Monday, 25 November 2013

Invitation to Explore

A few weeks ago, before we entered our 'unschooling' season, the science book that we were loosely following had some experiments involving light that I thought the boys would enjoy, so I ordered a couple of bits of equipment, namely some mirrored tiles and a prism.  As our last vestiges of structure disappeared, the tiles and prism also disappeared into the science box, for future use.

I wasn't bothered by not using the equipment immediately - I knew from experience that it would be used eventually.  Take for example the electronics kit that we have had on the shelves for several months.  The boys found it a couple of weeks ago while mooching for inspiration, and it has been in almost constant use since.  That first day they were fully absorbed all afternoon, going through each of the circuits in the book and then making up their own, and it has been out frequently since - a definite favourite at the moment.  In fact I'm pretty sure they were playing with it the other day while I was browsing sites online and came across a lovely post from one of my favourites, The Imagination Tree.  In the post, the author had set up an area for open-ended maths investigation and learning - similar to the Reggio-inspired 'Invitations to Play' that we have come across before.  To me, these 'invitations' are a bit like strewing, just on steroids: not just leaving out say a book or game to maybe catch the eye of a passing child, but deliberately setting up an area with several interesting items, often on a theme, and making them look inviting for a child to dive in and explore.

Well, I did like the idea of the Maths zone, and am planning one of our own in the near future - but as I read, I remembered the prism and mirrored tiles lurking in a box, and thought they would make a great Invitation to Explore Light.  So this morning that is what I did: I set up the table with the mirrors and prism, and added some magnifying glasses, coloured cellophane sheets, shiny card, torches, a dish of sequins, another dish of coloured see-through counters and a tray of glitter...
The playdough was quickly added as Middle came to explore before I'd finished setting up, and immediately got stuck in with the mirrors, shouting delightedly "I can make four of me" - he wanted some way of holding the mirrors vertically in place on the table, so playdough it was. 

Youngest also found us quickly and got stuck in, particularly enjoying shining the torches and making reflections bounce off different surfaces. 

They played for a long time!  Following books is good, but can feel a bit too much like 'lessons', even with just a small amount of structure.  This way, rather than deciding what I felt the boys would benefit from learning, I had the delight of seeing them come up with their own questions, investigations, discoveries etc.  They had a lovely hands-on exploration time - we'll definitely be doing more "invitations" in future.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Beating the "Wobbles" at their own Game...

In more than one of the Home Ed forums that I belong to, I have noticed that many people seem to be wobbling at the moment.  For those not yet familiar with the term, "the wobbles" generally refer to those moments of self-doubt when we wonder if we're doing enough to educate our children, or if we "should" be doing it a different way... if we're meeting their needs, if we're stretching them where they need to be challenged, if we're boosting their self-confidence without giving them an inflated sense of their own importance, if we're providing them with enough opportunities to learn, and exposing them to a wide range of potential activities in the hope that at least one will ignite a life-long passion.  The "wobbles" are usually accompanied by a descending gloomy cloud of anxiety that we are failing our most precious ones somehow. 

In my experience, when the wobbles get me it is usually a sign of one of two things: either I have fallen back into schoolish ways of thinking and need to deschool myself a bit more, or we have hit a different season and I am picking up on some unmet needs.  But as I have often discussed before, any time I hear the word "should" cross my thinking, I know it is time to address a problem.  There is no space for "shoulds" in my life.  They are relentless, fruitless and insatiable task-masters.

So how do we beat the wobbles?  Well, as the lovely Ross Mountney of Ross Mountney's Notebook (not to mention author of several yummy books) has often encouraged me, the wobbles are usually a sign that you are a reflective and sensitive parent/ educator.  They show that you take your child(ren)'s education seriously, and frequent assessment of how well your style and strategy are working shows a creditable commitment and flexibility to your child's needs.  So firstly, be encouraged: the fact that you are wobbling shows that you are already doing a good job!

Secondly, if you wobble, check that you're not in need of more deschooling (I am talking about parents mostly, but this could apply to the children too).  Signs that YOU need more deschooling: you wonder how much work they would be doing if they were in class; you compare them to their peers, academically; you question how they will ever get GCSEs at the rate they are going (especially unnecessary if your child is still primary age).

Thirdly, check that you're still on track - that your style is still working.  It may be that you are picking up on a season change.  Children's learning is not linear and in this house we sometimes have seasons where plenty of work is evident (online curricula, lapbooks, educational games and art projects etc... sometimes we have fallow seasons where the children are not obviously learning a lot - there is more TV (and I'm not talking the BBC's learning zone here), more random playing, a lot less written output.  And the more I do this, the more I am coming to value the fallow seasons, as I have come to recognise that the periods after fallow seasons are usually infused with great leaps made in the boys' abilities, and a fresh enthusiasm for learning new concepts.
One tip that I was given to see if you're still on track is to go back to the values that made you decide to home educate in the first place (in our case it was to encourage a love of learning in the boys and give them the freedom to follow their own passions, all the way through to adulthood.  It was NOT about how many qualifications they could get).  Once you have those values in mind, see how that affects the way you are assessing your "success so far".

So anyway in October we hit a sort of wobble... I wasn't really down about it but was feeling unsettled in our previously loved mini-schedule.  I realised pretty quickly that not only were we experiencing a season change, but it had coincided with my need for some more deschooling.  So I went on the attack (like I said, the "shoulds" are not welcome in this house) and deliberately headed in the other direction.  The "shoulds" usually make you want to introduce more structure, more goals and pressure to perform... we turned our backs on that and rather than introducing more structure, we took the wobbles, or "shoulds" on at their own game - we interpreted them as incentive to rebel against the felt pressure, and relax even our small amount of structure and record-keeping... and so we nominated this half-term as our 'unschooling' half-term. Realistically, genuine unschoolers may well make more of an effort with strewing etc than I am right now, but due to various pressures I am not able to be heavily involved - and actually, by having very little planned (other than a couple of HE clubs) it's helping the boys to find their own interests without me furtively assessing everything for 'educational content'.   I am not planning to consider reintroducing any kind of structure until after Christmas - and its really helping.  The "shoulds" kicked up a right wobbly fuss to start off with, but a couple of weeks in and we are relaxing into not stressing about it.  The boys are happy reading, making up games, drawing, playing (and obviously are immersed in the world of hedgehogs - see my previous post) - they are generally doing just fine.  But I am not writing down what they're doing in my diary.  My organised self resists, and I may possibly regret it in future - but actually, none of us need that kind of pressure right now.

Never mind playing the "wobbles" at their own game - I reckon we're winning!

Friday, 8 November 2013

Hedgehog Tales

OK, some of you knew this was coming: it's that time of year again when wildlife lovers like us keep an eye out for visiting hedgehogs and make sure they are big enough to survive hibernation.  Most people who find underweight hedgehogs take them to a rescue centre, but last year our local centre was full, and I ended up looking after two hoglets (Midge and Squidge) over the winter.  It was a steep learning curve, and I was thrilled to successfully release them, happy and healthy, back into the wild in the spring.

Spring was so very late this year that Midge and Squidge didn't come out of hibernation in my shed until mid April, presumably around the same time as the local wild hedgehogs outdoors. Consequently everything was late, and as hedgehogs often have two litters a year I knew there was a high probability of seeing young hoglets born too late in the year to survive again... which was borne out on Sunday evening as I looked up from what I was doing and through the patio doors saw a tiny hedgehog climbing into the bowl of hedgehog food that we always have out in the garden.  I scooped it up, and weighed it... 314g! (To survive hibernation a hedgehog needs to be a minimum of 700g by the end of October, otherwise they will still hibernate in December but their tiny fat reserves won't last and they will die before Spring.)  We called our new baby Hiccup, after the main character in the 'How to Train Your Dragon' book series that Eldest is currently enjoying. Out came the boxes from last year (large Really Useful Boxes with airholes drilled into the lids), and the downstairs loo was once again taken over as a hedgehog rehab unit.  The next day I got a good look at our first guest and established that Hiccup is a 'she', with a lovely personality - she snuggled into my jumper while I was checking her over and seemed quite happy.  She's a messy miss though - trashes her box thoroughly just like Squidge used to... it's a lovely thought that she might be one of Squidge's offspring.


So, one hoglet rescued, and an even higher probability that we would be visited by more 'Autumn Juveniles', as hedgehogs usually have three to four babies in the wild.  Sure enough, on Wednesday evening we spotted and rescued "Hero" - at 304g our smallest ever hedgehog.  Hero is very shy.  I sat holding her quietly in the dark last night after cleaning out her box, but she wouldn't uncurl and let me establish her gender, so I am calling her "she" based on no scientific evidence whatsoever...  I haven't even seen 'her' face yet!

Youngest's picture, "Smallest Hedgehog" (I love his writing)

We left the camera trap out that night and in the morning I was a little concerned to see we'd had another baby visiting at 4.20am!  I really didn't fancy having to get up at that time to go on hedgehog watch, so was very relieved hast night when "Harvest" appeared at 9.30pm, and no further hoglets were caught on the camera trap afterwards (just a cheeky magpie nicking the hedgehog food very early this morning) - here's hoping that's the complete litter as we have no room left in the downstairs loo!  Harvest weighed 351g, and is a proper grump - was storming around the box overturning the food and making a lot of noise - I reckon Harvest is a 'he'!

And while I'm the main carer for obvious reasons (they stink: the boys aren't keen to do the worst of the daily cleaning out), the boys are really excited about helping our new family of hedgehogs. So understandably we've gone all hedgehog-focused for a while.  Not in a "theme/ project" kind of way, asking the boys to write hedgehog poems or doing sums adding hedgehogs etc (as that's usually evidence of parent-led activity, and that's just not the season we're in right now) - but just naturally, day-to-day, as we do what needs to be done.  Yes, the boys are immersed in animal science, particularly Eldest who gets 'hands-on' with me, and helps with the 'cleaner' parts of mucking out, such as lining the cleaned-out boxes with paper, putting food in bowls etc (he also gets to gently handle the hedgehogs) - and they are learning by osmosis about nocturnal animals, hibernation, food chains, parasites, habitats, endangered species etc. They are practicing maths, as we're keeping a weight chart for each hedgehog (and if like last year I have to medicate them, those will need to be measured out too). They are using English skills, as we think of names (words that begin with 'H' that are not too obvious (such as Hedgie) and are suitable for either sex), and make up bedtime stories to tell each other with hedgehogs as the main characters.  They are learning compassion and consideration, as for the first few days after we rescue a new baby we do try to keep quiet (well, as quiet as the boys get) about the house while the hoglets acclimatise - and the boys now have to go upstairs if they need the loo, which none of them have complained about at all.  They have been inspired to get "Arty" and draw LOTS of hedgehog pictures...

 "Hedgehog Eating a Worm" by Eldest

"Hedgehog Hero" by Middle (I just LOVE it)

It's all just such a fantastic learning experience, without any effort to "teach" whatsoever!  We're all just sharing knowledge and increasing our understanding as we go.  And that's not even why we're doing it.  We're doing it because we love animals, and it's just something little that we can do without too much trouble to protect an endangered species in our own back garden. Eldest wants to be a conservationist when he's older - and what could be better than starting right now?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Brotherly Love

This morning I attempted to clear the mountain of mess that had gathered on the kitchen table.  My back/ leg were hurting quite a lot - I have an ongoing sciatic issue and I forgot to take the anti-inflammatories last night - I assume that's why things were so painful today.  Anyway, I really wanted to clear the table as that's one of the main places that the boys use for creating etc when they feel inspired, so I persevered and managed to reduce the mountain to a small hillock before I really had to sit down - hooray!  Meanwhile the boys were doing some of their own tidying and also playing, but by the time I was done it was obvious that they really needed to get outdoors and run off some steam.  So we all stopped for lunch and decided that afterwards we would go to the park (so they could run and I could sit).  Unfortunately, by the time we had finished lunch it was raining, and I was not in the mood for a cold wet welly walk.  So we went for a drive to drop something off at a friend's, and just for a change of scenery - driving through some of the local villages, along scenic country lanes and past places where we have happy memories... which was all lovely, but the the weather was still drizzly when we got back and the boys were understandably still in need of space to be physical...

We did their coats up and I said they could run the length of our cul-de-sac (about a dozen houses) and back again, once for every year of their age.  They started with enthusiasm, and then there was a fair bit of complaining, stitch and tiredness, but I encouraged them that if they could burn off some excess energy they would be able to sit nicely and play on the Wii afterwards.  Once Youngest and then Middle had finished I encouraged them to cheer their big brother on as he still had a few laps to go.  They cheered beautifully - and then did something totally unexpected.  Eldest had just finished his ninth lap and was now walking the tenth lap.  Middle (who shortly before had been dragging his feet because he was "reeeeeeeee-allllllllllyyyyyyy tiiiiiiirrrrred" yelled "come on (Youngest)", and ran up to Eldest, grabbed his hand (Youngest grabbed the other), and started pulling him along the road.  They loved it - it cheered them all up to be sharing such a lovely moment of brotherly love.  Obviously they were motivated by a joint desire to get indoors and on the Wii, but to go one further than encouragement and actually run the path with their brother, rather than just nagging him to get on with it - well, I was really blessed, and told them so.  The laps were completed with smiles all round.

Once indoors the boys sorted themselves out on the Wii extremely easily.  Youngest wanted to play a different game to the older two, so they agreed he could have half an hour on his first, then they would play theirs.  Well once he finished his turn they put their game on (with no complaints from Youngest at turning his off), and then Youngest decided he wanted to play their game too.  They kindly said it was "fair" for him not to play (which he wasn't so happy about), and I made a suggestion that maybe it might be kind to let him join in anyway... it might even be 'fair' as he wanted to play both games but they didn't... but I would leave the decision to them as I could see their point too.  Well they talked nicely and decided they were happy for Youngest to join in as long as he didn't ruin it for them!

There is no moral to this story (well if there is you can draw your own moral from it).  I'm not going to say "this is what I did, and if you do the same, you could have saintly children (ahem) like mine too" - because that's twaddle.  You've read the blog, and those of you who know us are aware that it is SO NOT true.  Like most siblings, the boys have times when they play really nicely together and moments when they don't play so nicely and I get fed up of refereeing.  But moments like today's deserve to be celebrated.  I want to remember today and treasure it in my heart - and I want to tell others too, that today - this afternoon - my boys did a lovely, lovely thing.  My back may still be grumbling but my heart is singing!

Monday, 4 November 2013

Educating More than One: It's Not Fair!

This week the boys are going to start swimming lessons with the local home ed group.  The minimum age is five years, so we've waited until Youngest was old enough - I didn't want to keep him sat in the viewing area watching his brothers swim, a) because he is such an bundle of energy it would take all my focus to keep him from running off and leaping into the pool fully clothed, and b) because he LOVES swimming and it would have felt unfair for his brothers to be having fun doing something he loves in front of him while he's not allowed.

We haven't been swimming for quite a while, so we went swimming for fun as a family this weekend, primarily because Middle was expressing anxiety about the upcoming lessons, and I wanted to give him chance to build his confidence in the water beforehand.  The whole experience made me realise some things about this idea of fairness...

My boys - as with all children - are very different to each other.  Yes, there are some similarites, whether because they share some genes or because they are being brought up according to the same people's standards - but over all they are their own characters.  It often amazes me that Hubby and I produced three such very different personalities - and I know it's the same for most parents of more than one child.  And where I have a compulsion to be fair and treat my children equally (I am a middle child - it was a big deal growing up), Hubby is less concerned.  And in some ways I agree with him.  Take, for example, swimming.  Eldest responds really well to reason and verbal encouragement.  He always has, even when he was little.  If he was worried about trying something I could just talk him through it and encourage him to trust me and let me help him learn this new skill.  Middle, however?  Not at all.  Whatever he is focused on has his full attention.  If he is worried and I try to reason with him he will be incapable of listening until he has dealt with his worries himself.  So yesterday when we were at the pool and I was focusing on helping him, I quickly realised I was trying to treat him like Eldest, coaxing him into taking his feet off the floor and reaching towards me etc.  You know what?  It didn't work.  The more I tried to persuade him, the more he heard what I was saying as impossible.  When I realised what I was doing I gave myself a mental shake and deliberately backed off.  And what happened next was beautiful.  In his own time, on his own terms, he built up his confidence until he was swimming again (with armbands).  He joined his brothers going down the flume (he hadn't wanted to AT ALL when we got there).  He voluntarily put his face and then his whole head under water.  All without my interference - he just wanted the security of having me standing by, ready to applaud at each achievement.

I know this to be true about him.  He is and always has been a child who has to be allowed to do things in his own time.  Trying to encourage him is more likely to set him back than make progress.  It is enormously frustrating to a 'hands-on' parent.  But he is the argument for autonomous learning in this house.  Eldest likes structure, Youngest seems to do well with structure, Middle absolutely does not (which is why he became so depressed at school).  He was happy enough with our small amount of structure over the last couple of months, but this next season of increased autonomy will be perfect for him - and that has made me think again about my having to treat them all the same.  I know Middle needed more autonomy, and I believe the others will benefit from it too, so we're all going for it together.  But I can foresee a time where Eldest may need more structure again - and I need to be prepared to be able to let them all find their own different ways to learn.  I suppose that's what this next season is mostly about for me (as we all learn through home ed - the parents just as much as the children).

And so back to swimming this week.  Now that the "unfairness" of learning is re-established at the front of my mind - that as each style suits different children, asking them all to do the same thing can actually be unfair - my focus will be less on the "fairness" of them all getting to join in, and more on which of my children are actually benefiting from the swimming lessons.  It is true, Youngest would have found it enormously unfair to not be allowed to join in, so I'm still glad I waited - but it may be that Middle finds it 'unfair' to be asked to do something he doesn't enjoy (a structured lesson), when his brothers are loving it.  Ultimately, it is a "class-style" scenario - albeit doing something they all like (and an important life-skill too), so it's going to be another learning curve for all of us.  We will see.

The most important thing to learn, I suppose, is that treating them "unfairly" may turn out to be the most fair thing to do...

Friday, 1 November 2013

Season Change

I confess, I turned the heating on yesterday... I woke to a little nip in the air that made me delay getting out of bed, instead snuggling further down under the duvet, where the boys quickly joined me - giggling as they made Mummy shriek with horror at their icy feet homing in on her toasty warmth.

It's that lovely season change as the mild weather gives way to the inevitability of early nights, frosty mornings, country lanes bulging with hedgerow fruit, and leaves crunching underfoot (not to mention steaming mugs of hot chocolate when we get back from a ramble).  I love Autumn. I think there's something to love about all of the seasons actually - I never could choose a favourite - but it's maybe the change in seasons that I love, and Autumn is such an obvious change, even when it's late, as this year.  I just love it.

And the season change evident in the great outdoors is reflecting a season change inside our home...

There's a Facebook meme that I've shared before, and it's pretty apt considering where we are right now.  It goes:

"I love routine...
Until I'm bored, then I love excitement...
Until I'm overwhelmed, then I love routine"

It's that bit in the middle, when we're starting to get fed up/ restless that expresses where we've been for about a week.  We've had a couple of months of semi-structure (well, structure by our standards anyway), and I've just lately been getting signs that the boys are ready for something else.  Children (and indeed adults) do learn in cycles, or seasons... and just because a style or method works for a while, it doesn't mean that it will continue to work indefinitely.  The lovely and experienced Ross Mountney shared a post today, "Fallow Seasons and Learning Leaps", that expresses so well the truth about seasons in learning - and now that we have over a year of home educating under our belts, I can say from personal experience that I know this to be true.

So I have been mulling over the question of what season we are heading into.  Initially I got my planner out because there are things that I felt were lacking from what we're doing compared to what I'd like us to be doing, such as incorporating ideas from the inspiring Brave Writer website, advent activities (not quite yet, obviously), swimming lessons etc.  Next I noticed an increasing reluctance in the boys to do activities involved with their online curricula (maths, english etc), and I don't want to ask them to follow any set curriculum if it doesn't interest them.  Then this week I was thrilled to discover that Middle seems to have discovered his inner bookworm.  I can't say he's a confident reader (although he is a fully competent reader), but I can say that if he goes quiet, as he is increasingly doing, it's becoming less likely that he is "up to some mischief" and more likely that he has his nose in a book somewhere.  I am such a happy Home Ed Mummy!

All of which has led me to the conclusion that we need a season of more autonomy.  Eldest generally does well with structure and is happy with his curricula/ workbooks etc - but lately he seems to have been lacking in creative ideas for things that he would like to do, and I'd like to give him a bit more space to think and dream and get inventive.  Middle is obviously coming into his own as a reader, and with all my heart I want to encourage that - just give him the space to read and read and get lost in new worlds of imagination and fascination.  Youngest has been doing well on his Reading Eggs and Mathseeds - he often asks to 'play' on them (I try to avoid words like "learning", "lessons" or "work" - I prefer "explore", "investigate", "imagine" and "play") - but I have noticed that some of the activites lately seem to confuse him and he gets a mental block over things that I know he is perfectly capable of doing instinctively in a natural scenario (as opposed to a theoretical sum on a screen).  So I want to back off before he gets frustrated, and give him the space to play more and just let his learning flow naturally, as he is making immeasurable (I use that word deliberately) strides in his development right now.

On re-reading that paragraph I notice I used the word 'space' regarding my hopes for each of the boys.  The little structure we have been using has been really helpful - for the right season.  Now, however it is starting to feel a little stifling, so I want to remove those constraints and move into a season of more freedom.  I don't doubt for one second that it will change again at some point - but the more we do this, the more confident I am in the seasons all flowing into each other naturally, and as much as I love the changes from Summer to Autumn, Winter to Spring etc, I am starting to really enjoy the seasonal changes in our home education too.