Saturday, 26 June 2010

Days Out

Maybe it is the beautiful summer weather which has made this week a good week .... More time spent outdoors, a more relaxed approach to life and the whole home schooling business. Maybe it is the fact we have had three fantastic days out - all at minimal cost and with minimal crowds. Certainly I have rediscovered our nearest city - where I lived some years ago before I had children - and so have been reminded how great it is to live in a small town with fantastic countryside in one direction, and a fantastic city with all the cultural richness that offers us, in the other!

On Wednesday we visited Plantasia near Atherstone using Tesco Clubcard vouchers, which can be exchanged for free days out! There we found Maze World - a series of mazes with various country themes. The boys each had a card and had to collect a stamp from the centre of each one, which kept motivation and persistence high. We had the play area completely to ourselves and had a picnic lunch before discovering the Wild Walk, again armed with cards and in search of stamps, which meant few corners of the woodland remained unexplored. There was a treetop walk, deer, alpacas and other small animals to look at, lakes and a den-making area. All in all, a good day in the open air.

On Friday, our Home Ed Group had a booking for the Symphony Hall in Birmingham to hear the orchestra play Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade - The Tales of the Arabian Nights. One of the other mums, a music teacher, had given the children a brilliant introduction to this music in preparation for the concert, and with great seats, we had a wonderful view of the orchestra whose performance, with occasional commentary, kept the children spellbound for the hour it lasted. 'Was it good?' my eldest son was asked afterwards. 'No ..... it was FANTASTIC!' he replied. And it was!

We went to Birmingham cheaply on the train, and spent the morning in the Museum and Art Gallery where we discovered the Natural History Museum's robotic dinosaurs on tour in an exhibition entitled 'T-Rex - the Killer Question'. We think of this huge dinosaur as a predator, but as the children went round the exhibition, they were encouraged to consider the evidence and decide whether they thought T-Rex was actually a predatory hunter or a scavenger. Again, this held the boys' attention, and they were wide-eyed at the sight of these awesome dinosaur reconstructions. So all-in-all, another great day out!

Keeping with the theme of The Arabian Nights, we returned to Birmingham the following morning to see the Theatre of Widdershins' magical production of the tales using puppetry and storytelling. Followed by a picnic and play in the adjacent park, then an afternoon visit to family in the city, it was another successful day out in the sunshine.

There's nothing worse than planning a day out, and then having it all go wrong! But 3 good days out have left me thinking maybe this home educating lark ain't so crazy after all!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Chocolate Making

My eldest son has been buying chocolate, melting it down, adding cereal, putting into ice cube trays to set, prising it out, packaging and selling it, reinvesting the profit in more chocolate as well as paying his 'workforce' - his brother and I, who have been assisting in this process. The first lot were rather misshapen chocolate blobs wrapped in bits of plastic. So we talked about marketing a product, and how important packaging can be for pricing and sales. He soon upped his game, purchasing white chocolate and decorating this lot with a red cross, complete with 'England' packaging, just right for marketing this week as we lead up to the World Cup. He was obviously inspired by the displays of goods in our local Tesco!


One of the reasons I decided to de-register my eldest son from school was that this creative, innovative boy who was always so full of ideas, always drawing out his inventions and machines, had stopped finishing anything. In fact, he had stopped even starting anything because, he said, it wouldn't be good enough. This was leading to quite stressful interactions - especially over homework. I had become aware that there was quite a strong emphasis in his class on presentation and handwriting and that this was causing him some anxiety.

We have been home educating now for almost 6 months, and I have laid off reading and writing completely to remove the pressure and to try and get the boys to relax. I have a confidence that, in time, they will come to these skills themselves and that their enthusiasm will be greater because it will come from their own interest and need. I read with the boys every day. We have just started the Narnia series, and we plan to make a folder each in which they can respond artistically with drawings, character studies, maps etc. I also plan to set up their MP3 players or computers so that they can record their story ideas orally without the pressure to write.

I have observed my older two boys reading spontaneously, silently and independently things which are of interest to them - far more difficult texts that they were being given at school - but their own choices. I have observed this quietly and without comment, and it remains my belief that such reading will continue and increase.

I have also been really thrilled this week to see my eldest son finishing things! He has begun to set himself targets and to complete his projects, something I was afraid he would never do again. He has his own motivations .... He has recently started to watch 'Blue Peter' and swiftly caught on to the fact that there were badges to be earned! He set about earning a blue one and, having done that, is now determined to earn himself a silver one!

Mathematical Breakthrough

I got to spend a solid 20 minutes with my middle son working on a maths concept he was struggling to understand. He was trying to read a graph, & it took a while for him to grasp that the scale went up in increments of 5. We ended up with the LEGO bricks out and he grappled with the problem for a while before the penny seemed to drop. I explained that the increments of scales differ so you have to work out in each case what you are being shown. My son then went to the kitchen and took out a measuring jug he has used in his cooking. "It's like on here," he said, "this goes up in 50 ml, so if I pour milk up to here, that will be 250ml." (He indicated between the 200 and 300 ml marks.)

This showed me, not only that he had grasped what I was saying, but that he was able then to apply that knowledge to another context. It was a good moment! Without that 1:1 input at school, he might have failed to grasp this concept and, because of the pressure on teachers to get through the curriculum, would probably have been moved on with a gap in the foundation of his knowledge.

Learning from the Great Outdoors

With a good weather forecast for the weekend, we spontaneously packed up boys and camping gear and headed for the Peaks - the great outdoors. Our boys love camping, and somehow the sky and the open air seems to absorb the noise and energy which can drive me mad when we are all cooped up in the house! Our campsite was near the river, and many happy hours were spent paddling / fishing / damming all on a shoestring budget.

Another parent recently told me about the outdoor pursuits day her son's school had planned & were funding towards the end of the summer term. The children would get to build dens, she told me with enthusiasm. There is such a lot to be learned from spending time in the great outdoors, observing and engaging with nature. What a shame it has to wait until a day at the end of the summer term - with no guarantee that won't be wet!

Piagetian Theories

Jean Piaget proposed that children were not just small grown-ups, but that they learned in a qualitatively different way from adults. He described children as active participants in their own learning, constructing their own understanding and furthering their own knowledge.

Piagetian theory has been such a strong influence on early years practice in the UK that it is easy to overlook how radical his ideas were at the time. Piaget's image of the child as little scientist was in stark contrast to other perspectives in Europe and the USA over the same period. The prevailing educational belief about children was that they were essentially empty vessels who needed to be filled up with adult-given knowledge.

Sound familiar?

Piaget proposed that between 5 and 7 years of age children make the shift into a whole new level of thinking, that of operations - mental activities such as categorising, use of number and early scientific concepts. This new level of understanding took children into the concrete operational stage which Piaget believed lasted up to about 12 years of age. By the brink of adolescence, children have gained such a broad and thorough understanding of ideas in action, concrete operations, that they were able to deal with increasingly complex ideas in their head and move to the stage of formal operations.

If we agree with this, why do we formalise our children's education so early?