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Purchasing 101: Forget the Curriculum; What Else Do I Buy!?

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By Tammy M. Cardwell

What do I buy? It's a question that both excites and intimidates the new homeschooler. Curriculum purchases are hard enough, but what about everything else? What will you really need in your homeschool?

One of the best tips I received that first year was, “Don't buy it ‘till you need it.” I didn't always heed this advice, but I saw it for truth early on. The boys’ school desks lasted maybe three months, which is about how long the schoolroom itself survived. Whether or not to have a schoolroom is the first issue you'll face, and it's one you should face honestly. In my home, where refusing to answer the phone was not an option, a remote schoolroom did not work. Having a school desk separate from my regular desk also proved impractical. School quickly became such a part of our everyday lives that setting it off by itself was a joke. Things may be different in your home, of course, but do not assume that a schoolroom is an absolute necessity.

Another thing you should remember is that you don’t have to buy everything new. Garage sales, thrift stores, and businesses that resell office and hotel furniture can be storehouses of bargains for the budget-minded shopper.

There are, of course, some things that seem universally necessary and still other things (sometimes surprising things) that, once we homeschoolers discover them, we find we could never do without again. Rather than go on and on from my own experience, I decided to get with some fellow homeschoolers and gather input for a list of ‘necessary helpfuls.’ One thing everyone agrees on, by the way, is the importance of quality. It seems we homeschoolers tend to purchase commercial grade supplies whenever possible.

Some of these suggestions may seem absurd to you, or even excessive, but the list will give you a better idea of what experienced homeschoolers really find themselves appreciating. For your convenience, I have separated our suggestions into categories and, where possible and appropriate, given some specific suggestions. To further assist you, we have provided links to our reviews of specific products. We have also included many in our online store.

Furnishings

  • Bookshelves - You can never have enough. Even if you have yet to fill them with books (you will) they make great organization and storage centers. Too, there is a standing joke among homeschoolers about filled bookcases adding to the R-value (insulation) of your walls.
  • Chalk or Marker Board – If you prefer the old fashioned chalk board, you can either buy one or buy chalkboard paint and put one wherever you feel comfortable wielding your brush. Most seem to prefer marker boards (whiteboards) and you can create one for yourself for less than you would pay at the local office supply. We went down to our local builder’s supply and purchased a piece of shower board. This enabled us to get exactly the size we wanted and, when we trimmed it out with molding, it looked wonderful. The one thing you need to remember with marker boards, especially if you make one in this manner, is that you must clean them regularly to keep the ink from staining the surface. In other words, don’t write something on the board and leave it for days on end.
  • Flannel Board – This is another tool you can make yourself, and you can use it to display much more than the flannel graph sets you may remember from Sunday school.
  • Cork Board – While most homeschoolers don’t have bulletin boards in the traditional sense, we all seem destined to fill our walls with children’s art, educational posters, and more. Cork boards can save walls from tack holes and tape residue. One mom I knew even glued cork tiles to a whole wall and said it was the wisest move she’d ever made.
  • Small Aquariums – These can serve several purposes. Fit one with dividers and you can even raise a variety of plant and animal life in one container.

Library

  • Literature Collections – Most homeschoolers end up with large libraries anyway, but the quickest way to get started is with literature collections like The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (unabridged) (ASIN: 0517053616), and anthology collections such as those put out by W. W. Norton and Company. (Note: Due to changes in content selection, you may prefer earlier editions to some of the more recent Norton anthologies.)
    The Norton Anthology of Children's Literature
    The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Package 1: Volumes A-B, Sixth Edition
    The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors: One-Volume Edition, Seventh Edition (with Media Companion)
    Note: Always buy unabridged books. The only time I did not regret buying an abridged book is when we accidentally read an abridged copy of The Swiss Family Robinson and then turned around immediately and read the full version; it was an excellent lesson in how much one loses when abridging works of literature.
  • Poetry Anthologies – There are any number to choose from. Again, Norton is considered the standard by many. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fifth Edition
  • The Timetables of History – A timeline is essential; it enables you to visually tie all date-related information together. (I suggest putting ALL of the dates you encounter on your personal timeline, regardless of the subject being studied.) The Timetables of History is the ultimate timeline reference. Pick a year and it tells what was happening in politics, literature, religion, the visual arts, music, science, technology, daily life, etc.
  • Encyclopedia – The Internet offers many research options and good encyclopedia software is a great thing, but everyone I’ve ever spoken with who has an honest-to-goodness set of hardbound encyclopedias said they refused to part with it. You just can’t beat pulling out a book and thumbing through the pages.
    Two notes: Most seem to prefer the World Book Encyclopedia. Also, if you abhor political correctness, go for an older set. Mine is from 1976 and we love it.
  • Modern Dictionary – Get the best dictionary you can. If you enjoy learning about word origins, you may want to consider the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. You can also get it in a combination hardcover/CD-ROM edition. Too, you might consider buying dictionaries that are written specifically for children.
  • Webster's 1828 DictionaryReview. The American Dictionary of the English Language, commonly known as “Webster’s 1828,” is invaluable when reading documents from early American history and older works of fiction. It also offers a fascinating glimpse at the way people from this earlier time looked at things. I also suggest referring to it when reading the King James Version of the Bible; word usage has changed greatly since King James’ time, but had not changed quite so much between the years the King James version was written and Webster’s publication of his dictionary in 1828.
  • Field Guides – If you spend any time at all enjoying the world around you, consider investing in field guides so you will know what you’re looking at. They have them for everything: trees, birds, insects, wildflowers…
  • English Handbook – There are several grammar and style references books available. Perhaps the least expensive and most easy-to-understand is Strunk & White’s Elements of Style - Review.
  • Thesaurus – You cannot beat a good thesaurus when your students are trying to avoid overusing the same old words. My personal favorite is The Synonym Finder - Review.

Manipulatives

  • Pattern Blocks – There are great tools for helping children learn to recognize shapes and grasp spatial relationships. Truth? Even adults enjoy them.
  • Cuisenaire Rods - I never got these myself, but have heard enough about their usefulness that I regret never purchasing them.
  • Snap Lock Cubes – We used Unifix Cubes and they can serve many purposes from patterning to studying addition to helping a child truly see fractions to…
  • Play Money – Okay, everyone knows that real money is more fun to play with, but if you don’t keep that much cash lying around, it really helps to have the play stuff. And do your kids a favor; teach them how to count change. (Yes, cashiers being unable to calculate change when the computer is down really does bother me. <grin>)

Miscellaneous Necessities

  • Timeline – I prefer wall timelines – the ones you create yourself. They’re absolutely wonderful for putting historical events in order and helping you truly see how various events affected each other throughout history. Butcher paper works great! If you don’t have enough wall space for a wall timeline, consider a timeline notebook for each child. You can make one on your own or purchase one of the published options. For example, Book of the Centuries - Review.
  • The Wallchart of World History – It can either be used as a book or mounted on the wall. This is a beautiful and information-rich timeline, a facsimile of an antique that has been updated to include recent years. It was originally published in 1890 and starts with Adam.
  • Musical Instruments - Piano or keyboard, recorder, guitar etc. I advise exposing children to music early and encouraging them in their musical endeavors. Many studies have shown that students who study music also fare better in academics.
  • Art Supplies - Quality and variety are the key words here. Keep a wide array of art and craft supplies on hand and encourage creative use of all of it.
  • Educational Games - Where do you START when putting together a list of educational games? We all have our favorites (Mine is Rummy Roots – Review, but you should also consider making your own games, games that teach and review the specific concepts and information that you are currently working on with your children. Investing in a copy of Creative Review Games - Review would be a good place to start.
  • World Globe – Here’s something you can find cheap at garage sales, but they pay off in a big way. Give each child a globe, if you can, so that they’ll have their world at their fingertips whenever listening to news reports, studying missionaries, learning about new cultures, watching political events in other countries… Maps are important, but globes do a better job of really putting the world into perspective.
  • Maps – Put ‘em everywhere! Okay, so that’s not practical. Still, maps are great. At least put out a US and a World map. You can place them directly on your walls of course, but we once mounted a US map over ceiling tiles we’d attached to the wall and then used color-coded pins to mark important locations. We also spent about a year with a world map on our dining table, covered in plastic I’d purchased at the fabric store.

Organization

  • Paper Storage – Be it file cabinets, milk crates, cardboard boxes, or something else entirely, you will need someplace to put all the paper you are about to generate. Set up a filing system as soon as possible and use it.
  • Large Calendar – Homeschooling families tend to be very busy. Having one location where all plans can be visible for everyone to see, is a powerful organizational move. Check out Mom’s Family Calendar - Review; they publish a new one every year.
  • Baskets or tubs – Baskets and tubs serve well and often. They end up storing library books and magazines, art supplies and extra paper, and who knows what else?

Office/School Supplies

  • Spiral Notebooks - Yes, they're basic school supplies, but new homeschoolers don't always think to have extras on hand and you never know when you'll need one. I always buy the smaller, 70-sheet books, and still buy them when school supplies go on sale even though we’re finished homeschooling.
  • Folders – The folders that have pockets are great for keeping track of individual subjects or project assignments. I like the ones without pockets for student presentations.
  • Packing Tape – Use clear, wide tape for repairing books, maps, game boxes…
  • Contact Paper – Contact paper makes great cheap lamination material.
  • Index Cards – You’ll use these to make note cards, games, flash cards (Students remember more when they make the flashcards for themselves!) and more.
  • Paper – I’m a big believer in paper. Keep it in all shapes, sizes, and types, but especially in the form of copy paper for your computer’s printer.
  • Sticky notes – I cannot tell you how much we used these in our homeschooling, from marking important passages in books, to posting important reminders for each other, to…
  • Markers in various colors – Again, this is one of those things that most people probably keep on hand anyway. Still, I felt it needful to point out that it really is wise to keep multiple sizes and colors on hand for making flash cards, drawing posters, and more.
  • Inexpensive pens – If your house is like ours, it pays to buy pens by the box!
  • Sheet Protectors - These sleeves are great for protecting papers you refer to often, special schoolwork, and ink jet printed photocopy masters. I’ve also been known to attach them to walls and the refrigerator, to be used as ‘frames’ for things like chore schedules, event calendars, and more.

Technology

  • Computer – Have the best computer you can get. This one tool, equipped with high speed Internet access, can save you a fortune in curriculum and resources. Too, in this day and age, computer literacy is a necessity. And if you want a truly educational experience, build the computer yourself. This is something my husband highly recommends. According to him, computers are nothing but glorified Tinkertoy sets and any one with any kind of mechanical aptitude can put one together. He strongly recommends that all teens learn to repair and build their own computers whether or not they believe they will ever work in the computer world.
  • Printer – I’m not even homeschooling anymore and going a week without using my printer is hard. With a good, color printer you can not only print out all of those wonderful resources you discover on the net, but can also do such varies things as publish your children’s stories in booklets, create T-shirts, make personalized stationary so your children can practice their handwriting skills with purpose… Keep thinking; the ideas will come.
  • Broadband Internet Access – With high speed access to the Internet and a computer capable of accessing sophisticated websites, the savvy homeschool family can download unit studies, worksheets, and other curriculum pieces; purchase and download ebooks of all sorts; pay virtual visits to some of the world’s finest museums; refer to dictionaries, encyclopedias, Bibles and more; hook up with other homeschoolers of like-and unlike-interests; keep up with local, educational opportunities… This list is almost without limit.
    There are also myriad options for using the ‘net to let your homeschoolers shine, from entering online-based competitions to publishing their best work in their own (usually free) web logs.
    You should also teach your children how to research on the Internet. It is a skill they will need from now on.
  • Scanner – This may seem an expensive extra, but it has saved many a trip to the copy shop. From the worksheets you want to duplicate for extra practice to the artwork your youngest wants to use on the cover of the book you’re creating, it all happens faster if you can pop it into your own scanner at home.
  • Cassette/CD Player – You may well have tape and CD options in your home entertainment system and computer, but most homeschoolers also need smaller players that can be hauled from room to room and into the backyard fort.
  • TV/VCR – This is a no-brainer for most homeschoolers. Even those who forgo regular TV and the educational cable shows quickly discover the wealth of educational videos that are out there.

Tools

  • Pencil Sharpener – Yes, those little, portable sharpeners are great in a pinch and when you need to homeschool on the go. Too, some artists prefer to work with them. However, you would probably pat yourself on the back later if you invest in a good electric sharpener today.
  • Three-hole Punch – This is one of the most commonly mentioned necessities, second only after bookcases. Grab a good three-hole punch, one that can handle a decent stack of paper, and you’ll find yourself using it all the time.
  • Stapler – Forget the cheap, little, school supply staplers. Head out to your favorite office supply store and buy both a desk stapler you can keep handy for quick binding (Electric staplers are wonderful, but not always portable) and a long-reach stapler.
    The long-reach stapler is another of those, “Why would I ever want that…How did I ever live without it?” tools. You can use it for repairing workbooks and magazines, but even more importantly you can use it for binding booklets – for publishing your children’s work in a format that makes them feel especially appreciated and important. You can also use it to make blank booklets, which can be wonderful things to keep on hand for your creative kids.
  • Good Scissors – You may need safety scissors for your young ones, but have a good pair of paper scissors for yourself. I also advise keeping one pair especially for fabric even if you don’t sew. You never know when you’ll need to cut fabric for a craft and scissors that have been used on paper tend to chew on fabric instead of cutting it.
    Of course, there are also jillions of fancy-edged scissors out now, thanks to the popularity of scrapbooking. We invested in probably two dozen of those, but found ourselves almost exclusively using our two favorites (the deckle edge more than any other). Moral: Don’t go nuts when you go shopping.
  • Rotary Cutter and Mat – I didn’t discover this until I had finished homeschooling, but I would certainly have used it if I’d bought one early on. With this marvelous tool, you can cut all sorts of straight-edged shapes out of a variety of materials. This is one of my many favorite investments.
  • Rulers – My favorite ruler gets used pretty much every day. It’s 18” long, made of flexible metal, and backed with cork so that it won’t slip while being used. I use it for measuring, of course, but I also use it for drawing straight lines and as a straight edge when cutting with a craft knife.
  • Binoculars – Binoculars are great for playing I Spy. They’re even better for getting up close and personal with wildlife and are the first purchase you should make (before a telescope) if you want to study the stars.
  • Microscope – Buy the right one. (Do your homework) Few people ever regret this purchase. It’s your children’s chance to really get up close and personal with the details of the world around them.
  • Paper Cutter – Thanks to the popularity of scrapbooking, many homeschoolers have this tool by default. Once you have one, a cutter that can handle a load and take a lot of wear, you will find yourself pulling it out often.
  • Camera – You may want to have more than one camera, since every family can benefit from such documentation of their educational adventures, but you should at least have a camera available for your children to use. Digital photography, in particular, is so common now that it makes sense to teach your children how to use one properly.
  • Magnifying Glass – Yes, your son may well use it to start fires (Mine did, anyway; we called it a science experiment.), but it’s useful for a lot more besides. It’s great for a quick study of a flower, checking out the spider you find on the porch, and yes, reading really small print.
  • Scales – Our kids did a lot with our bathroom and postage scales, even beyond the usual things like measuring materials for science experiments and math challenges.
  • Flashlight – Yes, seeing this on so many people’s list of necessities surprised me too. But then, we really did use our flashlights a lot; I’d just never thought about it specifically as a homeschool item before.
  • Kitchen Timer – You’ll use it for timing tests, time outs, games, cleaning your house… Hey, everyone finds it easier to clean when “we’re only doing it for ten minutes.”

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