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

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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.”

Creative writing for children

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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.

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.

Homeschool science fun

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This neat little experiment comes from Science Bob.

You will need:

A glass or plastic bottle with a relatively narrow neck.

1 tbsp. of dry yeast

1 tbsp. of sugar

A funnel

A balloon

Blow up the balloon and then release the air from it to stretch a bit. Then, using the funnel, pour the dry yeast and sugar into the bottle and shake it all up with some warm water. Put the balloon over the neck of the bottle, making sure it’s firmly in place.

After a few minutes, the yeast will begin making foam and the balloon will start to blow up because of carbon dioxide emission. The foam may actually overrun the top of the bottle and escape into the balloon – that’s OK.

A couple of hours later, the yeast activity will fizz out, but the balloon will retain its size.

It’s a very easy, fun experiment which prompts interesting discussion with kids about micro-organisms, metabolic processes and properties of gas.

Answering their questions

I have a theory which perhaps may sound a little far-fetched: by simply taking the time and effort to try and provide insightful answers to the questions our children ask us, we are helping them complete a large part of their education.

By doing so, we are achieving several things:

1. The children find that they can ask questions about anything in the world, which is in itself a fuel for further learning.

2. They also learn that they are important, that their questions aren’t brushed aside, but discussed with interest – and a 4-year-old can ask very interesting questions.

 3. Everything becomes an educational opportunity, because little children will ask about many things we take for granted, from Who made the stars to how is it that vinegar can dissolve an egg’s shell.

Of course, as this kind of free learning emerges spontaneously, it needs a good deal of unscheduled leisurely time to just hang around, watch and observe, and ask questions. Naturally, sometimes we are busy, and none of us can be available always, all the time… but when we are never available, when we are so overwhelmingly busy that we do things on autopilot even when we are there, it leaves a void in many things – our children’s educational opportunities among them.

Around here, the school bus leaves around 7:30 and comes back around 16:00. I have spoken to many stay-at-home mothers who, as of themselves, would love to have their children at home for more hours in a day, and genuinely wonder why a 6-year-old needs an 8-hour school day. Preschoolers in government-funded institutions now have an obligatory extension of their time at preschool until 14:00; such reforms are accepted with relief by the majority of working parents, but the minority of mothers who would like to take their children home early aren’t allowed to do so, unless under special circumstances (of course, things may be different in private kindergartens, but not everyone can afford them).

In Israel, it’s really pretty much black and white. Either you send your child to preschool/school, or you don’t  – and homeschooling is a very controversial choice here. Once the child is enrolled in school, most of their waking hours belong to it – extending to hours spent at home, because there’s also homework to be done. And the lengthening of the school day is painted as an “educational reform” which is in the children’s very best interests – disregarding things such as attention span and effectiveness of learning, which by necessity are reduced with the longer school hours. Thus, instead of a concentrated and effective school time, we get a longer time in which learning is diluted, causing boredom and frustration.