Tag Archives: preschooler

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“A portrait of my child once a week, every week, in 2016”

This one (pictured here admiring himself in the mirror post-bath) has been more than a little bit challenging this past week.

He has been seeming super grumpy, which is totally unlike him – quick to get tearful and to lash out, and extra clingy at the same time. He had a cold that lingered for ages, but I’m sure there’s something else going on.

Tonight he started chewing on his hands, and told me that his teeth hurt at the back of his mouth, so maybe it’s his molars.

Or maybe he’s just levelling up again – it definitely feels that way as I watch him learn and play.

Or maybe it’s a bit of all three.

Whatever the reason, it’s been a real test of our parenting strategies, and our commitment to using gentle and respectful techniques to help him grow.

I think we’ve just about managed to hold our course…

Emerging literacy

The unschooling diaries: weeks thirty-two and thirty-three

Arthur hasn’t been exposed to anything yet that might constitute formal literacy teaching. And that’s totally as it should be in my opinion – he is after all not yet four, and both my instincts and my research tell me that he is far too young for his ever-expanding conception of his world to be constrained by the often clumsy rules of language we inflict upon it.

There are though still times when my conviction wavers: when I see children his age and younger already trained to write shaky letters and even words, or hear others confidently identify the majority of the alphabet.

I know that he will master these things when he’s ready, that in the meantime his overflowing imagination and fascination with the universe is more than enough to both demonstrate and drive his learning. But I have wondered whether there is more I could be doing to help him along.

Except actually, in the past few weeks, he’s been helping himself.

It started with Alphabites, milk-drenched letters held up from his breakfast bowl as he asked me what they were. We named them, and explored their sounds – finding different words he could apply them to.

Then there is ‘I Spy’. We’ve actually sort of played it for months, but recently he’s really started to get it. We’ll use the sound of letters rather than naming them, and it’s a brilliant way to pass the time on long journeys or when we’re out and about.

He’s started expressing an interest in the phonics apps on his iPad too, carefully tracing letters to win fireflies.

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Through his app, and through various ‘ABC’ books we have floating around, we’ve begun to explore the notion of capitals and lower case. He wouldn’t believe me at first, that ‘a’ was actually ‘A’. But he’s starting to get it, and we’ve had interesting discussions about the ways that the different versions of each letter are similar and different.

Of course alongside this the most important influence on his emerging literacy is reading. We love to read together, and we are never far from a book when we’re at home. He picked one of Leigh’s up last week and said he wanted to be able to read it – not to have it read to him, but to read it on his own. So we talked about the process that might get him there, how all the games and activities he was exploring would help him break the code, but that there really was no rush.

And actually reading is about way more than decoding anyway, and he’s learning all the stuff that goes around that without us even trying.

On a rainy day at the weekend, stuck in the campervan to escape the relentless drizzle, his friend picked up one of Arthur’s Star Wars books (a current fave), and Arthur offered to read it to him. They sat side by side as Arthur told him the story from a combination of memory  and interpreting the images. His friend asked him questions about characters and plot, and Arthur answered. It was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

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It’s good to reflect on how much of this more ‘formal’ learning Arthur is managing to discover for himself, and I am way more excited about him finding his own path to reading through fascination and wonder than about navigating the thorny and often irrational world of synthetic phonics to force him there before he’s ready.

Forcing learning is after all a bit of an oxymoron, and I have no doubt that there is way more going on beneath the surface than I will ever really know.

An icy experiment

The unschooling diaries: week thirty-one

A new book arrived in the post last week, and it’s been inspiring Arthur since he first set eyes on it. He has been particularly keen to try the ‘icy orbs’ – balloons, ice, food colouring, what’s not to love?

He reminded me of this again over dinner the other day. I filled a balloon with water, put it in a bowl inside the freezer, and the next morning we had a ball of ice all ready to be unwrapped…

Even at this stage Arthur was fascinated. We talked about how there seemed to be steam coming off the ice, and how it was sticky when he touched it (and also very, very c-c-c-cold).

More for my sake than his, we went through the motions of the activity in the book. Arthur sprinkled on some salt, and then we added food colouring, watching it trickle down the pits in the ice and the cracks that reached down into its depths. He was fairly interested in this, especially when we got a torch out to shine against it, but he was more intrigued to see what would happen if he drove vehicles across the surface of the now textured and colourful orb…

Driving vehicles soon progressed to tapping with a spoon… And then banging… And at that point we moved proceedings outside. He had more space to examine it there too, insisting on taking with him his goggles and a magnifying glass.

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Then followed squeals of delight as he banged away, and fragments of ice flew off across the deck.

This all escalated quite quickly, and he was soon smashing away at the orb and insisting that I joined in, watching as the sphere split and we could examine the passage of the coloured streams within.

He then wanted to know what would happen if we put hot water on it… So we did… And as the pieces of ice got smaller he threw them up into the air and watched as they broke to pieces on impact with the ground, fragments skitting away.

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Finally, he could not resist but out a piece of ice into his mouth. I’d been reluctant when it had been covered in salt and food colouring (and then who knows what else in the garden!), but decided that the pieces left after the outside layers had been melted away were probably innocuous enough.

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All in all it was a very satisfying hour or so of experimentation. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what we learnt, but that’s mainly because there are so many things to choose from.

Most important of all though was the joy Arthur found in making discoveries for himself. And if he continues to be this enthusiastic about seeking out inspiration I predict many more hours of spontaneous discovery to come!

Very hungry caterpillars

The unschooling diaries: week twenty-five

After the success of our tadpole project, I’ve been on the lookout for another opportunity to explore metamorphosis in action. A couple of weeks ago one appeared, in the shape of several very hungry caterpillars eating their way through our lettuces.

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We picked out two, and created a little habitat for them in the fishtank, complete with the remains of one of the lettuces they had been munching so that they could continue to prepare for their transformation.

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They were already pretty big when we found them, and it wasn’t long at all before they each settled into a crevice in their new home and began to spin a web of silk around themselves.

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This was fascinating to watch, as was the way their bright green bodies slowly went brown and hard as they pupated.

Whilst we waited for them to hatch, we read up about the process – Usbourne Beginners ‘Caterpillars and Butterflies’ had lots of interesting facts, and of course we re-read Eric Carle’s classic. I also did a bit of googling to try to find out what sort of butterflies we might expect, and discovered that actually the silk cocoons suggested that we were more likely going to be welcoming moths.

And indeed about ten days later first one then the other broke out and spread their wings.

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We watched them for a couple more days, and when we were sure that their wings were strong enough Arthur reluctantly agreed to let them go.

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Once they had flown away, he was keen to have a closer look at the empty cocoons. He felt the sticky silk, and prodded at the shell of the pupa within.

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And after that, whilst I attempted to tidy up our overgrown veg patch, he even washed out the tank, ready for his next pets.

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As it happened, he didn’t have to wait very long. I had a feeling that the latticed spinach and calendula might be hiding some more little creatures and, in fact, it was teeming with them.

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It made for some very interesting conversation, around how these bugs are interesting to watch and study but are also pests, especially when they’re competing for our vegetables! We transferred some of the caterpillars we found to another part of the garden, but because they looked different to the first ones we’d found we decided to keep a few back so we could observe the metamorphosis process again and see if we noticed any changes.

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After this lot I think we’ll be done though, at least till next year…

Anyone have any ideas how we can make the remains of our crops slightly less attractive to the very hungry caterpillars? After all, it would be quite nice to be able to enjoy some of our vegetables too!

A cut above

The unschooling diaries: week twenty-two

Excuse the incredibly specific focus of this post, but there were a couple of moments this week that reminded me why I love the unschooling approach to learning new skills.

Months ago now, I first started trying to teach Arthur how to use scissors ‘properly’. It felt like one of those seminal fine motor skills, one of the things that pre-school teachers tick off to show progress, one of the milestones that parents proudly share on social media.

And he just wasn’t having it. He was fascinated by scissors, but every time he picked them up he seemed sure to injure himself. Any attempt to encourage him to use them more safely was met with a blank stare, and generally prompted him to give up and go and do something else instead.

So I stopped bothering. We had plenty of other things to focus on, and this particular one just seemed a bit dangerous to pursue any further. But still it would niggle in my mind: just one of the many skills through which I was failing my child by not pushing him to master it as early as possible.

And then this week, whilst we were making a congratulations card for his dad, he came across some foam letters and asked if he could have his scissors. I queried what he wanted to do, and he said he wanted to cut them up to ‘make other letters’ – an idea we’ve been playing around with at breakfast time with his alphabites cereal. I handed the scissors over, resisting the temptation to tell him how to use them, and watched amazed as he carefully placed his finger and thumb inside the handles and demonstrated complete control over the task he had set himself.

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He did it again yesterday, finding some tissue paper and asking if he could do some cutting. And again he was careful and precise and achieved his self-set goal. Admittedly he was using his other hand this time – he’s taking a while to let go of his ambidexterity – but I figure he’ll work that one out too in his own time.

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I’ve started to notice the same tendencies when it comes to Arthur’s approach to drawing. Again I have been trying for ages to push him towards a ‘proper’ pencil grip, and again he’s resisted my efforts, preferring instead a resolutely clenched fist.

But a few times recently I’ve looked over when he’s been scrawling out circles on his easel and I’ve realised that he’s chosen to adjust his grip all by himself.

These are very precise skills I’m talking about here, but they are precisely the ones that I worry about with an unschooling approach. Sure, it’s great for the broad brush strokes of independence and creativity, but what about those things kids have to just know?

The more I learn about how Arthur learns, though, the more I feel a creeping confidence that unschooling might just be a cut above for developing those skills, too.

Venturing into the forest

The unschooling diaries: week eighteen

I am always on the lookout for new and exciting learning opportunities where Arthur gets to hang out with other kids, and in the past couple of weeks we’ve found a brilliant one.

My main motivation for leaning towards homeschooling as a vehicle for Arthur’s education is the complete pedagogical divergence between how I know children learn best and the constraints and controls being put on our schools by our current government. I am not anti-school per se, and I’m definitely not anti-teachers: I just wish our education system was able to be fed by the wealth of research over the past fifty years that advocates a child-led approach, steeped in creativity and the natural world. It is just so depressing that instead our schools, and our children, have been hijacked by a government obsessed with data and narrowly-focused assessment.

It’s not like there aren’t real alternatives to the system that is currently stagnating in the UK. Finland has had amazing results with an approach that is much more closely aligned to my own beliefs. One of the cornerstones of that approach is the dominance of forest schools, particularly in the early years: and I decided a couple of weeks ago that I owed it to Arthur for that to be part of his early-education experience.

And so, for the past two weeks, we have travelled to the little village of Stoke Gabriel on a Tuesday morning to join in with their forest school. It’s a bit of a mission – I still don’t drive (though I’m determined to do something about that this summer) so with the limited bus service it means getting taxis. But we are rewarded by our efforts with four and a half hours in the wilderness, which without a doubt makes it all worthwhile.

Weeks alternate between a community orchard and the forest, depending on whether the tide is too high to cross the weir. We were in the orchard for our first week, and I was struck by democratic, respectful atmosphere that pervaded – children were trusted, and they rose to that challenge. There were planned activities – from worm charming to clay modelling – but around that there was plenty of time for children to just play, inspired by each other and the world around them.

This week, we ventured into the forest. And it was amazing. The journey itself was rich in challenge and learning: navigating along the shore of the millpond, walking carefully across the weir and climbing up into the woods. Along the way the children were encouraged to be mindful of their environment – of plants, and insects, and the (metaphorical) need to tread carefully so as not to leave too significant a footprint.

After close to an hour, we reached Mr Magic Tree, the guardian of the woodland playground, and passed into a world of natural balance beams and fire pits and bug hunting and wooden xylophones. Again the time was punctuated by shared experiences (like cooking nettles to see if they lost their sting), but largely the children just played, and   no doubt learnt more than we could ever truly compute, let alone measure.

I think we’re going to have fun at forest school, Arthur and I. There is so much to learn, so much to experience.

And underpinning it all is a pedagogy that makes my heart sing.



Project metamorphosis

The unschooling diaries: week seventeen

Just over a month ago, we were in my parents garden when we spotted clusters of tadpoles in their pond. I mentioned how cool it would be to have some for Arthur to watch grow at home, and a little while later my brother appeared with a jar containing four little tadpoles and a healthy dose of pondweed. Thus began our science project for the past few weeks – one which fascinated me at least as much as it did Arthur!

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First step was to prepare a suitable habitat. A bit of googling suggested a fairly shallow container with space for the tadpoles to swim and also to hide, and rocks for them to crawl up on once they developed legs. I decided that the fish kettle was the closest thing we had to a tank, and Arthur helped me collect a selection of stones to help make it a bit more homely.

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He was pretty chuffed with how it turned out, and loved to watch the tadpoles swimming around and getting used to their new home.

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In fact each morning we both gravitated towards the tadpoles to check how they were getting on: Arthur curious to see what pets were up to, me desperately hoping that I would have more success with amphibians than I do with house plants.

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They seem to get on ok, but after the first week or so it was clear that we were going to have to clean them. My mum brought over a fresh supply of pond water, and Arthur helped me clear out the worst of the muck using a baster (thank you google again) which worked surprisingly well!

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All of these online investigations, though, were making me doubt the wisdom of the receptacle I’d chosen to contain them. Apparently you shouldn’t use anything made of metal (though I didn’t manage to find a reason why) and, more compellingly, a lid would come in very handy for stopping seagulls from sourcing an easy lunch when they were out on the deck and stopping the little froglets themselves from climbing (or jumping) out when metamorphosis kicked in.

So I found a cheap and cheerful fishtank, and Arthur helped me transfer them over (with another dose of pond water for good measure).

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The transparent tank had the advantage of making it much easier to see what was going on, though I’m not sure how much the tadpoles liked being on display 24/7…

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Under our constant surveillance it did feel, for ages, as if nothing much was happening. The tadpoles were definitely getting bigger: we experimented with feeding them finely chopped, frozen lettuce, though to be honest I think they preferred the pond weed. We read some books, so we knew what was coming: Osbourne Beginner’s Tadpoles and Frogs was predictably good, as was the slightly macabre Tadpole’s Promise.

But every morning when we checked they were still just tadpoles. Until one day things began to change… And once the metamorphosis had started they seemed increasingly frog-like (and increasingly well camouflaged) every time we looked.

One of the things that I thought was particularly interesting (and particularly apt, seeing as we were right in the middle of our anti-SATs campaign), was the different pace at which the tadpoles developed. Even though they had all looked identical at the start, their metamorphosis progressed at quite different rates.

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They all got there in the end though, and one morning we came down to find four tiny but perfectly formed frogs witting on top of the rocks.

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It was at this point that I started to get really worried about keeping them alive – whilst the tadpoles can survive on pond weed, frogs are carnivorous and need live insects to sustain them. There were a fair few bugs in the pond water, and we increasingly left the tank outside to entice others into their lair, but still it was clear that we were going to have to return them to their habitat sooner rather than later.

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And so, on a suitably grey and rainy day, we took our little frogs in their tank back to my parents’ pond, and released them back into the wild.

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It was genuinely a little bit sad to be saying goodbye to them (though I was secretly proud as well that we still had four). Arthur was incredibly careful and gentle as he helped me transfer them one by one from tank to pond, and once the frogs had got over their initial bewilderment at how big their world had become they hopped happily away.

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We did have one little guy who seemed less sure about the transition, but once we’d persuaded him to check out the world on the other side of the tank he seemed to agree it was preferable.

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All in all this has been a wonderful learning opportunity for Arthur (and me). I’m already keen to do it all again next year, and in the meantime am thinking about what our next living science project might involve.

Arthur’s asking for a dog, but I’m thinking worms might be more likely…