Reflections on the various dimensions of feminine vocation from liturgical homemaking and child rearing to education and the spiritual life.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Outdoor Life & Nature Study

Today at the Saint Emmelia Homeschool Conference, I had the privilege of co-leading a session with a wonderful colleague on incorporating nature study and outdoor play in the home school. Elizabeth Lewis did a fabulous job discussing the hands-on details of gardening with children. While I don't have her material to share, here are the notes from my part of the presentation dealing with outdoor life and nature study:


Research & Trends—Nature Time Is Critical to Spiritual, Psychological & Physical Well-being
  • Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (2005) drew attention to the alarming, growing divide between nature and children.
  • Screen time is replacing outdoor time and is leading to depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, low academic performance, and other problems. (See www.waituntil8th.org/why-wait/.)
  • A growing profusion of studies continue to investigate the psychological benefits of the natural world:
    • People who lived in city neighborhoods with at least 20 to 30% vegetation cover showed reduced levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.[1]
    • The number of visible birds of any kind in an urban neighborhood correlate with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.[2]
    • The Japanese forestry ministry coined a phrase—shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”—for the increasingly popular pastime of intentional relaxation in forest environments which has been shown to heighten feelings of well-being, lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, and even improved immune system functionality.[3]
    • Even short visits to urban green spaces have positive results and benefits.[4]
  • There is a “forest school” movement in western European with roots reaching back to the 1800s; currently there are over 1,500 waldkindergartens (forest kindergartens) in Germany which have resurrected educational reformer Friedrich Froebel’s ideal of children learning through hands-on outdoor experiences.[5]
  • Building on the Scandinavian heritage of friluftsliv, literally, “fresh air life,” hundreds of nature schools similarly thrive in Denmark and Sweden.[6]
  • More than one-hundred Japanese waldkindergartens (a number that was expected to double by 2014) address the worries of many parents “that Japan is becoming too stressed and high tech and there is not time to communicate with nature.”[7]
  • In the U.S., a small but growing number of forest kindergarten leaders have joined together to found the American Forest Kindergarten Association which shares information about the many benefits supported by “the growing body of compelling scientific evidence” which indicates that “introducing children to the natural world at an early age has a profoundly positive impact on their mental, physical, and social well-being.” A handful of similar organizations—such as Natural Start Alliance, Nature Explore, and Forest Schools USA—are also devoted to helping establish nature preschools throughout the country.

Foundation for Nature Learning in the Christian Home
  • Many Orthodox saints have shown us how holiness reunites us with nature: St Herman of Alaska, St Seraphim of Sarov, St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, St. Blaise, Bishop of Sebaste, and many more!
  • The garden of Eden remains an important image of a full life with God. Like Adam and Eve, we are entrusted with stewardship over creation. And, like Adam, our vocation begins with wonder and enjoyment.
  • The natural world directs us to the Creator and heavenC. S. Lewis describes nature as a “first sketch” of “that greater glory”[8] promised to those to thirst and who overcome. “We are summoned,” says Lewis, “to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.”[9] God summons us to experience a foretaste of his glory in the riches of his creation.
  • Familiarity with nature awakens and sustains the aesthetic sense, a right sense of beauty, and also a love of creation that motivates stewardship.
  • “Forest Schooling” approaches involve a deep respect for children that is essentially compatible with an Orthodox understanding of persons as image-bearers and participants in divinity. Nature learning flourishes with child-led exploration where teachers are guides and fellow learners before God, the Creator.
  • Many contemporary homeschoolers are revisiting the writings and wisdom of Christian educator, Charlotte Mason, who advocated for nature immersion play, or “out-of-door life for the children,” in 1886, long before it was trendy.[10]

Nature Study & Outdoor Life in Practice
Charlotte Mason’s recommendations from more than a century ago remain sound. She suggests ways to weave in informal, age-appropriate lessons during outdoor time in subjects as varied as language arts, geography, botany, biology, physical education, and world languages.
1.     Meals & days in the open—Mason recommends dining outside whenever the weather permits and also taking the children out for “long hours” (4 to 6 hours) on “every tolerably fine day” or as much as possible. Children should be allowed to wonder and explore for most of that time, but some “vigorous play” and a short “lesson or two” can also be worked in. This applies mostly to children under 9, but is wonderful for all ages.
2.     “Sightseeing” & “Picture-Painting”—Habits of attention and observation can be honed through narration games/activities and “taking mental photographs.” E.g., “Tell me all you can about [an object or “some patch of landscape”].” Supply names for flora, fauna, items, or concepts so that vocabulary and concepts expand.
3.     Flowers, Trees & Living Creatures—Explore, identify, and learn to recognize and name the flowers and trees, birds and insects, lizards and mammals of your neighborhood and region. Use field guides, keep nature notebooks, and track cycles of growth and change in a “Nature’s Firsts” calendar. Don’t underrate the “kindly fellowship” of family pets. Encourage careful observation and beginning habits of deduction.
4.     “Living Books”—Read books, fiction and non-fiction, that portray facts about flora and fauna in a beautiful and compelling way that sparks the affections and imagination.
5.     “Out-of-Door Geography”—Parents can weave in informal lessons in geography by drawing attention to and naming geographical features of the land and waterways; directing children’s attention to observe the position and movement of the sun, moon, and stars; asking/answering questions about clouds, wind, and weather; introducing children to concepts of distance, time, and direction, as well as to compass and map skills.
6.     “The French Lesson”—Mason encourages oral instruction in a modern language starting informally at a young age. The lesson should be short (~10 minutes; 2 to 6 new words per day + review) and worked naturally into the outdoor time as the words taught tie into the sights, sounds, and activities at hand.
7.     “Noisy Games”—Part of the outdoor time can be devoted to vigorous games that involve the whole body and contribute to well-rounded physical health, e.g. jumping rope, climbing, and various games children select for themselves and pass along to each other.
8.     Scouting, Stalking, and Imaginative Play—In the outdoors, children can track small animals and birds by sound, scat, paw prints, etc. They can re-enact adventures from their readings and role-play characters who captivate them such as Robin Hood or Sacagawea.
9.     “Walks in Bad Weather”—Mason encourages parents to not only take their children outside in intemperate seasons but also to celebrate the unique offerings of each season. She suggests “an hour and a half in the morning and as long in the afternoon.” 
10.  “The Child and Mother-Nature”—While Mason encourages parents to integrate short lessons, she is firm about respecting the child’s personhood. She insists on child-led exploration with a caregiver near to answer the occasional question or provide the occasional name or fact. “The mother must refrain from too much talk” so that Mother-Nature can teach directly. Mason encourages the infrequent “look and gesture of delight” as the parent models delight in God’s creation.

Practical Considerations & Resources
Finding nature:
·      Your back yard and the street where you live
·      Neighborhood parks and green spaces
·      Local arboretums, Audubon societies, parks, and nature preserves
Scheduling nature time:
·      Regional climate
·      Homeschool routine and yearly rhythm
Staying safe:
·      Weather-appropriate clothing
·      Bug spray/repellent
·      Sunhats & sunscreen
Nature study supplies:
·      Nature notebooks
·      Pencils, colored pencils/dry-brush watercolor tools
·      Nature’s Firsts calendar
·      Field Guides
·      Living books
Challenges:
·      Start wherever you are, and do what you can.
·      “Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.”
·      Play to your strengths, and consider outsourcing for non-strength areas.




“It would be well if all we persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” — Charlotte Mason






Resources

Books & Links for the Parent:
“Nature Study.” Ambleside Online. www.amblesideonline.org/NatureSch.shtml
Kenny, Erin. Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way. Cedarsong Nature School, 2013.
Mason, Charlotte. Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine. Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1989 (1935).
Sobel, David., Ed. Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor Learning. Redleaf Press, 2015.

Living Books to Read Aloud:
Ambleside Online: (geography/natural history/science by year) amblesideonline.org/curriculum.shtml#years
Memorial Press: www.memoriapress.com/curriculum/science/ (esp. Insects and Trees)
Simply Charlotte Mason: simplycharlottemason.com/planning/curriculum-guide/individual-graded-subjects/nature-study/

Nature-Immersion Learning Support Organizations & Research (Benefits & Best Practices):
American Forest Kindergarten Association: forestkindergartenassociation.org.
Natural Start Alliance: naturalstart.org
Nature Explore: natureexplore.org
North American Association for Environmental Education: naaee.org

Orthodoxy & Nature:
Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, Orthodox Environmentalism—www.theoria.tv/orthodox-environmentalism/
Orthodoxy and Animals—facebook.com/orthodoxyandanimals/
Theology and Ecology: English Saints and the Animal World— orthodoxengland.org.uk/ecology.htm

Safety Standards:
“Child Care Weather Watch,” Iowa Department Public Health, Healthy Child Care Iowa. Champaign Urbana Public Health District. 2009. c-uphd.org/documents/wellness/weatherwatch.pdf  See also usa.childcareaware.org/advocacy-public-policy/crisis-and-disaster-resources/heat-index/

Texas Master Naturalists:
Texas Master Naturalist certificate program, Texas Parks & Wildlife Foundation: tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/wildlife_diversity/master_naturalist/
Texas Master Naturalist organization, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension: txmn.org/





[1] Daniel T. C. Cox, et al. “Doses of Neighborhood Nature: The Benefits for Mental Health of Living with Nature.” BioScience, vol. 67, no. 2, 2017, pp. 147-155. doi: 10.1093/biosci/biw173.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Livni, Ephrat. “The Japanese Practice of 'Forest Bathing' Is Scientifically Proven to Improve Your Health.” Quartz, 12 Oct. 2016, qz.com/804022.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Quetteville, Harry de. “Waldkinderg√§rten: the Forest Nurseries Where Children Learn in Nature's Classroom.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 18 Oct. 2008, www.telegraph.co.uk/education/3357232/Waldkindergarten-the-forest-nurseries-where-children-learn-in-Natures-classroom.html.
[6] Guy, Geoffrey. Forest School Essays. Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/4813212/Forest_School_Essays.
[7] Quoted in Neate, Rupert. “Campfire Kids: Going Back to Nature with Forest Kindergartens.” Spiegel Online, 22 Nov. 2013, www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/forest-kindergartens-could-be-the-next-big-export-from-germany-a-935165.html.
[8] Lewis, C. S. “‘The Weight of Glory.’” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996, 25–40.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine. Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1989.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Stir-Fry! Complete Protein Vegan Mania

Tonight's protein-loaded vegan stir-fry was delicious. Here's how I made it:

1. Cook according to package directions:
  • 2 C brown rice

2. While the rice is cooking, bring to a boil
  • 2 C water, salted
Add and cook for 1 minute:
  • 1-2 C frozen peas
Drain peas promptly and set aside in a separate bowl.


3. Steam for 5 to 7 minutes until just cooked:
  • 3-4 C green beans (fresh or frozen)
Set green beans aside with the peas. 


4. Dice
  • 1 onion
Heat in a skillet over medium heat:
  • 1-2 T coconut oil
When oil is hot, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until onions are soft and beginning to brown. Add
  • 3 t crushed garlic (I use frozen, crushed garlic from Trader Joe's.)
  • 2 t minced ginger (The frozen cubes are great for this, too!)
  • Salt to taste 
  • 1 t toasted sesame seed oil
Stir fry for another minute or so, until the garlic and ginger are soft and integrated. Then add the peas and green beans and toss until thoroughly mixed. Remove from heat.


5. Serve stir-fried vegetables over the rice and garnish each serving with the following:
  • Toasted sesame seeds
  • Roasted peanuts, chopped or crushed
Optional additions:
  • Soy sauce
  • Sriacha/Sambal Oelek
  • Green onions, sliced
Serves 4.
 
Bon app√©tit! 


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Comparing Phonics Programs

In my previous post, I highlighted three popular phonics programs that are based on the best research currently available. A friend asked me to write more about the pros and cons of the programs I mentioned and to say why I prefer the one over the other two, especially since Spell to Write and Read, my favorite, is known to be difficult to get off the ground.

Happy to oblige!

It's true. Spell to Write and Read (SWR) does require a good deal of teacher time and investment. At first, SWR is difficult to get off the ground and implement because you, as the teacher, have to learn the program (and wrap your mind around all the spelling concepts you weren’t taught yourself in school!) and then map out an individualized plan for your student(s). While this makes it a lot to learn at first on the teacher's end, the upside is that it is extremely flexible for personalizing for individual students and situations. Personally, I've found it totally worth it. And after the first year or so of figuring it out, it's pretty smooth sailing.

All About Spelling/All About Reading and Logic of English are both based on much of the same research as SWR. Those are good options, too, especially if you want everything laid out for you grade-by-grade (and for more money). I received a review copy of All About Spelling (AAS) along with the PAL materials from IEW. I tried using it a bit with my youngest, and it’s a good program. I haven’t seen Logic of English (LoE) in person, but you can get a pretty good feel for the curriculum from their website.

Pros & Cons:

AAS is easier to use than SWR in that every lesson is laid out for you in order and scripted; it’s an “open and go” curriculum—after the initial set-up of the materials. However, AAS doesn’t necessarily take any less teacher time than SWR because each lesson requires intensive teacher-student interaction. AAS is distinctive in using "letter tiles" for hands-on phonogram learning. This might be especially helpful for children who are too young for writing letters with pen or pencil.

Like AAS, LoE lays everything out for you. Unlike AAS, LoE has student workbooks with full-color activity and practice sheets that students can mostly do on their own. Additionally, the teacher's guide provides scripted lessons as well as other suggested multi-sensory activities to further student learning. Some of these workbook pages and suggested activities seem unnecessary to me—either busy work or too cutesy-clever. For example, in the Foundations A Teacher’s Manual sample page online, they suggest eating grapes, gingerbread, and granola when learning the letter ‘g’ as well as wearing green and gold and maybe learning about geckos, etc.  
All three programs—SWR, AAS, and LoE—are multi-year programs that teach the 70+ basic English phonograms and 28 foundational spelling rules. All three use flash cards, recommend games, and encourage other multi-sensory learning processes and activities.

As I see it, SWR offers three main advantages over the other programs that are based on the same research:
  1. SWR is a total steal since the initial package covers you for spelling, phonics, plus other language arts foundations for grades K through 12 and beyond. So comprehensive! And all for about a $100 initial investment plus $6 to $12 per student in consumable learning logs each school year. Compare this with around $50/year for AAS and with $176 to $213 per year of LoE! 
  2. SWR is designed to be adaptable for any student at any level and at any age. While this makes it a bit unwieldy at first for the teacher, it’s a powerful benefit. You’re not stuck going through a bunch of pre-designed lessons ordered for generic classes/students; you have the flexibility to use the provided diagnostic tools and lesson components as best suits the individual person and situation. The corollary of this is that there are no cutesy gimmicks to wade through, but there are tons of practical hands-on tips for multi-sensory learning organized by skill or concept in the SWR teacher’s guide. SWR does not distract teachers or students with unnecessary activities or program elements. Which leads us to  . . .
  3. SWR offers the most effective, efficient, and sound phonics program. If you read SWR author Wanda Sanseri’s speech to the Oregon senate, you might note some principles that make SWR unique. Instead of the “phony," “pokey", or "fickle" phonics of other programs, SWR offers all of the 70 basic phonograms and 28 spelling rules early and fast through a direct, uncluttered method that is systematic and intensive. After one year of SWR, a student will have all of the basic phonics knowledge they need to start reading almost any English book. From what I can tell of AAS and LoE, this is not the case. A student would have to complete multiple years of either of those programs in order to cover the same breadth and depth of phonics knowledge delivered in the suggested plan for the initial year of SWR. (And AAS is meant to be combined with All About Reading as a separate track!) This is why SWR is not merely a spelling program per se, but rather a comprehensive language arts foundation in phonics, spelling, reading, and beyond. (It even covers manuscript penmanship and an impressive amount of grammar.)
So if colorful student workbooks and/or prescribed, ready-made lesson tracks are important to you, SWR is probably not a good pick for your homeschool. But if you’re looking for a resource that will equip you to be the best possible language arts teacher for your students and give you the best bang for your buck, SWR is where it’s at. 
N.B., I am not affiliated with SWR in any way, and I receive no material benefit for endorsing the curriculum.  I'm just a fan girl whose been happily using the program for about six years now with both my own children and also other students.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What Is Demanded of Us: Charlotte Mason Admonishes Us to Get on Our Game

When trying to discern the best curricular choice or course of action, the most helpful question a Charlotte Mason homeschooling teacher can ask is not, "What would Charlotte Mason do?" or even, "What has Charlotte Mason recommended that teachers do?" but rather "What would Charlotte Mason do if she lived now and were in my situation?"

Because Charlotte Mason, in her day, would have gone home from teaching mid-afternoon to a child-free, spouse-free house and a nice, quiet cup of tea.

She also recommended that a mother outsource nurse-maid/nursery duties so that the children have mother only at her best. (See Volume I: Home Education, I.iv, pp. 17-18.)

So, if you are married, with children, and homeschooling, you are already not doing what Charlotte Mason did during her time, or even what she recommended doing.

But what would she do if she were married, homeschooling, and living now in the twenty-first century? Now that is a different question. And an interesting one.

Charlotte Mason is one of my heroes for many reasons including not only her brilliant insight into how children best learn, but also her dedication to following and investigating the best thought and research available to her at the time. For example, she studied the latest, breaking findings related to the physiology of the brain and frequently referred to it in her own writings as a basis for many of her practical recommendations for parents and teachers. She read widely in various fields related to child development, psychology,  educational theory, and natural law. She was eager to circumspectly incorporate "whatever new light modern research puts in our way."

In the Preface to the Fourth Edition of Volume I, she writes,
My attempt in the following volume is to suggest to parents and teachers a method of education resting upon a basis of natural law; and to touch, in this connection, upon a mother's duties to her children. In venturing to speak on this latter subject, I do so with the sincerest deference to mothers, believing that, in the words of a wise teacher of men, "the woman receives from the Spirit of God Himself the intuitions into the child's character, the capacity of appreciating its strength and its weakness, the faculty of calling forth the one and sustaining the other, in which lies the mystery of education, apart from which all its rules and measures are utterly vain and ineffectual." But just in proportion as a mother has this peculiar insight as regards her own children she will, I think, feel her need of a knowledge of the general principles of education, founded upon the nature and the needs of all children. And this knowledge of the science of education, not the best of mothers will get from above, seeing that we do not often receive as a gift that which we have the means of getting by our own efforts. [emphasis mine]
We have, she tells us, a maternal duty to study the science of education.

Under "Some Preliminary Considerations," she further clarifies what it looks like for mothers to "owe a  'thinking love' to their Children": (I note here how she herself quotes other contemporary educational thinkers, such as Pestalozzi, revealing her own commitment to ongoing study of developing educational thought.)
"The mother is qualified," says Pestalozzi, "and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child; ... and what is demanded of her is––a thinking love ...."
We are waking up to our duties and in proportion as mothers become more highly educated and efficient, they will [...] take it up as their profession––that is, with the diligence, regularity, and punctuality which men bestow on their professional labours. That the mother may know what she is about, and may come thoroughly furnished to her work, she should have something more than a hearsay acquaintance with the theory of education, and with those conditions of the child's nature upon which such theory rests. [emphasis mine]
These strongly-worded admonitions suggest to me that, if Charlotte Mason were alive today, she would urge us not to look back to her late-1800s/early-1900s curricular recommendations as a static educational plan to imitate without question. On the contrary! She would urge us rather to rouse ourselves to get on our game and do our own research.

If we want to imitate Charlotte Mason, we ought to look at, evaluate, and incorporate the best of current educational research.

Take reading instruction and phonics, for instance. Since Mason's time, we have learned much more about how English is best taught and learned.

Just within the homeschool world, there are now several powerful phonics/spelling programs available that have recently been developed on the basis of the ground-breaking research Orton and Gillingham conducted on English phonograms and spelling rules shortly after Mason's time.

Additionally, because of both national legislation like No Child Left Behind and also because of the school system's need to accommodate a wide diversity of students (including those who do not speak English as a first language at home), much research has been done on how to best teach reading and writing (e.g. phonics vs. whole word reading instruction and such).

Would Charlotte Mason encourage us to ignore all that and keep doing what worked best for her in turn-of-the-century England? Her admonitions and her own example make that highly unlikely.

Best research (like the meta-study here; get it free at a university library) suggests that a systematic phonics program is by far the best foundation for reading and writing. The whole-word approach that rolled through U.S. schools on and off during the last several decades has been debunked. And, while informal, laissez-faire approaches can accomplish good, systematic phonics remains the most sound and reliable method for ensuring success for students of all abilities.

Curriculum author, Wanda Sanseri, further argues that a program that overtly teaches the 70 basic English phonograms along with the 28 foundational spelling rules is the best kind of systematic phonics instruction. Her presentation to the Oregon senate is revelatory and compelling. She bridges the gap between Orton-Gillingham and contemporary practice.

Since Sanseri delivered her presentation, several programs have debuted in the homeschool market that draw on the Orton-Gillingham research base. I personally prefer Sanseri's Spell to Write and Read, but there are several other curricular options that follow the same research and are also great. Two such programs are All About Reading/All About Spelling and Logic of English. Before any of these, there was also The Writing Road to Reading. All of these programs are great with different trade-offs. Different programs will certainly work better for different families depending on the needs and temperaments of those involved.

Discussing these options and the underlying research lands us firmly in the spirit of Charlotte Mason's approach to education. So, rather than closing off curricular options because they do not seem to neatly match the instructional progression prescribed by Mason more than a century ago, let us think critically and research widely in imitation of Mason herself, our beloved paragon of "a thinking love." 


Monday, April 20, 2015

Midway in Love

Years ago, when I was a new, young lover, I stumbled on a curious book of poems at a used book store. I flipped through and read the title poem along with a few others and was charmed. Feeling slightly self-conscious about the questionable literary respectability of such a collection of narrowly niched poems, I bought it anyway: When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple.

I happened to see it again this evening and opened randomly to a middle page to see what I might see. And this is the poem I saw:

Love at Fifty
by Marcia Woodruff

We come together shy as virgins
with neither beauty nor innocence
to cover our nakedness, only
these bodies which have served us well
to offer each other.

At twenty we would have dressed each other
in fantasy, draping over the damp flesh,
or turned one another into mirrors
so we could make love to ourselves.

But there is no mistaking us now.
Our eyes are sadder and wiser
as I finger the scar on your shoulder
where the pin went in,
and you touch the silver marks on my belly,
loose from childbearing.

"We are real," you say, and so we are,
standing here in our simple flesh
whereon our complicated histories are written,
our bodies turning into gifts
at the touch of our hands.

However literary or sentimental, the poem is wise. While I am not yet fifty, I'm no longer twenty either. My body also is scarred and silvered with stretch marks. The veteran lover of the poem heartens me to age graciously, to love courageously, to give my real and simple self. Her words, finding me midway, turn into gifts.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition

Have you seen or read this book yet? I haven't read it, but I am intrigued. It's on my wish list.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

You Know You Have a Good Math Program When . . .

. . . your seven-year-old solves her first four-digit, three-number addition story-problem independently, without you telling her how, . . . and then says, "Can I PLEASE do another one? I want to do one of these every day!"

My daughter was positively thrilled with her own discovery, with her new-felt math prowess. With the first-grade book in Right Start Math, she was solving word-problems that would normally involve "carrying" in the usual algorithm. However, not yet knowing the algorithm or the concept of "carrying," she gleefully solved the problem in her head using an abacus. She thought it was as fun as anything.

I call that age-appropriate math play. The student is using her mind to form concepts and figure out creative solutions to challenging, hands-on problems. I like that there are lots of this type of figure-it-out, thinking activities in Right Start Math and that there are hardly any worksheets.

We've also been enjoying the TOPS Get a Grip kit which operates on a similar philosophy. Using guided discovery, Get a Grip develops math and science understanding through measuring play with a bunch of different sized containers and a big box of . . . lentils!

Sometimes my Kindergartener likes to complete the TOPS activity booklets, and sometimes he prefers to free-play with the lentils. Since kinetic free play is as important as any structured learning, especially at his age, I am just fine with that!

My older scholar likes to free-play but also enjoys the increasing difficulty of the activity booklets which will gradually guide her from easy comparison activities to "sneaky algebra." And the physical, hands-on element is important for her, too. With it's progression to more advanced concepts, the kit can meet the needs of students up to sixth grade.

But my hope here is not so much to recommend particular math and science programs as it is to highlight a kind of learning that tends to be highly effective for most students. And that is play.

With math as with other subjects, students at every grade level tend to learn and retain concepts well through interactive learning. At least this is what I've observed and read.

There is no sound dichotomy between "play" and "real learning."

For example, we might think of a good Socratic discussion of a classic text as age-appropriate play for highschool and college students. Some skeptics might suspect that less learning is happening in such a discussion than in a traditional lecture situation because prescribed content is not being "delivered" in a controlled way. But you and I know that deeper, more substantial learning does take place in a Socratic dialog, even if it might sometimes feel more like play to the participants. (And if you don't know this, perhaps you should give the dialectic a try!) There's a place for lecture, but there is at least an equally important place for the dialectic.

In the same way, real learning often happens in the primary grades through play, especially certain kinds of educational play. That kind of authentic, active learning sometimes sticks better than many "traditional" educational approaches which can devolve into "in one ear, out the other."

Since later is better, I like to start in on a formal math program no sooner than first grade, maybe even second grade. Sometimes we fly first with only the free, custom printables—mostly the time and money worksheets—from MathFactCafe.com. But first we get hands-on with actual coins and clocks around the home.

For other tips on getting started with math play in the early years, I liked Ruth Beechick's Arithmetic booklet. Inexpensive and brief, it covers both foundational theory as well as practical applications for homeschooling the early years.


By Galilea at de.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons


Here's a final angle to consider: Who is the "real" mathematician doing "real" math? Is it the folks who successfully apply the symbolic algorithms like the Pythagorean theorem? Is it the people like Pythagoras who play with shape, measurement, and relation in order to discover the principles and create the symbolic algorithmic formulas that the rest of us use as ready-made tools? How can we best prepare students to think like a mathematician?


Do you play math with your budding mathematicians? What works well in your home?