Monday, September 30, 2013

Discovering Nature Study

After attending a workshop on Nature Study at the NICHE conference, I knew that nature study was something I hoped for our family to do. We have done a lot of it this fall, but even now it's hard for me to articulate what's so great about it.

I do know that all of creation proves the existence of a Creator. I guess that sinks from mind to heart when you take the time to really look closely at something God created. Lately we've been catching caterpillars and watching the whole metamorphosis thing. It only takes two weeks for this slimy creature to evolve into a completely different being. How could there not be intelligence behind something so delicately complex and exquisite?

Even more fascinating to me right now is this dead bug my mom mailed to Z...

That's right. My mom found this dead cicada on her patio, packaged it up nicely, and mailed it to us. She's cool like that. It's not that my mom is into dead bugs... she's more into the fascination that little boys can have with bugs. But what really makes this dead bug a treasure is that it lived 17 years as larvae under the ground before it turned into this bug and then died. Seventeen years. That's longer than most dogs live. That's half of my life this creature has been living. 

We learned that cicadas live underground for years feeding off the sap of tree roots. Then, after all that time, crawl out of holes in the ground and up that same tree's trunk. They attach themselves to the tree trunk and crawl out of their shell as the cicada with wings that you see pictured above. They get to live like this for about three more weeks, then die.

Here is a picture of a cicada shell. Z has a whole collection of them in the backyard if you want some.

That's not a bug. It's the shell or skin of a bug. How weird is that?

Here are our cicada sketches. Z's also includes the caterpillar. :)

Drawing what we find in nature really helps us to slow down and see the details of biological happenings... There is life happening all around us and how often do we look at it? How much do we value it? How else could we see the gift that life is without somehow finding a way to treasure it? I knew that nature study would probably be fun and adventurous, but as I'm drawing this sense of reverence comes over me... first for this magnificent life-creature that I never knew before, but then this awe of God who created it to be that way. Created each little detail. Cared enough to do that.

Maybe everybody doesn't feel that way, but I do, and I love getting to experience this with my son.

I keep this "nature bag" by the back door now.

Inside the bag: Bug catching stuff, nature journals, colored pencils, a couple random identification booklets, and some ziploc bags. It's an insulated one so we can even put lunch in the bag if needed.

Some other entries in our nature journals:

Three sides of a rock.

Back of dandelion. Blade of grass.

Leaf. Stick.

As you can see, a nature study can be extremely simple. :)

(And it must be, if you are four years old.)

Robin's nest on the water meter.

And the point for a little guy is to get him to slow down for even two minutes, to look at something long enough to record it on paper in his own way. We admire each other's drawings. He loves doing this together!

Nature reserve park.

Twenty-three lemon basil seedlings.



One morning we "studied" flowers. At our level, that means we observed them and identified a few!

 A monarch and a bumblebee sharing the same flower.

Z made a little booklet about the different colors of flowers he found. I got this printable booklet from the Handbook of Nature Study Website. This site is really helpful and encouraging if you've never done nature studies before. It's based on the Handbook of Nature Study.

 We saw flowers growing in some unexpected places!

(And my spirit was encouraged to bloom right where I am... in the unlikeliest...)

 I may not have found this had I not been out searching!

 God's gifts are everywhere!

I picked up this shelf at a garage sale for a quarter. It's the perfect little nature display for all of Z's treasures.

Learning to ask questions... exploring our world... sparking curiosity... investigating how things work... discovering the facts of life... watching God hold it all together through seasons and systems and seeds... marveling and letting God nurture us through what He made. Nature study is a habit worth keeping. Highly recommend it!

"All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Tour of Our Preschool

Now that we're approaching the end of September, I can give a little update on what we're doing for preschool this year. What better way than to tour our school area in pictures? I love what this room is turning into for our entire family (of three). It's bright and yet cozy and filled with learning stuff we can see. It's also very organized which is pleasing to all three of us organizational nuts. :)

Last year we did the ABCJLM program, which gave a GREAT foundation for a whole new blend of curriculum this year. I'm really satisfied with what we chose for this year, but it's playing out much different than I thought it would at the beginning of the month! I absolutely love being able to gauge where my son is at and what he's ready for, and move at an appropriate pace.

The main thing that has changed over the course of this month is we've slowed down the pace of our reading and writing curriculum. We are using the Institute for Excellence in Writing: Primary Arts of Language (PAL). The first week, we got through four or five lessons. Over the next three weeks we got through four or five more lessons. The program introduces phonics rules through fun games and short activities. This is just the right thing for Z right now because it keeps him reading and writing, while learning the technical stuff of how words are put together... and he enjoys it! However, doing a whole PAL lesson in a day gets WAY too long for him physically and mentally. So we just do less of PAL in a day now. So thankful we have the freedom to go at our own pace!

This is where we do preschool. Doesn't it look fun?

I didn't think I'd be the mom who made a special colorful area for school, but after I read something about how visuals are so very helpful for little kids... well, this just kind of happened. I learned that when kids can look up and see something instead of flipping through a binder/book or just trying to remember, it keeps them motivated and gives natural repetition to their learning. A light bulb went on in my head -- because I have totally seen this in my son. So here we are. 

This red board has our poem, readers (which are prizes after he learns to read so many words), calendar, and other posters related to learning the "helpers" or phonograms. We also stick the Bible verse from Awana on there. I used page protectors so I can easily change out the posters when needed.

The magazine file (below) holds my teacher manuals. The three index card boxes hold memory verses, card game reading cards, and spelling cards. We begin the day with Bible reading, prayer, and memory verses.

Then we do Math-U-See (Primer) for about 10-15 minutes. This includes a short DVD lesson, a worksheet, and unit blocks. I found this great box from the Container Store which holds all of the blocks nicely.

After math, we dig into PAL. We start by reading/reciting the poem and talking about its meaning. Z gets to mark any new phonics "helpers" from the poem. (Another bonus from having the poem in a page protector.) 

Then Z figures out the day/date on the calendar (which he makes each month from, and I write a few sentences in our family journal from his narration. He reads the entries back to me and it's so cute to see what he wants to "write" about.

The next section is printing. Z gets to practice his letters in letter boxes (squares). So there is no having to stay between certain lines yet; just as long as he fits the letter inside the square. I didn't think I was going to use this part of PAL, but this was another happy surprise. Since he already knows his letter/number formations, I figured he was ready for writing on the lines. Well, we tried that over the summer and it proved frustrating and he began to really NOT like writing. So I gave these letter boxes a try and they are totally worth the step "backward." Not only is he enjoying writing letters again, but he's fine-tuning his formations which he does know in his head but they are looking much better on paper now.

Next, we snuggle on the couch and read a story together. Then I help Z summarize the story by identifying the different parts of the story and answering questions about it. The yellow poster on the wall is our story summary chart.

We begin the second part of PAL by playing reading games which are labeled and numbered on file folders in the bin (below). Z loves finding them, playing them, and putting them away. To be honest the games were what drew me to the PAL program. My kid LOVES playing games, so these were worth the work of putting together! (Many thanks to my friend Sarita for the bin idea and teaching me how PAL works!!)

The big blue binder on the left is where Z keeps all his finished preschool work. He proudly shows it to anyone who cares to ask him about preschool. :) It says Kindergarten on it because we're using phonics and math worksheets from the Raising Rock Stars Kindergarten curriculum. He does those one day a week, on a day when we're not doing PAL. They cover basic introductory math and phonics, and it takes maybe 20 minutes.

One of the games Z is loving right now is the Feed Me Creature (cereal box). Z named ours "Ballybablob" and he eats ("NOM NOM NOM") words from the card game after Z reads the words, which puts Z into crazy fits of laughter. Which puts me into a crazy fit of laughter. :) Check him out.

After games we get out the Phonetic Farm. The Farm is a big poster with a picture of a farm on it. Each area of the farm has a different group of helpers. There is the or Horse, the Squeally ee bee hive, the ow Cow, etc. Z loves to give me "tours" around the farm, telling me which helpers live where, and what they say. The people who thought of this must be geniuses. My kid LOVES this thing and making all the characters on it "talk" in funny voices.

Z keeps the journal and Phonetic Farm in his wall file for easy access.

In my wall file I keep upcoming nature studies, PAL reading work pages, PAL printing work pages, and the Raising Rock Stars worksheets. I like this system because they're easy to grab when we need them. After Phonetic Farm is "Agenda time," during which Z gets to work on something on his own, (mostly) without my help. During Agenda, he does a couple of reading work pages that go along with the phonics rules we've been talking about. So I just plop those sheets from my box into his box, and he knows to come get them. On these work pages he gets to color, cut, and glue words. You'll notice the orange-framed magnetic white board next to Z's desk in the first picture says "Agenda" on it. I clip two or three little pictures onto that board which symbolize a task he can do by himself. Some of them are work pages, making his bed, sweeping the floor, art project, play outside, putting dishes away, etc. He LOVES this part, of course, because he's in that stage where he wants to be able to do everything by himself. He gets to put check marks next to the items when he finishes, and is SO proud to show me. This time usually lasts about 30 minutes and it's supposed to prepare him for taking responsibility for his own learning later.

The last thing we do for PAL is an informal "spelling test." I say a letter/phonogram sound, and he prints the letter/phonogram that makes that sound on the white board. The best thing about this for Z is getting to write on the board. Later on in the program, Z will graduate to discovery card packs and All About Spelling. I'll post about that when we get there!

It's actually really nice that we don't have to move quickly through PAL because it leaves time for other stuff. We read library books. He reads to me from easy readers, BOB books, and a McGuffey reader. We started doing family read-aloud time this summer and it has been wonderful! We read Charlotte's Web all the original Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Now we are starting the Chronicles of Narnia series. We do this before bed anytime we're all home in the evening. We have started a little collection of classics to read together. Shane and I are excited about this since we've never read many of them.

We like to do a family devotion time after supper, and right now that involves reading from the Egermeier's Storybook Bible, prayer, and sometimes a worship time. I play piano, Shane plays guitar, and Z jams on the drumz.

The other thing we've spent a lot of time doing this fall are nature studies. I wrote a separate post on nature study because it's been such a fun thing for us in many ways. This is our nature display.

I am thrilled with how preschool has gone for us so far. Honestly, it is the one thing in my life right now that is predictable and easy. We take breaks whenever Z needs a break. We take breaks for snacks, bathroom, playing outside, doing laundry, baking, hanging out with friends, whatever. I feel comfortable knowing Z is learning at his own pace and in his own way. For him this means a lot of activity and movement. He often sits or bounces on his jumping ball while he's doing preschool! 

He's also learning to trust and respect Shane and me as his teachers. I think this is so foundational for kids to learn at home, so that when they later get in a classroom or other learning situation, they are able to truly respect other people as teachers. Personally, it seems to me that respecting authority and accepting instruction is often most difficult for a first-born child. (I am one, and I know lots of others for whom this has been true.) For some reason, first-borns want to do everything their own way and have a hard time listening to what anybody else thinks. I am so glad that we have the opportunity to gently help Z through this while he is young, Lord willing. My desire is to help him humbly receive instruction, and also give him time and freedom to do his own thing in his unique way. 

Shane likes to teach through games and playing, which is quite convenient for our little boy. They play number games together, sudoku, ride bikes, play ball, build things, and tackle each other. I would also include as part of preschool Awana, swimming lessons, blastball, tumbling, the kids program at the nature reserve, and library programs. Why not? He's learning, is he not? School does not have to be confined to a building.

On that note, socialization does not have to be confined to a building. I'm so thankful for all the great friends we have here. It's fairly easy to get together with friends just to play, even last minute. We try to connect with friends whenever we're able, and I think this is especially important when there are no siblings in the picture. God has provided an abundant "family" of friends for us here.

Family, if you have read this far, I hope this gives you a better idea of how we're educating our son. 

Homeschooling friends, remember I have one kid and our situation is way different than yours since I don't have a baby and a toddler running around like you do. 

Random people out there who might be using similar curricula or ideas, I hope this post helped you in some way. 

Everyone else, here's to lifelong learning!