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Using Contests To Drive Homeschooling Curriculum

Imagine a typical day of homeschooling. Your son is dawdling over his assignment to make a diorama of the solar system. After all, he knows that you’re the only one who will look at it, and sooner or later, it’s going to end up in the trash. Boredom is running high, and motivation is at an all-time low.

As homeschoolers, we all have these moments, when learning seems to grind to a standstill and both parents and kids alike find it hard to get motivated. February is when I seem to run aground and become mired in apathy, discouragement and boredom, but the timing may be different with you.

Recently, though, I stumbled on the idea of contests as a way to bring new life to a homeschooling curriculum. In general, I promote cooperation over competition, but I’ve discovered there is a place for contests in the homeschooling scheme of things. Here are a few of the benefits:

  • Contests can ignite a passion for a particular subject or inspire further study and work. A well-timed contest may be just the thing to motivate a bored child (and parent).
  • Contests usually take some time and planning. They may involve a prolonged period of study, which encourages focus, persistence, and effort to produce a quality product.
  • Contests offer a vehicle to meet other homeschoolers who excel in the same subject. You may also meet talented experts in the field who can provide mentoring and insights. Your child may even meet college professors or others who can support her in her future academic or professional goals.
  • Contests make your child’s strengths more visible. When you’re homeschooling, you may know your child is a math genius, but he may have trouble believing it. After all, he doesn’t regularly compare himself to other kids. A competition allows kids the chance to see where they shine compared to other children.
  • Many contest organizers offer supplies or curriculum materials to help you in your planning. The Google Science Fair Competition, for example, offers an Educator’s Kit, which contains science project ideas, outlines for getting started and helpful hints.
  • Winning a contest can mean huge benefits. Smaller contests offer ribbons, small cash prizes or learning supplies. Larger contests offer scholarships, sizeable cash prizes, or even trips. The winners of the Google Science Fair Competition may win a trip to the Galapagos Island or the opportunity to intern with major research labs or scientific companies. Most competitions offer more than one prize so your child has a good shot of winning.

Types of Contests

When you think of competitions, your mind probably conjures images of children reciting multi-syllable words or demonstrating petri dishes filled with their latest science experiment. Do a little digging, though, and you’ll find competitions to suit almost any interest. How about a juggling contest with the International Jugglers Association or a whistling contest with the International Whistlers Convention? You’ll also find Lego building contests, statistics contests, and even a linoleum block print contest.

Finding Contests

So, how do you go about finding competitions? Your local or state homeschooling group may offer information on local and regional competitions. You can also check with nearby universities and colleges, which often sponsor competitions. A local school district’s website may also offer information.

Do an Internet search to find specific competitions by entering “Spelling Bee,” “Science Fair Competitions,” or any other specific subject you’re interested in. Industry specific books, such as The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market guide, may offer information on contests. This book contains an entire section on writing and illustrating opportunities and contests just for kids.

Another book to check out is Mary Pride’s Complete Guide to Getting Started in Homeschooling, which has an appendix devoted solely to competitions. This source lists competitions for everything from art contests to essay writing to science, engineering and team competitions.

Choosing Contests

Once you’ve honed in on a specific subject, look for contests that fit your family’s needs. First, read the fine print to make sure homeschoolers can participate. Most competitions now allow homeschoolers, but some are more welcoming than others. Some require you to have a certified teacher sign off on a project before you can enter.

Avoid competitions that require to you enter your ethnicity or that promote a worldview or value you don’t agree with. These competitions are often politically motivated.

What about entry fees? Many competitions are free, but some charge an entry fee. In general, try to avoid those that cost money, unless you feel the potential benefits outweigh the cost of the fee. Also avoid those that require long distances of travel, unless again, you feel the learning experience warrants the expense.

Participating In A Competition

You’ve chosen a competition and you’re signed up. Now it’s time to get cracking on your project. First, make sure you read all the directions carefully. Science competitions, specifically, have very strict rules and even a minor error can result in disqualification.  Make sure you know when all the entry dates are and document your progress carefully.

Choose a competition that seems realistic for your child’s age and ability. For first contests, you might want to enter a spelling bee, art contest, or writing contest that doesn’t require a ton of work. Later, your child can enter science fairs or other competitions that require elaborate projects.

Break tasks down week-by-week into manageable bites. This process not only ensures that you’ll stay on track, but it also teaches valuable organizational skills. For example, spend two weeks on research and three weeks completing the project, followed by a week to put on the final touches. Make sure you build some wiggle room into your schedule—say two weeks—in case you run into snags or delays.

Document the project process. Take photos, keep notes, or commemorate the process in some other fun way. Winning isn’t the only goal for a competition. Documenting the process allows you to look back on your work together with fondness and pride, whether your child wins or loses.

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