The Gift Schoolchildren Will Never Receive

by ChristinaPilkington on November 16, 2011 · 18 comments

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Christmas is only 39 days away. I don’t know why it always seems to sneak up on me so fast, but it does. There’s always a hundred different things I want to do each year; I always have grand plans, but most of them never take place.

The one thing I always find time for is buying presents for my family. For me, it really is more blessed to give than to receive. We don’t buy our children extra toys or gifts throughout the year except for their birthday and Christmas, so I get excited just as much as they do about giving them things they’ll appreciate and enjoy.

Buying the presents is fun, but finding the time to do that is another story. As a homeschooling mom, I’m always with my kids. It’s something I really enjoy, but it is more challenging to do things like Christmas shopping. It’s hard not to think some days about how much more time I would have to do things if my kids went to school every day.


It’s a funny thing, isn’t it?  It’s totally free, it doesn’t cost anything and we all have the same amount of it. Yet, it really is the most precious, most expensive thing we own.

As I think about the perfect gifts to buy my children this holiday season, I realized that I’m already giving them one of the most precious, rare gifts I can: time.

People can argue forever about the benefits of homeschooling verses attending a super-expensive, highly rated private school, or a public school that tests top in the nation.  They can argue whether kids are better “socialized” in or out of school. They can even argue whether children who are homeschooled are more creative or better problem-solvers than kids who attend traditional classrooms.

But the one fact that is impossible to argue is that kids who don’t attend school own a much larger percentage of their time than kids who go to school.

How many hours a child’s day does school consume?

 Let’s take a child who is ten years old.  The school day alone usually lasts at least six and a half hours. (I know a 5 year old who has a 7 hour day). Then there’s an average of an hour getting to and from school. Finally, there’s usually at least an hour of homework added on to this. (I’m being conservative here. I’ve heard stories on children this age who sometimes have two to three hours of homework to do).

That’s at least eight and a half hours a day that’s completely scheduled and planned out for the child. That’s a minimum of at least 1,530 hours a year.

As a former public school teacher, I know that of that eight and a half hours, only three hours, at the very most, are taken up with real instruction. So that’s 990 hours wasted on collecting papers, walking in straight lines, waiting for others finishing to go the bathroom, sitting quietly while shoving food in your mouth as fast as you can during lunch, and other time-wasters. Of the 540 hours of “on task” time, if the child does not find the learning personally meaningful, they still will not be learning anything of real value.

After adding in dinner every evening, a child might have three hours to be with their family or to do their own projects. But they often have to do extra-curricular activities that are deemed important – whether it’s important to the child or not. So there often is no time in the day where they can decide how to spend their time, what they’d like to learn about, or who they spend their time with.

So, what could kids be doing with all that time?

1. Spending time with their family. I will literally have spent entire years more with my kids than if they had attended school. No, we’re not constantly engaging and doing things together that entire time, but they know that I’m always here if they need me and I have the joy of learning new things with them, building lots of wonderful memories and sharing many exciting adventures.

2. Becoming an expert at something. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shares the 10,000 Hours Rule.  He discusses how becoming great at something requires spending an enormous amount of time and practice.  He credits the success of many well-known people with spending at least 20 hours a week for ten years practicing and getting good at something. Just think if all children were given this opportunity to perfect their natural talents and interests.

3. Experimenting with different professions and interests. So many college-age kids graduate still not sure of what they want to do for a living. Just think if, instead of practicing for standardized tests during their high school years, they could have spent time shadowing or apprenticing with dozens of different occupations, trying on each one and seeing first-hand if it’s right for them?

4. Playing, imagining, and creating. There have been so many scientific studies about the benefits and necessity of play for children, yet each year more and more of that time for play is being taken away from them. The children who are given the gift of time to play, for hours at a time instead of a half hour here and there squeezed in between other activities, those are the kids who will grow up to be innovators, problem-solvers, creators and entrepreneurs – traits that will be highly valued in the coming years.

5. Just being alone. When you grow up according to someone else’s schedule, it’s scary to think about being alone. If you are alone, you need to have some type of stimulation – T.V., texting, Facebook or surfing the internet. Kids who find themselves with an hour or two of unscheduled time away from screens, especially if they are older and have not had a lot of experience with choosing their own activities, will complain of being bored. They don’t want to be alone with their thoughts and have a hard time just sitting still or taking a quiet walk by themselves. There’s a growth and maturity that takes place only during times of quiet introspection.

So, while I’m excited about buying my children some new games and toys for Christmas, I’m much more thankful that I can give them almost twenty thousand extra hours during their childhood and teen years to grow closer as a family, develop their own unique gifts and talents, enjoy life and experience its richness and fullness, learn deeply according to their own timetables and to have time to just sit still and be.

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney


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  • Proud Public School Teacher

    I teach fourth grade and I take exception to your 3 hours of instruction out of 8. When my students arrive they do a 10 minute review warm-up. Then we go to special (you may not consider that instruction, though in all three specials they are instructed the entire time, but I won’t count this 30 minutes). They return and we do 25 minutes of individualized math instruction, followed by 35 minutes of regular math instruction. After this we do a one hour reading block followed by a 20 minute spelling/grammar block. After lunch/recess (40 min.) we do 30 minutes of quiet reading. Next is 30 minutes of science or social studies and 30 minutes of writing. We have 20 minutes of read aloud at the end of the day before an activity that varies by day for 20 minutes (character development, day related, POD, VWOD, etc) Then the last 10 minutes is agenda and wrap up. What I am trying to tell you is that at my school the children spend most of the day engaged. I am, “on” at least 5 out of the 6 and 1/2 hours I have with my students per day. I am not sitting in my chair or grading papers while they do busy work. Also, I have programs in place so that getting to special or lunch etc. only takes at most 2 minutes each way. We go to special and lunch so that is 8 minutes a day on lining up. The kids go to the bathroom on their own time not in a group so there is no waiting around for others to finish. I am happy that unschooling works for you and your family. It would not work for all families. Family is just as important to me as it is to you. That is also the case with most families that send their children to public school. They don’t love, value, or cherish their children less because they send them to public school. They do what they think or know is right for their families. My one problem with home- or un- schooling is the superior attitude. There are poor home-schoolers just like there are poor teachers or schools. I dislike that home-schooling parents lump all public schools and teachers into one group and it is never in a positive light. Why can’t you accept that your experience isn’t the only experience with public school? For many children school is their lifeline, their escape, their inspiration. Most teachers work their bottoms off and care more about their students than you know. I read Your Story and I am sorry to say that maybe you just weren’t a very good teacher and that is why your students were uninterested in your teaching. Natually, it would have to be the school or the curriculum that wasn’t working. I think that is bologna. You are the leader. Though the curriculum and administration is there, the teacher has great autonomy in the classroom. Any subject can be brought to life by a person with the right tools. The teachers who inspire and deliver on a daily basis don’t have magical powers. They have a way of stimulating curiosity and desire in their charges and awakening something that was asleep. I take offense to being lumped in with mediocre teachers. In my classroom there is a partnership between the parents and the teacher and between the teacher and the child. I also take offense to the 3 hours of instruction out of 6 and 1/2. We waste very little time in my classroom and I know that is how it is in the other classes at my school as well. I can accept the good in homeschooling, I think you should be able to accept the good in public schooling. There are positives and negatives to both. As in most things, a balanced view and acceptance of the truths there in lead to better understanding and progress for all. Every child deserves the best education possible.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for taking the time to write a well- thought-out response to my post. I’m a little surprised at how long you spent on the site reading, since you seem to take deep offense with what I said, but I appreciate you taking the time to voice your opinion.

      As you know I was a public school teacher myself. I also worked for several years as a substitute teacher. I’ve literally been in hundreds of classrooms in both public and private schools. I understand what you’re saying about you being “on” for five hours a day, but I will still have to respectfully disagree about the children being “on” and truly learning that entire time, too.

      Where we probably will disagree the most is that I believe if a child does not find activities or information personally meaningful in his life, he is not really learning. Just because a child may sit still during almost two and a half hours straight of math and language arts a day doesn’t mean he or she is learning a thing if it’s not something they are interested in or that helps them accomplish some goal or project that comes from them or that they care about.

      When children have their days planned out as rigidly as you described in your classroom, they’re not learning some extremely important lessons, lessons that I believe are going to be very valuable as this generation of children grow up in our ever-changing world. Those who are innovators, problem-solvers (those problems they dream up themselves, not those artificial ones given to them by other people), entrepreneurs, creators, self-directed, and independent will be the leaders and world-changers that we need.

      Even more importantly, these children will be able to know what makes them unique and how they can best contribute to the world. Instead of having their days broken down into arbitrary 30-40 minutes blocks of time, they can concentrate for entire days or weeks developing skills they care about and are uniquely ready to work on, not just because it’s the third quarter of their third grade year and that’s what the curriculum says they need to be working on.

      I agree that unschooling will not work for each family. If the parents are not willing or able to constantly answer questions at all hours of the day or night, work extremely hard to provide a wide variety of experiences and opportunity for all types of learning-not just traditional math, language arts, science and social studies activities-help their children plan out and execute the projects and ideas they come up with, take their children out in the community and beyond as much as possible, and have long, meaningful discussions with them, then no, it will not work.

      However placing kids in the traditional and frankly out-dated model, of institutionalized schooling (including both private and public schools that are set up that way) is not the answer either. I’d encourage you to check out the Sudbury Schools that are set up. In these schools, children are allowed to direct their own days. Adults are there to answer questions, help guide them, and, when asked to, teach classes for students who are interested. Children can spend the entire day reading if they want to. Or, if they want to work on math, they can do that all day and not have to stop what they are doing just because the bell rang and they have to work on something else.

      All these children learn to read without having to sit through any classes. They are all competent in basic math when they leave. And almost all of them are very clear about what they are passionate about and want to do in their lives because they have been given thousands of hours to be responsible for their lives and not have others constantly tell them what to do.

      That is the point of my post – that children who are given freedom to be self-directed and take charge of their own education have an enormous opportunity that other children don’t. They have the time to do so many things that I won’t go into here since I already wrote about it.

      I’m not sure why you felt the need to say “maybe you just weren’t a very good teacher and that’s why your students were uninterested in your teaching.” Why would you need to make such a cutting, personal remark? Also, your remark that the teacher has great autonomy in the classroom is often not true at all. I’m curious, why do you have a strict schedule in your classroom with subjects broken down into specific time periods? Is that what everyone else is doing and needs to do in your school? What would happen if you just let the kids read what they want for an entire day? Could you do that? If you could, would you try that in your room?

      My last year at the school was my personal best. I decided to let the kids in my room learn whatever they wanted. That year I had the very best relationship with those kids. If they wanted to sit and read whatever they wanted instead of the mandatory, yes mandatory, textbooks they were supposed to be reading, then that’s what they did. If they wanted to write letters to their friends, then that’s what they did. If they wanted to talk with each other for the entire time, than that’s what they did.

      And I saw them grow so much more as readers and writers in that one year than I ever had before. We sat around and talked about their lives, their dreams and desires, and through that they saw that I cared about them; I put their interests and needs ahead of an arbitrary schedule of 35 minutes of math and 30 minutes of silent reading. When I suggested personal projects they might like to do, they were more willing to try things out. They were extremely interested in what they were doing in my class because I wasn’t teaching them any longer; I was facilitating what they were interested in doing and guiding them along their own authentic path.

      You might be thinking that I’m contradicting myself now. I just said I didn’t have much control in my classroom, but I was going against what they wanted me to do. I would have been asked to leave that year if I had not already been leaving since I was pregnant. I would have been asked to leave because I wasn’t going to follow their arbitrary schedule of what to read, how many minutes of vocabulary and spelling I needed to cover during the day.

      I’m sorry but revolution and change cannot be made without eliminating a broken system and putting into place something entirely new. I feel very strongly about this and will advocate for the changes that need to take place. You’re very right- every child deserves a good education, and even more importantly, freedom. That’s what I passionately believe in and am working for.

  • Julie Coryell

    Wonderful post! As a former school nurse I often thought about the enormous amount of wasted time during the school day. I ended up leaving my job due to issues with my daughter with autism. I home schooled her until we moved a few months ago. I have to say I really loved it & I think she did too. She’s in a special needs program here that she really loves but I’m praying fervently about homeschooling her again as well as my 10 year old.

    Looking forward to reading more from you!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for reading! If your daughter loves her program, I think that’s great. I think if kids really do enjoy how their learning in whatever situation they are in, that’s the most important. Homeschooling gives them the greatest freedom and time to use in the most flexible, customized way, though.

      I’ll be praying for you, too, about deciding whether going back to homeschooling in the best thing for your family.

  • PrairieJenn

    Great post! You make some excellent points:)

    I recently found out that the fourth graders in our local school get nine minutes per day at recess. Nine minutes?!? That’s insane…especially when I look at the hours my daughters spend each day playing, creating, investigating, and learning through play.

    • Anonymous

      I know of twins who were going to K for the first time. They were excited because their mom said they’d have such a fun time playing there. They came home crying because they said there were no toys in the room at all.

      Even the schools that do allow kids free play at centers take that away by the time they start 1st grade. It’s incredibly sad.

  • HSofia

    This is the primary reason we will likely home/unschool our child – the amount of time. 6 hours a day is one thing – then 6 hours plus homework? Why can’t it all be done there? When I did office work, I was relieved not to have to take my work home with me. Honestly, if there were a school she could go to that were 2-3 hours a day, I would be far more inclined to send her.

    • Anonymous

      I agree. In the days of the one-room schoolhouse, the kids only had to attend school from ages 7-14. They only needed to attend for 80 days a year, and even then they didn’t have to attend those days all in a row. The literacy rate in the US has declined ever since the first school in Massachusetts in 1852 became compulsory.

      We are unschoolers and do not follow a set curriculum or lesson plans, but even more traditional homeschoolers usually finish lessons within two hours each day. Just the wasted time alone, which is a major source of frustration and stress for many children, should make more parents consider alternatives.

  • Jessica

    I have been doing some thinking lately about the shifting needs of our children. When I was a public school teacher, I cared deeply about my students but I did not spend hours and hours in contemplative reflection about their needs, interests, strengths and weaknesses not to mention their wants, goals, dreams, and desires. Not only do homeschool children get the gift of time at home to explore their interests and learn deeply about topics of their choosing, they get the gift of the parent’s time that is invested in making sure that their education is the best possible fit for each child.

    • Anonymous


      That is an awesome point! Thanks so much for sharing it. Even if I could have spent a lot of time as a teacher to think deeply about my students, I couldn’t know personal things about them or know them as deeply as someone who lives with them all the time. Teachers also can’t spend one-on-one time with each student every day just listening to their concerns, hopes and dreams. Having their parent’s time for this is invaluable for children who don’t attend school.

  • Karen Terry Cagle

    Another great post and one I agree so much with. The gift of time is something that is priceless.

    • Anonymous

      I feel so blessed to be able to give so much to my kids. I know not everyone can be in this situation, so it’s something I always want to be mindful of.

  • Susan

    I feel like this post deserves an “amen!” ;)
    Seriously, excellent points!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks! I was feeling extra passionate about the subject today :)

  • Stephanie Kush

    I know! What better gift is there of time. It’s amazing how much time gets sucked up by school and the output isn’t there. Thanks for the suggestions at the high school level. I had always thought that once Cody got to high school age he would go to high school. I am re-thinking that and the concept of apprenticing or shadowing never dawned on me. Thanks!

    • Anonymous

      My kids are young, but I’ve alreadys started taking them once a month to visit a different person at their job. We’ve visited my husband’s work (accounting), my mom (at a college), my brother (an IT job downtown), and will soon visit a human resource manager and nurse at the hospital. Teens have so many opportunities to do real work, which is so important at that age. Just when they are old enough and responsible enough to do meaningful work, we send them to spend most of the day sitting down doing mostly busy work or learning things they could easily do on their own. Such wasted potential!

      • Jessica

        I LOVE that you are doing this! How long do you spend at the visit? Is it for a tour or do the girls spend time shadowing? My brain is buzzing with how valuable this would be for my girls……

        • Anonymous

          Jared and Alexa love seeing other people at work! It really all depends on each visit, but usually for a few hours to half a day. They’re still young, so they don’t do any real work, but I can see older kids and teens being able to spend at least a day or two, depending on the situation. For now it’s been with people we know. With my brother’s job downtown, the kids had the added benefit of taking the train, using their money to purchase tickets, and so on. We haven’t done any tours. These are all personal experiences, which I think it important.

          I think you just might find it easier than you think. Just start by asking everyone you know, friendds and family, if your girls can visit them at work. Also,let them know that if there’s any work they can do, your girls would be more than happy to help.

          I just remembered when we went to see my mom’s brother at the train garden. He volunteers at a botanical garden and runs the model trains. This is huge exhibit. My kids were able to run the trains that day while the other kids watched. They caused quite a bit of jealousy!

          Maybe this info would interest others and I should write a post about it later.

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