Posts tagged ‘my newspaper columns’

May 22, 2015

Garden Time

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on May 20, 2015.

Every year the boys and I buy seeds and a few plants and plant them with good intentions. My boys also enjoy growing sprouting beans in jars and then transplanting them to the garden. We don’t have the best soil or much sunlight on this wooded lot, but I let the boys plant what they want. Digging in the dirt and caring for the vegetables must have more life lessons than I can count.

My eight-year-old wanted to plant pumpkins again. We put them in big pots in our driveway so they can get the most sunlight possible. My five-year-old is growing squash in our garden, and I planted some tomato and cucumber plants. We are all sharing the strawberries and green beans. We have some herbs left over from last year too.

A new garden is a pretty sight. There’s fresh topsoil and no weeds. The new plants have that fresh garden color – a world of promise in a single leaf. Perennials are blooming throughout my yard, keeping promises planted long ago. At this time of year, it’s easy to muster the energy to go out every evening and water the garden. By August, it’ll be another story, but that’s still far off, and I’m going to enjoy this beautiful spring for as long as it’s here.

My son’s carnivorous plants are looking healthy and growing like crazy, and we were thrilled to see his new sundew plant come to life after buying it in its dormant state late last fall. This sundew has long, spindly leaves with a sticky substance on them that insects will stick to, if they land on it. He also has a pitcher plant and Venus flytrap. I think my son’s carnivorous plants are doing a service for our whole neighborhood considering how many dead insects we find in them.

I wish my whole yard looked as fresh and well kept as our garden, spring flowers, and my son’s carnivorous plants, but that’s not the case. Weeds taunt me from under the azalea bushes, and there’s not enough time or money to fix up our backyard or the bare patches of lawn. I found one of my favorite flowering bushes – the name always eludes me – died this year after producing beautiful flowers for many years. It was the same bush where a cardinal family reared their chicks in one year, and we were able to watch the whole cycle right through our living room window. I’m very sad to see this bush stand bare of leaves.

My bay leaf tree, also, has suffered these past two years after growing so well for many years before this. Is it because I’m too busy to go out and pamper it, or did the winters just get too cold for it? I don’t know.

But I see good things happening too. Every year I manage to do one or two small tasks to add to the “perfect yard” that’s in my imagination but slowly taking form around the house. The lead plant I bought two years ago at the botanical garden is hanging in there, and for the first time this year, it’s blooming. Some irises I divided last year are doing quite well in their new spot, and this year I finally divided some monkey grass and planted it in front of the fence on the other side of the house.

We are in this house for the long haul, so I’m patient about getting the yard just right. We are in the season of our lives when we have other priorities, and trying to keep a perfect yard would be a waste of money and time. Keeping it fairly neat and planting slow-growing but lasting plants seems like the more prudent way to go. Besides, when the boys grow up, I doubt they’ll remember the weeds or the lack of lawn. Instead, they’ll remember the flowers, vegetables and freedom they had to run and dig in the dirt. Perhaps this is the perfect garden after all.

May 7, 2015

Indian Springs State Park

Note: This column appeared in the May 6, 2015 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Last month we enjoyed exploring Indian Springs State Park, which is located almost right in the middle of Georgia. It took us about two hours to drive there, and like all Georgia state parks, it’s beautiful, but we didn’t realize what a rich history this particular park has.

Indian Springs is thought to be the oldest state park in the United States because it has been operated by the state as a public park ever since the land was secured from the Creek Indians. It did not become an official state park until 1931 when, along with Vogel State Park, it became one of Georgia’s first state parks.

Our first quest when we arrived at the park was to find the natural spring that is said to have curative properties. The Creek Indians used the water in the spring to heal their sick people, and by the 1820s, white people flocked to the site to taste and bathe in the water, claiming it had healing properties. It didn’t take long for a flourishing resort town to spring up around the park.

Now the spring is located inside a house-like structure built of rocks. Water constantly pours out of a spout and what is not collected goes down a drain. Apparently, people are still collecting the “healing waters” because when we got there, a man with several empty gallon jugs was taking his fill. Later, we saw a woman with a trunk load of containers going to collect water.

the spring is located in that small building where the people are standing

In order to earn another junior ranger badge, my eight-year-old was supposed to drink some water from this spring. The spring has a very strong smell of sulphur, and at first, my son hesitated. But when his mom and dad reached down and scooped up a handful of water, he tried it too. (My five-year-old refused to try it.) Though it’s drinkable, the water tasted “thick” and had a strong taste due to its mineral content. Since we are not used to it, it wasn’t water that we would want to drink on a regular basis.

From there, we walked over to Big Sandy Creek where a fast current flows over some shoals. It was very pretty, and the boys enjoyed throwing rocks in the water, and I took photographs of the stone bridge crossing the creek.

As we walked deeper into the park, we came to the park office, which was a beautiful, historic home. Named Idlewilde, it is a twentieth century two-story “New South” structure with four over four rooms. It still has its original beveled glass windows, heart of pine floors, door handles and light fixtures. There are all kinds of historical items inside the house, but my favorite part was walking through the rock terrace in the backyard. Apparently, one of the women who built the house, named Gi-Gi, was an avid gardener, and she had the terrace built. There still remains some of the Day Lilies and Jonquils that she planted.

The house has an interesting history, but I liked reading about the history of the Creek Indians in this area the best. In 1821, after this area was already becoming a resort area for white people, 1000 acres were reserved for Chief William McIntosh. Chief McIntosh was born in 1778, and he was half Creek and half Scotsman. In 1825, he signed a Treaty of Indian Springs, which handed over Creek land in southwest Georgia to the state for an equal amount of land west of the Mississippi River plus $400,000.

This “Treaty of Indian Springs” was illegal because only eight out of fifty-six Creek towns supported Chief McIntosh. Not even President John Quincy Adams considered it a valid treaty. A few days after the treaty was signed, Chief McIntosh was killed, and in 1826, a “legal” treaty was signed, and the Federal government seized the land.

From the park’s office, we walked toward McIntosh Lake, walked across the levy, and then followed the shore until we came to the manmade beach area where the kids played for awhile. By then we were ready to head back to our car. We only saw a thumbprint of this beautiful 528 acre park, so we plan to go back some day.

The park offers camping, cottages, fishing, boating, swimming, miniature golf, hiking, a museum, and it’s close to many other attractions, such as Dauset Trails Nature Center and Jarrell Plantation State Historic Site. Be sure to visit http://gastateparks.org/info/indspr/ to learn more about this park, and visit it when you get the chance.

What new places have you explored lately?

April 27, 2015

Testing

Note: This column appeared in the April 22, 2015 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Next year, my son will be in the third grade, and as is required by the state of Georgia for homeschoolers, he will need to be tested at the end of that year in his academic studies. I have to use a nationally standardized test, but I can administer it in my home, and we keep the results for our own files. This is fine with me. It’ll be good to see where my son is at and what areas he may need help in.

Earlier this year I decided to buy a 2nd grade test prep book – not so much to prepare my son for what he needs to know on the test but to teach him how to take a test. I didn’t want to make him sit down and face those test sheets and “fill in the bubble” scantron without ever seeing them before. Our practice test workbook also comes with some test-taking tips, and those have been helpful too.

As I go through the book with my son, I’m grateful to see how easily he reads the questions and answers the questions. It certainly gives me peace of mind that he’s doing fine. But I’m glad that this is just a small piece of our day too. Although I go over the few things he doesn’t know, he is not learning much by practicing test taking.

I am also looking at the comprehensive tests – the reading section alone is almost fifteen pages long – and thinking about how much time my son will have to sit in one place to complete that. Even if I read the parts that are “listening,” it will be hard for him to sit still and concentrate for that long. It’s not that he can’t sit still – he can spend eight hours putting together complicated Lego kits, but reading short passages or “stories” he is not interested in is not going to reveal his ability to sit and concentrate. But maybe by the end of next year, it will be easier for him.

I do not let my kids do anything they want. I do formal lessons with them, but I also follow their interests and figure out what works for them because that’s the best way to learn. Every child should have an education tailored to his or her needs and interests. When it comes to doing the things they don’t want to do, I believe in going slow, letting maturity and a little practice ease them into doing the harder stuff like sitting still for long periods of time to take a test.

Because of this, I am very skeptical about standardized testing for young kids. I don’t see how those tests given in the public schools can measure a child’s true abilities or knowledge. I have seen my own son miss questions that he could have easily gotten correct only because he was getting tired. I was pushing him too hard. Luckily for us, I can slow down when I realize I’m going too fast for my son, but school kids are being pushed to learn things before they are ready for it just to pass tests.

Young children should not be required to do things they are not yet developmentally ready for. I have read about several studies saying that children learn best through play. It improves their executive function, which is a fancy term for certain cognitive processes such as an ability to work independently. The latest article I read was in the Washington Post titled, “Report debunks ‘earlier is better’ academic instruction for young children.” It says that the best early preschool programs “focus on social, emotional and intellectual goals rather than narrow academic goals.”

Some children learn how to read early. Others aren’t ready until seven or eight. Some children can sit still for long periods; others (often the boys) cannot. Some children need to learn through movement; others learn better by listening or seeing. When I was young I had to keep moving forward in math even when I didn’t get it. I did well enough to pass, but I’ve always dubbed myself as “bad at math.” What if someone had just taught it to me differently? And waited until I got a concept before moving on, even if that meant waiting a year?

I’m not the only one who feels this way. I am seeing complaints by teachers, who are not getting a chance to truly teach because of the push to “teach to the test.” There was that Ohio special education teacher who gave a shocking resignation right after winning a big teaching award. She was reported to have said, “I can’t do it anymore, not in this ‘drill ‘em and kill ‘em’ atmosphere. I don’t think anyone understands that in this environment, if your child cannot quickly grasp material, study like a robot and pass all of these tests, they will not survive.”

Recently I interviewed a former teacher from Massachusetts for home / school / life magazine. (Spring 2015 issue.) She left the profession to homeschool her daughters, and when I asked her why she decided to homeschool, she said, “From being an education major (I graduated in 1999) to leaving the profession to have my daughter (in July 2006), so much had changed. The focus had shifted from teachable moments to teaching to the test (in a big, big way). As an educator my philosophy of education did not jive with what was taking place in our country’s schools, and I knew that it would be hypocritical for the girls to be part of a system that I did not agree with.”

This makes me understand why many parents are opting out of traditional school right now. There are about 2.2 million homeschooled students in the United States, and it is estimated that homeschooling is growing from 2-8% per year. That may not sound like much in the big scheme of things, but many parents ask me about homeschooling and tell me they are considering it among other options. When you see your child begin to hate learning, it is something to consider. Education should be about exploration and inquiry. Not cramming for tests.

April 10, 2015

My New Favorite Bird

This photo is courtesy of katieb50 via a creative commons license.

This photo is courtesy of katieb50 via a creative commons license.

Note: This column appeared in the April 8, 2015 issue of the Barrow Journal.

I am adding a new bird to my list of favorites, and it may seem a strange choice to you. Most people don’t list “crow” as one of their favorite birds. Up until now, my favorites have been a toss up between cardinal, bluebird, owl, egret or blue heron. I mean, really, it’s hard to pick a favorite bird when they are all so magnificent, isn’t it?

But recently my family watched a PBS Nature documentary titled “A Murder of Crows.” A group of crows is called a “murder” probably because of old folklore that associated crows with death. Crows are scavengers, like ravens, and both these blackbirds have had a bad rap. Actually, they are both extremely intelligent and may be some of the smartest animals on earth. But ravens don’t live around here, so I’m going to stick to crows for this column.

Scientists are studying crows and learning quite a bit about them. I was impressed to watch one experiment when a researcher put a piece of food out of reach from a crow, but he left a tool nearby that the bird could use to retrieve it, if he could figure out how to use it. However, the crow had to use another tool in order to reach the tool that would get the food. The bird used both the tools and got the food easily.

That was impressive by itself, but then the researcher gave the crow an additional challenge. He tied the first stick to a rope and hung it down from a perch that the crow sat on. This way, the crow had three steps he had to take to get the food. He had to pull the string up with his beak and retrieve the first tool, use it to get the second tool, and then use the second tool to get the food. The researcher hypothesized that the crow wouldn’t be able to do that. But the crow did it! This is more impressive when you consider that even chimpanzees can’t do this three-step process.

Observations have also revealed that a crow’s social structure is similar to humans. They mate for life, and families live in close proximity, continuing to help each other throughout their lives. A baby crow might stay with its parents for up to five years and even help raise its younger siblings. (Most birds are on their own as soon as they leave the nest.)

Crows can congregate in roosts with thousands of other crows, especially when they find food such as a cornfield (farmers will not like crows), but individual crows will come and go from their parent’s nest. Some may travel far and visit occasionally. Others may stay and live nearby.

Another interesting part of the documentary was the research done on how crows can recognize and remember human faces. If a human or other animal has threatened or hurt them, they will use the same distress call each time they see them to alert other crows in the area.

Scientists in the documentary conducted extensive experiments to show that parents of crows may even pass on knowledge of dangerous people to their children, and the children will use the same distress call when they see the threatening person, even after leaving their parent’s nest.

I don’t know about you, but learning about crows has elevated them in my mind. We see them all the time in our neighborhood, but I took them for granted. They weren’t as interesting to me as the beautiful songbirds, but now when I see a pair poking around my yard for some food, I’m fascinated. These intelligent birds have earned my respect.

April 1, 2015

Not All Clutter Is Equal

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on March 25, 2015.

I hear a lot about clutter. It’s a buzzword for stay-at-home moms and probably any parent my age. Kids come with a lot of clutter, and shucks, if you’ve lived in the same place for long enough, you’ll accumulate plenty of clutter with or without kids.

Most of the time, clutter is spoken like a dirty word. “I hate this clutter.” “I can’t get rid of all this clutter.” “What I am going to do with this clutter?” “I’m drowning in clutter!”

I admit, I’ve said all that too. I whittle away at our clutter whenever I get the chance, which isn’t often, but now that the boys are older, it is not as insurmountable of a task as it used to be. I recently went through one of my son’s closets and my own closet. I have a bunch of boxes in the back of my van and ready to donate next time we go into town.

For the past two years before Christmas, I have convinced the boys to pick out whatever they are willing to part with to donate. I tell them that they have to make space for the new toys that are coming. The first year they put together one good-sized box. This year, we had several boxes, and I was proud of them. Despite this, however, we still have clutter everywhere.

But not all clutter is equal, and I have learned to live with a certain amount of clutter, mostly out of necessity. For example, there’s no way I’m going to convince my husband to clean up the clutter on his dresser or bathroom counter. (If I do it, I get fussed at for throwing out some important piece of information.) And since I keep my fare share of clutter, I don’t have a leg to stand on anyway. (But at least I clean mine up sometimes.)

As I said before, kids come with a lot of clutter, and I don’t mind the toys on the living room floor. We clear it out and sweep and mop when we have time, but I don’t try to do that everyday. What is the point when everything will be put right back on the floor the next day? Instead of making them clean everything everyday, I have the kids clean up their dishes and sweep the floor after meals. They also have to make sure the walkways are clear so that no one will trip during the night. In the event that they make an unreasonable mess, they are ordered to clean it right away.

Perhaps the biggest clutter control that I have to deal with is my kid’s projects. My sons are always making something. My five-year-old likes to draw, and stacks of artwork emerge out of nowhere. My eight-year-old likes to make things out of cardboard or paper or any of a number of craft supplies that are spilling out of an old dresser I use to keep this stuff.

Currently our activity room (the former dining room) has a box of paper dinosaurs (origami style) in one corner, and a desk filled with clay artwork, a cardboard ship, mechanical hands made from old cereal boxes and string, and my son’s unfinished Jabba the Hut puppet. There are homemade (and store bought) posters squished between the wall and bookshelf, and my son’s robotics kit sits up on that old dresser along with a globe. On the floor are newspapers spread out with Styrofoam balls and paint because my son is making models of the planets. (His idea.) Add to this all our books and other homeschooling supplies, and you have one cluttered room.

I’m sure this clutter would make most mothers feel insane, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me a bit loopy sometimes, but mostly, I don’t mind. When I look at it, I don’t see a mess. I see time well spent. I have chosen, in this era of my life, to make fostering my kid’s imaginations a priority over clutter. I spend a little less time cleaning the house so that I can do more projects with them. I let them decide what to keep and throw away (usually) because I want to show them I care about their work. I have always told them not to do any damage to anyone else’s work, and I abide by that rule too. When I do that, they feel respected, and they do more good work.

The thing is, these boys are going to outgrow these toys and projects quickly. There will come a day when I can clear most of it out, and later a day will come when the boys move out of the house and take more with them. At that time, I can declutter to my heart’s content. And I know I will sorely miss the days that projects were strewn all over the shelves and floors.

March 24, 2015

Why We Homeschool

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on March 11, 2015.

Over five years ago, I wrote a column about why we were thinking about homeschooling our children. My eldest son was not even school age at the time. It’s hard to believe how fast the time has gone between then and now. We have officially been homeschooling our eldest son for two and a half years, and though we don’t have to file a declaration of intent to homeschool for our youngest until he turns six, he’s been homeschooled right along with his brother.

My initial reasons for wanting to homeschool have not changed much. I wanted to allow my boys to learn at their own pace while also having plenty of time to still be children. That is, I wanted them to play, move, and use their imaginations frequently everyday. I wanted our time to be used wisely. I knew I could work with my children on their academic lessons in a much shorter amount of time than a teacher could with a classroom of 20 or so students. Then my boys could play and delve into the things that interested them and fueled their desire to learn. I strongly believed that what young children need to learn is not easily measured by tests, and I still believe that.

Now that we have been homeschooling for a while, I can say more clearly why we want to continue down this path, though it has its challenges. Now that my boys are growing and showing their unique personalities, it’s clear that homeschooling fits them, which isn’t the case for all children. When my eight-year-old was four, he blossomed in some classes at the Sandy Creek Nature Center, and ever since then, he’s learned more about nature, animals, and science than I learned in the 35 years I lived before he was born. By setting up an environment at home where we have plenty of supplies for making things, and showing him how to use the supplies, he’s gotten used to being a doer and builder too.

He still needs his parents to do a lot of things for him, but when it comes to figuring out how he is going to spend his free time, he’s got that all sorted out. It’s not uncommon for him to say things like, “I have an idea,” “I thought of something I want to make,” “I have a science experiment I want to do,” or “Can you write down how to spell (for example) mata mata turtle so that I can look it up on the computer?” These statements tell me he’s getting what I had hoped he would out of homeschooling. He is learning how to learn, and not only that, he doesn’t consider it school. It’s just a part of life.

My five-year-old is both different and similar to his older brother. Though he enjoys the outdoors and loves to find interesting bugs just as much as his brother, he’s not as much of a “nature boy.” He does like building things, and I think when he’s older, he’ll be just as skilled at building Lego kits as his brother. He also draws with a passion that far surpasses his brother’s interest in drawing, and my floor is frequently littered with markers, paper, and growing stacks of his artwork. I don’t mind the messes. It’s a small price to pay for fostering creativity.

There are things I want my boys to learn, including the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic, and I work my butt off to find the right resources that will make learning, if not fun, suitable for my boys’ interests and learning styles. I am grateful for the time that homeschooling offers me to get it right, and then we have time to stick to a concept until my boys really understand it. We also have more time to spend together and get outside on the days the weather is perfect. There is more time for the boys to sleep, and more time for them to spend on subjects that really interest them.

Perhaps my biggest reason for homeschooling, now that I see it in action, is the connections that our family is making on a daily basis. We are learning together, watching awesome documentaries everyday, and developing a closeness that I hope will never go away. My two boys play together well, and I think a bond is forming that will be there when they are grown up. While staying with my husband and me during the day, they also participate in running a household, and they understand why we have to spend part of the day working.

We have also made some wonderful friends through homeschooling, and we have met interesting people through the camps and classes that my son takes. These people are working in interesting jobs and teaching my son about the different possibilities he might pursue someday. I have found that by homeschooling, my boys are taken more frequently into the “real world” – the world that critics of homeschooling often say homeschoolers won’t understand when they are grown up. On the contrary, I think my eight-year-old has more knowledge about the wider world and the responsibilities he will have to undertake someday than I was when I graduated from college.

Homeschooling is not for everyone, and we have dealt with its challenges as well. Finances are always a source of stress, and I struggle to find freelance work I can do from home with decent pay. I also have to balance that work with the time I spend teaching the boys, helping them with their projects, planning lessons, doing house chores, and trying to find a few minutes to relax here and there. I also worry about whether we’ll be able to teach all the subjects my boys need to know, although so far, I have found that the Internet and community programs provide everything we need. Not living close to stores, extracurricular activities or friend’s houses gives life an added difficulty too. It’s hard to do everything I’d like to do, and I often wish there were more days in a week. But two years in, I can see more benefits than setbacks, and I’m always excited to find out what my boys’ next big interest will be.

March 17, 2015

Star Wars

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal in February 2015.

Science fiction fans have been all abuzz about the new Star Wars movies, the first of which will be released this coming December. Now that my eight-year-old has been well informed about Star Wars, he’s pretty excited too. We all are. My husband and I have always loved Star Wars, and my five-year-old likes it too, although he’s not quite as crazy about it as his older brother.

Long before we had children, I gave my husband the DVD set of the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V and VI). He couldn’t wait to watch them with our boys, and though I was reluctant to have them watch so young, I couldn’t hold back the force (pun intended) of an excited science-fiction geek like my husband.

We haven’t watched the first three episodes with the boys – not real excited about that since they weren’t very good, but we have been watching some of Clone Wars, which is supposed to fill us in on the story before episode three. These animated, made-for-television shows are entertaining, and the animation is beautiful. Adults and kids can enjoy it, but they can be violent, so I’d used discretion for young children.

The first time we watched the original trilogy, my boys loved it, and my eldest boy even enjoyed watching the documentary (included in the DVD set) about the making of the movie. He didn’t care so much about the history of George Lucas and how he got into the movie-making business, but his eyes lit up when it got to the part about how they did the special effects. When he saw the small models of the ships that they filmed against a blue screen for the space battle scenes, he said, “Maybe I could make something like that.” Not long after, he made a simple model of Darth Vader’s ship out of recycled cereal boxes.

I, however, loved the story of George Lucas and all the difficulties he had filming Star Wars. Watching the documentary, he struck me as a kind of perfectionist, but obviously that paid off. I didn’t know that Lucas suffered from exhaustion and had to be hospitalized at one point. I didn’t know that all the actors in the movie wondered what in the heck they were filming. Or the problems they had with the robots not working, terrible weather conditions, going over budget and running out of time to film. Everyone was prepared for the movie to be a bust.

The actors were not privy to any of the special effects that would be added later in post-production. For example, Lucas did not find the person who would do the voice for Darth Vadar until late in the movie-making process, so the actors did not hear the voice of James Earl Jones or the sinister breath of Darth Vadar. Instead, they heard the voice of the actor who was in the costume – he had a Scottish accent.

On the first days of filming The Empire Strikes Back, horrible storms and avalanches made filming on location in Norway almost impossible. The director, Irvin Kershner, did not want to get behind schedule, so he improvised. Mark Hammill had the pleasure of going out into the snow right outside the hotel, and they filmed from a doorway in the hotel.

I like it when we come across stories like this because it’s a good lesson for my son to learn. He can get frustrated when he’s trying to make something, and it’s not turning out the way he envisioned it. Sometimes he wants to give up, but I encourage him to take a break and come back to it later or think of something else he might try.

When I’m lucky enough to be watching a documentary with my son about George Lucas and all the problems he had making Star Wars, I say, “See? He really had a hard time, didn’t he? But he had to keep working on it because a lot of people were counting on him. He didn’t give up.” I can see that the difficulty of making Stars Wars and similar stories like this have influenced my son, and now he says things like “you just have to keep trying” and “you have to be patient.”

My son spent so much time last fall studying the Star Wars online encyclopedia that I wondered if that would lead to any other Star Wars type project. Finally this winter, he decided to make some models of Jabba the Hut. He’s created paper Jabbas, a clay Jabba, and he’s been slowly working on a moveable Jabba puppet, made out of several materials: part of a plastic bottle, wire, pipe cleaner, popsicle sticks, fabric and more. It’s almost finished, and I can’t wait to see the final version.

I’m not sure how much longer my son is going to be crazy about Star Wars, but I have a feeling this will last a long time, especially considering how my husband and I continue to enjoy Star Wars well into adulthood. And when the new movies come out, we are going to keep our fingers crossed that they are going to be awesome.

Stay tuned…In my next post I’m going to break down exactly how my son’s interest in Star Wars has played out as an example of project-based homeschooling.

February 4, 2015

Minecraft

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on January 28, 2015.

If you have children, you are probably aware of the video game, Minecraft. I first became familiar with it by reading homeschool e-mail lists. It’s very popular with homeschool kids, and there are even local groups who get together on a regular basis just to play Minecraft together.

The game is open-ended and allows players to build 3D worlds using blocks. The game can be played on many different devices, including a PC, Mac or Xbox. My sons play the Minecraft Pocket Edition on android tablets.

But it’s not just popular with homeschool kids. Over 60 million copies have been sold across all platforms, and Microsoft just bought Mojang, the company who develops Minecraft, in a $2.5 billion dollar deal. I can’t imagine what will come next.

You can play in survival mode where you have to work to find resources that will keep you alive and help maintain the world you have built. Or you can play in creative mode where you have unlimited resources, you can fly, and nothing can kill you. There is also an adventure mode where players play custom maps, but we haven’t got to that level yet, and it’s probably not available in the pocket edition anyway.

I’m not an expert in Minecraft by any means. When I look over my boys’ shoulders as they zoom around their worlds, showing me the incredible structures they have built – such as a house shaped like a wolf, a railroad that goes on forever, treehouses, gardens, underground houses, and the beginning of a big ship – I get a little dizzy and have to look away.

I introduced my eight-year-old to the game a year or more ago because he loves to build things, and he liked it, but after awhile, he lost interest. The game doesn’t come with tutorials, so it’s hard for new players to learn what to do, although there are thousands of tutorials on YouTube. It’s overwhelming sorting through those.

At first I thought my son just wasn’t going to catch the Minecraft fever, but at some point, he wanted to play again, and ever since then, Minecraft has been all the rage in my house. Little brother started playing too.

My boys only get to play about an hour or so everyday, but when they aren’t playing, they make plans about what they will build next. My eight-year-old tells me how he’ll dig for iron or some other material he needs in order to carry out his plans. He has watched a few videos and talked with a friend about the game, but he has mostly learned how to play through trial and error. He is so crazy about the game that he started building a “real life” cardboard model of the little Minecraft character.

By far, I love this video game more than any other game my boys have played on their tablets. It is educational in many ways, but my favorite aspect of it is that my boys are bonding over it.

The game allows multi-players, so with a wifi connection, one of my sons can create a world and then the other boy can find that world in a list, click on it, and voila, they are in the world together. My boys sit together and have collaborated on building large structures. I watched them build a railroad together – one of them would lay down a cement block, and the other one would lay down a track. They spend hours creating intricate worlds, and then when they feel like it, they create a new one.

They have showed me gardens they have planted together and the animals they have spawned. My eight-year-old has one house where his little brother isn’t allowed to go, and younger brother is fine with that. Sometimes I hear them disagreeing over something, but they always seem to resolve the issue on their own.

Once they played hide and seek in the game. My eight-year-old thought it would be impossible for his younger brother to hide from him in Minecraft, but as it turned out, he never found the hiding place, which was down in the water.

Some child experts write that video games or any “screen time” are detrimental to children. It keeps them from interacting with the world, or building real life skills, they say. Perhaps this can happen when children aren’t engaged in any other activities, but I have seen my kids’ imaginations grow through the games they play, and Minecraft has been the best yet. On the contrary to the naysayers, they are constantly interacting, collaborating, imagining new possibilities, and strategizing. If those aren’t real world skills, I don’t know what is.

January 19, 2015

Life’s Bumps

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If nothing else, I can say that, so far, 2015 has been anything but boring for my husband and me. Where do I begin?

Two days before Christmas, my husband tripped on a heavy box, and he caught himself before he fell, but he must have twisted something pretty bad. At first, he was just sore, but by the end of a week’s time, he could barely walk. We spent the 30th going to doctors and the orthopedic urgent care clinic to get x-rays. Luckily, he had no broken bones.

Despite all the medication he received, including pain and muscle relaxers, the next day his leg locked up on him when he sat down in a kitchen chair. He couldn’t move, and he was howling in pain. After spending time on the phone with our doctor, taking more pain meds, and waiting a while, he still couldn’t move, and he was in excruciating pain. I had to call 911.

I will digress here to say that while the Barrow Emergency guys who came to get my husband were awesome, I was quite unnerved that during my first phone call, the dispatcher could not hear me. I could hear him, but after yelling into the phone, I realized we had a bad connection. On my second call, he could hear me, but another emergency call interfered with my call, and I couldn’t hear him because I could hear another voice – in another call – loud and clear. What the? Fortunately, that passed, and I was able to talk and hear clearly. But I wondered how I would feel if I had been calling because an intruder was in my house? Geez.

So, we spent the afternoon of New Year’s Eve in the ER of Athens Regional Hospital. The experience was not good for my husband, who was hoping for the doctor to find out what was causing the pain. Instead, he had a doctor who didn’t actually visit him until she was ready to send him home, and her bedside manner was lacking greatly. He told me she said that pain wasn’t a reason to admit someone to the hospital (he wasn’t dying, that is), and he needed to go home and deal with it.

Since I was in the cafeteria getting my boys some food, I wasn’t privy to that conversation, but I was surprised they were sending him home in so much pain too, especially after our doctor said he would probably need an MRI. Apparently they don’t do that in the ER. Instead, they gave him stronger pain medication and muscle relaxers, and he was able to walk again, though stooped over and limping.

To make matters more complicated, we had to switch health insurance this year, and that kicked in at midnight on January 1st. We could no longer see the doctor we have been seeing for years, but we felt that maybe the change would be good. So far, it has. We can get our new insurance – Kaiser Permanente – on the telephone so much faster than we could ever get Blue Cross Blue Shield on the phone.

We’ve been impressed so far with the Kaiser facilities and doctors. We got an appointment for my husband right away, and the doctor ordered him an MRI. He had that on Friday, and we’re awaiting the results. We also met our children’s new pediatrician, and I’m doubly impressed that I can actually e-mail him questions!

To add to all these changes and my husband’s pain that won’t go away, we also found out that the school he teaches at will be absorbed by another university. We are uncertain what the future holds for his job, and that stress is worse than the pain. The day after this announcement, my youngest son had a stomach bug, so I was dealing with a lot of throw up too. What a fun week!

But life goes on, and there are some good things that have happened. For example, my son recovered quickly from his bad stomach bug, and no one else in the family caught it. My eldest son has been taking full advantage of the robotics set that several family members pitched in to buy him for Christmas, and he’s been building robots and learning programming all by himself – that kid never ceases to amaze me. I have finally taken time off from freelance projects that kept me way too busy all last fall and before the holidays, and I feel more relaxed despite the problems we are having.

To say I’m worried about my husband is an understatement. He’s in a lot of pain, but I am hopeful that whatever it is, it will heal. I am hopeful that he will at least still have a job by next year when the merger is more complete. If not, we will adapt and change as necessary even though our prospects feel rather bleak right now.

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Since writing this column, we’ve had good news and bad news. The good news is that my husband’s job should be secure for the foreseeable future. The bad news is that his back is pretty damaged, and we will be seeing a neurosurgeon. I have also dealt with a bacteria infection of my own, though thankfully I’m feeling a little better. My spirits are okay, though, since I know this is just life’s bumps. I’m grateful that all of it should pass.

I will be writing some homeschool updates soon.  Meanwhile, I hope you are well.

December 21, 2014

Gift Ideas for Young Kids

Printmaking with good acrylic paints was fun!

Printmaking with good acrylic paints was fun!

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on December 17, 2014.

I was at the hobby store with my boys last week to buy a birthday present for my son’s friend when a woman stopped us to ask advice on getting a gift for a seven-year-old boy. Her son was twenty-six, so she felt out of touch with the younger generation and thought my eight-year-old and five-year-old could help her. Indeed they could, and my eight-year-old was happy to tell her what he liked.

She was specifically asking about art supplies, so first we told her about air dry modeling clay. My boys love playing with this stuff, and I like it so much better than play-doh. My eight-year-old used to watch YouTube videos to learn how to sculpt small things, and later this led to him taking pottery classes, which he still enjoys. After drying this clay will get brittle, and small parts may break, but that hasn’t been a big deal to my kids. One big box of clay is about $8 and lasts a long time.

I also keep craft supplies on hand such as beads, feathers, popsicle sticks and whatnot because my boys love to build things with them, and for my younger son, he likes to take a hunk of clay and stick those things in it. Makes for an interesting decoration.

My eight-year-old’s favorite toy has been Legos, and over the past two years he has gotten all kinds of kits that he will spend hours putting together. Eventually these get taken apart and the pieces get mixed in with other Legos, but I think that’s okay because then my boys begin to use their imaginations and make creations of their own. I think Legos are awesome and educational, and I wish I owned stock in the company.

My five-year-old still plays with our dinosaurs and other animals almost everyday. I think it depends on the kid, if these plastic animals can hold their attention. We have hundreds of them (at least it feels that way), and my son will line them up on the floor as if they will fight each other, or either he’ll make a zoo by setting up our various blocks as pathways and cages for the animals. My favorite brand is Schleich because of the quality.

Another favorite toy are my boy’s remote control monster trucks. I’m not talking about a cheap one though. You need to spend at least $30 to get a good one, and be sure to buy extra batteries as part of your gift because these things suck battery life quickly. (You may need different kinds of batteries for the controller and the car.) However, these toys get my boys outside, and they build obstacle courses for them. Anything that gets them outside and using their brains and creativity is beneficial in my book.

Both my boys enjoy drawing and painting, but my five-year-old especially loves it. I bought him a sketchbook, and I’ve found that to be a great way to contain the hundreds of pages of drawings he can accumulate.

I’m also a fan of quality art supplies for kids because it makes a difference in the experience, and they are more likely to enjoy painting with good stuff. My eight-year-old even commented to me that he noticed a big difference between our acrylic paints and the Crayola washable ones. I think a great gift would be some good watercolor paper and watercolor pencils or quality paints. Good paintbrushes can offset the frustrations that cheap ones can give you when the bristles fall out while painting. You can also have more control over where you want the paint to go when you are using a nice brush instead of the cheap, bushy ones in kid’s sets.

Of course, some kids aren’t going to do anything with these kinds of gifts if they don’t know how to use them. The best way to get a child to be creative and try new things is to do it yourself – without the expectation that the child join you. That’s right. Children rarely want to do what you tell them to do, but they tend to follow you around and want to do what you are doing. So give yourself a gift of some new art supplies or a building set or even an obstacle course with a monster truck and don’t be surprised if a little person wants to join you.

I could have added many more things to this list that foster creativity. What would you add?!

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