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 what education looked like historically.

Delayed academics seems to be a sensitive subject. Of course anything that is counter-cultural tends to be. Anytime someone speaks up about the topic on online forums, they 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 necessarily 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.  We feel like we need to make sure we’re “keeping up” with the public school system, lest we face the judgement of others. 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. I might argue that perhaps it’s because children started later, when they were developmentally ready, and they were taught in more developmentally appropriate means.

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 children are created with very specific stages of brain development, and those 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.

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The Right Way is Your Way

20161003_105757This is our 5th official year of homeschooling, having started right from the get-go with Kindergarten. Granted, you could even say this is our sixth year, if you count my son’s preschool year when we started out with Rod & Staff’s ABC series. In those 5/6 years, we have tried more curriculum than I can count, and we have dabbled in elements of pretty well all the major educational philosophies.

Why did I, why do we – for I am certainly not the only one,  switch back and forth so much? Try so many different things? Why did I give up on things that were actually working? Why did I wait so long to give up on things that clearly weren’t?

The answer to that is confidence, or a lack thereof. Homeschooling has a huge learning curve, and while it is the fastest growing educational choice in North America, you’re still considered (and feel) something of a maverick when you embark on this journey. I think anytime someone steps out onto the road less traveled, there is an almost instant amount of doubt and uncertainty that tags along for the ride.

Now, I’m going to digress for a moment and point out that we weren’t always so unsure of ourselves. Once upon a time, not all that long ago, in the 1800s and beyond, homeschooling was the norm. Schools had been started yes, but not everyone had access to them. And of course before the advent of schools, “homeschooling”, was the only option available.

I find it interesting just how quickly we went from homeschooling being the accepted normal, to being an abnormal decision. How we went from having the confidence to personally educate and raise successful people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Graham Bell, Abe Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Joseph Priestly, C.S. Lewis, Florence Nightingale, Frank Lloyd Wright, Pearl Buck, and Albert Einstein (just to name a few who were educated at home) without any support and minimal materials, to being so unsure of ourselves that we need support groups, guides, manuals, and generally, a lot of hand holding.

I blame part of the doubt we feel as homeschoolers today on the government having trained us to be this way – once public education became more accessible, and then of course later mandated, we were told to leave the education of our children to professionals, and homeschooling became a thing of the past. We have spent the last 100 years being made to believe that they can do it better.

However, the other reason I think we have so much doubt today, is thanks to living in the age of information.  For starters, education has become a widely researched subject, with many different “experts” chiming in with different theories and approaches, and of course trying to prove why their way,  is the “right” way. And for every one of those “right ways” that exist, the retail world has eagerly joined in, offering dozens, hundreds of curriculum and material choices to help you educate your child(ren) in this “right” way.

Today we have more information available at the tip of our finger in mere seconds, than any  previous generations could ever have dreamed of. There are books and articles galore written on the the various approaches to education in general, and also on how to apply these philosophies and theories to homeschool. Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands of support groups available online where women and men discuss the joys and challenges of homeschooling, but especially, talk “shop”, which translates into comparing curriculum. We are constantly bombarded with other ideas and options.

And it is all this information, that helps contribute to the doubt we feel. It’s the negative power of too many choices. Today in the world of abundant information, theories, philosophies and ideals abound. And as I wrote in my blog, “Is It Essential?“, it is easy to get caught up in all of it – in these ideals which really, “were just one person’s ideals. One individual person’s idea of what constituted the “ideal” education, one person’s ideas of what were important topics to learn and how to learn them.” 

We can become so overwhelmed by choices, by doubt, that sometimes we end up clinging to a theory or an ideal like a drowning man might cling to a rock; afraid to let go, even a little, even when something better, more secure, is within reach. Other times, we fall prey to the “grass is greener” belief, and jump around from program to program, philosophy to philosophy, always thinking that surely, their way, must be the right way.

And this, is what I, like many others,  have spent the first several years of our homeschool, doing – alternating between clinging to ideals and jumping around, lured by the idea that there is a single, right way. I was always torn between the ideals that I started out with and the other philosophies and ideas I read about, and then of course I had to slowly come to grips with the reality of what actually worked.

I started out on our homeschooling journey, wanting the complete opposite of brick and mortar schools – no textbooks, no workbooks, no quizzes and tests. I wanted relaxed, hands-on, experiential learning, crafts and activities galore. After all, it was my privilege as a homeschooler to be able to break free of that horrid mold, and I was going to make the most of it.

And so, clinging to that, I admittedly was dismayed when I discovered my son actually liked workbooks and thrived with them. I ultimately rebelled, trying to push on through our  Waldorf approach. I let the “experts” tell me that workbooks were the easy way out, that they could never help him develop into a scholar with any amount of critical and creative thinking skills.

Eventually I let go of Waldorf, and decided to try more of an interest-led unit study approach, while continuing to read about other philosophies. In reading, I was then told by Charlotte Mason that unit studies were wrong, too. By using unit studies, I was impeding my son’s ability to learn how to make his own connections. And so, we left those behind, and dove head first into Charlotte Mason – whose approach is heavy on auditory input, and also, anti-workbook/textbook. Did I mention that my son is an extremely visual learner, who doesn’t do well with auditory input, and who loves workbooks?

You get the idea of how the first years have gone.

Thankfully, over the last year or so, I have been learning to start letting go of some of my preconceived ideals, the ideals of others, and also the fallacy that one educational philosophy is inherently better than another. Instead, I’m learning to follow the words of Sarah MacKenzie in her blog post about over thinking curriculum and philosophies: “We ought to do what works for us, fits our temperaments, and helps us achieve the goals we are working toward.” It’s the same old adage that everyone loves to say, but few truly accept or believe: every child is different. Taking it further, that means that every child has a different temperament, interests, needs, goals, struggles and learning styles. So how could anyone possibly think that one style of learning would work for every child?

Taking it further yet again, why would we think that every element of one style of learning would work for every need for our child(ren)? Maybe parts of Waldorf really speak to you, and your children enjoy block schedules, main lesson books instead of workbooks, learning math through story telling and songs and rhymes etc… but they really need a more traditional parts to whole phonics curriculum. Maybe Montessori math works beautifully for your child, but their approach to grammar leaves them in tears. Maybe your child likes workbooks and textbooks for some subjects but prefers the Charlotte Mason approach of living books for others.

What I have learned is that our real privilege as homeschoolers, is not that we can eschew the public school model just to follow some other person’s idea of what the “right way” is, but rather, that we can choose to homeschool our child in any way that we want. We can follow a traditional school-at-home approach, follow the philosophies of Waldorf, Charlotte Mason, Maria Montessori, we can do unit studies, we can be relaxed etc… Or, as we’re turning out to be, we can be an eclectic mix of all of the above.

The privilege of homeschooling is that we can finally learn that there is no single “right way” to educate a child. Instead, we have the opportunity to learn the truth that the right way to educate a child, is your way – your own personal mix of beliefs, philosophies, interests, goals, needs and abilities. If the curriculum, the educational philosophy that you’re using is helping you to attain your goals for your children, in a way that is enjoyable and blessing your lives, then don’t worry if it isn’t strictly adhering to someone else’s ideals. Be confident in your decision. After all, your way, is the right way.

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Is It Essential?

So, I’m going to come right out and say it – I have seen some real snobby attitudes since I joined the homeschool world. Some truly “all or nothing”, elitist attitudes, especially when it comes to curriculum and educational philosophy choices.

You know the ones that I mean – the ones who have become so focused on a certain pedagogy or curriculum, that they (passive aggressively) look down on anyone who doesn’t choose something as academically “rigorous” as they did. Or, they look down on those who do not follow the model of an educational philosophy to a “T”.

They are the ones who will argue that a “true” education, is not complete unless your children have read the Odyssey and the annals of Plutarch; until they have learned Latin and Greek mythology, and have memorized countless poems and speeches. Or, unless they have studied the great composers and poets and artists of eons past, their life will ultimately be lacking in depth and fullness.

I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I would like to think that they don’t realize how they’re coming across to others. Maybe they’re just so truly passionate about the choices they have made, that they forget that there can be another way that works better for other people. Or, sometimes I wonder if it is because the idea of another way is perhaps threatening to them, maybe they are not as confident in their decision as their bravado would lead you to believe.

Just the other day, in a group that I’m a part of, a fellow mother, obviously frazzled, wrote that she is struggling to get through the recommended study of Plutarch: she doesn’t like it, her children don’t like it, and she’s afraid that it’s going to make them hate school. “Is it essential?” she asked.

Now, anyone with common sense knows that no, it isn’t. And the fact that she would even have to ask others if it is crucial, stopped me in my tracks – until I remembered that I have done the same thing. Because that is the pressure we homeschoolers put on ourselves, and what’s more, on each other, to be perfect. We find an educational pedagogy or a curriculum that we agree with, that we like, that works, but then suddenly think that means we have to follow it 100%. We think that each and every ideal of that philosophy, must be done perfectly lest our child’s education be found lacking.

I thought that perhaps the other mothers would encourage her to shelve it for awhile, or forever. That they would reassure her that of course her children will turn out fine if they don’t study Plutarch. And a few did, but the majority “encouraged” her to persevere. Their encouragement ranged from posting articles on why Plutarch is “necessary”, to reminding the mother that, “We don’t get very far by quitting!” “We should be forcing our children to trudge through the hard and mundane things!” (Regardless of the cost, eh?) “No liberal arts education is complete without Plutarch!”

You get the idea. I felt so sad for that mother, who clearly just needed some reassurance, to be told that it was okay to let go, which is what she clearly wanted to do. And instead she received peer pressure to keep going, basically a passive aggressive form of adult bullying.

In the end I sent the mom a private message and told her what I want to tell all homeschoolers:

There are ideals, and then there is reality. Educational pedagogies such as Charlotte Mason, were just one person’s ideals. One individual person’s idea of what constituted the “ideal” education, one person’s ideas of what were important topics to learn and how to learn them. And that person lived over 100 years ago in a different era, society and culture. They did not know you and your priorities, or your children and their needs or interests. The reality is, the “ideal” education is going to vary from student to student based on their learning types, needs, interests and goals for the future. Ideals are not a one-size fits all.

Today we have the ability and freedom to tailor our children’s learning to that which interests them, that which incites a passion for learning. And if Plutarch does not incite that passion, there is quite honestly, no need in teaching it. This is not to say that Plutarch can not be valuable with lessons to be learned from it – most certainly it can be. However,  it is most definitely not essential to a fulfilling education and/or life.

And here is another reality – there are many valuable things to learn in our world, and we will never be able to learn them all. So, all we can do, is pick and choose what is the most meaningful to our lives, what interests us the most, what will have the most impact and influence, and pursue that – and let go of the feeling that we must learn it all.

After all, learning does not stop when a child turns eighteen. Learning is lifelong. If you can teach a child to enjoy learning, to want to learn, then they will continue to pursue learning as an adult. Perhaps they will choose to read Plutarch when they are older, when it has meaning and value to them.

But, I can promise you, that if you destroy that enjoyment of learning early on, by forcing them to push through things that are meaningless and pure drivel to them, things which make learning tedious and boring, just because one person a hundred years ago said it was “essential”, you are hindering their future learning. And chances are, they will never pick up Plutarch again.

So, what is essential? The “Three ‘Rs”. Because without a foundation of those, other learning cannot happen. Give a child the tools that will allow them to learn, and then incite a desire in them to want to apply those tools for the rest of their lives. If Plutarch, or Homer, or the Odyssey, or Latin or Greek incites a desire and an excitement in your students, then by all means, dive right in.

But if those non-essentials are not working for you, if they’re causing stress and grief and turning learning into a chore for your student, then please, never be afraid to let go; no matter what anyone else tells you, even if they tell you that without checking off all those boxes on the pedagogical checklist you’re not giving your child a complete education. Let go of what doesn’t work for you, and what doesn’t bring joy to your learning, especially if it is actually hindering your child’s enjoyment of learning. Trust me, it will be okay.

Back to School

DSC_0615It’s that time of year again! Schools across the globe have either already returned to school, or will be shortly. In the homeschool world, the “return” dates are a bit more varied – some never stop, choosing to school year round. We attempted to start back on August 15th, but Daddy was still home for his summer vacation, so there was not much motivation to do school,  on anyone’s part.

Then we tried to start back this week, but we only managed to get three days in before the rest of our week was interrupted with an impromptu day trip to a beautiful historical settlement village, and a visit from relatives.

And so, neither discouraged nor defeated,  I now declare our new official “Back to School” date to be September 6th! Such is the beauty of homeschooling – our start and end dates are never written in stone.

As  I was on Facebook perusing one of the homeschool curriculum groups I’m on (true story – I’m still not even 100% sure on all the bits and pieces of curriculum we’re going to be using), I came across this post from blog site Sweeping Up Joy. It was a link up, challenging people to answer three questions about “Back to School”. I loved the idea of linking up various blogs for the purpose of sharing information, and so I decided to participate.

So, without further ado, the three questions:

  1.  What is your best school memory from your childhood?
    I went to public school as a child. In fact, I never even heard of homeschooling until our son was a few years old! I will admit, I absolutely adored elementary school. I loved learning, I loved seeing my friends, and I loved how much fun we had. You see, back when I attended elementary school – fun, engaging learning was still the ultimate goal, not test scores and national outcomes.

    Two memories however, really stick out in my mind: I remember the sand and water table that we had in our grade one classroom, and all the fun we had playing with that. I can still remember the smell of the sand, and the feel of the sand as I grabbed handfuls and let it run through my fingers.

    My next memory is of the musical that our school put on, in grade 3 (again, back in the days when music and creative/expressive arts were still largely encouraged as part of the core curriculum). The musical was Alice in Wonderland, and I was chosen to be the Caterpillar. I had a singing solo with my own dance routine. The whole experience was so wonderful, and it really sparked a love of music and drama in my life, and ultimately led to me spending the next 25+ years singing in choirs, and in solo situations such as at church and in weddings etc…

  2. Do you have any back-to-school family traditions?
    I would love to say yes to this. I would love to be that crafty, Pinterest obsessed Mom who creates adorably creative back to school photos, special snacks, crafts, or plans a fun-filled first day, but I’m just not. The most that I do is take the children to the back yard and snap a photo. Admittedly, we have never made a big deal of switching from one grade to another. In fact, if you asked my children what grade they’re in, I’m guessing they wouldn’t be able to tell you!

    I think the reason for all of this is because in our house, there tends to be no rhyme or reason to our school year; in fact, in the past, we have never had a stop/start date, instead schooling year round. However, when my husband started his position teaching at the local college, we wanted to try and follow his teaching schedule, so that we could be off together. And so, we did take some time off this summer, but planned on starting back a couple weeks early so that we gave ourselves some leeway for appointments (of which we already have 6 scheduled for this month, alone). See above for how well that worked out!

  3. Markers or colored pencils?
    Ooooh, that’s an easy one here. Our daughter (who has high-functioning Autism), DSC_0006seems to have an obsession with marking on our walls. When I say there is not a wall in our house she has not marked on – I truly mean it, and as you can tell, sometimes she expands her repertoire to include stickers. And so, needless to say, we are not big fans of markers in our house. For our coloring and drawing needs we prefer the following:

    Crayola Twistable Colored Pencils (no sharpening!)
    Faber Castell Beeswax Crayons (these beat Crayola all to shame)
    Stockmar Beeswax Block Crayons (great for coloring large areas)

    The beeswax products are obviously more money – but they are worth it. Not only do they smell yummy, they do not have harsh petro-chemicals, and both their coverage and color are far superior to Crayola. They do not break nearly as easily. So, while it may seem expensive up front, I soon realized that I could spend $15-20 a year on Crayola crayons that would break, or wear out quickly; or, I could spend $30 on high quality products that would last us several years.

    Here is a quick comparison I did. Red, blue and yellow, coloring with the same pressure on both. Crayola is on top, Faber Castell beeswax on bottom. You can especially see the difference in quality on the yellow – it is just so much more vibrant!

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Circle Time at Home

A traditional element of Waldorf schools and homes is Circle Time. A good description of a traditional Waldorf Circle Time is this one, from Lavender’s Blue Homeschool – a Waldorf Kindergarten program:

In a Waldorf kindergarten (and in the early grades as well), music and movement happen throughout the day but there is also a special gathering each morning called circle time. A circle time is just a time of the day when you sing songs together, recite verses, use movement, and do fingerplays. Those four elements are pulled together into a seasonal or story-based theme. Older children might do traditional singing games during circle, practice tossing and catching beanbags, and other developmental movement exercises. In the early grades, circle becomes not only a music and movement gathering, but a time to practice math in an active way, work on drama and speech exercises, and practice the recorder. A formal circle time is at the heart of a Waldorf school program, and I think it can also be a wonderful practice for homeschoolers.”

I came across the idea of Circle Time when we started our journey with Oak Meadow last year. Their curriculum recommends starting your school day with circle time. In reading more about it, many articles I read stated that Circle Time can be a calming time for children, helping to connect and ground them, providing comfort, and the predictability of a routine. Others touted the benefits of improving fine and gross-motor skills. The idea that lighting a candle, reciting an opening and closing verse, with a few finger plays and songs in between could actually be a “changing” experience, or a grounding experience for the children, seemed hard to believe. But, I figured if nothing else, it would be fun.

And so, we gave it a whirl –  we decided to have our circle time over breakfast,  and not only did the children love it, but we did see the benefits I had read about. Perhaps the best benefit to starting our day with circle time, was the feeling of serenity with which we started our day. Maybe it was the soft, flickering light of the candle, maybe it was the time of prayer. DSC_2117Maybe it was because for those 15-20 minutes, there was nothing else – only our small circle of three, sharing together without the distractions of electronics or to-do lists. Maybe it was the warm cup of tea I enjoyed while reading poems and stories, or maybe it was the calming effect of the bits of nature we brought to the table, or perhaps it’s just the comfort of consistency and routine. Whatever it was – it left all of us feeling calmer, connected and filled with peace, and it has become a cherished start to our day.

As time has gone on,  I notice that the children typically have better days with their behaviors when we start our day with circle time. I admit that sometimes I get slack, or life gets busy and things get pushed to the wayside; sometimes this happens with circle time, and when it does, the children will ask for it. They may not be able to put it into words like I can, but they feel it’s absence.

Everyone does circle time a little differently within their home (or homeschool) – a different time, place and activities. We chose to do ours over breakfast for a few reasons. The first being that I wanted our circle time to set the tone for the entire day. And I admit the part of me that wondered how I was going to fit something else into our day, felt like it “killed two birds with one stone”.  But also because of our daughter’s issues with eating, I felt like circle time might be encouragement for her to stay at the table and eat better.

We also chose a slightly longer format than many do, we generally spend a good 20 minutes on circle time. We start our circle time by lighting our candle (homemade beeswax), and then reciting our opening verse:

Morning has come, night is away;  We rise with the sun, to welcome the day.

Then we read the day’s Gospel reading, reading out of this beautiful book. From there we have a quick time of prayer – I love praying together with the children – sometimes it’s funny – after all, you never know the things littles will say, or request in prayer! But often, through their prayer requests you will be given a glimpse of insight into something that may be bothering them. And sometimes their prayers are so selfless, so surprisingly deep, that it’s affirmation that you and your husband are indeed doing something right on this journey of parenting.

From there we move into finger plays and action songs. One of my favorite resources is Joyful Movement, from Christopherus. An excerpt from the book reads:

This book is not simply another collection of verses, songs and movement exercises. Compiled in the hope of preventing and even possibly correcting challenges a child might have with sensory integration, movement, coordination or other related faculties, this book is a treasure trove of ideas on how to sensitively nurture – not overstimulate – the child’s senses and to bring healthy activity to him or her every day.

For a household that has as many sensory issues as we do, being able to engage in sensory integration in as many ways as possible is very important. I love that through our fun yet peaceful circle time, we are able to take a few moments to work on fine motor skills, gross motor skills and sensory integration in a fun way. Any time that you can work towards keeping your children’s senses balanced, will only serve to make your days easier.

DSC_2122Granted, finger plays and action songs tend to get the children a bit revved up, so to bring them back down, we always finish our circle time with reading. I try to alternate what we read, choosing something different each day. Typically we choose between a Bible story, a Saint story, selections from William Bennett’s books The Moral Compass and Book of Virtues (these are two wonderful compilations filled with poems, fables, fairy tales and other literary works of solid moral value), poems from Favorite Poems Old & New, and storybooks from our ample selection. DSC_2121When choosing storybooks, I try to select quality stories that pertain to the season or holidays that are at hand. I also try to chose stories that encourage actions or singing (such as The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything).

Now, in true Waldorf schools, you would only read one story or poem for the entire week, allowing time to really internalize it. You might read it one day, add hand motions another day, have the children act it out another day. I confess, that I choose to rotate because we have so many great resources, it kind of drives me up the wall seeing them sitting on the shelf not getting used.  Sometimes we read the same poem or story a few different times, per the children’s request. I am fine with that – obviously the story speaks to them on some level, and so I feel my job is to allow them to continue to explore or re-visit that story as often as they desire. And, down the road we may look at switching to a more Waldorf approach and perhaps just focus on a few seasonal/holiday storybooks for a week, or focusing on a couple poems etc…

Once we have all calmed down with a good reading, we close our circle time by reciting our closing verse:

Guide my hands left and right, as I work with all my might.

And so, that is how Circle Time happens in our home. There is no right or wrong way, our way is only one way. But, I hope that I may have given you some ideas, and if you haven’t tried circle time in your home, I hope I’ve encouraged you to try it. It has truly been one of the best routines we’ve added to our day. Anything that forces you to hit pause and focus solely on your children, engaging together, is going to be a truly wonderful addition to your family rhythm.

Our Life Curriculum

I popped onto a homeschool forum I’m a member of, and came across a post from a fellow homeschool mom. She said she was soul-searching, wondering what some of the “not-to-be-missed” topics and experiences are in life. What are some things that we feel are so important to see, do and teach in our journey as a homeschooling parent? What are the things that when they are an adult, will truly matter – rather than spitting out memorized facts that have no meaning or application in their lives (my words, not hers)? What will help shape them as individuals, what will bring the family together as they grow and learn?

I sat down to share my thoughts, and as so often happens, my short answer turned into, well… this. A lengthy post thousands of words long. Consider it an occupational hazard of being a writer – even the short thoughts can turn into lengthy epistles. I realized that my answer was going to be far too long for the thread, so I came here. Double benefit – I could share the link to this blog post on the forum for anyone there that was interested, but also share it here. I’m sure the author of the question is far from the only person who has ever felt like this. I know I have.

I think in a way, her question was a two-part question, pondering about academics, but also life. But while the two are often considered separate in the mainstream world, a homeschooler knows that the two  can not be separated, for academics and learning are our a foundation of our life.

For starters, I would say to this mother, “Hang in there Momma, you’re not alone.” In fact, I would bet all homeschool mothers, and probably most mothers that don’t homeschool, have felt a version of this at one time or a dozen.In fact, I posed a very similar question not too long ago on another board I’m on. It must be the season – spring, a time of rebirth, new life, second chances.

My struggles and soul-searching have been largely focused on the academic, wondering where I want to go in our education journey, wondering what I want to teach my children, how I want to teach my children, what curriculum I want to use. Wondering, when this homeschool journey is over and the children are on their own, in university or in their adult lives – what is it I want to have instilled in them? Taught them? It’s not a small subject and it can easily become overwhelming, scary and stressful. When you choose to homeschool – you are responsible for these decisions in a way that other parents are not. When you send your child to public school, really, in the grand scheme of things, you have little to no say over their education. The government or school board decides what your child will learn. They decide what knowledge your child will graduate with, and rest assured, their decisions, shape your child.

When you homeschool – you are solely responsible. We have an amazing freedom, a power even, that other parents and children do not –  we can customize the education our child gets to one that suits our child the best, that truly nourishes not just their mind, but their soul. But, to (perhaps cornily) quote Spiderman “With great power, comes great responsibility.” In exchange for this freedom and power, we also have a huge responsibility that other parents do not. When your child goes to public school and fails, it’s not normally seen as the parent’s fault. It gets blamed on the teacher, the system etc… But when you homeschool, it’s ALL. ON. YOU. It can be scary when you sit and think about it. And trust me, every homeschool parent thinks about it. We all feel the pressure at one time or another.

At one point or another, we all think about what we want our children to learn –  not just academia, but skills and personal development as well. Everyone’s list of things that are “must-learns and must-dos”, and everyone’s goals for their child’s personal development are going to look different. To me, I always start by thinking about my own upbringing and education, and what truly stood out to me, both positive and negative. I think about what things I experienced that I want my children to be able to, and what things I wish for them to avoid. I look at things through overall goals, and then set the “musts” as ways to achieve those. And so, I bring to you, what I envision as our “Life” curriculum, a list of ten goals, the things that  I want for my children, and how I hope to achieve those goals.

1. First and foremost, I want my children to love the Lord. I want to instill in them faith and trust that He is in control and  through all things in life, that He will be there to guide them. We start our day with the daily gospel reading (we follow Living with Christ). We then pray over the Gospel we read. We do our hymn sing and read a Bible story. My children are still young, so for now, I’m focusing on teaching the children to pray and immerse themselves in the Bible stories. As they get older, I want to do an in-depth study of Biblical history, as well as scripture memorization. (Proverbs 7:3).

But I also feel that we will  achieve this goal outside of  “sit down and study” time. I think this goal is achieved every time we go to Mass, when the children go to Faith Formation, when we receive communion, when we pray as a family before bed or before meals, when my husband reads them a bedtime devotional. I teach my children to pray at any time – at only 7 & 5, my children will see an ambulance or a fire truck go by, stop what they’re doing and pray. I love that. And that is one of my goals: to have prayerful children. Children who pray at all times, for all reasons, and not just for their needs, but to be aware of and pray for the needs of others around them. Last night their father wasn’t feeling good, and when he went to say goodnight, they prayed for him, asking God that He would make Daddy feel better.  More than any Bible study or Bible curriculum, I think a love of the Lord is taught through LIFE. Through seeing Mom & Dad living their faith. Actions will always speak louder than any words.

2. Stemming from the first, I want my children to grow up to have an appreciation of the natural beauty God has surrounded us with. To respect nature, to appreciate nature, to protect nature, to be able to seek out nature, that beauty – anywhere, be it in a forest, a meadow, a backyard, or a city block.

And so, I think nature study is so important. And I struggle with it at times, but I think it’s because I tend to, and we all can, tend to make nature study more complicated than it needs to be. I don’t think nature study needs to be scheduled in on the lesson plan book. Nature study can be, is, as simple as sitting outside while the kids play and pointing out the song of the birds. It’s hanging a bird feeder in a tree and watching the birds that come to feed. It’s going for a bike ride and stopping to look at the small brook babbling through the trees. It’s walking down the city street and seeing how a dandelion will grow through the concrete, or seeing the Robin hopping along the sidewalk. It’s watching how a gull swoops down to grab dropped food. It’s watching the river rise and swell with spring flooding, seeing the power of the water. It’s planting a garden or a flower and watching it grow, seeing the drops of dew on a spiderweb in the morning. More than anything nature study is just learning to notice what is around you always, the wonder of God’s creation.

It is making a point to go to places like streams, ponds, lakes, forest whenever possible. I make it a point to go to nature preserves and nature trails for walks whenever possible. My goal is to find someplace new, each year. Nature study is letting your children haul home leaves,weeds, rocks, twigs and other paraphernalia in their pocket, encouraging their observation skills and their interest in those objects.

Also under this goal of mine, is the desire to teach conservation. I think conservation needs to be taught. God gave us this earth – we need to protect it, not destroy it. I think this can be nothing more than simple, basic things when they’re younger about not littering, recycling, not wasting water. In later grades, I think a strong conversation science program is in order, and Winter Promise actually publishes one that I plan on doing with my children when they’re older. I think learning about natural energy sources – wind power, solar power etc… And not just how our world can use it, but even how we can use it ourselves, personally.

3. I want my children to grow up to be self-sufficient. I do not want them to have to depend on others for their livelihood, to take care of them. So, I think skills training is very important. I think that everyone (boys and girls alike) should know basic things like how to check major fluids on your car, know how to change your oil, change a tire, how to use basic hand and power tools, how to do basic home repairs. I think everyone should know how to cook, to at the very least mend a seam, should know how to maintain a budget and should know how to start a fire without matches.

I think homesteading should be a major part of education – learning how to grow your own garden so you can feed your family, how to preserve food, how to make soap, clothes, cleaning products (green ones, tying into my #2), learn how to raise and care for an animal that is a producer (chicken, cow, pig etc…), learn a handicraft that they enjoy/are good at, that also some day could be a potential source of income.  I want the children to know how/experience how to sell something at the market (preserved food, fresh food, handicrafts etc). I want them to learn how to be resourceful, economical, how to “make do” by reusing, buying used etc…

Maybe they will be blessed financially and never need these skills to provide for themselves, but maybe they will need them, as we have had to in the past. Maybe they’ll just enjoy these skills and want to use them regardless of need.  I think everyone should know how to be self-sufficient and provide as much for themselves as possible, regardless of how much or how little income they have. I think that homesteading is also part of conservation. The beauty of this is, these skills are life skills that can be taught slowly, over the years. They are not things that should be taught via a textbook – they need to be taught side by side with their parents, through seeing and doing. To me, these lessons go far beyond learning a skill, but will also become treasured memories of time spent with you.

4.I want my children to appreciate the arts – and this could mean many different things. I don’t necessarily mean they have to be an art critic but I do want to expose them to a wide variety of art, create in them an awareness of the different styles of art, I want them to understand the history behind the eras, how social issues and culture impacted the major artists. But more than that, I want them to learn to see art anywhere – the repetitive lines in the steel legs of a holding tank, the iridescent colors of oil mixed with water on a pier,  the way the light and shadows play across a wall or a floor, the simple beauty of symmetry in a Georgian facade, or the beauty of Frank Lloyd Wright’s asymmetry. I want my children to be aware, to observe, to see. Again, this isn’t something that can be taught in a textbook. Instead, this is taught through taking them to art galleries, through looking at books of pictures, of pointing out details while we walk down a street. It is something I hope to teach them as I hand them my camera, allowing them to express that urge to capture that which they notice.

I want them to create art, as well. Through whatever medium may interest them – lead, charcoal, ink, paint or construction paper and glitter glue. Perhaps it will be through a camera or through wood or metal. I don’t care how, just that they do.

I want them to experience music. Even at a young age my children love music. Our daughter seems to have been born to shake her booty to the beat of a song, and my son has a very nice singing voice. Of course those who know me, or my family, knows that the music gene is strong! My mother has recorded professionally in Nashville, and makes her living via music. She is a self-taught musician who plays guitar, harmonica, drums, keyboard and sings. Oh yeah, and writes her own stuff! My father used to play guitar and also sings. My step-mother is a music teacher, who sings, plays piano, flute and bagpipes (she’s in touch with her Scottish heritage!). I sing and play piano, and long to learn to play the saxophone. So I confess, that I really hope to encourage musical ability and appreciation in my children. Music is always playing in our home – on the tv, the radio, in the car. We sing daily – anything and everything. We have a piano, and a nice selection of percussion instruments. The kids love starting their day with Circle Time and singing and playing. Eventually when an area of strength starts to show itself, we will pursue that with formal music lessons.

I think an appreciation of the arts is a gift that parents should give to their children. Not every child will have it, I know. But the thing about the arts is – they are so personal and emotional. With art, be it a song you hear or a piece of artwork you look at – you make it your own. It becomes yours in a way that few other things can. We often see in a piece of art that which reflects our pain or our joy. We seek out music that reflects our feelings. Art can be therapeutic. Being able to create art takes it that much farther. Instead of just seeing the reflection of ourselves, we are then able to express ourselves in a way that words often fail us.

5. I want my children to have an appreciation of history. More than anything though, I want to make history come alive to them. To me, history is a subject that is so important – we need to be aware of the mistakes of the past, so we can understand how it has shaped the events of today, so maybe someday we’ll learn to not repeat our mistakes. And yet, I confess that in school, I despised history class.

I think children need far more education on ancient history than they receive – I think they need to understand the history of Greece and it’s Gods, the Roman empires, Ancient Egypt. The stories of Troy, William Wallace and other leaders like them. The stories of queens and kings. The stories of explorers, navigators, scientists, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr.,  – people  who changed history. The stories of the major wars. But more than anything, history should be about the people that shaped it.

I also think that for everyone, there is an era of history that interests them more than another. For myself, this would be the pioneer/Loyalist era. However, I don’t think that memorizing the dates is important, I don’t think that memorizing all the worlds countries and capitals is important. I think it is most important to know the overall stories. Then, when a particular era stands out to the child – be it the days of Laura Ingalls, Troy or Imhotep, the child can immerse themselves in learning everything and anything about that time.  In history, more than anything, your child will only remember what interested them.

So with that said, to me, there is nothing worse than sitting and reading a textbook full of dry details and dates. To me, history is something that should come alive, through reading good books and stories, watching shows and movies, going to historical re-enactment shows, sites or better yet – seeing the sites firsthand. Be that driving to Gettysburg, or flying to Rome (oh what I would give for an unlimited travel budget!), seeing history is what makes it come alive. Every year my husband and I take the children to a historical settlement, the same one, because every time there is something else to discover. That is what I love about history – it is something that can be explored as a family.

6. History sort of leads to my next goal – and that is to travel. We love to travel as a family. Now, we normally do not have much of a budget for travel, so typically we do long weekends, sometimes 4 or 5 nights away someplace that we can drive to in a day. I think traveling together as a family is one of the best things you can do. For starters, you will  create memories that will last a life time – some great ones, some okay ones, and some bad ones. But even those bad ones will normally end up becoming a good memory that you laugh at – like the time we got lost because Dad missed the exit because he was too busy drooling over the Lamborghini that was zooming by us.

Traveling together leads to such great learning opportunities – there are so many amazing zoos, aquariums, museums, galleries, historical sites, nature preserves and state/provincial parks etc… that will bring learning to life. When traveling, you have the opportunity to experience all areas of learning – maths, language, science, history, art, nature, and I can guarantee you can find great opportunities within a day’s radius. And the best way to experience these chances isn’t by over-analyzing, but by just doing, just being there, seeing it and talking about it. Take a guided tour. That is enough. Follow up on anything that really piques interest by reading about it when you get home.

While we typically plan our travel for entertainment/relaxation purposes – the learning is always there, and some of our best memories are at places/times when we are learning as a family.

7.   Then there’s science. Honestly, I don’t really have much of a “goal” when it comes to this. I am by nature a person that leans more towards the arts than science. That’s likely part of it. I feel though that science, like history, is something that a child will only remember that which they are interested in. And so my goal for the early years is to cultivate an interest in the crucial scientific skill of observation. And I think that so many of the other areas I’ve touched on, are key to this – for observation skills aren’t just a “science” skill. They’re a life skill that will guide you in nature study, in history, in art, in noticing patterns in mathematics, in your every day relationships as you learn to observe and read people.  Spend the early years developing this skill, and I think you will have accomplished one of the most important things you can teach your child. For us, science in the early years is purely interest-driven. Let them read about what they are interested in and talk about it. Let them draw pictures of the animals and planets. Let them watch videos and go to museums and aquariums. Let them do experiments. Let them explore. I think this will create the perfect foundation upon which to build the skills for physics, chemistry and biology, later.

8. Then there’s the big two – math and language arts. My goals are simple – I want to produce literate children who enjoy quality literature. I want their childhood to be full of quality books and ideas, not twaddle.  I want them exposed to the classics and poetry. That said, I want reading to be fun, and I will not deny them their “fun” books, either. As they get older, I want them to recognize literature as another form of art and expression. I want them to to seek recognition of self, to see how others express themselves through written word, and I hope they will learn to express themselves through writing as well.  I want them to have neat penmanship – and yes, we are teaching cursive! I want them to learn proper grammar.

We love books here and read all the time. Every day my children are either reading, or being read to. As I have said before – actions speak louder than words, and I think that if children grow up seeing their parents reading and enjoying quality literature, it will rub off on them. We also keep the books accessible. That means a huge bookshelf in the hallway on the main floor. Books are not meant to be shut away in an attic or a closet. In the early years, we do not do comprehension. Simply reading a book together and talking about it is enough. Nor do we dissect poems. There are plenty of years ahead to get into the dissecting of a poem or story, digging for the hidden truth and meaning. For now, cultivating a love of reading is enough. And a love of reading is also what I consider a foundational skill – teach a child to read, to enjoy it, and the whole world of knowledge will be at their fingertips.

I want them to grow to be capable of doing the math that they will need for their every day, adult life. I confess that we will put far more emphasis on business and trades math, than say calculus. And make no mistake, my children will know their math fats. I think one of the biggest mistakes in modern education today is the lack of focus on having children memorize their addition and multiplication facts. The very foundation of all other mathematics is those four basic operations – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And too often today, not enough time is being dedicated to those in the early years. Drill, drill, drill those four operations in the early years – then when they are older, the more complicated processes will come easier.

We also seek out math in every day situations – making change at the grocery store, learning fractions while cooking or playing with Legos, multiplication while figuring out how many forks we need for the table based on how many people will be there, seeing symmetry and patterns in the world around us.

9. I want the children exposed to languages, but not necessarily mastered. I live in the only officially bilingual province in Canada. The pressure is intense to have the children go into French Immersion. As a homeschooler, we’ve had more than one comment along the lines of, “What are you going to do about French? They’ll never get a job in this province without French.”  Well, for starters, quite frankly, that’s a crock. Oh certainly, there are certain jobs in the province that will require them to have French (government jobs). But, there are many, many jobs to be had that do not require a person to be fluent in French. I am also not under any illusions that my children will choose to stay in this province. Would I prefer it if they stay close to home? Sure. But the world is theirs to be had.

Instead, I would rather my children be exposed to several languages, especially Latin.  Once upon a time a child was not considered educated if they did not learn Latin. However, soon into the 20th century, this was dropped, and then modern languages became the norm. Another crime of modern education. Latin is as prevalent today as it ever was, in fact, Latin is the very foundation of our language (English)! One can not truly understand or grasp the basics of grammar and spelling, at least not in anything more than a superficial sense, without understanding Latin. Latin is alive in Christianity and in common speech as we use Latin expressions such as “Carpe Diem!” It is found in fields such as law, medicine and pharmacology. Want to be a pharmacy technician or a medical office assistant or transcriptionist? You’ll use Latin every day. In fact, Latin is used in almost every scientific field. Latin is found in music. Latin is everywhere. So, if there is one language I want them to master – it is Latin. The others will fall into place, and will likely come easier with a foundation of Latin.

10. Lastly, I want to teach my children how to learn. I want to mold in my children the habit of learning. I want the desire to learn to be a part of them, as much as the air they breathe. I want to instill in them the joy of learning and discovery. I want them to know that the best education they will ever receive – is through life itself. I want them to know that they will learn more through living life, exploring, making discoveries, reading and doing, than they will ever learn from a textbook or institution. The textbooks and workbooks are merely to reinforce what life is teaching them, what God has surrounded us with. If I can do this – if I can teach them to love to learn, if I can teach them to be open and aware, to observe, to see the joy in discovering and learning something new, then all my other goals will fall into place. And I will have two children with a fine education, and what’s more, fine memories of a family that learned together.

Less is More

I was reading through the Oak Meadow Kindergarten syllabus tonight, preparing myself for the week ahead, when I came to a section on Creative Play. I loved what I read there. It summarizes so well Waldorf beliefs. But more than that, it summarizes what many parents around the globe have known, what “experts” are now realizing, and what I wish the billion dollar marketing agencies would realize – that modern toys are hurting our children. They are over-stimulating in negative ways, often bombarding our children with harsh sounds and visuals (not to mention being made out of cheap, chemical-filled, petroleum-based plastic), and yet under-stimulating in the sense that they do not require any real imagination.

I wanted to share an excerpt from what I read: “The traditional outlet for such imaginative play was [traditionally] through wooden blocks of various shapes and sizes, or handmade dolls with yarn hair and button noses. By the use of such toys, a child could create the characters and scenery for an endless variety of imaginative dramas. In recent years, however, the old wooden blocks and handmade dolls have been replaced by a bewildering variety of toys designed to fill children’s fantasies.

Although these toys are very alluring and fascinating at first, children soon discover that the possibilities in such toys are limited because of the detailed nature of their design. Thus, once the possibilities of such a form are exhausted, the child is left with a crystallized form and abandons it to the toy box. He then asks Mom or Dad for another toy that will do something that the [other toy] couldn’t do. The result of such detailed, crystallized toys is inevitably an insatiable craving for more and more toys, and less and less fulfillment with any of them.

A wise person said, “If we fail to give our children playthings that they can creatively manipulate, they will grow up to be passive consumers of prepackaged entertainments.”

When a child’s play centers around simple toys such as blocks, boxes, wooden spools, handmade dolls that don’t cry and wet and talk and walk, etc… her imaginative faculties are continually being strengthened and refined, for she must supply the details of her adventure from within, rather than having them supplied from without. A child who grows in such an environment develops the ability to see the possibilities inherent in simple things, which has far-reaching effects in her life.

I have long seen the truth in this. I can see the difference between when I grew up and children today. And I had a lot of toys! But for the most part, they were dolls and Barbies, cars, instruments, Lego, kitchens etc… I may have had a toy phone – but it didn’t require a battery. I had to use my imagination for any sounds it might produce. And I certainly didn’t have hand held electronics! How far we have come in a quarter of a century – and not in a good way.

I can see the change in my own children. They are no exception to wanting more, more, more. And trust me, they have been given more, more, more. With a total of 9 grandparents who buy for them, not to mention ourselves, extended family etc… in the run of a year, they are given an overwhelming amount of toys. We have seen for ourselves, the more a toy does, the less it tends to get played with. Oh they love it for the short term, but then, just as this article states, they’re moving on to the next thing – because those toys have limits on the creativity they allow.

Our son especially, far prefers toys that give him creative control. He is a creative soul by nature with a phenomenal imagination. He likes to create – no matter what the medium. He prefers to use basic toys that allow him to act out whatever his heart desires. His favorites? Basic Lego blocks, cars, and toy animals. Things he has asked for: wooden peg dolls that he can paint into whatever characters he wants, and plain wooden building blocks.

Our daughter on the other hand would willingly lose herself in electronics. Imagination does not come naturally to her, and while she has a good one today – it has been taught and learned through copying. It has come about because we have refused to allow her to lose herself in mindless toys and electronics, and instead have pushed her to learn to play using basic toys.

And so, this article really hit home, and quite frankly, really validated some of the decisions we have made to reduce the plastic, battery-chugging toys the children own, as well as the amount of toys they own. And it works – a great example is just yesterday. The children entertained themselves with pine cones, rocks and chunks of wood (along with a few animals). And they had a blast building, creating and pretending. With toys, less really is more.

 

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Top: My son’s “Emerald Forest” – where predators and nice animals play

Botton: My daughter’s horse corral