Homeschooling Is My Compass

There are times I get super busy such as when family visits or all our play dates and appointments get clumped into one week. No matter how much I try to spread out our activities, I go through periods of non-stop excitement and then the welcome reprieve of being at home for a few days with nothing pressing to do.

But…there’s always something to do.

It’s easy to think that we have this flexible lifestyle with all this time on our hands, but that’s not really true. I have to get the boys out of the house to socialize (What?!! Do homeschoolers do that?!!), and we have errands and occasional doctor appointments or what-have-you too. (Not to mention 3~4 weekly appointments/classes during the school year!) Then when we’re at home, I have to take the time to do the laundry, get the house into a “livable state,” plan homeschool, and oh yeah! Homeschool! My kids don’t always get to do anything they want to do. We have work to do! Planning it and executing it is a lot more work than you might guess. Even though I consider myself a “relaxed homeschooler” who doesn’t follow any prescribed deadlines or course of study, it takes a long time to figure out what I need to accomplish with the boys in order to keep them on track to becoming well-rounded, educated adults. (Actually, I think it would be a lot less work to follow the instructions in a comprehensive boxed curriculum!)

The mornings we do homeschool lessons are not always flexible either. There is a certain amount of work I need to do with the boys, even though I don’t worry about meeting certain deadlines or “mile stones.” I would like to cover a variety of topics, and I also want the boys to have time to explore what is meaningful to them. But it’s impossible to do all that — with two different children — in one day. I have to pick and choose what we do each day, and some items never get checked off the “want to” list.

On top of this, I take time to write, which is sometimes how I relax and sometimes how I…oh. do. I. dread. having. to. write. Or sort photos. Or any other mundane task that someone needs to do or it’s just going to pile up into impossible, insurmountable mountains of tedious work. (But sometimes I stop everything and watch a show on Amazon Prime too, and I don’t feel guilty about this!)

There are things that never get done. There are people I rarely go visit. There are weeds that never get pulled, and there are recipes I never try out. I can beat myself up over this because on one hand we’re flexible homeschoolers, and I really want to do all the things, but on the other hand, there are more important things — priorities — that must get done. I try to remember this.

And my #1 priority is my kids and their education! Luckily, spending quality time with them, doing fun things + educating them overlaps most of time. (When it doesn’t overlap: handwriting lessons.)

When I finally have time to sit down at my computer and I 1) don’t have a pressing deadline, and 2) I’m not bone tired, homeschool planning is my compass to  get back to what is most important. I make lists of what the boys are doing and what I want to do with them. I ask them if they have a project or idea they want to pursue. I think about the ideas I want to pursue with them. I also make lists of writing ideas, tasks to get done around the house, reminders for this and that….Because I’m growing older and I can’t remember anything anymore unless I write it down! 

But the thing is: when I think about the boys, their ideas, our goals, and I line them up on a page, and then I step into the activity room to get it ready for whatever lesson or endeavor we plan to undertake, I feel like I’ve finally made it back to the destination that all these busy days were part of and leading me to: our home, our education, a life well-lived.

And when I say “our” education, I mean our education.

Homeschooling Kindergarten: Teaching About the Weather

Like the solar system, the weather was one other subject I decided to introduce to my son to last year.  All others (besides reading and math) were child-initiated.  For this, I mostly relied on books from the library and our own book collection (see below for list of books).  For our initial lesson, I stuck to an easy topic: the water cycle.

  • I don’t do this often, but I printed out some coloring pages for the boys about the water cycle at Kid Zone Science (scroll to bottom of page for links to worksheets).  If I use worksheets and coloring pages sparingly, the boys seem to like it.  (In general, they have not liked coloring books or drawing with crayons very much, but it does happen occasionally.)
  • After explaining the water cycle to my then five-year-old, we boiled some water on the stove and watched the steam rise: water vapor!  Then I took a glass of ice water and held it over the steam until it started to condense: rain!
  • We also made a weather chart, and we kept track of the weather for one week.  My son wanted to make another chart and keep going.

{Unfortunately, that never happened, and as we were studying clouds, I began to take pictures of cloud formations and had the idea to make a chart about that. Again, this didn’t happen.  Maybe it will someday, or maybe it won’t. That’s okay. Now I’ll leave it up to my son to continue his study of the weather.}

  • Again, at the time, my son began to get interested in the weather, specifically about hurricanes and tornadoes.  He checked out several books on these topics at the library and wanted me to read them to him.  I also let him watch some footage about hurricanes on YouTube, and now he definitely doesn’t want to be in one!  (You’ll have to decide what is age-appropriate viewing for your child. My son seems to look at natural phenomena with a scientific mind, and they don’t scare him as much as it would have scared me as a child.)
  • We also watched a cool YouTube video about weather balloons (“High Altitude Weather Balloon Launch”), and my son wanted to make a pretend one.
  • After his pre-K graduation last spring, my mother-in-law wanted to get him a gift for a congratulatory present.  He asked for a weather station!  It was on our back deck rail for quite a while until our new dog chewed it to bits. :(  My son liked checking the temperature and rain level everyday, so I may get him a better thermometer and rain gauge at some point.
  • We also had a bonus when we visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago this past summer.  My son picked “Tornado Alley” to watch in their Omnimax theatre.
  • And, of course, we’ve had our lessons reinforced in classes at the Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens, Georgia.

As you can see, all of my lessons are pretty easy.  I don’t rely on a curriculum.  I pick topics I think I should cover (that he would like) from a typical course of study for his age range.  I use library books, YouTube, worksheets if they seem to help, and then I let serendipity take its course. 

Having a brief lesson at home has helped my son understand and process these topics when we’ve found other ways to learn about them: in his classes, at the museum, on T.V. or new books that might otherwise not have gained his attention.

Teaching this way has not been a stress on me, and so far, I haven’t lost my child’s interest in learning, which is most important to me!

Here’s a list of books my son has enjoyed listening to me read:

  • Hurricanes, Simon, Seymour
  • Hurricanes! Gibbons, Gail
  • Tornadoes, Simon, Seymour
  • Scholastic’s The magic school bus wet all over : a book about the water cycle, Relf, Patricia
  • Weather words and what they mean,  Gibbons, Gail
  • I Can Read About: Weather, Supraner, Robyn
  • How does the sun make weather? Williams, Judith (Judith A.)
  • Thunderstorms, Sipiera, Paul P.
  • Lightning, Herriges, Ann
  • Down comes the rain, Branley, Franklyn Mansfield
  • The Magic School Bus: At the Waterworks, Cole, Joanna
  •  Clouds, Rockwell, Anne
  •  All the colors of the rainbow,  Fowler, Allan

What have you used to teach your children about the weather?

Homeschooling Kindergarten: Teaching the Solar System

There are a couple of subjects that I’ve been meaning to write about for over a year: how I taught my son about the solar system and the weather (which I’ll post soon).

Though I do child-led learning, I see nothing wrong in introducing some subjects to him.  When I consulted a list of what kids typically learn in Kindergarten, I saw the solar system was one of them.  I think it’s a fun subject for little kids. (My son was 4 ~ 5 years old when we did this.)

My philosophy is to introduce the topic to them and then let it go where it may.  They may not take it any farther.  They may want more information.  Or maybe they won’t seem interested, but a few months later, they’ll see something that makes them remember what you taught them, and they’ll have more questions about it.

I was also prompted to teach my son about the solar system because my step-mother told me she got him A Moon In My Room for a birthday gift.  I didn’t think he would completely understand what it was unless I gave him some reference for it. I think he was about four-years-old when we did this.

Prior to my lesson, the only introduction he had to outer space were the few episodes on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse in which Mickey and his friends take a trip into space.  I think that helped him.

For my initial lesson, all I did was print some graphics off the Internet and laminate them, and I also used a box of space cards I had picked up for $1 at Target.  (Found a bunch of those in their dollar section once, and they have proved useful!)

It’s been a long time, so I’m afraid I cannot remember the exact words I used to tell my son about the solar system.  We refer to our globe frequently, and since he had seen Micky fly into the outer space, it wasn’t hard for him to grasp.

I laid the cards on the ground with the sun in the middle, and then I put the planet cards around it in order.  Then we walked around the sun card just like the planets orbit the sun, and we may have read a bit about the planets and space on the backs of the cards.

Little did I know, this would spark an interest in the solar system for my son.  He asked questions, wanted to check out many library books, and (much later) came up with his own project!  See below.

Following my short and sweet lesson, my son’s knowledge about the solar system has been increasing in a long and meandering way. (See Learning is like a Chain Link Fence.). We’ve done the following:

  • Checked books out from the library.  There was a time all my son wanted to do what look at books about the planets.
  • Looked up question(s) on the Internet. I think once my son wanted to know what was inside Jupiter.
  • Checked out the discovery box at the Sandy Creek Nature Center.
  • We happened to get bonus lessons about the solar system in my son’s knee-high naturalist class, and we got to go into their star dome. (And now we can’t wait to visit their new planetarium!  We have visited it, and it’s awesome!)
  • We’ve taken nighttime walks and gazed at the stars. We also bought a telescope for him at his request for Christmas, but *ahem* we don’t really know how to use it yet.
  • Now the subject doesn’t come up much, but occasionally I’ll send him an e-mail about space exploration, if I think he’ll like it. (The Curiosity Rover on Mars is providing some interesting photographs!)
  • I’ve saved the best for last.  Last year out of the blue, my son thought it would be a good idea to make the planets out of paper and hang them along a doorway of our activity room.  They are still hanging there.  This summer when my mother-in-law came to visit, my son could point to each paper planet and name them from memory.

Learning about something as vast as the solar system is most certainly a subject one could spend a lifetime on.  I don’t know if my son will continue to explore astronomy, but he has certainly made that first link in his chain of learning.

Here are a list of books we’ve enjoyed reading:

  • The Planets in Our Solar System, Branley, Franklyn M.
  • Solar System, A Golden Book
  • The Moon Book, Gibbons, Gail
  • The Sun, Spangenburg, Ray
  •  What Makes Day and Night, Branley, Franklyn M.
  • Mercury, Adamson, Thomas K.
  • Mars, Chrismer, Melanie.
  • The Big Dipper, Branley, Franklyn M. & Coxe, Molly
  • Zoo in the Sky: A Book of Animal Constellations, Mitton, Jacqueline

Please stay tuned. In my following posts I’ll talk about the discovery boxes the Sandy Creek Nature Center, how we’ve learned about the weather, some places we’ve been, how to make a terrarium and more…!

What have you used to teach the solar system to your children?

{Update January 2013: My son has continued to learn about the solar system and space exploration in a variety of ways, and recently he has had an interest in rockets!  First, he asked for a rocket for Christmas, and he got a small set of all the U.S. rockets. Then, we started a rocket project, but I’m not sure where it’s going to go.  We’ve read more books (just go to your library!), and right now we’re watching The Planets, a series about space on Netflix.  There’s also a series on the space missions, which we’re planning to watch. He also enjoyed watching this video of a tour of the international space station.}

Homeschool Priorities Part 6 of 6: Teaching Responsibility

Sophie - She has taught both my boys about being gentle and caring for animals.

My last homeschool priority for my children is teaching responsibility. Obviously this is something that will have to be taught over the long-haul, and I’m always looking for ideas on character building.  If anyone has any suggestions in this area, especially for youngsters, I’d love for you to contribute your ideas in the comments section.

I’ve tried different things to instill a sense of responsibility in my five-year-old.  Some of them I continue to do, but there is one that didn’t stick:

I created a sticker board for him, and across the top, I wrote various things that I expected him to do during the day, such as his reading and math lessons, helping to take care of his baby brother, playing, and helping to clean.  If he did that during the day, he’d get a sticker for it.  Some of what I put down as his “responsibilities” were easy for him because I didn’t want to make all of them chores, and I wanted to show him that working is just as important as taking time to play.  We used this sticker board for a while, and he really liked it, but unfortunately, we started to forget about it and eventually I abandoned it altogether.  In addition, I didn’t like the idea of rewarding him with stickers all the time.  It wasn’t a big deal after awhile.  However, I do think it served an important purpose: it got him to realize that I expect certain things from him, and he seems more willing to “step up to the plate” when I ask him to do something.

Here are a few other things I’ve done to (hopefully) instill a sense of responsibility:

  • After I abandoned the sticker board, I created a sheet in which I listed everyone’s responsibilities in house.  I made three columns (and a short one for the two-year-old on the bottom), and I listed every chore that each of us do to “maintain and take care of our home.”  I often tell my son that this house is our only home, and it’s our responsibility to take care of it.  I believe that writing this out and going over it with him has helped him see the “big picture” and begin to understand the roles each of us play in making a home.   (I don’t expect him to remember all this.  It’s a just a beginning.)  So, for example, I wrote:
      • Daddy: Works full-time to make money to pay for the house, food, clothes, etc.  Takes out garbage and takes care of pets, including fish tank.  Makes repairs, mows the grass, takes care of cars, gives five-year-old a shower every night.  Etc. Etc. Etc.
      • Mommy:  Listed all my chores…….Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc.!
      • Five-year-old:  Here I listed what I expected of him, including helping to clean, take care of his younger brother, feed the cat, and do what mommy and daddy asks.
      • Two-year-old:  Help clean toys, help take care of his older brother, and do what mommy and daddy asks.
  • I have picked a few small chores for him to do to help me around the house.  I only picked things that I thought he and I could both stick to.  And luckily I picked right because I always make him do these things:
      • Help pick up toys.  If there’s a lot of toys out, he knows that he has to put them back before he can get another box out from the closet.
      • Feed the cat.  We are lucky that we have a cat with will power.  We only have to fill up her bowl every few days.  When I notice that it’s empty, I tell my son to fill it up.
      • Take his used plate/bowl/cup after meal times and put them on the kitchen counter.
      • On cleaning days (Mondays), he knows he has to help do some “big” cleaning, and I usually let him chose what he wants to help with.  (Except for picking up the toys. He has to help with that.)  Right now he likes vacuuming under the sofa cushions.  That’s a big help!
      • After he and his brother help me clean on Monday mornings, he knows that he needs to play and keep his brother occupied while I continue cleaning.  (This doesn’t always go as well as I might hope.) I do reward him for this help on Mondays by having “Monday Movie night.”  (I get this reward too, and I’ll write more about that in another post.)
  • I think the biggest way I teach responsibility is just by talking and making gentle reminders (Daddy does this too):
      • I always explain to my five-year-old that we’re a family, so we help take care of each other.  Since he’s the older brother, he’ll need to help his brother more, but as the 2-year-old gets older, they’ll be able to help each other more and more. Occasionally my two-year-old will give his older brother his morning juice that I set on the counter in the morning, or he’ll go get him a spoon from the silverware drawer.  Whenever he does this, I say, “See, he’s already helping you too!”
      • I don’t hesitate to tell him how much things cost or when we can or cannot afford to buy something.  I tell him we need to save our money for certain things.  I remind him that in our home, daddy goes to work in order to make the money we live on.  (I also tell him that in some families, the mommy works.)
      • When we’re outside, I emphasize that it’s our job to take care of the plants and animals.  I try not to let him hurt worms or bugs needlessly.  (Although I admit I do kill bugs that get inside the house.)
  • I tell stories.  Notice that storytelling comes up a lot on my blog?  You can do so much by making up your own stories for your children.  In my Jack and Piper stories, Jack and Piper take care of the forest and all the animals that live there. In these and other stories, I insert my ideas about why we need to be responsible without even thinking about it.

So that is a little of what I do, but I have to say for my five-year-old, being an older brother is probably the number one opportunity to teach him responsibility.  Everyday I see small actions he takes to help care for his brother, and I think he does it out of his own love for his little brother.  It’s wonderful to watch.  Will it take a little more creativity on my part to instill a sense of responsibility on his younger brother?  I guess we’ll see how this all plays out!

Thanks so much for reading about my homeschool priorities!  Please stay tuned because I’m going to write about the formal lessons I do with my five-year-0ld, some activities we’ve been working on, and I need to post some recent columns too!

Now give me those ideas (or children’s books?) that might help with building character and a sense of responsibility.

Homeschool Priorities Part 5: Spend Quality, Stress-free Time Together

a photo from last year – a day spent together

My fifth homeschool priority for my children (at any age) is to spend quality, stress-free time together.  For the purpose of this blog post, I’m mostly referring to the time I spend with my boys during the week while daddy is at work.  Making time for the whole family is another priority, but it’s not hard to manage that, so for now I’ll simply refer to our daily routine.

This is an ongoing goal, and with the ebb and flow of life, it doesn’t always happen.  I try to pace our schedule so that we have plenty of time at home to play, but inevitably there will be weeks when it seems like we’re going somewhere everyday!  It’s very easy to do this.  Consider:

  • at least one play date
  • at least one necessary shopping trip/other errand
  • the 5-year-old’s classes
  • a day out with daddy
  • church
  • not to mention: visits to grandpa’s house, the occasional doctor’s appointment, more errands that need doing, & library visits, which don’t happen enough.
  • You get the picture! I could easily fill our days with places to go.

In addition, with young children, I cannot leave the house more than once a day.  Did I mention we live 20~30 minutes from the nearest grocery store?  Yeah.  That doesn’t help either.  The two-year-old still needs a nap in the afternoon.  And sometimes I do too!

Weekly Schedules~

Life can be hectic sometimes, but when it does, I simply stop planning things to do and take time off.  I’m a homebody at heart, so it’s in my blood to hang out at home.  I don’t need to be on the go all the time, but I do need a balance between being social and having time at home.

I’ve also learned what works for us and what doesn’t.  My eldest son seems more comfortable with one friend his age instead of in a large group.  I used to worry about trying to get involved in some kind of regular homeschooling group, but now I don’t.  Right now, we don’t need that.  I admit that I feel I lose out on connections that way.  I would like to have a wider circle of mama friends to talk to regularly, and I’ve met some really cool women that I’d like to get to know better, but in the end, I know I have to do what’s best for my boys.

We’ve met some boys his age, and I try to schedule a play date with one of them at least every other week, if not every week. This doesn’t always happen because kids get sick and unexpected things pop up, but that’s my goal anyway.

Quality Time~

When we are home, I try to be mindful about spending quality time with the boys.  I have a lot to do around the house, and I have personal goals (like this blog) to keep me distracted, but I’ve put in place a daily schedule that makes it easier for me to know that I have spent quality time throughout the day with the boys.  I may write more about our specific daily and weekly routines in the future, but for now I’ll just say:

In the morning after breakfast, we have together time, which begins with book time.  We each pick one book to read, and sometimes we read more, if we feel like it..   (Since the boys tend to pick the same books over and over this is the best method I have found to make them happy while also making sure they get to read a variety of books.  Not to mention keep my brain from atrophying!)

After book time, we usually do puppet shows, but I don’t push it.  The past few mornings my eldest son has been wanting to build things with popsicle sticks, and this morning we painted our creations!  So as you can see, if the boys are playing well together or occupied in another productive activity, I go with the flow.

And that’s another way I try to create stress-free, quality time….I go with the flow.  Usually it’s best if I just toss my agenda out the window.  Now that my five-year-old is getting older and more imaginative, he is full of ideas, and many of them are excellent, productive ideas!  How can I stop that?

On the flip side, there are days that seem aimless, and if the boys want me to play play play with toys and games that never seem to end, I can feel my patience and enthusiasm waning.  I’m not saying that their play is bad.  No, it’s great.  It’s just not always what this 40-year-old mama wants to be doing.  So if I can kind of steer their day, it helps me stay enthusiastic, gives us plenty of time together which in turns gives me a chance to say, “Now you guys go upstairs and play by yourselves for a little while.”  If I have put in my quality time, I don’t feel guilty about making them play without me.  And it’s good for them too!

I’m also trying be more mindful of the time I spend with my boys.  I’m very much influenced by the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, and I think parenting is wonderful opportunity to practice mindfulness.  (If you want to read more about this, I highly recommend the book Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children by Sarah Napthali.  You don’t have to be Buddhist to get something out of her book.)

As time goes by, I am finding it much easier to let the rest of the world slide by, forget about all the things I want to do, and just soak up my children.  You are two-years-old, and you have the cutest smile.  You are five-years-old, and I love listening to you talk and explain your magical world to me.  I put off things that I have to do, and guess what?  It  gets done anyway.  

Simply put, it takes practice to be a mother, and I guess I’m getting better at it.

This is a topic that I could go on and on about, but I’d rather hear from you.  How do you ensure that you’ll spend quality time with your children when life pulls us along at such a high speed?

Homeschool Priorities Part 3: Exploration * Nature

The second priority on my list for my boys at ages 5 and 2 is Exploration and Nature.

I’m not aware of many families who don’t love nature and see the value in getting out into it, but unfortunately there must be some reason that a book like Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv is being written.  No, I have not read that book, but it and many others on this list look intriguing.  I hope to read some of them.

I have always loved nature.  I was lucky to have parents who enjoyed getting out into nature, and with them, I’ve traveled to many national parks in the U.S.  My dad loved boating, so we were often on a lake on weekends too.

My husband grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and he and his friends would play in an alleyway.  He said one of their neighbors would be enraged if any of the kids stepped one foot onto the small square of grass that was his front yard.  Fortunately, I had a nice yard as a child, although I have done my fair share of living in apartments too.

Anyway, my husband and I both fell in love with our yard before we fell in love with the house, although we love it too.  We have less than an acre, but it’s still big by our standards, and it has woods with a variety of trees.  So our nature and exploration starts in our own yard.   

Here are some simple things I do to let my boys explore and appreciate nature:

Most importantly, I hope that I impart the wisdom to respect and take care of nature and be very careful with it.  We follow my son’s knee-high naturalist teacher’s advice when turning over rocks and large branches.  Pull it towards you. If there’s an animal under it, doing this will allow that animal an escape route.  It will also keep you safe!

I used to be wary of letting the boys play with sticks, but then I saw this Ted Talk by Gever Tulley, and it gave me a different perspective.  So I give firm rules about playing with sticks.  (And I keep my eyes on them like glue!)  They can’t get too close to each other when they have a stick, and if they don’t follow this rule, the sticks have to be put down.

Once I needed to channel their energy and the stick toting, so with some fast thinking, I started making this little “shelter,” and the boys helped me gather the sticks and build it.

We are also fortunate that we live in rural Georgia, though we’re between the big city and a college town, which supplies us with a lot of culture and art.  We are two hours from the nearest mountain hiking trails, and we’re five hours from the ocean.  But when we can’t travel, we have Ft. Yargo, The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, the Sandy Creek Nature Center and many other parks and places to get us outside.

But wait.  I didn’t mean for “Exploration” to only imply exploration of nature.  I let my boys explore everything as long as it’s safe to do so.  When my five-year-old asks me questions about the human body, I get a book about the human body, a human body model and we also look online.  We explore his questions.

When my two-year-old wants to get into the cupboards, I lock the ones that aren’t safe, and I allow him to crawl into the other ones, pull out the pots, bowls, and whatever else might be in there.  I let him explore the world around him.

My husband and I have taken our boys to museums, aquariums, zoos, parks, and wildlife areas as much as we can.  Together we explore what’s out there.

I don’t consider myself an expert on kids; I’m learning this as I go.  But if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that kids need freedom to explore, and they need nature.  Even if it’s just a small park with some grass they can roll around in.  But my hope for all children is that they can have the whole world.

I could go on and on about this subject, but I would like to hear from you.  Please tell me what you do to encourage your children to explore the world and get into nature.