Friday, 31 October 2014

'Mum can I write that down?' - how to help kids enjoy writing

 Looking at the forums, one of the most common complaints of parents is that their children 'hate writing' and treat writing practice as some kind of punishment.  If you look at how writing is traditionally taught I can understand how so many children get turned off to the fun of writing.  It can start when children who lack the strength and fine motor skills (which should be built up by climbing and playing with bricks) are handed a pencil and expected to hold it correctly.  If kids aren't ready for writing then it can be physically painful to them - not a great start to encouraging a healthy relationship with a new skill.

Many kids aren't developmentally ready until as old as 7, and the rise of tech-based indoor play means that even older kids are only capable of swishing a screen with a finger and find anything else uncomfortable.  So with reluctant writers the first question is how can you support their development so that holding a pencil is comfortable - the answer is play, with real objects to hold and manipulate, and plenty of climbing to build up strong hand muscles.  Plenty of drawing is a great way to build up confidence with a pencil too.

 When they can hold a pencil comfortably, and know their letters, using writing as a practical skill with an obvious reason to do it is far more engaging than just writing long lists of copied letters and words.  The activity we did last weekend was a good example of how to make writing a relevant skill.  The boys wanted to make biscuits and rather than using the teeny writing in the recipe books we looked up a simple recipe on the internet using our android tablet computer because this gives us the option of zooming in on the bit we want.  Ollie then copied out the recipe "so that we don't get food on the computer"and the boys made their biscuits together.

We then decided the recipe worked so well we needed to keep it, so Ollie made a recipe card.  Matt drew a border and some lines and held the cookie cutter shape for Ollie to draw around.  Ollie then painted it in and copied the recipe onto the lines below (I added in a few bits as by now he was starting to get ready to move on to the next game and there's a balance to be found between encouraging perseverance and not discouraging by insisting on finishing a task when it doesn't really matter).  Ollie very proudly pinned his recipe card to the fridge with a magnet and off he went to play.

I'm not saying there is no place for handwriting practice as it is a way to encourage legible writing, but the prime aim of writing should not be forgotten - to record and communicate information and ideas.  Also, having said that many kids aren't ready for writing until 7, I don't believe in holding kids back who are capable and eager either.  Children are individuals and are ready for things at different times.  Ollie is writing pretty well at 4 (almost 5), who knows if Toby will be the same, I just hope that we can keep learning as fun as it is now so that they never lose the joy they have in it.  They certainly will never be given lines to write out as a punishment!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Toyvalanche? Time to have a pre-Christmas clear out

Lots of savvy parents have already realised that the 'toys' that kids play with the most are cardboard boxes, household junk, everyday items and 'things they shouldn't be playing with' such as reconstructing the sofa as a mountain and slide.  With the exception of a few bought toys that have endless facination such as wooden train tracks, building blocks and musical instruments, lots of toys end up barely touched.  Part of the reason for this may be sheer overwhelm - if you are faced with hundreds of 'things', each individual item loses value to you.

The time it really becomes apparent that a toy cull is needed is when, having got the kids to put everything in the toy box so you can vacuum, all their good work is undone by the 'toyvalanche' as the overloaded box spills out back all over the floor.

Some of this is solved by regular sort outs - a box for tracks, a box for cars, a box for bricks, a box for animals and so on, all stored on a bookcase so you can cycle the toys around and not have everything jumbled together all at once.

Even so, with birthdays and Christmas looming there comes a time when enough is enough and it's necessary to pass on, donate or even sell off some of the hoard.  How you go about it will depend on the age of your kids and how attached they are to the things.

I tried to cull the toys in the summer, but kept the bag in a wardrobe in case they were missed.  It turned out that at that point the boys weren't ready to part with their old toys.  So we have tried again - this time I asked the boys to pick out anything they thought was a 'baby toy' that they were too 'big boy' for, watching their cues to see if they had any particular reluctance over a certain toy - no soft toys made it into the give away bag.  We decided together on the places we would give the toys to - Ollie decided the gymnastics waiting room and creche were a good plan as other kids could share the toys but they would still be able to play with them sometimes.  When the time came, Toby retrieved one toy, but the rest of the toys and books were happily left behind.  Phew!

There's also an interesting link between toy overwhelm and behaviour  - I read about a family that vastly reduced their son's diagnosed ADHD by working at home and with his teachers to declutter the areas he was in, repainting in calm colours, ditching most of the toys, and also addressing his diet and activities.  They managed to turn things around so much that he avoided being put on Ritalin.

It can feel almost cruel giving away toys and books, but is it any crueler than the obscenity of some kids having a floor that is invisible under toys while others down the street have nothing?  Neither situation benefits the children involved.  Sneaking toys away is an option for those who are really going to have trouble with possessive kids, but I'm hoping that the way we have done it means that our little ones will grow up with the idea that it's good to share a bounty, and that others can enjoy the things they've outgrown.  I know this is already an annual routine in most homes.  However they will see it as being unfair if it's only ever them giving things away, so it's time to hit the wardrobe too and set a good example by passing on that pretty dress that is never going to get worn by me ...

Tips for decluttering toys:

  • Take time to sort out toys regularly - at least once a month - so that you can clean them, dispose of any broken ones, match up parts of toys, games and puzzles
  • Separate toys into boxes with themes, e.g. building bricks and stack onto a bookcase.  Keep puzzles and toys like games with lots of little bits in a cupboard or on a high shelf and put back when finished with for the day.
  • Keep a bag in the wardrobe that you can add outgrown toys to - if a toy in the bag hasn't been asked for within a few weeks you're probably in the clear for passing it on
  • Ask children which toys they feel they have outgrown - try to make them part of the process
  • Many families find a 'one in, one out' rule works to keep on top of toy clutter.
  • Give children options for where their old toys will go - the more they understand the toy's new home the happier they will be 'for Fred's new baby sister to love' will go down better than an unknown destination where they may worry their toy won't be cared for.
  • Only pass on toys you'd be happy to receive - give everything a clean and a check over before it goes.
Best of luck - we've made a good start but there's certainly more to be done in our house!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Kids, ducks and Autumn leaves

Last Saturday we took advantage of the Autumn sunshine and unusually warm weather to take a trip out to Bentley Wildfowl and Motor Museum near Ringmer in east Sussex.

This place is fantastic for kids.  There is a miniature railway that you can take a ride on, with Stations at strategic places around the site.  There is a collection of classic cars and motorbikes which even includes the impressively creepy Hearse used in the original Dracula film which was found in a barn, restored in the 1960s and is now used by a local funeral company.

The gardens are pretty, there is a house to walk
 through with a huge collection of waterfowl paintings, and woodland to play in with examples of ancient house reconstructions.  Best of all for my boys though (apart from the railway) is the amazing collection of wildfowl which you can feed with grain bought from the gift shop.  There are about 147 varieties of wildfowl in the world (ducks, geese and swans), of which 125 are found at Bentley.  The collection was built up by the former owners, who gifted the core of the estate to the people of East Sussex when they died.  My favourites are the Hawaiian Geese, which were nearly extinct until a breeding program brought them back from the edge.  Hundreds of the geese bred at WWT sites including Slimbridge and Arundel, plus those raised at Bentley, have been returned to Hawaii helping to bolster their numbers in there home country.

After a happy day of feeding the ducks and geese, riding on the train, enjoying a cup of tea in the cafe and admiring the house and garden we finished in traditional Autumn style with leaf throwing (all lovely and clean as there were no doggy visitors on site).

The different types of wildfowl had interpretation panels explaining about their habitat, where they came from and so on which provided a good opportunity to explore different species and look at world geography and habitats, but most importantly this was a lovely hands on opportunity to enjoy  tame birds that fed happily from the boys hands, or around their feet, a very special experience for all of us.

Notes: the site is wheelchair and pushchair accessible for the most part.  Guide dogs are allowed around most of the site but not in the wildfowl walk.  There are toilets, a disabled toilet and baby changing facilities.  Parking is ample.  Hand sanitizer is provided as you exit the waterfowl walk, but I would recommend heading up to the toilets after you have finished with the birds to wash little ones a hands with soap and water.  There are picnic benches in the play area and there is also a cafe and a gift shop.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Our outdoor classroom

 So we're nearly at the end of the first half term of our 'official' home education.  To be honest, very little has changed for us as we have always enjoyed a wide variety of educational experiences.  We do up to an hour of written work on most days using maths and literacy workbooks, but it's not all in one go.  A couple of pages after breakfast before we go out, a couple more in the afternoon when we come home, and maybe a couple more after dinner.    The workbooks probably aren't completely necessary as there is so much learning going on without them, writing labels on pictures, adding up scores in our magnetic fishing game, singing number songs and so on.  For me though the books  feel like a good way to add to our paper record of progress and both boys enjoy showing daddy what they have completed at the end of each day.  Perhaps because they see both Matt and myself studying, doing what they call home school is just a normal thing for the boys.  When I'm helping Ollie with a page from his maths book, Toby will sit next to us with his colouring book concentrating just as hard on that as Ollie does on the numbers. Yesterday Ollie was talking a bit loudly and Toby said 'Shh I doin my school work' as he sat drawing faces on his little whiteboard.  Toby also likes collecting up the work books from the kitchen table and saying 'I put on Daddy's desk now, he look later'.

What forms the backbone of our learning however, and the thing the boys most enjoy, is the outdoor learning.  This can be learning about seasons and weather as they ride their scooters through the park, or something more focused such as a bug hunt.  We are fortunate to have an amazing park a short drive away with all sorts of different habitats, lots of water ways, formal and informal flower beds and an amazing collection of trees which are often helpfully labelled.

This week Ollie wanted to go searching for water boatmen after watching about them on an episode of 'Minibeast Adventure with Jess' on Cbeebies.  We headed off to the park with out nets, the plastic yoghurt buckets that we use for all sorts of things, and a bug viewer.  On the way to the shallow muddy pond that I thought might be our best bet for finding some we did a lot of sensory exploration.  I pointed out herbs such as rosemary for the boys to smell and try to name, we spend a long time in the rose garden looking at all the different colours and sizes of roses and running around to find our favourite colours and smells of roses, then wove in and out of the bamboos listening to the noise of it rustling and making up stories about panda bears.  A heavy fall of sweet chestnuts provided an opportunity to investigate the prickly outside and soft inside of the cases, and peel some chestnuts, all of which had a little maggot munching away inside to the boys delighted interest.  We looked at the difference between the leaves on the evergreens and the falling leaves of the deciduous trees.  We talked about chlorophyll and why the leaves are changing colour.  We compared leaf shapes of the different types of oak growing along the path, the sharp points of the Pin oak, the deep lobes of the Hungarian oak, the small compact lobed leaves of our own English oak.  We compared sizes, lining up the leaves we had collected in order of size and hunting for the biggest and smallest leaves we could find.

At the pond we gently scooped up some freshwater shrimp with our nets, watched them swimming around with the bug viewer and then released them.  No water boatmen today, but perhaps it's getting too cold for them now.  The 'pond' is more of a silty bottomed scrape in the earth at the side of the path, so not the best pond dipping place, but safer with little ones than hanging over the edge of one of the bigger ponds.  We then went to a place where a shallow stream pours across the path so the boys could play with their nets and buckets - no expectation of catching anything, but the action of repeatedly scooping up and pouring out water is one which the boys really enjoy. We talked about why the rivers in the park were flowing so swiftly today - about the heavy rainfall, catchment areas and valleys, the water cycle and how the valleys were carved out.

If I were to write a lesson plan about the activities of the day I would be running into several pages of learning outcomes, including the numeracy outcomes involving shapes and sizes and the physical benefits of running and playing outside.  Whether little ones are in school or following the home education path, this type of activity is something which is accessible for every family.  It's incredibly cheap - the buckets were left over from buying yoghurt in a far cheaper way than as individual pots and an old tea strainer or sieve are a good stand in for a net if you don't have one.  Most of the activities require no equipment at all (just maybe a notepad to write down anything you couldn't answer at the time to look up later - despite a Biology degree, years of teaching outdoors and in a classroom and being well into a Geosciences degree I still get plenty of questions I have to look up at home, even if it's just because it's easier to find a video of rubber being tapped from a tree than to explain it).  The only thing you need is to really look, listen and experience things yourself so you can draw your kids attention to interesting things, and respond to them when they bring you things to look at.  You are a brilliant teacher and your kids love it.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Understanding kids schemas

 Unless you've got small children, or work with small children, the chances are that you have never heard of the term 'schema'.  I certainly hadn't until I started looking into why it was that Ollie as a toddler was lining up all his cars in order, grouping the same colours together or doing it in order of size.

A schema is a type of action that your child prefers to carry out and will repeat often.  It doesn't mean that is the only action they perform, just that it is something they enjoy.  Schemas are in some ways comparable to the idea of 'preferred learning style' that you may be aware of if you have, or teach, older children (for example 'she is predominantly a visual learner', or 'he has a kinaesthetic learning style').

This week we covered schemas in the PACT (parents and children together) course that I am on, so I thought it was a good time to share some of the basic ideas about what types of schema there are and how you can use knowledge about your child's preferred schema(s) to support their play.

These photos are from some of the ways Toby demonstrated one of his favourite schemas.  According to some sources, including my course on Monday, the behaviour he is demonstrating is part of the 'Trajectory' schema where children enjoy throwing things, shoving cars and balls along the floor and anything moving in straight lines, such as playing with running water.  He doesn't only do these preferred schema related activities, and as a parent it wouldn't be right for me to obsessively only provide toys and opportunities that matched this schema, but it is nice to be aware of why little ones do certain activities over and over again and consider it when I pick out activities.  Providing trajectory schema children with opportunities to play with running water, kicking balls with them, and throwing bean bags into a waste-paper basket are all ways of making a connection with them by playing in a way that they understand while at the same time helping their development.

Depending on the source you look at there are different numbers of schemas, but this nice website Nature Play gives ten examples.  This website would define the activities Toby is demonstrating as a 'Positioning' schema.  We show preferences for schemas before our first birthdays and often carry them with us into adult life - the first thing I did in my exam last week was to line up all my pens and pencils neatly on my exam desk, so perhaps I was a positioning schema fan myself as a child?

Do you have a child who likes to hang upside down from play equipment?  According to nature Play this is the 'Orientation' schema.  Objects to manipulate and opportunities to play with their whole body climbing and swinging would be things an Orientation schema child might enjoy.

I found a useful PDF free to download from an organisation called NDNA which gives examples of schemas and how to support them.  One of the schemas they refer to is 'Rotation' which is apparent in children who enjoy spinning around, turning the wheels on toy cars, playing on roundabouts.  Did you have a baby who sat watching the washing machine go round?  Then rotation might be one of their preferred schemas.  The NDNA PDF suggests providing them with lots of round objects to explore, including clocks, balls and wheeled toys.

Both my boys enjoy lining things up, but they also both enjoy moving things around - usually in a toy pram, wheelbarrow or bucket.  This is part of the 'Transportation' schema and we found that providing containers for moving things around, plus lots of small objects to put in them, made for good games.  For example playing shopping and using a basket to carry objects from one sofa (the 'shop') to the other sofa ('home').  I also use this schema to get the clean washing put away because the boys enjoy charging to and fro with socks and t-shirts to put away in their drawers, rushing back to me before I've finished folding the next item.  It helps me, but more importantly they have fun and it also supports their skill in grouping items and feeling good about being part of the running of the household.  It did backfire one time when Toby was just turned two and diverted from putting socks in his drawer to stuffing them in the toilet!

In many respects the boys have shown similar preferences in schemas, but they also have their own individual styles.  Both boys for example enjoy the 'Connections' schema, building train tracks and megablock structures, but we all found Ollie's preference of the 'disconnect' element of this schema frustrating.  Insistence that you build a train track or building for him, only for him to smash it apart so you build it again may have been a natural part of his learning, but it was also really irritating for us as adults, and devastating to Toby when he came on the scene and started demonstrating that he loved the 'connection' part, patiently building miles of tracks or amazing towers.  Fortunately as he has got older Ollie has become more constructive than destructive.  He wasn't being 'naughty', it was just he enjoyed the 'oh no, here comes a disaster' game, but nevertheless I am quite glad to see it taking a backseat to other interests.

Another schema is 'Transforming', where children enjoy watching changes.  You can support this by doing kitchen chemistry experiments such as playing with home made indicator solution and adding vinegar and bicarb to watch the colour changes (boil red cabbage and the resulting liquid is a great indicator solution), or mixing paints together to see what happens.  Even exploring an ice lolly as it melts in their mouth is a great way to demonstrate transformations.

The final two schemas on the NDNA PDF are 'Enveloping and containing' and 'Enclosing', which have similar elements.  Enveloping and containing seems to refer more to enveloping themselves - playing fancy dress or making dens for example, while enclosing is more about putting items in boxes.  These are also favourite play activities for the boys, they love to roll on the floor wrapped in a blanket, hide objects or each other under fabric, hide in the same spot over and over during hide and seek, squeeze into small spaces or repeatedly fill and empty containers.  You may see this in yourself as an adult if you like to draw boxes around the things you have written, or your favourite season is Winter because you can wrap up in layers.

As you can see from the examples of my own boys, kids do not only display one type of preferred behaviour, but they can seem to be obsessed little creatures when they do perform the same action over and over again.  In our times of over-diagnosis of behavioural abnormalities for every action that we observe I thought it was important to write about schemas however so that they can be seen to be just another normal, and in fact necessary, part of how children develop and that if you are a new parent watching your little one line up the peas on their plate they are neither a genius nor an obsessive compulsive nor autistic, they are just a little kid doing what little kids do who like the positioning schema.  And if they prefer to throw train tracks than build them, they don't have ADHD, they are just preferring the trajectory schema to the connections one.  The best we can do as parents is to get down on the floor with them and provide varied opportunities for play but perhaps with schemas in mind, such as directing the large heavy object throwing towards something equally fun but less painful such as bean bags.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Exploring old technology - what's in a PC Tower

 Last weekend we decided to clear out the computer graveyard in our loft.  Before taking them down to the local recycling facility we removed the hard drives and in doing so opened up a great learning opportunity for the boys.

Modern tech is all so tiny it's hard for kids to get to grips with what does what, but the roomy space in an old PC Tower, with it's plug in boards, cables and fans is all a bit more explicable.  We had a good poke around inside using a mixture of correct terminology such as 'Printed Circuit Board' and 'hard drive' with simple explanations 'this is the computers brain, it's where the instructions are to make it work'.

Ollie really enjoyed using the screwdriver to detach
components such as the fans, and then both boys were hugely excited to be able to get the fans working using a 9v battery.  Ollie was so enthusiastic about this that when he returned home from being at the allotment with Matt later on to find his grandparents visiting he rushed straight over to tell them about his fans and battery before he had even said hello to them.

All this may seem like a contradiction to folks who know how keen I am to limit screen time and avoid tech dependence in the kids, but to me poking around with real electronics is a world away from sitting glued to a screen.  I don't know how much the boys have taken in with regards the way computers function, but Ollie certainly understood that when the computer works it gets hot and needs a fan to blow the heat away, and that the fan can be made to work with electricity or by blowing on it - either way you are giving it energy.  We also used it as an opportunity to remind them to stay away from electrical sockets, that the little amount of electricity in the battery is Okay, but the electricity in the socket is strong enough to really hurt you.

Safety bit: as always, you know when your kids are ready for activities - if they're still putting everything in their mouths this is obviously not the activity for you yet.  Batteries are especially something to be careful of as children can be seriously harmed or killed by swallowing batteries - the most dangerous are the small 'cell' type - you won't find these in an old PC, but it's something to bear in mind if you are looking at the innards of other equipment such as toys.  Watch out also for sharp edges of metal housing in the PC case - these things are not designed as toys and are therefor inherently somewhat risky.  Never dismantle equipment that is plugged in - usual common sense stuff.  Don't do this activity if you think it will result in your kids trying to dismantle other things without you - it's worth really emphasising to them that you do this activity together and keep screwdrivers well out of reach the rest of the time.

Learning opportunities: basic science such as how circuits work, fine motor skills in manipulating the screwdriver, language skills and vocabulary in describing together what you are looking at and what happens when you make a circuit with the fan and battery, working safely and home safety, self confidence and self esteem in spending time with an adult focusing on an exploration together.



Friday, 3 October 2014

Pet rescue literacy game

 This is a game that evolved from a little post box game.  The boys love posting things into our shoe-box post box and this has developed into 'writing' letters to post.  With Ollie's current love of forming real words the next step in the game has been to draw a picture of a cat or a dog and write the word next to it.  He says that the animal is lost and he is posting a letter to the owner to tell them.

Yesterday the game took another step and became a letter to a mountain rescue team to find a lost dog.  Ollie wrote the words he can do by himself (help a lost dog) and then asked me to spell out 'the mountains' for him - I asked if he wanted to write the shorter word 'hills' but he was very insistent it had to be 'mountains'.

He drew his dog and the mountain and helpfully included an arrow showing where the dog was.  He then hid his toy dog on the back of the sofa (the mountain) and delivered the letter to me (the mountain rescue team).  Toby also delivered his letter to me (he's been trying out drawing lines with pens in both hands at the same time) and helped me rescue the dog.  Unfortunately at some point a wizard turned me into a bear, so I spend a lot of time huffing around on all fours trying to catch the boys and (gently) roughhousing, while Ollie grabbed books off the bookcase to try to find a spell to change me back.

So this is all a lot of fun, but it also has a lot of educational outcomes.  The physical benefits are to fine motor control in handling pens and manipulating folded paper into the envelope (quite tricky for little hands).  It is useful for developing literacy and can be easily tailored to the child's level of development - from simple mark making, to drawings, to first words such as writing their name on their drawing and then starting to form other simple words such as 'cat'.  There's a place for copying letters and words in exercise books, but to really engage children in writing and reading they need to see a useful purpose to it, such as labeling their pictures or making up postcards.  This type of game is also a great way to explore narrative in play - the children are making up their own stories as you play together and combining physical objects in their environment with their own imagination.  Encouraging children to describe what they're doing and give you instructions is a useful way to develop their vocabulary too.  But best of all their grown up is spending uninterrupted time paying attention to them and being led by their wishes.  Even the chase and catch element have a benefit because boys especially tend to want to play in quite a physical way and playing with them in this way helps them to learn how to play physically without hurting anyone else or themselves.

I try to build  unstructured play time into our days, where I supply a few props perhaps but then let the boys lead the play.  I think this is really important for bringing up self motivated, self sufficient kids.  If every minute of the day is scheduled into taught classes and adult led activities then when does the child learn to find out things for themselves? I firmly believe in the adage 'only boring people get bored' and that helping children develop (and hold on to) their natural instinct for imaginative and creative play prevents them becoming boring people.