Archive for ‘Project-based Homeschooling’

July 21, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: DNA

Way back in September 2013 when I officially kicked off my seven-year-old’s first grade year, I thought we were going to start a project on mushrooms. That’s what he had been talking about for awhile. He had mentioned DNA once, I think. So on that first day, when I pulled out the journal I try to keep updated with the things he talks about/asks about/says he wants to do, and how we follow up on them, I read off what he had recently told me, and he surprised me by saying he wanted to do a DNA project first. So that’s what we did.

(We also did some work with mushrooms, and I’ll write about that in my next PBH post.)

What he wanted to do most of all was build a DNA model. Remember how I told you he’s turning into a little builder? He wanted to buy a kit to build the DNA model, and maybe because his birthday had just passed, I told him he could buy one with his own money, if he really wanted it. But I suggested we look around at our supplies and try to make a homemade DNA model first. He agreed to that, and I tried to go with his ideas on what to use for the model. We ended up using ribbon, straws and pipe cleaners:

I didn’t think we would get it to stand up or twist, but I didn’t say anything, and look what he managed to do? Over time, it has fallen down, however, and he replaced the two pieces of cardboard holding it up with popsicle sticks glued together. That hasn’t held together well either, but he still has this model in his room. I was pretty proud of him for making this!

He still wanted the kit, so then I let him order it. I found the ScienceWiz DNA kit on Amazon, and I highly recommend it. It has a lot of cool experiments and little pieces that you can put together to make a nice DNA model. My little builder did that first.

This is one of my favorite photos of him ever. And I love all these photos I took of him putting together this kit. He is happy. He’s in his element. They speak volumes about who this kid is, so I’ll treasure them forever.

And we did more than that! First, we checked out The Usborne Introduction to Genes and DNA by Anna Claybourne from the library, and we read most of that book in several, short sittings. I think we checked out some other books, but this was the one he was interested in listening to once we got home. It’s a beautiful book. I wish we owned it. Some of it was a little hard for him to understand, but I think he got the gist of what DNA is. I mean, this isn’t an easy topic for ME, so I wasn’t worried if he didn’t understand everything.

Around this time we watched a documentary about the human genome project (I’m sorry I can’t remember the title). I think my son was able to understand it a little better having learned about DNA!

We had the most fun when we extracted DNA from a kiwi fruit! The instructions and most of the supplies were in the DNA kit. If we try it again someday, I may post the instructions on my blog, but for now I’ll send you over to one of my favorite blogs, The Scientific Mom. She’s got some instructions for you there. Because for some reason, though we could see DNA in the final step, we couldn’t pull the strands of DNA out of the tube. We had wanted to see them under a microscope. After they warmed up in just a few seconds, they seemed to disappear in the tub. So, I’m hoping we can try it again sometime with a different fruit.

Though you can’t really see it in the photo, we could see strands of DNA in the tube. (It looked like gooey string.) We could see it even better after putting it into the freezer for several hours.

There are several more activities to do in the kit, but after this one, my son seemed satisfied. Recently, however, he said he would like to do another project from the kit, so maybe we’ll do that this summer. Though the DNA project lost its momentum after this, I’ve seen it come up here and there, such as when they were playing with their zoob pieces.

And even just a week or two ago the four-year-old was practicing writing his letters on a dry erase board, and he thought he’d add some DNA to his number practice. :) What a memory!

All our projects are open-ended. I remind my son about his projects, and if he’s not interested in pursuing them further, that’s okay. (Although I admit sometimes that disappoints me because I want to learn more!) He seemed to lose interest in this after we finished extracting DNA from the kiwi fruit. Indeed, that felt like a grand finale! But this is a project I think we’ll continue over the long-term as we do more with that DNA kit, and maybe as he gets older, he’ll be able to better understand DNA and that will help him too.

Have you tried extracting DNA from fruit? I would love to hear about your experience.

 

July 17, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: This year’s cardboard projects

It’s the end of our “school year,” so I’m wrapping it up at home and on my blog. A few more posts to go!

As I review our past year, I have found that my seven-year-old has been quite a builder! I’ve written extensively about his interest in clay here and here. Now I want to share with you all those little cardboard projects that I thought might get their own post, but actually, they add up into one big post: my son’s interest in building. (I wish I could find a woodworking class for him. I think he would love that!)

The material we have most readily at home is cardboard, or more specifically the cardboard used to make cereal boxes or frozen pizza boxes — they are much easier to cut. I also keep LOTS of tape on hand, and I though I ask him to try not to be wasteful, I don’t fuss at him for being a little excessive with the tape when I see him being so productive!

We also have a cool shot glue gun, which I let him use on his own. It works well, and the glue cools more rapidly, which makes it safer. We had a regular glue gun, and while my son never got hurt, my husband and I both got some scalding burns from it! ;) My son has learned to be quite cautious with glue guns.

Here are his creations made between last summer and this summer in no particular order:

“spaceship robot”

Thank you Curious George for giving my son the idea to make this big robot!

A representation of the Mayflower. Unlike most of his creations, I did help him a lot with this because he didn’t have the motor skills for the fine details, especially tying the thread. However, he absolutely directed me on where everything was supposed to go. He looked at photos of the Mayflower and designed it himself.

He wanted a toy tank, so he built one for himself. I helped him a little, but I’m certainly not responsible for that excessive use of tape! :) He also looked at a photo online to help with his design.

A “thin, flat lizard” inspired by a box he found.

A bee made out of a toilet paper tube and some wire, etc.

I think this is supposed to be a mosasaur.

“A drill that goes to the center of the earth.” “It’s pretend,” he said.

Airplane.

He loves Star Wars and decided to build Darth Vadar’s ship as closely as he could to the design in the movie. He was willing for the center to be a cube since it’s hard to make a sphere out of cardboard.

These creations take up a lot of space in the house. They can fall apart, and sometimes he’ll fix them and other times he doesn’t. I encourage him to throw them away or recycle the materials when something is unrepairable, or when we’re running short of space, but I don’t force him to throw anything away. It’s all important to him, and I respect that. My sanity suffers a little, but mostly I’m just super proud of my little builder!

July 7, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: Long-term Clay Interest

I’ve already written a detailed column about my seven-year-old’s recent participation in pottery classes and his growing interest there, but I wanted to create a post that showcases some of his work with clay over the long-term and how it has slowly culminated to the point where I knew he would love those clay classes!

He’s been working with clay since he was four. A year or two ago, he watched some videos about pottery and clay, and he made this little car following a tutorial.

And he made a tree of his own design.

His Titanic was part of a long project, and my column became one of my first and most popular PBH articles.

Remember when he made this penguin?

I never showed you his space shuttle.

Or his sauropod.

His Mayflower. He also made the Mayflower out of cardboard, and we read a book about it, so this was a little bit longer project.

His hummingbird. He also painted it, but I haven’t got a picture of that.

Earlier this year we enrolled him in a homeschool pottery class where he learned how to use the pottery wheel…

…and sculpting techniques such as “pinch pots” and “slip and score,” and then he used those techniques at home…

…to make some sculptures such as this frog. Later he painted it green, and it’s really cute.

And he made a bird sitting in a nest.

And a dinosaur.

We also let him take a week-long pottery summer camp, which was about Asian pottery and Raku methods…

The big pieces on the left and all the pieces in the front row are from his Asian pottery camp. (The big black one is a lantern shaped like a house. Though it looks black in the photo, it actually has some very cool, iridescent colors in it.) Also there are two sushi plates and the plate with different compartments are from his Asian pottery camp. Everything else he made in the homeschool pottery class. And he’s anxious to take more classes!

As I mentioned in my column, we’ve also taken him to some pottery sales, and he’s had a chance to speak to local potters and see their kilns. We plan to continue letting him take classes as long as he wants to (and as long as we can afford it), but this will probably happen over a long time. I look forward to seeing where he takes this!

And I guess I need to get more shelves. :-o

June 20, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: My seven-year-old and his pottery

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on June 18, 2014.

My seven-year-old loves to build things. Mostly, he uses cardboard because we don’t have access to many other materials, but he also loves using clay. For the past three years, I’ve kept air-dry modeling clay on hand because it’s cheap and the boys love it. (I like it ten times better than Playdoh.) The seven-year-old takes his clay building very seriously, and he’s sculpted some pretty cool stuff.

When I found out a homeschooling class was being offered at Good Dirt Clay Studio in Athens, I jumped on it, and to say that my son loved it doesn’t do it justice. He even opted to go there instead of his homeschool science class at the nature center, which has always been a top priority with him.

I wasn’t sure how he’d feel in the big studio with all the different people coming and going, but after one class, his eyes were beaming, and I could tell he was in heaven. I loved how the class taught him some sculpting techniques as well as taught him how to use a potter’s wheel. All the pieces were glazed and fired too, so he got to learn about the whole process. The teacher also made the students spend the last 30 minutes cleaning up after themselves – that’s always an excellent lesson.

He ended up outperforming the older kids in the class by making many more pots than they did. I don’t know if this was because they were talking too much, or they were going for perfection or what. My son’s pots aren’t perfect, but they are all beautiful and useable – they have almost replaced the plastic kid’s ware that we usually use.

I love how my son wanted to use the air-dry clay at home after the class, and he used the techniques he learned from his teacher. In the past, he has gotten frustrated when small pieces fell off his sculptures, or they would easily break. Now he instructs me on how to make a pinch pot and how to “slip and score,” and his work doesn’t fall apart as easily.

rhino made in class

dinosaur made at home using same techniques

I don’t know how long he’ll continue to enjoy making pottery, but his father and I want to support all his interests. Learning any skill is a good thing in my book. The pottery classes aren’t cheap, but they aren’t so expensive that we can’t swing a class here and there.

We also thought he would have fun going to some pottery sales and meeting the potters who sell out of their homes. We are lucky to live in an area rich with this type of craftsperson. About twice a year, they collaborate and have open houses to sell their work.

Last weekend we went to Geoff Pickett’s open house, and we were delighted when he gave us a tour of his studio, kilns, and my son even got to see his potter’s wheel and asked him a question about how he made a vase.

From there, we went to one other sale, and we ran into our son’s pottery teacher. She thrilled him by complimenting him in front of other potters. She said how quickly he learned how to center the clay on the wheel, which is one of the hardest things to get right.

I’m struck by how kind and generous these artists are, and it’s clearly a good community to belong to. I don’t know if my son will continue to learn about pottery, but I’m happy that he’s happy, and I only see good things coming out of the experience.

June 18, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: Mama’s Sketchbook Habit

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. ~ Pablo Picasso

Over a year ago, I bought a little sketchbook while I was browsing an art store with my boys. I knew that I wanted to use it myself, but I justified the purchase by allowing it to be another homeschooling tool that I was just going to keep on hand for when the moment was right.

A couple of weeks ago, I was proofreading the Art Start column for the summer issue of home / school / life magazine. (Did I mention I recruited Amy Hood because she’s awesome at explaining this art stuff in a completely stress-less way?) Her column is about starting a sketchbook habit, and it came to me at just the right time.

My little sketchbook that I bought a year earlier was still empty. So were the big, beautiful sketchbooks that were given to my boys for gifts a year or more ago. As soon as I read her column, I knew it was time to change that.

The most important reason besides me wanting a new hobby is that my four-year-old loves to draw. He draws and draws and draws. And paints. (I wrote about that in Project-based Homeschooling Preschool: My four-year-old’s projects.) I’ve got several stacks of paper with his artwork on it, and I don’t know what to do with it all, but I’m not throwing it away. I’m encouraging him to do more. And if I am going to help him draw, then I need to learn about it too. (Remember in project-based homeschooling, parents should model the actions they want their children to take.) While my seven-year-old prefers other mediums, I knew a sketchbook habit might be fun for him too.

But I knew that I couldn’t expect my boys to just start a sketchbook habit. They don’t do things simply because I tell them to. That never works! I knew that I had to get past my insecurities about drawing and just do it for myself. Then, maybe then, they would follow. But if they didn’t, that would be okay too.

I am not an artist, and frankly, I don’t want to be. I can draw well enough to enjoy drawing, but I want to do this so that I have something just for myself. Just for fun. With no pressure.

My passions are writing and photography, but after working at those for so long, they aren’t as fun anymore. I want to remember how to be creative and simply have fun. When I do that, then I start to have more fun with my passions. Does that make sense? I need something that gets me away from my computer too.

I was very happy to see that when I pulled out my sketchbook, my seven-year-old was interested in what I was doing. I told him about that beautiful sketchbook I had been saving for him. I gave it to him, and he’s been using it. (Unfortunately, it has caused some stressful breakdowns on his part when perfectionism rears its ugly head. Sigh. But I think over time the sketchbook may help him deal with that. At least I hope.) It’s supposed to be fun and just for practice!

lagoon outside our vacation condo by seven-year-old

I decided not to give the four-year-old his nice sketchbook yet. This is because he flies through the paper, and I have my limits. First, I gave him the little sketchbook that came with the pencil set I bought. After that, I bought him another inexpensive sketchbook. I will give him the nicer one when he gets a little older.

apple tree in the rain by four-year-old

I do not exaggerate when I say that I think this new sketchbook habit saved my sanity while we were on vacation. My four-year-old was sick that week, and I was stuck in the condo quite a bit, which was disappointing. But it didn’t seem so bad at all when I pulled out my sketchbook, sat on the back deck and drew the gnarly, big oak dripping with Spanish moss. Or when I took a chair down by the lagoon and tried to draw the snowy egrets and their nest.

If you are looking for a creative outlet, I recommend starting a sketchbook habit, especially if you make it stress-free by not caring if your drawings are good or not. It’s the act of sitting quietly, concentrating on an object, and really seeing it that is relaxing. For me, it’s an act of mindfulness and a respite from my busy life.

 My four-year-old asked me to draw the cecropia moth so that he could paint it, which he did.  He said he also tried to paint a luna moth, but he didn’t like it.

seven-year-old drew our cat

April 1, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling Preschool: My four-year-old’s projects

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 26, 2014.

Sometimes I worry that I don’t give my four-year-old enough attention, but then again, sometimes I worry that I don’t give my seven-year-old enough attention. In truth, it’s probably about even.

For three years, my oldest son had all my attention, but his younger brother has had to compete ever since he was born. I have to remind myself that my four-year-old got a lot of things his older brother didn’t get. Since he was a baby, he’s been carried along to play dates whereas I didn’t know many mothers with infants and toddlers when I first had children. He’s also been taken to his older brother’s classes and been around big groups of children of all ages from day one.

He was also born into a home with lots of toys and art supplies, and when he was a baby, we converted our dining room into a school room, so he is very comfortable going in there and pulling down books or puzzles or blocks and other building toys. Now, he sits at the table and listens while his older brother works on his lessons. Sometimes he wants to draw or do something else, but I’m surprised how much he’ll just watch. (Not exactly quietly, but not too distracting either.)

Even though he’s not getting the direct one-on-one attention my oldest son got from age one to three, he is absorbing so much information from his brother and me. (I can’t forget to mention daddy either. He’s always been around for both of them.)

Right now I’m very focused on my “first grader.” Reading lessons, math lessons, book time, computer time, conversations about history and cultural events, and most of all, his projects. We are project-based homeschoolers, which means that I set aside time for my son’s interests and use some “tricks of the trade” to get him to study deeper than the surface of those subjects.

My four-year-old has interests too, and lately I’ve been considering how I can make more time for his projects and lessons. I don’t think that at four-years-old, academics should be a priority, but by letting him explore his interests, he is learning everything a four-year-old would typically learn in preschool anyway.

Right now he loves letters and numbers. He hasn’t mastered the ability to identify all the letters like my oldest son did at an early age, but he’s taking a different approach. He loves to sing the ABC song, and by singing it with him every night, he has mastered it.

He loves to count everything, and we often overhear him counting when he’s playing by himself. He loves to play our math games even though they are too hard for him, and sometimes he’ll play by himself when no one else is available. He uses some tiny little, rubber vehicles (manipulatives) to help him add and subtract.

His favorite subject is dinosaurs, and whenever we go to the library, he asks for dinosaur books. (I’m really tired of reading about dinosaurs!) He watches dinosaur shows on T.V. with his brother, and we’ve taken him to museums to see dinosaur bones. He has asked me to draw him dinosaurs, make a dinosaur out of clay, and his father tells him a story about “Dig Dig the T-Rex” every night before bed. I have never thought about it before, but I guess you could say that he has an ongoing “dinosaur project.”

Whenever he tells me to draw or make him something, I encourage him to try to do it himself first. He never wants to. I guess he knows his own limits. I started to get frustrated about this, but then I remembered all the “art” he makes on his own. You might call it “abstract” art, but it takes some time and thought. He is very calculating about applying different colors of paint all over one piece of paper, drawing line art, or cutting and taping paper together to make interesting shapes. I’m glad he’s felt free to “create” whenever he wants to, and I have a nice collection of his work to save in a memory box.

When you have more than one child, it’s easy to worry about whether or not you’re giving them their fair share of your time, but in many ways, both boys have benefitted from not having my full attention. They occupy themselves. And when I stop to chronicle everything they do, I’m pleasantly surprised that quite a bit gets accomplished without me even trying.

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By having all our materials accessible to both of my children, I’m very happy to see how my youngest son has picked up on the “creating” “building” “art” vibe of his house. I will often find him in the activity room, scribbling away on a piece of paper. Sometimes, he pretends he’s writing. Other times, he wants to paint, and I love how he carefully applies different colors to his work. What I love most is when he’ll gather a bunch of supplies, such as paper, pen, markers, scissors, glue, string, beads, goggly eyes or what not, and then he says, “I’m gonna make somethin!” Here’s a slideshow of some of my four-year-old’s art and “writing.”

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January 30, 2014

Legos

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, January 29, 2014.

Legos is all the rage in our house right now. My seven-year-old is happiest when he is at his table putting some kind of Lego kit together. He doesn’t have very many of them, but I have a feeling we’ll be collecting more of them. I don’t mind.

The first time he wanted to try building with Legos was after he watched one of his friends do it, so last year we got him a helicopter-airplane-boat kit. He can only make one of those at a time, so it’s a lot of fun for him to make one, keep it a few weeks, and then he can take it apart and build another one.

This Christmas he got two new sets. The first one he had been asking for because his friend has one. It’s called the Warp Stinger, but it looks like some kind of mosquito to me. The second one was a complete surprise and came from grandma. It’s a coast guard ship. He loves both of them.

I don’t know why people say children have short attention spans. My son will sit at the table straining his neck and shoulders to put these kits together, and even when I try to get him stop for a break, he wants to keep going like some workaholic. If only he approached his reading lessons with the same spirit! I’m happy he likes Legos, though, because it is a very educational toy.

Any kind of blocks is educational because it’s an open-ended toy that gets a child’s creative mind going. As small children they build motor skills and begin to realize that they can create things in three dimensions. Blocks can be used to learn how to sort and how to learn about patterns. Legos can be used to teach about engineering and technology, and there are even Lego robotic teams that compete in national competitions.

The educational benefits go on and on. The Lego company has a whole division dedicated to getting Legos into the classroom, and they offer lots of instructional materials on their website too. (See https://education.lego.com)

I like them because they keep my boys busy. My seven-year-old will spend a long time putting one of his kits together, and he rarely needs me to help him. Sometimes I wish he would create something original instead of using the kits, but I find it amazing that he’s able to follow those instructions and put 300 of those tiny pieces together. I would never have the patience to do that.

My four-year-old is not old enough for the kits, but he has a big bin of Legos that he likes to play with. He likes to cover a baseboard with the Legos, or either he’ll build a “city.” He especially likes it when Mama will help him, and I have to say that there’s something relaxing about building with Legos. It’s not one of those toys that are fun for kids but mind numbing for adults. Legos are fun.

Recently I was surprised to find out that you can build almost anything with Legos when I stumbled on the website of an artist named Nathan Sawaya. He has several exhibitions that have toured North America, Asia and Australia. He uses Lego bricks to build sculptures of people, objects and even a red tail hawk. He has turned this simple toy into works of art.  Check out his website at brickartist.com.

Hmmm… Maybe next time I feel the urge to get creative, I’ll go for the Lego bin instead of the paper and paints.

Please share Lego creations from your house!

October 29, 2013

Homeschooling Preschool the 2nd Time: My Four-Year-Old’s Letter D

In some ways, I hesitate to say that I homeschooled preschool with my first son. I was fairly relaxed with him during his “preschool” years (which isn’t to say I didn’t worry or wonder if I was doing it right), and he made it easy because he learned to recognize the ABCs before he could even speak all their names at 22 months. At two- and three-years-old all I did was play with him with some rubber letters in the bathtub. Sometimes I would write the letters in chalk outside on the sidewalk. It was all fun and games to him. At age four, I just got a little more intentional about what I was doing.

I’m also relaxed (more so) with my four-year-old, but for completely different reasons. (And I’m not worried about whether I’m doing it right anymore. Be sure to read The Only Preschool Curriculum You Need Is Your Enthusiasm.)

My four-year-old is a very different boy, and he’s having a completely different experience during these early years from what his brother had. While my first born spent a lot of time at home alone with me because we didn’t have as many friends back then, my four-year-old has the benefit of not only more friends but tagging along to classes that my older son attends. He has also started taking the knee-high naturalist class like his brother did at this age, and I’m able to leave my older boy home with his dad, so he can have his “own” class.

My current preschooler did not learn his letters and numbers early like his brother, but without doing any intentional ABC “games” he has mastered at least half the ABCs on his own. And now he counts to 10 flawlessly.

He loves to count things. For a long time, he counted, although he was wrong most of the time. “One, one, one, one,” he would say. Or “One, two, three, six, eight,” he would say. I didn’t try to correct him much. I praised his effort, and sometimes we would take turns counting.

Slowly his counting improved. He might miss just one number. Then he would count to ten correctly one time, but the next time he would trip up. Now, he counts to 10 perfectly every time unless he starts to count too fast or gets silly about it.

It’s been fun to witness this progression. And relaxing. I haven’t really done anything to promote or encourage it. I just watch and listen and follow his cues. Since I’m busy working with my older son on his projects, it eases my mind to know my preschooler is teaching himself.

I see the same thing happening with the alphabet. Recently my preschooler has been enjoying some little cookies with the letters printed on them. When he eats them, he wants me to sit with him and tell him what each letter is, and he asks me what sound it makes. Whenever he happens to pull out an alphabet book or alphabet puzzle, I try to tell him the letter and its sound.

I keep the rubber letters that I used in the bathtub with my older son in a basket downstairs now. The other night, my four-year-old began spreading the letters around on the living room floor, and he wanted me to sit with him. Then while we were looking at them, he took the letter D over to the activity room, and through his actions, I knew he wanted to try to make something – it was the first time I witnessed him initiate a building or art project like his older brother does!!! I was very excited.

I just watched him awhile. He got a strip of white paper that we had been using the previous day to make bookmarks. Then he got out some pens and string and scissors and tape. He was very serious as he went about decorating this piece of paper with the pens and string. And then he folded it up.

He was trying to make a letter D. But he couldn’t get the paper shaped right. As I watched him, I saw how I could gently fold and bend the paper to make a D shape without compromising his efforts too much, so I did that for him. He was pleased.

And I was tickled pink. Here’s my preschooler, teaching himself and beginning to emulate the positive actions of his older brother. Of course, I also give myself (and my husband) some credit. We have created a household where books are loved, stories are told, conversations brew and questions are honored.  I have created an environment where both boys have access to materials for creative endeavors, and I don’t stop them from making messes. And I get excited about their work, I showcase it, and I take so many photos of it that if I forget, they’ll remind me!

I guess you can say that now that my sons are seven- and four-years-old, I am seeing my efforts pay off. I am seeing results, and I get the feeling that we’ll continue down this course of learning how to love learning. It makes me giddy.

Please share. What’s your child’s latest handiwork?

October 17, 2013

The Power of Time and Materials

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on October 16, 2013.

One day last week after our reading and math lesson, I helped my son finish one of his creations – a “robot spaceship” made out of recyclables. He used a toilet paper tube for the body, part of a plastic bottle for its head, thin cardboard rolled up for its arms and legs, and toothpicks for fingers. It turned out great, and as always, I’m awed by my little boy’s imagination.

My seven-year-old is turning into a little engineer, and he doesn’t need a lot of help, but he wants me to sit there because he’ll need me to do something that he doesn’t quite have the manual dexterity to do. Once in a while, I might be able to help him see an easier way of doing something, but there have been times when my ideas failed and his were better.

I try not to interfere too much with how he wants to make something. I just show up and support him, even when it’s hard for me. I can think of at least ten other things I need to be doing, and five other things I would like to be doing.  And since he is only seven, he works much slower than I could. Once I see what he’s doing, I know I could cut the cardboard into a tiny circle much faster than he could. But I wait until he asks me to do it.

This morning my son decided to add a sleeve to a dragon puppet he made a few months ago. He said that way when he holds the puppet up over the sofa (where we do our puppet shows), no one will see his arm. He pulled out the felt and craft thread we have in our overstuffed “craft supply” drawers. I got him a needle, which is one item I keep stored in another place for safety reasons.

Not quite finished. He still has to attach the sleeve to the dragon head, but you can see his handiwork.

After that, he began to sew the sleeve, and then he added scales or “plates” on the dragon’s back. Occasionally I have to help him when he makes a mistake while sewing or gets the thread tangled up, but he knows how to thread the needle, and he is finishing this project on his own. Again, I’m proud and a little amazed too.

But all it took to get him here was time and materials. Even though I would like less clutter, I have made a space in the heart of our home where he can reach every kind of art material I can afford to buy.  I have bought a little bit at a time, and I’ve taken advantage of sales to have a little extra on hand.

Last year, I found some little dinosaur finger puppets on the Internet, and I thought my son would enjoy making those. I am not skilled at sewing, but I know how to thread a needle and sew some stitches. So I showed him what I know, and he enjoyed it. He made his own, silly “alien” finger puppet too. It was enough to get my son started, and now he has sewn this big dragon puppet, which is his own design.

We also spent time collecting a big box of recyclables. Paper towel tubes, cereal boxes, bottles and almost anything can be made into something fun with a little imagination and hot glue.  I spent some time showing my son how to make some things, and now, since the items are within his reach, he just goes to get what he needs when he has a new idea.

Spending time teaching him to work with these materials is important, but the most important “time” is the free time I give him to work.

Last week we were busy with play dates and errands, and I found him looking at the calendar on our refrigerator. He noticed that nothing was on the calendar for Friday afternoon. “I’m going to build my Lego airplane on Friday afternoon.” After that, I made a mental note to try not to add anything to our day on Friday!

Some people may say my son is just very creative and likes art and building, but I bet all children, given a little instruction, access to materials and plenty of free time would take advantage of it. Fostering children’s imaginations, honoring their interests, and teaching helpful skills at a young age will make children doers instead of passive learners.

The other day my son said to me, “It occurred to me that if I want something, and I don’t have it, I can just make it!” That’s exactly what I was aiming for.

October 15, 2013

Project-based Homeschooling: Steps I Took to Support My Son’s Interest in Carnivorous Plants

This is a very detailed account of the steps I took to support my sons interest in carnivorous plants. There is much more to project-based homeschooling (PBH) than what I illustrate here, but I hope it gives you some ideas as you proceed to mentor your children! Remember, there’s no right or wrong in PBH, but there are some tricks to getting a child to go further and learn more about his interests!

To learn more about project-based learning, see my post What is Project-based Homeschooling? or Lori Pickert’s website project-based-homeschooling.com.

1. Recognizing the interest

I don’t remember when my son first acquired an interest in carnivorous plants, but I remember buying Step Into Reading Hungry Plants and reading that book to him because he wanted to learn about them. We also spent a long time looking at photos on the Internet. We learned that some very big carnivorous plants live in Borneo.

That was probably a year ago.

2. Supporting the interest

Sometime last spring we were shopping at Home Depot when I saw a little Venus Flytrap. I could have ignored it, but I knew it was an interest of my son’s, so I wasn’t going to do that. My son was thrilled to see a real, live carnivorous plant, and making him happy makes me happy. For less than $5, we bought the plant and started a project.

That little plant was fussed over at home. I looked up information about how to care for Venus flytraps on the Internet, read about it to my son, and he took good care of the plant. He had a lot of fun finding bugs to feed it too.

I asked my son if he wanted to learn more about carnivorous plants, and he said yes.

We went to the library and checked out their books about carnivorous plants. Whenever we’re at the library, I make a point of showing my son how I’m finding the books on the computer, and often, I ask the librarian to help us. I encourage my son to ask too, but I don’t force him. I know that if he observes how I use the library, he’ll grow up knowing how to use it!

Unfortunately, before we could read those library books, a family emergency sent us to Chicago for two weeks. We had to return those books, but once we were settled in Chicago, we decided to visit the local library there (wonderful library – sigh). There, we found a very good book about sundews for young adults, and I read the whole book to my son.

(The Venus flytrap came with us to Chicago too!)

In that book we learned all about sundews, including how to grow them. You mean WE can grow other carnivorous plants? This was a new idea to my son and me. I had never considered trying to grow more than the little Venus flytrap, which is a favorite for lots of kids. My son said he wanted to grow them, and I agreed to help him.

3. Field trip

While we were in Chicago, we visited the Chicago Botanical Garden. (Since we are members of our local botanical garden, we got into the Chicago Botanical Garden for free. Since we love nature, and it’s obviously a deep interest for my son, it’s been a no brainer to invest some money in memberships to such places. It has saved us a lot of money. You can read more about saving money with family memberships here.)

We had been to the Chicago Botanical Garden before, and it’s impossible to see it all in one day, so we made a mental agenda. One of our missions was to find their carnivorous plant collection. It was not a disappointment. You can see more photos in the slideshow.

When we returned from Chicago, we checked out the books at our library again. These are all the books we have read regarding carnivorous plants:

  • Hungry Plants by Mary Batten
  • Bladderworts: Trapdoors to Oblivion by Victor Gentle
  • Carnivorous Plants by Elaine Pascoe
  • Sundew Stranglers: Plants that Eat Insects by Jerome Wexler
  • Nature Close-up: Carnivorous Plants by Dwight Kuhn

4. Creating representations of the subject

During this time, my son made several representations of carnivorous plants. I was happy he did this completely on his own. I didn’t know he was drawing these pictures until he showed them to me.

Don’t underestimate any artwork your child does while pursuing a project. To draw, build or sculpt something, the child has to study and observe that something in a way he hasn’t done before. It’s another level of learning.

Venus Fly Traps

He did this one more recently. A big mouth bass swims by a bladderwort!

Yep, those are supposed to be human legs dangling out of the mouth of a carnivorous plant.

This happened a little differently from his first two significant projects. For his Titanic project, I had suggested he make the Titanic out of clay, and when that didn’t work, his dad suggested he try cardboard. For his rocket project, he came up with the idea to build a model of the Saturn V, but I was closely involved. After doing those two labor-intensive representations, it was refreshing for me to have him draw these pictures!

This one I found on the Atlanta Botanical Garden website (click to download).

5. Supporting the project

At the end of each school year, I am going to do a brief end-of-year review and reward my sons with a gift – something educational that supports their studies. (We buy them plenty of fun, non-educational toys for birthdays, Christmas and occasional times throughout the year.)

This summer at my kindergartener’s end-of-year review, I gave him a beautiful poster I found of carnivorous plants. He was thrilled. It’s hanging in his room, and we have read it thoroughly and referred to it a few times.

6. Serendipity

Okay, so serendipity isn’t exactly a step you can take to encourage deep learning, but it is helpful when it happens. And when you start thinking about a subject, it’s surprising how it starts to present itself to you!

The first case of serendipity occurred when we returned from Chicago. My son was enrolled in a week-long summer camp at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. One day in camp, the facilitators talked about the carnivorous plants at the garden and showed them to the campers.

But that’s not the best part. One day after I dropped my son off, I was walking back to the car with my youngest son, and we passed the gift shop. Outside, there were some pitcher plants for sale! I had been looking on the Internet to find out if any local business sold carnivorous plants, and I was coming up empty. Finding them at the botanical garden was very lucky!

After consulting with my husband, and talking to my seven-year-old, we bought the pot with the white-top pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla) and another bog plant, white-star sedge (Rhynchospora colorata), as an early birthday present for my son.

7. Speaking to Experts

One part of project-based learning is encouraging your children to seek out and communicate with experts on the subject. My son is still young and sometimes shy, so for right now, whenever possible, I speak to the experts. Experts aren’t plentiful, but I got lucky that day. I asked the lady in the gift shop if there was anyone around the garden we could speak to about caring for the pitcher plant. She pointed to a man who was just outside the window trimming some trees.

The man was definitely an expert. He grew carnivorous plants at home and at the garden, and he explained how he cared for them. I asked him several questions even though I had already learned most of the information on the Internet. I wanted my son to see me speaking to him, asking him questions, and getting more information. We definitely learned more! I was very happy that my seven-year-old piped up with a question or two of his own. Hes not so shy when hes talking about something he cares about!

When we got home, my son added his Venus flytrap to the pot with the pitcher plant and white sedge. The Venus flytrap had been losing its trapping ability inside the house – I don’t think the light coming through our windows is bright enough. It recovered and flourished outside in the pot with the other plants. Both carnivorous plants have been catching lots of prey in our yard, so I’m hoping they’ll reproduce!

8. Documentation

An important part of project-based homeschooling is documenting your child’s work. Michelle, at Raising Cajuns, has a great post about documenting, and Lori Pickert has good posts about keeping a journal – this should not be mistaken for a portfolio of your child’s work. In a PBH journal, you document and refer back to your journal frequently, reminding your child of their questions and the goals they have. To be honest, I haven’t been good at doing this intentionally, and I want to get better. But I do document in these ways:

  • As a photographer, I can’t help but take lots of pictures.  I use them on my blog and most importantly, in our end-of-year-review that I share with my son. (He looks at my blog when it’s open in my browser, and he loves to see photos of his projects.)
  • I keep a journal where I write down his progress in his projects, and any questions he may have, but I need to get better at referring back to this!
  • We display his work in the house. Drawings and paintings are hung in our “art gallery” in the kitchen. Sculptures and other creations are displayed in our activity room until it gets too cluttered. Then my son takes him up to his room where he has some shelves to display his treasures.  (I’m in the process of framing some of his art to display in the house too.)
  • Again, I take photos of everything. As Lori wrote somewhere, this simple act of documenting sends your child a powerful message that his work is valuable. Pay attention to what you want your child to do more of!

In our carnivorous plant project, I took lots of photos, and I’m happy to share a slideshow of them with you (and my son).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

9. Follow-up

After awhile, there didn’t seem to be much else my son could do with this project. This isnt to say that there isnt more my son could do, he just wasnt talking about it as much.

I photocopied a couple of pages about carnivorous plants for him from a wild flower field guide I got for myself at the library, and we hope to visit the Atlanta Botanical Garden in the near future, which is supposed to have an impressive display of carnivorous plants. (Ideally I suppose it would be good to go while my son is at the peak of his interest, but going to Atlanta is an all-day family trip, so it’ll happen when it happens. However, this may be a way to revitalize a child’s interest and encourage him to dig deeper!)

Finally I asked my son, Is there anything else you want to do with carnivorous plants?  His answer was that he wants a sundew to add to his collection.  I told him wed get one, but I wasnt sure when.

Then serendipity happened again, and if you read my column last week, you’ll know the rest of this story. We went to Insect-ival, an annual event at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, and there was a guy there with two heaping tables of carnivorous plants! It was an impressive display! And he gave us some sundew seeds for free! That was really special.

We’ve been nursing those seeds for a while, and I gotta tell you, I’m not sure they’re going to grow. I’ve never had luck with seeds! If these don’t grow, I’ll find a sundew somewhere somehow, and my son and I will try to cultivate more carnivorous plants.

At seven-years-old, I have to remind my son to water them because I know he’ll be upset if he loses them. He still doesn’t talk as much about carnivorous plants, and I’ve put the drawings away, but I know it’s something he’s still interested in. He’s going to be happy about having the plants, caring for them, and whenever we go to the Botanical Garden, we’ll take a look at them.

I consider this a long-term project that will happen slowly and in spurts. Maybe hell continue the interest. Maybe itll peter out. Whatever happens, Im here to support him!

If he continues to grow them, and if we can get them to reproduce, he’ll become an expert in them himself. If not, that’s okay too. The kid has me hooked on them, so if he completely loses interest, I’m going to take over!

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