Ditch Your Curriculum for these 13 Competitions Instead

As a homeschooler, what do you have your kids do for PE? You could design fitness curriculum that includes exercises and an introduction to various sports. Or maybe you include some form of physical fitness as part of your planned unit studies. Or more likely, your kids join a local basketball team or take a class at the YMCA. And in doing so, you don’t worry too much about justifying it as fulfilling a PE requirement—it’s pretty obvious isn’t it?

Take the “Extra” out of “Extra-Curricular Activities”

The same opportunities exist for subjects other than PE. Surely, it’s pretty clear that any student preparing for the spelling bee is learning how to spell just as one studying for the Geo Bee is learning plenty of geography. The amount of time these kids put into preparing for the competition alone justifies counting these as actual classes and not merely extracurricular activities.

However, their real value lies in how much the kids actually learn and retain as part of the process. This isn’t something that they are just learning for a test and then forget about it. These competitions usually require months of preparation and plenty of learning opportunities about something they care about.

I’m not suggesting abandoning all curriculum for just one competition. However, I do believe that many contests could form the bulk or the spine of a subject for the school year. Many of the contests offer information for teachers on how to adapt the contest to their normal classroom curriculum. Guiding your child through these competitions isn’t necessarily any easier than traditional school work, but it can be a very rewarding.

There are lots of competitions out there to choose from. I picked the following competitions as possible courses because of the amount of preparation that they require. You’ll notice that there aren’t any specific writing/essay contests for English. There are plenty available, I just haven’t identified a single one that I would count as an entire course. However, I think that if you have child that likes to compete in this area, you could create a course based on entering multiple contests.

13 Competitions for Homeschoolers

  • Type: (I) Individual, (G) Group
  • Deadline: If only month is given, the competition date varies within the month; (~) generally occurs in or around the listed month
  • Examples: (Y) Example projects available, (N) No examples available, (S) Sample questions available.
Competition Subject Grades Type Deadline Examples
American Statistical Association Poster Competition and Project Competition Math K-12 I,G April 1 Y
ExploraVision Science K-12 G Feb Y
First Lego League Science, Math 4-8 G varies N
Intel International Science and Engineering Fair Science,
9-12 I, G March N
MathCounts Math 6-8 I, G Feb S
NASA Space Settlement Contest Science, Math, Social Studies 6-12 I, G Mar 15 Y
National Geographic GeoBee Social Studies 4-8 I ~Jan S
National History Day Social Studies 6-12 I,G ~Jan S
Odyssey of the Mind Varies 3-12 G Feb N
Scripps Spelling Bee English 8 & under I varies S
Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge Science, Social Studies, Math K-12 G Mar 15 Y
Young Epidemiology Scholars Science, Math, Social Studies 11-12 I Feb 1 N
Young Naturalist Awards Science, Math 7-12 I Mar 1 Y

American Statistical Association Poster Competition and Project Competition

Yes, statistics for as young as kindergarten. The actual age category is K-3 so I would guess the winners were probably on the older side of the group. But still…  And what kind of posters are they doing? A few titles: Battle of the Condiments; What’s Your Favorite Board Game?;  The Fastest Way to Melt Butter; and Are the Hawk Mountain Raptor Populations in Trouble? The last two were homeschool winners in 2009. The poster competition is open to grades K-12 and the project category is for grades 4 to 12.


You might be able to classify this under science fiction as well since this contest doesn’t require creating a new technology but imagining one based on existing technology. Each team selects an existing technology and researches how it works and when it was invented. Then they project what the technology will be like 20 years in the future. All the research is presented in a webpage that is submitted for judging. A homeschool K-3 team won second place in 2009 with the idea of an EpiWatch.

First Lego League

This isn’t just about playing with Legos. The team must build autonomous robot using LEGO MINDSTORMS technology to score points in 2.5-minute matches on a themed playing field. The team must also identify a problem related to the year’s theme, research solutions, and present the solution at the competition. research a scientific project and present its findings. While the initial purchase of the Mindstorms set can be expensive, you can reuse the kit each year.

Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

This is the largest science fair in the world. There are 17 different categories to compete in including  Animal Sciences, Engineering, Computer Science, and Behavioral and Social Sciences. They don’t have actual examples of entries but they do have videos of the contestant talking about their projects as part of the Archimedes Initiative. Oh, and the top award is $75,000.


This competition challenges students’ math abilities with and without a calculator. Students take various tests as individuals and teams. The program provides handbooks on how to start a program at a school or as a club. The website provides a new set of problems each week for practice. You can also find MATHCOUNTS mini videos that demonstrate the problem and includes downloadable activities. Once they graduate from middle school, they should start looking at the USA Mathematical Talent Search.

NASA Space Settlement Contest

Just as an aside, don’t you think it’s weird that such a high tech idea will only accept hardcopy submissions? Anyway, this is the chance to design your own permanent space colony. This is really a wide open, comprehensive project. Issues to consider range from structure design to agriculture to government. One entry has a section on the business plan. There are even awards for artistic and literary merit.

National Geographic GeoBee

Cultural geography isn’t something taught in middle schools so you’re better off just calling it social studies. When the contest includes questions about which country has the largest population of Muslims, you’re not just memorizing state capitals anymore. The contest consists of seven rounds where contestants answer multiple choice and open-ended questions. Missing a question does not eliminate you from a round. The winner is determined by the number of questions answered correctly who then gets to take a test to see if she advances to the state level.

National History Day

If you’re looking for flexibility in your competition format, National History Day is it. Students pick a historical topic related to the year’s theme. They can present their research as an exhibit, research paper, documentary, website, or performance. All projects must have an annotated bibliography that documents the research and a short process paper that explains how you selected your topic and did the research. The website even provides sample topics and you can download a theme book.

Odyssey of the Mind

Odyssey of the Mind is a creative problem solving competition.  Each year, teams pick one of five “long-term” problems to solve that range from classically inspired to creating balsa wood structures to hold weights to designing cars. The team will present its problem at competition where it will also solve a “spontaneous” problem. The most interesting aspect of this competition is that the team can receive no assistance from anyone else, including adults which makes it very hard on the adult. A similar competition is Destination Imagination.

Scripps Spelling Bee

Not just spelling but knowing the parts of speech (grammar) and word origins which often leads to literature. The contest website has section to practice spelling words by origin and difficulty level. Unfortunately, most of the teacher material is geared to generating support for the spelling bee so you’ll have to figure out on your own how to go beyond just spelling lists.

Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge

This is a competition for students interested in identifying environmental problems and implementing programs to address them. The science comes in defining the problem and the hypothesis to test the solution. Creating a program to be implemented in the community to address the problem falls under social studies and the math in measuring the outcomes of the project. First place winners get a $10,000 savings bond and a Discovery adventure trip.

Young Epidemiology Scholars

I think that epidemiology is the perfect subject to demonstrate the application of traditional high school science subjects. Studying the health of the general population pulls from all the sciences and history as well. A great book to read is The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson. The project requires the student to complete an original epidemiological study which can be very demanding. But winning one of the 120 scholarships is a pretty good incentive. There are two grand prize winners of $50,000.

Young Naturalist Awards

Think science outdoors. This contest is for investigations in the areas of biology, Earth science, ecology, and astronomy. You present the results of your investigation in the form of an essay with all of your supporting evidence. It’s an opportunity to use existing scientific tools to answer questions such as: is the water polluted; does the presences of one species act as an indicator for another; or what is the effect on the environment. And since it’s an essay, writing well counts.

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