Rethinking the Three R’s Part 4: Real Experiences

“If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.”  Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford Graduate School of Education

In the first few posts of this series, we talked about taking a relaxed approach to homeschooling and focusing on our relationships with our children, and our children’s relationships to the material they are learning. Now we’re going to look at the final “R” in the series: real experiences.

I think one of the best things about homeschooling is the ability to take advantage of the learning opportunities that naturally occur  in daily life. The kinds of things that are unplanned, but leave an impression on kids because they come from their very own lives and aren’t imposed on them by on an external curriculum. I’ll share a few recent experiences from my own life to illustrate the point.

We’ve been spending a lot of time at parks this summer. We are blessed where we live with an abundance of amazing parks. One of our favorites has a creek with water just deep enough for wading and splashing and catching crawdads (crayfish, crawfish, mud bugs, whatever you like to call them), but not deep enough to have to worry too much about a 2 year old going under.

We’ve been meeting some friends there once a week to let the kids run wild while the mamas chat under a tree. These are some of my favorite times as a mom and as a homeschooler. As I watch the kids run up and down the hills, gather in little groups to chat or play with trucks, and engage in crazy, disgusting antics such as algae fights, my heart feels so content as the phrase “magical childhood” echoes in my mind. 

As I watch, I love to see the learning that is going on – completely spontaneously.

Last week, I was amused as my oldest started bringing me random “treasures” he was digging out of the mud – an old hand weight, a hinge, a glass bottle (not a beer bottle oddly enough), an enormous bolt, a metal pipe. I had to chuckle to myself. We’re starting school in a couple of weeks and I have a huge archaeology unit planned. I’m so thankful for this spontaneous archaeological dig my son conducted, because I know it will be way more meaningful to him than anything I plan.

I seized the opportunity to think like an archaeologist. I asked him how he thought those things ended up there. How long might they have been there? What guesses can we make about what’s happened in and around the creek based on the small clues we found? I didn’t force the conversation. I just wondered with him about the really cool stuff he’d found. (And because, at times, I’m a really awesome mom, I let him bring the mud and algae encrusted treasures back home to display on our “nature shelves.”)

As our visit to the park reached the 3 hour mark, the boys started getting, um, daring. They started dropping rocks in the creek. Then they started throwing rocks in the creek. Then they started trying to find the biggest rocks they could lift to drop from the bridge. Then they started speculating. If it were possible for them to lift that largest rock there and drop it from the bridge, would the splash it created empty the creek? There was some discussion (that I couldn’t really follow) that the rock would actually be too big to make a splash because it was taller than the creek was deep. This is real scientific speculation. Kids do this all the time.

Again this morning, we were at a park. This one is walking distance from our home and doesn’t have the great creek feature of the other park. It was a spontaneous trip, and we took the neighbor boy along with us. It was a very hot day after some heavy rains, and so the shady sandbox beckoned. The sand was just wet enough to make some great structures.

The neighbor boy wanted to show us how he and his friends dig tunnels in the sand at school.

I didn’t have my camera with me, but the tunnels were similar to this one:

picture from Brimful Curiosities

Ours were a little different, more of a tunnel under ground than through a hill, but you get the general idea.

Anyway, to facilitate a bit of scientific thinking, I wondered aloud, “why doesn’t it collapse?” Now we didn’t necessarily answer that question, but we asked it. And they thought about it. And that’s science. And then they started seeing how close together they could dig the tunnels without them collapsing. And we noticed that they looked like prairie dog holes.  And then we remembered the chipmunk colonies we’d seen while camping.

This is a lot of science from two trips to the park. And none of it was premeditated.

When we know what we’re looking for, we can see the learning taking place in the everyday activities of our children. In my next posts, I’ll show you how to see this learning through real experiences for each of the traditional  3 R’s  – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.

To read the other posts in this series:

Part 1: Relax

Part 2: Learning Based on Relationships

Part 3: Your Child’s Relationship to the Material


Rethinking the Three R’s Part 2: Learning Based on Relationships

In my last post I suggested a new set of “R’s” to guide our homeschool philosophy, particularly in the early grades.

I proposed

  • relaxed approach
  • based on relationships
  • and real experiences.

I then encouraged us all to take a deep breath and relax.

Today, I want to think about the role of relationships in our homeschools. I want us to think about the relationships between and among the people in our homes, particularly between us as mothers and our children. I also want us to think about how our children relate to the material they are learning.

Let’s take a minute and perform a little thought experiment. Imagine you’re 5 years old. You’re going off to school for the first time and you’ve heard that your teacher is the best in the school. She’s kind and warm and funny. She’s gentle yet firm – you know your days will be peaceful. She loves kids and she loves teaching them. She respects children and encourages them to ask questions which she patiently answers. She laughs easily and her excitement for learning inspires her students’ sense of wonder.

Now imagine you’re the same small child, but you’ve heard your teacher is the meanest in school. She never smiles. She’s strict and harsh and has no patience for silly questions or nonsense. She is the quintessential schoolmarm taskmistress.

How did you feel imagining yourself meeting each teacher? Which teacher made you feel excited to be in school and to learn?

Like this thought experiment, research shows that a positive, supportive, encouraging relationship between teacher and student promotes learning. When you’re homeschooling, always remember that you are your child’s mother first. There’s a Jewish proverb stating that “one mother is worth a thousand teachers.” This is so true. You are better than your child’s teacher. You are his mother. Don’t ever let your role as his teacher diminish your role as his mother.

Don’t let learning conflicts destroy your relationship. If a lesson becomes a battle, leave it for a time until you are both calmer. Use the time to determine what the root of the problem is. Is the material too hard? Is it too boring? Is there another way to present the same idea? Is it really necessary to pursue this lesson at this time? Can you come back to the concepts in a week, a month, or even 6 months or a year?

I started phonics instruction with my oldest many, many times before we finally pursued learning to read together. I truly thought he was going to be an early reader. When he was two, he spent several days on the couch with the stomach flu. In between bouts of vomiting, he watched the Leap Frog Letter Factory over and over and over again. (This is a truly obnoxious video, but kids love it.) By the time his tummy recovered, he knew his letters and letter sounds pat. I thought for sure he’d be a precocious reader.

He wasn’t. When we started Sing, Spell, Read and Write in kindergarten, it was kind of a disaster. I tried various other programs over the next couple of years with various levels of resistance and distress. I never pushed it. I didn’t have it in me to force the issue. If he resisted too much, I’d drop it. I would ignore reading instruction for 6 months at a time and try again.

Eventually he started sounding out “environmental print,” signs  along the road, words on cereal boxes, that sort of thing. Then he decided that he could read Bears in the Night by Stan and Jan Berenstain. That was the only book he could read for about a year. Then he started trying other books, but never read more than a few words. Finally, when he was 7.5 I told him we were going to get more serious about school. We would be doing 10 minutes of reading and 10 minutes of math a day. I told him he could read anything to me he wanted for those 10 minutes. He mostly chose easy reader books and the Henry and Mudge series was his favorite.

After about 6 months of this, he announced one day, “Mama, I’m going to read the Harry Potter books.” As it happened, the next day I found the first four books at Goodwill for $.99/piece so I bought them all. And you know what? He’s reading the first book. After a couple of days of reading, he came to me and excitedly told me, “Mama! I’ve already ready two and half pages!” It’s slow going, but he’s doing it and he is so proud of himself. And he will be a much better reader by the time he finishes this book.

All told, I would say over the first 7.5 years of his life he received about 3 hours of direct phonics instruction.

I’ll talk more about how you can teach a kid to read without a phonics curriculum (I’m not anti-phonics, so don’t jump on me here!) in my post about reading. My primary point here is that it was never worth it to me to fight my son about reading. I decided that if teaching my child was going to strain or injure our relationship, I’d rather send him to school.

And I didnt’ want to send him to school.

So what can you do if you’re finding learning time to be a battle? First, you can just stop. As I said before, there’s no reason your 5 year old has to have a formal curriculum of any kind. If sitting down to “do school” is a battle, go to the park instead. Wait awhile and try again in 6 months after he’s matured a little. And then, if you need to, wait another six months and try again. Or look for a different approach. Make train tracks shaped like letters and let him puff his train along the “j” track. Draw letters and numbers in the sand. Make cookies together and count scoops as you measure. Just go to Pinterest and look around at some of the “learning to read” or “preschool math” boards and you’ll be flooded with fun ideas that you and your child will love. Life presents so many joyful learning opportunities that can bring you closer to your child – there’s no need to doggedly pursue a curriculum that creates tension and discord.

You know your child better than anyone. You know what lights his fire. You know his interests and passions. If you don’t, find out. Put aside your curriculum and expectations and just spend some time following his lead in play and see what excites and motivates him. You’ll have a much easier time teaching him if you know what makes him tick. And you will probably discover he is learning things you weren’t even aware of.

Finally, pray. Ask our Lord how to reach your children’s hearts. Ask Him what it is you need to teach your children today, this month, this year. Ask Him to reveal to you His plan and purpose for each of your children and your role in helping each to fulfill that purpose. Pray to your children’s guardian angels and baptismal saints. Ask them to intercede for you and your children regarding their educations. I have been astounded and overwhelmed  by the answers and blessings I have received when I have placed my trust in the Lord regarding challenging situations with my children. The Lord is truly good and he desires the best for you and your children. He will guide you if you ask and listen.

Your relationship with your child is the greatest educational tool you have. Don’t let your anxiety over what he “should” be learning when he’s little create a rift between you.

In the next post, I’ll look at the second relationship I mentioned above: the relationship between your children and the material they are learning.

To read the other posts in this series:

Part 1: Relax

Part 3: Your Child’s Relationship with the Material

Part 4: Real Experiences

Rethinking the Three R’s: Homeschooling the Early Grades

I recently had the honor of speaking at the Rocky Mountain Catholic Home Educators Conference where I gave a talk entitled Homeschooling the Early Grades: Rethinking the Three R’s. It was well received, and I thought I would share my thoughts here as well.

So here are my 3 R’s:

  • A relaxed approach
  • based on relationships and
  • real experiences.

I was inspired to give this talk because I’ve noticed a trend recently in my various online homeschool groups where a new member will post an introduction along these lines:

“Hi! I’ll be homeschooling my 4 year old daughter next year and I know she’s young, but she really loves learning and I want to get her started and feed that eager young mind of hers. I was wondering if you could recommend a good reading and math curriculum. Also, I was looking at this logic book. Have any of you used it?”

That’s not a copy and paste, but it is accurate. Yes, someone once asked about using a logic book with their kindergartner. A friend of mine attended multiple conferences this summer in preparation of  her first year of homeschooling year. Her one and only daughter will be two in September.

When I see these parents fretting about choosing the right curriculum for their wee ones, I want to grab them by the shoulders, look them deep in the eyes and say, “Relax. Take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay.”

It’s not a race

This post will focus on that first R. Relax. It’s not a race. There is no reason whatsoever to begin a formal curriculum of any sort with a 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old. Or even a 6- or 7-year old. Research shows that by the time they’re 11, there’s no difference in the reading ability of those who received reading instruction beginning at age 5 and those who weren’t taught until they were 7. Most of the research showing an advantage for those receiving early childhood education also shows these advantages taper off about third grade.

Meanwhile, there’s more and more research showing the clear benefits of play and exploration for children. They’re better behaved, demonstrate more pro-social behaviors, are less likely to be obese, are more creative. And they’re smarter.

We all know that there’s a wide variety of “normal” when it comes to developmental milestones. The normal range for a baby’s first step is 9-18 months. That means a baby who walks at the late end of the range is twice as old as an early walker when he takes his first steps. And there’s nothing “wrong” with the late walker and nothing particularly extraordinary about the early walker. They’re both within the normal range.

The same is true of later cognitive milestones. Some kids meet them way earlier than others – this doesn’t necessarily make them future geniuses. Other kids meet them way later than others – again, this doesn’t mean their doomed to failure. It just means we’re all different and develop at different rates.

“A berry ripens in its own good time…and so does a child’s readiness. Just as the one needs water and sunlight, the other needs the patient reassurance of loving adults who can trust children to grow according to their own timetables.” ~ Mister Rogers

One of the brilliant things about homeschooling is that our kids don’t have to be on the conveyor belt of a traditional school. Public education in particular is based on the idea of every kid getting exactly the same thing at exactly the same time in exactly the same way. It also assumes that kids learn in tiny, predictable, incremental steps. This isn’t true. Just like your toddler suddenly had a huge language explosion after walking around with a handful of words for months, so too can your young child go from reading “Mat sat on a cat.” to reading Harry Potter seemingly overnight.

“What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch out of a free, meandering brook.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

So if your 7-year-old hasn’t shown much interest in reading, don’t freak out. And for heaven’s sake, if your 4-year-old doesn’t want to do a cut and paste phonics work sheet, please, think twice about how important it really is. Remember, any curriculum you choose is your TOOL. It’s not your boss. You’re the boss. Follow your kid’s lead. If she wants to sit and write letters when she’s 4, then let her. Help her when she asks you. Don’t push. But if she’d rather go outside and hunt for worms and splash around in rain puddles, let her do that instead. It’s at least as good for her education, and much, much better for her long term growth and development.

My next post will look at the second R: Relationships. This includes your relationship with your child, as well as your child’s relationship to the material being learned.

To read the other posts in this series:

Part 2: Learning Based on Relationships

Part 3: Your Child’s Relationship with the Material

Part 4: Real Experiences