Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Christmas Activities - A Skills Audit

Do you worry about keeping up with the 'academic year'? Do you ever feel you are 'behind', or feel guilty for spending too much time doing 'extracurricular activities'?

Over the past few weeks I've really enjoyed watching my children becoming absorbed in a range of activities in addition to the main tasks outlined by our curriculum. Whilst our objective in these was not purely to develop a list of skills or to reach a specific educational objective, I found it quite instructive to reflect upon what they gained from these. To do this can be referred to as a 'skills audit'. Here are some examples:

1) Making Christmas cards

We have a plan to design a card each year, and for each person to have a role. That way, the children who are able to write can do that, whereas the little ones can have fun cutting and sticking. At the moment, the parents were having to do quite a bit of the design and supervise the whole process, but hopefully over time our role would be less. Here are some skills that they developed:

  • Design
  • Team work (and leadership)
  • Writing/ calligraphy
  • Drawing and craft
  • Making the list of recipients 

2) Christmas Baking

One of my favourite education tools is following recipes, particularly baking. There are many skills that are built:

  • Reading
  • Organisational skills
  • Planning and preparation
  • Consideration of what is seasonal and economical
  • Maths and measurement
  • Creativity in choosing shapes and decorating
  • Science
  • Kindness - deciding who to give the products to

3) Choir/ being involved in a performance

I am keen for the children to be able to sing nicely in a group since I think there will be many occasions in the future where this comes in useful. I had not expected them to be involved in a production at the National Theatre, with all the lighting and sound effects, and there were many additional things they learnt here:

  • Singing alone and in a group
  • Different styles and rhythms
  • Patience - a lot of the rehearsals involved sitting and waiting
  • Working in a group with a range of ages
  • Seeing the lighting effects
  • Different types of microphones, and which are most useful in different situations
  • How costumes and sets can enhance a production

4) The church Christmas production

This was quite complementary to what they did in choir - a broader range of ages and abilities were represented, and the rehearsals and planning meetings went on for a little longer. Additional things they learnt include:

  • Understanding how it can boost a person's confidence to have even a small role
  • Team work and leadership - hearing the discussions take place
  • That it takes hard work and commitment, and that we all learnt from mistakes
  • The pleasure in working hard together as part of a team
  • That each person has a valued role (even looking after the baby sister so both parents could have an active role)
  • That messages (here the message of Christmas) can be communicated in different ways - through word, song, acting and even dance

5) Watching documentaries

One of our treats is to watch documentaries, particularly about nature or about different places. They have loved David Attenborough, but more recently have come across a team led by Gordon Buchanan who use a range of different technologies to film unique aspects of the living world. (See here for an example of some filming in Burma). This has them absolutely captivated, and often their games involve setting camera traps, building hides and using night-vision and heat-sensor cameras. Often it is when they are playing that I appreciate just how much they have learnt. For us it is nature documentaries, but for you it might be something different. Something highly enjoyable but with immense educational value

6) Lego, models, other active toys

If you have a child who builds with lego and duplo, you probably don't need me to discuss all the skills they are developing through this. The boys all received something in this category for Christmas, and have had many hours of constructive play with them. Skills might include:

  • Organisation and planning
  • Reading
  • Visuo-spatial awareness
  • Familiarity with shapes and colour
  • Team work
  • Imagination

7) Creative play

One of the gifts we got for the boys was a masai-style blanket, so they can dress up as Masai warriors whenever they fancy. (Also to stop them pinching the throws from our chairs for this purpose). It's been amazing in the past three days to see the creative ideas for which these are used. Yes, we have had Masai warriors, but have also had several styles of tent and a north African souk in the garden. I love the fact that a simple, square piece of fabric holds so much potential. Skills noted:

  • Imagination
  • Acting out (and narrating) of history and geography learned over recent years
  • Team work and planning (the games are often quite complex)
  • Visuo-spatial skills
  • Design and engineering (building shelters out of sticks, rope and fabric)

8) Other games

It has been wonderful to appreciate that the children are now old enough to play games which are highly enjoyable as adults too. (It's not that I haven't enjoyed some of the Early Learning Centre games such as the Lunch Box Game, or the slightly quirky, Stop the Pigeon Driving the Bus). But I really enjoyed a game of something like Taboo the other day. (You might have a different equivalent - it is the game where you have to describe a word without saying the word or anything too close to it). I was amazed at how even the four year old was able to do this well. Their concentration is improving too, so we are able to do games which take a little longer (especially when the smallest one is asleep). Skills here are many and depend quite a bit on what the game is, but would include:

  • Language skills
  • Numeracy
  • Following rules and order
  • Kindness to one another

9) Time and space to choose activities and to explore

How often do your children actually do nothing? I appreciate that there might be some activities which are of more value than others, but what we find is that they really appreciate some time built into the day where they can choose what to do. So for example, every day we have an hour of 'quiet time' where they can choose a selection of books and read these - and could also choose to draw or write or do some other quiet and solitary activity. In the afternoons, we try not to take on too many extracurriculars to allow time most days to  simply play. I've read quite a lot about how 'modern' children don't always have enough time to play, and how they need time and space to allow their imaginations to develop. I am thankful that we are able to create the time and space needed here.

So, whatever you have been doing over the holiday period, I am sure your children will have benefitted greatly. If you are a homeschool family, I'd like to encourage you that even if you haven't been progressing through your set materials, your children will have likely developed in a range of areas simply through the opportunities presented in your day to day life.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Advent activities and traditions

It's nice to sit down and reflect on the past few weeks - there has barely felt like a spare moment, and even though the days have been filled with good things, I have longed for a little peace. It was relatively recently that I discovered that my personality is more introvert than extrovert; people tend to assume that if you have a leadership role, and are comfortable with public speaking and teaching, that you love being surrounded by people all the time. It's not that I don't enjoy company, but if I really seek refreshment, some quiet time alone is more profitable.

Christmas is suddenly very close, and it is the related activities that have made the weeks busy. I'm going to reflect a little on some of these things. First and foremost, I have rejoiced that everything we have been involved in has been very Christ-centred, and represents a real change from the more materialistic, entertainment driven culture found back in the UK (at least in our experience!). I wrote a little about that last year here. Also, as a home educating parent, I find it interesting and encouraging to reflect on the lessons and skills that have been developed through a wide range of 'extracurricular' activities (or put less formally, through enjoying advent together as a family in the context of a vibrant church).

1. The children had the opportunity to join their choir singing at the national theatre over the weekend, and that involved plenty of rehearsals including seeing how the lighting and sound was set up. I was encouraged by the boost to their confidence that this was, and the things they learned through the experience (other than simply learning to sing in a group - in fact their part was relatively small, but as I realised watching them over that time, that didn't matter so much).

2. I recently reflected on multi-cultural celebrations, and last weekend our church had a day of sharing food, music and dance from our different cultures. The theme was 'unity in diversity' and it was like a small foretaste of heaven when 'every tribe and tongue' will be found rejoicing before the Throne of God. The children are old enough now to really enjoy these occasions, and they wore their national dress, learnt several songs and were involved in teaching a dance. Whilst the theme of the day was more about worship, it was also encouraging as a home educating parent to see the number of skills that they are developing without even really trying; relating to people from all over the world, being aware of their own cultural heritage (s), learning and singing songs in public, enjoying a range of different foods (my friend who was going to bring grasshoppers cooked in a kind of peanut butter sauce was unfortunately delayed and unable to bring his favourite dish).

3. This weekend was the Christmas production, and again, we were able to get quite involved as a family. So, there were days when we had 25 people over for breakfast (a bucket of local porridge, drank out of cups), followed by singing and dancing in the front garden. It was good for the children to see how a performance is developed - to see the mistakes made in practice, to see different people trying the different roles, to see songs abandoned and new songs chosen, to help decide how to build a set, to find out how to make multi-purpose costumes on a budget and to be involved in each step of the process. The actual event was fun (and got nice feedback), but for me, it was the practices that were most enjoyable. It is always through serving together that relationships move from being superficial acquaintances to something more meaningful, and it was very encouraging to watch all of the children interacting so well with their many friends at church. A year ago, we began to get to know people through being peripherally involved in the Christmas production, and I was able to look back and reflect on how God has blessed us this year through becoming integrated into our church and community. (In fact, it's that which has made me struggle to find time to blog lately - that the house has often been full. A blessing and a privilege, and I really would not want it any other way).

4. So now, we have a relatively quiet week heading up to Christmas. We will have our house group over to sing carols, and will be spending some time with friends, but we have more time to focus on the Jesse tree and related activities, something which is becoming quite a tradition for our family. (As an aside, I read this blog from somebody overseas about Christmas traditions, and it made me a little sad; I see that having your own family traditions assumes even greater importance in a cross-cultural setting) As well as the 'emblems' to draw or colour and hang on our spray-painted branch, we have a large timeline across the wall where the children are free to draw or write anything that goes along with the Bible narrative. It's been very interesting to see how their understanding develops year on year. I love watching how they draw some of the Bible stories as it shows their interpretation and understanding. I'd seen some other resources online about 'kindness' tasks to be done through advent, and I thought that might be a very useful supplement to what we were already doing. So in each of the Jesse tree envelopes, they have a 'task'. None of the lists available online were really applicable to our cultural setting, the resources we have access to or the ages and interests of our children. So I made a list. I thought about areas where they struggle. I also am keen for them to go through their books and toys and see what can be given away. Our church has an outreach into a nearby slum in January, so it is an ideal time to put things aside to give to those who have great need. It is also good for the children to see how much they have, and how they can bless others. Other tasks have been to write letters to the people who have taught them (choir, sports etc), to Skype somebody they haven't spoken to for a long time, to write home, to help cook, to read stories to their siblings and so forth. I've been encouraged by how much they have embraced these tasks.

5. In between these things, we've enjoyed making cards together as a family. Each person has had a task. We have palm trees that regularly shed leaves and sections of wood, and so we've been able to make a nice design, and get the children to choose verses and use nice pens to write the cards. Each time a person is heading to the UK, we've given a batch of items to post. We have also tried via the local post office, and will be interested to see whether things actually reach their destination. In amongst this, again there have been many valuable lessons - art and craft, design, team work, discipline, kindness and so forth. There have been some days where I have felt that we have been so busy having fun that we haven't done much 'school' (although we are keeping up with the schedule for the curriculum we are using). But then, I need to remember that at this age, many mainstream schools would spend a lot of time on art, craft, working on performances and so forth. As a home educator, that really isn't so very different, except that we can choose tasks that we feel build the skills we wish to cultivate.

So, five different areas where we have been blessed and encouraged. Personally, I am now looking forward to a slightly quieter week. The children are tired, and need a bit more rest. We are continuing our typical homeschool pattern (basically 'school' between 8 and 11am with extra things in the afternoons) right up until Christmas, as we all find the routine makes the home more peaceful. I know others take more of a break, but for us, it can be counter-productive and we do better with the discipline and structure.

I wonder how you have found advent? Have you any family traditions that help you learn and grow together?

Thursday, 1 December 2016

International celebrations and rich diversity

One of the things I love most about home education is how the whole of life is an education. It does not have boundaries and limits with a clear delineation as to where 'school' starts and stops. The only time that ever presents a challenge is when we have visitors who don't understand that - people who have not come across home education sometimes seem to expect to see children sitting quietly at desks doing worksheets for hours at a time, but really nothing is further from the truth.

Yesterday was St Andrews Day. One of my children was born in Scotland (as was I). We are in the slightly unusual situation where our four living children were all born in different countries. This is a great opportunity to celebrate four times as many national holidays as many other people might, and to learn the foods, dances, songs and traditions of four different cultures. So, yesterday, the boys wore kilts, hoisted the Saltire outside the house, learnt some songs (either describing key historical events, or simply the beauty of Scotland) and some poems. We cooked haggis and tatties. We had to improvise neeps (Swede, which you cannot get here) out of carrot, pumpkin and sweet potato, but it worked reasonably. We toasted the haggis. And we enjoyed remembering my beautiful homeland.

As I reflected, I saw all the wonderful educational opportunities that came from this. We'd recently watched some Scottish history DVDs and as we learnt some of the songs, we were familiar with the history that was referred to. We talked about language development - our most famous poet, Robert Burns, wrote in Scots, which is very different to Gaelic. We looked at recipes and talked about the reasons why it is harder to get oats in East Africa than in Scotland - to do with climate etc. We discussed why haggis in its purest form is illegal in the USA (because it contains sheep lung). When our guests arrived, the boys led some singing (and I was surprised at just how well they had learnt some of the songs and how well they did this) - in the Sonlight curriculum, there are times when the children are meant to memorise a poem and recite it for friends. We've never really managed that, but I realised that we were actually embracing the opportunity to do this which came naturally.

Yesterday I also reflected on another experience of the rich diversity to which my children are exposed. My seven year old had the task to write about the 'history of a coin' - to find a coin and then to consider the story of that coin before it came to us. Who it belonged to. What it was spent on. How it came to us and so forth. Now, this particular son collects coins. Whenever one of us travels, he doesn't want anything other than a few coins from that country. Another friend who also travels extensively has also provided him with a range of coins, so now he has quite a collection. So yesterday, we invented a new game. You pick a coin and tell the story. Yesterday, we were young children in the Andes, living in the mountains but going to town to trade. We were in Denmark living on a dairy farm. We were in a city in the USA. We were enjoying a barbecue on an Australian beach. I could go on. What struck me was just how much three boys, aged seven, six and four know about countries and cultures throughout the world - more than many much older people. I think with home education, it can be easy to look at the things we are not achieving, and not pause to consider the areas where progress has been made. One of the main reasons we chose Sonlight was because worldview and having a broad understanding of the world we live in was a priority. The mechanics of reading, writing and arithmetic will come with time and practice, but there is so much more, so very much more to an elementary education. And often with the three R's, progress is made most when the child sees the reason for acquiring the skill and how it will be used - and that can often be to write about and describe the rich world around us!

In just over a week, our church is having a celebration of unity in diversity. People will wear their traditional dress, will cook regional foods, will sing songs or tell stories from their own culture. Again, this is a wonderful opportunity for the children to learn more than could be gained from sitting in a classroom reading a book!

I feel encouraged as I look at these things, and am thankful for the freedom of home education to provide a child with a rich perspective on life.