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Are You Missing Out on the Power of Tangents?

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By Jimmie Lanley

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In life, a tangent is an abrupt change of course. It can take place in a conversation when the speaker suddenly starts discussing unrelated issues, on a road trip when the driver veers off the planned path for something completely unplanned, or even on a career path when an employee unexpectedly decides they want to pursue their former hobby as a new career.

The delight-directed homeschoolers and the unschoolers out there already know the power of a tangent. But the rest of us probably need a lesson or two. Tangents get a bad rap. As if they are negative, we call them

Can you relate? It may be the same read-aloud book, but the fresh air and picnic blanket add an extra layer for the senses, making it forever engrained in your memory as an enjoyable experience.

  • rabbit trails
  • distractions
  • offshoots
  • digressions

But tangents are powerful ways to motivate children and to promote creativity. Consider this fact: the Slinky, superglue, and the microwave oven were all invented when scientists followed a tangent that was not related to their primary focus. I prefer to call tangents.

  • teachable moments
  • discovery opportunities 
  • fascinating topics

Your child may discover his life's passion as a result of following a tangent that wasn't on the weekly curriculum planner. At the very least, being able to study a tangent will foster motivation in your children.

Tangents for the Structured Box-checker

Tangents feel too spontaneous and uncertain for those of us who like the security of a written plan. But there is still a way for you to enjoy tangents in your homeschool: plan for the tangent. Once you see a tangent on the horizon, schedule in time for these student-led explorations. Then change lesson plans to reflect the new emphasis.

Realize that there will always be gaps in your child's learning simply because there is an infinite amount of information to learn. So, yes, when you follow a tangent, you will have to give up the study of something else for the time being. But does it really matter? As long as learning is taking place, there is plenty of room in a homeschool curriculum for exploring tangents.

How to Harness the Power of a Tangent

The tangent has to be chosen by the child. You may try to suggest a tangent because it fascinates you, but to get maximum motivation, the tangent should be something the child is truly inquisitive about and fascinated by.

Allow your children to immerse themselves thoroughly in the tangent, totally exhausting their curiosity. Then let the tangent expire on its own. When the passion peters out, accept it for what it was—a tangent—and move on.

You may want to "school-ify" the tangent with assignments if your homeschool conscience struggles with "wasting time" on a tangent. Consider an essay or report, a hands-on project, an experiment, a speech, or a demonstration.

Remember that the tangent becomes the lesson. If you need to keep detailed records or like to check off boxes, fit the tangent into an academic area you would study anyway.

Jimmie Lanley is the mother of one creative teenage daughter. Jimmie's Collage is where she blogs about her Charlotte Mason-styled homeschool. You can read more about Jimmie's passion for notebooking at The Notebooking Fairy.

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