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.

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.

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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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. We did this due our numerous medical appointments for our daughter. 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.

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