August 20, 2008

When it Looks Like They're Not Learning

Today I heard from Unschooling Blogger and she expressed the feelings I have every fall:

This is the only time of year that I get antsy and start worrying about unschooling. I'd be so interested in hearing about how you encouraged learning with younger kids. Or did you just let them play until they came and asked? I find mine haven't been asking much lately and I worry it's something I've done - or do they perhaps go through spurts as they do in physical development? (She has four kids and the oldest is eight).


First of all, thank you for the question. I LOVE questions, because it helps me know what to write about. My kids did go through spurts in doing school-type things and that would make me feel better, but that didn't mean they weren't learning the other times too. Some days were just watching PBS or playing dress-up. I'd get nervous and try to whip up some school-like activity, but really, that's not necessary. That's me trying to control the learning that's going on all the time anyway.

On days I felt compelled to do some "real" learning, a trip to the library would do the trick. Browse the shelves and let the kids bring home whatever they are interested in. Since mom gets to bring home books too, I'd think through topics I thought they should know about. I'd get ideas from a book called The Core Knowledge Sequence.It's a list of what kids in each grade are supposedly learning. This is all theoretical because we don't have a nationalized curriculum, and I don't believe education is "filling a bucket" anyway, but it was helpful to be reminded that kids in 3rd grade probably know all about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. Why not get Who's That Stepping on Plymouth Rock?I love everything by Jean Fritz. Read aloud time with her booksbecomes a whole elementary school history curriculum!

I also like Kathryn Stout's Design-a-Study series. It's the same idea as the Core Knowledge Sequence because it has content listed by grade level, but it has more suggestions on how to teach the different areas. I like both these resources because they cover all of elementary school in one shot. The books might look expensive, but think "eight years of schooling."

Some Specifics on Fostering Interest


When one of my kids was in early elementary school I thought she should know about the periodic table of elements. So I set up a lab with a big periodic table poster, science lab materials, experiment books, and one of her dad's white shirts as a lab coat. Then I left it to see what would happen. She spent a lot of time in there and learned a great deal (it was actually set up under her loft bed). And when she lost interest, we put it all away.

That science lab was really a learning center. These are simply table tops or plastic tubs or drawers that have everything you need to dive into your topic. We still have the dress-up chest and the drawing desk. But you can be more specific and have a rocket science corner with library books, toys, videos, Lego's, or whatever you think you need to introduce and explore that topic. A geography area would have a globe, map, workbooks, map puzzle, etc. These are simply little places of hidden treasure. And when they are no longer interesting, put them away and try something else. The goal is to learn about your child and what he loves, then provide what he needs to go that route to the fullest.

I always had a read-aloud book going at bedtime, and I'd purposefully choose books to follow some historic period. I also had a time line going around the bedroom, so when we read, I could point to the spot on the time line and if they wanted, they could write or draw what they learned on it. I usually found some sort of visual for them to attach too.

Mom's enthusiasm can go a long way in fostering interest in something. I personally love biology, so one of my favorite memories is doing The Body Book.The book's description says, "easy-to-make hands-on models that teach." You make card stock copies of the skeleton and organs, and with some scissors and tape you have a model of the human body. We did various parts of this book over several years. The kids loved it too since it was like doing crafts with mom.

In a nutshell, remember your main job is to foster a love of learning and their natural talents. If you have to resort to threats or yelling to get them to "do school," you should just let it be. If your child would love to do workbooks all day, let her. If your child is emotionally mature and wants to go to public school, let her (gulp. That's my situation now). If your child wants to play video games all day, let him. Seriously. If he sees you're not hassling him, the fun will die away soon enough and his natural survival instincts will kick in, like maybe when he's 16 and has to get into some college. But let's hope he's had something to spark his interest before then!

A View from the Down the Road

Yesterday Melissa came home from her third day of public high school and commented about her English class. She said, "It must be hard for some kids to write stories. What if you're not creative? Anyone can learn grammar or punctuation, but how can you learn creativity?" I told her I was glad she had all those stress-free elementary years to play, pretend, make up stories and develop her imagination.

Meg, my learn-at-home high school junior just finished watching a Netflix instant documentary and was disappointed. "I didn't really learn anything. I think I'll try to find something educational to do," she says as I sit here typing this.

My homeschool graduate has another month until he leaves for college (they are on the quarter system). He just ordered The Brothers Karamazov, an 800 page Russian novel, because he's listening to online lectures from the UC Berkeley that talk about it. Is this how most graduated seniors spend their last weeks before college?

And 90% of their lives has been unstructured and interest-led.

Have hope.

7 comments:

Laurie said...

Thanks Jena! That's JUST the encouragement and advice I needed today. ;) I'll check out those books you mentioned and remind myself to sit back and 'smell the pencils'. ;)

Unknown said...

Ahhhh, I'm really starting to get excited about coming to your blog. It is just what I'm needing. I love the idea of learning centers. A little like school but not really. I will back off the "hurry up and get that done!" commentary. Mine really does like the workbooks but doesn't necessarily finish a whole page at a time. It's ok.
By the way, the picture on my blog isn't my creation. I know nothing about that sort of thing. I have a blog on AOL and there are several people who make them. You can copy it from my blog, upload it to photobucket and then stick it on your blog.

Anonymous said...

Jena, our styles are so similar! I love your posts. Keep them coming.This post reminded me of "Let's Read and Find Out" Science books, Math Start books, an Earth Models books, a "body book" that included making a "chest vest," and my own invention: The Plus Bus, in which ice pop sticks with faces drawn on them were added and subtracted from a cardboard bus front with windows cut in it! Lots of fun. All play!

At A Hen's Pace said...

I'm seriously thinking about trying a year of modified unschooling...meaning having some minimal requirements and then having them "find something educational to do," as your daughter put it. (Love it! Is that what you say?)

But I've wondered what to do on those days that they're having trouble finding something--and the library idea is such a good one!

We've had a lot of learning centers over the years--especially Dress Up and Legos. Even with more structured schooling, they've always spent lots of time on those!

I have several of Kathryn Stout's books and attended one of her seminars early on...how do you use them? I have used the Comprehensive Composition one a lot, but the others not much. (Probably because we've always had some kind of curriculum instead.)

Thanks again for "the view from down the road"....

~Jeanne

Anonymous said...

What an encouraging post! We read as a family in the evenings, too. So much can be acquired from a good book. I love your chemistry center idea. I think I'm going to do something similar for my son who happens to love meteorology. Thanks again for the great post, jena!

jessiev said...

what fun! i like the body book - we'll have to find it. thanks!

Rana said...

This was a great help. I feel like we are on the right track. Thanks for the books you sited.

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