Co-ops are popular among homeschoolers. At best, they provide you and your children with a sense of community. And they give children the opportunity to experience group learning. At worst, they create a different kind of stress in your homeschool. Stress that can stop you from having your own best homeschool year possible.
Are they worth it?
Honestly, it depends.
For my family, I have created co-ops, taught in them, run them, and chosen to take time off from them. Over 12 years of homeschooling has shown me that co-ops are like all parts of homeschooling. Just because it works great this year, doesn’t mean it will be great next year.
Different Flavors of Co-Ops
The most basic form of co-op is made up of like-minded families. Two or more families agree to meet at each other’s homes and take turns teaching their kids as a group. When my oldest was in kindergarten, I set up one of these. It was a perfect solution to give us regular play dates and friends to celebrate holidays like Valentine’s Day with. If you can find a like-minded parent, the plan to get together each week for art projects, science experiments or other group fun can be the best solution for a parent looking for some socialization and low-stress group learning.
Bigger co-ops form to offer more classes, activities, and options for homeschoolers. How well one of these will suit your family depends on whether the goals of leadership align with what you need as a homeschooler.
Questions to ask before joining include: How long do classes last? What grades or ages do the classes support? Are grades assigned? Is there any group free-play time? Do all parents teach? What will be expected of me as a member? What are the costs? Are my costs reduced if I teach?
In a great co-op situation, you and your child both feel happy with the experience and get something more than you can provide at home. The tradeoff of teaching or helping run the co-op is offset by what your child gets from the experience. Not all co-ops provide this, and some will fill a need for only a time. That’s okay too.
There are two ages when I most recommend parents try to be part of a co-op. Kindergarten and high school. Oddly, my reasons are very similar for those two age groups: socialization, exposure to other adults as teachers, and resource building.
Building a community for kindergarten
Research shows that free play time with peers builds social and emotional skills, problem-solving and reasoning skills. These skills will help kindergarteners with all areas of life. Finding a co-op, park day or playgroup that will let your child develop those skills has significant benefits. Learning how to take instruction from different adults will help your child be ready for other classes and opportunities with programs like scouts, dance, sports, or music lessons. Positive interactions with other adults prepare young children for learning from adults. And, not to be overlooked, you as a parent can use a co-op to make friends, learn about both real life and online homeschool resources and get the support you need as your child starts elementary school.
As a parent, I would have been happy to just have regular playdates for my kindergarten-age kids. But I found that other parents were more likely to make a real weekly commitment if we called it a co-op and had some kind of classes. I built a few different kinds of co-ops over the years. From just two families, mine and another, to a larger one of about 12 families. By building it myself, I got to make sure there was plenty of time for socialization and free play. I also got to choose classes that appealed to my kids. I set myself up to teach classes that were in my own comfort zone. Many of those lessons eventually became part of our Orange Level: Wonderful World curriculum.
The Ebb and Flow of Co-Op In Your Homeschool
In the middle grades, a great co-op experience can be a lot of fun. However, many families find that they have educational goals they want to pursue on their own and don’t have time for co-op classes. Their children may be in programs like karate, gymnastics, scouts or music programs that give them a lot of the benefits of a co-op.
Hopefully, at this age, you have found a support group of other parents who are going through the same things. Other homeschool relationships built in the early years that can help you navigate these years.
In high school, students again need the social experience of peers. Learning to socialize for teenagers can feel like learning to socialize all over again. Teenagers are busy defining themselves by their looks, their music, their sexuality, and their interests. Having a peer group to look at can help a student define themselves in relation to others, and give them skills for how to socialize in a post-puberty co-ed group. Developing some level of comfort in peer groups will again prepare your child for the next phase of their education, whether it is attending a college or going to a certificate program or joining the workforce.
Building Skills and Relationships for Life
A good co-op will give them a place to practice talking to their peers in person, instead of just online. Having other adults teach them will prepare your student for classes or job training that they will do post-high school. The boost in confidence, brought on by finding new adults to talk to who listen to them about their thoughts and ideas, is my favorite part of high school classes for my child. A few positive class experiences can make the next step, which for us will be taking some community college classes, much less scary. Even the class with the teacher we hated, gave my oldest some confidence to deal with professors in the future. The co-op we chose also offered several classes in areas I had no expertise with, and my student got to have some learning experiences that I would have never provided on my own.
High school is also another time that as a parent, you need to know more about local and online resources. Who can teach your child driver’s ed? How does the dual enrollment program at your local community college work? What else is out there that you didn’t even know about? Your new group of mom peers who have already graduated a child or two will have lots of answers for you at a high school co-op. They may also be able to share with you about making transcripts, applying to colleges and tell you about curriculum choices you had not heard about.
Forging your own path.
There is no right or wrong way to homeschool, of course. Ultimately, the choice of whether to do a co-op or go it on your own is part of making your homeschool journey uniquely yours. Either way, looking for a community of like-minded homeschoolers to share ideas and celebrate milestones with will bring you joy and camaraderie.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.