Life and Learning

I am afraid this may turn into an eclectic post, filled with my rambling thoughts on life and learning, and how we approach each in our home. I’ve written a few times that this year has been a growing and changing year in our homeschool, but the truth is when I think about it, I realize that we’ve been growing and changing the past few years in home and school alike, and that our approach to homeschooling has grown out of the changes in our home life.

I first became aware of the Waldorf approach to education a few years ago, when we started our journey with Oak Meadow. While the Waldorf approach to the 3Rs did not work well for my children, aspects of the lifestyle which I was learning more about, did. In fact, I completely fell in love with many parts of it.

Now, we are far from purists, in fact I wouldn’t even remotely claim to say that we’re living a “Waldorf lifestyle”. But rather, that we have employed elements of it in our life. For example, we watch television and the kids own and play video games, but reading more about Waldorf did make us reassess and put stricter limits on how much they were getting of each. We don’t go to the extreme of eating certain foods and wearing certain colors on certain days, but we are striving to be more intentional about bringing rhythm to our days and weeks, even if just in little ways. We don’t strictly use only natural materials in our clothing and home, but we certainly are trying to use more. As Christians, we do not believe in Anthroposophy, but we do firmly believe in a holistic approach to raising and educating children.  We believe in equal importance of the heart, head and hands. Neglect one part and the whole being suffers.

Learning more about Waldorf led us to re-evaluate our children’s toys, both the quality and quantity. I admit, I never thought that my children had “too many toys”, until I compared them against the guidelines of Waldorf-inspired simplicity. We realized that we had a lot of toys that were never or hardly used – and most of those were the plastic, battery-chugging toys, or all those action figures that the kids just “had to have!” As we observed the children, we noticed that the toys they played with the most were the ones that allowed the most creativity – cars, wooden building blocks, Lego, wooden trains and Playmobil.  In the end, we got rid of almost everything else. It was refreshing.

We also ditched the cheap Crayola crayons and paints and colored pencils, and invested in rich, aromatic beeswax crayons, true watercolor paints with quality brushes, diving into the world of wet on wet watercolor painting. We bought wool roving and needles and tried wet and needle felting, making some Christmas ornaments which we donated to a charity event. We tried weaving and knitting, and baked more together.

I knew that I wanted nature, freedom and creativity to be the dominant forces in my children’s childhoods – not video games, television or organized activities. This isn’t to say the children aren’t involved in sports and activities, they are. But where once they may have had several activities per week, we now limited them to 1 each.  We placed a higher value on allowing the children more time for free play.

We also realized that in so doing, it afforded us another benefit that we didn’t even realize was missing – more time together as a family. My husband delights in his children, but like most working fathers, from Monday through Friday, he only sees the children for a few minutes in the morning and a couple hours in the evening. We realized that being on the go two or three nights a week for activities was seriously cutting into the time he got to spend with his children. And I’m sorry, but sitting on the sidelines watching your child play organized sports does not even come close to being the same as being home with the children reading books, playing board games, wrestling around in the living room, or kicking the soccer ball around in the backyard. Not that there isn’t value in supporting and cheering your child on in an activity they enjoy, but sideline parenting shouldn’t make up the bulk of your time together during the week.

Those were growing years, and this year, as I’ve been reflecting on our homeschool, I’ve come to realize that I want our homeschool to blend seamlessly within our lives, not to feel like an artificial extension. And yet, I have been struggling the last couple of years to find an approach that blends our personal values and goals, with a practical application that meets the hectic demands of a family with a child with special needs. To say nothing of matching the learning styles of our children, and the personality traits of all of us! Pure Waldorf didn’t work. Pure Charlotte Mason didn’t work. Pure traditional workbook-based didn’t work. Pure anything didn’t work.

As much as I have wanted there to be a neat and tidy, pre-packaged curriculum that is open and go, that works perfectly for both of my children, such a thing does not exist. As much as we loved the holistic, creative approach of Waldorf – it was far too much work for me to put together with our hectic lives, and their approach to reading and math was a horrible fit for my children, who thrive with workbooks.

Likewise, as much as I loved the short and sweet lessons of Charlotte Mason, the idea of narration being the only comprehension exercise necessary, and the beautiful idea of spreading a liberal arts feast before my children – the numerous short lessons drove my son up the wall, he hated narration, and try as we might, we just never could keep up to all the liberal arts studies.

While using a workbook only approach seemed like it would be the winner – after all, my children are both visual learners who love workbooks, and they are certainly an easy , open and go approach for a hectic life, workbooks for everything was just plain boring. It was also far too much writing for my son who has joint-related fine motor issues.

I was feeling pressure this year – after all, this was my son’s grade 4 year. He only had one more year of “elementary school” before he would be considered “middle school” – the years when one was supposed to start getting more serious about education. The years that prepare students for the academically challenging years of high school, which prepare them for college, their career, their life. Suddenly the distant future felt like it was looming on the horizon, and here we were, only managing to get the 3Rs done with any amount of formality or consistency.

Art and music lessons were non-existent, the only social studies my children had really learned was the names of the provinces – no ancient history other than some reading about Egypt and China, two countries that interested my son. As for science… well, I actually felt okay about science, because my son is a born naturalist who devours bird and animal encyclopedias. He is currently reading cover to cover, a 750+ paged encyclopedia on the birds of North America. Every day we were being told a new and interesting fact about some species. But outside of his self-directed learning, the most we did for science was the occasional Magic School Bus science kit or tv episode. Forget about learning a foreign language of any kind, let alone Latin. I felt like a homeschooling failure.

But why?

By whose standards was I a failure? The public education system we have chosen to eschew? By the standards of Rudolph Steiner? Or Charlotte Mason? Or the fellow homeschool Moms who used very heavy academic, traditional approaches full of textbooks and workbooks? It dawned on me that I have spent years believing others when they tell me that my children have to read “x” book or study “y” subject at “z” time, in order to have a successful education. That without these things I am somehow failing my children.

I’ve been waking up to the lie this year, and slowly taking a stand against it. In fact, I am now at the place where I refuse to believe it. Following some other person’s academic ideals with rigidity is not what makes me a success as a homeschool teacher. Teaching my 6 year old about Ancient Rome & Greece does not make me a success. Nor does doing picture study, composer study, hymn study or reading Shakespeare to a 9 year old.

What makes me a success is acknowledging  and respecting my children’s individual areas of strength and challenge, their learning styles, and their areas of interest – and then building their education around them. What makes me a success is realizing that by following their interests now, I am opening the door to future learning. I am helping them learn how to love learning, now, rather than burn them out with drudgery and required work that in no way applies to their lives.

As I sat reflecting on all that we haven’t accomplished in the past 5 years of learning, I decided to shift my thoughts, and instead think of all that we have accomplished:

  • I have taught one child to read well ahead of his years, and another is in the process of learning. What’s more – my children love to be read to. We have spent countless hours reading through storybooks, poetry, classic literature and the silly stories of Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl. Consequently they have impressive imaginations and excellent vocabularies.
  • Both children are proficient in math. My youngest is extremely skilled in math facts and my oldest is showing real aptitude in the visual realm of mathematics, such as geometry.
  • They both have excellent penmanship, and are learning cursive.
  • They enjoy writing stories and letters to their pen pals.
  • They have picked up computer skills naturally on their own, without it having to be a forced subject in school at the expense of others.
  • They have taken countless nature walks, learning the art of observation, and have an excellent awareness of and love for, the natural world.
  • They are both talented artists, with my son being skilled at drawing, and my daughter developing a penchant for painting. They enjoy going to art galleries, examining various styles of art.
  • They both are natural musicians who love to sing, and enjoy listening to all forms of music including classical. My son can accurately identify Vivaldi’s Seasons and some of Beethovens work as well.
  • Enjoying poetry, both children have now memorized several poems for fun, and have even given recitations at our homeschool Christmas party. This has helped with the skills of elocution, public speaking and has helped my daughter with her speech errors.
  • My son is an amateur ornithologist, not only capable of accurately identifying dozens and dozens of species of birds from across the globe, but he can also tell you their habitats, eating habits, if they’re endangered, protected and more.
  • My daughter has a love for homemaking and handicraft skills, and at only 6 years old, is quite a talented baker, enjoys cooking breakfast for the family, loves to help with sewing, and is learning how to knit.
  • They have helped every year with the garden – from rock picking to snapping beans, and everything in between. They also help with the grocery shopping, and are fully capable of making purchases themselves. They help with household chores and maintenance. Our daughter (out of her own free will) helped her father build our new deck at 6 years of age – skillfully using the tools alongside her father. One of our strongest desires is to raise children who are perfectly capable of running a household.
  • We have done financial math projects, where they are given a budget and have to manage a “store” – purchasing stock and supplies, dealing with unexpected expenses, paying employees etc…
  • They have learned numerous Bible stories and have already memorized several prayers of our Catholic faith. They have a love for the Lord that astounds me sometimes.
  • We have done countless field trips to a historical settlement village where they have milked a cow, fed pigs, washed horses, threshed flax, spun wool, baked using a wood stove, played antique games and been witness to a different era of living. On other field trips, they have learned how pizzas are made and how dairy farms work – they were even privy to watch a calf being born. They have been to one of the largest green houses in North America to learn about their operations, they have been to art museums, science museums, aquariums, zoos, general historical museums, and a planetarium. They have been to an apple orchard where they not only picked apples and made fresh pressed cider, but learned all about the workings of commercial apple growing. I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting.
  • They have participated in science and social studies project fairs, presenting their projects on Ancient Egypt, Canada, the Canada Goose, and Volcanoes.
  • They have watched countless hours of Dr. Quinn, which has led to discussions on women’s rights, the historical treatment of Native Americans and African Americans, slavery, prejudice, and much more.
  • And during our many trips to the children’s hospital, they have learned patience, tolerance, compassion and understanding, the reality of disease and disability and respecting others who look, speak and act different from us, and they have learned to appreciate the blessings that they have in life.

As I reflect on this much lengthier list, I can now see that my earlier assessment was wrong. My children have been learning much in the way of science and social studies, as well as home economics, arts and more, despite the lack of formal teaching thereof. I can also see now that perhaps while I thought I was searching for our “niche”, I had already found it. It would appear that our rather “unschooling” approach to “Everything Else”, has not been failing us, but rather, has given our children thus far a rich and varied education, one that is developing not just their minds, but their hearts and hands as well. Perhaps the traditionalists, Rudolph and Charlotte would be proud after all.

Nature Study 101

It was only a month ago that I wrote my post about Saying Goodbye to Charlotte – Charlotte Mason that is, and her approach within our homeschool. In it I mentioned how rarely we ever were able to get Nature Study done; while we certainly spend lots of time outdoors, we rarely, if ever, completed a nature journal.

Fast forward a couple weeks. It didn’t take long for the children to become bored with workbook-based science. So, I sat down and had a talk with the kids, and for once they actually agreed on something! They both described what their idea of a perfect “science” would be: reading about things and drawing about them, or going for walks and coming home and drawing what they saw. Huh. So their vision of a perfect science was essentially the nature study that I had just given up on.

I decided to give a program that I had been eyeballing for a few months, a chance. It is called Exploring Nature with Children, and it’s a year-long nature study curriculum. I might call it “Nature Study for Dummies” or “Nature Study 101”. It is a very comprehensive, yet easy to follow and very flexible program that makes nature study (and journaling) easy, for anyone. Even beginners like me.

Each month is broken down into four topics, and includes a nature walk idea, a book list, a poem and piece of art work that relates to the topic and a selection of engaging and educational extension activities – no busy work craft ideas in this program! It is easy to use this for a wide range of ages, and I can definitely see how this could be used for multiple years.

So, I bought the book and we dived right in with the April study on trees. Since spring is just starting here in Atlantic Canada, we had to don our rubbers, parkas, hats and mittens for our nature walk. We roamed the back yard, studying the various trees and comparing the differing buds.  We gently took a few samples home with us.

When we got home, we did our first ever “real” nature journal entry, in our newly purchased journals. We sketched in pencil, then filled in the color using watercolor crayons and paintbrushes, replicating (or attempting to!) the trees and buds that we saw.

The next day, we revisited the journals and added some information, and we also dissected the leaf buds that we had found, examining them for signs of baby leaves. The following day we drew a diagram of a tree, with all it’s parts labelled – from the roots up. Each day we read beautiful books such as Sky Tree, Planting the Trees of Kenya and A Log’s Life.

We are only two weeks into the program, and thus far the lesson on trees is the only one we have completed since we had some unforseen interruptions. We will start lesson two next week (Plant Life Cycles), but in the mean time, one thing I have noticed is we are already being more intentional about observing when we are outdoors. Yesterday we took a bike ride and stopped several times to watch the small swollen brooks and streams – we noted the color of the water, the sound, even just the little tiny trickles along the side of the road. At one brook my son spotted a mallard taking off.

Today, despite the cool rain, we bundled up and hiked down to the stream that runs behind our house, eager to observe it in it’s flooded state. It had risen 2-3′ overnight, and the children loved seeing “their island” where we go fishing, pick fiddleheads and go wading, completely covered in water. We enjoyed the spring-sweet smell of the cedars, and the squelching sound of the mud. We compared how it looked today, to how it looked other times. We noticed that the buds on the trees are getting bigger, thanks to the mild days we’ve been having.

It is a process. Our journals are far from the prize-worthy specimens I have seen online on Pinterest and other nature journaling websites, including a wonderful Facebook group called Charlotte Mason Nature Journaling. But we will learn and grow together, and what’s more, we are loving the process.

 

My first ever attempt at nature journaling.

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I couldn’t quite figure out at first what my 9 year old son was trying to depict, until I looked at the stem he was using as inspiration. Then I was pleased with his attention to detail.

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His first entry. 20170404_155848_resized

My 6 year old daughter’s entry (I helped with labeling the buds). 20170404_155746~2_resized

The children hard at work. 20170404_155632_resized20170404_155642_HDR_resized

Dissecting the buds20170404_155449_resized

 

A trip to the stream20170411_120310_resized

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Saying Goodbye to Charlotte

Back in the fall I wrote a couple posts about not feeling like you need to adhere to any particular pedagogy religiously. That it is okay to “tweak” things as necessary to work for you and your family. I wrote how I myself have struggled for years to find what works best for my children and our often hectic life.

I’ve known for awhile now that my son does best with workbooks, and yet, I’ll admit, the Charlotte Mason philosophy has been a hard one to let go of. I’m part of a few Charlotte Mason groups online and the fan base is rather large, with many who are rather zealous advocates. I learned a lot from the conversations on those groups, and overall I found their well-meaning and articulate comments were intended to be encouraging. However, I will admit that reading through those groups also often left me feeling guilty that I was not doing enough, or doing it right; that I just needed to try harder.

Here’s the thing: I really, really, wanted to follow the Charlotte Mason approach. We’ve been trying it for over two years now. Every fibre of my being agrees that it is a beautiful and enriching approach to education that can produce excellent results. But I have finally come to the realization that it just doesn’t work for us, no matter how much I want it to, no matter how hard I try. And finally, I have come to accept that this is okay.

This isn’t a realization that I came to suddenly, but rather something I have been gradually realizing over the last few months. In January our daughter ended up spending a couple days at our local ER which led to being admitted to her children’s hospital for seven days, six hours away from home.  Despite having just finished Christmas break, needless to say, lessons were put on hiatus again.  Once we were back home, I was too physically and mentally exhausted to even think about doing school, so we took another week off.

During this time off, I had a lot of time to think and reflect on our school – the past, the present, and what I wanted for our future. I had that little nagging voice in my head that was telling me that something just wasn’t working, and I needed to figure out what it was.

I finally came to realize that school felt like it had become nothing more than a check list of Charlotte Mason to-dos that just were not getting done, which was resulting in feelings of guilt and failure for me. There were so many subjects to keep track of at one time, and we were all tired of hopping from subject to subject every day. Just starting to read a chapter in this book on geography, and then the next day reading something different in science, then the next day reading something different again. We wanted to really be able to dive in and enjoy a subject, to soak it up – not be constantly stopping and starting.

Likewise, trying to keep up with the numerous enrichments was overwhelming me, even though people kept saying it’s easy to do. It was all feeling so forced – I was tired of trying to keep up to a list of which study we should be doing which day and constantly feeling behind when we missed that day for some reason. So I tried loop scheduling as some people suggested, but that didn’t change the fact that we  just weren’t getting to those “extra” subjects – which people kept telling me were actually the very core of a Charlotte Mason education.

In all honesty, many of the enrichments, picture study especially, were feeling contrived: telling my children they have to look at a picture they have no interest in, because some woman 100 years ago said we should. How on earth was that enriching their lives? My children love art, they love creating art, and they love seeing art – when we go to an art gallery. Because there they are free to explore many types of art, and they can find the pieces that speak to them, that interest them. There, in that setting, they will stand and stare, drinking that picture into their soul, figuring out what it is that they like, or perhaps dislike about it.

I was also tired of feeling guilty about our literature times together. Every morning at breakfast we read from our selected read-aloud, which we only ever do one of at a time. We love to dive into our books, and sometimes we will read 2 or 3 chapters of a delicious book in one sitting.

But according to Charlotte this was wrong – we shouldn’t be reading so much at one time, and we should always have multiple books going at a time. I wasn’t cultivating the habit of attention properly, and according to many, there was no way the material was truly sinking in like it would be, if I did it the “right way”. Never mind that after reading, my children would jump up and act out extremely detailed scenes from what we had just read. Or that sometimes our readings would lead to discussions on certain topics or ideas that had come up – things that they would remember long after we had read that particular chapter.

We also were enjoying a selection of adapted classics – something I never admitted on the groups, where these books were repeatedly called twaddle and were frowned upon.  I tried to do the “right” thing, and I did try to read the original versions to my children. But here is what I learned: when I tried to force the original versions with their archaic language on my children, they were completely disengaged. They did not enjoy the stories, nor did they take anything in.  They would essentially shut down while I was reading.

But see, here’s the thing: the language in the original classics was the language of the day (or at least recent enough that it was familiar), thus, these books were much easier for children of Charlotte’s era to understand. But that is not the case today. Right or wrong, the prose of 150 to 250 years ago,  is not the one our children are growing up with today. We need to respect that many children are going to need modernized versions, without criticizing the parents for not challenging their children enough.

I have come to realize that I fully believe it is better to read a modern-language version that allows the child to comprehend what they are hearing, and to become engaged in the story. This in turn encourages a love of literature, as opposed to forcing something on them they can’t understand, which only discourages them.

These are the things that I mulled over and over in my mind that week, and have continued to think about since then. Ultimately what I have come to is that I am tired of our education feeling like a constantly unfinished to-do list. I am tired of our education feeling like it never quite meets the incredibly high bar set out by others who are not living our life. I am tired of measuring our success by other people’s standards for their families. I want something that engages my children and makes them look forward to lessons, instead of something that has begun to feel like drudgery. Ultimately, I want them to love learning, and I want their learning delivered in a format that makes it easy for them to learn. This is not the same as saying they won’t be challenged.

And so, roughly a month ago, we dropped all the Charlotte Mason enrichment studies that had been part of our Morning Time. I was tired of forcing these enrichments on my children, just because Charlotte said my children needed them to have a fulfilled education and life. I realized that they were already being exposed to these things organically: singing hymns on Sunday, or whenever else the mood hit them – our daughter loves to sing the Gloria at random times. I realized we were already reading a variety of rich poetry and literature for fun. We already visited art galleries, museums, as well as the playhouse to enjoy plays and music.  We listen to classical music in the car when driving somewhere, or whenever my kids feel like a romp and want to act out the stampeding warriors of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.

I admit I had no idea when we would read Shakespeare, or if we would ever read Plutarch. Nor, quite frankly, did I care anymore. As for Nature Study, we never got it done anyways, so it really wasn’t a big loss from the schedule.  What we would continue to do however, was spend lots of time outside together and going for walks. Whenever my children find a rock, or shell or feather that excites them, we stop and examine it, and it inevitably finds a home on our “Nature Sill”.  I knew we would continue to stop and watch the squirrels scampering up a tree, or listen to the variety of birds singing. We would teach the art of observation organically, without having to come back and make a lesson out of it with water colors and a journal and oral or written narrations.

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And so it was a step towards joy to let go of a large chunk of “Charlotte”. Instead of trying to cram several different forms of literature and studies into our time together at the breakfast table, we enjoyed a Bible story, our read aloud, and then ended in prayer time. Short and sweet. Simple. Refreshing.

Life and lessons continued on. We kept up with the Charlotte Mason approach to language arts with copywork and dictation, science and history, and always of course the infernal narration. My son hates narration with a passion. We have been at it over two years now – he hated it when we started, and he still hates it today. And slowly I have been coming to realize that because of his hatred of narration, it is not working as a learning tool, as it is supposed to be. I would read to him, or assign him something to read, only to have him look at me pleadingly, sometimes anxiously, saying, “Please Mom, please, don’t make me narrate.”

And so, after much prayer and consideration, I decided to say goodbye to Charlotte completely. It has been a very hard decision – the toughest one I’ve made in our homeschooling journey. It has been very hard for me to give up on my picture of their education, but I’ve come to realize that my ideals are hindering them. So, I am letting them go because I know that deep down, it is what is best for my children and for our family. In letting go of Charlotte, I will be opening up their education to it’s full potential.

We are a week into our new approach, which is your very basic, traditional workbook approach – the complete opposite of what I wanted when I started homeschooling several years ago.  But already, I can see my children thriving, especially my son. Most in Charlotte Mason circles scorn workbooks, calling them the “easy way out”, claiming they don’t teach children to think as deeply as narration does. Yet, I am here to say that workbooks have opened up my son’s ability to think. Working through the workbook questions allows my son to process the information he has read, which in turns leaves him better able to discuss it. He is retaining information better and he is better able to articulate his thoughts. He is no longer dreading science or history lessons because of the narration he knew would come at the end. He is enjoying the variety of exercises in his grammar and spelling workbooks – he told me after the first few days that he was glad to have some variety. He had gotten tired of doing copywork and dictation day after day; always the same thing, just different words.

Our daughter, who has Autism and health issues, is loving her workbooks. She is taking great pride in being able to read the instructions to herself, always saying, “Look Mommy! Listen! I can read them Mommy! I can do it!” It gives her a small area of life that she can have some freedom and more importantly to her, control over. So much of her life is out of her control – the inability to manage her feelings and emotions, her struggles socially, and thanks to her bowel disorder, even what happens to her own body. It may seem such a small thing  – the ability to work independently with a workbook, but to her, it’s a big thing, and it’s bringing a smile to her face during lesson time that I have never seen before.

I wish the pure Charlotte Mason philosophy of education could have worked for us, I do. There is a part of me that feels a bit envious of those who were able to make it work, and not just “make it work”, but who truly thrived with it. But there’s a bigger part of me who is proud to have realized and acknowledged it wasn’t working, and to have had the courage to make such a radical change. I’ve finally learned that there is no curriculum or method out there  is inherently any better than any other, when it comes to achieving an excellent education for your children. Because the best curriculum is the one that meets your child’s individual needs, not your ideals.

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So Your Child Wants to Learn…

So as you can tell in my previous posts, I feel very strongly against early academics. This belief is not just some random personal opinion, but one that is backed up by countless studies and evidence. That said, I also believe that all children are individual, and as such, some children will naturally (meaning without Mom or Dad suggesting it or leading them to it) want to learn to read or write or do math problems, earlier than others.

So what do you do when your 4 or 5 year old wants to learn to read, yet you know that plunking a formal phonics in front of them is not developmentally appropriate? I’ve touched on this briefly in other posts, but today I thought that I would write out a list of great, early learning activities for the child that wants more!

A key to remember in the early years – make learning as multi-sensory as possible. All children learn best through multi-sensory means during the early years. This doesn’t mean that they will enjoy all approaches or may not have a preference, but that giving them a variety of sensory inputs is beneficial to their learning.

Reading/Writing

1. Introduce letter names and sounds first through alphabet picture books, Montessori sandpaper letters, alphabet blocks, songs, alphabet stickers or flashcards if the child is interested in them.

2. Reinforce letters and their sounds, and also work on early writing skills through fine motor activities such as drawing letters in the air, or in sand, flour, glitter, cornmeal, shaving foam (etc) on a baking tray with their finger. Gradually move to a stylus (a chopstick works well) in the above mediums. Let them finger paint the letters on paper. Then move to them writing their letters on a white board with marker, then a slate with chalk, then unlined paper with crayon, then a pencil. Always progress from easiest mode to hardest, and only at the child’s speed. They can also paint the letters with a brush.

Another fun activity might be getting the children to create their own set of alphabet flashcards in a crayon resist: Have them write the upper and letter case letters on the back of a recipe card (or a 4×6 piece of white cardboard) in crayon. Then, have them paint over the letters in water color (make sure they use lots of water so the paint isn’t too thick). The crayon will resist the paint and create an interesting effect.

3. Reinforce letters and their sounds through gross motor activities such as drawing letters on your back with their finger, and having you guess them (this puts them in the role of “teacher”, something most children enjoy). Then you can switch and you draw letters on their back and have them guess which letters – this is an excellent activity for helping them visualize the letters.  You can create masking tape letters on the living room floor or draw them in chalk outside on the driveway and have the children run, walk, hop, skip, crawl etc… over the letters while they chant the name/sound. You can also write the entire alphabet in chalk on the driveway, call out a letter or a sound, and have them jump to the letter you call out. For an indoor version, invest in one of the alphabet foam play mats, and scatter the letters across the playroom floor. Play a bean bag toss game where they toss a bean bag and have to say the letter name/sound of whatever letter the bean bag lands on.

4. Once the child has well learned their 26 basic phonograms, you can start to work on blending. Invest in a set of tactile letters (Lauri foam letters, magnetic letters, scrabble tiles, Montessori sandpaper letters, Montessori movable alphabet, even just printable letter tiles you make yourself etc…) and let them start word building using the tactile letters. You can create a blend ladder (in the style of Abeka or My Father’s World) on the floor with masking tape and let them lay on the floor working with the letters creating blends and words. Eventually once they start building words like rat, mat, hat, cat etc…  have them reinforce the word they have learned through a fine motor activity above (writing the word with their finger in sand, painting the word etc). Allow the child to progress at their speed, not yours. They may be content to learn nothing but -at family words for a month. So be it.

5. Go through readers together. I personally love the McGuffey Revised Eclectic Primer as well as the Canadian Catholic First Reader (part 1 & 2), as they are available free from http://www.archive.org. The Canadian Catholic reader especially follows a progression that is very similar to the popular (and expensive) All About Reading. Protestants need not fear – while they were created for Catholic schools, there is absolutely 0 doctrine in the reader, no Catholic references, and are easily used by those of any faith. They are merely a basic reader with sentences like “The cat is on the mat”.

Build the new words in each lesson together with your letter tiles, reinforce them through the fine motor activities listed above, and then finally practice reading the words in the reader. You could also create a reader vocabulary book, and have them copy the lesson words and then draw a picture of what they are.

6. Play games together – Bingo is a great one, you can do letters and use it to reinforce letter names or sounds, or you could create a sight or lesson word Bingo. You could also create Swat! – write letters or words on recipe cards and scatter them across the floor. Give the child a fly swatter and have them swat the letter/sound/word you say. Eventually make it a game of speed, and give challenges of seeing how many letters/sounds/words they can swat in one minute etc…

There are also many phonics/reading games available on Amazon, just do a search for phonics games, and you’ll get many options. Crazy As, Learning Resources Pop! games, Alphabet Go Fish from Peaceable Kingdom, Alphabet Spot It!, Alphabet Island, Didax Word Building Cards (with their reading rods) are some of my picks.

Math: 

1. Teach numbers much the same way you taught letters, using the same fine and gross motor reinforcement activities listed in #1-3 for Reading/Writing. Hopscotch is also a great game for number recognition and there are foam playmat options available for indoor play.

2. Expand that however with counting activities. Beads, rocks, pebbles etc… have them practice counting and making arrangements of 1-10 items. Call out a number and have them count out that many items. A goal is to have children able to recognize arrangements of 1-10. So, for example you could place 4 pebbles in front of them and without counting they would be able to recognize that there is 4. However, this is a skill that can take time to develop, and shouldn’t be pushed if the child isn’t ready.

3. Make math part of your every day life. Have them set the table and count out how many plates, forks, knives etc… Ask them problems like: if we have two plates on this side of the table and two plates on that side, how many plates are there all together? Have them count to find the answer. Or, ask them: We had four dirty plates and we just put one plate in the dishwasher, how many plates do we have now? Always make the questions concrete and allow them to count to find the answers.

You can also, bake and cook with them and introduce them to the concept of fractions and measurements. Have them measure things by their hands, feet, arms, steps. Ask questions like, what do you think is longer – the table or this stick and have them compare. Move to things like: how many (of your) feet long do you think this room is? Let them guess, and then measure it.  Invest in a small scale and let them have fun by comparing weights of items. Buy small building kits (Lowes sell good ones) and build them together, throwing out questions on measuring, counting, adding, subtracting etc…

Play basic board games together where they have to practice counting to move their character etc…  Jacks is also a fun game that lends itself nicely to counting and adding. Make it a point to point out the time to them on both digital and analog clocks. They will eventually learn to read the time. Keep it to time-reading only, the more difficult concepts of 60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour, 24 hours to a day etc.. can wait until later when they are formally learning math. You can also take them to the calendar each day and point out the day of the week, the month, year, date etc… Make it short and sweet, and over time, they’ll learn it naturally.

4. There are many games that can be played or bought for math. Bingo is great for number recognition. There are many, many options available, so again, just do a search on Amazon for math games. Scholastic also offers many good math games which are very affordable (on a side note, homeschoolers are eligible to get their own Scholastic teacher’s account, so you can order books and items through their book club). Also, invest in pattern blocks, Cuisenaire Rods, and lacing beads. They are great toys to let children play with and discover patterns etc… for themselves.

5. Practice early addition and subtraction using sweet treats: take chocolate chips  (marshmallows, popcorn, nuts, grapes, blueberries etc) and have them lay out one. Then ask them to add one more, and tell you how many that is. You can teach them the number sentences,  1 + 1 = 2. Then have them add one more, to make 3, then four and so on, all the way up to 10. Then, once they’ve made 10, have them eat (subtract/take away) one. Ask them how many are now left. Get them to say the number sentence 10 – 1 = 9. Then ask them to eat one more, how many are left now? And so on, until there are 0. Likewise, you can practice fractions using baking: divide cookies, cakes, pizzas, casseroles etc… Make note of how many pieces you are dividing it into, then what happens when you take a piece away, how many are left etc…

There is so much learning that can happen organically with math, and you’ll be amazed at the foundation you can lay for future formal academics just  by focusing on everyday math and games in the early years. Studies show that by teaching math in this fashion – hands on, practical math only in the early years, your child will be farther ahead later on, than if they had started with workbooks etc…

Again, in the early years (which I and many others consider to be under the age of 7, but especially 5 & under), hands on, multi-sensory learning is best. Children do not need, and honestly, should not use, workbooks during these years. Keep it short, sweet, fun and multi-sensory, and you’ll have a child extremely well prepared for academics.

Time to Play

Back in October, I had the privilege of attending a film screening, which was showing Waldorf-educator Kim Hunter’s film, “A Time to Play”. Kim Hunter, a Canadian native, became a Waldorf early childhood educator in 1996, teaching at the Vancouver Waldorf School. She then went on to start a new program at her home on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia in 1999. During her teaching career, Ms. Hunter has been a strong advocate for freedom in the early childhood years, “I have a strong conviction that children should be at home as much as possible when they’re young. Children need time to just ‘be’, to discover out of their own experiences who they are, what they like and what they can do.”

This desire for advocacy for the early childhood years led Ms. Hunter to produce a short documentary film, outlining the need for more freedom in the early years for today’s children. After 20 years in the classroom, she took a year’s sabbatical to tour North America, presenting her film. Ms. Hunter’s passion and advocacy for early childhood recently earned her the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, which she received from Prime Minister Trudeau on May 12th, 2016. She was one of five early childhood educators from across Canada to receive a certificate of excellence, recognizing their dedication and achievements.

Ms. Hunter’s film talks about the developmental need for allowing young children ample time for unstructured play, and how we need to work as a society at bringing this back as an early childhood priority. “I think the two biggest factors working against our children in today’s world are technology and time.” Kim speaks about the excess amount of time all children, but especially young children (those under the age of 7) are spending not just in school, but also in structured, organized classes and sports. “If we always put children into classes and groups then they never have the opportunity to figure things out on their own. They never have the chance to learn something out of their own curiosity or interest. Many parents in our time feel (consciously or unconsciously) a sense of competitiveness about what their children are doing or learning. In trying to bring our children a wealth of opportunity, we are instead overwhelming them.”

What’s more, we may actually be stifling them – studies have shown that the time children spend playing in organized sports significantly reduces their creativity as young adults. Since the ability to think creatively is considered the best predictor of future achievements, and an excellent indicator of intelligence, this has professionals concerned. On the other hand, time spent playing unstructured sports activities (like pick up hockey or a neighborhood ball game) was actually shown to boost creativity. The proposed reasoning for this is that informal sports offers children the freedom to self-govern, create rules, problem solve and learn to resolve conflicts on their own.

Psychologist Peter Gray, author of the book “Free to Learn”, is especially concerned about the loss of free play in early childhood. In an article titled, “The Play Deficit”, he opens with a memory of his own childhood, one familiar to many of us over the age of 30, but foreign to many of today’s young adults and children, “When I was a child in the 1950’s, we played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We played all weekend and all summer long. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than books assigned to us. What I learned in [my play] has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learned in school.”

It is unquestionable that children’s opportunities for free play has been declining – developmental psychologist David Elkind reports that children have lost more than 12 hours of free time per week, just in the last 20 years. This is largely due to an increase in the amount of time children spend in school and on homework, and also being increasingly enrolled in adult-directed sports and activities. Unfortunately, the negative consequences go past reduced creativity.

As children’s play has been declining, there has also been a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism – claims which are backed up by analyzing the results of clinical and standardized questionnaires that have been in use for over 40 years. A study presented at the Association for Psychological Science in 2010 included data from over 14,000 students which showed that students who started college after the year 2000 had empathy levels that were 40% lower than their predecessors.

Maia Szalavtiz, M.D., Ph. D, a neuroscience journalist for TIME Magazine, reflected on the study in an online article, stating that while she felt there were multiple reasons for this decline, one of those reasons is that children today do not spend enough time in free play: “Without unstructured free time with playmates, children simply don’t get to know each other very well. And you can’t learn to connect and care if you don’t practice these things. Free play declined by at least a third between 1981 and 2003 – right when the kids who hit college in 2000 and later were growing up.”

In his article, Dr. Gray states, “Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting.”

He goes on to say, “The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will. Every player knows that, and so the goal for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires, while also satisfying those of the other players. Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise.”

These lessons in independent negotiation and compromise are lost however in school and organized activities, where adults are in charge, where they make decisions for children, problem solve for the children, and have overall control of the setting. Dr. Gray stresses this by saying, “We think of play as childish, but to the child, [free] play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practice adulthood.”

Kim Hunter mentions that loss of free play has other negative outcomes as well, “If we don’t have time and space to digest our experiences – which is what unstructured free play offers for children, we become anxious, nervous, stressed and depressed.” We have certainly seen a rise in childhood mental disorders in recent years. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders and suicide are all climbing in our youth. In Canada, suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths in ages 15-24, making it one of the leading causes of death. And while there may be multiple factors, there is a definite correlation between the loss of free play and the rise in mental illness which cannot be discredited. If nothing else, given the rate at which mental illness is occuring in today’s youth, one could argue that we should be striving to increase the amount of free play our children have available as a coping mechanism, instead of decreasing it.

Kim also mentions the importance of free play and sensory and gross motor development. “Playing outside is truly the quintessential childhood experience, and nothing provides more opportunities for gross-motor activity.” In Kim’s school she has a goal of having the children outside for 4-5 hours every day, playing freely. She laughed, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

Today, researchers are increasingly understanding the role that gross motor activity has on a child’s brain development. Likewise, they are also learning how the lack of gross motor activity affects a child. Ms. Hunter states that when young children do not receive enough active play – whether because of being in school, technology use or not having sufficient time for free play, it is actually impairing their development.

“Studies, one dating back to the 1980s, show a relationship between a lack of gross motor skills and dyslexia/impaired reading.” Ms. Hunter explained that reading is a complex, bi-lateral brain activity, meaning both hemispheres of the brain must be engaged at the same time. Researchers now realize that certain gross motor activities which commonly occur in play, actually help children develop this crucial skill.

Ms. Hunter went on to say that, “Too little movement in the first seven years is often seen in the history of children with ADD, ADHD, and dyslexia. Toddlers and young children shouldn’t sit still! Children need to move their body in order for their brain to develop optimally. If children do not get enough movement when they are young, it’s hard for them to come to stillness later on when we want them to, or when we need them to – such as when they’re in a class of 30 students and they are expected to pay attention and learn.”

In Ms. Hunter’s film, Joy Winchell, a retired teacher, states that ideally children should have blocks of at least 1.5 hours of uninterrupted play. This extended period of time allows play to become more complex and innovative, allowing for more problem solving and creativity. “We have to remember that play is not a break from learning, but rather the very foundation for academic learning.”

Ultimately, what Kim Hunter, and others, want us to learn is – free play is crucial to a child’s physical, emotional, social and cognitive well being, and yet we are increasingly taking it away by keeping our children in school longer, enrolling them in more organized activities and also allowing more screen time. Kim finished by saying, “It is time to create a new paradigm of understanding of this developmental need, and to start creating the time and space for deep, meaningful play for our children.” Their future depends on it.

Delayed Academics (aka Developmentally Appropriate Learning)

Just today this article was shared on a Facebook homeschooling group I’m part of:

http://nancyebailey.com/2014/02/02/setting-children-up-to-hate-reading/

I really enjoyed the article. Not because it was the most well-written or scientifically backed up article, but just because of it’s message, which essentially was – back off of early academics!

Today, when people choose to postpone formal learning past the age of 5, it tends to be called “delayed learning” or “delayed academics”. I disagree. Postponing formal learning until age 6 or 7 or even 8 is not delayed at all. Instead, it is following the the way children were naturally created, and it should be called Developmentally Appropriate Learning.

This is a topic that I am rather passionate about, and I will admit, actually fairly knowledgeable about. I may not have initials after my name (well, technically I do, but they’re not Ph.D or M. Ed), and I may not have published studies, but I have spent years doing countless hours of research, reading documents and studies on child development and academics. I am also surrounded by friends and family who do have the initials after their name, who are in the education profession, with whom I have had great conversations on this topic. I’ve also talked to psychologists and other professionals about the topic.

Delayed academics seems to be a sensitive subject. Of course anything that is counter-cultural tends to be. When I have spoken up about the topic on online forums, I tend to get blasted by the “But my four year old loves her grade 1 phonics program!” moms. Unfortunately, whether the child is capable of doing the work or not, whether they enjoy it or not, science is science, and brain development is what it is. Thus, just because a 4 or 5 year old can do something, doesn’t mean they should be.

I think one of the reasons why we homeschoolers start our children so young (and as a side note, I was guilty of this with my first), is because we fall prey to cultural pressure, even subconsciously.  But also, I feel like we  tend to have a very narrow definition of learning, and ultimately seem to only equate learning with formal academics, with textbooks and workbooks and flashcards. We also mistakenly see a child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and think that means they are ready for formal learning.

Now, I know people can argue that each child is an individual, and they learn at their own pace, and that is true! I certainly would not argue that, and if your 4 year old expresses an unprompted desire to learn to read, I wouldn’t ignore that. What I would do however, is to teach her in developmentally appropriate ways – and plunking a formal phonics program down in front of her, is not it.

The same goes for math. Children will naturally pick up on math if we just get out of their way. It’s rather astounding to watch and see what they can learn for themselves, just through life experiences. If your child wants to learn math, then teach them – through games, hands on activities, playing store, through concrete real life experiences. Let them play with counting/lacing beads, pattern blocks, Cuisenaire rods, even Lego! But again, hold off on the formal math programs until they’re older. Children need to learn through direct, concrete means first, before they are ready for abstract approaches – and workbooks are abstract, not concrete.

If you research the history of education, going back to the beginning of the classical era of education, clear up until the early 1900s, learning was first done through concrete means and then reinforced orally. Only after it was well learned, did written work get introduced. As such, written work was minimal in the early years.  Math especially was taught through hands-on, concrete methods and drilled orally for typically 2 years before students ever started writing sums on a slate. Reading was taught with a reader, oral drill and some simple copywork.

I think it’s important to remember that this is an era (before and just after the turn of the century) where schools were producing students with better reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary and arithmetic outcomes than most have today. They also started later, and ended sooner. Overall, they had far less instruction. One could argue that perhaps it’s because children started later, when they were developmentally ready, and they were taught in more developmentally appropriate means.

At any rate, following a developmental approach does not mean your child is not learning, it just means they are learning in appropriate ways. So if your 4 year old wants to learn to read, you could start by teaching them their letters through alphabet books, puzzles, maybe even flashcards, through drawing letters in the sand etc… You could get letter tiles and let them build words, and you could go through very simple, basic readers together, always following the child’s lead. If your 5 year old is content to learn nothing more than basic CVC words for 6 months, then so be it. In the early years, the child should set the pace, not the teacher.

I have heard many homeschoolers say they started their young children on formal academic workbooks when they were just little, because they wanted to be like their older siblings, and “do school”.  Now, this more than likely isn’t actually about the desire for formal learning, as much as it’s a desire for your attention. So the first thing I would say is, make sure that your youngest ones are getting adequate one on one attention, and that they don’t feel excluded during lesson time. If at all possible, include them at the table. Have a busy box full of coloring books, puzzles, games, Play Doh, a small slate and chalk for drawing or practicing letters etc… Or, perhaps you could invest in some Lauri products which are lovely developmentally appropriate learning products. You could even call this box their “lessons”.

But do not be afraid to tell them, “No, I’m sorry, you can’t have a workbook right now. You’ll get your turn to have workbooks when you are older.” We don’t hesitate to say no to our children when they’re begging for a third cookie or they want to play with matches. We are quick to stop them from doing something that’s not good for them, or potentially harmful. And yet, we seem to refuse to say no to our children when they want to do work that is developmentally inappropriate, and potentially harmful long-term.

Homeschoolers often think that “developmentally appropriate” doesn’t apply to them because we’re not teaching in a school setting. However, what we need to realize is, the problem is not the setting, the school. The problem is that God created children with very specific stages of brain development, and He did this for a reason, and our God-given stages of development do not change whether we’re in a school doing work for 5 hours or at home doing work for 1 hour. The reasoning for delaying academic learning is primarily about brain development and how children are wired.

So, with that, I will give you an extensive list of articles and studies about early academics. While the list is certainly comprehensive, it is by no means exhaustive.

Simplicity Childhood

Last night I had a freelance assignment of covering a screening of Waldorf-educator Kim Hunter’s film, “Time to Play”. The film talks about the developmental need for allowing young children ample time for unstructured play, and how we need to work as a society at bringing this back as an early childhood priority. The screening was presented by our local Waldorf school, and the “assignment” to attend the event was truly a joy.

I have long been interested in Waldorf education. Now, as a Christian I certainly do not agree with many elements of anthroposophy. However, while I disagree with their spiritual beliefs, I agree with many aspects of Rudolph Steiner’s recommendations for early childhood: plenty of unstructured play, especially outdoors; as well as minimal electronics, minimizing toys and only using those which allow for open imagination, and are made of natural materials, keeping a rhythm and structure within the home, striving for a warm and harmonious atmosphere within the home, delaying academics until children have reached certain developmental milestones, a focus on proper sensory development, allowing children to make their own discoveries instead of always guiding them to reach conclusions and much more. Again, while I may not agree with their spiritual beliefs, much of Steiner’s research on developmental needs and milestones in children have been studied, and were found to be solid.

While at the screening, I struck up a conversation with the director of the Waldorf school, which led to an invitation for my children and I to attend their “Family Day”, which was being held this morning. So on this chilly October morning, I bundled my children and I up, and we drove out to the school.

It was an extraordinary day – because it was so ordinary. To me, the best way to describe it would be to call it an organic, tribal experience: it was a time of children of all ages coming together. Bundled up in hats and mittens and winter jackets they played the way children used to play for thousands of years – they played independently as a group, without guidance or interference or hovering from the “elders”.

It was so refreshing to see what happens creatively among children, when simplicity is allowed; when they are allowed to use their imaginations and nature. Blocks of wood became cannons and forts, birds and squirrels were spotted, games of tag were played, sticks became swords, a simple walk along a forest path became a grand adventure.

Inside the school there were minimal, simple toys – a basket of plain wooden blocks, a wooden kitchen and enamel tea set, a basket of small rocks and gems, some play silks, some books, among a few other things. Once again, the children’s imaginations came to life – and one of the most popular items? The basket of rocks, which I heard one child describe as “fairy crystals”.  Children had tea parties, built block towers and castles, several curled up on the couch together, enjoying a book. Despite the simplicity of the toys, or the lack of electronics, not a complaint of boredom was uttered.

Snack time was a delightful experience. For starters, the children were involved in the food preparation. Even the littlest toddlers helped by washing apples, while the older children sliced the apples for homemade apple sauce. Each child kneaded and formed their own miniature loaf of bread. The transition to the snack time was preceded by a gentle song, then a beeswax candle was lit, bringing light and warmth to the table, as a blessing was said over the food.

While the school is equipped with electricity, it’s presence was negligible: light was provided by ample windows letting in the sun, heat provided by a wood cook stove, water provided by a system of rooftop resevoirs and piping. It was remarkable the sense of quiet peace that pervaded (despite the chatter of children), without the harshness of overhead lights or the constant hum of appliances and electronics that fill our homes.  It brought to mind a quote from Kim Hunter, “Today, we have to intentionally teach our children how to listen, because of the constant noise we live with.” Surrounded by silence, I realized just how noisy our homes, work and school environments truly have become.

My takeaway from the film, from the experience this morning, was a feeling of, “I want that!” And so, I hope to strive to make our home, our school, a little more “Waldorf”. You don’t have to believe in anthroposophy, to incorporate Waldorf ideas in your home, indeed, I think it would serve us all well to strive to reduce the noise, the clutter, the toys, the electronics; to allow children more freedom in play and time, while also involving them in the work of the home more (which gives them a feeling of connection), to enjoy nature a little more, to be intentional at trying to create a warm and relaxed atmosphere within our home, to give our children a predictable rhythm. Essentially, to give our children simplicity.

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The children enjoy an outdoor snack of fresh baked sourdough bread – each child created their own small loaf. My daughter shows off her “crystals” – the children took turns hammering a geode, opening it to discover the gem inside. 

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