The elusive love of learning

Princess crocheting

Self-directed learning can be SO CUTE.

There are so many reasons our family home educates, and many ideals we hold which influence our choice.

I have always noticed that children are natural learners. The curiosity of a toddler is hard to beat. You know, that wonderful ‘why’ phase? Kids are addicted to learning! They learn to walk, talk and play with amazing determination.

One of my homeschooling ideals has always been to harness this natural desire and keep it burning bright.

Some people think this is asking the impossible. How can you possibly keep a kid enthused about learning when you get to times tables? And don’t boys just hate writing? Besides, no-one can enjoy everything, and kids need to learn to get on with it even if they are bored, right?

The truth is, I don’t know exactly how long I can keep my kids in love with learning. And yes, they do need to learn to complete necessary tasks – like it or not. But what I do know is that at eight and six, my kids are more interested in learning now than ever before.

I haven’t always found it easy to keep this love burning, and there have been times I’ve been on the edge of snuffing it out with bad choices I have made. But by the grace of God, we have got past those issues and to a place I have dreamed of – where I sit back and hold my breath in wonder as my children embrace learning with abundant joy.

Looking back, I can begin to make out some patterns – things that got us into trouble, and solutions God has provided; things that have worked so well I thank God for them daily; things I still don’t quite have under my belt, that I am searching for solutions to. But the journey so far has been fruitful.

If there is one piece of advice I would give to anyone who wants to foster a love of learning it’s this:

Know your child. Find out his learning style. Find out what makes him laugh, what he is passionate about, what he spends time doing when he’s left to himself.

This information is the key to winning your child’s heart for learning. Use it! 

Prince hard at 'work' - doing what he loves best in his free time.

Prince hard at ‘work’ – doing what he loves best in his free time.

Be ready to throw out your own preconceptions of what learning ‘should’ look like. It doesn’t have to be workbooks and tests (though some kids love these!). Find or make curriculum to fit your child, rather than expecting your child to fit the curriculum. Be creative! If your child loves music, sing educational songs – and let him indulge in music often. If he loves sport, recite times tables to the bounce of a ball – and allow him outside to play as much as possible. Pursue your child’s passions. I promise it will be productive if you look at it with the right eyes.

Make it your goal to provide a tailor-made education. This, I believe, fuels a life-long love of learning.

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Education is not a god: part 2

Last week I wrote about how education is not the ultimate goal of childhood. All this was not to say that education is irrelevant. But we need to remember that education is there to serve us, not be served by us.

So what is education really, then? Here are some thoughts.

Education is a tool

Getting a good quality education is one of the tools which helps to shape our children’s future. The foundation of knowledge they build up though childhood is a platform they can bounce off to reach the heights of God’s plan for their lives. Equipping our kids with wisdom and understanding in academic, spiritual and practical arenas prepares them to use their God-given gifts to their fullest potential. A good education will open doors of ministry and enable our kids to take hold of any opportunities which come their way.

Education should teach children to approach work with an attitude of diligence. If we nurture their natural love of learning, if we show them how to solve problems effectively, and if we teach them to self-discipline and allow them to self-direct their studies, then their education will serve them well when they go out into the world. And the best education will teach our children good stewardship of their talents – helping to grow them, not bury them.

Education gives our wings to soar into all God has prepared for them!

Education gives children our wings to soar into all God has prepared for them!

Education is a gift

I love to learn, and I want my kids to know the joy of learning too. Knowledge is a blessing! As children learn about the world, their minds begin to open up. They make connections between topics, and they start to grasp concepts which open up further new thoughts. With knowledge, kids are able to take part in meaningful discussions and feel that their contributions are valuable. They are learning not just to be part of society, but to be a useful part of society – contributing their gifts and understanding to help better the world around them.

One of education’s greatest blessings is the way it helps our children to connect with people of diverse opinions, beliefs, and cultures. As they learn about the world they begin to appreciate the common value of people as well as appreciate their diversity. Education breaks down barriers and misconceptions and stereotypes. Jesus reminds us that unconditional love for others is one of the most important things we need to grasp as Christians. Quality education helps our children to do this with ease and joy.

I pray that as we seek God’s will for the education of our children we will not lose sight of what is truly important. May our children be blessed with an education which encourages them to live a life of love, not gain.

Education is not a god: part 1

I want to give my kids an excellent education.

In fact, one of the reasons we home educate is because we believe that the smaller ratios, focused learning, and personally tailored curriculum that can be provided at home have the potential to produce a better quality education than that which can be achieved in an over-crowded, peer-dominated, test-orientated school setting.

But I want to be very clear about something which I think has become very unclear in our society: Education is not a god.

Our children need to know that while they should always strive to work to their personal best, grades do not define who they – or we – are. There is only one God, and our children have immeasurable worth in His eyes, and in our eyes, which is not defined by their academic or sporting ability, the career they obtain, or the number of extra curricular activities they attend.

Education is good, but it is not a god.

Education is good, but it is not a god.

It is easy to ‘know’ this. But do we live it out?

Before I go on, I want to make clear that I don’t think any of the things below make us ‘worthy’. God alone provides our worth, and it is not dependent on works or behaviour. I also think all of the activities below have a value, a place and a time. However – the fruit of our lives reveal the secrets of our hearts. It is worth examining our priorities honestly.

I believe that education is often worshiped as the ultimate goal of childhood. It is evident in a culture which prioritises academic achievement over character development. It is evident in the efforts to make sure our kids understand geometry, and yet neglect discussions on evidences and controversies of faith. It is evident when parents fear lack of education for their four-year-old, more than lack of compassion. It is evident in the way parents work longer hours to pay for a extracurricular activities, but leave no time for quality, relationship building.

I want to repeat – all of these things have good and right places in our children’s lives. Geometry, sports and academics are good things.  But the question is – do we let ‘good things’ take a higher place than the ‘best thing’?

There is only one thing of first importance, and we only get one shot at parenthood. Let’s make sure we don’t get our priorities confused.

In part two I will be looking at some of the things which education is, and how it can be used to help our children, not hinder them.

Ten ideas for summer learning fun

Lots of people are getting ready to wind down school for the summer. In our home we don’t take an official summer break, as we see learning as something to be enjoyed and developed year round. Part of our philosophy of a natural home education is to make the most of learning opportunities as they present themselves. And opportunities, you may have noticed, don’t hold to any imposed term-time structure! However, the other side to natural learning is igniting inspiration, which can be done in so many, many ways all year round. Whether your kids go to school or you home educate, whether you follow a timetable or are extreme unschoolers, here are ten ideas for inspiring and building upon natural learning opportunities this summer.

  • Picnic with my best buddies in our local National Trust garden.

    Picnic with my best buddies in our local National Trust garden.

    National Trust day trips.  We are loving our National Trust membership, and often find ourselves just packing up our books, snacks, water and a picnic blanket to go and spend the morning in the beauty of our local gardens. In addition to the benefits of beautifully fresh air, the National Trust offers opportunities to explore historical homes and castles, activity trails, workshops, outdoor theatre and more. This summer we plan on going to ‘Honey weekend’, where beekeepers will be demonstrating honey extraction and talking about their work. This coincides with our recent interest in bees, and some lovely documentaries which have helped us appreciate honey bees more.

  • Adult education.  This may seem like a strange way of encouraging learning in children, but it actually fits beautifully. One of the philosophies of Leadership Education is that parents need to be setting the example of lifelong learning. This summer I have joined a free university course from Coursera, studying ‘Fundamentals of Music Theory’. This is something I genuinely want to know more about while I teach myself flute, but my second motive is the desire for my children to see me learning. And it really does inspire them! Sometimes they stop and watch my video lectures; sometimes they comment on snippets they hear which connect to things they have learnt themselves; sometimes they suddenly start playing instruments in duets or solos; and sometimes they pick up a music theory workbook themselves and work through it voluntarily.
  • Make a video.  Our cousins have recently been working on a really cool project: making a video on what they have learnt about plants. Inspired, Prince asked if he, too, could make a video about ‘something’. Yes! In this day of electronics it is very easy to introduce kids to movie making. Depending on your child’s age and abilities, this could mean anything from Mom recording Kid do a two-minute puppet show through to installing some video editing software and creating a full-scale documentary! This easy project could last from one day to the whole summer long, and is packed with learning opportunities of all kinds.
  • Library reading challenge.  This is quite a common summer activity, but remember that you don’t have to limit yourself to taking part in the standard challenge if it doesn’t excite you. You can set any kind of challenge you (and your kids) like! Some ideas would be:
    • How many different versions of Shakespeare’s plays can you read?
    • Read at least one book a week.
    • How many books on the Romans can you read?
    • Write four book reviews: on a book you like, on a book you don’t like, on a fiction book, on a non-fiction book.
    • Read one poetry book a week, and memorise your favourite poems.
  • Educational games.  Invest is some good quality educational games, and commit to playing them with your children. Perhaps you could start a weekly ‘Family Games Night’, or a ‘Games club’ with friends. You can find some of my recommended games here and here.
  • Picnic & walk.  Being outdoors in vital to health and beneficial to academic achievements. Kids and nature go together so well, and you will find it takes no effort to keep them entertained. Why not head out with a picnic and some friends to a field or woods. You can catch up with friends and your kids will pick up sticks, climb trees, inspect bugs, cloud watch, imagine they are dragons, hide in hedges, run till they drop and generally have FUN!
  • My Prince soaking up the inspiration at the Military Aviation Museum.

    My Prince soaking up the inspiration at the Military Aviation Museum.

    Museums. Actually, unless you are a ‘schooler’, I don’t recommend you do this one in summer! Avoid the crowds and go term time – it’ll save your sanity. But if this is your only opportunity, museums are fantastic places for learning fun. It doesn’t have to be a big London museum (though these make wonderful days out). A quick Google search should reveal smaller museums all around you, some with local history and others with specific interests.

  • Focus on a favourite topic.  The summer is a great time for projects. Perhaps your kids are interested in farming. Use these weeks to visit a variety of local farms. Organise behind the scenes trips to a working farm. Watch documentaries on farming. Plant your own veggies. Make your own butter. Have farm-filled summer fun!
  • Nature activities.  There are all kinds of nature-based activities online. Although it takes some mental effort for us non-crafty types, kids LOVE making things like salt ice sculptures and land art.
  • House project.  Make this summer an ‘all hands on deck’ term. Maybe there’s a room you’ve always wanted to reorganise, an entrance you want to make more welcoming, a wall you want to paint or a bedroom you need to declutter. Take time to focus on one or two areas, and get the kids involved. Part of education involves learning to look after a home, and this kind of project teaches good stewardship and appreciation of space and beauty. It also has the potential to teach practical skills like painting, building and organising. Additionally, children love being a real part of the home, and involving them might be easier than trying to keep them out the way!

This is just a small sample of how you could weave in some learning fun with your kids this summer.  Do you have any other ideas?  I’d love to hear them!

Ten educational resources I love

I’m always on the look out for great quality resources to use at home for learning and Bible study.  Here are ten of my personal favourites.

  • Story of the World.  This is a much-loved read-aloud in our house. It provides a basic overview of world history. Volume I, which we currently use, starts from the first Nomads up to the last Roman Emperor. However, the series takes you right through up to modern times. It has a companion activity book which I also love, but this is quite expensive and I might not get the successive ones as I don’t feel we’ve made enough use of it to warrant the cost.
  • How to Draw.  This is a lovely clear book, which even non-artists like myself can follow and produce great results. It also contains snippets of information about each animal, which gives this book bonus points!
  • Flags of the World.  When I first got this game and read the instructions I was disappointed. It sounded boring and difficult, and not well suited to helping the kids learn. But I was very wrong! Prince and Princess both love this game, and often choose to play it together. Princess can now recognise most of the flags of Europe and have at least a good guess at the capitals of each country, too.
  • Pop-up, Pull-out Picture Atlas.  I adore this beautiful, fun atlas. It has a pop up globe which spins, and each continent has a pull out page with countries and capitals, as well as lists of landmarks and features for each country, flags, population and language info. It’s a bright, attractive book which Princess often pulls out and pages through just for fun.
  • Building foundations of scientific understanding.  I love this basic science curriculum. It covers four ‘strands’ of science:  The Nature of Matter, Life Science, Physical Science, Earth and Space Science. Each strand is interwoven with the others to provide a comprehensive and broad understanding. It is easy to follow with fun and practical activities. When we do ‘lessons’ from this book my kids think we are just playing games, and they beg for more!

    Science fun with Daddy!

    Science fun with Daddy!

  • Where my Wellies take me.  This is a simply BEAUTIFUL poetry anthology. It follows a girl as she walks about her local countryside, with classic poems sprinkled throughout. The illustrations are inspirational and the choice of poems delightful.
  • Multiplication.com  This is a free maths games website, which focuses specifically on times tables. It has been great for keeping the fun in maths, and Prince and Princess have certainly learnt from it as they have played. Unfortunately, it does have advertising which is not always ideal. We get around this by minimizing the screen and adjusting the window size to block the ads from view.
  • Jolly Phonics readers.  Although Prince has passed the stage of using readers, Princess is not quite done with them yet. I have never tried any other reading curriculum, but I have been so happy with Jolly Phonics that I have never needed to look around. These readers are designed to work with the rest of the Jolly Phonics resources, but I have found they work very well on their own. Princess is currently working her way through level three, and she is a very competent reader for her age.
  • Kindle.  Owning a kindle has transformed our read aloud time. We suddenly have instant access to many classics – FOR FREE! So far we have enjoyed The Jungle Book, Five Children and It, Pollyanna and are half-way through The Secret Garden.
  • Read with Me Bible and Adventure Bible (NIrV).  These are lovely beginner Bibles. Princess got the ‘Read with Me’ Bible for Christmas, and I am impressed with its balance of detail and child centred text. Prince ‘graduated’ to his first real Bible after he finished his Jolly Phonics readers, and the NIrV is a lovely transition translation.

Learning fun: a useful tool

Some of the fun ways we use the white (green) boards in our house.

Some of the fun ways we use the white (green) boards in our house.

One of my favourite homeschooling tools is the whiteboard. I love how versatile it is! We currently have three in our house, and each of them has a different purpose. We have our “Verse of the Week” board, which we currently use to write one verse from our Friday morning Bible study on each week, and try to memorise it. Then we have our regular notice board, which is topped with an encouraging Bible verse and used to just write reminders and notes on, such as “put the bins out tonight”. Lastly we have our activity board. This is the one we use for ALL kinds of things – from maths to geography to language to just plain silly fun.

There are so many ways to make learning fun at home, and the white board is an invaluable part of this process in our family. Below is a chart of some of the things we have done with our whiteboard (which is sometimes green… just semantics, y’know…) over the years, separated into categories. And colour-coded. Because it makes me feel more organised than I really am.

Please feel free to download this chart and use it for your own family. And if you have any other great whiteboard ideas please share them – I’m always looking for more 🙂

Fun and educational ideas for your whiteboard.

Fun and educational ideas for your whiteboard.

Encouraging, spiritual and character-building ideas for your whiteboard.

Encouraging, spiritual and character-building ideas for your whiteboard.

A smorgasbord of educational philosophies

During my seven years as a homeschooling Mama I have learnt about many different educational philosophies – Montessauri, Charlotte Mason, Classical, Leadership Education, Waldorf, Unschooling and more. What I love about this plethora of styles and approaches is that they are like a delicious buffet of ideas which homeschool parents get to pick and choose from, and delight in! As I read and learn about this variety of educational philosophies, I take out the bits I like, drop the bits I don’t, and create a personalised approach to education which fits our unique family dynamics.

Prince doing some interest-lead artwork...

Prince doing some interest-lead artwork…

Recently I have been studying the Leadership Education approach, which I am super excited about! We’re in the process of working out how best to incorporate this new style into our learning at home, but so far it’s been an inspirational journey. Today, though, I want to focus on the process of evolving a personalised educational philosophy. One of my favourite homeschooling writers, Jamie Martin from Simple Homeschool, has already written very eloquently on this topic, so I will leave you with a link to her post on The Evolution of an Educational Philosophy: My Journey of Baby Steps.

I pray that those of you considering or just starting out on your own homeschool journey will be encouraged to seek out educational philosophies which inspire you and your own family.

Leadership Education

I am currently reading Oliver & Rachel DeMille’s ‘Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning‘. I was directed to it via a blog I enjoy regularly, Simple Homeschool. Jamie Martin does a fantastic job of explaining Leadership Education in practice over there, and I recommend you check out her many posts to find out more about what it’s like to live this philosophy.

Although I am not even half-way through this book yet, I have found it to be inspiring, practical and fitting with my own ideals of education. The focus is on educating a child in the things that matter most, first. Then it follows up with inspiring a love of learning which will lead children to seek out a superb quality education. It talks a lot about tailoring education to each child’s unique talents and gifts, and seeing the goal of education as preparing them for their personal ‘life mission’. This might be in international ministry, an office job, a world-renowned scientist or a homemaker.

Reading 'Leadership Education' on my Kindle, thanks to my amazing Granny who just knew I "needed" one!

Reading ‘Leadership Education’ on my Kindle, thanks to my amazing Granny who just knew I “needed” one!

After reading through the theory part of DeMille’s book, I put together a personalised summary of the principles and beliefs that Leadership Education promotes. I emphasise personalised for two reasons: First, having not yet read the whole book I may have misinterpreted some aspects, as I don’t yet have the whole big picture. Secondly, I have included notes and quotes which reflect what I take from the book, which is not always exactly what the book means (though in most cases it is). I originally wrote this summary for a friend, but found it a helpful overview myself. I share it with you below, and hope you too find it inspiring, encouraging and useful.

I would especially like to hear from others already using Leadership Education, or those who have read the book and have more comments to offer about it 🙂

Please note that all text in quote marks come directly from the book.  I have not attached page numbers as Kindle versions don’t provide that information.  If you would like to know exactly where a specific quote comes from, please do ask and I’ll provide you with a proper reference.

Basic Premise

There are two main methods of education:

  • Conveyor belt
    • offers all children a set knowledge base without consideration of their specific gifts
    • expects all children to learn through the same (or at least, very similar) methods regardless of age
    • focusses on academic achievement as the main goal
  • Leadership
    • focusses on each child’s unique gifting and starts with this as a basis for learning
    • believes that children learn differently at different stages of life, and adjusts methods accordingly
    • lays a foundation of morality, spirituality and character development, believing this is of central importance to all other learning

 Theory

There are six stages of learning that students should progress through chronologically

‘Nearly all development occurs in stages or phases. This is also true of education. We believe it is important to take advantage of each phase of development to its fullest.’ Ages for the stage are guidelines only, as each child is unique in development.

Foundational Phases

‘over-programming’ during these phases can cause conflict in the child. This is a crucial time to figure out ‘what is success? What is maturity? … What is my relationship with God? What is my relationship with others? What is my duty? And so forth.’ ‘When we give inappropriate attention to academic achievement during these phases, it can teach our children that they dislike academics because everything is “hard” and “boring,” and/or offer our children an alternative source of self-worth that is inferior to a genuine and positive self-concept resulting from living according to true values such as faith, good works and accountability.’

  • Core:  birth to eight or nine
    • ‘During core phase we lay the foundation for all learning and service in the child’s life.’ The ‘curriculum’ is made up of values, relationships, identity and responsibilities.
  • Love of Learning:  eight to twelve
    • Pressure to learn formally in this stage can cause negative attitudes to learning. ‘These are the years when children dabble with learning, getting to know “what’s out there.”’

Educational Phases

‘During this period the bulk of a person’s “book learning” takes place.’ Through this phase the student will being to use about 70% of their time in intensive learning. Important topics are ‘our place in history and the cycles of society.’

  • Scholar:  twelve to seventeen for girls, thirteen to eighteen for boys
    • ‘At first, the new scholar may only study a few hours at a time, but … by the end of Scholar Phase, most student are studying well over forty hours a week.’ Students are still free to study their own choices of topics, though teachers should encourage and inspire them to ‘see the value, relevance, and excitement of studying other important subjects.’ Teachers should be careful not to ‘knee-jerk’ and require conformity to conveyor belt education at this stage, however some formal education at a college or similar is often useful for some topics. Mentors are key during this phase, and ideally fathers should be one of these. During these teenage years, ‘A leadership view replaces the conveyor-belt search for identity with a quest for vision and mission.’
      • NOTE:  there is a “semi-phase” before scholar, termed ‘transition to scholar’. I have not read further on this yet.
  • Depth: eighteen to twenty-four
    • ‘During depth phase, mentors asses student strengths and weaknesses, help students fill in gaps in their knowledge, go into real depth in their areas of strength and passion, and otherwise lead young people in preparation for their life mission and focus.’ As youth typically leave home for college/uni/work during this stage, it is vital that you prepare them to find mentors of their own who will encourage them wisely. This should be a time of mastering self-control and developing education to career-level.

Applicational Phases

‘Leadership Education will naturally be followed by a life of service and leadership.’ This is the time to carry out one’s personal mission work, and to have an impact on future generations. ‘The greatest component of the Applications Phases is not education per se; it is application of one’s education and whole soul to improving the world.  These phases do not have age guidelines, but relate more to the two periods of life as an adult, and then as an elder.

  • Mission
    • This phase is about ‘building the two towers of family and organization’.
  • Impact
    • This phase is about ‘changing the world to be whatever it should be for your grandchildren and their children’

 Learning Keys

There are eight keys of great teaching which can be applied throughout the phase, which enhance learning.

  • Classics, not textbooks
    • ‘Great works inspire greatness.  Mediocre or poor works inspire mediocre or poor learning.’
  • Mentors, not professors
    • Different emphasis ‘professors’ teach a set curriculum, ‘mentors’ find out student goals, talents etc. and ‘develop and carry out a plan designed to effectively develop his genius and prepare him for his unique mission.’
  • Inspire, not require
    • Lack of inspiration should cause the teacher to question ‘what do I need to do to spark their passion to do the hard work?’
  • Structure time, not content
    • ‘Great teachers and schools allow young students to follow their passions and interests during their study time and inspire them as needed to take on areas they may not initially recognize as interesting and desirable.’  This requires a degree of trust from the teacher, both in the student and the method.  ‘Students must have the freedom to fail in order to truly take responsibility for their own progress.  They must know that their education, their life, their mission, will hinge upon their own choices.’
  • Quality, not conformity
    • Resist the pull to conform to educational norms if they do not contribute to the lessons which need to be learnt at each child’s specific stage.  Also, ‘Great teachers inspire and demand quality, ever urging their students to higher levels of excellence.  They shun mere conformity and expect their students to think and perform to their ever-increasing potential.’
  • Simplicity, not complexity
    • Don’t feed students overcomplicated curriculums.  This fosters a dependence on experts and an attitude that he/she is not able to learn and understand for themselves.  Rather, ‘students study the greatest minds and character in history in every field, write about and respond to what is learned in numerous settings, and apply it in various ways under the tutelage of a mentor’
  • You, not them
    • ‘Focus on your education, and invite them along for the ride.  Read the classics in all fields, engage mentors who inspire and demand quality, structure your days, weeks and months to include study time for yourself, and become a person who inspires great education.’
  • Secure, not stressed
    • Try to ‘know what you are doing is right and that you are doing it effectively’.  Use your own system of knowing what is right to evaluate Leadership Education and see if you believe it is right for your family.  If it is right, then learn to do it effectively by taking advice from others who have done it before.  Being secure instead of stressed will result in peace, focus and joy in your educational journey.

Behind the Scenes

Seven is a really big number.

Seven is a really big number.

I’ve recently started a new schooling system. With the advent of my Prince turning SEVEN (shock, disbelief) I have felt the need to take my relaxed, interest-led, natural learning method a notch up the formality rating. Whilst I still absolutely believe in the benefits and necessity of keeping learning fun, relaxed and relevant, I also have found that some days my kids need a little prompting. With their limited world view there are some things they don’t learn about, simply because they don’t know about it. This is where I come in! I see my role as ‘Chief Instigator and Inspirator‘. (Yes, I know that’s not a word.  But it should be.)

When I let my children learn naturally, I am usually surprised at how much of what they do would be classified as ‘official schooling’ if I had instigated and formalised the learning which happens. For example, yesterday Prince saw a French book lying around so he picked it up and began reading. Sitting next to him, I peered over his shoulder and pointed out that if he read the helpful translation lists at the top and bottom of the pages he would then be able to understand the cartoon strips. With a little help he then read two pages of French conversation, practicing pronunciation and extending his vocabulary! This is my ideal:  unprompted interaction between kids/parents/tools produces effective learning.

But natural learning is not what this post is about.  Why?

Whilst I see first-hand the benefits of learning as opportunity and desire present themselves, I have also seen that there are some things I’d like my children to know which don’t come up in our everyday life very often. Also, there are some days when I feel we have done very little learning of any kind, and although I am comfortable with this every now and then, I desire to foster a habit of industrious activity rather than laziness. SO! Here is my new and improved ‘Natural Learning with a Structured Twist’: It’s very simple really. I started by drawing up a Monday – Friday timetable. Under each day I put in topics that I think are important to make sure we hit from time to time. Over a few weeks I tweaked this until I ended up with this:

My super-secret, under-cover Spring '13 timetable!

My super-secret, under-cover Spring ’13 timetable!

Now, I know how formal this looks. But looks can be deceiving. The key to keeping this natural is this: KEEP IT SECRET! I don’t let my kids know that behind the scenes of our seeming unstructured day is a chart which prompts Mommy to casually say, “Hey guys!  Let’s play ‘Flags of the Word’ together!’ on Tuesday. Or that when I start playing a French computer program on Wednesday, and they just happen to be sitting close by, I am actually taking advantage of their inability to stay away from electronic media, and capitalising on the attention I know they immediately pay to All Things Computerised.  As they listen and – usually – come and join in with me, they are absorbing new words, better accents and French sentence structures without any idea that they are ‘being schooled’. When I write maths problems on our activity board for ‘fun’, this is exactly what they think it is – little do they know that it is actually Friday’s ‘Basic Skills’. In reality, this is not a timetable for the kids – it’s for me.  I am kept accountable through the structure, then implement it through life in as natural a way a possible.

Another key to the natural flow of this new system is flexibility.  One of the joys of home education is it’s flexible nature, and I never want to lose this.  If we don’t get to History on Monday – never mind.  We’ll pick it up on Tuesday… or next week.. or we’ll do double another time… or we’ll forget about it.  Since we don’t break the year up into terms and holidays, but rather school throughout the year (and indeed, the days and weeks), there is no pressure to make sure we cover every thing, every day.  If we miss something, I can always put it down to an inset day 🙂

Reading is Princess's newest learning passion!

Reading is Princess’s newest learning passion!

Lastly, I hold to my belief that children learn best when they are self-motivated and interested. If a child is showing a new passion for music, then take time to indulge that for a while, even if it means cutting back on writing. If, as happened to us, a recent trip to France sparked an enthusiasm for French, then this is a great time to become immersed in French books, programs and conversation. If science needs to take a back seat for a while, so be it. You can always come back to those subjects you left behind, but you can’t always recapture the spark of excitement which lives in your child temporarily.  Don’t miss it – nurture it!

I know that formality, structure, and curriculums are the favourite choice of many home-educating families. But if you’re looking for something a little more natural, then maybe you want to create your own Behind the Scenes timetable.  And maybe you have some other great ideas for keeping the balance between structure and freedom?  Please share them with us all 🙂

Teaching your child to read

I can clearly remember, when Prince was about 2 years old, watching a 5 year old daughter of a friend reading a book, and feeling suddenly very daunted at the idea of teaching my children to read. It seemed such a huge thing, and so difficult. Even though Prince could already tell you the phonic sounds of all the letters of the alphabet, and their names, reading still seemed such a distant and impossible achievement. Yet now, at 6 years old, Prince can easily read just about any book he cares to pick up.

For those of you who are considering home education and might be feeling the same daunting fear that I once felt, I want to encourage you: the path from then to now was easy – and I am no qualified teacher! Here are some things we have done to get to where we are today.

  1. From early on we introduced letters and their sounds in play. One of my favourite toys was foam alphabet letters for the bath. We found these useful for reinforcing the shape and sound of letters, as well as associating letters with fun – Prince particularly enjoyed using the letters to build up shapes of vehicles and buildings!  The other toy which really helped with learning letter sounds and names was a toy bus we borrowed from a relative. Prince would press the buttons and copy the sounds, all of his own accord, and learnt a lot in this way.
  2. Once Prince knew the basic sounds, I introduced two letter sounds like ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘ee’ etc.  I looked at the Jolly Phonics guidelines for which sounds were best to introduce at what stages. I printed out a chart which I put up for Prince to see everyday, and I also just talked about them as we came across them in our everyday life. For example, if we were reading a book and the word ‘food’ came up, I might say, “Look, Prince – F-OO-D.  See how these two ‘o’s’ make an ‘oo’ sound when you put them together?”
  3. We also began blending sounds to make words from early on. As soon as he knew the sounds for ‘c’,’a’ and ‘t’, for example, I would show him how they can be put together – slowly at first, then faster until he could hear the word ‘cat’. I didn’t do this formally, but simply as opportunities presented themselves through every day life. When you take time to see it, you notice that we are surrounded by words everywhere; walking through the mall can be a phonics lesson! Again, we also had toys which helped teach blending, spelling and reading, such as a Jolly Phonic’s puzzle, and a Melissa & Doug ‘See and Spell’ board.
  4. Enjoying books together.

    When I thought he was ready, I introduced Prince to the first ‘Jolly readers‘ books.  In retrospect I think I did this a bit too early, and I did find that I had to take a break and restart again later on (we first started these when he was four).  I think the ideal time to progress onto the next level is when the child is showing an interest, and this progress should be a natural flow, rather than a segmented step up.

  5. When Prince was five we made our way through the next level of Jolly readers, and began the third level. By this time his reading had improved, but the requirement to read for an hour everyday (this was about how long it took him to get through a level three book) was too much. Although he didn’t put up much of a fuss, I could see that the task was too hard for him, and as such was affecting his enjoyment of books in general. At this point I decided to take a break from any set reading schedule, and just let him do what he wanted with his time for a while.
  6. Since then I have not gone back to any form of ‘teaching’ reading, and it has been during this time that his reading has improved most dramatically! It took a little while – a few months – but I found that he started to enjoy reading so much more once the pressure to learn was taken off of him. And because he enjoyed it, he worked at it. He figured things out, asked questions and persevered until he could read the books he wanted to read. As his ability continues to increase, he stretches himself further and further, and so progresses without me needing to do anything more than simply answer questions like ‘what does that say?’ What could be easier than this?!

Overall, the single most important piece of advice I would give in teaching your child to read, is to enjoy books as a family. Enjoy them together, encourage them to value books of their own, let them see you reading, read out loud, create special reading times. Because out of enjoyment, comes learning.

Prince still has a lot to learn, of course – he is only six! But I am confident that he will pick up what he needs to know as we go through life together, taking opportunities to learn as they present themselves, and enjoying the process of reading for pleasure.

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