Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

Your Inner Darwin

I really shouldn’t play the favorites game, but… I am so in love with the new book! If you only ever grab one Extraschooling title, make sure it’s In My Nature. This book has all the best of me in it, as it not only combines my passions of nature and education, but was also requested by my son and compiled with him in mind. And, while most of the ideas I write about are based on learning adventures we’ve had, I made this book specifically for us to use in our current day-to-day. I could keep on about it, but I’ll spare you. In short, if you are a nature-loving family, want more excuses to get outside, or are looking to cultivate a broader awareness of the great outdoors, then here – go grab a copy!

Okay, now, moving on…

We love science around here. One of my favorite things about it is that, while science seeks to answer a myriad of deep and important questions, it is infinitely approachable. With my other recent reads behind me, I quickly ran through The Earth Moved, by Amy Stewart, and am now listening to Darwin’s Backyard, by James T. Costa. The first pulled heavily from Darwin’s research on earthworms, which piqued my interest and made me reach for the next book. The other night there was a passage that struck me, about the origin of the term scientist. A word that can now seem so lofty was only coming on the scene when the man who would become one of history’s most well-known scientists was sailing around the globe on the HMS Beagle.

Did you know the number of toes on a salamander can help identify it?

Darwin was what any great scientist – professional or, as he was, home-based – still is: an experimenter. This is the beauty of the subject; while it is great to amass knowledge in any of its many branches, there was a time when nothing was understood, when everything was a fresh marvel. Just as babies reach out to feel, squeeze, and examine everything interesting that crosses their path, so were the many mysteries of life on and off this planet uncovered. One does not need a degree or a reference book or a step-by-step instruction guide in order to explore. All one needs is to be able to squint thoughtfully at something, tap their fingers a few times, and utter the words, “What if…

We are surrounded by a wide world to question and consider.

This has been our weekend of schooling around here. I got out the salt and posed a few questions. I knew enough to be able to offer up the elements from the periodic table that create salt and water, and then that ran my store of chemistry knowledge pretty well dry – but that was enough! So far we have had oodles of fun poking and prodding these two basic ingredients to see what happens. We have:

  • Cut a small potato in half and immersed one part in plain water, the other in salt water for a day.
  • Dried both potatoes and left one as is while covering the other in salt.
  • Checked to see if there is a point at which salt stops dissolving in water.
  • Let the water sit overnight to see if the salt settles with time.
  • Boiled both salt water and plain in covered pans to make “clouds” on the lids to see if salt evaporates with the water.
  • Boiled the water off to leave the salt behind.
  • Set up a stalactite string.
  • Frozen salt and plain water to see if they freeze differently.
  • Had a bunch of discussions.

And none of it required an ounce of research or planning – just a question, and a few simple materials.

Just add salt and… presto! Let the fun begin.

Science is about curiosity, discovery, experimentation, delight, and being willing to get your hands dirty, make guesses, be wrong, and then to try again. It is about making volcanoes in the sink, blending paint colors on a canvas, stalking bugs in the yard, peering through a telescope, taking a closer look at the world, and approaching life with “What if…?” always on the tip of your tongue.

Hint: Goldenrod is an amazing place to find a wide variety of incredible creatures.

If you want to try some explorations with your family, here’s a download to get you started, ripped from the pages of – you guessed it! – In My Nature: A Field Notebook for Kids Who Like to Explore on the Wilder Side. This is based on the scientific method, which is all the guide you need to dive into this amazing, diverse, and fantastically fun subject.

Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

Curious Minds

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How important is curiosity to you?

I have said before that, for me, it might be at the top of the list of the 4 C’s. It is such a vital element of how we learn around here, with a question or hypothesis launching an exploration into new terrain. I have also named it as the first word I think of to describe my son; his mind is always rolling over the possibilities in anything he comes across.

But is this the case for everybody? It doesn’t quite seem so. Much has been said, in one forum or another, about whether public school crushes innate curiosity in children. I think it can, but it doesn’t have to. There are various factors that can lead to its diminishment, but none are a definite death knoll. I’ve seen some parents say their children simply aren’t curious by nature, and perhaps that is possible. I have a feeling though that curiosity is a pretty innate drive in us, as it is one of the forces that led to all the great discoveries and inventions that humankind is known for, and spurred us to ask some of the fundamental questions of life, such as. “Is that edible?” and “What’s that noise in the bushes over there?” Probably everyone has wondered at least once, “Where do we come from?” or something similar, or I’m not sure that either astronomy or religion would exist.

So, yes, I think we all have at least a degree of curiosity within us. This (of course!) begs the questions, How important is it in your household? and What do you do to cultivate it?

Some points to ponder:

  • Do you have active interests or question things in your day-to-day?
  • Do your kids see this, or is it something you pursue in your downtime?
  • Do you encourage discussion and debate over a wide range of topics, or are some off-limits or closed subjects?
  • Is disagreement okay?
  • Do you help your kids find answers to their questions, applaud their interest, and/or counter with a follow-up question of your own?
  • Are there any “dumb questions”?
  • Are you comfortable working with an unknown concept?
  • For abstract questions, do you provide concrete answers or an array of possibilities and why some people believe in various ones?

When it comes to education, I am definitely someone who prefers to learn organically. I start with a rough idea and see where it takes me. I might get inspired and dive deep or I can fizzle out and move on to the next great thing, but one thing that I just don’t do well is plan. Recipes, instructions, or any other sort of step-by-step how-to’s are just not in my wheelhouse. If I do an experiment, I’m likely to not look ahead to see what’s supposed to happen. If I do, I then become goal-oriented, and it becomes about the destination rather than the journey. Not only is much of the fun lost (for both of us), but the extra chances to learn are as well.

Lessons, projects, and experiments in books are often written with a formula such as: Do steps 1 through 5 and X will happen because of blah, blah, and blah, as discovered by so-and-so.

Ummm… did you have the chance to wonder about, oh, anything?

What if it said this instead: Try doing X, Y, or Z. What do you think might happen? What did happen? How do those two compare? Does this make you think of anything else? Who first decided to try this out? Why? Did this lead to any other discoveries?

I tend to avoid close-ended projects in favor of an interest-led style because, while the former is not guaranteed to crush curiosity, the latter is giving it room to grow. There are times for cut-and-dry lesson plans that get a point across, can be wrapped up quickly, and get you to the next thing or offer a sense of accomplishment when complete. Time, confidence in being able to “teach” what you may not know yourself (really better called something like guided exploration rather than teaching), resources, and other factors can dictate the way learning is approached. However, I think it’s crucial to find time at least occasionally to explore something in an open-ended way – and the more this is done, the easier it becomes and the more opportunities for it are discovered.

Cultivating curiosity is also a two-way street. My son is naturally curious, but there’s some nurturing in there, too. We feed off each other and lob ideas back and forth. Unknowns are not a thing around here; if a question is hanging out there unanswered, the refrain of, “Let’s look it up!” is soon to be heard.

Here’s some ways to begin integrating it into your typical day-to-day routine:

  • Mealtimes or car rides are perfect moments to have a “What if…?” type of conversation or discussion of a news item. Switch out who brings the topic, and try to find ones that have multiple viewpoints or possibilities. What will they find at the “edge of the universe”?  Why did someone first decide to write something down? What is the right amount of screen time?
  • Have everyone pick an item from around the house and then make guesses as to where, when, and why it originated.
  • Read a random chapter or passage from a book at bedtime and try to concoct a story around it. How did the characters get where they are? Where should they head off to next? What inspired the author to write the book?
  • Grab a food from the kitchen while making dinner and examine it. If it is a fresh item such as produce, consider why it might have the color, shape, texture, etc, that it does. Where is it from? Who eats it? What does the rest of the plant look like? How has it been cultivated? Is it native or introduced? If it is a prepared food, where was it first created and how has it been modified? What sort of nutritional content does it have?
  • When there is something someone in the family either loves or can’t stand, take it a step further. What makes for the strong reaction? Are there related things that might bring out a very different response? Why is this? And why do certain subjects make us feel deeply in the first place? What topics universally elicit such emotion? What does this say about us?
  • Send everyone off to find 3 or so questions. Any questions. We did this recently and my son brought back ones like, Who invented hammocks? Why does a branch decide to form where it does? and How is salt made? They may take 2 minutes to answer or inspire 2 weeks of exploration… Run with it!

On the flip side, if curiosity is not high on your list, then that will (of course!) lead me to ask – So, what is? …Let me know in the comments.

Happy exploring!

Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

Free-Range Learning

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My son loves to learn. He is so full of curiosity and enthusiasm for whatever topic piques his interest. However, there is a surefire way to make him grow immediately cold and disinterested: all I have to do is say something like, “Let’s sit down and do some schoolwork” or “Today I’m going to teach you about…” I find my educational approach is a match to my nutritional approach; essentially, I believe in exposing him to a variety of elements and finding ways to incorporate my goals within something he enjoys. Although I have an unschooling lean, I don’t go entirely that way for the same reasons I don’t let him plan the menu – he doesn’t know all that is available to try, and one cannot live on pasta and dessert alone. So I integrate many different flavors into our pasta-heavy diet, and he has discovered vegetables are not the evil things he once believed, all while enjoying a well-balanced meal. I see education the same: I like to build upon his interests and show him additional directions, applications, and concepts. I don’t expect him to be interested in them all or master or even understand them all yet – I just want him to know that they are there. If, in the future, his path circles back to one of these items, then he will have a foundational structure in place to facilitate further exploration.

There are a lot of versions of homeschooling out there, but I haven’t quite found one I completely subscribe to. I think mine would be called something more like “Open-ended Schooling” or “Free-range Schooling.” I like to have just enough structure to then launch our learning adventure. I would say my main tenets are these:

  • It is easier to push a rope downhill. If they are interested, they will learn better, faster, and more thoroughly – and likely be primed to launch into connected areas of study. This may mean being interested in the topic at hand or in the method of examining it. (For example, a kid who wants to play outside may not be into math but may enjoy the idea of fractals in nature or using nature materials to perform equations.)
  • Play and hands-on activities are crucial. This is true at any age, but vital for the elementary-age crowd. Tangible representations will go miles further than the abstract any day. Give them something that they can touch, manipulate, have fun with – not only will the lesson generally last far longer, but there will be a physical memory to bolster the mental one.
  • Read anything and everything. Books, books, and more books. They have opened so many doors for us and allowed his mind to expand so far. The imagination can run a mile for every inch it is sparked, and every book is a match.
  • Get the most bang for your buck. Know those combination exercises, where you do a bicep curl along with a squat or some such thing? Look at lesson opportunities the same way. How many elements can be covered at once?
  • Provide early, recurring exposure to a wide variety of subjects and ideas. Mention ideas whenever the opportunity presents itself. When talking to a baby we naturally do this: before they can speak we are offering words in this fashion – “See this red flower?” “Look at those horses. What does a horse say? Neeeiiiigh!” …And we expect that this leads to them gaining language. However there is often a disconnect with this theory when considering more advanced topics. They may not understand fractions as toddlers, but they likely love to help in the kitchen – so why not provide a similar banter as you cook? “So we need half a cup. See this? This is one cup. We need half. The way we show that is…”

Following these principles, I look at the topics for the week, create a starting point, and then introduce it in a fairly informal way. It may take off and consume our day (week, month) or we may quickly discover it’s not a fit at the moment and find something better to do. I was recently asked about how or if I incorporate different subjects into our letterboard activity, so I’ll share a couple of examples of how this can take off from the simple, open-ended structure it offers:

For S I assuredly had many great plans, of which I remember none. All I now recall is that as I was preparing items he happened to spot a flashcard about Stonehenge and was instantly fascinated. I pulled up a couple of YouTube clips aimed at kids, then at our next library trip we got a National Geographic video and a book about it in greater detail. This led me to think about Easter Island, so we read a picture book first and then learned more about the collapse of that society. He has always been very environmentally conscious, so we latched onto the discussion of living in a sustainable fashion. Then there’s the notion of solstice and demonstrating the science behind our days and seasons. Historically, this was at a time when the Stone Age was ending and metals were being introduced; it’s a good excuse to experiment with tool making and learning about the substances used, the history of tools in our society or by animals, and more. There is also the artistic aspect, which can be a great excuse to get out for some exercise in order to gather nature materials and create a version of it or something straight out of your own imagination.

Obviously a lot more than a letter is covered, which is why letterboards can work for older ages as well. The line of study for S may appeal more to older crowds (or 5-year-olds with an inexplicable passion) but there are far more lighthearted, simple ideas to try. A C-filled day might resemble this:

Over some Cereal you might Consult a map and Compass to Choose a Course. Your Clothes for the day might be very Colorful or have Characters or some other relevant thought. You could do a walking tour to a C destination (street, business, what have you) and along the way Chart vehicles – maybe Count how many red Cars versus blue, or Cars versus trucks – or white versus all others and later Calculate the percentage. On the return trip, switch tactics: point out items beginning with C or find it on signs. Have a Container to Collect items in, and when you get home sort them into sets – do some intersect? When you are ready to relax a bit, Cuddle up in a Comfortable Chair with some C-centric snacks and read books like Curious George or Clifford. Once rested, put on some Chopin and use your seats to play musical Chairs. Maybe Cook or Create some art… or Chill out and Call it a successful day. Whatever you choose across the day, just note, “Hey – you want to go climb a tree instead? That starts with C; go for it!” The more playful and relaxed, the better it goes over, I promise. Remember how little pressure you felt when teaching about the red flower or the horses in the field? Gentle repetition while enjoying an experience together can move mountains.

Teaching kids is something natural and shouldn’t be compounded by feeling a sudden external pressure of conforming to educational guidelines set forth in schools that are meant to deal with the masses. Neither should it be constrained by a specific style or curriculum. Ideally, all these elements should have a fluidity and be able to complement each other rather than cause stress or concern. Working at home allows a deeper connection to that which is necessary to learn, and the ability to be flexible in approach. My son mastered red and horse in a process that we both enjoyed, and that is what I strive to maintain. I look for there to be growth, development, curiosity, interest, and enjoyment on his side. My job is to provide the spark, momentum and conducive environment. If a seed has dirt, water and sun, it will grow. As a teacher it is my responsibility to nurture him along to help him reach his full potential, but with the understanding that the potential is already inherent within him, not something I have to provide. Basically, I act as the gardener, offering an enriching environment and a supportive structure, pouring on some fertilizer as needed in the form of inspiration, and watching him take off and thrive.

Posted in extraschooling

Pause for Progress

Growing pains are part of the process

If you’re reading this, then you’ve already probably noticed something is different. Extraschooling has some things to learn too, and so there is a shift going on behind the scenes – and a little on the surface. There is a new appearance in town today: new layout, new colors, new style. Those who know me could tell you, I am no streamlined, modern-design kind of soul. I like color, quirkiness, and character. When I started this site, I quite frankly had no past experience and no idea what I was doing. I had been offline for years, enjoying new-motherhood. Extraschooling began rather by chance and I have worked with a scratch pad full of terms to learn as I run across them. Though it was not officially launched until Jan 29th, this site is a month old as of today – still a mere fledgling – but, as with all offspring, it has provided a steep learning curve. It is time to take it past utter-beginner-stage and move it to the next level.

This goes for more than just how it looks. There will be all kinds of rearranging going on as well. Right now it’s a bit clunky and needs some streamlining. My plan is to bring ideas together into more of a one-stop shop. I foresee that to mean creating categories (essentially typical school subjects) that will be linked to the Learning Ideas page, rather than just the random assortment of projects listed currently. When you choose a category, you will be linked to a page that brings everything together in one place: projects/experiments, facilitated lesson ideas, books and other resources, suggested materials/supplies, links to relevant items from the Extraschooling Facebook page, ways to involve or explore your community, and more. If you have read through any of the offerings on the Learning Ideas page thus far, you know I like to make lessons open-ended (see my feelings on that in the earlier post, “Join in the Journey“) and widely applicable. Therefor, they will be linked anywhere they are relevant, so you don’t have to hunt for where I might have decided to stash them.

Some things will be getting nixed. Book Nook may survive to see another day. The Favorite Resources page will be gone, as the items on it will instead be linked to relevant subjects. Until this process is complete though it will remain; same with the current lesson ideas. They will stay put until I can finish creating pages for them to reside on. The rebuilding will be done mostly in the background, so content can be accessed until the new layout is complete. Some things may appear a bit awkward for a while, so just bear with me as I am a team of one who still tries to give most of her day to the 5-year-old who inspires everything I do.

There will be an addition, too, I believe. Another well-known fact about me is that I love to be out in nature. Any nature. Just laying down in the grass is acceptable. For us, if there is a remotely mild day, life simply moves outside. Fresh air nurtures me, nature centers me, the woods are my home away from home. I think probably the biggest, most important shift that could be made in formal education would be to get more of it outside. So I plan on devoting a page to all things outdoors: activities, lesson ideas, interesting flora and fauna, places to explore – we’ll see where the path leads.

As always, I value input. You are the one reading, thus you are the one I am trying to reach; your opinion matters, and your insights are important. How do you feel about the new appearance, the layout concept, the plans for content? Do you have more you want to see? Do you have ideas or resources to share? I can’t promise I can incorporate any or all, but I can promise to look into suggestions and consider constructive criticism. I can fine-tune this site to meet my own specifications and preferences, but it is the sound of one hand clapping if it doesn’t interest or help anyone else – so please, communicate anything you deem important. I’m all ears!

In the meantime, thank you for joining me in my new journey, and I appreciate everyone’s patience as I tweak and readjust. Once the site is fully renovated I can return to adding content on a regular basis. My goal is to have most of the switchover done by the end of this month; wish me luck! See you on the other side – until then, you know the drill…

Happy exploring!

If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.”

– Gail Sheehy