Sunday, January 31, 2010

Learning to Type

This past year, N decided he wanted to learn to type. I agreed that this would be a great idea, and I set out researching the different options available. I ended up purchasing a course called "Individualized Keyboarding" (which is put out by the same company that does the Sequential Spelling series). We've been putting it in his workbox four days per week, and he is currently on Lesson 5. (That's N in the above picture, doing great with not looking at his hands. He's wearing some noise-dampening headphones to cut down on outside distractions; they work great!)

Here are some of the reasons I decided on this approach:
  • It moves at a slower pace than many of the other typing programs I looked at. Instead of working on the entire home row for the first lesson, for example, it begins with only three keys and only introduces new keys two at a time. This seems to be the right speed for N.
  • The focus is on learning to type whole words and common letter patterns instead of just letters. They emphasize "saying" each word in your mind before typing it instead of typing letter-by-letter. This is how I type (though I can't recall if it's how I was taught to type), and I think it has some major benefits.
  • It is very straightforward and easy for N to work on with almost no guidance from me. This is very satisfying for him, and it furthers one of my homeschooling goals, which is to gradually shift the responsibility for and control of learning to the child.
  • Each lesson is broken down into smaller chunks (labeled "exercises") that review the new keys as well as ones already learned. This helps keep N from getting overwhelmed, but he can choose to do more than one in a day if he feels like it. (I've found it's usually better to let them stop before they've had enough!)
  • It was available as a downloadable PDF file that we can print out as needed.
Just to be clear, though, here are some things this program is not:
  • It is not a computer program.
  • It doesn't involve games.
  • It doesn't have any graphics or diagrams.
  • The only "reward" is learning to type!
It is a simple, no-nonsense approach to learning typing, and (so far, at least) it is working great for N! He is gaining a lot of confidence while learning about the effects of consistent practice.

Tot School (January 31st, 2010)

Tot School
B is currently 28 months old.

Well, I've got lots of pictures to share this time! (Not all of them are from last week, though. Time to play catch-up!)

JIGSAW PUZZLE MANIA. Although he has enjoyed them before, B has recently caught the puzzle "bug" and wants to work on them constantly. The rest of us have been doing some 500-piece puzzles as a family, and B also likes to sit on someone's lap and put together a few select pieces. He seems to get more satisfaction from doing these 24-piece ones, though. It's fun to see him improve rapidly in his skill level.

WATER PLAY. After a few too many late-night bathroom sink fiascos, I decided to make sure B gets a healthy dose of supervised water play every day. So far, we've stayed pretty basic with the toys and containers and stayed at the kitchen sink, and he has enjoyed it. I'm looking to expand the variety this week, though--I'd love some ideas if you have any!

PAPER AIRPLANES. This is fast becoming an obsession for B. I'm planning a post with more fun details and a tutorial for our favorite airplane pattern, so stay tuned!

JUMPING. B is a very active boy, and loves, among other things, to jump. The weather hasn't been very conducive to outdoor jumping lately, but we always enjoy creating an indoor "obstacle course" with pillows (that's him in mid-air in the first photo). He also loves jumping off the bottom step of our staircase over and over again, which is a very fun and kinesthetic way to practice counting. ("How many jumps me jump, Mom?")

LIFE SKILLS: USING A CAN OPENER. We have one of those fabulous can openers that doesn't leave sharp edges on cans. Although B can't actually open a can on his own with it yet, he loves to turn the "crank" and move it around and around the can. Great motor skills practice! Because the edges on opened cans aren't sharp, I can also give him a clean, opened can to pretend with. Of course, he loves to really open cans (with help) best of all.

LIFE SKILLS: KNEADING BREAD DOUGH. If you've never made homemade bread with your toddler, I highly recommend it! I am amazed at how persistent B is with the process of kneading and how much he just loves working together with me on something "real". Of course, tasting the dough is the best part (so make sure it's an eggless recipe)!

TELEPHONE PLAY. These are some older pictures I found that I hadn't posted yet (as you can tell by the weird pink streaking from my old camera.) This is an old phone we had that we cleaned up and removed the cords from. B loves pretending to call people, and is getting quite good at mimicking real conversations.

So much fun! To see what other tots are doing, visit 1+1+1=1.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

What's for Lunch?

Although our newly updated meal-planning system has been working extremely well for breakfasts and dinners, our success rate with lunch (and snacks) was getting really low. My biggest challenge was the different needs of the older and younger children. Since my two "olders" could put together their own basic lunches, I would have them do that while I was dealing with the nap and feeding needs of the "youngers". This helped me time-wise, but they just started making the same thing every day (because it was easy), and they eventually stopped adding any sides at all.

So, to increase the nutritional content and variety of their lunches, I decided to try out lunch bags. I've considered doing this for a while, but it always seemed a little silly to pack lunches when we are already in the kitchen with a refrigerator and pantry handy when it's time to eat. I finally just "took the plunge" and decided to see if it would work better for us or not.

Boy, what a difference! Now "pack lunches" has become one of our regular morning prep chores, and, when it's time to eat, I can just ask the kids to go get their lunch bags. We pack all snacks for the day in the bags, too. This assures me that they are getting a nice variety of food throughout the day, gives them a little more flexibility as to what they are eating when, and also cuts down on "pantry raiding" and whining for treats. Another benefit I foresee (though the weather has kept us from trying it yet) is the freedom to grab lunches and head to the park at a moment's notice.

We have added these small, stainless steel rectangular tiffins:
that stack together like this:
and fit perfectly inside the lunch bags. (You can find them online here.) Something about all the little compartments and everything fitting together so well makes it fun for both my kids and me to pack lunches (and cuts down on the use of plastic bags, of course). Hooray!

I would love to know how others manage lunches in their homeschool day--what works for you?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ringing in the New: Part 3

Another area of our daily life that we have adjusted this year is meal planning. Although I enjoy cooking as a general rule, I really dislike deciding what's for dinner. (In fact, I once joked with my sister that I'd give her free room and board in exchange for planning dinner every night! She never took me up on it, though.)

Over the years, I have tried different systems for planning ahead, from Once-A-Month Cooking to a more flexible "dinner ideas" list and everything in between. This past year, though, we have been reasonably successful with a basic but detailed weekly plan that looks like this:

Here are a few of the reasons for our success with this system:
  1. Trading off cooking responsibilities. Monday through Saturday, J and I alternate as "head cook" and the three older children take turns as "assistant cooks"; on Sunday, we all help.
  2. Leftover night. One evening a week is always designated for leftovers. This cuts down on wasted food and helps clean out the refrigerator. (The kids love making a leftover chart and taking it around with a clipboard and pen to take everyone's "order".)
  3. Posting the weekly menu. We hang the menu for the week on hooks inside our pantry door. My older two are actually a little obsessed with knowing what we'll be eating and who's in charge of preparing it. Even B, who can't read yet, loves to open the pantry and ask, "What are we having?"
  4. The "Make Ahead" box. I made a place on the chart for special notes about items that take extra time and need to be started in advance. This, for example, keeps us from realizing at 6 p.m. that we were planning to have jello with our dinner at 6:30.
  5. Division of labor. While the head and assistant cooks are busy in the kitchen, the other family members are on clutter clean-up duty in the rest of the house. This way, we are all working at the same time.
Last year, I experimented with planning one, two, and four weeks at a time to see what worked best. What I really found, though, was that I still hate deciding what's for dinner! So, I recently had the idea to sit down and create two months' worth of "default" menus. My family is fine with that level of variety in our meals (although I know not everyone is the same in this regard--I have a friend who plans a different meal every night for an entire year!!!). This has worked WONDERFULLY well for me--instead of having to remember what we eat and when we've last eaten it, I can just follow the default plan, adjusting as necessary for special occasions and unusual circumstances.

This is definitely turning into the right system for us, especially as far as breakfast and dinner are concerned. Unfortunately, however, it wasn't working as planned for lunches. Stay tuned for another post on how we've solved the problem of lunch!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fun with Pop Beads

One of the gifts K received for Christmas was this set of Pop Beads, and they have been a fabulous addition to our toy collection. These are sturdy, well-made, attractively-colored, and tactilely pleasing. Every member of our family (including Dad!) enjoys manipulating these beads (though, OF COURSE, we closely supervise B and Baby P with them).

They are designed for building jewelry, such as necklaces and bracelets, that can be taken apart and re-made over and over again in endless creative combinations. I love, though, that my K never lets something like a toy's intended purpose limit her imagination:

Here are a few members of the (eventually quite extensive) "royal family" she created, complete with hair and crowns. She spent a long time playing with these little "people", inventing a delightfully elaborate story with them. Five stars to a toy that lends itself to such imaginative play!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tot School: B's Felt Box

Tot School
B is 28 months old.

I've been thinking about creating a felt board for B for quite a while now, but I just couldn't decide how I wanted to make it. I saw countless fantastic ideas all over the Web, but what would be the right kind for us? Did I want a large, sturdy board to prop up against the wall? A roll-up version to use on the go? A hinged board that stands on its own? One that is permanently mounted? Something that hangs on a hook or doorknob? Individual sets that fit in Ziploc bags? And what about storing the pieces? What would be the best way to keep everything together?

As happens often with me, I became a little overwhelmed with all the choices. I decided to let the project simmer for a while and see what happened. Then, one day when I was browsing the aisles of Target, the pot "boiled over" so to speak. I saw this:

It's a plastic storage bin that measures approximately 10" x 15" x 5" with a recessed lid. (I couldn't find the same thing online to link to, but it was in the children's bedroom/toy organization aisle at the store.) The moment I saw it, I knew it would be the perfect solution for my felt "board" dilemma!

I cut out three felt pieces of different colors to fit inside the recessed lid and to act as interchangeable backgrounds. I ended up making four different play sets, stored in plastic sandwich bags inside the box itself:

Top left: three background pieces in white, gray, and dark blue.
Inside box (clockwise from top left): geometric shapes set, snowman set, bear and bees set, and apple tree/basket set.

Here's the snowman set (inspired by this post),

the shape set (which B especially likes to stack in same-shape or same-color piles),

the bear and bees (from a book called Felt Board Fingerplays, which we've used to go along with a rhyme called "Here is the Beehive", for counting to five and subtracting back to zero, and practicing spatial relationships like "on", "under", "over", "beside", etc.),

and an action shot of the apple tree (also inspired by Felt Board Fingerplays), which includes ten apples with the numbers 1-10, ten small baskets (not shown) with numbers 1-10 for matching, and one large basket (also not shown).

So far, B doesn't have a very long attention span for this activity, but he does seem to enjoy it for a short time. This is one that his older siblings really like doing with him, too! I do plan on making more felt sets in the future to go in the box, but this has definitely been a great start.

The Whole World in His Hands

We are, among other things, a puzzle-loving family. We're especially fond of jigsaw puzzles, and we have amassed quite a collection of them at different sizes and skill levels. So, when I heard about GeoPuzzles, I knew they would be a hit at our house.

When they first arrived, N was ecstatic! Not only does he love puzzles, but maps are also one of his particular loves, so these were doubly inviting to him. He put together each of them in turn over a two-day period, learning some new country names along the way. Then, on Sunday, he had a fantastic idea--he wanted to put all of them together, then arrange them in correct relationship to each other. (Umm . . . sure!) So, we moved the dining table and chairs out of the way, and he spent some quality time on the floor putting the world together, one continent at a time:

We got out the globe for him to check the locations, and away he went! The scale on each puzzle is a little different (which was a little disappointing to him), but, overall, he was quite pleased with the results.

I must admit that this is exactly the kind of learning scenario that I dream about as a homeschooling mom--my child coming up with a great idea and initiating it himself with a little guidance and a lot of encouragement from me. This is the kind of thing he will remember, because he was so invested in it himself and the goal was his own. I look forward to many more such experiences as my children grow and mature!

Number Chase

K is at a point in her math learning where I felt the need to take a break from our curriculum and focus on basic addition and subtraction facts for a while. I don't want her to memorize them per se, but I do want her to become so familiar with them that they become automatic to her. (This is a distinction I believe most people don't make in learning, but there is a difference.)

The most enjoyable way to encourage this type of learning is through games. Many card games and any board game that uses two dice can be used to become more familiar with addition facts, and we have been playing quite a variety. For a slightly more intense focus on addition, though, I came up with a game we call "Number Chase". Inspired by this post from The Activity Mom, I created a simple game board. With two dice for each player and "squeezy paints" in hand (see this post), we were ready to go!

We took turns rolling the dice, adding up the numbers, and "dotting" a circle next to the resulting number. My idea was to take it slowly at first and just play until one number "won". I didn't want K to burn out on it, you know? Ha! I guess when you hear, "Can't we keep going, Mom? Pleeeeeease? I want to get a blackout!" you can confidently say your game is a success.

Does this look like a kid who has just been practicing addition facts for the past 45 minutes? We will definitely be adding this to K's workbox on a regular basis.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ringing in the New: Part 2

One thing I have been thinking about a lot is our schedule and daily routines, and how they can be adjusted to work more smoothly. I realize that this is something I will always be working on, since the needs and situation of each family member will always be changing. One way we have been adjusting is a new tweak to our workbox system.

Last April (a few weeks before the arrival of Baby P), we started using a variation on Sue Patrick's Workbox System to organize our daily school work. Instead of using a metal rack and open shoeboxes, though, I opted for these Sterilite 7-drawer carts. They have been perfect! We store them in the office, and, although we originally wheeled them out to the dining room each day for easier access, we found it actually worked better to just go retrieve each box as needed.

When we first started trying out the system, I put numbers on each box and painstakingly crafted a daily schedule in an attempt to balance independent work and one-on-one time working with me. My children removed laminated number- and activity-cards from a "schedule page" as they worked through each activity or assignment, so it was easy for them to see what was done and what was not yet done (one of the main goals of the system). This was a definite improvement over the way we were doing things before; it enabled us to get more organized and have easier access to our materials, as well as making it possible to overlap the work of each child more than we had done previously, consolidating our schoolwork into fewer hours of the day.

The problem, though, was that this wasn't quite agile enough for our needs. I spent a lot of time each evening trying to predict the flow of the following day, and I found that it wasn't ever very accurate. Life with a toddler and an infant proved just too unpredictable for this system as we initially conceived it, so we have been further tweaking it to fit our needs.

The most recent change has been to abandon the "schedule page" and the numbers on the boxes altogether. Instead, I (or my children) simply attach a card to each box to indicate whether it's one they can most likely do on their own or if they will need some assistance from me:

We also spent some time creating personal lists of things they can do during any "wait time", such as "Build a project from my electronics set", "Go outside and jump rope", "Play with the geoboard", or "Choose a file-folder activity from the bookshelf".

This has been working great so far! Once we start "workbox time", N and K can retrieve a box of their choosing based on whether I am available to work with them or not. If they have completed all the "Try it on Your Own!" boxes and I am unavailable at the moment, they simply choose an alternate activity from their list and work on it until I am available. This has especially cut down on their frustration level about not being able to proceed without me if I am tending to the needs of a younger sibling. It has also eliminated whiny requests for "media time" (which they know is reserved for after schoolwork and chores have been completed) or the dreaded "There's nothing to do!" rant. I'm sure we'll need to update their lists periodically, but they have been quite enthusiastic about them so far.

There are a few more changes that have been working great, but I'll save those for another post (or two!).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ringing in the New: Part 1

Lately, I've been thinking about how--as far as winter months go--I really love January. I mean, even though I struggle to some degree with Seasonal Affective Disorder, something about a fresh beginning right in the middle of the dark, cold part of the year always seems to improve my emotional health. (Hooray for the Northern Hemisphere!)

I also enjoy getting back into our routine after the (happy) interruption of the holiday season. It feels so good to start again with renewed energy, as well as to try out some new ideas. Here are a few of the things that are new in our world:
A NEW CAMERA. This one, to be specific. I'm still learning how to use it, but it is definitely nice to have a reliable one again. Does this mean I'll do better at blogging with photos? We'll see!

BABY P'S NEW TOOTH. This little girl (couldn't you just eat her up?) had her first tooth come in, and a second is trying to follow. Aside from looking adorable poking up from those gums and representing a fun milestone, this event has increased the need for agile scheduling in our homeschool. Our normally cheerful, content baby has been demanding a bigger chunk of my time and attention these days, as well as the patience and cooperation of her siblings. She's definitely helping us stay agile!

LUNCH BAGS. I'm planning an entire post about our decision to use lunch bags, but let me just say this has been a FABULOUS solution to some of our daytime food challenges. Love, love, LOVE them!

MY NEW IPOD TOUCH. J has had one of these for a while, and we have all loved it. I was often borrowing it to use a few apps I found fun and/or useful, but I didn't really feel like I needed one of my own. Well, he and the kids surprised me with one for Christmas, and I have loved having it! (I have appreciated the reviews of kid-friendly apps on Carisa's blog, and plan to post similar reactions here to games and programs we use as part of our homeschooling.)

We've also done some tweaking of our schedule and daily routines, but I think I have enough to say on that topic for another complete post. Stay tuned for Part 2!