By now we had a three year-old who had started reading and one year-old who wanted to be just like her big sister. We were committed to homeschooling, but not sure how to go about it. Unschooling hadn't worked, but every system we had seen had been too arbitrary. We needed to figure out what we really wanted to do. We started by examining how we ourselves learned and picking apart what we already knew.
The statement, "When I need to know something I can learn it then," is a conceit with two flaws. The first flaw is that the young child's brain is uniquely wired for learning, and most adults do not learn with the same ease and speed as a child. The second flaw overlooks the fact that quite often when you need to know something, you need to know it right now. You don't have time to research it. I don't mean facts like what was going on in Sweden in 1290 A.D., but concepts and their history. If someone comes up to you with a really great new idea that no one's ever thought of before, it's helpful to be able to say, "This idea was tried by the Sumerian Lugols, the Sun King, and the Soviet Premiers. These are the problems they had with it. What steps are you taking to keep the same problems from showing up in your model?" Or to use a recent example, it helps to know that when people say, "It's a new economy! The old rules about how money works have gone out the window!", they really mean, "We're inside a bubble that's going to burst any moment and wash billions of dollars in profit down the drain." An awful lot of people would be better off today if they had been taught that bit of economics when they were younger and remembered it ten years ago.
At the same time, it is impossible, impractical and immoral to try to completely control a child's learning. It is impossible because children learn all the time, and no one can fully predict what lessons they will learn from any given situation. It is impractical because to control a child's learning environment is to limit it, and what you leave out may prove to be more important than what you let in. It is immoral because it denies the child the opportunity to learn how to learn and to integrate what they learn into their own psyche in their own way.
The best method I have seen so far is called the classical method, also called the trivium. It is based on the way children learn language, and coordinates beautifully with the child's developing brain. The trivium picks one topic to be the central focus of the child's schooling and ties everything back to that one focus so you get a holistic effect, but you choose the topic.
The trivium goes back at least to Ancient Greece and Rome, if not further. It was first condemned by Christians, then championed by them when they couldn't find a method of teaching that worked better. It was taught in Catholic schools up through the early 20th Century, and is still used by many private schools including the Marva Collins Schools and Calvert School, America's oldest correspondence school.
As I said earlier, the method is based on how a child learns language. There are three stages, which correspond with three different phases in a child's mental development. The first stage of learning a language is learning the words. The second stage is learning how the words fit together to form sentances. The third stage is learning how to express your own ideas using that language.
The first stage takes place before the age of 9 or 10m, when most children's brains are ready sponges actively absorbing every data point they run across. The teacher's job at this stage is to cover the material in a way the child finds interesting and fun.
Around age 9 or 10, the child's brain matures enough to wonder about cause and effect. When that happens its time to change stages and begin teaching how all those facts you covered in the first stage fit together, and to deepen the child's understanding of those facts and the circumstances surrounding them. At this age a child wants to argue all the time. The trivium encourages you to teach them how to argue with lessons on Logic and critical thinking skills. Then at least they will be able to argue well, and to spot bad arguements offered by other people. Also, since a child is learning how to think through cause and effect, they are encouraged to study more independently and to learn how to manage their own time.
Around the high school years, the child becomes obsessed with self-expression. Then the trivium switches to the third stage and concentrates on developing self-expression. The child learns Rhetoric so that they can get their ideas across with greater ease and so they can learn how to analyze the ideas of other people. They are encouraged to study what interests them, and to develop and communicate their own ideas and projects. Topics that don't interest them drop by the wayside so they can spend more time with what fires their imaginations.
Part of what makes the trivium work is that it picks one subject to be the base subject, and ties all the other subjects back to that one. If the base topic is, say, history, then the science and literature for that year will concentrate on the scientific and literary developments that took place during the era of history being studied. Different people use different base subjects. "Traditionalists" use Latin as their base subject, Marva Collins uses phonics, Charlotte Mason used Nature studies, The Well-Trained Mind uses history, some Christians use Christianity and some Hellenistic Pagans use Ancient Greek Paganism. I've also heard of people making science, literature and the military their base subject. What matters is that you are consistent and don't change your focus from year to year. Change the focus slowly and only after careful consideration of what the new focus should be.
I won't say that classical homeschooling is a perfect fit for everyone. I won't say that anything is a perfect fit for everyone, except for breathing. Classical homeschooling is a good fit when you have parents who love learning or children who are very bright and very energetic. We have both. I've asked other homeschoolers, "How many people do you know who classically homeschool and aren't Conservative Christians have aggressive learners? Children who are full of energy, want to learn badly, and if left on their own would tear the walls down just to see how they are made?" So far almost all the homeschoolers I've talked to who use a straightforward classical approach do so in self-defense. If you have that kind of child you might want to look into classical homeschooling.