Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Why I love unschooling

Last night we were reading Pippi Longstocking. We'd tried it about a year ago and Astra wasn't very keen. This time round she loves it.

We're reading the chapter where Pippi tries out school, so she can get a Christmas Holiday. 'Fair's fair!', she says. The teacher fires questions at her. 'What's 7 plus 5?'. Pippi remonstrates the teacher for not knowing such a thing, but Astra wants to give me the answer, so I pause. She starts to work it out on her fingers, then remembers she doesn't have enough. 'How do I do it?', she asks. Andy suggests a method, which Astra gets straight away. 7 minus 5 is 2, so then you can add the two fives together, and then add on the 2. WOW, she says with delight.

Next, the teacher asks, 'what is 8 plus 4?'. Subtracting 5 doesn't work for this one, so I suggest a different approach. What is 4 made of..... 'Oh, I see', said Astra. 'Yes, two 2's, I can do that, hang on....12!'.

But my favourite part, she then says, 'I know that 4 is made of two 2's because it's like a square, isn't it? You have two points here, and two points here, and it makes a square', and she draws the points in the air and joins them up.

That is exactly why I love unschooling. That is a growing, deep understanding of numbers, developing at exactly the right pace for Astra, because she is setting the pace. She understands '4', not as a number in a sum to be solved because she's been told to solve it, but as a part of her world, connected to tangible things.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Live 'n Deadly

Andy got us free tickets for 'Live 'n Deadly Deadly Days Out''. It was a two hour drive North so not free by any means, but boy was it worth the trip! 'Live and Deadly' is the latest TV show in a series of programmes about deadly animals. It started with 'Deadly 60', the 60 deadliest animals in the world, then there was 'Deadly Art', 'Deadly 360'....well, as you might guess it is a popular theme with children! Astra loves the show and was super excited.

So, we were up at 5.30am :) Astra is not an early riser, EVER, so this was quite a shock. We didn't NEED to be up at 5.30am, but clearly this was even more exciting than Christmas. It was going to be a looong day. I had done some back reading and discovered that we should expect a fellow crowd of 8000 people, painfully long queues, and next to no chance of being caught on camera (Astra was very keen on being on TV). And then there was the 'live show', with the star of the series, Steve Backshall, to which access would be on a 'first come first served' basis. We set off early, but I couldn't see us being early enough to gain access to the show. I was hoping for the best but also prepared for a day of disappointments and soothing.

The queue to get in snaked around the grounds, and our hearts sank when we saw it. But no sooner had we started to shuffle our feet than someone appeared with a praying mantis. Astra was able to hold the spectacular insect for a good while as the queue inched forwards. She gave the creature back and someone else appeared with a lizard. Then the praying mantis returned....but look, we were at the front of the queue!  I could barely contain my excitement as Astra was given a wristband giving access to the live show. One accompanying adult allowed. Andy and I smiled knowingly at each other. 'We'll decide that later', we all agreed. Pick me, pick me! Yes, we are fans of Steve too :)

We were just in time for the Birds of Prey display. Astra gently and politely manoeuvred herself to the front. Naomi 'from the telly' asked for volunteers. All the children jumped up and down. She chose....she didn't choose Astra. I watched from behind and I could sense Astra's genuine confusion. 'Well, she must have picked me and I just missed it. I mean, how could she have NOT picked me?'. She hesitated for a moment - the chosen children were already being instructed in what to do. Then she lifted the cordon, and ran to join them. Naomi eyed her,  dumbfounded for a moment, then accepted it. What  could she do?! Astra, who is sometimes shy, who is not at all pushy, who is very concerned with justice, KNEW that this was justice for her. She was MEANT to be a part of this. The children played at being mice, closing their eyes and squatting down when they heard the owl flying overhead. Thank goodness they were not actually mice :)

On to 'Deadly Art'. Jo, also 'from the telly', showed a tent full of children how to draw a 'Great White Shark'. Astra loves to draw, and really enjoyed this. Her shark drawing was great!

Next, the live show. The queue to get into this was hard on us all. We played games, we giggled, we observed our fellow queuers. And then did all of that again. Many times.

Eventually, we were in. Oh yes, 'we' was Astra and I. Poor Andy.....but luckily he managed to get a great spot outside the tent where he could still see and hear everything. The warm up was my favourite part. They got all the children singing 'live and deadly'. Then the audience was asked, 'Can anyone beat box?'. 'Me, me, I can!' shouted out Astra. Wow, she was absolutely on a mission to get the most she could out of this day! The microphone appeared in her hands. She looked at it with bemusement, 'what's this?', and then proceeded to sing her own version of 'live and deadly'. I can assure you nobody minded that she had not the faintest idea what 'beat box' means. She knows now!

Steve was fab, of course. He unrolled a giant snake and stretched it across the stage. He got a nip from a scorpion. He answered the most random questions, got genuinely excited by some of them. This is a guy who really knows about and loves animals. Truly inspiring.

After the live show we queued again, to get into the 'Animal Handling' tent. This queue went much better, we weren't fenced into position and there were trees and a low rail for sitting on, climbing on, jumping over. Astra made some new friends, which was handy given that we queued for over an hour. She had a ball playing, we got coffee and chatted. Inside the tent, a look at some pond life in trays, a foam bat to be made, and the highlight of the day for me, watching Astra holding a snake and loving it even as it snaked it's way around her body. And then a gecko, inching up her arm. I can still picture the tenderness on Astra's face as she cradled the snake in her arms. This girl loves animals!

We finished off by looking at the few stalls. Astra made a nature crown out of leaves and seeds, we did a quiz, 'identify the weird object from nature', we stroked deer skins and antlers....and finally we headed back to the car for the long happy drive home. Looking back on the day now, the image that most stands out to me is Astra concentrating on Jo's instructions for drawing a shark.....all around people were chatting, moving about, calling out for pens, spite of this Astra heard and followed every single instruction, and ended up with a brilliant picture of a shark. She loves animals, for sure, but drawing is her biggest passion. I think she's amazing.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Dear Mr. EHE Person

Dear Mr. EHE Person,
Thank you for your letter dated 'last week' concerning the Elective Home Education of my daughter Astra Milne, d.o.b. 'six years ago'.

I do not see a need for a visit at this time. As you will see from the enclosed details, Astra and I are very busy and as you may remember, you visited us at our home 6 months ago, on 19/7/2011. I am happy, however, to reassure you that Astra's education continues apace!

Our Educational Philosophy is very simple and is essentially, 'All of life is learning, and happy children will learn all they need to learn'. I believe our current approach is known as 'Autonomous Education'. For our family this essentially means that my husband and I follow Astra's lead with regard to where her interests lie, and we support her in the avenues she chooses to explore. We believe that children naturally have an innate curiosity, and also a strong desire to learn. This is certainly true in Astra's case - she has an insatiable curiosity and we talk constantly. She is always keen to learn more about those things which interest her. Our main job is to nurture those qualities, capitalise on them if you will, and by no means do anything that would quash them. We provide a rich environment full of learning opportunities, so that a broad education is available - and we provide whatever resources we can to support Astra in pursuing her interests.

Providing a rich environment means that we live in a house filled with resources, toys, craft materials, art supplies, books, board games, musical instruments, dressing up clothes. The walls are covered in educational posters, art that Astra has created, certificates she has earned in various activities, timelines, maps. Astra has her own computer and two bookcases filled with her own books. She has turned part of one room into her 'Lifetime Museum', complete with signs and exhibits of her bug collection, small skeletons she has found, precious stones, fossils and shells.

We go to many organised activities, we visit museums and sites of interest. We talk endlessly, we research the answers to the many questions Astra has. She is interested in almost everything, so no stone is left unturned in her quest for knowledge. She has not been interested in learning to read until just recently, but has now asked me to help her learn and so of course I am doing that. It is hard work for her but she is making great progress. She enjoys writing much more than reading and so we currently spend more time writing. In contrast, she has been keen on numbers for some time, and has taught herself a lot of the simple addition and subtraction sums using the digits from 1 to 10. She likes the patterns made in the times tables poster I put up, and so I have started to introduce the 2 times table.

All this is to say that although we are educating autonomously, and following Astra's lead, this does not mean that I sit back and wait for her to ask for help. It is more a case of putting many opportunities in her path, being alert to what she enjoys and then facilitating her learning. The things I 'put in her path' are a mixture of things which I think she might enjoy, and things which I think she might benefit from learning.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that I make no attempt day to day to break down our life into distinct subject areas. Most things we do span several subjects, as that is just how life is. In terms of progress, I measure this by looking at Astra. Is she progressing, is she growing and moving forwards? Provided she is, then I know we are on the right track.

I have enclosed some information about a typical week for us. I have also described a typical day (today!) so as to give a little more detail. You will understand, however, that every day is different, and whilst we may spend a lot of time learning to read on one day, on another we may spend the entire day making a papier mache lighthouse. One of the wonderful things about home education is that it is not 6 hours a day, five days a week, but every hour of the waking day, seven days a week.

I hope I have provided all the information you need. It is hard to categorise Astra's education in the way you have done so in your form, but reading through it certainly I was in no doubt that we are adequately addresing each area.

Yours sincerely

Christine Milne

Friday, 20 January 2012

Leg of Lamb?

French class this morning. Why French, I ask myself periodically? The teacher, Caroline, initially approached me to ask if she could hand out cards at our Storytime session. We got chatting, and she offered to do a 'French' storytime for us. She was lovely. The children thoroughly enjoyed the session, and Astra took a liking to her. Wanted to see her again. A couple of others were interested in their children learning French, and the idea of learning in a group was mooted. I asked around, thought about how this could fit into our busy lives, and that was that. French class at my house, Thursday mornings.
They play a lot of games. Astra sometimes has a game that she wants to share, such as 'Tummyache' (Caroline enjoys this one as she can expand their food vocabulary), or 'Crazy Chefs'. Today they were playing with lego. They sing songs, they make collages, they do picture puzzles, they play with animal puppets. They learn little things about French culture, Caroline loves to share about French festivals and holidays. And they mess about, and they play with the other toys we have lying about, and they tickle each other, and chatter.... But Caroline takes it all in her stride, is not phased even when Astra decides that one of her guinea pigs must learn French too. A formidable lady.
I don't know how much French Astra is learning but on our last holiday she was very pleased to be able to say 'bonjour' to our neighbours, and to have some phrases that she could use with her temporary holiday friends. So that's why we're learning French. It came our way, it's fun, we've made new friends through it, and it's a gentle introduction to another culture and language.

After French, lunch and then off to the library for Storytime. Today we had to visit the craft shop on the way, this was our fastest trip to the craft shop ever. Everyone loves Hobbycraft! We ran up the aisle edges calling to each other, 'it's okay, I've found the card', 'I've found some buttons'. Hurry or not, I still had to go back into the shop to listen to the music Astra could make with some candle holders she'd found while I was queuing to pay. Hurrying is only fun when it's fun!

Storytime's theme was 'Birthdays', as one of our group had her birthday today, and lots of them have January birthdays. I was disappointed because I had ordered a couple of great books about birthdays but they hadn't arrived in time. I read Moomins Birthday Button, which is a lovely book and the children enjoyed it. Then, because I have a cold and my voice was beginning to crack, another mum read, 'In which Eeyore has a Birthday...'. Such a lovely story and so beautifully written. It was too long for some of the children but a small group stayed the course and I certainly enjoyed it! The craft was to make a greetings card, using only glue, wool, yarn and buttons. Astra made a card for the birthday girl, with a woollen number 5 and lots of decorative buttons.

After storytime, we headed to the park. Picnic of shared snacks, climbing, running, playing on the adult exercise equipment, sharing of scooters, then finally home. I sat down and let my cold have it's turn at taking centre stage. Andy took over marvellously. The guinea pigs got treats, on top of the treats and cuddles they'd already had at lunchtime. Astra cleaned out our new fish tank, and Andy cooked the hunk of meat we had gratefully accepted from the friend we visited last weekend. Astra built a marble run, and played with Daddy for a while. And watched the Pokemon film she'd borrowed from the library. Twice.

We'd thought the meat we had was a leg of lamb, although we weren't certain. Our friend had just said 'help yourself' - and confronted with a freezer full of indiscrimnate cuts of meat, and knowing he had kept both lambs and pigs....well, it's not so clear what it is when it isn't labelled! It was lamb right up until the carving when we both started to suspect it was pork. I have no sense of smell at the moment so that wasn't helping, but on eating it really did seem to be pork. We looked at the cut, the bones, and agreed. But I had to be certain! I got out my 'Good Housekeeping' cookery book and looked at the various cuts of lamb and pork, it was none of those! So Andy googled and found some excellent pictures of pig and lamb skeletons. We picked all the meat off and compared. It was a shoulder of pork that we had, complete with the whole leg. Of course I then had to explore the bones with Astra. We played with the joints, the trotter, the cartilege, we picked out some of the marrow. I told Astra I had never realised how much fun bones could be until she came along. And we still have the skull she collected at the weekend to play with!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Storytime - Imagination

Thursday. No French today as our teacher is on holiday. So, 'Wednesday is clean the house day' didn't really apply this week. Ah well, we cleaned up after the party, that will do until next Wednesday. In place of French, Astra decided to start a craft project, making a house out of a tea bag box. I now have a messy pile of tea bags in my cupboard, but her house is looking great!

We had Storytime today, an activity I started organising around a year ago. I now have three other mums who take turns at providing books and crafts, today it was my turn. The theme I had chosen was 'Imagination'. We read some books together, 'The Horse in Harry's Room', about a boy with an imaginary horse, 'What Pet to Get', about a boy imagining different possible pets, Dr. Seuss's, 'Oh, The Thinks You Can Think', and a beautifully illustrated book, 'Imagine'. I had chosen a very simple craft for today. I gave everyone a piece of paper and gave them 2 minutes to draw something before passing the paper on to the person on their left, who then had two minutes to add something to the picture, and so on. For the older children this worked very well, but for some of the younger children it was just too much to let someone else draw on their picture - or to draw on someone else's picture!

I'd expected that might happen, and it didn't really matter. I was happy that for a change, instead of creating something directed by *my* imagination, the children were just creating whatever popped into their heads. One child had never drawn a proper picture before, only scribbles, yet drew and coloured a wonderful picture for the first time today. It is so lovely when something like that happens. It sometimes seems awkward to engage the range of ages (from 2 to 11) but they all take different things from whatever is provided. The idea of passing pictures round came from something that Astra and I have done together many times - it's our usual 'waiting room' game. If I were to do this craft again, I would pair the children up, rather than passing the pictures around the whole group. You live and learn!

After the library we went to the park with our Storytime friends and had some fun kicking leaves. I noticed there was a little maths going on today. The children always take their snacks and go and sit under the slide, to swap and share. Astra told me how she'd had two cakes and had broken each one into thirds so that everyone could have an equal amount. Fractions AND sharing! On the way home from the park I took Astra to get some winter clothing. It has turned really cold here and she is still in her summer pumps. So now she has some lovely furry winter boots, trousers that actually reach her ankles, and a new jumper. She is suddenly wanting to wear 'grown up' clothes, so I also bought her some lace up boots and a plain black top. She says she suits black (she does). She no longer wants pictures of butterflies or peacocks - are our pink days over?! It is so lovely to see her wanting to be grown up, and having an opinion about clothes, after all these years of only wanting to be naked!

We bought poppies today, because there was a lady set up with a stall in the supermarket. I stopped buying poppies a long time ago, for my own reasons, but Astra was fascinated by the lady's display, and it felt churlish to not buy one. So of course we then talked about war, another one of Astra's favourite subjects, this time explaining the significance of 11th November. And talking about the possible injuries that might lead people to need support. As I've said before, she loves the gory details....

After the party

Well, the Halloween party has been and gone. So much sewing, baking, decoration making, game planning, and then finally the pleasure of a house full of children having fun. I just LOVE parties!

We are now getting back to normal. It's been a quiet week, by design, because I have learned that after organising a party we all need some recovery time! We did very little the day after the party. Astra made a bunch of Christmas cards - because it's never too soon to start preparing for Christmas! She came up with some wonderful designs, my favourite was just a tree covered in snow, blowing in the wind. Very simple, very effective. We made some hand puppets, sewing pieces of felt together to make a monkey and a cat. We ate leftover party food and explored the trick or treat bag. A lovely cosy day at home.

On Wednesday we went to our trampoline class. The coaches have introduced a scheme for the children to work towards certificates. Astra said she wasn't interested in certificates, it's just fun to bounce! After trampoline we spent the afternoon in the park with friends, eating our lunch there. Many questions today, about the tooth fairy, and father christmas, and the easter bunny. Are they real? Okay. Well, I think you're wrong about father christmas. I think he IS real. Okay! Questions about the moon. Why is it bright when we can't see the sun? I explained by waving my arms around and pointing at the moon and the horizon. Back home Andy explained again with suitably sized balls.

Questions about Christianity. Some of our friends are Christian so this is always a fascinating topic for Astra. Why would God have let her grandma die? Why doesn't daddy believe we have spirits? Questions about Capital Punishment. She said, 'but if killing is wrong, then the person that killed the murderer would also have to be killed, and then you'd have to kill THAT person, and then the person that killed them, and then before you know it there'd be no humans left on the planet'. What a girl. I told her how Gandhi had said the same thing, 'An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind'. We talked about some of the various punishments that are still used in other parts of the world. She always loves the gory details!

Then we talked about the difference between us debating something, and a government debating something. This is how our conversations go, we leap from one topic to the next, there are no distinctions between subjects. In a child's mind, it is all connected, all one. It is all 'the world'.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Slow Day

Yesterday was what I'm going to call a 'slow day'. Slow days are my favourite type of days. They are the days where every idea is indulged, fleeting thoughts are explored, and enjoyment of each other is the top priority.
We had a few things to achieve, and these things took us into the nearest town, and into the city centre. Quite a novelty for us both!
On slow days with Astra, every single railing or low wall must be walked upon. Every pigeon must be chased. Every leaf in our path must be trodden on, as though our lives depended on it. Under bridges we must stop, and clap our hands sharply, and shout 'Bop!'. We must copy each other's silly walks, getting ever more preposterous and impossible as we move along. And as we walk, we talk, endless conversations follow meandering trains of thought.

So many shop windows, some with halloween decorations. We stopped to look at them, went into a few of the shops to see if they lived up to their window displays. Astra was disappointed by the locksmith's shop, such an impressive skull in the window but only keys inside?!

In the library, we browsed leisurely. I looked for books for next week's Storytime and Astra brought me books to read to her. 'That's not my rabbit', and some early reader books, and then a 'Jokes about the School Canteen' book. She had watched and listened as an older boy had been reading it to his father - as soon as he left she swooped and brought the book over to me. She is very interested in jokes; how they work, what is funny, and what is not. She experiments with jokes a lot. So many jokes are wordplay. She is beginning to get it.
The ladies in the library were all dressed in pink today, in support of Macmillan Cancer Support. They were very fancy, wearing pink hats with feathers, one of them gave us a twirl and her face beamed like a small child's! It was lovely to be in the library today.

And then the haberdashery, they were selling net curtain offcuts, perfect for ghostly decorations. We had a lot of fun in this shop....and thanks to a little persuasion from Astra, and a genuinely measured and thought out, 'I think you should be okay' from the shopkeeper, I purchased two yards of fake black fur and a pattern for a jumpsuit/cat costume. I have no sewing machine, and I have not followed a sewing pattern since I was eleven and got thrown out of sewing classes....but the shopkeeper was so helpful! She found the pattern for me, worked out how much material I'd need, how much velcro, and all the while interacting with Astra in such a natural way. I fell in love with this shop, of course!

In the town centre, several bronze sculptures. We stopped, touched, sat on (where appropriate!), discussed. What was wrong about the face on that one, why didn't we like it? Is the pose that girl is holding actually possible? Why is the giant book/bench sculpture attached to a ball and chain? And the trees.....the palm tree that is about to smash through the roof, why haven't they pruned it as they have the other palms? How did such huge tropical trees come to be growing in our shopping centre? Ohh, and the clock, the wonderfully elaborate musical frog clock. We arrived just as the half hour struck, and on top of the usual spectacular, the frog started to blow bubbles - what luck to arrive at that time - we spent a good while watching and 'figuring out' the clock. Lovely new artwork on the opposite windows too, Astra was very impressed with these paintings.

The toyshop was the reason we were in the city centre, to look for some prizes for our halloween party games. What a time we had in this shop, trying out all the toys and novelties, watching as the staff demonstrated things to us, trying to choose between the animals with roll up tongues and the tubes of 'stuff' that you couldn't hold onto no matter how hard you tried. Lots of laughter in this shop.

We were exhausted when we finally got home. It was a slow day, and a tiring day. A connecting day, a 'nothing is unimportant' day. My favourite kind of day.