Monday, December 14, 2009

Tot School: B's Song Box

Tot School
B is 27 months old.

This will be just a quick post in the middle of this busy season to show one thing that we have been having a lot of fun with lately. We all love to sing around here, and B is no exception. When he was about 18 months old, we put together a "Song Box" for him to use during Group Time (the way we usually kick off our homeschool day). I printed, cut out, and laminated (with contact paper) some small pictures to represent songs B knew. This made it easier for him to a) remember which songs he was familiar with, b) not choose the same song over and over every day, and c) be in control of which songs he wanted to sing.

This worked great, but, over time, the pictures became quite ratty. Also, the small size made them far too easy to lose. So, recently, I decided to revamp the song box. I printed out uniformly-sized larger cards and used my new laminator to make them a bit more sturdy. These have been a big hit:

Right now we have 18 cards in the box, but I have lots more I want to add! As you can see, the actual box is currently an old shoebox. I want to at least decorate it up a bit, but I haven't gotten around to it yet (and B doesn't really seem to care!).

We've started using the box throughout the day instead of just at Group Time, too. I've found it comes in especially handy when I'm taking care of Baby P's needs. I ask B to go get the Song Box, and he sits right next to me choosing song after song. This has been a great way to interact with him when he might otherwise feel left out, and Baby P is being exposed to music, too! Bonus!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Agile Scheduling

So, it's the middle of the night, and--again--I can't sleep.

We were managing a pretty stable routine around here for a while, we really were! I was feeling great about getting up a couple of hours earlier each day (although I am not a morning person) to meet some personal goals. I was pleased (although exhausted) with being able to juggle the needs of an infant, a rambunctious toddler, and two elementary-aged children. We were even managing to get the household chores done on most days. My schedule was working, and I felt so effective!

But then came the time change, more darkness than I am happy with, and the advent of "hibernating" weather, along with illness for most and sleeping pattern disturbances for too many. Even something as wonderful as holidays and family coming in from out of town send my delicately-balanced plans for our day toppling over like so many wooden blocks.

So, what's a mom to do? I love schedules. I find great satisfaction (and, honestly?, a little bit of magic) in orderly charts that show my plan for each segment of the day. They make me feel prepared for any eventuality.

The truth is, though, that such rigid pre-planning is far too easily thwarted in a setting as unpredictable as a home. Teachers in a school setting have the luxury of specialization--unlike me, they don't have to balance all the roles of mother, teacher, mentor, curriculum developer, educational researcher, playmate, caregiver, nurse, activities director, sanitation manager, efficiency coordinator, referee, menu planner, nutritional adviser, spiritual guide, and so many others it makes my head spin!

Although I'm not discounting the challenges they do face in the classroom, they just aren't the same challenges I face as a homeschooling mom, especially one with very small children. So WHY do I keep expecting to be able to keep a similar schedule?

I know the answer doesn't lie in completely letting go of all schedules and expectations. (That situation will happen sometimes, but I've found it can't sustain itself for long.) It also isn't to be found in fighting harder for my precious schedule, demanding that everything fit neatly into pre-planned half-hour slots on my chart. (I've learned all too forcefully that it leads only to further frustration.)

What I'm working toward is an agile attitude toward scheduling--being able to roll with what comes instead of feeling cheated because it wasn't on my chart. Isn't that really what I want to teach my children anyway? To drop everything to come to the aid of another person? To put others' needs before my own plans? To seek the Lord's will for my day instead of my own? Won't that lesson serve them better throughout their lives than all the academic subjects put together (which we can study tomorrow just as well, anyway)?

I find it far too easy to forget that life is the point here. Yes, schooling is important and schedules can be a great tool, but only as a part of life. If they are getting in the way of living and loving, then something needs to be re-evaluated. I find it helpful to remind myself periodically of this truth:
It doesn't matter what we are accomplishing. It only matters what we are becoming.
Things go much better when I remember this. Even on a day like today when I will need to manage with almost no sleep!

(This post was inspired by some questions posed by Carisa at 1+1+1=1.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Jumping for Joy

One of my fondest memories from elementary school is of jumping rope at recess. My friends and I played all sorts of jumprope games, and eventually got into Double Dutch. That was sure a long time ago! Recently, however, N and K both expressed interest in learning how to jump rope. (Um, of course!) We invested in a couple of ropes and went over the basics, then I left them to it.

N picks his rope up now and then and puts in a few minutes of practice, but K has worked seriously hard at learning this skill. I have to smile every time she opens the back door and crows, "Mom, I jumped (X number of) times without missing!!!!" If it happens to be too cold, wet, or dark outside, she'll practice in the garage instead. I love seeing her so dedicated to mastering something. She has made a considerable "jump" (ha! all puns intended) in large motor skills over the past couple of weeks, and--even better--she has seen her continued practice pay off. Success!

Tot School (December 6th 2009)

Tot School
B will be 27 months old this week.

We've had a couple of weeks off from structured schooling--the first intentionally because of the holiday and the second necessitated by family illness. I'm always amazed at how much learning still goes on here at times like these, though. I'm planning a couple of posts to highlight what N and K are doing, but here are a few of the things B has been up to (please pardon the weird pink streaks in the photos--I do believe it's time for a new camera):

"ORANGUTAN" TONGS. This is really just motor skills practice using different types of tongs, but B calls them "orangutan tongs" after a fabulous book of tongue-twisting poems that we love. Here he is using the tongs to move dice of different sizes from one container to another. We have also used them with small blocks and pom-poms, and we plan to use them with other objects in the future. This is an activity we keep in one of his "workboxes" (more on that in another post) so he can get it out whenever he likes.

POPPING BUBBLE WRAP. We had some sheets of large bubble wrap that were a part of K's jellyfish costume for Halloween (patterned after this one). When I was taking the costume apart, all three older kids begged for a popping party! As you can see in the above photo, B was more interested in popping individual bubbles by hand, while N and K were all about jumping and stomping. At some point, B became entranced by this little guy:

"I see a snake, Mommy!" he said excitedly. We explained that it was a worm, then spent some quality time observing its journey back to the lawn. I LOVE how my children teach me to stop and seize the moment!

LIFE SKILLS: CLEANING THE BATHROOM. I've been working with K and N for a couple of years now on learning to do housecleaning chores, and B is beginning to show interest in helping. I have assigned him to help me clean the master bathroom for the past couple of weeks, and he has enjoyed it immensely. I gave him his own little spray bottle of water and a sponge, and let him wipe down whatever he wanted to. His favorites seemed to be the tub and the shower door, as shown above. He did get a bit wet in the process, but he was completely engaged in the task for quite a long time, so it was definitely worth it!

MAKING MARSHMALLOWS. My husband J has become quite adventurous in the kitchen over the past couple of years. A while ago, he attempted making homemade marshmallows. (Seriously!) They didn't turn out like he hoped at that point, but he always meant to keep experimenting with them. Today he found a different recipe, and even I (who am not particularly fond of marshmallows) had to admit that these turned out very well. All three older kids got into the final stage of rolling the sticky cubes in powdered sugar. B was especially happy to help, and he loved J's instructions: "Take one out, drop it in, shake it up, then put it in." B repeated them over and over (with an occasional "put it in" ending up in his mouth instead of the intended container, of course!). I'm impressed at how quickly he picks up patterns of that kind.

As always, I have more to post than I have time for! I'll save some of the other activities for next time. In the meantime, find lots more Tot School ideas here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Neighborhood Scavenger Hunt

Although the weather has been a bit on the wintry side lately, we have been trying to get outside as much as possible. K and B are usually quite enthusiastic about the prospect, but N is sometimes harder to coax out the door. One day, I suggested we make our simple walk around the neighborhood into a scavenger hunt. Bingo!

"Can I make the list?" N asked, suddenly excited. (Um . . . well . . . of course!) I was pleasantly surprised at just how relevant his list was. I'm pretty sure it was better than what I would have come up with in that amount of time. He even drew little checkboxes next to each item! Here it is:
  • An open garage
  • An orange leaf
  • A bare tree
  • Some grass on the sidewalk
  • A two-story house next to a one-story house
  • A fallen-down sign
  • A rocky area
  • A rock bigger than your hand
  • A cloud formation [meaning a cloud in the shape of something]
  • A flock of birds
  • A farmhouse
  • A red leaf
  • A basketball hoop
So, we rounded up some clipboards to make it official and off we went! The wind was pretty brisk, which made keeping the paper flat on the clipboard a bit frustrating, but it was a fun adventure overall. N and K checked off everything except "a flock of birds", and we were deciding that we'd have to find that another day. Then, as we were turning into our own driveway again, we disturbed a flock of house finches who had been snacking at our feeders! The kids were ecstatic at completing the list, and N even handed out prizes (homemade cookies) when we got back inside.

I knew the activity was a success when they asked, "Can we do this again sometime, Mom?" (Um . . . well . . . of course!)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

My Photo Resolution and More Tot School

Tot School
B is currently 26 months old

You know, I've never really been consistent at taking pictures of what we're doing. I love blogs with lots of photos, and I know it adds a lot of interest to a post, but it always seemed like such a hassle to interrupt the flow and go find the camera. Also, our current camera seems to be showing a few signs of preparing for retirement. And there have been so many gray days lately . . . .

Ha! Too many excuses. A couple of weeks ago I made a resolution (all puns intended, of course) and decided to try harder. This meant leaving the camera out where it was accessible more quickly. Sometimes it meant bribing encouraging the kids to do something again, just for a photo. I did find that it interrupted the flow to some extent, but my kids love having their picture taken (just not in a studio setting!). They especially love seeing the pictures on the blog. For me, I found that having the pictures made it easier to remember what I wanted to blog about. It also helped me realize just how much learning is really going on here!

So, without further ado, here are some more of our recent "Tot School" activities:

"SQUEEZY" PAINTS. My kids enjoy using these paints, which we call "squeezy" paints, as an occasional alternative to markers. (We have the 6-pack of "shimmer" paints. I love how they smell! I bought them online from a vendor who no longer carries them, but I recently saw them at our local Jo-Ann store.) B's favorite part is screwing the caps on and off, but he does also enjoy painting with them. He really has his color names down pat now, and my favorite part is hearing him say, "Please pass the purple!"

LIFE SKILLS: FOLDING LAUNDRY. B is, like most toddlers, very interested in doing what "the big people" are doing. He is exceptionally interested in cleaning up, putting in order, and putting away. One morning, for example, I came downstairs to find him "washing" the front of the refrigerator with a sponge. "I clean it, Mommy!" he said with a proud smile. (Um, where do I order a couple more like this?)

So, when he found me folding laundry the other day, I was not surprised to hear, "Leppy [let me] help you!" I gave him a pile of dishcloths and washcloths, then showed him how to 1) "make a square" (lay it out flat), 2) fold it in half, and 3) fold it in half again. I admit I was surprised at how quickly he caught on. He folded them quite neatly, and I even overheard him quietly repeating "Make a square, fold half, fold half." And the look of proud achievement in his eyes after carefully taking his pile to the drawer? Priceless. This is what it's all about!

NUTS AND BOLTS. On a recent trip to the hardware store, I remembered reading this post about using nuts and bolts for motor skills development. I decided to start with just one size, but plan to add additional sizes later. B seems to really enjoy using his hands, so this was a well-received activity. (Don't you just love those chubby fingers?)

LOCK AND KEY. On the same trip to the hardware store, I found a simple lock and key for B to practice with. Lately, he has been quite obsessed with keys, and has managed to lock and unlock some things we'd rather he didn't. I am hoping that having his very own lock and key will help a little with this issue. (Yeah, I'm pretty good at deluding myself. I did remember to get one that came with an extra key, which I promptly put in a place I can find it easily.)

I have lots more "Tot School" activities to share, but time to blog about them? Not so much. I'll just keep trying, though. That's a big part of the agile philosophy, after all!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tot School

Over the past several months, it has become apparent that B, our just-turned-two-year-old, wants very much to be part of our homeschooling experience. He has never been one to just "go play" while I do things with the others. He wants to be right in the middle of everything, which too often leads to frustration for all of us. I realized that something needed to change, but I wasn't sure how to make it all work.

Then, I came across this blog and the concept of "Tot School". When I read the description and purpose of Tot School, I knew this was exactly what B (and all of us) needed. We're still working out some kinks in our system (when aren't we doing that?), but I have already seen a real difference, even after just a short time of structuring our day to include "Learning Time for B".

Here are some of the things we have been enjoying together:

POM-POM FLIPPING. Seriously. All it takes is a plastic spoon, a bag full of fuzzy goodness purchased at the dollar store, and a willingness to find pom-poms in strange places for the next several days. The first couple of times we did this, B spent nearly an hour fully engaged in this activity. The older kids love it, too, and are into creating specific challenges to test each others' pom-pom-flipping prowess.

SHAPE COLLAGES. We started out with a bowl full of simple foam shape stickers and a hamburger bun pan (a regular or jumbo muffin tin would have worked, too). B chose a shape, said its name, and sorted it into the compartment of the pan containing matching shapes. Part two was peeling off the paper backing and sticking the shapes on a paper. (Great fine motor skills practice--bonus!) He was very verbal during this part without any prompting from me at all, saying things like, "I stick a circle . . . HERE!" or "See my oval, Mom?" He also talked a lot about the colors of the shapes.

While this was going on, my older children (7 and 5) explored their "collage box" (filled with newspapers, catalogs, magazines, junk mail, etc.) and created picture collages based on a chosen theme or organizing principle. N decided to do two different ones, with the pictures pasted in very orderly rows and each one meticulously labeled--such an organizer! K finished her first one, then wanted to do another using the foam shapes. She got really creative with using the shapes as jumping-off points for drawings--such a great imagination!

This was one of the most peaceful, productive mornings we've had in a long time!

OUTDOOR PLAY. One thing that B very obviously needs is time and space to be active. He's much more physically-oriented than my others at that age, and he needs to run, jump, throw, kick, and just move around without too many restrictions. Previously, I tried to encourage him to play in the backyard while I fed the baby or worked with the older kids on something, but this was rarely successful. He's a very social child, and dislikes playing alone.

So, I have made a commitment to set aside time each day for family play time (outdoors if weather permits), with a focus on activities he can successfully participate in. On the day pictured above, we started out tossing balls back and forth (with N and K spontaneously making a connection with our science discussion on potential and kinetic energy--bonus!). This morphed into a kick-ball like game for a while, then someone suggested bubbles. Wow. Another great success!

I have several more photos to share of other successful activities, but I think they'll have to wait. Hopefully I'll find time to create another post soon!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Exposure vs. Mastery

A couple of years ago we were visiting my husband's parents. I overheard his grandmother (who also lives with them) asking my oldest son, five years old at the time, what he was learning "in school".

"Well, actually we homeschool," he patiently explained. Then he proceeded to tell her that he was learning about multiplication and division.

A little taken aback, she said, "Isn't that too hard for you?"

"No," he answered cheerfully, "it's fun!"

Now, although math does come easily to my son, he was not memorizing multiplication tables or doing long division at age five. The truth is, he was doing exactly what he said--learning about multiplication and division. The math curriculum we use does a fabulous job of introducing concepts in developmentally appropriate ways and coming back to them again and again to go a little deeper each time.

I love this system's emphasis on exposure, rather than expecting learners to master concepts the first time they are presented. My then five-year-old could readily understand, for example, that division means taking a certain number of items and sorting them into groups of equal size, while multiplication means adding up groups of equal size. He wasn't ready to tell me from memory that 10/2=5, but he could figure out that if he had to share his 10 M&M's with his sister, they would each get 5. He couldn't spout off multiplication facts like 4x3=12, but he could use drawings or manipulatives to discover that if 4 friends each brought 3 cookies to share, there would be 12 cookies altogether. He hadn't mastered multiplication and division, but he was certainly being exposed to the concepts in a meaningful way.

Now, as we are actually working on multiplication and division facts, the foundation has been laid. He comprehends the underlying idea of what these operations mean, so he can focus on practicing the actual facts until they come automatically to him. At this stage, he can see the benefit of knowing basic math facts by heart in order to solve more complex problems. (At age 5, it would have merely been a matter of me telling him it was useful!) His early exposure paved the way for this stage in his mastery.

My point, I guess, is that we should never refrain from teaching a child something because we think it is too difficult for them. They will not master everything (or even most things) the first time they are exposed to them, but they will also never master something they have not been exposed to. Take a chance, and they may just surprise you!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Question Board

"Hey, Mom! When was the car invented?"

"Dad, what causes dust?"

"I wonder where the phrase 'driving me nuts' comes from."

"Does anyone know how pencils are made?"

Like all children, my kids are full of questions. Every once in a while, they happen to ask one at a time when we can say, "Hey, let's look that up!" Usually, though, they ask these questions when I'm trying to calm a fussy baby, keep a toddler out of the refrigerator, prod a daydreaming 5-year-old to finish setting the table, and keep the last batch of pancakes from burning.

Of course, even in these all-too-common situations, I make a point of saying, "That's a great question!" Unfortunately, though, I usually have to follow up with "Let's remember to look that up later." Of course, when we finally have a moment to sit down and find the answer, we have nearly always forgotten the question.

And then, a few weeks ago, I had an idea. What if we had a place to write those questions down, so that, when the right moment came, we would remember what we wanted to look up? Everyone thought the idea was perfect, so, the next time I found myself at an office supply store (which, I'll admit, happens to me a lot), I purchased a dry-erase board. This is truly a tool of the Agile Homeschooling philosophy--write down a question whenever you have one, then come back to answer it at a more convenient time.

I am not exaggerating when I say that life is a whole lot better now. Seriously. We. Love. It.

This is a snapshot of the Question Board as it looks tonight. Just this week we decided to have each person use a different color, so we could tell at a glance who was asking what. (And, let me tell you, Dad and Mom are getting into it just as much as the kids.)

The current questions are: How do you make Parmesan cheese? How are pencils made? How is paper made? What does a banana tree look like? What does a rook (bird) look like? When was the alphabet invented? Why does a coin roll on its edge? Why do we cough? When was the boat invented? How is licorice made? How do birds fly?

So far, we've been having a question answering session about once a week, usually on Friday or Saturday. This has been a fabulous opportunity to teach our young children where and how to find information, and about reliability of sources. We type up the answers, including the source of the information, in an online information management program called Backpack, but you could just as easily do it in a word processing program or even on paper. Sometimes, we realize that finding the answer is going to take more time and effort than we anticipated, so we have a section called "More Research Needed".

So now, when I'm running around the kitchen trying to keep the pancakes from burning, I hear these words instead: "Mom, I'm going to write a question on the Question Board." See, life really is a whole lot better!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Best-laid Plans . . .

Wow. Has it really been almost two years? Much has happened since my last post, including the arrival of a new member of the family. Talk about the need to be agile!

Homeschooling with an agile philosophy can sometimes be frustrating for the very reason that I celebrate it--it has fuzzy boundaries that blend into the rest of our life. This is WONDERFUL, because we recognize that we are always learning, but we sometimes struggle against the day-to-day demands taking over and leaving little time for special, structured learning opportunities. We're constantly working to find the right balance.

I have lots of thoughts to share, but less time (for the present) to write them. I want to get back to this blog, but I'm admitting to myself that it's going to take some major agility to fit it in. Wish me luck!

I'll leave you with an idea that I found worthy of some serious pondering. Recently, on one of my e-mail lists, someone compared education to a hammock--specifically the kind made of rope knotted together in a net-like pattern. Like the hammock, the poster said, education is mostly holes. Yet, it still holds you up!