What is learning?

Above: images of spontaneous learning which takes place around here on a daily basis.

Some time ago, I was really pleased to come across this article, which speaks about a new research showing that early academic achievements aren’t necessarily beneficial to a child’s learning process in the long run. Actually, the same principle has been discussed 25 years ago in the excellent book Better Late Than Early.

Not long ago, we were at a social gathering with another family. Their children, aged 5 and 3, dazzled us all with a display of their mathematical and foreign language skills. Turns out that such things are now taught in private preschools. To me, however, it sounded more like parroting than actual learning, encouraged for the parents’ bragging rights rather than for the children themselves.

Of course it’s possible to argue that each child learns at a different pace, and we’ve all heard of prodigies who have learned to play the piano at the age of 3, wrote advanced poetry by the age of 5, etc. However, here we are talking about a roomful of 3-year-olds who are all sat down in a circle and drilled until they memorize counting until 30, or the names of the days in the week in English (we’re talking about children whose mother tongue is Hebrew, of course).

Naturally the daily drill is sugar-coated by fun, games, colorful flashcards and lots of positive reinforcement (clap hands! Clap hands! What clever little children!). However, I believe putting an emphasis on this kind of achievement hinders the child-led learning, free thinking and free play which are so important for young children’s physical and mental development. Furthermore, the children are being robbed of the delight of learning for its own sake, of the thrill of discovery. They do what they do for rewards, attention, peer competition or in order to please their parents and teachers.

Some will say that these are musings of a lazy parent who is unwilling to teach her children anything. I disagree. Encouraging children to memorize facts and rewarding them for it with sweets or stickers is easier than promoting their independent efforts to explore what interests them, let alone finding time to answer their many questions about life and the world we live in.

Educational Attitudes

Image result for unschooling
For a long time, I had felt that unschooling is the very thing for each and every child of every age; I literally felt guilty every time I tried to teach reading or math, even if my children responded well, and doubly so if they bristled. After engaging in some very enlightening discussions with other parents, I went through a process of in-depth introspection which convinced me that:

– It’s quite alright and, in fact, advisable to actively teach children older than 6 to read, write and count.

– It’s quite alright to gently but firmly enforce discipline in homeschooling, just as in other areas of home life (chores, meal times, times of visiting friends, etc).

– I’m not a bad parent if I sometimes make my children do things they don’t like. I will occasionally encounter tears, tantrums, whining, and complaints, and my confidence as a parent should not be undermined by that. I don’t need to be afraid that they will hate me for setting some rules, on the contrary (as long as it is all done with good intentions and a loving spirit).

– I’m not destroying spontaneous learning or my children’s interests/hobbies/curiosity if I introduce some structured learning into our day. The total of the basic subjects (spelling, reading, math) I aim to cover each day takes approximately two hours, spread through the morning: for example, an hour of math after breakfast, then a break and mid-morning snack, and another hour of writing/spelling before lunch. We don’t have homework. So this still leaves plenty of time for the children to pursue their interests, do crafts, play outside, read, write, draw or look at picture books, meet friends, and so on.

I am still a big proponent of plenty of quiet free time, especially exposure to nature, for each child, every day. When I say “free time”, I don’t mean sitting in front of the TV or computer, naturally, but anything that stimulates curiosity, creativity and imagination: reading, crafts, dress-up, exploring the outdoors, etc.

I have made a quiet resolution that I will correct my daughter’s written work only during “school time”, but not when she shows me a story she had written for her own and her sister’s amusement (unless she specifically asks me to check her spelling). I believe that a child who perhaps struggles a little with spelling at this point, but who loves to write and does it all the time, eventually will become a better writer, with a richer language, than a child who does everything in a perfectly neat and orderly way, but only as a school exercise.

This need for free time and unstructured play is felt by me especially strongly in the winter days, which are so short. I see school children coming home when the best part of the day is already gone – barely two hours left before sunset, when it gets too cold to be out. The children, as young as 6, are already so bogged down with homework that one of my daughters’ friends told us once she might not be able to attend the birthday party at our house because she has so much homework. This, I believe, is tragic. Surely little children deserve better balance in their lives.

Working in our pajamas

There are some days when, if it weren’t for the necessity to go out and feed the chickens, I’d probably remain in my fuzzy pajamas all day long. As the critters do need to be fed, and as someone might pass by and wonder at seeing me in pink pajamas and fluffy socks at midday, I get dressed, put on my muck boots, and trudge out with a box of feed in hand. Moral: if you want to have more motivation for self-discipline, keep animals. If nothing else, it will make you get dressed properly in the morning.

For most families, structure is something integral to every day. They get up, fly through the routine of dressing and breakfast, and everyone goes off their own separate ways for the days. For those who both work and learn from home, the situation is very different. We are pretty much in each other’s hair every day and all day long, and that is by necessity a mess-generator (both physically and mentally). Structure is important; it doesn’t have to stick to conventional routines or hours, but it must be there.

One of my favorite homeschooling resources, The Homeschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith, has a chapter on schedules called Structure, or Can We Wear Our Pajamas to School? Here’s a quote:

“Often families who start out with a fairly rigid structure find themselves becoming more relaxed and flexible as they grow more comfortable with homeschooling, whereas those who began with an informal and casual style may discover the need for more structure.”

We’ve been in both these places. Some years ago, a homeschooling friend told me that in her family, and in all homeschooling families she knows, later hours and more flexible meal times for kids are the norm. I bristled. Not with us! Dinner at 6, bath at 6:30, story time at 7:00, bedtime and blissful silence by 7:30. And you know what, for a long while I adhered to these principles religiously. But I paid dearly for it. Stress, tension, and constant chafing with my kids became the norm. On the other hand, I wouldn’t adopt my husband’s suggestion of just letting them run about until they drop off from sheer exhaustion. These days I’m more flexible, but I do know, and so do my kids, that once we’re on the track of dinner-baths-reading time, it leads to bedtime and that’s that.

Another great quote from The Homeschooling Handbook:

“Figuring out which part of which ideas will work for you is not easy. Often the ideas you find most attractive and expect will best fit your family don’t work for you at all. Or they work for a year or two and then suddenly seem ridiculous. Just remember that your kids are growing and changing and the relationships among you all are changing as well. It’s unrealistic to expect homeschooling to remain the same in the midst of those changes.”

Hold On to Your Kids: book review


Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need To Matter More Than Peers is a book with an important message (the headline itself, I think, speaks volumes!).

By Briana LeClaire:

“The overarching theme of the book is ATTACHMENT. To whom are your children more attached? Are they attached to you, their parents, and other adults? Or are they attached to their peers? To whom do they look for guidance? Whose star have they hitched their little wagons to?”

“My son is so independent,” a neighbor proudly told me once, “he has so many friends! As soon as he gets back home, after lunch, his friends come to visit him or he visits them, and he plays together with them until it’s time for supper. He hardly needs me at all!” Want to guess how old the boy was? Only 4. And the situation described above was seen by his mother as something most natural and desirable.

There is a perspective of my own I would like to add: while the authors of the book admit that attachment between parents and children, especially young children, is vitally important, and that early enrollment in daycare and preschool is more likely to make children peer-oriented (that is, dependent upon their friends in the development of social connections, goals, values, morals, language and habits), they also say that the most obvious (and, they confess, most desirable) solution – that of young children staying at home, usually with their mothers, is in most cases an impractical, outdated measure.

Their suggested solution is creating an attachment between the child and the “parent substitute” – babysitter, daycare worker, teacher, etc. While, of course, an invested and caring daycare worker is better than a detached, unaware one, I do not think a parent-child-like connection between the child and the care provider is possible or even healthy. There are too many children per caretaker and, above all, nobody can love your child like you do. Also, there is absolutely no guarantee the caretaker/teacher passes on values and messages you approve.

I vividly remember a 3-year-old niece who kept talking to us about her preschool teacher, whose name was Ruthie. That child was evidently engrossed by Ruthie and talked about her a lot more often than she mentioned her parents. Perhaps it is better that the child was so connected to her teacher, rather than her peers, but the fact remains that Ruthie (however capable of creating the attachment) did not care about the child in the same way. It was not her child, after all. At the end of the year, the child and her teacher would part, never to meet again. Is it really good for a child to give her heart to a teacher in such a way, when we know it is to be only a temporary relationship?

Even grandparents, aunts and uncles (the relationship with whom is permanent) are not supposed to be more than auxiliary figures in child-rearing. They can provide help, plenty of help, but the biggest chunk of the job of child-rearing (in time as well as authority) should belong to the parents.

Rather than say it’s impractical for young children to remain under the care of their mothers, it is better to stress the importance of such a measure, and to encourage families to stick to it as much as possible. You know how it works: when you are convinced something is truly important, and that there is really no equally good substitute, you will move mountains to make it happen. Of course, for some parents it will not be possible to keep their child at home, and then damage-minimizing tactics, as described in this book, are in order.

While I do not think mothers at home should be directly funded by the government, I do believe that  significant tax reduction for fathers in single-income families would be a fair measure. Let people keep a larger share of their own fairly earned money and provide for their family. It would ultimately save the government a lot of money on all sorts of programs that fight violence, bullying in schools, teen pregnancy and drug abuse, and other ailments of our society.

Creative writing for children

child-writing-picture

Being a writer myself, naturally I encourage my children to make up and record their own tales on paper. My daughters now each have their own notebook where they write down their stories – sometimes short one-shots, sometimes epic tales of many chapters and pages. They have been “pretend writing” even when they were very young, but now that they are actually creating legible, engaging stories, they enjoy reading them aloud to each other and to me, and also having their work read aloud by me to the entire family. This is so much fun.

We’ve taken this to the next level when I started writing, inspired by my daughters, a children’s humorous fantasy book about a fairy who is determined to tame an unruly dragon. In between readings-aloud, we all sat together at the table, drawing the dragon, the fairies and the enchanted forest kingdom (please don’t ask me to post any of my drawings :-)).

This was a lesson for me – used as I was to writing by myself and to myself, wrapped up in my own world, I now had to accommodate the wishes of an eager audience which wasn’t only constantly prodding me to get on and write down what becomes of the dragon, but didn’t hesitate to offer critique in the form of “this is stupid” or “change that whole chapter”.

Of course, creative writing helps children learn so many helpful language skills: spelling, grammar, composition, vocabulary; and retelling the story helps exercise logic and memory. It is really one of the best secret tools a homeschooler can use, but it’s important not to ruin the child’s creative genius by unpicking every spelling or grammar mistake, or it might put them off writing altogether, or of showing their creations to others.

One’s story or poem is a sensitive, visceral thing, and it’s better to leave a few misplaced commas in peace than discourage an enthusiastic young writer. Leave the corrections for specifically defined language exercises – and anyway, if a child reads and writes a lot, language skills and correct grammar and spelling will eventually be absorbed with very little help.

Terrific Twos: why I love toddlers

israelpuppies2

Israel’s second birthday is now drawing near – it has been almost two years since this wonderful little boy has joined our family, and we feel so happy and blessed to have him. Raising him is a privilege and a joy I feel keenly every day, and it just gets better and better.

Not that I can’t relate to the “Terrible Twos” discussions – after all, toddlers are indeed a handful. It’s easy to feel wiped out at the end of a long day with a little person who suddenly decides hot water and soap are his worst enemies. But I do love two-year-olds – they are full of energy, fun, enthusiasm and initiative, curious about anything and everything, always ready to explore and discover, and easy to amuse. And two is an age of amazing physical, verbal and cognitive development which is a marvel to just stand back and watch.

Furthermore, though they can definitely throw tantrums and sometimes make you want to hide yourself in a very small hole somewhere, at least toddlers won’t try to sass and outsmart you the way older children can. A six-year-old can make you feel really stupid on occasion. With a two-year-old, you can still be pretty sure of your superior intelligence.

Some of the challenges of having a toddler in the house come from clashes with older children who like to have their own space for quiet creativity and don’t like their projects to be stepped on, torn, chewed or drooled over. Some maneuvering might be necessary there, for example scheduling art projects for a toddler’s naptime or providing a place for the older child where a toddler cannot reach. My eldest (aged almost 8) likes to take her reading, drawing and cross-stitching to the top of the bunk bed she shares with her sister.

Around here, every day is an adventure and there is never a dull moment. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

When little ones are sick

This week we’ve been struggling with a bout of flu that got all of the children in turn. As much as it pains me to see a little one sick, I consider this also an opportunity to slow down – which is especially important if I’m not at my best either – rest, unwind and do some quiet, enjoyable things there often isn’t enough time for:

Reading – listening to an interesting new story, or re-visiting an old friend of a book, is a soothing and relaxing activity that is perfectly suited for a day spent mostly in bed or on the couch. Older children can read quietly to themselves.

Crafts – drawing, stitching, beading and working with play-dough all stimulate the mind and creative senses without requiring too much physical exertion. Dress-up or building forts and hideouts with chairs and blankets are also fun.

Board games – pull out old favorites like Monopoly or Scrabble, or try something new. Forbidden Island is currently all the rage here.

Outdoor time – if the weather is nice, I see no reason to necessarily stay indoors. On the contrary, warm sunshine provides a cheering effect and may even help with nasal congestion. I do discourage sick children from “playing hard” – running, riding bikes, climbing trees, etc.

Outdoors we may also pick herbs to make medicinal tea and talk about their various healing properties, as well as of the importance of staying hydrated in general.

Fresh herbs from the garden make great tea for colds and flu

Movies – I like to restrict screen time, and especially so for sick children, because I find that prolonged staring into a screen is fatiguing, but a short cartoon or an educational video can be nice.

On days when the children don’t feel well, I usually dispense with school, but the girls may still choose to do some fun educational activities such as writing in their story notebooks.

The most important thing is to remember that this, too, shall pass. Slow down, allow everybody the time to rest and heal, and try not to mind the mess too much. There is always tomorrow for catching up with housework, gardening and lessons.