Embracing the Chaos, Part 2

{Creating a Welcoming Environment for Homeschooling}

When I wrote my column Embracing the Chaos, I intended to write a post more like this, but it took a life of its own, and it turned out to be a good column, so there you go – that’s how writing happens and that’s good. But now I’m following up with a this-is-my-chaos-and-how-I’m-handling-it-post.  I’m not offering any real organization tips because I don’t have those. I’m just winging it! If nothing else, I hope this post can give you solace as you work through your own chaos.

First of all, it’s important to remember that Chaos is Normal. Almost everybody, regardless of where they live or how they live, feels like life gets chaotic sometimes. (This is why some people move into monasteries.) I don’t have any scientific evidence for this, but I would bet my dollar that the people who are more willing and able to go with the flow handle chaos better. This will serve them very well when they have children, and even better if they decide to homeschool. But nobody, and I seriously doubt that anybody, can handle all kinds of chaos all of the time. We all have what we’re good at, and we all have those things that make us feel flustered and overwhelmed.

I’m kind of in the middle. I’m not a neat freak (anybody who has visited my house and seen my clutter can attest to this), but I also like to have a certain amount of organization. I’m always wishing I had more shelves and more closets and more drawers to put things. I wish I had the time to sort through my junk. I wish I could get away with throwing out my husband’s junk. You know what I mean.

But I don’t have money, time or a blind husband, so what I do is live with quite a bit of clutter, and I chisel away at it once in awhile. As the boys get older, I’ll be able to throw more things away. For example, I just recently took all the baby and toddler clothes to the thrift store! Yay! This has freed up space and boxes. So hang tight…just when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, your kids are going to outgrow one mess and then you can make room for another!

Space for Project-based Homeschooling

When I read Lori Pickert’s book on project-based homeschooling, I took note that one very important aspect of the Reggio educational philosophy is environment. Having a nice space for the kids to work in is crucial. I agree with that. Also, having all the supplies within reach and looking attractive is important too. How I would love that.

I’m very lucky that a few years ago, my husband agreed we needed a space for the homeschooling, so he and my father-in-law helped paint our never-used dining room and turn it into what I now call the “activity room.” (And thank you, Mom, for the table and chairs!) It’s in the heart of the house, and I know it couldn’t be anywhere else. If we had turned one of the rooms upstairs into an activity room, we’d never use it. The boys live and play most of the time downstairs. Having all educational tools and art supplies in the activity room has created an atmosphere where learning, creating and building is part of our livesjust like the T.V. is part of our lives! (Seriously, how many families have the television in the heart of their house, but they tuck the kid clutter into a back room? Why not also have the open-ended toys, art studio or science lab there too?)

Of course this means that the downstairs is going to get messy. Very messy. If you’re having trouble with that, then I suggest you read the original Embracing the Chaos.  

Despite my efforts, the activity room can get quite messy and disorganized, but this doesn’t stop the boys from being productive.

It’s hard to keep everything looking tidy and organized, especially the art supplies. Despite my laments, I do try to organize and clean up. Rearranging the shelves can be great for getting kids to notice things they haven’t used in awhile. But despite my upkeep, the place gets jumbled and cluttered. But here’s the good part:

I’ve noticed that even though the activity room is messy, the boys know where their art supplies are, and they can find them. The mess doesn’t stop my boys from being creative. In fact, my six-year-old’s creative mind has been exploding recently. He’s been doing so many projects that I can’t keep up with him. I spend most of my clean-up time just making space for the new mess.

Having the supplies accessible to the children is more important than having them in a specific place or shown attractively on the shelves.

The same goes for the supplies that can’t fit into the activity room. There’s not a lot of space in there, so we have junk supplies all over the house. For example, I keep a box of odd items on my closet shelf, which the boys know they can ask for; an armoire in my bedroom is home for the paints, games and some other art supplies; and building supplies are in my six-year-old’s closet upstairs. This stuff is scattered around the house, but the boys know where everything is, and if they can’t reach it, they can ask for it at any time. (However, I recommend keeping the main supplies out where kids can see them because anything tucked away can be forgotten. I only do this for overflow items.)

What’s funny is that the building supplies is trash. I taught my six-year-old how to recycle cereal boxes, toilet paper tubes, milk jugs, and other odd items. He caught on a little too well, and he began to save things without my noticing. Then I noticed trash recyclables falling out of his closet!  Now we have organized his building supplies into two big plastic boxes inside his closet, and he has explicit orders to not dig anything else out of the trash until he uses this stuff up! 😉 (see picture below)

Yep, that’ll make a good story someday, but I’m still proud of his enthusiasm and willingness to see an object and say, “I’m going to make something with that.” My three-year-old has even caught on, and one day when he finished off a big goldfish cracker box, he wouldn’t let me throw it away. “I make somethin’ with that!” he said. “Oh yeah? What are you going to make?” I asked. “Bot!” he said. Sure enough, the next day he had me cutting it into half so that he could have a “boat,” and it even floated in the bathtub!

If our supplies weren’t at my boys’ fingertips, I’m not sure these creative juices would be flowing. When I get overwhelmed by the chaos, I remember that I’m more than willing to put up with it during this era of my life that will go by so quickly.

Upstairs vs. Downstairs

My boys do spend time upstairs, especially on rainy days, and it’s a welcome break for me when they decide to go up there. What’s my secret? I put lots of toys up there. The trucks, the noise makers, the billions of stuffed animals, and the little stuff that they rarely play with anymore. (I get a lot of protests from my idea of giving these things away, but someday I’ll achieve that goal.)

I try to keep toys downstairs such as blocks, Legos, pretend food and a small kitchen set, their overflowing box of animals and dinosaurs (which is what they play with the most), and a toy cash register. These are fun, but they’re open-ended, and they require a lot of imagination. Since we’re downstairs more often, the boys play with this stuff more. See where I’m going? Not that they don’t get imaginative with their cars and trucks, but those things that bleep and honk and play music so loudly, well, I just like them to be upstairs, if you know what I mean. These things do trickle downstairs, and that’s okay. I don’t make them stay upstairs, but when we get to a serious cleaning day, I’ll sort the toys this way, and put those things back upstairs.

How to Display the Artwork?

Left to right: My son’s treasures & projects are displayed in his room on our old changing table. A small dresser has become another display area. Recyclables, which will be used in future projects, are kept in his closet where he can reach them.

Any project that my sons make will stay in the activity room for a very short time. There’s not much room in there for displaying their projects. After the project is finished, if it’s three-dimensional, it’ll go upstairs in their room. In my six-year-old’s room, we converted our old diaper changing station into some shelves for him to display his work and treasures. Eventually his projects will either be thrown out or recycled (except for a few extra special ones). We take pictures of everything for a keepsakes.  My three-year-old doesn’t have a big collection of projects yet, so his stuff is on a small table in his room.

As for paintings and other two-dimensional artwork, we have one section of our kitchen wall that is designated as the “art gallery.”

So that’s the gist of it. I live in chaos, but I’m embracing it…kind of…at least until my boys move out! Now please tell me about your chaos and how you deal with it.

What Is Project-Based Homeschooling?

{Project-based Learning} {Reggio-Inspired}

Over a year ago, I found Lori Pickert’s blog and the terms “project-based homeschooling,” “project-based learning” and “reggio-inspired” started to dance in my head. What I read on her site echoed my own thoughts on how I wanted to homeschool, but she defined the terms better for me. I think many homeschoolers can relate to this method of homeschooling, and you may find you’re already doing part of this in your homeschool like I did. What I find helpful in Lori’s advice is how she spells out exactly how to “mentor” my child. 

After reading her book, interviewing her, and especially after trying to implement the strategies she has outlined with my own child, I’m starting to “get it.”

When I was going through some rough spots during my son’s Titanic project, it was hard to foresee the value of letting a child direct the course of a project. Sure, I’m all about doing a child-led approach in our homeschool, but letting him make all those mistakes in a small building project and then endure the temper tantrums when it didn’t work? Shouldn’t I direct him more? But as Lori has said, it’s a process, and we have to learn how to become mentors just as our children are learning to direct their learning.

This process is about learning how to step back and see the value in letting your children take the lead. It’s also about learning how to “step in” to support their interests by helping them learn how to find answers to their questions, solve their own problems, achieve their own goals, and watch them become deeply engrossed in their work. 

Children don’t get personal mentors in traditional school, but every child – homeschooled or not – has the opportunity to be mentored by a conscientious parent who knows him/her best, who is with him through it all, and who can guide him to the resources he needs to become more than passive learners.

Lori has been busy making additions to her site so that those new to Project-based Homeschooling can have help getting started.  She is my mentor in this process, so if you want to go to the source, go to her website, and be sure to check out 10 Steps to Getting Started with Project-based Homeschooling and her FAQ.

But here’s a bullet list of what I have learned…at least, this is how I view project-based homeschooling for my family thus far.

I’m not numbering them because all these elements work together to create this lifestyle of learning. Project-based homeschooling is like putting together a puzzle. It doesn’t matter which piece you start with, but as you lay them all on the table, you’ll start to see how they fit together to make the whole picture.

  • Create an environment where all questions and interests are honored. All projects should stem from your child’s true interests – not yours or a prescribed list of what a child should learn.
  • Create an environment where your children can freely access a variety of materials to create and learn with. As long as it’s safe, let them make a mess! Also, don’t plan so many crafts. Show them how to use the materials and let them experiment and get to know them. Sometimes a planned craft may be helpful for this, but you should allow your child to experiment and create according to his whims. (See The Power of Time and Materials.)
  • PBH is not “arts and crafts.” By making representations of the Titanic and the Apollo Saturn V, my son had to inquire, study and really ingest those structures. He learned a lot of problem solving skills in the process of making the models, and I’m hoping the stories of the Titanic and Saturn V will stay in his memory much longer!
  • Also part of this “environment” is giving them rich experiences: field trips, meeting and speaking to experts, showing them how to use the library, exploring the computer. Teach them how to use the resources that are available to them to answer their questions.
  • Think out loud as you go through the process to find answers to their or your questions. This is part of modeling the behavior you want them to use later when they are more capable of working independently. (This is something I need to work on.)
  • In the beginning, you may need to “silently feed” their interests.  If you know your child loves tigers, lay out a book about tigers. Take them to the zoo. Find a show for them to watch about tigers.  Suggest they make a tiger out of clay or paint one for the wall.  Or fill a notebook with tiger facts.
  • Observe what they do, how they play, and note what their questions are. Keeping a journal is helpful.  If you can’t answer a question, try to go back to it. Show him you’re writing it down, and schedule a time to work on answering his questions.
  • When you think they’re ready, ask, “Do you want to make a project out of this?”
  • Start asking them, “Where do you think we could find the answer to that question?” Or as Lori suggested in my interview with her, write down a list of several places you could look and ask the child where he wants to start first.
  • When assisting them with their creations, always go with their ideas first. Let them make mistakes. Let them make a mess! Only make suggestions when they get stumped or ask you for help.
  • Sometimes a well-placed suggestion works wonders. Don’t get hung-up like I did thinking you can never make a suggestion. As Lori said, “It just means waiting to see if he will have his own ideas and supporting those first.” (Our Titanic project was jump-started by my suggestion to make the Titanic out of clay, and when that failed, my husband suggested he make it out of cardboard.)
  • To help him work through his frustrations, start looking for real-world examples of artists, makers, builders, and entrepreneurs who have failed and had to start over again.  Talk about the process of goal-setting, rough drafts, trial and error. (If your child is old enough, the NASA Missions are a perfect example of this.)
  • Start sharing your work/hobbies/goals with your children. Think aloud when you’re working.  Share with them your frustrations and how you’re working through them. If you need help working on your own projects, see Lori’s PBH for adults.
  • Schedule project time.  There’s no right or wrong to how much time or when – The important thing is making time for it, and making it a regular part of your routine. Schedule time to show your child fun building or art materials and follow their direction. Schedule time to go through your journal and answer their questions.  Schedule time to work on their ideas.
  • Get in the habit of asking, “Do you want to do more with this? Do you want to learn more about this?”
  • If they don’t want to do more, be okay with that. Later you will ask them again as you continue to refer to your journal.  Some interests may peter out quickly. Others may become deep interests.
  • You don’t have to make a project out of every interest your child has. Pick and choose according to your thoughtful knowledge and observations about your child. Of course, older children will tell you what they want to work on.
  • Your homeschool can be all project-based, or project-based learning could be part of it. For example, currently I’ve also created a reading and math program for my son. Follow your instincts. Whatever you do, it shouldn’t cause you a lot of stress. Although PBH is a lot of work for the parent, it should be rewarding and fun too.
  • Remember this is a slow process.  Build it up over time. Create the environment over time. Learn how to mentor over time. Let your children take control slowly as they grow.

If you haven’t already, be sure to read the interview with Lori Pickert on Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children. The last post is open for your questions about PBH. Be sure to read the great questions and answers that commenters have left already!

Okay, so what do you think? Would you add something to this list? Or eliminate something?