Tuesday, September 30, 2014

the struggle: pack rat vs minimalist

I've always gone back and forth between "pack rat" and more "minimalist" tendencies. I'm not naturally super organized, so things get cluttered quickly, and I will finally reach a point of feeling too annoyed at the clutter so I'll get rid of a bunch of stuff, but then I always wonder if I will regret getting rid of things... those few times when something I got rid of months or years before suddenly seems useful again.

Welp, since venturing into homeschooling the pack rat side of me is coming out like never before. Suddenly I want to have ALL THE THINGS so that they're easily accessible for when my kids' interest might be primed for sparking. I want to line my walls with shelves, and fill them with books and games and puzzles and science kits and on and on and on.

At the same time, I also feel like having everything out, kind of masks all those cool things. Out of sight is out of mind, but hidden among the clutter also means that things may go overlooked. My approach to their toys in the past has been to keep fewer ones out and available, rotating toys out every so often. My reasons were that 1) I noticed that often when my kids only had a few toys out, they would get more deeply engaged in those toys, and seem more distracted if there were more things out and available, and 2) the very practical aspect that if fewer toys are out, clean-up is just simpler.

So I'm still going back and forth, trying to find that medium of having things available for catching an eye, while not making everything so busy that it drives me nuts or things get hidden in the abundance. I am also working on my "strewing" strategies, looking for how to clear places around the house so that when I leave something interesting out on purpose it has a better chance of catching an eye and getting noticed... This will likely all be a long-standing work in progress.

I want to make the world available to them, out of a genuine desire and interest in showing them all the incredible and fascinating and wonderful things in the world... and also realize that part of it is the fear that they will "miss out" on some potentially key interest if I don't happen to get the right thing to expose them to it. Which is both kinda valid but also silly, and I don't want fear to be a major motivator for how I do things.

I did have a great lightbulb moment the other day, thinking about Dinovember coming up soon... and I realized what an amazing opportunity it will be for strewing! Dinos playing Monopoly, or writing out a story, or reading a cool new book... so many possibilities. ; )

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Cool Things This Week


  • Visited a local zoo. Fave animals this visit: giraffes, elephants, meerkats, and the alligator.
  • Random ongoing conversations about coal vs oil and fossil fuel vs renewable energy, and the economics of each (cost of production, who pays that cost, and options for subsidizing to encourage consumption of certain kinds of energy over others).
  • Took a 2day trip to visit a friend who lives 2hrs away. I love having that sort of flexibility mid-week. 
  • Started working on a hero factory comic book story (using a printable template from lego). He's cut out and pasted several story panels in the order he wants them, and added some speech bubbles for me to fill in. 
  • D is still loving his lego star wars game on the xbox and is advancing through levels faster than ever. He's also getting into other games, like the ninjago spinners game and monopoly junior (which I just got yesterday, yard sale score!). 
  • This morning we went on a short hike through a nearby redwoood grove, where we counted over 23 banana slugs (we stopped keeping track after that).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Up-and-coming spinjitzu master

My kids have had an off-and-on obsession with Ninjago for a while now. We currently have a Lego book from the library that talks about the history of lego and the various sets they've made and sold over the years, and a few nights ago we were reading the Ninjago pages and the book mentioned a spinners game where the pieces could battle each other with "spinjitzu." Intrigued I went straight to amazon, and sure enough there's a game with minifigs and spinners and cards and stuff, so I ordered the starter pack and we opened it up today. It took us a little while to get the hang of what the cards meant and how to best spin the spinners, but soon we were full-on playing and D was really enjoying it.


So we played for most of the morning, and seeing how much D was liking it I started looking at expansion packs but then also realized that you can use regular lego minifigures on the spinners... So I suggested to D that we could maybe make more battle cards for the game ourselves, and use some of our own minifigs and weapons. He loved the idea, and we got to work figuring out how to make our own cards.


We came up with 3 new battle powers, drew out the card on construction paper, then cut them out and glued them onto regular playing cards. We kept playing off and on through the rest of the afternoon, D occasionally wandering off to play something else with Q for a while, then asking to play more of the spinners game.


Then tonight right around dinner he said we should have a points system-- we should win points when we knock our opponent off their spinner, and have points for different weapons and powers, and if we get certain numbers of points we could "unlock" new minifigs and powers to use, etc... It was really cool to see him coming up with all these rules, and also insist on us keeping score as we play from here on out (there's some of that real-world math experience I've been looking for). We didn't get a chance to play much more tonight, but we got a few rounds in with the new score system.


I'm hoping this will be a thing that takes off for him/us, but we'll see.  Even if he loses interest come tomorrow, it was still a cool process to watch all day today, and he made the game his own.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Free to Learn

I recently finished reading the book Free to Learn by Pam Laricchia (kindle version is $3 on amazon). The book helps explain unschooling using 5 main ideas behind it. It's a good, quick read, gave me lots to think about and reflect on. A quick summary of the ideas in the book:

  1. Real Learning: realize the distinction between teaching and learning. You can try "teaching" something all day long, but that in no way guarantees that the learner has learned anything-- or that they've learned what you intended for them to learn. Many school teachers try their best to teach facts and ideas on their specific subject, while too often what the students learn is that that subject is boring, or they learn how to remember just enough to pass the test. So if we want to see real learning, we must do so through the eyes of the learner, not the teacher.
  2. Follow Their Interests: the best learning happens when the learner is interested and engaged in the topic, and when they have lots of other things to "hook" their new-found knowledge onto. Kids learn eagerly and deeply when they can pursue their passions, and when we stop dividing everything into distinct subject we can see that one "topic" can apply to all sorts of subject, creating a web of learning that leads to much deeper understanding and connections.
  3. Choices: we don't learn how to make good choices by having others make our choices for us. We need to practice making choices, having those choices sometimes not turn out so that we can learn from those mistakes, and sometimes the seemingly-questionable choices we make turn out to be the best. Allow kids to make their own choices, don't judge their choices (which doesn't mean talking about pros and cons and cause and effect, etc). Allow them to learn from living when the stakes are low, so they can be well-prepared for when they go out into the world on their own.
  4. Instead of No: don't give automatic no's, consider yes more often. Consider each situation as it comes, and discuss options together. Move from hard-and-fast knee-jerk-response rules, to more flexible and meaningful principles. 
  5. Living Together: everyone in the family has important needs, and has the right to their own voice. One important part of life is learning to live in harmony with others. 
Most of these ideas were pretty familiar to me...they fall in line with montessori and attachment-parenting philosophies. I've been most intrigued by the part about "rules vs principles." In a way that gives me some relief... I've often given myself a hard time for feeling like I'm not very consistent about setting rules. But this helped me understand what I instinctually gravitate towards anyway-- taking each situation as it comes, and bending or changing rules when it seems needed. I like talking with my kids about why I like things done one way, or why I'm not comfortable with something. I take their input seriously when they tell me why they want to do things a different way. As best I can, I try to help us work towards agreements that feel fair enough to everyone. 

It's also a reminder to myself, to not get too bogged down in the "rules" of unschooling. It's funny how for something that is meant to be so loose and unstructured, many people make it seem incredibly rigid and like there's only right one way to do it. When Q was a baby I found myself gravitating towards the Attachment Parenting ways of things, but quickly learned to adopt the practices that made life simpler and just seemed to work well for us, and leave behind what didn't. I am now working to study the "rules" of unschooling, to fully understand the reasons behind them and intended purposes, and do the same culling-- remembering that the end goal is not to pass some test of whether we're "doing this right" but to find a balance and way of doing things that works for US as a family-- that helps each of us within this family feel respected and fulfilled. 

Cool Things (last) Week


  • The xbox is still very new, and continues to be a favored activity. The favorite game right now is lego star wars: the complete saga. D is advancing through levels and unlocking characters at (what appears to my inexperienced eyes) an impressive pace, and also learning how to cooperate with little bro who also loves to play but isn't exactly helpful... We also just got a kinect over the weekend with a couple games for it, the boys tried it out last night for the first time. There is some interesting kinesthetics/body awareness learning that goes on there...
  • D started working on a hero factory comic book, using a printable set I found online. We've cut up scenes and speech bubbles and he's pasted most of them in the order he wants. He's ding work on it little by little.
  • We spent one afternoon at a local kids science museum, D was super into the ball runs, working with gears, and this other exhibit where you could make a vortex in a tube filled with water which led to talking about tornadoes and hurricanes.
  • One morning D asked about wanting to see animal babies being born, which led to some youtube-watching of videos of elephant, kangaroo, and dolphin births. 
  • We also had some continuing cool conversations about cloning, the ethics of cloning people to build an army, how genetics relate to personality, the ethics of experimenting on humans vs animals, ways that scientists have studied and altered animal behavior, etc (based on the clone troopers in star wars).

Friday, September 19, 2014

When you start to question everything...

There's this really weird thing about choosing to do something that is unconventional and different... I remember it from when I was first pregnant and started looking into midwives and having a med-free birth, outside of a hospital. You start questioning one assumption, and it leads to questioning another, and then another, and there are all these surreal and eye-opening moments when you realize that a bunch of stuff that you had simply assumed to be true, was...well, not.

Choosing to homeschool is one thing, going to the next extreme of unschooling is kinda fascinating, and reading about radical unschooling is leading me to question so many other things as well. It feels like we're in this phase of experimenting, questioning, re-thinking. I'm letting go of school-ish expectations of what is supposed to be learned when, but also re-thinking other aspects of life and parenting. We no longer have any firm restrictions of "screen time" which I'm still having some conflicted feelings about, but am trying to really embrace the unschooling way of it to see how it can work for us (or if it won't, who knows... maybe in a few months we'll decide we do want some more limits. Or maybe not... I want to give us some time to really explore this and figure it out... and this is one of my favorite things about unschooling, that it feels like we really do have plenty of time).

I'm also trying to really reconsider my thoughts on bedtime and meals, etc. I do feel like the boys need a consistent bedtime-- years of monitoring their sleep, noting what happens when they do get to bed late, how they deal with that, etc, leave me thinking that enforcing a bedtime helps them more than it hinders them. As they get older they will likely get more freedom with that. And, I am loosening up my rigidity about bedtime-- often D will get interested in something or start a project right before our bedtime routine would begin, and now I let him finish what he's doing. Also, every once in a while D may have a hard time falling asleep, and we'll let him get up and go play quietly for a bit rather than force him to stay in bed.

As for food, I think we're already fairly "unschooly." We do have set mealtimes, or well dinner at least and usually lunch. Snacks happen on demand. And while I won't cook different things for different people, I do offer food, they aren't forced to eat anything they don't want, and if they don't like any of what's served for a particular meal I will offer other easy-to-make options (like other snacks, or re-heat leftovers, etc).

There's something kinda fun and exciting about really questioning everything... though it can also be exhausting and feed that nagging voice of doubt. I'm trying to separate what may be accepted conventions, vs what I really feel works best for the individuals within our family. Also, as with Attachment Parenting philosophy, I am trying to find the right balance of meeting all of our needs-- the boys', as well as mine and Zach's as parents-- as best we can. For example, one of my reason for enforcing a set bedtime (most of the time, anyway) is that as an introverted parent I really need some quiet time in the evening after the boys have gone to bed, and before I myself need to get to sleep. So letting them stay up late on a regular basis wouldn't work for me, and I'm ok with establishing that selfish need for myself.

But yeah, so we're in this initial period of trial-and-error, of trying a few different things on that may feel weird and strange at first and some of them will probably stick and start feeling a lot more comfortable after a few wears, and some may not, and really it's probably a never-ending process as our needs and "best practices" I'm sure will change and evolve as we all get older and change ourselves.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Observations from the xbox

About a month ago I lifted our restrictions on "screen time" (something I want to write a longer post about soon). Last week the boys started playing the lego star wars game on the hand-me-down xbox 360 we recently got from my brother-in-law. They have been really enjoying the game, and playing it lots... for several hours each day. I am still struggling some with how I feel about spending all that time playing a video game vs doing other things (and is there really that much difference between playing a video game vs say a board game? I don't know. More fodder to ponder). But as I have sat and watched them play this game, I have noticed a few things and wanted to jot them down. Because it does seem like these games have the potential to develop a lot of important skills.

  • Patience. I was never very into video games as a kid, and I am remembering now why. I don't have the patience for them. It takes a LOT of patience to figure out the challenges and puzzles within the game.  The games can get very frustrating, so this also provides practice in dealing with frustration, disappointment, and perseverance.
  • Cooperation. D is playing this game with his 3yo younger brother. This means a lot of the two of them trying to work together- D trying to help Q figure out what to do, Q trying to go along with D on the mission, etc. 
  • Problem-solving. Many times D will get to a spot in the game that seems impossible. But then after a while of trying out a bunch of stuff, he will figure it out. Or we figure it out together. Or, last resort, we turn to the internet for some research. 
  • Creativity. After playing, D will often start telling me about how he would make his own version of the game-- what he would change, what characters he would use, the storyline he would follow, etc. It is really cool to see him make the game his own. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

The importance of self-care

One thing I am learning quickly, is how important self-care is as a homeschooling parent...and particularly as an introvert. I am really trying to be available to my kids during the day, to fully take advantage of the flexibility we have to jump on an interesting thought or question or opportunity when it arises. I have noticed that for D we really need to tackle questions right when that curiosity comes out, as later it will have passed and he may not be interested anymore. He also loves to tell me stories, made-up adventures or telling his own version of a movie or show or game and how he would make it differently, and I want to listen to these stories and give him my full attention.

Being this available and attentive all day long, however, wears on me. It drains me of energy, and I need to replenish it with time by myself, with quiet and solitude, without anyone talking to me or asking me questions or whining or needing anything from me. I used to take "mommy time outs" when the boys watched TV, but as I have loosened the reigns on "screen time" I also am wanting to be much more involved in what they are watching (and they often really want me sitting with them as they watch as well, to cuddle together and talk about the show as we're watching it), so I don't get those breaks much anymore.

It doesn't help things that my husband works long days and is usually not home until well after the boys have gone to sleep, so I am solo parenting for dinner and bedtime most nights.

One benefit of Zach's long hours is that once the boys are in bed, I sometimes get the quiet house to myself for a couple hours before I need to get to sleep myself. I try to mark out time on the weekends for myself, but it's difficult as that is our chance to enjoy family time all together. I'm working on figuring out other ways to give me some time and space during the week. I love being able to be home with my boys, but I also realize it is important for me to take care of myself, so that I can be more patient and present with them the rest of the time.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Cool Things This Week

A few cool things from this past week:

  •  D counted out the dollars and change in his allowance jar, exchanging the mountain of pennies he had for larger coins, then took his jar to the mall to buy a new Hero Factory set.
  • Made a couple of short stop-action movies with his legos.
  • Experimented with vinegar and baking soda explosions.
  • Talked about the history of the US flag and the symbolism behind the number of stars and stripes on it (inspired by the US flag stickers he got from Trader Joes).
  • Learned about hummingbirds, bees, spiders, and other pollenators through Wild Kratts videos.
  • Got to finally try out the xbox 360 we got as a hand-me-down from D’s uncle. We have one kid-friendly game right now, a lego star wars game. I’ve been impressed watching D (and Q!) play the game, and see how quickly they’ve gotten the hang of it, and also remember how much patience and problem-solving is required to get through the levels.
  • Talked about democracy and government (inspired by the lego movie and President Business).
  • Attended the first meetup of a local lego play group. I’m hoping this can be an ongoing thing for us.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Deschooling Myself

When you ask veteran unschoolers, most of them will say that one of the hardest parts of unschooling is deschooling yourself as a parent. A huge help to me was going to a local homeschooling conference last month where I heard Sandra Dodd and Sue Patterson speak, and heard stories of long-time unschooling families who were doing well and enjoying it. Hearing all those success stories gave me the reassurance and confidence to really dive into this head-first. I also feel like I had this shift– unschooling sounded so great and wonderful, but it couldn’t possibly just be that easy, right? To get to just hang out with your kids learning cool things together every day? But that seemed to be the regular day-to-day of all these other families, and I started believing that perhaps this too-good-to-be-true idea might actually be real.

So I’m feeling pretty confident about it now, though I’m sure the doubts will creep in from time to time. It’s tough to fully unshackle yourself from arbitrary standards of What You Should Be Learning At X Time when everyone else lives by those standards and views them as gospel truth. I think I will have to make up a list of article to read and re-read as needed to reassure me when I begin to question. ; )

One thing that’s been very helpful for me is that D keeps showing me signs that unschooling really is the best path for us, certainly for right now. I don’t know how much of it is just his age, or difficulty with transitioning to new life after we moved this summer, etc, but he is in a phase where he really resist being forced into doing anything he doesn’t want, or even of me trying to teach him things if he didn’t initiate the interest.

Last week he had tried a game on the ipad that was about identifying US coins. The game as kinda crappy, so I pulled him over and tried giving him a short lesson on coins from our spare change jar, just on their names and values. He scoffed and stormed off, annoyed. We had a chat after that about more polite, appropriate ways to express his disinterest in an activity, but even so I felt hurt and discouraged, feeling like I will never be able to “teach” him anything.

Fast forward to the next day…. I had left the coins and jar sitting out on my desk, and the next day D comes up to ask me something and he sees the coins… and he asks me about them. And we went on to talk about them and their value, and then to get all the coins out of the jar and counted up the pennies, nickles, dimes, and quarters, and he added up the total value of all that change (just over $2). We also discovered a bunch of foreign coins mixed in, so we go to talk some about how other countries use different money, and it is worth different amounts, and how exchange rates vary, etc. The whole thing didn’t last that long, maybe 20 minutes, but it was fun and we both loved it.

That was a huge lightbulb moment for me, to stop trying to “teach” and instead focus on strewing cool and interesting things in his path, and then follow his lead. I really don’t think we could do “regular” homeschooling, with a curriculum– it would be a nightmare. I also can’t imagine having to force him to do homework after being at school all day (or forgo the homework, putting him in that awkward spot of not respecting his teachers or their expectations). So in many ways, this feels like a godsend.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Beginning our Journey

I can’t really say how long we have “officially” been unschooling, perhaps weeks or as much as a couple of months… D, my 6yo, went to montessori preschool for three years, finishing up his kindergarten year last spring. As my husband and I talked over what to do for his first grade year, we knew we wanted to avoid public school if possible. However we also knew we couldn’t afford private school tuition, especially here in the SF bay area. So then we started talking about homeschooling… and in my research, I found out about unschooling.

As a montessorian (I have a primary AMI certification, though I never spent much time working in the classroom), unschooling felt like the next natural step in child-led learning. I felt instantly drawn to the idea and fully believe in children’s ability to learn what they want and need in their own time, though I have to admit that part of me may just be attracted to how much easier it seems than homeschooling with a curriculum. So, we decided to homeschool, using the unschooling approach, for this first year and “see how it goes.”

At first I looked at homeschooling as an alternative option, something to do until we could afford private montessori elementary tuition. However as I have learned more, and as we start down this path, I am finding myself thinking that this may be a long-term thing. I am ever hesitant to make long-term predictions about our lives– we have taken so many twists and turns that I never would have anticipated in a million years, and I have no idea what else the future will have in store for our little family. But, this feels good. It feels natural. In the moments when we really immerse ourselves in unschooling, when I let go of any worries about “keeping up” or comparing to what we “should be doing”, when I allow myself to believe that this really can be this simple, this easy, this enjoyable… in those moments, I can see us being life-long unschoolers. I also really, really love getting to explore and learn right along with my kids.

Now, a disclaimer– I also have a younger son, Q, who is 3yrs old, and who just started going to montessori preschool in the mornings, which I suppose is fairly un-unschoolish of us. I do still like the montessori method of education, and I think he will get a lot out of his time there. I feel a bit conflicted about sending him to school while keeping D home, but to be completely honest the biggest reasons why Q is in school right now are 1) he is much more social and outgoing than D is and I feel needs more of that social interaction, while 2) D revels in having time at home, with me, by ourselves, just the two of us.

So here we are, starting down this path, trying to find our way. In the past I have used blogging as a way to sort through my thoughts and feelings, and to connect with others who are in a similar place. So here is this new blog, for this new beginning.