuss and graphic novels can motivate young children and beginning readers with interesting stories that don't rely solely on decoding the text. There are even high-quality nonfiction picture books like the architecture books of David Macaulay (Cathedral, Mill, Building Big) that are substantial enough for older readers.

Graphic novels for teens may look like book-sized comics, but they're much, much more. They encompass powerful stories like Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and the real-life memoir Persepolis, about an Iranian girl's escape to Europe. Some nonfiction graphic novels, like Larry Gonick's "Cartoon Guides" to chemistry, statistics and the "history of the universe," could almost be considered text books in disguise.

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6. Arts and Crafts Supplies

Yarn Craft
Image: Kathy Ceceri

Hands-on art projects can add a lot to a child's education. In the early grades, they help kids develop manual dexterity by practicing cutting, pasting, and working with different modeling and writing materials. Older students can learn about other cultures by making replicas of traditional crafts. Or pick up art history by copying the styles of the great masters. Of course, kids also benefit by just using art materials to express their own ideas and inspirations.

If you don't know where to start, the Klutz line of books, especially titles like A Book of Artrageous Projects, include all the information you need plus all the supplies in one package! The Dick Blick website is also a great source of both supplies and lessons plans you can use at home as well as in the classroom.

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