Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Homeschool Files : A Social Life

One big concern a lot of people have about home educating is their children's social lives. How will they make friends if they are at home all the time? How will they meet people their own age? How will they learn to be in a group and to work with people who are different from them, or even people they don't like? These are all questions we've heard from time to time. 

It's certainly something we also worry about every so often, usually when we're worrying about our home education choice full stop. And it's definitely something we were concerned about when we moved out of Paris with its large and lively home schooling community to rural Brittany. Would there be enough opportunities for them to meet people? Would they make friends?

In fact, our children have very healthy social lives. They have a lot of friends of all different ages and from many different backgrounds. They meet other homeschoolers of varying ages at their weekly science club and when we arrange to do things together socially. They also meet a lot of school educated children at their various activities; climbing, pony, karate. And they socialise with adults too. 

Land Art with a village friend
So, when I stop and think about it, if I had to put my list of home education worries in an order of importance, the social aspect would not come that high on the list. Our children are friendly and outgoing and are able to make friends. I am pleased that they have friends who are older, younger and the same age as them. They don't seem to be as blocked on the issue of age or sex as some of their school going contempories. Probably because they have never had to spend the majority of their days only with other people exactly the same age as them. 

I've thought a lot about the idea of spending most of your time with people the same age and I can't say I think it's ideal. I understand that for schooling it's probably one of the most practical ways to organise students, but I can't help thinking it means lumping together a group of people who are to similar in age and experience and therefore can't perhaps be much help to each other in terms of growth and development. Being with those who are older than us allows us to share their experience, to learn from them. Being with those who are younger than us encourages our caring side, calls on us to act responsibly and does wonders for our ego when it shows us both how far we've come and how someone younger than us looks up to us. Both Montessori and John Holt have written on this subject.

In our own family I can clearly see both these effects in our eldest, Maya's experience. We take a sculpture class together which is really for adults as it's on a school day within school hours. She loves it, loves being with these adults some of whom have special needs, some of whom are retired and others who work. She's totally accepted by the group and plays an active part in the discussions which rage during our workshop, discussions about pottery, family, work and politics. Participating in this class requires her to be mature and focused. It allows her to hear about many things she wouldn't hear discussed otherwise. It's also given her a group of female role models who have all grown attached to her and encourage her in her artistic and personal life. 

On the other side of the scale, as part of her pony club experience she often helps the younger children to prepare their ponies and also leads ponies for younger children who are nervous or scared. This really brings out the caring side of her nature and it's great to hear her talk about how much she likes doing this, like today when she came home elated that a young girl she's been helping finally managed to gallop on her pony all by herself.

I guess my conclusion would be that life offers us many opportunities to build a varied and nourishing social life. Yes, school may force us to confront people from different backgrounds and find a way to share a space, but life does too! So if this is your main concern about home educating - don't let it stand in your way.

Hairdressing with Yael

Friday, 25 March 2016

Five Little Things : It's all in the details

Bordeaux 1

Cathedral Window

Fallen Angels


Keeping Time
The joy was in walking around, camera in hand, looking for details, for little bits of beauty hidden in the everyday landscape.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Homeschool Files : The Importance of Play

While my previous posts have focused on some of our children's projects and some of the principles of our home education, this week I want to talk about play. We spend a lot of time playing here. Playing with toys and without, alone or with friends. And for me, all this playing is just as important part of home education as listening to our children read or helping them learn their times tables. 

Children use play to make sense of the world around them; to understand the past and help prepare themselves for what might happen in the future. They play to put on and test adult roles - think of dressing up as a doctor, pirate or princess. They also play to try out building and construction with train sets, building blocks and lego. 

When they play with a friend or in a group, they are trying out different relationships and ways of interacting and problem solving. Further, in this play they are constructing and consolidating their relationships with people. Creating false situations of danger can draw them together and fake confrontations can help them to deal with any tensions they may feel. Then there's playing games which is also invaluable but something very different. The stricter rules, imposed by an outside source involve accepting a social contract and being able to abide by it. The rules of board games require us to use our brains to understand them and develop strategies to succeed at them. 

All this playing is invaluable and not just for younger children. It is my hunch that the longer our children can enjoy playing, as freely as possible, the better. Of course, ideally we should play too especially when our children ask it from us. Why? because it's important to them, because play is such an important part of their development and because if we don't they will quickly decide play is unimportant and move on to something else. 

I know, I know but when they're playing we can finally get something done. Honestly, that is often how it happens around here. Despite how much I believe in the importance of play, I don't always find it easy to get involved and I say way more often than I'm proud of words like "not now sweetie I'm busy". However, like many things in this parenting gig, although my awareness of the importance of play might not make me perfect, it does make me stop and think and join in sometimes. It's not 100% perfection all the time, but it is something sometimes which has to be better than nothing. 

The long and short of it is that a lot of playing goes on around here and we like it like that. Sometimes we have doubts and think they should be spending more time on something else, something more important. Then we remember that our aim in all this is not to make encyclopedias but well rounded individuals and that's normally enough for us to back off. And in the end, when we stop and really think about it we realise all the things they've learnt and are learning through play and wonder, is a whole day spent playing chess in front of the fire really so bad? Or even a week of fort building? They have their whole lives to learn whatever they want to learn, in all likelihood the days they have left to enjoy playing as much as they do now are probably numbered. The only thing left to say seems to be - play on!

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Homeschool Files : Learn Something New!

One of my favourite writers about home education is John Holt. He wrote a lot about learning all the time, wherever and whenever we are and how children do this spontaneously. For them there is no divide between learning and living. Everything they do is part of their learning their world. 

In our day to day lives we try to share this attitude of learning with our children by continuing to learn new things and to share the learning process with our children whether it be a new language, a new knitting stitch or a different way to grow vegetables. Last week, we took a family trip to the Pyrénées mountains in South West France and all tried something new together - Cross Country Skiing. That's right all five of us, from the 3 year old way up to the 41 year old!

None of us had ever done it before but friends had told us it was a better way to see the natural surroundings than downhill skiing or snowboarding which is what some of us have done before. When we went to rent the skis the man in the shop was skeptical about Lotta - she's too little he said and very generously lent us a sled so we could pull her around instead. 

This attitude of surprise when we do things all together, from the smallest to the tallest is quite common. But look what happened...

Yeah! She got on her skis and got going. Afterwards I thought about what the man in the shop had said and why he'd lent us the sled. It was mostly because he was sure the skiing would be too difficult for her and that she would be slow and ruin our fun. He also suggested we could drop her and even perhaps Noah off at one of the village creches so we could enjoy ourselves more. He was very, very nice and genuinely wanted us all to have a good time. 

And yet I found it desperately sad that as well as thinking taking the time to go at Lotta's rhythm would spoil our enjoyment, he underestimated her. If we'd taken his advice fully she wouldn't even have tried something she really enjoyed. This sort of thing  happens to children all the time, adults assume something is too hard for them and don't even let them try probably to avoid disappointment. But just think about it for a minute - it is so discouraging. Children already feel very strongly their littleness, their lack of experience compared to us adults and each time we step in and do something for them or tell them something is too hard for them we crush their spirits, we really do. 

I once read somewhere, when my oldest was a baby that the question as a parent was not what we should do for our children but what we should not do for them. Time and time again I've seen this play out. A child for whom much is done, does less and less for himself. And a child who is left to do for himself does more and more. Now of course that is not to say we should abandon our children to their own devices or anything of the kind rather that it's not a bad thing to let them have a try, see how they get on by themselves and step in readily when they look to us for help. I can tell you that is actually mighty hard especially if you're in a hurry, not wanting a mess to be made or feeling anxious about injuries. But it is worth it for the look of joy on a child's face whenever she masters something herself. 

Now before anyone thinks we're saints, I must add that there were times during the week when Frank and I and Maya too would have liked to go a bit faster or a bit further than the two youngest could manage. And in order to satisfy Frank and Maya's need for speed, the younger two and I went to the baths on the last day while they went and spent the day on the downhill slopes. This balance is true in our day to day lives too, we try to make time for doing things together and time for letting individuals go at their own pace. Sometimes as well for example we are just in too much of a hurry to let the kids do something for themselves. What I try to remember to do in those situations is to explain myself - "I know you'd like to do this yourself but Mummy didn't leave enough time for us to get ready so I'm doing it for you to be extra quick." This way they know that this is about me and not my belief in their capabilities.

On the whole we had a great time being together and enjoying the beautiful National Park with its torrents and snowy peaks. It was inspiring to watch Noah and Lotta try, fall down, get back up and go on and master a new skill with grace and enjoyment. It was inspiring to see Maya go straight at it as if she'd been doing it for years too. Each time we went out together, we were all a little bit better. I don't think I could have had a better time without them. They reminded me to stop and build snowmen, gave me the opportunity to bird watch and scribble in my notebook while they went sledding and made it impossible for me not to give it my all because they gave it nothing less. 

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Five Little Things : Bordeaux Home

Home for one night

Palm trees outside the window
City Garden

Noah exploring

Beautiful Light
And off we go! We're off to the Pyrenées for a week of good mountain air. This is the lovely apartment we rented in Bordeaux thanks to Benoit and Airbnb. I love the opportunity to stay in the comfort of someone's home and check out their design choices that this kind of travel offers. Off to explore outside a bit now before heading up into the mountains.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Homeschool Files : Kids are Natural Scientists

Maya spots the toad

Our children, like most, are naturally curious about the world around them. They like to poke around in it, with sticks in the mud, with their feet in puddles, with their hands when we let them and with their minds when we finally go back indoors. They like to observe the things they see outside and find out more about them. And they also like to collect things, feathers, snail shells, leaves and seeds. They are natural, natural scientists. 

This is one important reason we've made natural science a cornerstone of our home education, it's always easier to encourage something they already like. But it's not the only one. Aside from their natural enthusiasm, what I like about natural science is how it encourages observation, record keeping and organisational skills. 

When we collect things we start looking at the details to see what makes one feather different from another, what makes a snail shell special. As our collections grow, we begin to look for ways to group things together to create order and categories. In order to do that we use our own natural powers of observation first and foremost and then we turn to books, posters, experts or the internet to help us.   
Three Feathers

Over the years this has led to several 'herbiers' being produced - little books of pressed leaves, flowers and seeds which were then identified and described. One of Maya's first herbiers presented each flower on one page and then the relevant poem from the Flower Fairies opposite it. There's also been a book about birds with many beautiful sketches alongside feathers and snippets of information and a magazine article about salamanders after we found one in Frank's welly boot. 

Pine Needles

Often practicing natural science just means spending time outdoors and observing whatever we come across. Recently that was this toad.

Bumps on the back indicate a Toad

The children spotted him in a brook when we were out walking through our village. They observed him for about half an hour while I took photographs and we discussed his appearance. Back at home we used the internet to try and identify him. 
He's watching us too!

Nothing more, no one wants to write about him or draw his picture right now and that is fine. There doesn't have to be a production every time, oftentimes it is just fine to have been out, spent time in nature and got to know the world around us just a tiny bit better. It encourages us to be mindful of the world around us, to walk with our eyes open and really see the details in the things around us. It encourages us to love our earth. 

In his book, Last Child in the WoodsRichard Louv talks about the "death of natural history" in the face of "more theoretical and remunerative" subjects. He states that "the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world".  If this is truly so, in my opinion it's a tragedy. In the natural world we find wonder, joy and peace. Wonder at the strange things we unexpectedly discover, joy at the sheer beauty of what surrounds us and the peace of feeling we our part of our amazing world.

Ways to encourage kids to be natural scientists:

  • Encourage collections - provide bags to put things in while out on walks and boxes for keeping it all in when you get home (egg boxes work well for smaller items, jam jars and vases for feathers).
  • Encourage the birds in your garden by putting out bird feed when appropriate and bird boxes and then buy some decent binoculars and take it in turns to watch. If you don't have a garden, you can put a feeder on a balcony or spot birds at your local park. Most cities also have ornithology groups who do sessions for kids.
  • Try not to act disgusted by bugs and spiders, lots of kids don't react that way until they see other people do so. Bugs are common and easy to spot so they offer a great opportunity for kids to observe.
  • Buy a spotters guide so the kids can look up things you see when you're out when they get home.
  • Point out the things you spot to your kids, snails, ladybirds, flowers, acorns, anything.
  • Go out worm hunting after it's rained (we used to save worms we found stranded on the pavement after rainfall).
  • Run around trying to catch butterflies in the summer.
  • Visit your local natural history museum, butterfly park, botanical gardens. 
  • There are lots of great children's books out there too about birds, plants, the seasons etc. Make it a goal to get some out of the library next time you go.