Every space in the first floor of the Walsh family's West Friendship home serves as a classroom — the walls of the mudroom are chalkboards, the windows in the dining room are lined with children's books and the kitchen holds recipes for practicing reading and measuring.
"Some families have set up classrooms in their homes, but I wanted to teach my kids that learning can happen anywhere," said Allison Walsh, who began homeschooling her three youngest children at the beginning of September. "This is spontaneous."
Annabelle, 7, points at the vocabulary words of the day written in chalk across the from the shoe rack in the mudroom.
"I wrote jovial. That's someone who's cheerful, like me," she said. Annabelle and her twin brother, Rowen, 7, are in second grade.
Before the twins started homeschooling, they attended Resurrection-St. Paul School in Ellicott City. They often finished their homework on the way home from school, Allison said, because they wanted to make time to play before heading to their older brothers' sports games and practices.
"And that just made me sad because I could tell they were doing it to get it done, because they knew how many activities we would have that night," Allison said. "And they were doing it to get a little bit of free time."
The Walsh's oldest son, Connor, 16, plays basketball and golf at Glenelg Country School, and their second-oldest son Gavin, 11, plays basketball and lacrosse on Amateur Athletic Union teams. Gavin's basketball team played more than 100 games last year.
"I mean, these are really busy kids," Allison said. "Sports is a big part of our life. With four kids, and all the rushing around and then out the door, there just wasn't time. It was like, here's your food, you got to eat, wash your hands, where are your cleats, let's go, fill up your water bottle."
"It's not only that we were a taxi service, but that it took away from good-quality family time," said Allison's husband, Chris. "We started talking about it last year and asked ourselves, is this who we are?"
Allison and Chris decided to take a step that many parents take because of religious preferences or dissatisfaction with local schools: Starting in the 2015-2016 school year, Allison would homeschool their twins.
"We just wanted to simplify our lives," Allison said. "It already feels simpler."
In a survey administered by the Office of Non-Public Education for the 2011-2012 school year, 37 percent of parents said they homeschooled their children for "other reasons," including family time, but also finances and travel time.
In the survey, 91 percent said they did so out of "a concern about environment of other schools," 77 percent cited "a desire to provide moral instruction" and 74 percent said they had "a dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools."
"I thought, okay, I have two kids exactly the same age, the same learning levels and abilities," Allison said. "These are the two that I don't really get to spend time with, because we're so busy in the evenings going to all of their [older brothers'] activities. There's not a lot of one-on-one time."
The Walshes' plans for homeschooling two of their children soon turned into plans for homeschooling three of their children.
"Gavin came to me and said — well, you can say it for yourself," said Allison.
"I asked to be homeschooled as well, because I thought it would give me an edge over my friends, because I thought I would be challenged more by her," said Gavin, who previously attended Resurrection St. Paul and is currently in sixth grade.
"He's really the one who gave me that push," Allison said.
Many friends told the Walshes half-jokingly that they were "crazy" for wanting to spend more time with their children, Chris said. Other friends had considered homeschooling, but were uncertain of taking the leap.
"Part of it is self-confidence. Homeschooling is intimidating for a lot of parents," said friend and fellow Howard County parent Lynn Navarre. "It's a daunting thought, because I'm not a teacher. I'd worry about whether or not I was teaching them right."
"It's a lot of pressure," said Allison, who runs an interior design business from home and graduated from the University of Maryland with a bachelor's degree in economics. She has never taught professionally. "There are six little eyes looking at me with hope, wondering, where are you going to take me?"
"But I think Allison is the perfect person to do this," said Navarre. "She's excited about it. She's not dreading it. She's not like, oh no, my kids are going to be home all the time."
Homeschooling has become more common across the United States in recent years, according to data from the Office of Non-Public Education. From 2007 to 2011, the number of students that were homeschooled increased from 1.5 million to 1.77 million, from 2.9 percent to 3.4 of the American school-age population.
In Howard County, however, the number of homeschooled students has decreased in recent years, from 1,694 in the 2008-2009 school year to 1,027 in the 2013-2014 school year, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education. The number of homeschooled students across the state increased during that same period, from 24,074 to 26,434.
"Obviously it's not for everyone, and not everyone is in a position to be able to do it," said Chris. "But for those who want to see a different side of things and …simplify is the big word, and we know that. But in terms of the extra challenge — with the right situation, you can gear the education towards what your kids need to be successful."
Parents can choose a curriculum and educational materials for their children's home instruction, according to state law.
Instead of using a "one size fits all" curriculum, Allison said she created a "piecemeal" curriculum by compiling educational materials, such as worksheets and activities, from various methods that she liked.
"They officially just started," Allison said about her kids' homeschooling. "But for me, I've been working on it since we made the decision last winter."
In a corner of Chris' office, there are three large filing cabinets, one for each of the Walsh's homeschooled children. Allison has filled them with educational materials organized by subject.
Although parents are allowed to choose their own educational materials, state law requires that home instruction be supervised, either by the local school system; a nonpublic school holding a certificate of approval from the Maryland State Board of Education; a church-exempt nonpublic school; or an education ministry of a bona fide church organization.
Allison said that she chose an education ministry, Maryland Catholic Homeschoolers, because she thought it would have higher standards than a public entity.
"I chose a private entity to have more accountability," she said. "Our hope was to be held to a very high standard and to be able to have accessible guidance and leadership, especially during this first year since we are new to this."
According to Maryland state law, MCH staff must visit the Walsh family's home once a year and conduct conferences with Allison and Chris "at appropriate intervals during the period of enrollment." The couple pays MCH an annual $75 membership fee.
"However, for our family we know that nobody will hold us to a higher standard than ourselves," Allison said. "Our expectations are very high!"
Now that she is teaching her own kids, Allison said, she knows exactly how much and what they have learned at the end of each day. Without homework to do, the kids have more free time before and after their activities.
Homeschooling has also brought back her children's love of learning, Allison said.
"There isn't that time for spontaneous learning when the kids are going to school and then running to activities," she said.
Back from a play break, Annabelle pointed excitedly at four paintings hanging on the living room wall that she, Rowen, Gavin and Allison made to represent the different periods of Picasso's art.