Archive for ‘Project-based Homeschooling’

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.


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


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

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

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

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).

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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!

October 10, 2013

Project-based Homeschooling: Carnivorous Plants

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on October 9, 2013.

Last year my son acquired a fascination with carnivorous plants. He had been interested in them for a while, but then one day we saw a little Venus flytrap at Home Depot, and right then his interest exploded. He wanted to learn about them and grow them. We brought the little flytrap home, and he kept good care of it.

Carnivorous plants are plants that have a mechanism to trap prey, mostly insects, and they digest the prey in order to receive valuable nutrients that they need to survive. There are over 670 species of carnivorous plants in the world, and in the United States, they are found in every state. They also live on every continent except for Antarctica. Did you know that the Venus flytrap is native to North Carolina?

Carnivorous plants grow in boggy areas with poor soil that is very acidic and low in nitrogen, which is why they need to supplement their diets with insects or other small prey.

I would have never guessed that we could grow carnivorous plants in our yard, but silly me…not only can we grow them in our yard, some pitcher plants are native to Georgia.  Most of them can probably be found in South Georgia or along the coast in boggy, swampy areas, but you can go to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia and see them behind the conservatory in an area where they are growing bog plants. At a glance, it looks like an unkempt area of weeds, but look closer, and you’ll find some beautiful Sarracencia or pitcher plants.

The pitcher plants are tall with leaves that look like tubes. The beautiful colors on the top of the leaves lure insects by looking like flowers, and they also produce a sweet-smelling nectar on the rim of the “pitcher” which slightly intoxicates the insect. As the insect travels down the tube, it’s almost impossible for them to climb back up because of the tiny downward pointing hairs. At the bottom of the pitcher plant is a pool of digestive enzymes and the end of the road for the unsuspecting insect.

One day this summer when my son was at camp at the Botanical Garden, we were lucky to find some white-top pitcher plants on sale in their gift shop. I bought him the plant, and we had a long talk with one of the garden’s staff members who knew a lot about carnivorous plants.

My son added his Venus flytrap to the pot with the pitcher plant, and now they are probably the nicest looking plants in my yard. They must be kept wet with rainwater, so they were very happy with our summer rains. When it doesn’t rain, my son uses water from the rain barrel.

To complete his carnivorous plant collection, my son has been asking for a sundew, which is his favorite. Sundews trap insects like flypaper. They have long leaves that look like fingers with tiny red spikes on them. At the end of each spike is sticky mucus, and if an insect lands on it, it gets stuck. Then the leaf will wrap itself around the insect and devour it.

I told my son that he would have to wait awhile before we found a sundew. They don’t sell those at Home Depot, and I wasn’t in a hurry to order one from the Internet. But we experienced serendipity a few weeks ago when we went to the Insect-ival at the Botanical Garden. We were enjoying the interesting displays of insects, including a butterfly release into the garden when we happened upon two large tables full of carnivorous plants. A young man with a passion for the plants had brought his collection to the festival, and my son’s eyes were bulging at the sight of them.

I asked the man if he knew where we could purchase sundew locally. He told me that the sundew reproduce like crazy, and he was going to throw some of the seeds away that morning, but as an afterthought, he put them in tiny envelopes to give away at the festival. My son was thrilled. Now we’re nursing these tiny seeds in a pot inside our house and hoping that they will grow!

This is a sundew. I took this photo at the Chicago Botanical Garden.

For more information about carnivorous plants and how to grow them, you may enjoy looking at the International Carnivorous Plant Society website at

If you liked this, be sure to read my next post about how I supported my son’s interest in carnivorous plants in a project-based learning way.

October 8, 2013

Our 1st Grade Homeschool Schedule and Curriculum

Whenever I come up with a “schedule” and “curriculum,” I find it’s best to think to myself we’ll just see how this goes. While I love to have some plans and predictability, in this family I need to go with the flow.  (That’s easier said than done sometimes.)

I consider my plans to be like a compass that can point me back to our main path if we get lost, but if we find a better way, we’ll continue our course. There are also times when it feels prudent to do something else with the boys, or maybe I just need to get some cleaning done. The biggest benefit of homeschooling is its flexibility. I never want to get too rigid with a schedule, or I may miss some valuable teaching moments!

First day of school.

With that said, I came up with a class schedule before we started our official 1st grade year on September 3rd. You can see it below. Surprisingly, this has held up well, though we missed one week due to illness. My main goal this year is to help my seven-year-old gain better reading skills, though I’m going at his pace. I have made a point of getting these lessons out of the way first thing in the morning because otherwise I don’t think they’d get done. The reading lesson + math or Spanish lesson usually takes only 60-75 minutes to complete.

You may think I’m unwise to teach academic lessons only four days a week, and math only two days a week. Drilling my son is not what I want for our homeschool. I have found he has progressed just fine on a schedule like this. This is because we take it at his pace, we go over a concept again and again until he gets it, and going slowly has prevented me from having to hear too many moans and groans from him. He doesn’t like the formal lessons, but he knows they are necessary. He also knows we have time to do what is important to him.

(He will complain that we don’t have enough time to do all his projects, though! It’s hard to explain to a seven-year-old why we can’t do all the DNA kit experiments in one day! It’s hard to explain why mama can’t keep going all day or why I can’t jump up at every request for my help. I’m working on teaching him time management and how we have all the time in the world if we spread his projects out over the course of days or weeks. And hey – I’d love to hear from some of you, if you have any advice in this area.)

You can click this image to view it larger, if you want. It’s a two-week schedule because most of our classes and play dates are bi-weekly.

MOL Weekly HS Schedule

One more note about the schedule before I move on to our curriculum. Even though it looks very manageable with lots of free time, it’s amazing how stuff creeps in. Add a day camp, going to grandpa’s house or the library, shopping, cooking, cleaning, or going on a family field trip, and we stay very busy! Living 30 minutes from town makes our lives more complicated because it’s too tiring to go one place in the morning and then go shopping later. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like we’re that free.

One of our current projects: DNA

Now for the nitty-gritty…


Stretch Time – This is new and experimental. For many reasons, I have started a short stretching, quasi-yoga time with the boys in the morning for about 15 minutes before lessons. I do simple stretches that I learned in grade school as well as some simple yoga poses, and we make up animal names for them. My four-year-old came up with the “sperm whale” pose! My aversion-to-any-physical-activity seven-year-old does not like this at all. So I’m thinking hard about how I can make it more appealing, or if I’ll ditch it altogether. If we continue this practice, I will be sure to write about it in the future. For a good beginners guide on yoga for adults, I have been enjoying

ReadingTeach a Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. Yes, we have returned to this book, and we have started at Lesson 50. You can read our previous experience with it here. I will write a follow-up when we’re finished. It’s going really well!! (UPDATES: You can read 1st Grade Homeschool Reading and Finished 100 Easy Lessons!)

Math – I have not returned to Life of Fred yet. I felt like we needed some more time on certain concepts, so I’ve been using workbooks that I picked up at Target and a teachers’s store. The boys are also enjoying the game Sum Swamp. I highly recommend it! (UPDATES: You can read 1st Homeschool Math and Teaching Children About Money as follow-ups.)

Spanish – My son has said several times he wants to learn Spanish, but I know I have to be careful about how I approach this, or he will change his mind. I feel very fortunate to have found the show Salsa, which is available online for free from Georgia Public Broadcasting. He loves it. We are keeping a Spanish journal and writing down the key words that each episode focuses on, and we read over all the words before we watch. (I do the writing here – at this point I want learning Spanish to be fun, and I don’t care if he doesn’t remember the words.) My son also requests for me to read the synopsis and a page or two of the English transcript of the show before we watch just to give him an idea of what’s happening. This has been a fun, slow-paced way to introduce him to the Spanish language, and now he knows a handful of Spanish words! I’m planning to make some Spanish labels of household items to put up around the house in order to remind me to use a little Spanish throughout the day.

Project time – THIS IS THE MAIN FOCUS OF OUR HOME EDUCATION, and if you don’t already know what this is, you need to read What is Project-based Homeschooling. This is the time I have set aside for my son’s projects, and unless we sleep very late in the morning, it usually works out to be about two hours before lunch. But this doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes work on his projects on the weekends or in the afternoons. Projects also weave their way into our book time and family outings. To see a list of my son’s projects, look at my page Project-based Homeschooling. I’ll be adding more soon. You’ll see his projects have covered most other requirements in a Typical Course of Study, particularly science. My son is a little biologist!

Art – My son does a lot of art on his own, so I thought he would benefit from and enjoy some formal lessons. I would love to do this everyday, but I don’t want to discourage him from making his own art and creations, so I put it on the schedule for Friday mornings when we are at home. (Most Fridays we are not. We have one bi-weekly class (which may or may not continue), a once-a-month class, and an occasional play date on Fridays.) However, I am not bound to this schedule. Last Saturday we did our first art activity! I may try to continue using the weekends, if the boys want something to do. (UPDATE: MARCH 2014 – I just posted Homeschooling: 1st Grade Art Explorations, which goes deeper into this subject.) Here are my resources:

The seven-year-old’s painting with homemade egg tempura paint.

But There’s Not Enough Time for Everything

Unfortunately, there’s not enough time for everything! There are so many things I want to do with the boys, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all. However, I know we’ll fit in the following things whenever we can!

  • Book time – There are still days when we sit on the sofa for a long book time, but I miss doing this everyday. Once the kids are solid in their reading skills, perhaps our reading lesson time can turn into a book time when everyone takes turns reading.  However, we do read books every evening. It’s part of our evening routine. Currently, my husband is reading the Magic Tree House series to my seven-year-old. They are on book #25! (Good history lessons!) I look at storybooks with the four-year-old.
  • Nature Exploration, Nature Journal and the Junior Ranger Program – These are on-going activities that get done when they get done.  Fortunately, we’re a nature-loving family, so getting out into nature is part of our lifestyle, but sometimes I feel like we don’t do it enough.
  • Diary – Last year I began a diary with my seven-year-old by letting him dictate to me what he wanted to write. I have been greatly inspired by Patricia Zaballos and her blog, Wonder Farm, for strategies on teaching kids how to write. The diary was a huge success, but unfortunately, it was too much of a success! I started by letting my son dictate to me in the evenings. Well, he wanted to dictate every. detail. of. his. day. Argh! There was no way I could write so much. We could have spent over an hour on it every night in addition to our other evening rituals! So unfortunately this came to a halt, and I haven’t found a good way to get started again. He is less willing to dictate now too! I think I ruined it by putting time restraints in it! :( Back to the drawing board on this one…
  • Puppet Shows – If you have been reading my blog for a long time, you may remember how puppet shows were a integral part of our day during my son’s Pre-K year. Unfortunately, we don’t do them anymore, although the boys will play with the puppets sometimes. I have been wondering how I can get us back into this, even one day a week. Hmmm.

Don’t homeschool if you want a neat house.

What we do find time for…

  • Watching lots of educational televisionAs I’ve written before, I don’t mind that my children watch a lot of television as long as it’s quality T.V. and as long as they’re balancing T.V. time with plenty of other activities. Before getting married, I wasn’t a T.V. watcher, but I’ve been sucked in, and I have to admit, I like the shows we watch together, and my sons watch mostly educational kids shows on their own. (And a few purely entertaining ones.) I have a pinterest board where I pin some of these shows, if you’re interested.
  • Storytelling – I still tell my seven-year-old a story every night before bed. My husband tells the four-year-old stories.
  • Down time – Down time usually means digital device or T.V. time for my boys. Fighting against this has done nothing but cause stress for me, so I’ve learned to just go with it, which I wrote about in my series about T.V. For me the ideal down time is sitting on my front porch enjoying some beautiful weather.
  • Play time – Fortunately, my kids always seem to be in ‘play mode,’ but I want to make sure they have time to play by themselves. Sometimes they play with friends. Sometimes they play together. Sometimes they want to play with their dad or me. I hope they’ll remember a childhood full of playtime.
  • Outside time – I used to have no problem getting my kids outside. Now we’ve gone through a spell where I’ve had to be more intentional about getting them outside, but we do like the outdoors as a family, so I know it’ll always be part of what we do.
  • Cooking – And believe it or not, I’ve started cooking more and having the boys help me in the kitchen! You can read more about this in My Menu Planning Resolution.

Wow! When I write it all down, I wonder how we manage all that! But somehow we do…one step at a time.

If you have actually read all the way down to this, I want to thank you for reading this monster post! UPDATE: I’ll be posting some updates on our 1st grade experiences this January, so please stay tuned!

Feel free to link to your posts about your homeschool schedules and curriculums. Sharing ideas is what helps new and seasoned homeschoolers! 

September 26, 2013

The Easiest Way to Paper Mache

{Paper Mache Bugs}

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on September 25, 2013.

For months my son was pestering me to try paper mache, but it was one of those things that I put off because I wasn’t sure how to do it, and I also knew it was going to be messy. I promised him we’d do it one day, and he neeeever let me forget that, so we finally made some paper mache bugs.

Paper mache is a gooey substance made out of flour, water, and paper strips, and you can mold it into just about anything. When it dries, it stays hard, and you can paint it.

This was a fun project and very easy to do, but let me save you some hassle and tell you not to google “how to do paper mache.” Every site I landed on had a different recipe. Several of them included glue. One of them said to prepare the mixture 24 hours in advance. Another said you had to boil the mixture. It will make you put off the project some more.

The easiest recipe is mixing 1 part all-purpose flour with 1 part water and stirring it until it’s mixed well and forms a paste. That’s it. You can use it immediately, and it worked like a charm!

After you make the paste, you need to tear (not cut) strips of newspaper, put them into the mixture, coat them well and then slide the strip between two fingers to take off the excess flour mixture. Now you can lay this strip onto whatever you want to paper mache and let it dry. Afterward, you can paint it.

But what can you paper mache? Little did I know, you can paper mache almost anything. You can make pretty boxes, hats, or masks, but my son wanted to make bugs. To make the bugs, we bunched up newspaper into the shape of a bug and secured it with lots and lots of masking tape. We taped on straws for the legs.

Applying the paper mache was messy, so we did that outside in the shade. Warning: it attracts flies. And it’s very messy. Disposable gloves were helpful.

Despite the flies and the mess, we had a lot of fun putting paper mache on our bugs.  My four-year-old didn’t want to do it, but my seven-year-old managed to do his alone except for the straw legs, which were a little tricky, but we managed to wrap them with the goo too. We let them dry in the sun, and they hardened enough that the boys could play with them without breaking them (as long as they didn’t throw them).

A day or two later, the seven-year-old painted his like a bee, and he added paper wings and wire to its head for antennae. Even though the paper mache is pretty hard, you can easily poke through it with the wire. My four-year-old painted the bug I made. Now the two boys are busy buzzing around with their homemade toys.

Final tips:

  1. If you don’t want the newspaper print to show through the paint, you could use white paper as your final layer.
  2. A helpful video about paper mache bases can be found here: Paper Mache Base Ideas
  3. A really cool post about using paper mache in project-based homeschooling can be found here: Evolution of a Mountain, Phase 1
  4. Paper mache is a great way to recycle your Barrow Journal!

Tell me about your paper mache adventure.

September 5, 2013

My Nature Boy

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on September 4, 2013.

My seven-year-old tells me that when he grows up, he wants to study snakes. He’s been saying this since he was four. He saw his first, live snake at the Sandy Creek Nature Center, and every time they bring out snakes in his classes, he almost leaps out of his pants.

We’ve been making a book about snakes, we’ve watched videos and television about snakes, and we’ve read books about snakes. Despite this, though I could be wrong, I don’t think snakes are my son’s passion. Why? There are subtle clues.

This past spring we checked out a bunch of library books about snakes, but my son never picked one of those books during our book time.  My second clue is that he rarely asks questions about snakes anymore. I know he loves snakes, but I don’t think he loves them as much as he thinks he does.

In project-based homeschooling, it’s a parent’s job to observe their child and watch for their interests. No interest is too small, and almost any subject can be studied and branch out into many directions. Parents can stealthily guide their young students to the right resources, and like a magnet, the kids will be drawn to them because they already have a natural interest.

Whether this interest in snakes is fading or just on the back burner, I don’t know, but I do know there’s an overarching theme to all of his interests, both large and small.

I see his undying fascination with all things nature. Sure, all kids love nature. I used to think he was just like all other kids, but now I realize his interest goes beyond the ordinary. I get a zillion questions a day from him that mostly has to do with animals and the natural world. His make-believe world is all about animals.

When he was four, I worried about my son’s shyness, but once we began taking classes at the nature center, he blossomed. He’s not afraid to ask questions there, and he has no problem leaving me behind to follow the facilitator on the trail. He is always ready to help turn over a log or shout out that he’s found something interesting.

One of the facilitators at the nature center got to know my son, and she told me that he had a true passion for nature. She said other kids will look at the animals and other discoveries out on the trails, and they’re like, “Cool!” but then they run off.  My son can’t get enough. He stays by her side, wanting to see and learn more.

I’ve also noticed that his younger brother isn’t as enamored by nature. While his big brother was in camp a few weeks ago, he took a walk in the woods with my husband and me. He was impatient and uninterested in discovering what was in the woods, and when I asked him if he was having fun, he said, “No.” Later he changed his mind, but his big brother never had to warm up to the outdoors.

One of the most exciting parts of parenthood is discovering who your children are and what they love. I don’t know what my son will do when he becomes an adult, but I won’t be surprised if it has something to do with biology.

I’ll continue to feed his natural interests in nature, but I’ll also introduce him to other subjects, places and ideas. You never know where the threads of these inquiries will meet. It’s as if my son and I are weaving a tapestry, but the final design is yet unknown. 

What are your child’s deep interests?

August 20, 2013

Birthday Week and Project Month

This is birthday week in my house. On Sunday my three-year-old turned into the four-year-old. (sniff sniff) Next Sunday my six-year-old will be turning seven. Time continues to fall through my fingers like water. All I can do is savor every moment.

I don’t do birthday parties every year, but I want the occasions to be memorable and fun for the boys. Last year the six-year-old had a party, and I plan to give my four-year-old a party when he turns six, but this year my husband and I told them we’d take them anywhere they wanted to go. My four-year-old said he wanted to see “dinosaurs,” so we went to Tellus Museum again (which, by the way, I wrote about for my column this week, and I’ll post that review here on Thursday). Both my boys got to dig for fossils at that museum, and they had a blast. One night this week we’ll have their grandparents over for cake and pizza.

In my county, public school started on August 7th. Wow! I’m very grateful that we’re homeschooling so that we can enjoy these hot, humid, rainy days of summer. lol True, the weather has not been cooperative this year, and we haven’t gotten outside as much as I had hoped, but after a very busy June and July, and I wouldn’t want to make my boys go back to school so soon.  I want them to have time to play and do what they want to do.

August has turned out to be “project month” for us.  We have finally been able to get to many small projects that my six-year-old has been pestering me about for a long time. We also did some projects that I wanted to do, and then there are projects that have popped up along the way. I hope I’ll find the time to write about some of these for upcoming posts, but for now I’ll list them here. (If there’s something you want to learn more about, just ask me in the comments.)

The Six-Year-Old’s Project List:

  • Papier Mâché bugs! This was his #1 “must do” projectHe has been wanting to do this for a long time, and I was stalling because I know it’s messy, and I wasn’t sure how to do it. It was fun!
  • Carnivorous Plants - This has been a long-term, true project-based homeschooling project! We have been reading about the plants, finding them at botanical gardens and growing them at home.
  • Molecule Set - This is a set we bought once, and he wanted to put the molecules together again. He likes for me to read to him what they are. I supplement this activity by getting out a poster of an atom and a periodic table of elements. I also found this NOVA Elements app, and he really enjoyed playing with it. I would recommend it for older kids, but I’m surprised that my son was able to figure some of it out because he was interested and kept at it! I learned a lot too!
  • Compare his meteorite with other rocks under microscope - This was easy enough to do one day.
  • Legos - This is his specialty, and all I have to do is give him time to do it.
  • Ant Project - I suggested to him that we could try to study the tiny ants we found in our yard, which are not common ants, according to the data we were given by the School of Ants. We did that one day, and we observed them disappear into the ground in our flower beds! Perhaps this is why they are so hard to study!
  • Curiosity Rover - The six-year-old recently became more interested in the Curiosity Rover, so we have checked out some books about space robots at the library, and we watched a fantastic documentary about the Curiosity Rover.
  • Learn about squid - We took a trip to the library, and we’re reading some books on this subject.

Mama’s Projects with the kids:

  • Dogwood Propagation – I really want to learn how to propagate dogwood trees. My botanist friend gave me some directions, and I had the boys help me. However, I don’t think my cuttings are doing very well. :( Must try again next year.
  • Hummingbird feeder - Don’t know if you’d call this a project, but I’ve had four hummingbird feeders (all gifts) in storage, and some of them I’ve had for years. The six-year-old wanted me to hang one up. We finally did, and we’ve had a blast watching some female ruby-throated hummingbirds fight over the feeder. (We identified them using our bird field guide apps.) We have to change the nectar every few days. I’ve been trying to get some photos of them despite not having the right camera lens. You can see a few of my first attempts on my photo blog.

The Four-Year-Old’s Projects

  • I don’t mean to leave the four-year-old out, but right now he’s content following along with what we’re doing. He does have a special interest in dinosaurs and whales, so we’re checking out a lot of books about those subjects at the library. He’s also requested me to make a dinosaur for him with clay, and as mentioned before, we’ve taken him to see dinosaur fossils at various museums.
  • When the six-year-old was in camp this summer, the four-year-old went with me on errands, and while we were shopping I let him pick something out that would be just for him to do. He picked this little birdhouse (see photo), so I let him paint it one day. I was impressed that he wanted to paint it all white! It’s very pretty and hanging in a tree outside.

Other Fun Stuff

It seems like there’s always something to make or do. Our friends invited us to tie dye shirts with them, and that was fun. We love our shirts!  For the boy’s birthdays, I tried to pick out presents that would keep them entertained. The four-year-old got a “digging for fossils” kit, and he and his older brother have started to whittle away at it – it will take a long time to complete. I also got the four-year-old ZOOB pieces, and they are a huge hit!  The seven-year-old will be getting a new Lego set that he has been asking for too.

Unlike the public school kids, I will be starting our “school” in the first week of September. (If this isn’t school enough for you!) I want the boys to have plenty of time to play with their birthday presents, and it gives me a little more time for planning, although I already have a rough schedule prepared. I wonder how we’ll fit everything in that I’d like to do while still giving the boys plenty of downtime. I remain flexible, as always.

My son’s project for the fall is mushrooms. He wants to learn about them and grow them. I’m excited about it, and though it might take me awhile to get around to it, I’ll be sure to write about it.

How is your summer going? Have your kids started “home” or public school yet? What exciting projects are on your horizon?


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