Setting Up Learning Co-Ops, Clubs, or Groups
Many times, it is beneficial for a homeschool family to form an extracurricular club or small learning group co-op with another family or two for subjects that lend themselves well to a small group environment such as a: 4H club, LegoRobotics Club, Readers Theater group, Speech group, Shakespeare club, or Nature Science club, etc.
Some of these co-ops can become quite large, like a PE co-op or band. Many times school credit is gained through these extracurricular activities. Almost always fun and friends follow.
But how do you go about creating a learning group? The following is gleaned from our experiences of over 20 years of providing these wonderful learning groups for our children and friends in both small group and large group settings.
BE REALISTIC...Getting the Vision
Are you sure you need a co-op or club? What kind? Would it be better to go it alone? Be honest with your intentions for your family and the group. If all you are really looking for is some informal social time, then just invite families over to play or be clear this is a play group with some crafts thrown in. Learning groups do provide some social fun in a constructive way, but don't burden members of a learning group with confused intentions. You and your kids will end up with work you don't want, and they will end up with a family who is not committed to the group's learning goals.
Does the subject of study or interest lend itself well to a group setting? Some subjects really do, like a Readers Theater begs for participants and a baseball game requires a team. However, some topics don't. Don't try to stretch a topic to accommodate a group setting if it really needs more individual concentration (like math). For those types of topics, it is often better to go it alone without bringing others along (or tagging along with someone else's group) especially if your children get very distracted by the social part and forget to study the subject.
Look too at your own purpose for this subject area. Are you wanting to move freely through the topic focusing on your own specific goals? Extra hands (and bodies) could then be a burden rather than a help. Also, don't assume a group setting will solve your problems if you are insecure about the topic. Often it is better to face your fears and take the time to study that subject area yourself rather than assuming someone else will do it all for you. (Remember they have joined the group looking for YOU to help them too!)
Limit Your Time Commitment.
Be honest. If you (or those in your group) can only handle meeting once a month, meet once a month. It takes a LOT of commitment to do weekly meetings, and a poorly done weekly group likely will not achieve more than a well done once or twice a month group. Also how long do you plan for the group to meet? Ad infinitem...or ad naseum? If you want an ongoing art appreciation club, state that. But if all you really wanted to do was take 3 months and study the works by Monet with a few art museum trips be clear about that! Also, don't expect children to continue an activity for hours on end. A shorter lesson or activity time that is done well will produce far better results than dragging something on because attention spans will begin to wane.
Limit Your Group Size.
Obviously none of us want to be cliquish or selfishly shun others, and some creative flexibility can produce a "more the merrier" result that you hadn't first anticipated, but be realistic about your meeting space and the subject's adaptability to the number of children involved. Some programs limit the group size (LegoRobotics' rules only allow 10 members on a team--but 4 or 5 is a much more workable number for actual mission participation).
Unless it is something like PE or band, most subjects don't adapt well to large numbers. It's not fun for a child to have only one tiny line in a Readers Theater play and then have to stand around waiting with nothing to do. Don't try to twist a subject to accommodate 15 kids when 6 really are the maximum that would work well. Keep an eye on safety too. PE accommodates larger numbers, up to a point. Then it becomes too many kids to handle safely. Thus don't be afraid to limit the number of your group. Explain up front that you only have room for "x" number of families/children...and first come/first served! If there is more interest than there is room, share your information and encourage others to start a similar group or divide your group up with others leading!
Limit Your Subject Scope.
Don't try to teach EVERYTHING about a particular subject. Be clear about what you are trying to do and what your main purpose is. Unless you have a clear survey curriculum to follow, or desire the group to extend over a number of years, limit your scope about a topic. It would be better to focus on a Shakespeare circle rather than trying to cover every author in the history of British Literature especially if your time goal is a short season.
Plan for Multi-Age Activities or Limit the Ages/Ability Levels of Participating Children.
Many activities adapt well to mutli-ages and create a wonderful learning environment for all involved; some do not. Be realistic about the skills needed for your subject and the safety and interest levels of the ages you plan to mix. Younger and older children often learn skills in different ways.
Don't assume that little ones will or can magically go with the flow if you are attempting to teach older children harder skills that require a lot of your attention. Either tell mothers your group can only handle older children, or have a plan in place for the younger siblings. You may need to divide your group into smaller sub-groups according to age/skill levels bringing in others to help lead, especially if there is a safety concern because of strength differences (as in PE).
Please don't assume another mother in your group is dying to toddle after your little one while you help your older children. Sometimes an older child or teen of one of the families would love to babysit the smaller ones, playing with them and reading a bible story during the activity time for the older group (especially if the teen gains a few dollars). Please don't just assume the older kids want to babysit the younger children though.
Know Your Ability Limitations and Those of the Other Parents in Your Group.
While a club can be a wonderful cooperative of shared skills, and a variety of approaches can bring depth by offering new perspectives, be realistic with each other's skills and time. Don't try to be everything to everybody. Don't expect other parents to magically fill in all the gaps for you, especially if you haven't taken the time to plan well. Be realistic about your own limitations.
Often it is better to extend an invitation to those you know have similar goals with children of similar abilities and schooling styles rather than to make a blanket invitation to everyone in the community--unless your club will be capable and willing to adapt to the different needs, styles, and expectations of everyone involved.
BE AGREED...Setting the Specifics
Set forth the group's realistic needs, goals, and expectations (see the Be Realistic section above)
Agree to what will be expected from each parent and each child. (Behavior, house rules, homework, etc.) Agree to what curriculum and materials will be used. Agree how much expense and time each family must provide to participate. Agree to be kind and loving towards one another in Christ (as life takes unexpected turns).
Make sure all in your group understand AND agree! Write these down so you can look back on them over time, especially if the activity involves physical risk.
If there is physical risk (such as in PE), it would be wise to have each parent sign a liability waiver releasing you as leader, your group, and anyone leading an activity. (Friends might not sue friends, but insurance companies sure do.) Also, your group will need to discuss any safety concerns and put in place all appropriate measures.
Agree who is going to teach. If you want to teach a topic a certain way and only want support, be clear that is what you are doing. If you expect others to contribute teaching time or supplies, be clear that is what you expect. If you are joining a group, be up front with your desires.
If you are obtaining an expert to teach an activity (such as band or a sport), provide their credentials and review their requirements before the group agrees to hire them. You should also have a signed letter of intent from the expert so that their expectations and your commitments as a group are clear. And expect the professional will likely require signed paperwork from each parent.
BE ORGANIZED...Doing the Planning
Unless your group's focus is mostly social, well in advance, before your first meeting, plan and make a calendar of meeting dates for the year (or session), what's being taught, and who's teaching what.
Some groups will obviously be more structured than others, and a few flow well from meeting to meeting with little planning, but most need structure or people tend to drop out because there is no apparent purpose or organization to the meetings (which means kids often get bored and misbehavior occurs).
Help your children be organized too. Often, it is helpful for each child to have a notebook for your club to keep paperwork and handouts.
BE COMMITTED...Caring for each other.
Do what you say you are going to do.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (children and parents alike).
the CHOC Board
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(Permission is given to print for personal use or link to this article as long as credit is given to Tammy R. Arp at the CHOC Board and our website address is shown.)