It’s not really cold. A low of eight degrees overnight, the temperature climbing to 14-15 degrees by noon. A gorgeous, perfect fall day. I start it by the fire wrapped in a blanket—you suggest that I would be more productive sitting at my desk, but what do you know? Chairs are uncomfortable, and Truman Capote, for one, wrote everything lying prone on bed, and also, didn’t you just tell me I have to be kind to myself?
This happens yesterday:
Flora: Apparently there was a real lockdown at school but it was period 4 so I was home but you might get a email or something
Jane: I did. There was an “intruder.” How are you feeling?
Flora: Sad. I missed something interesting. Like what the hell! I wanna feel like an American student
Life today and its moments. The day before, this:
Flora: Can you take me to a taxidermy store so I can raid its dumpster?
Jane: what mother does not dream of a request like that Is there a taxidermy store in Calgary?
Flora: More than you’d think Like, 7
Jane: cool, ok, choose one, and we can go after school or after your nap, or tomorrow
…and yes, I am the mother who takes my 15-year-old dumpster diving behind a taxidermist’s after school, except that it turns out that the taxidermist works out of his house, and his street does not have a back alley, so going through his garbage would involve, essentially, breaking into his garage, and neither Flora nor I have quite the chutzpah for that.
Jane: Surely, there must be a taxidermist who works out of one of those creepy little strip malls in one of the industrials areas. Maybe we should go raid their dumpster. What are we looking for, anyway?
(A sane person might have, I grant you, asked that question before driving to the taxidermist’s home address.)
Jane: Do you think they just throw bones and shit into the regular garbage? Aren’t there rules, bylaws about the disposal of biological matter? I mean, if your cat or dog dies, you can’t just toss the corpse into the dumpster.
Flora: Can’t you?
We don’t know.
We could google it, but I’m driving and she’s hungry, so we go to Subway instead.
Today, I want to want to work, very much so, and that feels pretty good. But I’m also going to spend some time with Julia Cameron, and have lunch with a fascinating human, walk the dogs, and watch Ender play dinosaur LEGO army with the growing army of homeschooled neighbourhood kids—maybe go buy his birthday present, and…
Flora: Take me to another taxidermy store?
Jane: Maybe. Let’s make sure this one is NOT in someone’s house. Did you ever find out if they’re just allowed to throw bones into the trash?
Flora: No. I figured we’d just find out when we get there.
(The above conversation took place entirely in my head, by the way, but odds are good it will unfold more or less like this, via text, this afternoon.)
The fire roars. My nose drips. Allergies, I insist, and not the plague—anyway, I know it can’t be COVID, because Cinder and his Dad both just tested negative, and they’re my proxy test.
Today will be a good day. I feel it in my cold toes and dripping nose.
Flora: Excited about that taxidermy dumpster diving experience?
Last week, I started drafting a post celebrating and documenting Calgary’s Pride 2019 and telling you why it is we march—and why if you don’t get that it’s political, that all the joy and dancing and laughter and singing around Pride is so political, then you shouldn’t come to our glitter party—but I couldn’t make it funny or even particularly convincing. So I shelved it.
The week before that, I wrote three very long essays about why I hate the family therapist that’s part of Flora’s medical team. Short-hand: She doesn’t understand. Me, Flora, our family. I don’t like her. I don’t respect her. I don’t want to listen to her, and I can’t hear her even when she gives me something of value, because I really need to be able to be angry at someone, hate someone, blame someone, and she’s the ideal candidate for the task. But I couldn’t make it empathetic or compassionate. It just sounded mean, and I didn’t want to come across as mean. Just… pissed and misunderstood.
We live here, how lucky is that?
Then, some good things happened, but I didn’t even try to write about those, because I didn’t want to jinx them. I jinxed some of them anyway. Alas.
And since Tuesday I’ve been trying to compose a “Back to School” post. My first-ever, because this is Cinder’s first “Back to School” year—my boy’s in grade 12, y’all. And it’s Flora’s first-ever “to school” year—she did it, we did it, she made it to regular school on day 1 just as she decided way back before BAM! Surprise! Curveball!
Flora’s first day of school; yes, that is her unicorn costume
And, Ender’s first year at home alone. I mean, with me, but you know what I mean. I don’t count, because I’m an adult. His first year at home alone without his siblings. He missed Cinder desperately when Cinder went to school last fall—I found this odd, because it seemed to me Cinder spent most of his time in his room anyway, playing computer games and punching holes in walls—but apparently just having him in the house was… nice.
I’m trying not to overplan and overpanic. He’ll be fine. He’s got buddies in the hood, and a homeschooled buddy just two doors over.
Cinder planning his semester (who is this kid??)
He’ll be fine. Me? Here’s the funny thing that most people don’t get. When Cinder went to school, I did not suddenly magically have more free, non-kid time. Because there were still two kids at home (and one of them was about to need 24/7 care but let’s not go there again, not now, not yet). And now, with both Flora and Cinder in high school—I do not magically have more kid-free time. Because, there is still… Ender. And an Ender who no longer has two older siblings to hang out with during the day, to distract, to bug, to annoy, to fight with.
And then there were three…
We survive our first week solo relatively well. Tuesday and Friday are a half-day, and on Wednesday, we have lots of errands, and Thursday is a beautiful day, so we spend a lot of time outside, and then, the weekend, and a sleepover with his cousins and all his friends on the Common.
And today is Monday, our first week of five full days of no Flora and no Cinder at home.
We’re gonna be ok.
Ender’s “not back to school” lunch
Our coping strategies are very similar. I decide to reorganize the homeschooling supplies and purge the stuff that we are definitely never ever going to use again. Ender reorganizes his Lego shelf—to make room for the new Lego sets he’s planning to receive for his birthday, my eternal optimist.
We read a book together, then I read alone.
I do laundry, because it’s Monday and it’s raining, and that’s what you do on rainy Mondays when you have a dryer and a large drying rack.
He sorts his Lego, then starts uploading Minecraft mods.
I scour the house for chocolate. For fuck’s sake, surely, there’s an untapped stash of chocolate somewhere?
(There isn’t. I eat a handful of chocolate chips instead.)
There aren’t very many chocolate chips left in the house, because Cinder was doing midnight baking…
He asks for three lunches.
I answer an email, then text, from a new homeschooler who wants some advice on learning plans and unschooling. I’m not sure if what I tell her will be helpful. Because in the end, my “proof of concept” is unique to me and my family.
I think a lot about my work. Write some new words. Delete a few. Write a bit more.
I ask him if he wants to go swimming. Or something?
He shrugs. “Maybe go for ice cream? Later? I’m busy now.”
I go back to my computer. Tickle the keys.
Invite the nervous new homeschooler over for coffee.
I have been thinking about all the things you’re supposed to do first thing in the morning. Eat breakfast as soon as you wake up. Wait, first drink a glass of water. Exercise first thing. Meditate ditto. Write before you do anything else… if we do all the things we’re supposed to do first thing in the morning, morning takes all day. Or at least, two hours.
I forgot to mention the cold shower, the body massage, the oil pulling. And, and tooth brushing, of course. Of course, brush your teeth…
I like slow, unhurried mornings. At the same time, I also really value my early morning productivity. When I start doing ALL THE THINGS first thing in the morning, I usually make a good dent in them by 10 a.m. And I feel accomplished, productive, peaceful, and not guilty for being lazy for the rest of the day. And then, I can have breakfast, mediate, exercise, shower etc. etc.
Anyway. I’m sharing this with you because I’m trying a new morning routine. Which I won’t share with you because parts of it embarrass me a little. But my old morning routine, which was pretty functional for a long while, has suddenly stopped working.
So. I’m changing it.
Disrupting some habits.
Telling Julia Cameron I’m not so sure about those morning pages. Of course, I’m telling her so while I write my morning pages. Funny.
Telling my cup of coffee that I gave her up before and I can give her up again if she’s again become a destructive habit rather than a pleasure.
Yes, I talk with my habits.
I am writing in the kitchen. It’s Sunday morning. The teenagers are asleep. Sean is cooking oatmeal. Ender is watching a show on his computer. I don’t know where the dog is. The house is cold, because it’s barely zero degrees outside.
This is a happy moment.
another happy moment
This Friday, we meet with the homeschool facilitator. After 11 years of homeschooling (if you start at Cinder’s grade one year, more if you start counting the day he dropped out of the second day of preschool), I’m blasé. She’s new and very enthusiastic. She wants to meet with us in January to discuss the kids’ halfway progress, help me fill out the report card. I sigh.
“We’ll come, of course, if you want us to,” I tell her. “But I don’t need it.”
“Some parents have a hard time filling out the report card,” she says.
“That’s because the report card is stupid,” I say. “I don’t actually fill it out. It’s designed by bureaucrats who understand neither homeschooling nor learning. It’s a waste of my time.”
I used to print out the report cards, fill in the kids’ names, and write N/A – see progress report across the rest of it in giant letters.
Then the report cards got longer and longer and I stopped printing them out. Save the trees.
I think I used to be a homeschool advocate. Now I’m just a “omg, institutions are so broken, I don’t even” crank.
But my facilitator is a functionary of the institution. I won’t punish her for having to do her job.
I won’t fill out the report card, though.
Facilitator: And what are you doing for language arts with Flora?
Jane: She’s working on her fourth or fifth novel, so… not much.
Flora: I might need to junk it, though. I don’t like my main character.
I’m having the same problem. We commiserate.
The facilitator doesn’t ask me what I’m doing for language arts with Ender. Which is good, because right now, that seems to consist mostly of him reading and writing “poop.”
Cinder went through that phase too.
I was going to show you how many meatballs Ender can eat at Ikea but I was too late
I like my kids this week, although they’re also frustrating.
And I’m a bit on edge, everything irritates me.
I’m reading a lot about Ayurveda these days, so I decide my doshas are out of balance. Also, change of seasons. Or, peri-menopause.
Or, just overall fatigue.
But it was a good week. A full week. A productive week. A pivotal week.
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And an extra-special thank you for Sean Lindsay to capturing the event on video so that those of you who weren’t there can see me call Yo-Yo Ma a violin player.
(I was very nervous.)
The transcript of the speech I was supposed to give follows the video. Obviously, I departed from the script just a little…
All right. Unschooling. Let’s have a quick poll. Who here is familiar with the concept, philosophy, whatever you wanna call it? Who thinks it’s the best idea ever and that’s what they’re going to do with their kids? Awesome. I love preaching to the choir… Who thinks it’s totally kooky and only crazy people would do it? Who equates it with unlearning and unparenting?
Don’t be shy to tell me so—when I first heard of unschooling, I was kind of appalled. And, here I am, 10 years later, its fourth biggest advocate.
Its first, second and third biggest advocates are my three children.
Unschooling, as most of you know, was the term coined by homeschool advocate John Holt—and I’m sure you’re all reading all of his books and Growing Without Schooling articles—they’re all archived on the web—if you’re not devouring them, do, they are absolutely inspirational.
John Holt used the term unschooling to refer to homeschooling in general. Holt thought that the best and most important thing about homeschooling was that it not duplicate school in the home environment.
Since then, the idea of unschooling, and the term itself, has acquired all sorts of definitions and sister terms, including delight-driven learning, free range learning, child-led learning, interest-led learning. There are as many ways, today, of defining unschooling as there are families who call themselves unschoolers.
The thing most people think we have in common is that we are curriculum-free—or at least curriculum-light. The actual, much more important thing that I believe all unschoolers have in common is that we love learning and we believe our kids love learning and we believe our kids will learn whatever they need to learn as they need to learn it.
This is both unbelievably easy and unbelievably hard.
It also starts, not with believing in your child, but with believing in yourself. To be an effective unschooling parent, you need to love, crave, delight in learning new things. All the time. And be confident that… you can do it. That when you need to learn Japanese—you will sit down, grit your teeth, do the work, and learn Japanese.
If you don’t have that trust and confidence in yourself, you will not have it in your children.
So I actually have an assignment for all of you who are thinking about unschooling. I want you to think about something you’ve always wanted to know how to do—and, starting tomorrow, I want you to start working on it. Japanese? Knitting? Car maintenance? Worm composting? It doesn’t matter what. Something.
It’s possible that you’re a little out of practice at chasing your passions and your interests. Before you start helping your children on their unschooling journey, launch yourself. Be passionate about your life, your interests, your learning.
I think that’s a critical prerequisite for being an unschooling family. The parents have to be committed life learners too.
My second assignment for you, if you are thinking about unschooling, is to commit a month to—are you ready for this?—doing nothing to actively shape your children’s education. Just… watch them. When you’re not setting the agenda—what do they do? When left to their own devices, when they are not interrupted, when they are not shuttled from activity to activity, playdate to playdate, what do they do?
Pay attention. Do it alongside them—or at least watch them. What do they love to do?
Then offer them a little more of it. But not too much. Make it findable, reachable, available—but don’t shove it down their throats.
So this is the point in the conversation when someone usually starts to hyperventilate a little and say,
“But if they want to be a world class violin player and I don’t get them in early child hood music education by three and practicing an hour a day by five, they’ll never get there!”
Or “But if they’re not reading by six they’ll be behind.”
Or “But suppose all they want to do is play video games?”
Here’s the thing: a child raised to love learning will never be behind. A child brought up in a family that values learning and who learns how to learn continuously, constantly—not to pass a test, not to get a certificate but to acquire a skill or knowledge they need and want to have—that child has an incredible leg up on kids who are forced to learn things they don’t care about.
How many of you had to take French as a second language in school? I did, through to grade 12. Languages are incredibly easy for me. I spoke five or six before I was 10. I learned Japanese and Korean in university. Spanish when I decided I wanted to travel in Latin America. I’m learning Farsi now. French? After being made to learn it when I didn’t care about it?
I think I can say Please and thank you in a horrible Western Canadian accent, and that’s about it.
Here’s another thing, though—if you can’t make yourself believe this—if you think your children will never want to learn to read unless you make them—if you think your children will never want to learn math unless you make them—unschooling is not for you. I’m not sure homeschooling is for you, either, but that’s a highly controversial statement and if you like, we can argue about that on Twitter sometime, but not here.
If all your kids want to do is play video games—awesome. There are so many studies coming out now about the advantages of video game playing on learners, that Sweden has made Minecraft mandatory in its schools. What you, as a parent, need to do in that case is—hang out beside your children while they’re playing their games. What are they doing, really? There’s more happening than just swiping at the screen in most of the games children gravitate to.
Talk to them about what they enjoy. And why. If you think the game they’re playing is idiotic—it’s okay to think that—try not to say it. Watch. Angry Birds is all about geometry. Minecraft is fabulous. Fruit Ninja, I’m not so sure about, but, you know, the lame games, kids burn out on—they binge for a while, and then move on to something more stimulating. Hate the game they’re playing? Do some research and offer a more interesting one.
As for that world class violin player who’ll never fulfill her dreams unless you get her in lessons by age three…
One in a million three year olds has the kind of talent that will turn her into a violinist like Itzhak Perlman or a cellist like Yo-Yo Ma.
(Also, yes, I’m totally making up this statistic. I’m not actually a 100 per cent sure what instrument Yo-Yo Ma plays. Call me on it.)
And if she has that talent, there is very little you can do to extinguish it. Fail to sign her up for violin lessons—she will find a ukulele in a neighbour’s house and start strumming it. She will demand lessons. She will practice without you telling her to.
I feel a cynic in the audience, who says no child will practice violin—guitar—piano—unless you make her. Not even a talented child. Again, I say—if you unschool, you have to have that faith.
I agree with you that plenty of children can be turned into competent musicians if you force them to practice.
What I’m saying is that the children who truly love music—art—science—math—for whom it is the interest and the passion—they will discover it and chase it and master it without you forcing them to sit down for an hour of practice every afternoon.
If you don’t believe me, you shouldn’t unschool. You will be miserable, and you will make your children miserable with your inconsistency and lack of confidence in themselves.
OK. Enough philosophy. What you all want to know is, what does unschooling look like on a daily basis? And I’ll give you a few examples from my family, but before I do I want to talk about scheduling, routines and rhythms.
For me, unschooling does not equal unscheduling. It does not mean not knowing what the hell we’re going to do tomorrow or next week or next month in all aspects of our lives. It does not mean waking up Monday morning, rolling out of bed at 11 a.m.—that’s only in my fantasies, sigh—and saying, “Gee, I wonder what we’re going to do today?”
I work, my kids’ daddy works, our work demands introduce a fair bit of deadline-driven chaos into our lives, and all of my children do better in the context of some sort of predictable schedule. One of the things that worries me most when people first discover unschooling is that they turn it into this Religion of Freedom in which nothing is planned, all is chaos… and everyone is miserable. Some people do great when everything in their lives is unplanned and unpredictable.
I am not one of them, and neither are any of my children.
And so—no unscheduling in my life. Our life, and our unschooling practice, has a definite rhythm. It’s a responsive rhythm rather than a rigid one, but there’s a definite routine.
The main anchors of our daily routine are, frankly, about me, and not the kids. When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is write for 30 minutes. This is my meditation, my religious practice, my work, my everything—no matter what else happens in my day, this is what I must do. Then, I check in with the kids to make sure they’ve eaten—keep in mind my kids are 14, 11 and almost 7 now—and I make sure they’re settled into doing something—it’s summer still in our world so that something generally involves being outside with their friends—and then I go back and try to wring at least another hour of time, sometimes two for my work.
Then I turn my attention back to the kids. Feed them second breakfast or first lunch—anyone else’s kids just never stop eating—and be available to them if they need me for something. This would be the time that I do math with 11 year old, or she’ll show me her latest modeling clay project or something, or my seven year old will want to show me his Lego project. Or we might read. Or we’ve made plans, or make plans to go somewhere interesting in the city, alone or with friends.
I have a teenager now, and he sleeps until late, and when he wakes up, I try to be present and not distracted to just hang with him for a bit. He and I are trying to get into the habit of doing math each afternoon for 15-30 minutes—he’s very math/science/engineering focused, and he’ll probably want to do some on-line math courses soon, so we’re working on establishing those habits. How does this fit into an unschooling philosophy? See, this is something he wants to do—this awareness and desire came at an age at which it made sense to him that certain building blocks had to be in place first—and so, we’re doing it.
By the way, after not doing any math, at all, until my eldest was 11 or 12, we breezed through grade 2, 3 and 4 level math in 17 days—I kept track—and then grade 5 took a little longer, 21 days. And then we took a break for almost year, reviewed everything in a week, and he keeps on plugging away at it. And he’s the one who reminds me we’ve skipped too many days.
When he’s not doing that, by the way, all he does is play video games. And run. And listen to audiobooks. And watch Youtube vloggers. And run. And play video games. And Skype with friends. And make cookies from scratch. And run to the Y to go for a swim. And look up tutorials on how to set up servers, hack mods or optimize his computer to better play video games.
All he does is play video games… and I think he’s doing ok.
(But did you notice that… he doesn’t just play video games? I know this—because I watch and pay attention…)
The 11 year old is an artist, and she spends big chunks of her day drawing or making jewelery. Also writing stories about unicorns. Yesterday, she came to me and said she wanted to ramp up her math. So that might happen.
The not quite 7 year old mostly plays in dirt and with Lego.
So my afternoons focus on what the kids need and want, and might include going swimming, going to a thing—there are so many things happening in Calgary all the time! It’s awesome! An unschooler’s tip: I put all the things in my calendar as I hear about them. So, Beakerhead is coming up—if you don’t know what Beakerhead is, google it, and I’ve just taken care of all your science planning for the year, you’re welcome—as soon as the program guide came into my hands, I ran through it, marked all the stuff that looked cool, put it in my calendar, and so, when on that Wednesday in September, I’m not on deadline and we want to go do a thing—look! There’s a cool thing happening! Let’s go!
When we get back from a thing—or when I finish a bout of doing something with them at home—by late afternoon, we all take a break from each other. The kids either go to hang with friends—we live in a great neighbourhood for that—or chill with audiobooks or the little guy builds Lego—and I go to my writing space or to the balcony to be alone. I might work or inflict myself on social media… or I might just stare off into space for a while.
As an aside—self-care and taking time for yourself and to be alone is so critical as a homeschooling parent. Teachers have regular breaks. So do day care workers. Make sure you give them to yourself.
Then, supper. After supper, the kids can go on screens—so when I said my eldest plays video games all the time, I just meant all night. Except on binge days—that’s another part of our routine—I need two days a week when I can really hyper-focus on my work, and on those days, they have unlimited screen time.
Ironically, those days don’t look that much different for them than the other days, except that I’m not really available to them in any meaningful way.
A couple of nights a week, my daughter has martial arts class—the boys don’t do classes of any sort, it’s against their religion, my eldest informed me once—and a couple of nights a week, I take to myself and head out of the house almost as soon as my partner comes home.
Once or twice a month, I get us out of the city for most of the day—into the mountains, or to Drumheller or to a place like that.
And that’s sort of what unschooling looks like.
It looks like… life.
I’m going to give worldschooling just a few minutes before I close, because worldschooling is not complicated. You travel, you learn. You experience, you learn. That’s really not much else to it. And you will worldschool just the way you homeschool. So, as an unschooler talking about worldschooling, the perspective I offer is for goodness’ sake do not turn every museum-temple-whatever visit into a forced educational experience with pre-experience reading and post-experience worksheets! But, you know, if that kind of thing is a critical part of your personality, you will bring that to homeschooling and to worldschooling. And that’s okay. We have to be the people we are.
I’ve taken my kids to Poland, France, London. To all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, and to fishing villages in Mexico too.
This is a fabulous experience, and if you can afford to travel the world with your children, do it. It will be exhausting, and at times you will wonder why you ever bothered to leave—but in the end it will be worth it.
If you can’t afford to—and I think this is a really important thing to keep in mind as you go along on your homeschooling journey—everything is possible in theory, right, but practical considerations trump our dreams. Travel is expensive, even when you do it cheaply—especially if you are a family of five, six or eight, right? Your job, your partner’s job—and input into you taking your children off to Asia for six months, come on honey, you won’t miss us that much—your own level of comfort—these are all important considerations.
If they keep you close to home—worldschool in your city and your community.
There are two ways of doing this. The first is to look at your city and your province the way a tourist would. If I were a stranger here, where would I go? What would I see? Make a list of all of this area’s museums and tourist attractions—even the crappy ones. And explore them, even the crappy ones. The Torrington Gopher Hole Museum is a one of a kind experience, and it’s only an hour away.
Walk the streets of your city—or the one that’s an hour’s drive away—with no agenda other than to experience it—learn it. Obviously—take your children along.
The second—we live in a multicultural city, and we live in the time of the Internet! Take advantage of both. Go to the city’s various cultural festivals. Go to ethnic markets. Take your kids out for some out-of-your-comfort-zone food—or get a cook book out of the library and prepare an Indonesian or Moroccan or whatever feast at home.
One of our favourite things to do is to go to the Asian supermarket and look at all the foods we don’t eat. And, sometimes, buy them and eat them. Often they’re delicious. Occasionally, they’re gross. Both experiences are fabulous.
I don’t have to tell you how the Internet brings the world to you—I’m just going to remind you not to forget it. A vicarious experience of the world is right there, at your fingertips. One of my kids favorite things that they’ve found on the Internet on their own and brought home to me is Universal Yums. Every month, a box of candies and snacks from a different country arrives in our mailbox, complete with a little booklet of facts and trivia about the region of the month, sometimes with links to music or movies—what a spring board for further exploration!
Put August 11-13, 2017 in your calendars now. Those are the dates for the next When Words Collide writers’ conference and fest in Calgary. I’m still digesting #wwcyyc2016—my first one—but in brief: I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so energized and full of possibilities… it was an absolutely amazing experience.
This is the last week to catch Hamlet at Shakespeare by the Bow on Prince’s Island. Hamlet is played by a chick, man, and there’s all sorts of awesome gender bending going on. Last shows through til this Sunday.
Take your kids. If they’re bored, you can send them to the nearby playground.
Children are born true scientists. They spontaneously experiment and experience and re-experience again. They select, combine, and test, seeking to find order in their experiences – “which is the mostest? which is the leastest?” They smell, taste, bite, and touch-test for hardness, softness, springiness, roughness, smoothness, coldness, warmness: they heft, shake, punch, squeeze, push, crush, rub, and try to pull things apart.
My friend Sara has a budding scientist in the house, and she asked me how to continue feeding her preschooler’s burgeoning science enthusiasm–fueled in no small part by his love for The Magic School Bus books. Well–you can’t do better than to start with letting Ms. Frizzle be your preschooler’s guide. Cinder was three and Flora five or six months when we started reading Joanna Cole’s marvellous books together, and I don’t think we’ve ever stopped. Flora’s reading them on her own now–I’m reading them again to Ender–and even Cinder will drop what he’s doing for a while to peek over my shoulder when I’m magic school-bussing with Ender and sigh and say, “I used to love those books.”
I think if all you did in the preschool/early school years for science is groove on The Magic School Bus–the books, the television series (available on DVD if you still own a drive, iTunes for download if you don’t), the chapter books as they get older, the games on the Scholastic website–your kids would get a fabulous grounding in science–and develop a love and affinity for it to boot. But yes, there are other resources. Bulging bookshelves and ever-proliferating websites of resources. Here are the five best ones, at least according to Cinder, Flora and Ender.
1. The Magic School Bus. A word about the books: the original books, written by Joanne Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen, are much more meaty and detailed than the books based on the television episodes. (Here’s a great video interview with Cole, by the way, as well as links to her other books.) But read both. The original books cover more ground; the tv-based books are shorter and punchier. Both are fun. The DVDs are marvellous. Watch them together, rewatch them and rewatch them. And when you’re ready for some hands-on follow up, get some Magic School bus science kits. You can do it subscription-style through The Magic School Bus Science Club (The Homeschool Buyers’ Co-op often has group-buy discounts on these), or you can pick up individual kits for a testdrive through Amazon or many toy/educational stores.
Note about science kits and ages The Magic School Bus kits, like most science kits, claim they are targeted at 5-12 year olds. You will not find a 12 year old interested in doing these activities. My 10 year-old is bored to tears. But 4-7–the perfect age. Yes, they will need your help with pretty much every step. But they will love the process and the result.
2. Usborne Books’ See Inside series. These are sturdy (and accordingly expensive) flap books. I recommend them as much for their content as for their sturdiness: they are the only flap books in our library to have made it intact down to the third child. Our favourites are See under the ground, See inside your body, and See inside science. Additional titles include See under the sea, See inside your head, See inside the world of dinosaurs, See inside Planet Earth, See inside recycling and rubbish, See inside inventions, See inside how things work (as I’m compiling this list, I’m thinking–hey, we don’t have that one! I should go get it!). The series isn’t just about science–there’s also See inside famous buildings, See inside castles (an awesome, awesome book), See inside Ancient Egypt and See inside Ancient Rome, and, for the princess in your life, See inside fairyland. Lovely, lovely books, and such fun to explore and re-explore. (“Hey, Ender! Want to read a book with Mama?”)
3. More Usborne books. While you’re checking out the Usborne See Inside series… Usborne books just rock. On the science-for-young-children front, check out The Great Search Series–we have them all, but The Big Bug Search is the best test-drive of whether your children will love this series. The 1001 Things To Spot series is intended for even young children (2+)–it’s good as well, but if it’s a question of one or the other for your budget, go straight to The Great Search books. They will enthrall your family for longer.
When you’re done with those, go on to the experiment books and the encyclopedias and the “First Book Of…” series. And then… well. You get the picture. Usborne books. They rock.
4. The Stunning Science of Everything, by Nick Arnold, illustrated by Tony De Saulles, the original Horrible Science team. Yes, I get that your three-year-old isn’t ready for the Horrible Science series (the best book series ever, if you’re an 8-10 year old boy or grossness-loving girl). But they will probably love this condensed, hard-cover, full-colour look at the science of, well, everything. Each topic is presented in a two-page spread, with comics, goofy characters, as well as big info. Cinder and Flora read and re-read this book for years. It still gets pulled out.
5. The Uncover It series from Silver Dolphin Books. These are great books with a three-dimensional model inside. Our favourites are Uncover: T Rex and Uncover: Tarantula. There’s also Uncover: The Human Body, Shark, Tiger, Dog, Horse (hmmm, Flora’s really into horses now, maybe I should get that one?). When I look at them with Ender, we don’t do much reading–we mostly look at the model, lift up parts, and I occasionally manage to name something before he turns the page. As Flora and Cinder got older, we’d read more and more of each page. Or, they’d pull the book off the shelf and just spend time looking at the model. You’ll get a lot of use of these books if you get them for your preschooler.
Tip: Because of the models, these books are pricey new. Scour used book stores for them. They’re recommended for ages 8+, which means well-meaning friends and relatives buy them as gifts for too-cool-for-school 10 and 12 year-olds. And then, you can pick them up for $5 at Fair’s Fair. (Usborne books end up in used bookstores much less frequently, alas.)
YOU WILL ALSO NEED:
1. To stock your kitchen with baking soda, vinegar, corn starch, cheap salt, and either food colouring or powdered tempera paint. There are oodles of science-experiments-for-children books out; what it boils down to for the under-six crowd is a) Exploding Volcanoes, b) Oobleck, c) Growing Crystals. Also d) mixing random stuff together to see what happens (keep the ingredients down to vinegar, baking soda, salt, and powdered tempera paint and you won’t blow up the house, although they will make a mess). Your preschooler will do these experiments over and over and over and over again. The other 97 experiments in the 101 Best Science Experiments Ever Book? Maybe you’ll do another three or four of them once each. And then back again to vinegar and baking soda…
2. A box (Flora has a fish tackle box; Ender an old lunch box) your kid can collect cool stuff in. Rocks, feathers, shells, bones (score!). They’re gonna do it anyway, especially after they read the Magic School Bus book about rocks, so give them a place for it so they can begin their museum. (Egg cartons make great tiny sorters/display cases.)
3. A library card, so you can take out the Magic School Bus books you don’t own, and the various science experiment books you don’t want to bother buying, because none of them are really worth it. (I’m happy to be proven wrong here, by the way: if you find the ultimate science experiment book for kids, please let me know, K?) Also, most libraries have really stellar nature documentary collections. Show those to your preschooler instead of Blue’s Clues or Dora. (Cinder and Flora recommend: BBC’s Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, and Walking with Dinosaurs.)
4. A local science centre membership if you can swing it. If you can’t–stay on top of what programmes your public library offers. Ours puts on at least a couple of Mad Science workshops (free!) a year, as well as presentations from the area humane societies, wildlife conservation and rehabilitation folks, rock enthusiasts, rocket enthusiasts, and others.
“Cookies!” Cinder suddenly says over my shoulder. Points. I follow the finger and sure enough, there’s the word cookies, smack in the middle of a page of Kevin Sylvester’s Neil Flambe and the Marco Polo Murders. “Any other words you recognize?” I ask. He looks. “The.” “The.” “Geez, like 40 the’s on this page.” “He.” “She.” “Also.” “You.” “Am.” “Said.” “Yelled.” “Hell? Is that hell?” “Yeah,” I laugh. “Oh, read, Mom, read, get to ‘hell.’”
I read. And I smile.
Cinder’s 10. A late reader. An “emergent” reader. Use your adjective of choice, even delayed if you like. I don’t care. I’m watching him chart his unique path to literacy with as much joy and confidence as I have watching Flora chart her more orthodox path (while Cinder’s spotting “cookies” on the page, Flora, while listening to me read Neil Flambe, is simultaneously reading Bone to herself … and occasionally flipping through one of the Magic School Bus chapter books. Or Pssst! Secrets Every Girl Should Know. Or… you get the picture.)
I’m not worried because… well, I love reading. Books. Blogs. Journals. Magazines. Random quotes. Cinder’s grown up with that—with burnt French fries for dinner because Mom had to read “one more chapter.” With piles of books in every room, beside every bed and chair. (Ender’s growing up in a slightly more digital world, so part of his reality is this: “Mama, I ready for nap. Where your Kobo?”)
And throughout Cinder’s journey to literacy, I had—have—one priority. It wasn’t “Get him to read by age X.” Or even “Get him to read.” It was to keep reading—and learning—a thing of joy for him.
So. I don’t torment him with phonics or flash cards or remedial reading of beginner readers too boring for a boy of 10. I just… read to him. With him. Beside him. For him. We read Percy Jackson, and Bone, and Horrible Science. Lord of the Rings, and of course, first, The Hobbit. The Harry Potter books. The Terraria Wiki. The dialogue boxes on Minecraft. Youtube video titles that he can’t read for himself. Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord.
The first page of Moby Dick. (It’s an in-joke. You have to read Bone to get it.)
I think when you, as the parent, love reading—well, there’s no fear. You know it’s not that your child is … lazy? Or recalcitrant. Reluctant to read. If they could—if the mechanics were there, if they were developmentally ready for it—they’d read. Cause reading is not just essential, it’s awesome.
For Flora, the building blocks all came together at three. For Cinder, they’re just coming together now: his library of words and reference points big enough for cross-referencing, his body and mind mature enough that he can slow down, sit down, focus on those little squiggle marks on paper long enough for them to coalesce into meaningful words. Sentences.
I explain all this to my friend Terry and she asks me if I can pour some of that confidence into her husband George. Their little girl is Flora’s age. And “behind.” “Not reading,” as George sees it… although from what I’ve seen, while she’s not reading at the Flora level, she’s probably “ahead” of Cinder. (Forgive the quotation marks. “Behind” and “ahead’ in terms of reading ability are terms that irk me. But they are the convention.) Terry’s not really worried… but George is panicked.
“I can’t help him,” I tell Terry. Now, how do I put this semi-diplomatically? “Because George… well, see, George doesn’t like to read. Of course he’s worried.”
George struggled with reading as a child himself—maybe he was like Cinder, a late bloomer. And the process whereby he attained functional literacy killed the joy of reading for him. George reads work memos. And text messages, the shorter the better. Reading for pleasure? He doesn’t know what that is.
So of course he’s worried. Of course he’s afraid she may not learn to read—may not want to learn to read. Terry’s a book lover and indefatigable life learner: it’s easier for her to not worry. She’s lucky.
I’m lucky too. (I guess so is Cinder.) I know no one would choose not to read; no one would choose not to want to learn to read. For people wired like Flora and me, it comes early and it comes easy. For people wired like Cinder—and one aunt on one side and one uncle on the other side—it’s a hard slog, at odds with default learning preferences. It requires more work, a different approach—and then an even different one, and another, and another. Lots of breaks and downtime, and some regressions. A lot of trust and patience.
The important thing? Not to get him to read at grade level; not to get him to read fluently by age X. The important thing is that the experience of discovering what’s in those books, websites, graphic novels, pages of magazines, cards from Auntie Len and e-mails from Grandma remains an experience of joy.
For more on Cinder’s path to literacy, you might want to read Spell is a Four-Letter Word and The Great Scrabble Battle. You might also be interested in looking at how we’ve framed the literacy journey for him in our Learning Plans (the plans tend to be long documents, but the literacy/reading portion is always right near the beginning).
I’m in the wilds of Manitoba, and generally unplugged. I’ve got a couple more posts auto-scheduled for your enjoyment, but I won’t be able to respond to comments until July 15th.