I was the kid that had to stay in at recess in second grade. Was I bad? No, I needed extra help in subtraction. Sister Brendan, a very nice old lady (who gave me snacks too) sat patiently with me each day to get my wee brain to learn the tools of taking away in an equation. I was a smart kid, and I could memorize how to do it, but I didn’t understand why and that made me second guess myself and screw up on tests. Eventually I got the concept, but I also learned another lesson: Math isn’t fun.
But it can be! My teen son loves to play board and card games with his young cousin. They both homeschool, so I suggested he come up with a math curriculum for her that incorporated games we already owned to teach the concepts she was supposed to learn in second grade (according to Common Core for a reference). Her parents thought that was great, and when she took a simple test at the end of the year, she aced it. No boring textbooks and worksheets!
Unlike most math curricula that teach one concept at a time, games utilize several skills at once in a fun atmosphere that keeps the challenges from getting overwhelming. Basically, instead of learning to do math on its own, the student is using math to play the game.
Granny Apples is a good example of multiple math skills at once. It is a simple game of tossing wooden apples on the ground and counting the different types to find a total score. However, it involves fractions, addition, subtraction, sets, and is all mental math in a visual setting. There is no writing involved, which is perfect for learning concepts without tripping over the writing/reading challenges. It is a fast game with tactile satisfaction with smooth wooden objects.
Bakugan is perfect for those writing/reading challenges, and so fun that kids will not care. Each sphere is tossed into a ring and pops open to reveal a monster. Each monster has a number printed on it for its “battle score.” But these scores are up to triple digits. The student must keep track of all the digits, keep their columns neat, and continually add and subtract to figure out if they win the battles.
Polyhedron Origami is not a game, but the best way to teach geometry of three dimensional shapes—by building them with paper. It is not difficult, but requires attention to detail, with a satisfying ending of something beautiful with math. Using this method, even the youngest students can make truncated octohedrons, and know what that means!
Could there be a more entertaining way to learn graphing skills than Battleship?
The top half of the Yahtzee sheet is a fun introduction to multiplication. Rolling dice, counting, and writing. Over time, students will count the dice faster and faster based on the visual sets of dots on each die. This is learning sets and geometric reasoning for multiplication skills. Sounds complicated, but in this game, it’s just fun.
Games like CathedralChess, Tangoes, Mancala, and Connect 4 are ways to teach spatial reasoning, patterns, shapes, strategy, structure, reasoning, and mental acuity. They range in complexity, but are able to be played by children as young as five in simple formats.
Some people think homeschoolers teach their kids at home, short and simple. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sure, I might teach my son, the Chief, how to do math, or how to find out more information about his favorite planet, or we might read stories together. But truly, the learning goes both ways. Take this, for example:
A few years ago, the Chief discovered video games. The only thing we had at the time was the original PlayStation game and a few disks, including his favorite, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage. I usually sat on the couch and was watched him play while I did other things. Every two seconds, I would cringe and say things like, “Be careful! No, don’t do that, you’re going to die!” And, “You’d better get more butterflies so you can earn more lives.” At one point, there was this big boss, and he was shooting fireballs, and the little dragon couldn’t move fast enough… and… and… and… D’OH, sure enough, Spyro bit it. Not only that, but it was his last life, and the screen filled with the message “GAME OVER.” This was back when dying was a little more complicated than it is now, and you could lose a day’s worth of gaming progress.
I have to admit, I was hesitant to look over at my son. I felt kind of crushed on his behalf. Then I heard him LAUGH! He just pushed a button and started the game all over again, continuing on as happily as ever. All I could think of were all those times I had played that same game, and all the times I died and became so frustrated and stressed out that I…well, might have said some things that weren’t acceptable in mixed company. And yes, I knew how silly it was to get so frustrated over a game, something that didn’t really exist, but there it was. I admired my son for his good attitude, and for keeping the good spirit of the game.
Fast forward to the other morning. I’ve been working on a scene in my current novel, and it just would not work out. In fact, something was extremely broken about my whole idea, which seemed to be working so well up to that point. I pulled my hair out and cursed at my computer, finally announcing that the thing was impossible.
Then, I remembered. The Chief, who has the attention span of an ant and who should be the one to get frustrated by things, just accepts when things don’t go right the first time, like when he had to start over again at his game. He simply saw it as the nature of the beast. He wasn’t good at something, he didn’t get it right, so he just kept on trying until he did get it right. He can be so zen about it all. I suddenly felt kind of foolish. Why was I getting so frustrated? Furthermore, what sort of example was I setting for the Chief? That you just quit when something gets too hard? No way.
All kids go through learning phases where they just can’t get enough of a particular topic. For my son right now, that topic is space and what better way to learn about it than through Lego? That’s where Lego Space: Building the Future by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard comes in.
I was really excited to check this book out because: 1. My son is really into space and I knew he would love it; and 2. it puts the topic in a way that will not only teach my son, but also inspire him to get creative with his own Lego bricks.
The book doesn’t so much tell the real history of space as much as it tells it’s own story. The first 10 pages are filled with some history, but after that, the book goes its own way and takes some creative licensing. Throughout the story, the authors take some time to stop and show you how to build what you are seeing. I thought this was a neat aspect of the book, because my son already wanted to build what he saw, so this gave him a head start.
The only downside to this book that I can tell is the price. I showed it off at my son’s science fair night and the first thing the librarian and his teacher did was note how expensive it must be. Considering the quality of the photos inside and the fact that’s a pretty hefty size, it doesn’t surprise me that it costs $24.95 retail.
Lego Space: Building the Future has inspired my son to put down the video games and instead got him to focus on his much-neglected Lego bricks. I’m not kidding when I tell you that he spent hours building space stations and looking over the book for ideas. A few times, I would hear him get really excited about a particular fact and he would read it out loud with enthusiasm that I’ve only seen when he’s in a theme park.
If your child is into Lego, space, or both, I highly recommend Lego Space: Building the Future. It might be a bit more expensive than other books, but in my opinion, it’s well worth it if it gets my son reading.
Lego Space: Building the Future is available on Amazon for $19 (hardback) and $12 (kindle).
My son is now in second grade. To date, we’ve mastered all of his milestones pretty well. Sure, potty training took a little longer than I would have liked, but he’s a sweet guy, he’s active, and he has a hearty interest in his school’s STEM lab.
The one thing we can’t seem to grasp is how to tie shoes. I’ll admit, I’m not the best teacher. It certainly doesn’t help that my husband and I have been putting the whole thing off for a little while now. After all, Velcro shoes are easy and plentiful. Now, I’m starting to get the feeling that he’s a lone wolf. It’s time to join the pack.
Did I happen to mention that I’m not the best teacher?
In the middle of my panic, I was contacted by EZLeaps. This small company was founded by Eileen Sloan, a former first grade teacher and mom, who obviously handled her frustration a lot better than I ever could. She invented a little shoe tying system—the kind that you see and think to yourself, “Why didn’t I come up with that?” It’s just so darn easy.
The EZLeaps system is basically a plastic card that looks like it was attacked by someone who’s a little hole-punch happy. And before you scoff at spending six bucks on a piece of plastic, think about how many dollars you’ve spent on other pieces of plastic. That said, this thing actually works.
Also, it couldn’t be more simple. Grab a shoe and start with the initial “X.” Actually, that was the one thing we seemed to master on our own. Once that is ready, place the EZLeaps card on top of the X. From there, you weave the laces through the holes on the card to make a pair of loops. Then, tie the loops in X fashion. Make them tight, double-knot if you like, and you’re done. Then, just lift the EZLeaps off. It’s like magic.
The video below shows exactly how it’s done. After our first try, my son got so excited, he actually tied his shoes on his own—all without the EZLeaps card. This is something that’s never happened before. I almost passed out. Since then, we’ve had a few setbacks, but he’s working on it with EZLeaps. And because of that, I’d say this is money well spent.
Speaking of which, EZLeaps are priced at $5.49 each and available in 12 different styles, with colors, cupcakes, ponies, sports, and even an “Artist Pad” design that lets you draw whatever you want right on the card.
“Science is the study of the world around us, using evidence to understand and explain how it all works.”
“Experimenting, testing hypothesis, observing nature on earth and in space, chemical reactions, things that have to do with motion…”
“Science is discovering stuff, figuring stuff out. It’s like solving mysteries.”
These are the answers I received when asking a few kids what “science” was. Then I asked them what “literacy” meant. Silence. With a couple of prompts, one boy hesitantly said, “Reading?”
Yes. Literacy in its most basic definition is the ability to read and write. According to Wikipedia, science is “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” I think the kids’ answers were just as accurate. Science Literacy is a combination of these terms to express the ability to understand and converse within the world of science. Why does it matter, and how can you bring science literacy into your family?
According to a well-done publication on bringing science literacy into the American education system called Benchmarks:
When people know how scientists go about their work and reach scientific conclusions, and what the limitations of such conclusions are, they are more likely to react thoughtfully to scientific claims and less likely to reject them out of hand or accept them uncritically.
Once people gain a good sense of how science operates—along with a basic inventory of key science concepts as a basis for learning more later—they can follow the science adventure story as it plays out during their lifetimes.
The images that many people have of science and how it works are often distorted. The myths and stereotypes that young people have about science are not dispelled when science teaching focuses narrowly on the laws, concepts, and theories of science. Hence, the study of science as a way of knowing needs to be made explicit in the curriculum.
In a previous post, called Kids Talk Science, I suggested keeping up on the latest science through easily accessible magazines like Science News, passing it on to your children, and having interesting science chats during dinner. You don’t have to be an expert in a science field to discuss evidence of life on Mars, the latest in electric car racing , and if feelings of love are just a bunch of chemicals.
If you are within driving distance of a college or university, you can take it a step further by attending a talk. My family is lucky enough to be in a small city with numerous higher institutions. There are regular open lectures by the professors on their research, as well as visiting scientists from around the country. These are not dry lectures, but revelations so new most haven’t been published. It is a wonderful way to see how scientists are excited about what they do, don’t have all the answers, but LOVE questions.
One of our favorites last year was a talk on the science of smell, and that yes, mosquitoes do like certain people better than others! The speaker was dynamic, and the science was clear. Not only was it informative, but we were encouraged to participate. “If you’re ever in New York City, come be in our study. We always need volunteers!”
Just last week my son and I attended a lecture on astrobiology. Although the topic was of interest, the talk went over our heads with slides of physics equations. Was it a waste of time? Absolutely not! Afterwards, we asked someone in the audience if they could explain part of it, and she did. Ah… We had an interesting discussion all the way home about the possibility of life on other planets.
Attending these talks shows science as a process, as a social endeavor, and something that everyone can join—even if it’s just to ask questions. It should be a source of pride to hear first-hand all the cool stuff being discovered in your community. For the speakers, they are there to share their passion—they need an audience! And seeing kids is encouraging. Who knows? Your child might work under their microscope one day.
So I encourage everyone to peruse their local college or university websites for upcoming lectures and presentations for the general community, bring science literacy to your family. Plus, you might learn something too!
As geeks, we love to share our passions. We want others to love the things that we love, and we get excited when they do. It’s part of what defines being a geek. But let’s be honest. A lot of us really, really suck at it when it’s time to teach a friend, especially if it’s a new skill. The result sounds like this:
“Could you actually show me instead of just doing it for me?”
“NOOOO, you have to slow down! What was that?”
[insert sound of things being smashed in anger]
Teaching is its own skill. That’s why we give people college degrees in it and put them in charge of educating our children. Here are three things that are easy to forget when you try to teach someone something you’re already good at:
Recognize and appreciate their learning styles
My husband gets frustrated with me when I ask him for written information, which he reads to me, and then I take the paper or book and read it again myself. I simply process information better visually. Other people–and I’m pretty sure said husband is one of them–are better auditory learners. If you’re trying to teach an auditory-learning friend a new skill over IM, you’re going to have a bad time. She’s going to have a really bad time.
Suit the method to the learner. Simply ask what’s the easiest way. Get together in person if you can. Use video chat, instant messaging, emails, photos, scans of drawings–whatever it takes to get the job done for the learner, not for you.
Show; don’t do
This to me is the most important one. Once you’ve told someone everything you can tell them about how to do something, all that’s left is simply to do it. The learner. Not you. It’s so tempting to grab the knitting needles and cast on for her or the keyboard to fix an error for her or the controller and play through that hard level for her. But then how is she going to cast on the next project? Fix the error and what if it happens again after you leave? Defeat the boss on the next level?
Yes, you can do it faster, and that seems simpler. But then your protégé has learned nothing, and that defeats the whole point. You can demonstrate when it’s necessary, but let the learner do it for herself.
Dock your mock
Friends tease each other in a friendly fashion. But think about how it feels when you’re trying to learn something new, especially something you’ve wanted to understand for a long time. And then think about how different the “friendly” teasing feels when you’ve finally made progress. When you say, “I hope you’re not put in charge of food after the zombie apocalypse, because we’re all going to starve!” might be just the moment when your brown-thumbed friend was feeling really proud of the single tomato sprouting in his otherwise dead garden. Rein it in.
I just watched an entertaining video about congenital anosmia, the inability to smell. It was the winning video submitted to BrainFacts.org in their annual Brain Awareness Video Contest. You can check out all of the top videos there, plus submit your own for next year’s challenge. Getting people to watch these videos shows how amazing and complex our brain is, and how even the smallest problem can have large effects, as well as bringing awareness to little-known conditions so people can empathize, or get the help they need. For example, in the smell-less video, people without this sense need to be extra careful about cooking dangers.
The best way to learn about something is to do a creative project around it. So consider entering for next year! This could be for a biology class, or a family activity to explore a condition of someone you know.
In honor of Talk Like A Pirate Day on September 19, Mango Languages has a free course in talking like a pirate. Mango is a foreign language teaching site that your library can join and offer courses to its patrons! The Pirate course is designed like all their other courses: Several chapters in step-by-step guide to give you conversational tools, with spoken examples, pronunciation guides, and timed quizzes.
There are helpful grammar tips such as: “Keep in mind that a pirate usually doesn’t change the form of, or conjugate, the verb “to be.” Learn cultural notes like, “A ship will get becalmed by lack of wind, but poor sailing skills or a lazy crew definitively won’t help. Get your men working or make them walk the plank!”
I love that it was given all the treatment of their other courses. Who said foreign languages couldn’t be fun?
It’s never too early to introduce a child to the wonders of science! Here’s an example of a multi-step reaction that’s super simple, extremely cheap, and a great summertime activity for your toddler.
What you’ll need:
1 Pyrex dish
1 box of baking soda
1 bottle white vinegar
liquid food coloring
plastic dropper bottles (I bought some on Amazon here but you can find droppers at dollar stores – or you can use cheap plastic bowls for each color. Just fill them up as if you are going to dye Easter eggs. Then, use a spoon instead of a dropper when you add the vinegar.)
Cover the bottom of the Pyrex dish with about ¼” or ½” of baking soda. (You can use more if you want!)
Pour vinegar into the dropper bottles and add food coloring to each one.
Give your child the colored vinegar droppers and let them drip it into the dish with the baking soda.
Ta da! Bubbly fizzy colors!
What’s happening here is that the acetic acid in the vinegar reacts with the sodium bicarbonate and forms carbonic acid. Carbonic acid is unstable, and immediately decomposes into carbon dioxide and water. That’s what causes the bubbles!
Bonus: if you’ve put in an extra thick layer of baking soda, you can stir the colors up and maximize your fizz.
Last year my son started at our local pre-school and ever since his appetite for knowledge has simply grown and grown. Every day he points out letters, numbers, and shapes around our home or on the street and asks what they are. He’s even asked for phonics books as his bedtime story. It’s something I want to encourage and so when Wombi released a new series of three Monster apps that teach letters, shapes, and numbers I was eager to see what he would make of them.
Each app teaches one of the three groups and all three use an identical interface so your child will only need to be shown how to use one app and they will automatically be able to follow the other two. All three feature a friendly yet hungry cartoon monster who will ask you child to select an item of food and feed it to him or her. In the letter and number apps, these are biscuits and mushrooms with a letter or number printed on them. The monster (a sea captain octopus or a pink monster scientist) will ask for a letter or number and your child will need to find it on the tray at the bottom of the screen and drag it to their mouth. Continue reading Wombi Monsters Teach Letters, Numbers, & Shapes to Pre-Schoolers
Arduino Adventures: Escape from Gemini Station is a great introduction to Arduino robotics projects for kids (and adults who want an easy starting point.) The book was written by James Floyd Kelly and Harold Timmis and published by Apress. Full disclosure: James Floyd Kelly is a contributor on GeekDad, and Apress is also my book publisher.
The basic structure of Arduino Adventures is the intertwining of the “escape from Gemini Station” story followed by a lesson and project. The projects build upon themselves and eventually finish with a completed robot and some explanation of Arduino programming.
There’s no soldering required, and there’s even a kit you can purchase with all parts for all the lessons mentioned in the book. Even without the kit, most of the parts should be available at your local Radio Shack.
The structure of the book is very logical, and the authors took care to eliminate a lot of the more frustrating points with big robotics projects, such as soldering errors. By the end of the book, kids should have some building blocks for understanding electronics and programming, although this book will not bring them to expert level. However, this sort of scaffolded introduction into robotics could easily spark their interest and motivate them to explore on their own.
This is the sort of mother-child project bonding book I’d recommend for the 8-12 year olds who are new to robotics. Older kids may want to go through the lessons on their own. I plan on going through the lessons with my daughter’s robotics club, because it gives the younger kids some projects that don’t require soldering and go beyond Snap Circuits or Little Bits.
Whenever people ask me to recommend apps for their children — specifically the preschool set — at the top of my list is always “every app by 3 Elles.” Formerly LesTrois Elles, these three friends — Marilyne, Valérie and Gaël — are sequestered deep down in the catacombs of Paris, churning out amazingly gorgeous and layered Montessori apps for the children of the world. (Okay, I may have made up the thing about them living in the catacombs, but you let me live in my world, and I’ll let you live in yours.)
Recently, Valérie, one of this trio of fantastic women, contacted me to let me know that they were ready to release their third app, Montessori Geometry. So I gave it a test-run with my daughter (who is three) and frankly, it’s another home run. Already my girl is identifying shapes as cylinders or isosceles triangles, so that makes me pretty happy. But instead of another dry review, I thought it would be nice to celebrate the convergence of threes with a little insight into the history of 3 Elles and what we can expect from them down the road. Here is my interview with Valérie:
When I tried to throw our dictionary out my oldest threw a fit.
This is a very old dictionary. It was owned by my Great Aunt Mildred. The book is huge, with indents along the side for each letter of the alphabet. It’s also not in good shape. Threads are hanging out of a nearly wrecked spine and the pages are yellowing. Until recently it sat on our living room trunk, ready to answer all inquiries. As my kids got older and Google got ever closer to our fingertips, I figured we didn’t need it. According to my son, I am wrong. He has more than a sentimental attachment. He knows what this book holds — the power to create word geeks.
One of the biggest myths I hear about 4-H is that it’s only for farming families. While it’s completely true that the organization was set up as a tool to promote “modern” farming methods through after-school agriculture clubs, that’s not the whole picture. There’s still a lot of farming in 4-H, yes, but there’s also a lot of science and art. In fact, there are even rockets and robots.
4-H fills in a lot of the “What am I going to do all summer?” gaps for our family. Not only are there practical projects, but we also find local camps and workshops; we even sent our girl off on a bus this year for her first away camp with actual camp stuff. You know, horse riding, archery, canoeing, and crafts.
4-H is actually part of the extension program of land grant universities in the US, but the system is set up to allow kids to pick their own projects and enjoy practical learning in the areas they choose. While the county fair tends to be the star of the show, 4-H is really something you can do all year, either by yourself or in small project groups. I have a homeschooling friend who uses 4-H for the very convenient pre-made project curriculum, and the monthly club meetings give kids a shot at running the local club. Stick with it long enough, and your high schooler could even get a 4-H scholarship.
When I was my daughter’s age, I was a prize-winning entomologist. I couldn’t interest my daughter in that subject, but she did pick up an interest in robotics, sewing, quilting, cooking, and photography. She’s going to try to recruit some peers for a robotics project group, and this year one of her photographs will be at the state fair.
Many of us at GeekMom homeschool our kids, for a variety of reasons. I’ve homeschooled my kids from the start. My daughter just finished up fifth grade, and my son, second grade. Each of them has gotten a slightly different educational experience, due to available materials, my choices, and their strengths and weaknesses. Every year, usually in the spring, I start thinking about how to approach homeschooling for the fall. I make a list of materials to reuse, materials to buy, and websites and other resources to include. I think about how to approach the year, and how to structure our school time. And as my kids get older and life gets busier, I require more independence and personal responsibility from my kids.
When we started homeschooling, I would sit down with my daughter and together we would do all the subjects we needed to cover, in the order I chose. Once my son got started with school, I had to work much more flexibility into the schedule, since sometimes one kid had to work independently while the other was receiving instruction. Then, when my kids were in fourth and first grade, I started giving them some additional control over their day. On the weekends, I would gather all the materials for that week. Then I would put each day’s material in a separate bin and my kids could organize their work each day. This sometimes caused problems when both kids needed my help at the same time, but we worked around it.
This past school year, I gave my kids a lot more freedom to organize their time. I still gathered the week’s material on the weekend, but I let them choose what to do each day, guiding them in spreading out the work so they didn’t end up with too much on Friday. I encouraged them to get most of their work done before Friday, so as to have a light day before the weekend, though this wasn’t always successful. Still, they fell into patterns regarding what days they worked on certain subjects, and they held themselves to their own goals.
To build on these gradual steps of self-guidance and responsibility, next school year I am hoping to make some more significant changes to our homeschool plans. Just like in the past couple of years where I have expanded the time frame within which my kids have control over their schedule, next year I hope to divide the school year into four quarters and involve my kids more closely in setting goals for each quarter. I will then help them break those goals into smaller chunks so they can set shorter term goals as well. I am also going to use what I have learned about my kids’ learning styles and interests to choose materials and resources, finding those that will provide the necessarily information and skill development, and also engage them and their growing minds.
As with every year, I will be winging it a bit, trying things to see what works and what doesn’t. But the evolving homeschool education experience that my kids are receiving is helping them adapt to change, and also is customized to their interests and abilities every year.
For our homeschooling, sometimes I teach them, sometimes they teach themselves, and sometimes they explore an interest on their own. And if my kids can finish school knowing what they enjoy, knowing what they excel in, thinking for themselves in a critical way, and being driven to reach their own personal goals, I feel that I will have done my job.
For those of you who homeschool in one form or another, how have you adapted your kids’ education over the years?
It doesn’t matter where you start. Any exposure to astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson creates ever increasing urges to absorb more of this man’s wisdom, delivered with the charisma and wit rarely packaged in one person.
For example, a newly released video by science enthusiast Max Schlickenmeyer adds music and visuals along with Dr. Tyson’s answer to the question: “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?” It may be obvious to you that every one of Dr. Tyson’s utterances are profound enough to warrant cinematographic treatment. But then we’d miss his huge smile. This grin is evident as he answers other questions submitted by Time readers. Responding to an inquiry about American students lagging behind in math and science, he said:
Get out of their way. Your kid is born a scientist. What does a scientist do? Look up and say, “I wonder what that is?” Then goes to find out. Let me poke it, let me break it, let me turn it around. That’s what kids do. You can’t let a kid alone for a minute without them laying waste to your house because they’re grabbing stuff off the shelves. What do we do? We prevent that. We prevent these depths of curiosity from revealing themselves even within our own residences… When [my kids] were young and still today, if they see something they want to experiment with, even if they might break it, I let it go. Let the experiment run its course. Because therein is the soul of curiosity that leads to the kind of mind you want as a scientist.
Then, of course, there are Dr. Tyson’s many interviews where science charms everyone and briefly we imagine a smarter more informed media, somewhat like Comedy Central’s fake news but for real. We let ourselves dream of movies that offer more scientific veracity along with the story line, as Dr. Tyson suggests.
If you watch a Dr. Tyson video, chances are you’re going to want another. He’s the X in an equation that ramps up the awesomeness of science and math.
[UPDATE: Dr. Tyson recently spoke with GeekDad Editor Matt Blum. Listen to the interview on GeekDad.com!]
I received lots of kudos for getting to interview Joy Hakim. Maybe this is because most of my friends are geeks of some sort, most homeschool their kids, and we all have read Joy’s books, amazed at how she draws us into learning so easily with her gift of storytelling. I hope you enjoy this interview:
You have written A History of US, and The Story of Science, as a way of teaching through stories; characters and their world lead the reader on a journey of learning with a focus on American history, or Physics. What was the inspiration behind these projects?
Well, there was the day a son brought home a new middle school history. I knew that textbooks are rarely page-turners (although they should be), but this book was beyond dull. The writing was barely literate, the page layouts dreary. I was so enraged by it that I actually called his history teacher.
“I hate the book too,” he told me. I shook my head. How could a book so obviously flawed make it into schools? (I would find out.) Anyway, being a journalist, and caring about words and ideas, I decided to see what I could do.
As for storytelling, that’s the classic way civilizations have always passed on their ideas and information. That we have turned away from it in teaching our children has been a tragedy.
How long did it take to write each series? What kept you going through the writing process?
I’m not sure, because I always seem to be doing several things at once. About seven years for each is a guess. I worked on a PBS special, called Freedom: A History of US, while writing the science books. And I did other things too.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on two books on evolutionary biology. I hope your readers will give that subject a chance. Earth and the life upon it change. There are no dinosaurs walking about. I’m fascinated with the subject. In one of the books I begin with a letter Galileo wrote to an Italian prince telling him of the wonders he has seen through his occhialino (microscope) where “one can contemplate infinitely the grandeur of nature, and how subtly she works. . . “
Within my homeschooling community, you are a superstar. Pretty much every family I know has used one or both of these series. When you first started writing, what were your hopes for the project?
Like most writers, I just hoped to get published. Actually, given the quality of history texts, and the widespread call for better school books, I assumed that if I wrote well the publishing world would fall at my feet. I was naive. Every publisher I sent the manuscript to rejected it. One actually said, “It doesn’t sound textbooky.” How A History of US finally got published is a long story. It wouldn’t have happened without my friend/agent Byron Hollinshead, a former president of Oxford University Press.
At the moment, I read aloud a chapter a week of The Story of Science to a few kids at a local coffee shop, and then we have a lively chat. What do you hope every reader takes from your stories?
What do I hope my readers will take from the books? I hope they’ll learn to think. To do that they’ll need to read beyond my books. In this Information Age, being able to find information, process it, and then make use of it, is an essential skill (and it’s fun too).
You are certainly a history geek (that’s a compliment.) What are your other passions in life?
My family comes first. I have three children and five grandchildren and they are all perfect. (Can you hear them laughing in the background?)
I’m awed by the homeschoolers I meet. They are all great. I really mean that. Maybe it’s because those who take the time to come to a conference or a book-signing are special. I don’t meet those who stay home.
For more information on A History of US or The Story of Science, check out Joy Hakim’s website.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us on GeekMom. Best of luck on your new series, Joy!
My kids play educational games on the PC at school and never once have they come home and said they’ve enjoyed that time. The only feedback they’ve ever given is that the games are not fun, but silly and boring and lame. So, when I told them I had some math games I wanted them to check out with me, there was a collective groan from the living room. I told them that they had to at least give these a chance before they could roll their eyes and play something else. They reluctantly agreed, but with the most skeptical and jaded expressions possible on their little faces.
Monkey Tales is a series of games, each geared toward a specific grade, so I started with The Princess of Sundara which is for kids age 7+ or second grade. This made my second-grader the first victim and she stood by me as the game loaded and the first screen appeared. I entered her name, told the game she was a girl and clicked the tutorial. It at least had her attention because the graphics were cute. So far, so good. Then she had to navigate her way across a room and through a door, which she watched me do for about two steps before she grabbed the mouse. Once the door opened onto the second room, she was in my lap. And within a matter of seconds she was pushing me out of the way and saying, “I got it, Mama.”
The controls were easy to understand and clearly explained. I didn’t have to tell her how to do a thing, and she easily made her way through maze-like rooms full of puzzles that taught her how to manipulate objects and play the game. She then had her first math experience. Her mission was to quickly determine the answers to problems that appeared at the bottom of the screen and then, in a Space Invaders style of gameplay, shoot the correct answer from the possible numbers at the top of the screen. There was a bit of competition though, as she had to score higher than the monkey playing the game with her or she wouldn’t be able to return to the main game and continue on her quest.
It took her a few tries to get the hang of moving her little turret across the bottom of the screen, avoiding goo falling from the ceiling, and shooting the right answer before the monkey, but she was never frustrated. It was at about this point that my older daughter, who had been watching with me, asked if she could play the one for fourth graders on my laptop. That’s right, she asked if she could play an educational game about math. I think that right there qualifies it as a success.
I downloaded The Abbey of Aviath which is for kids ages 9+ in fourth grade and was curious to see if it would hold her attention. There’s a big difference between the two grades and it seemed like the style of play might not hold an older child for long. I shouldn’t have worried, because not only were the math problems more age appropriate and challenging, the game play was more complex and she thoroughly enjoyed playing.
The combination of obviously educational segments along with a maze-like dungeon crawl, kept both kids playing until they decided they were starving and it was time to have a snack. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to create a game that both entertains and teaches, and my kids’ initial reactions, their reluctance to even give it a chance, shows just how much of a problem this is in most games.
But, the fact that the game won them over in a matter of minutes and that they played long after I walked away is testament to the game’s success. If you’re looking to get your child a little extra time working on their math skills, then this series is definitely worth investigating. Each game tackles a range of math skills, some more difficult than others, as your child continues the quest. There’s also a good dose of fun in solving each maze and with the monkeys you defeat who end up in a special zoo where you can visit them and feed them bananas. Available for just $14.95 you’ll find this investment will keep your kids learning and having fun for hours.
I received copies of this game for review purposes.
My son turned two this fall. By the time he starts kindergarten in three years’ time, I have no idea how he will be learning. The first computer I was exposed to in elementary school used 5 ¼-inch floppy discs; I’m not even sure he’ll be using a computer by then. Classrooms around the country are beginning to introduce students as young as five to iPads in an effort to determine if they will be useful in the classroom, and if they will be more cost effective for the functionality. Quite frankly I wasn’t sure how to feel about this. I plan on being involved in my son’s education. I’m going to be the kindergarten mom rallying support for construction at the high school he will attend in a decade. I’m going to be the middle school mom lobbying for the ed tech in the first grade classroom. So I need to know, where do I stand on technology as part of my baby’s education?
At the beginning of the current school year I had a chance to talk with Peter Robinson, the Director of Information Technology for the Auburn school department in Maine. With the support and help of his district and some federal money, Robinson’s staff is pioneering the use of iPads in the classroom–in kindergarten to be precise.
The pilot program began last spring. A literacy specialist in the district was having trouble getting through to some children. They weren’t responding to conventional or even unconventional methods, so she thought outside the box and brought her iPad in to school. Loaded with a select a few educational apps, it allowed her opportunities to reach children who had been untouched by other efforts. It allowed them learning opportunities that they just weren’t open to by other means. It also sparked many conversations in the right places, and at the right time.
Five teachers received iPads at the end of the 2010-11 school year. On loan to the district from Apple, they gave teaching staff and administrators a chance to see what the applications could be, no pun intended. There was great excitement to get the program up and running in the district’s 16 kindergarten classrooms, but rolling out the program took longer than anticipated. Not only did the school board and public need to be convinced of the benefits, but Apple needed time to figure out how to relate to school districts. For a company focused on the personal market, this was a big step. Robinson says they rose to the challenge.
In discussions here at GeekMom, one of the biggest concerns has been just how much time would be given over in the classroom to the iPad. At home, we as parents spend a lot of time fixating on what is and is not a healthy pastime. Would this take away from the more tactile experiences we all recall from Kindergarten? Robinson was clear to point out that the iPad is not an all day, every day tool — they still get the paint out and make a mess! Movement, play, tactile and traditional kindergarten methods are still very much in use; the iPad is now another tool in the arsenal of the teaching staff. The district is being very flexible with its program. No limits have been set in terms of minutes, because that goes against the idea of finding that teachable moment for the individual child. For the research portion of the project, the portion they hope will fund the next stage, there has of course had to be some consistency. They do prefer that staff use the iPads as a tool for 20-30 minutes over the course of the day. Recognizing the needs and limits of such young children, they also recommend that a session cap out at 20 minutes, which is a long time for a kindergartener.
At the end of the day Robinson is satisfied that the staff are well trained and need to be trusted and supported in their classrooms. They know when enough is enough. They know when the iPad would help teach a lesson, and when a trek outside to the playing fields would. The iPad is not intended as a “sit still and learn” device. Superintendent Tom Morrell has instructed staff to “find the apps that get them dancing, singing and playing.”
Turning such expensive devices over to small children was another concern, so I talked with Robinson about policies concerning the “home” of the iPads. For right now, the program stays within the school building. One of the fears, a very palpable one, is that the teacher is responsible for the devices, and that is too much pressure to place on one person. In addition, the Auburn community at large has shown concern for bullying from older children who might seek to get the devices for themselves. So for this year the devices are locked up in the school, a policy which will be evaluated come summer. At this point both staff and parents will weigh in on the issue, and then maybe the iPads will go home with the kids. Perhaps every night, perhaps only for special projects. The idea with this, as with much else in the program, is that the decision will come organically from the classroom and not from an administrative decision. The same thing happened with the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), which sought to “equip all students and teachers in grades 7 to 12 with personal learning technology statewide.” Robinson argues that we cannot let fear and trepidation stand in the way of what can be accomplished. The only breakage so far has been from a staff member carrying one with a stack of books. The children’s iPads all have specially-designed cases. They are rubberized and bounce when they hit the ground. Robinson also points out that when a kindergartener drops something, it doesn’t exactly have a long fall!
After speaking with Peter Robinson, the idea of the iPad as a tool in the teacher’s arsenal excites me. Visit GeekMom again tomorrow to read the second half of my discussion with Robinson, in which we talk about how the teaching staff is taking to the program and the ways in which the district is supporting them in making the iPad an effective tool.
When I was young and started attending school, my mom got a job in the school cafeteria. The hours worked really well for our lifestyle. I got her at either end of the day, and she didn’t go stir crazy in the middle of it. By the time I was in middle school she had gone back to school, become a qualified chef, and had worked her way up the bureaucratic ladder to be the head chef at the restaurant based in City Hall. To say I am proud of what she achieved would be a gross understatement.
Unlike some families I know, she never sat me down in the kitchen to teach me how to cook. There were no baking lessons, there were no step by steps. You watch, you experiment, you learn. Very rarely have I seen my mother follow a recipe exactly. She uses years of instinct and her gut knowledge to make the most fabulous meals. I try and emulate that as much as I can, sometimes with great success, sometimes with great failure. I very rarely follow a recipe, though sometimes it’s a necessity. There are areas in which my mother concedes a need for precision, the measuring of batter for individual cupcakes for instance, but in other areas just dash, dab and sprinkle what your eye tells you to.
When it comes to the turkey at Thanksgiving, I look to my mother’s Christmas dinners for inspiration. We would have a turkey, a joint of beef and a pork roast all at the same meal. I admit to being more pre-occupied with the presents than the meal being prepared, but I do know one thing; she did not follow any scientific, or even Betty Crocker approved method.
Cooking a turkey at this time of year is serious business. At around 180 degrees Fahrenheit, the muscle fibers of this large bird have contracted to breaking point. It is at this stage that the molecules will begin to break down, proteins unravel and the turkey begins to achieve its tenderness, as opposed to the dense mass that went into the oven. If cooked too long, a turkey will become dry as a result of the coagulation of proteins within the meat. The one rule I follow, from my mother of course, would be to cook the bird for twenty minutes per pound, plus an extra twenty. This is for a turkey closer to the size of a large chicken. Of course, matters are further complicated by the differing composition of light and dark meat. You can use foil to reflect heat at different areas of the bird, or use ice packs during the thawing process to keep the light meat at a lower temperature for when you begin cooking.
If you are looking for a tried and tested way of ensuring a well done bird, then I might suggest the following resources:
If you pine for that picture perfect dinner, I would suggest one of Martha Stewart’s recipes, which always seem to come out beautifully, though I wouldn’t guarantee that without Martha herself coming to your house of course!
A trend in recent years has been to deep fry your turkey. Generally this ensures a 40 minute cook time and a juicy bird, but I’d worry about your cholesterol levels at your next yearly checkup.
Then again, you can always call the Butterball hotline, 1 (800) BUTTERBALL | 1 (800) 288-8372, a turkey resource for decades.
In our house, I leave the turkey to my mother in law, who has had great success in recent years with varying methods of brining. As long as there’s crispness on the outside, I’m a happy pilgrim.
If you want to bring a little more science to your bird this year, then the following are all excellent resources:
What do you do on your anniversary when you suddenly find yourself with a babysitter on a week night, a few extra hours and cash in hand? Why you sit in Starbucks, drink cider and check out two new games from Looney Labs, that’s what!
My love of the card game Fluxx is certainly no secret, having played it for years and reviewed Pirate Fluxx already for GeekMom. I consider myself fairly well versed in its intricacies regardless of the edition at hand. Star Fluxx, released on September 30, however, is a whole new ball game. Well, actually it’s the same ball game but with a superior field, superior equipment and an extra dose of humor. You can view the rules on the Looney Labs website but the premise of the game remains unchanged from its original incarnation. Basic rules are that you start with a hand of three cards, then you draw a card and play a card until someone changes the rules. I love that every time you play this game something new comes into the experience.
Star Fluxx has now done the impossible and surpassed Monty Python as our favorite version. Getting past the aesthetic joy in the old style Trek font of the card titles, it’s the cheek of the game that gets me. In fact, I’m not quite sure how this manages to remain immune to copyright, so blatant are the references. For example, one of the Goal cards is “42” in which you win by having the Intergalactic Travel Guide and the Computer Keepers. The screen of the Intergalactic Travel Guide reads “Remain Calm.” For those of you with no working knowledge of Douglas Adams, perhaps the Expendable Crewman card (pictured to the right) or the Unseen Force will tickle your funny bone. Of the new action cards, my personal favorite would have to be the Sonic Sledgehammer. Where some of the cards in Pirate Fluxx left us wanting more, Star Fluxx only left us wanting to play more.
I hate to start talking Christmas this early (who am I kidding I’ve been listening to Christmas music for two weeks now) but when playing Ice Dice, also released on September 30, my first thought was – stocking stuffer. It may be that after two hours of chess this was the perfect fast-paced antidote, but this game was thoroughly enjoyable and drew many questions from those gathered at our local Starbucks for that night’s poetry reading. You start with two sets of Looney Pyramids, described by Looney Labs as “not so much a game, as a game system – like a deck of playing cards, a set of components that can be used to play all sorts of different games.” With Ice Dice, you receive the basic rules as well as the rules for Launchpad 23. While we preferred the basic rules to the alternative, we were very excited to find out that you can obtain many different sets of rules from Looney Labs. As a game designer wannabe, my husband was intrigued to learn that he could take the pieces, make his own game, and submit it to Looney Labs. I predict many more evenings in Starbucks.
With Ice Dice the aim of the game is to get three Trios, that is to say, three pyramids comprised of three sizes of each of three of the five colors. You do this by rolling the dice and putting pieces on deck before you roll the same color again and bust. If you bust, all pieces earned on that roll get sent back, if you choose to stop rolling they go into your vault. Thanks to The Weakest Link I couldn’t stop saying “Bank” though I’m sure there’s a more Looney term for the action.
It’s a mindless diversion and yet, at the same time, not mindless at all. Though the game is rated for 14 and up it seems like an exceptionally good way to introduce younger children to gaming strategy. Something that might preface the introductory course to Risk or Stratego. With so many variations of the game it’s a great “deck” to have on hand.
I received copies of both games for review purposes.
When J.K. Rowling released each of her Harry Potter books, young fans flocked to bookstores, stayed up late finishing the books, and then eagerly shared feelings and predictions about future books, characters, etc. with friends. These fans learned everything they could about J.K. Rowling’s fictional world on their own without prompting and in addition to regular schoolwork. Project-based learning taps into this kind of interest and passion by providing children with the time and space to create, think, and develop around their interests. As a result, learners gain critical thinking skills as they engage in design, problem solving, decision -making, and investigative activities.
Child-led project-based home learning is most similar to unschooling in that there are no tests, no teachers, no homework, no grades, no desks, no worksheets, no schedules, and no set curriculum. Instead, there is a project, chosen by the child and supported by the parent. However, when math or physics is needed, learners take time to learn the formulas, arithmetic, and methods applicable to the project. This on-the-job approach makes the fact-based portion of learning much more relevant and interesting. Best of all, project-based inquiry provides many opportunities for deep learning on a topic. I like to compare project-based learning to how a doctoral student operates in order to become the expert and defend a thesis.
With project-based learning, parents and children work together to explore interests. Rather than a student-teacher relationship, the project-based approach creates a collaborative environment. Learning takes place on the couch, in the grass, or around the kitchen table. Learner and parent discuss, strategize, itemize, and plan projects. The parent role is very important. Young learners need help defining and refining realistic project scope and goals, acquiring resources (field trips, museum visits, chemistry glass ware, etc.) and need plenty of encouragement.
So, what types of topics make great projects? Any interest can become a project and any parent can facilitate learning. The golden rule is to let the child choose — trust the learning process. Remember, the parent is not the expert here. The parent simply facilitates the learning journey. The Internet, public libraries, museums, and local organizations and clubs are just some of the great ways to acquire expert knowledge.
For example, my home learner’s latest project involves investigating ghost stories of New England. I have no special knowledge or expertise in this area, but I can still help him acquire further learning resources. He became fascinated with ghosts after picking up a book in a used bookstore. He has decided to map the specific locations where the stories occurred, learn about the history of these areas as it relates to ghosts, compare different accounts from similar locations, scan newspaper archives for ghost-related stories in these areas, and even go on local ghost tours to find out what kind of stories exist in our area. Perhaps he will even interview local people who want to share their own ghost stories.
Because there are no grades, measuring progress or success in project-based learning is based on participation, engagement, and through original creations. Here are some suggestions:
Self-publish book of poems, stories, art (Lulu.com)
Write a screenplay, storyboard, and script and produce a movie
Participate in public musical performances
Learn to play a musical instrument
Compose original music scores
Join an athletic team
Document travel and field trips
Learn a foreign language and display competency through writing, speaking, or conversing online, in person, and through recorded media.
Maintain a science lab notebook and portfolio of projects (photograph, document, videotape)
Keeping a daily journal and a portfolio of major activities and projects is a great idea. Whether or not your state requires these items, many colleges appreciate this sort of documentation in lieu of official transcripts when reviewing applications.
Learning should be fun. Four hours a day of focused work on a project leaves plenty of time for play. Spend the rest of the day at a community pool, playground, homeschool co-op, or invite some friends over to play with the Legos!
Child-led project-based learning is a powerful way to engage kids with their world in a deeply meaningful and satisfying way. Let your child decide what to learn and how — be there for guidance and support. Measure success not only through original creations and active participation in activities, but by how happily engaged with learning your child has become. Relax. Engage. Have fun!
Further Resources on Child Learning and Engagement Issues
Today’s children sit more than ever. Babies spend hours confined in car seats and carriers rather than crawling, toddling or being carried. As they get older their days are often heavily scheduled between educational activities and organized events. Children have 25 percent less time for free play than they did a generation ago, and that’s before factoring in distractions like TV or video games.
Left to their own devices, children move. They hold hands and whirl in a circle till they fall down laughing. They beg to take part in interesting tasks with adults. They want to face challenges and try again after making mistakes. They snuggle. They climb, dig and run. Stifling these full body needs actually impairs their ability to learn.
We know that our little ones walk and talk on their own timetables. No rewards or punishments are necessary to “teach” them. Yet children are expected to read, write and spell starting at five and six years old as if they develop the same way at the same time. In fact, academics are pushed on preschoolers with the assumption this will make them better students. This approach is not only unnecessary. It may be contributing to problems such as learning disorders, attention deficits, and long term stress.
Literacy isn’t easy. It requires children to decode shapes (the alphabet) into sounds and words, to remember these words correctly in written and spoken form, and to understand their meaning. Allowing reading to develop naturally or teaching it later tends to create eager, lifelong readers. In contrast, teaching children to read early, between four and seven years, is often stressful. Why?
Children pushed to read young tend to rely on right brain processes because that area matures more quickly. These early readers are likely to guess at unknown words using clues such as appearance, context, beginning and ending letters. Their main tactic is memorizing sight words. These are valuable methods but not a balanced approach to reading. Such children may quickly tire after reading short passages or read smoothly but have difficulty deriving meaning from what they read. The procedure they use to decode words can make the content hard to comprehend. These reading problems can persist.
However children benefit when they learn to read naturally or are taught later. That’s because, as the left brain matures and the pathway between both hemispheres develops, it becomes easier for them to sound out words, to visualize meanings, and mentally tinker with abstractions. They memorize short sight words but sound out longer words, an approach that is less taxing. As they incorporate more words into their reading vocabulary they more easily picture and understand what they are reading.
In order for children to read, write and spell they must be developmentally ready. Some are ready at the age of four or five, some not for many more years. This readiness includes complex neurological pathways and kinesthetic awareness. Such readiness isn’t created by workbooks or computer programs. It’s the result of brain maturation as well as rich experiences found in bodily sensation and movement.
These experiences happen as children play and work. This includes expansive movements such as climbing, jumping, digging, swimming, playing hopscotch and catch, riding bikes, sweeping, running. It also includes fine movements such as chopping vegetables, drawing, building, using scissors, and playing in sand. And it includes the essential growth that comes from snuggling, listening to stories, singing, trying new tastes, playing rhyming and clapping games, enjoying make believe. Children are drawn to such experiences. Without them, they won’t have a strong foundation for learning.
These activities stimulate the child’s brain to develop new neural pathways. Such activities also build confidence, smooth sensory processing, and create a bank of direct experience that helps the child visualize abstract concepts. Well-intended adults may think a good use of a rainy afternoon is a long car ride to an educational exhibit. A young child is likely to derive more developmental value (and fun) from stomping in puddles and digging in mud followed by play time in the tub.
There are many other factors contributing to reading readiness. Perhaps most important is a supportive family life where reading and conversation are an enjoyable part of each day. But it helps to remember that young children want to participate in the purposeful work of making meals, fixing what’s broken, and planting the garden. They also need free time without the built-in entertainment of specialized toys, television, or video games. Their development is cued to movement. These bodily experiences prepare children for the magic found when shapes become words, words become stories, and they become readers.
We like spending time with people who delight in the same things that fascinate us. That might be playing bagpipes, understanding Civil War strategy, making homemade cheese, or brewing beer. Who doesn’t love talking about a favorite topic? It’s certainly easy to build friendships that way. Shared interests also foster greater enthusiasm and motivate us to expand our knowledge. That’s why interest-based groups make so much sense for our kids.
In my family, interest-based groups are an important part of homeschooling life. We have formed a number of these groups over the years. Some, like a history club made up of eager parents and not-so-eager young children, barely lasted long enough for a few meetings. Others have lasted ten years.
Our Science Club
The most successful has been our boy’s science club. It was started by five families with nine boys between the ages of seven and eleven. When we began it was highly structured. We met regularly at each other’s homes. Parents took turns planning a project or experiment, got the materials, explained the educational principles underlying the activity, and if things didn’t turn out as planned (actually quite frequently) it was usually a parent who searched for answers.
As time went by, more and more control over the science club was naturally taken over by the boys. They planned what they wanted to do and figured out what they’d need in order to do it. They decided whose house was best for that activity and when the day came, together they carried out the project or experiment, often improvising with different approaches. If things didn’t turn out they searched for their own answers. Although nearby, parents didn’t hover to assure their safety nor insist that they officially learn the principles behind each activity. Our boys remained safe, happy, and increasingly savvy about many branches of science while running their own science club. Their projects included various propulsion systems designed to shoot tennis balls, a 12 foot high trebuchet, and a hovercraft which managed to get off the ground but not (as they’d planned) with a passenger. Over the years one family moved away and another was welcomed to the club. Now the youngest members are 17. The older boys have gone on to college, several into the sciences and one to Harvard on a full scholarship. Since they shared the honorary title of Science Club President over the years, it probably didn’t hurt to put that on the college application.
Making Interest-Based Groups Successful
There are some lessons we’ve learned that can help make any interest-based group successful.
1. Build on what your children love to do. If they adore taking hikes it’s easy to expand on that. Depending on what your children and others who join in decide, the group may expand to bird watching, letterboxing, geocaching, nature sketching, Volksmarching, any number of related activities. Or they may choose to stick to the simple pleasure of hiking. Your children may not be hikers, but prefer fashioning swords from household objects to joust with their siblings. There are plenty of ways to expand on those interests as well. Consider forming a special-interest group to enjoy fencing, foam fighting, Society for Creative Anachronism, writing and enacting scenes from the times of knights or high seas pirates, or live action role-playing games. Just about any interest can spark friendship and learning in a group of children.
2. Consider factors such as age range, group size and location before starting a group. What factors are likely to contribute to interesting, enriching and fun experiences? How far are you willing to travel? Flexibility is important. For example if your daughter is eager to start up a journaling group for girls ages 11 to 13, you might consider forming a group for younger siblings who can meet at the same time for their own interest-based group (as long as they leave their older sisters alone!).
3. Invite potential members. Some interest-based groups develop out of casual get-togethers between friends. Some are formed as sub-groups within larger organizations such as block clubs, churches, or homeschool support groups. And others are the result of invitations spread on forums, lists, library bulletin boards and across homeschool networks. How do you want to form the group?
4. Get started. For older kids, you may want to hold an informal organizing get-together at the local park, library meeting room, or your backyard. Gather ideas from the kids in attendance by encouraging them to brainstorm what they’d like to do and how often they’d like to do it. Toss out questions to keep the ideas flowing and write down their suggestions. If they’re teens, let them run this meeting on their own as much as possible. This first get-together is also the easiest time to get some guidelines established. Consider questions such as: Do you want to be open to new members once you’re established? Do you prefer to agree to some basic rules or accommodate as the need arises? How will responsibility for group activities be shared?
Or simply launch into the first session instead of holding an organizing meeting. After making apple butter and dipping candles with your new heritage club, or enjoying an afternoon making puppets and putting on an impromptu puppet show with other new members, they’ll understand what group sessions entail. Their suggestions for activities, group name, and potential rules will more easily flow from that initial encounter.
5. Once your get-togethers begin, make sure that unstructured time is included. Build in ample time for kids to spend together after the activities are over. Friendships are a strong factor in motivating kids to stick with special interest groups. Whenever possible, be open to the inevitable plans your children concoct with friends in these groups. It’s a powerful acknowledgement of one’s worth to spend time with friends who are equally crazy about model trains, skateboarding, manga, horses, or cake decorating.
6. Recognize that the group will grow and evolve. It’s important to be open to changes. Get-togethers between friends often naturally drift toward other activities as interests change. More formal groups tend to continue on long after the originators have moved on. An interest-based group your children start may last only a short time, but it still provides learning as well as enjoyable experiences. Some families launch quite a few such groups as their children grow up. You may be doing the same thing without recognizing that toddler playgroups and older children’s regular enrichment activities function just as interest-based groups do.
Examples of successful interest-based groups
~A cooking club for preteen girls meets at members’ homes to make (and eat) themed foods and plan recipes for next club event. They’ve made various ethnic meals, fancy desserts and food to donate.
~A multi-age group of stop motion movie-makers (youngest member five years old). They chat online about individual projects and also make collaborative movies. They have hosting screenings of their short films for an appreciative audience of relatives.
~A nature sketching and journaling group made up of families who schedule hikes in different wilderness areas to write, draw, and share their work.
~A boys’ book group based on sci-fi and adventure books. They vote on which book to read, read it the month before the meeting, then after the book discussion take part in activities such as scavenger hunts, making costumes and re-enacting scenes, testing tactics used in the book, or using repurposed materials to build something mentioned in the book.
~A multi-age rock climbing group which practices at indoor climbing walls as well as outdoor locations.
~A young children’s hands-on science club.
~A youth and adult fiber works group with projects, farm trips and visits to other spinning/weaving guilds.
~A group of families who get together to make costumes, chain mail and armor for re-enactments.
~A beachcombers group. Young children play along the waterside while adults and older children monitor ecological conditions for a non-profit organization.
~A debate and elocution society which prepares for regular memory-based recitations as well as occasional debating society competitions. The members’ aspirations include acting, politics, and law.
~A cartoonists’ meeting. Young members work on graphic novels, cartoon strips, and cards.
~A multi-age sculptor’s group. They meet to hear guest speakers which have included welders and mineralogists. They go on field trips and occasionally meet at one another’s homes to work on projects together.
You may find, as my family has, that interest-based groups are a favorite activity with extraordinary benefits. You may even notice that your child’s eagerness rekindles interests of your own. Maybe it’s time to enjoy the fellowship of other enthusiasts as you master the bagpipes or learn to make cheese.
Legos are internationally cherished small plastic interlocking building blocks and minifigures that can be taken apart and used to build other objects. Over the years, Lego has expanded its creations to include products like gears and pulleys and even electronic parts for constructing programmable robots. As a result, there are popular Lego robotics leagues and Lego education products focusing squarely on programming, solar, and even wind energy exploration. So, we see the science, technology, engineering, and Math (S.T.E.M.) connection, but what do Legos have to do with other stuff like reading, writing, or art?
Learning by Doing
First, kids love to learn by doing. Period. In fact, noted computer scientist and constructivist from the MIT Media Lab, Seymour Papert, believes so strongly in learning by doing that in 1998 he worked with Lego to create Lego Mindstorms, a programmable brick that can be used to make robots. The name for the product came from Papert’s book, Mindstorms, published in 1980. Lego even funded some of his research! Let’s take these little S.T.E.M. jewels and extend their reach into non-traditional starring roles in the arts and humanities.
There’s nothing like necessity for prompting a child to read. Lego kits come with detailed instruction manuals that a child must read and follow in order to complete the model. Therefore, young Lego builders are developing their reading comprehension every time they follow the instructions for a new model.
More interesting, though is tying a piece of literature to a building project. Imagine building scenes from Alice in Wonderland out of Legos. Alternatively, build and then reenact your favorite scenes from Treasure Island in Lego. Check out literacy expert Susan Stephenson’s great suggestions on this topic.
Susan also provides ideas for using Mini-mizer, a free online digital Lego minifigure creation tool. Mini-mizer is a cool tool for creating a wide array of digital minifigures that can be saved by taking screen captures. It would be fun to use these neat screen captures in original comic strips, stories, etc.
Lego-themed stop-motion videos are extremely popular. A quick search on YouTube yields thousands of kid-created Lego stop-motion animation videos riffing on popular movies like Star Wars and Harry Potter.
Creating a stop-motion animation video isn’t kid’s play, though. Stop-motion animation takes serious time and skill. Creating even a rudimentary Lego stop-motion animation video requires developing at least basic photo, video, and sound editing techniques. More elaborate videos often involve developing a story board, writing a script, creating an original music score, adding special effects, learning about copyright rules, and even marketing a video to friends and fellow fans. In spite of the time and effort required to learn, young Lego fans painstakingly learn these skills on their own without prompting. In addition, young Lego engineers who explore stop-motion animation end up developing writing and story-telling skills as they explore new ways to express themselves through Lego.
Creative kids are in good company, too. Pixar animator, Angus Maclane, builds with Lego bricks to help him unwind after animating all day. He also builds Lego models of animated characters to help him visualize his digital creations in 3-d.
Nathan Sawaya, a New York-based artist who has taken Lego bricks beyond child’s play with his traveling art exhibition, is an inspiration to all aspiring Lego artists. As a child, Sawaya drew cartoons, wrote stories, perfected magic tricks, and played with LEGO. Nathan’s Lego sculptures are stunningly realistic fine art that adults and children can enjoy together. Check out Nathan’s museum tour schedule to find an art museum near you that might be hosting an exhibition of Nathan’s work.
So, those sweet little bricks are really kids’ prototyping laboratory wares. Fertile imaginations unleashed beyond STEM flow freely wherever the creative spirit dictates. Oh! Don’t worry. Leaving the S.T.E.M. path actually leads back to it, sometimes profoundly. Check out Jim Bumgardner’s 2007 GeekDad article explaining how he erased his classroom math failures through creative discovery — outside the classroom.
Now go build some cool Lego creations with the kids!
We’re getting ready to head to Seattle in a week or so. It’s only a couple of hours on the plane, but I always like to have a few tricks up my sleeve to keep Vivienne entertained. So I’m in the market for some new apps to play with. Whenever I do a little refresh like this, I always head over to the ever fabulous Moms With Apps. It’s a fantastic aggregator, and thus far, whenever I’ve grabbed something off their list, it’s been a winner.
In fact, I took a chance on an app they recommended and I am breathlessly in love with it. I say “took a chance” because it wasn’t cheap – most apps are anywhere from $.99 to $1.99 – but this one was $4.99 – a little pricey to just say, “let’s give it a go.” But I am 100% glad I paid the money for it. It’s worth it.
It’s called Tam & Tao in Numberland by Les Trois Elles and it teaches counting based on the Montessori method. It’s simply gorgeous – 10 different scenarios for the numbers 0-9, and each one has so many layers of detail and little easter eggs that just seem endless. Click on the girl and you count along with her, click on the boy and you’re transported to a drawing tablet where you can trace the number being featured, then try to draw it yourself freehand. Not to mention all the other secrets waiting to be discovered on every screen. Just the other day we were delighted to find that if you touch the stars in the “zero” screen, they sound a musical note and then wink out. It’s meant for ages 3-5, but Vivienne (who will be 2 in September) will sit with me and play it for quite a long time. And you can choose English, French or Spanish.
What are your favorite apps for toddlers? I’d like to know, and I’ll update more as I find them.
My mother, the registered nurse, strictly enforced hand-washing, early bedtimes, and other health standards that seemed archaic to her offspring. Even in the summertime I remember lying in bed long before darkness rolled in, listening to my friends laughing and playing down the street. I vowed to be more laid back with my own kids.
Now that I’m a parent I try to make sure my kids get a reasonable amount of sleep. I just do so in a more casual manner. Turns out that’s good, because recent studies prove my mother’s emphasis on a decent night’s sleep was spot on.
How long babies sleep at night seems to help them grow into calmer, more cooperative children. Researchers in Canada assessed the nighttime sleep of 60 toddlers at 12 and 18 months of age, then assessed the executive function (EF) of these children six to eight months later. Higher total sleep time at both ages related to better EF indicators such as impulse control. Children develop unevenly but as you can imagine, early gains in EF skills including attentiveness, self-discipline, and cooperation are entirely positive. While 12 to 14 hours of sleep is recommended for toddlers, you’ll be relieved to know that the number of times children woke at night didn’t affect test results. Each of my four children could easily be described as “difficult” babies. They slept very little at night (and thanks to them none of us slept much at night) until, thanks to a friend’s old copy of The Continuum Concept I began bringing my little ones into bed with me. They slept more peacefully and longer. We all did.
The amount of sleep young children get is also closely related to learning. A study of 8,000 preschoolers found that children with regular early bedtimes scored higher in most developmental measures including pre-reading, language, and early math skills. This study found that children getting fewer than 11 hours of sleep scored lower in a range of tests. In the preschool years, 11 to 13 hours of sleep is recommended. I have to wonder if the study factored in all the relevant variables. These learning gains may be related to consistent styles of parenting (not only bedtimes but conversation, reading aloud, and other elements of enriched upbringing) versus more chaotic styles of parenting. In my family we have imposed bedtimes on all but the oldest teens, but we’ve always been pretty flexible. There are plenty of things worth postponing a child’s sleep—a concert in the park, a gathering with friends that extends well into the night, or sitting around a bonfire telling stories.
The importance of sleep also extends to behavior. A study of nearly 7,000 preschoolers, the same data sample used for the learning outcome study, indicated that children who got less sleep in the preschool years were also assessed as more hyperactive, impulsive, and unable to pay attention by the time they reached kindergarten. In one of many chicken and egg issues facing social science, it isn’t clear if children develop these problems due to limited sleep or if difficulty sleeping may be an indicator of a pre-existing problem. One of my children was diagnosed with ADD. He slept just fine. We discovered the problem had quite a bit more to do with food intolerances and a serious mismatch with today’s educational approach.
There are plenty of other studies telling us that we need to sleep well. Some of us may even be wearing our exhaustion in the form of extra pounds. Sleep deprivation is linked to obesity in preschoolers and children, as well as in teens and adults. Around here, the kids who stay up with me watching late night TV are annoyingly thin and energetic, but their insomniac mother should be a better role model. I suppose I could lie in bed listening to my loved ones laughing and playing on these summer nights while I pretend to sleep.
Last night my husband (Tim) and daughter (VIP) went to her Spring program which was the grand finale to her last day in pre-school. They brought home a huge keepsake packet to let me peruse through which included everything from a “report card” to art projects.
When I had finally reached the bottom of the never-ending stack of finger-painted animals and seasonal decorations, I came to several sheets of paper that brought me pretty close to tears…
First, a paper asked the question “What makes you smile?” Her response: being with her dad. My first thought was that Tim and I are doing something right as parents that she is happy with her family (at least her dad). Second, I found a paper that highlighted her favorite things. Among the listed items were Lego Star Wars (which she has played a grand total of 6 times) and basketball.
The paper I found that prompted the biggest reaction was the one reflecting what she wants to be when she grows up – A GeekMom! I must say, she is on the right track. Her report card reflected that she has mastered all points that were taught this year. She wants to “go to work at the same place as dad because he takes stuff apart,” and she wants to eat lunch with him. He works at UL, so her view of what he does for a job is actually pretty close to accurate.
This morning I asked her why she wants to be a GeekMom when she grows up. Her response was simple, “I want to have a kid someday and do projects out of a GeekMom book.” Considering how much time we have spent working out of the GeekDad books recently, that is sound logic.
Today I am faced with where to put all of our new fabulous art. I already had a drawing of Perry the Platypus that I want to display in some manner that is a higher status than the refrigerator.
I think “I want to be a GeekMom” is going to be framed.
Talk about an amazing race. The Iditarod dog sled competition, which started Saturday, stretches more than a thousand miles from Anchorage to Nome, crossing some of the toughest terrain in the world under some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Mushers come from all over the world to compete, but, at its heart, the last great race is a unique competition that captures the very essence of what it means to be an Alaskan. It’s about grit and perseverance, survival and courage. The race also symbolizes compassion and responsibility for our fellow human beings as it commemorates the heroic efforts of a group of mushers who ran the life-saving serum needed to treat Nome’s diphtheria outbreak in 1925.
And there are so many ways to geek out on the Iditarod!
–runners for your musher to stand on
–a space for provisions to sustain you and your dogs
–a harness system for your dogs to pull the sled
–how to improve your sled’s performance
–wheels if you live in a climate without snow
We connected Sherlock and Watson, our little rat terriers, to our sled. Sherlock turned around and stared at the sled, then flatly refused to pull. Watson, the better sport, enthusiastically pulled Sherlock around our house, which led to lots of crashes and barking and laughter.
Sled dog racing is the only professional sport in which women and men compete against each other equally. While many women have run and won the race, Susan Butcher was one of my childhood heroes. Susan was an amazing four-time winner who, with other women, inspired a common saying and t-shirt slogan.
Alaska – where men are men and women win the Iditarod.
For most of you, Alaska is a strange and far-off place and you probably think I’m joking when I tell you that they didn’t cancel recess until it was -25F. Think that’s tough? Next time your kids are hoping for a snow day, you can tell them that my elementary didn’t close until the thermometer hit -55F. Building a sled is a great way for me to share with my son – and your kids – a little piece of what it was like to grow up there. There are so many life lessons to take from the Iditarod.
But if your kids learn nothing else, remember: we don’t eat yellow snow.
GeekMom Amy Kraft wrote awhile back about the crazy-making process of getting her child into the “right” school:
My daughter just started Kindergarten at a New York City public school. The process of getting her there began when she was two years old and I started touring schools, fearing that if I didn’t like any of the possibilities we’d need time to move. The past year has felt like a part-time job, my time filled with tours, applications, and even an essay. Fortunately, we’re zoned for a pretty good school, but children in the zone had previously been waitlisted for reasons of overcrowding. Gifted and talented testing (yes, taking your 4-year-old for a standardized test) can open up more options.
This is just one example of a parent trying to do the best she can do for her child, but I’ve heard this story over and over again. Moms and dads are trying to work with a broken system to help their children thrive. Parents today are expected to raise high-achieving children, skilled in a multitude of talents, all at the highest levels, to respond to today’s tough challenges.
But is this the answer? Bombarded by academic standards, competition for educational opportunities and run-away schedules, young people struggle to accommodate the intense demands. They’re getting stressed. They’re getting ill. And some are committing suicide.
Vicki Abeles became so concerned with the culture of hollow achievement and pressure to perform that has invaded Americaʼs schools that she created a documentary about it. In Race to Nowhere, the mother turned filmmaker suggests that the American education system is destroying our childrenʼs love of learning and feeding an epidemic of unprepared, disengaged, and unhealthy students.
I’m crossing my fingers that this film will make its way to my local, independent movie theater, but I’ve added it to my Netflix queue just in case.