Tuesday, November 19, 2013

a novel study

I haven't blogged in a while. A long while, actually. I guess we've just been busy living and enjoying each other, and it's been wonderful. But now that it's fall, and TWO of my kids are "school age" (when did they get so big?!?!), I feel like I should get back into writing. I want to share the things we are doing, and the things my kids are learning, in the hopes that it might inspire some of you in your own journeys. Or, at the very least, I hope it will assure any of you with lingering doubts that my kids actually are doing ok.

Recently we have been reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with Ella and Liam at bedtime. They love anything even slightly "magical," so the concept of a whole world through a cupboard door is amazing to them. As much as they have been enjoying it, though, I had my doubts as to how much they were actually understanding. The language of the book is very old-fashioned and British, and there have been many words that I have needed to stop and define for them. And the storyline, while exciting, was a little hard for them to follow at times. Or so I thought.

The other night, after finishing off a chapter, Liam took the book from my hands and started looking through it himself, right from the beginning. At each new chapter he would ask, "What is this chapter called?" When I told him the name of it, he would summarize the events in the chapter, at times using the few illustrations in the book to jog his memory. As he got further and further into the book, flipping the pages and stopping at the pictures to tell me more about the story, I couldn't believe how much he had remembered. And not only remembered, but also understood! Here was my 5-year-old son, spontaneously conducting a review session of a novel written for people much older than him!

One of the concerns that people often bring up with unschooling is that I might not know if my kids are learning anything without testing them or requiring them to do some work. Well, I know for a fact that Liam has listened to, absorbed, thought about, and understood all of the main concepts in this particular novel. I didn't need to test him, I didn't need to make him do a worksheet, and I didn't need to force him to summarize each chapter after we completed our reading. Heck, I didn't even need to ask him any questions about it. I just needed to make myself available to him, sit with him while he flipped through the book, and listen. Amazing.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

moose vs. giraffe

We recently cut down two huge trees in our front yard. Of course, by "we" I mean "Joel." I mostly sat on our bench drinking lattes and eating ice cream.

He had never done anything like this before. In fact, I'm pretty sure he had never even picked up a chainsaw, let alone used one. So needless to say, when he first brought up this plan to borrow a buddy's chainsaw and cut down a couple of huge cedars, I was skeptical. I had visions of missing limbs and trips to the ER. But Joel assured me that he had sufficiently researched how to fell a tree (research that I am certain consisted exclusively of YouTube videos), so who was I to stand in his way?

It was a holiday Monday, and we had nothing better to do anyway, so Joel drove to his friend's house to pick up the chainsaw and get a quick lesson on how to turn it on and not cut off his arm, and away we went.

Joel did great! He didn't cut off his arm, he didn't land a massive tree onto our house or any passing cars, and he even made us a huge pile of firewood. As the final tree fell to the ground, there were cheers all around, from myself and the kids as well as some neighbours who had set up their chairs out front to watch the show.

We all learned a lot that day. Joel learned how to cut down a tree. I learned to trust my husband a little more. And the kids learned an amazing amount of totally random things.

As Joel was cutting off the lower branches, Ella started gathering twigs and greenery into a small pile on the driveway. I asked what she was doing and she told me that she was collecting moose food. She informed me that moose use their strong lips to strip the green stuff off the branches, and they even like to eat the twigs, too. It seems as though Martin and Chris Kratt are doing a great job of teaching my kids all about animals! Liam joined her in the hopes that a stray moose might wander by in the night to eat this delectable feast that they were preparing. He said to me, "If we wake up in the morning and the pile of moose food is gone, then we will know that a moose came and ate it! Or maybe a giraffe, because they eat leaves, too." Naturally, the kids then wondered what might happen if both a moose and a giraffe showed up for the food. Who would win the ensuing fight? After much debate, Liam concluded that the giraffe would win because he could wrap his long neck around the moose to debilitate him. It was one of the funniest and most interesting conversations I had ever witnessed between them. It was so cool to see them using their knowledge of animals to debate what might happen. Even though a moose is never actually going to fight a giraffe, the logic and facts they were drawing upon was pretty solid.

That day we also found a patch of mushrooms in the grass, which brought up many questions about what mushrooms are, where they grow, how we know if they are good to eat, and so on.

Liam also spent some time helping Joel drag the fallen branches, and he learned quite a bit about hard work and perseverance. I couldn't believe how long he worked for! And I couldn't believe how truly helpful a 4-year-old could be with this type of manual labour. Not once did we ask him to help, or tell him that he would be paid or rewarded for his time; he was just so excited to work with his dad and to do "real" work!

Of course, the kids also learned lots of stuff about trees as well. They were full of questions about how the chainsaw worked, why daddy was cutting off the branches, which way the tree was going to fall (and how we knew it was going to fall that way), and many more. We also spent a while looking at the logs that were cut. We counted the rings, studied the bark, felt the smooth wood underneath the bark, discovered very sticky sap (and talked about maple syrup), and saw how a new branch grows.

I love that this is how we get to learn every day! By simply doing something that needed to get done anyway, the kids (and Joel!) had the opportunity to learn and discover so many new things. By allowing the kids to be part of everything we were doing instead of keeping them "out of the way," they got to be exposed to so much cool stuff. By leaving them to their own devices instead of "assigning" them tasks or trying to teach them what I thought they should learn about trees, they were able to thoroughly enjoy the whole experience. Unschooling for the win!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

connecting with my kids

I'm going to start out with a little bit of honesty. Gavin and I have been going through a bit of a rough patch. It's not that we have fallen out of love, it's just that neither of us are getting enough sleep. Gavin has quit napping. And by "quit napping" I mean, "decided that napping in his bed is no longer desirable, but has no problem falling asleep in the most awkward of places." Places like the playroom floor while playing Nintendo DS, the living room couch, my bed, and my personal favourite, his sister's lap while watching TV (not even waking up when she moved him to the ottoman or when I vacuumed the room around him). I think the reason he is able to fall asleep so easily is that he wakes up at 5 in the morning, so he is tired all the time. Which means I am tired all the time since he spends most nights in my bed. And it's kind of hard to sleep when you have a 2-year-old beside you at 5am, yelling "MAP" to Dora on the iPad.

Because Gavin is tired, he has a lot of meltdowns. You parents of toddlers know what I'm talking about. Screaming, crying, and writhing on the floor because he doesn't want to wear the kangaroo shirt, but you can't tell what shirt he does want to wear because he can barely talk, so you take all his shirts of out the drawer, but it turns out he just wants to be shirtless. Yep, those meltdowns. And because I am tired, I have very little patience for meltdowns. Herein lies the problem.

In my head, I know that I am the adult and I should be able to handle this. I mean, I've been doing it for 6 years now. But it's just so frustrating. I know that I don't want to yell at him, or spank him, or put him in a time-out. I know that he just needs some connection time with me, but all I really want to do is hide out in my room with earplugs.

So I have to ask myself, "Would the thing that I want to do right now help or hurt our relationship?" So, things like spanking and yelling and time-outs are definitely out, as they would just drive a wedge between us. And hiding out in my room while he screams is also out, because all he wants is to be with me. So what to do?

Yesterday, after a fantastic meltdown, I decided to take him to the park. Traditional parenting wisdom might say that rewarding this type of behaviour will only encourage it. I tend to disagree with most traditional parenting practices, however, so I think that is ridiculous. (The book Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn was an amazing eye-opening look at why we do the things we do as parents, and I highly recommend it to every parent.) So instead of removing myself from Gavin, both physically and emotionally, I decided to do something that would bring us closer together.

And you know what? It was awesome. The kids had such a fun time, but I think I got more out of it than they did. When I play and laugh and have fun with my kids, it is so easy to remember just how much I love them. It is easy to overlook the meltdowns and frustrations when I feel so connected to them. I love them fiercely and completely no matter what, but the feeling of love is easier when we are happy and connected. And the more time I spend playing with them, the more I realize just how cool they are. I love the conversations we have, I love the games they come up with for us to play, I love watching them squeal with delight as I push them higher on the swing, I love just being with them.

So even though I get angry and frustrated, I am trying to always be cognizant of our relationship. Because, in the end, it is more important than anything else. It doesn't really matter what shirt Gavin wears, or what time Ella goes to bed, or what Liam eats for lunch, or whether the dishes get done. In the grand scheme of things, those are all inconsequential. What does matter is showing my kids that I love them, being connected to them, and making sure they know that I will always put our relationship above everything else.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

fueling obsessions

My kids are obsessed with My Little Pony. Yes, even the boys. Gavin, who has only recently started speaking, and has mastered only a handful of legible words, can clearly pronounce "Pinkie Pie" and "Rainbow Dash" and knows which ponies they are. If you were to drop by my house at any point during waking hours, there is a 93% chance you would find us doing something pony related.

If you had asked me a few years ago whether I would ever let my kids watch My Little Pony, I would probably have told you that my kids will never watch a show like that - it's not "educational" enough, it's annoying, there's too much magic in it, and the list goes on. However, the further we get along this journey, the more I am learning to see my kids as people with their own interests, desires and needs. So even though I find the show to be mildly annoying, they do not. (And, if I'm being honest, it's not even that bad to watch, as far as cartoons go.) And even though on the surface it doesn't seem like they could learn anything from watching it, they are.

But it's not just about watching the TV show. In fact, if I added up all the time they spend on My Little Pony related activities, I would guess that less than 25% of that time is spent on watching the show, even though they have pretty much unlimited access to TV and Netflix. The rest of the time they choose to interact with what they have watched. They have come up with so many different games, projects, activities, quests, role plays, and more, all related to the theme of My Little Pony.

One day Ella sat at the table and wrote out a list of all the ponies that she wanted to buy with her birthday money, and worked out the spelling on her own. One day Ella and Liam decided to draw each pony on a small piece of paper so they could eventually have a poster of all the ponies. Most days they play with the pony figures, sometimes acting out a specific show they watched, and sometimes creating original plot lines for their toys. Many days they play ponies on the trampoline, each pretending to be their favourite pony. One day we searched on Google for My Little Pony pictures and printed out their own colouring books. One day we found giant My Little Pony activity books at the grocery store and they spent hours colouring and doing the puzzles. One day I introduced them to the My Little Pony website, and they had fun playing the games. One day Ella was wondering what ponies with both wings and a horn are called, so we spent some time researching that (in case you are curious, a pony with just a horn is a unicorn, a pony with just wings is a pegasus, and a pony with both a horn and wings is called an alicorn or a pegacorn or a unicorn-pegasus).

One of the coolest things I've witnessed is the day Ella wrote a book called My Little Pony. She used the ponies and their different personalities as inspiration to write and illustrate a totally original story (I did the physical writing for her, so she could focus on making up the story). Her story flowed so well, and the characters made so much sense, that it could have actually been published as a children's book. Without ever being taught about a story mountain, she wrote a story that contained all the important elements. I am convinced that she was able to do this because of all the stories she has read. She didn't need to be taught about what makes a story work, because she absorbs it in her everyday life.

Some people might say that my kids spend too much time and energy focused on My Little Pony, but I have seen the benefits of their obsession. In following this interest, they are learning and doing so much, and they are excited about it. This is just one example of our unschooling in action: we don't split our days or our learning into subjects like math or science or reading, but by simply living our lives, the kids end up learning about all these different areas. However, that being said, another important point I need to add about unschooling is that I don't sit around watching what the kids are doing so that I can mentally check off boxes whenever I see them learn something. I don't have a running tally in my head of all the "subjects" they have covered this week, I don't keep track of whether they are at "grade level" or not, and I don't try and sway their interests so that they "cover" all the things that school kids their age are doing. One of the most important things to understand for unschooling to truly work is that life doesn't need to be split up into subjects. True unschooling happens when you understand that life and learning are the same thing.

So, our life right now is a lot of My Little Pony. But that will change, as it often does. Whatever their interests, though, I will try my best to help them dig as deep as they would like to go. Because, who knows, maybe one of their interests will lead to an amazing career, or a scientific discovery, or a cool invention. Think of someone who has done something great; I bet it started with an obsession.

Monday, April 29, 2013

sleep is for the weak

I am tired. Exhausted, actually. I think I get less sleep now than when I had a newborn in the house.

When the kids were babies I was always looking forward to the future, when the kids would be just a little older, and would go to bed nicely, sleep all night in their own beds, and wake up well-rested at an acceptable time in the morning. Now I know better. When you're a parent, sleep is a unicorn. A magical, mystical, beautiful creature that you will never actually see or touch because it does not exist.

But I am learning that I need to come to terms with this stage of our lives. Slowly, and with a lot of coffee.

When I was new at parenting, I was under the impression that by the time babies had turned into toddlers, they should be going to bed at 7pm and sleeping all night on their own, giving their parents plenty of time to watch movies and read books at night. Ella was fairly easy to train into this sleep schedule when she moved from a crib to a toddler bed. We would put her in bed, she would cry a bit and sometimes come and sit by her door, but she would always go back to bed fairly quickly and go to sleep. Liam was even easier. He would fall asleep quickly and rarely made a fuss at bedtime.

And then along came Gavin. He is as different as humanly possible from his brother and sister, in every way imaginable. When it comes to sleeping, he does what he wants. And what he wants these days is to hang out with us until 10:30pm, sleep fitfully in our bed with his head on one parent and his feet kicking the other parent, and then wake us all up at 5am. Try as we might, we cannot get him to sleep unless he is good and ready. If we put him in his room at night, he will wander around, play with his stuffed giraffe, wake up his sleeping brother, empty his dresser, and when he gets bored of all that, he will show up in our bedroom (opening doors is his newest accomplishment).

The old me would have been SO frustrated at this turn of events. But even as tired as I am, and as much as I wish I could get a whole night of uninterrupted sleep, I find myself happy to snuggle with my boy when he finally decides to go to sleep. I watch him sleeping and realize that he is never going to be this little ever again. So as I lay beside him, his curls tickling my nose as I inhale his beautiful baby scent, I am thankful for one more night with him.

As we navigate this journey of gentle parenting, we are learning to be more respectful of our kids, their needs, and their desires. So if Gavin isn't ready to go to sleep at 7pm, we try to respect that. We have also learned that Ella isn't ready to go to sleep early, either. She is more of a night owl, much like I used to be. She likes to stay up until 8:30, and then read in her bed for a while before falling asleep. And in a perfect world, she would sleep in until 8:30am, but her little brothers don't always make that a possibility. Liam, on the other hand, is ready for bed by 7:30, and he needs lots of snuggling time before he can fall asleep. We are learning to respect each of their individual internal clocks and allow them the freedom to do what works best for their bodies.

So if that means that I don't get as much sleep as I'd like right now, I try to be ok with it. I try to remind myself in those moments of frustration that the kids won't be this small for long, and I'll miss these little people when they're grown.

And, who knows, maybe one day I will get to ride that mystical Unicorn of Sleep through magical fields of rainbows. You know, when the kids are just a little older.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

my kids play air hockey with God

On the iPad, when they are playing one player air hockey, my kids believe that God is playing with them. Liam is especially excited when he wins a game against God, because, as he puts it, "God is SO big but I beat him!" When they are having races around the house, they believe that God is racing with them. God usually wins. When they are jumping on the trampoline, I frequently hear them talking about how God wants to play this game or that game, or about how high God can jump. My kids love to play with God.

It is not uncommon for me to poke my head into Ella's room and find her reading the Bible. Sometimes it's the picture book version and she is reading stories to her younger brothers. Sometimes it is the "real" version and she is reading to herself about creation, or Noah, or some story she heard at church. I helped her figure out how to use the table of contents and the index so she could more easily find the stories she wanted to read. My kids love to read about God.

We have many conversations about God, what He's like, where He hangs out, what He wears, what He does, and what His preferences might be. Some of the conversations are about things like what His favourite colour might be, or what foods He likes best. But some of the conversations are so deep that I am left awestruck that a child so young can have such an understanding. One Easter, when Ella was 5 years old, we came home from church and started talking about the service (she had sat in the adult service instead of going to her class). At one point during the conversation, she told me that God was like an oven. I had no idea what she was talking about, until she explained that the oven has the stove on top and the oven underneath and the drawer at the bottom, just like God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. All three sections are different, but they are all part of the same appliance. I couldn't believe that a 5-year-old came up with that analogy on her own! My kids love to talk about God.

The relationship my kids have with God is real. It is their own. It is childlike.

In Matthew 19:14, Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." In Matthew 18:3, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

I do not force the kids to read the Bible. I do not make them pray if they don't want to. We do not have a specific time every day when we all have to sit around the table and do a Bible study. I do not send them to Christian School or Wee College or Awanas or Sparks or any other program in hopes that they will learn the "basics" of Christianity. (Disclaimer: I went to most of those programs myself as a child and they are great. They work. I still remember many of the verses I memorized when I was 4 years old. Our kids might do these or other programs at some point in the future.)

What we have chosen to do, however, is include God in our everyday lives. We show the kids how to pray by doing it ourselves. We read the Bible with them whenever they ask. We answer their questions. And when we don't have the answers, we look them up together. We pray with them before bed, about the things that are important in their lives. We belong to an awesome church, and the kids are excited to go each week. We talk with them about how God wants us to live our lives. We talk about love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness, peace, joy, and all those good things. We try our best to live a life that is in line with the Word of God and that glorifies Him.

I love that my kids play with God. I don't want them to think that a relationship with God is just about church on Sunday, saying grace before dinner, and being forced to read the Bible every day. I want them to read the Bible, of course, but I want them to do it because they love to do it, not because I told them to. I want them to pray and talk to God because they have something to say to Him, and because they love Him, not because they have to do it before they get to eat. I don't want to hinder them from coming to Jesus in their own way. And many times I think that my own relationship with God would be much deeper if I could treat Him in the same way the kids do - as a close friend.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

an eyeball dissection

It has been months since my last post. Terrible! I kept thinking to myself, "I should really write something," but then life got in the way. For any of you who have kids at home, whether they are big or small, you know what I mean. If I get 10 minutes to myself, I am usually in the bathroom (although it's rare to be alone in there), sleeping (actually, there are usually kids there too), or trying to read one of the many books in my "to-read" pile (which are mostly about raising kids). Hmmm...

Since I last posted, we have done a million fun and interesting things, and there is no way I could write about all of them. But because I mentioned Ella's fascination with the eyeball in my last post, I thought I'd share a little about our eyeball dissection!

When Ella first told me she wanted to look inside an eye, I checked the internet to see if I could get an eyeball from somewhere. Educational supply website? Butcher? I didn't really know where to start. I mentioned my quest to a friend of mine who teaches at a public school, in the hopes that she might know where her school gets their eyeballs from. She did even better than that, though; she brought us two eyeballs from her school! When I showed them to the kids, they were so excited to cut into them.

We put on some gloves (which were kind of big for the kids, as I don't think they make "little kid" sized latex gloves), spread out some cardboard on the kitchen table (sorry to those of you who have eaten at my table since then), and got to work. At first the kids were reluctant to touch the eyeballs, but they soon got into it. We used the iPad to look up the names for all the parts of the eye, and how to cut into it. I had done this dissection when I was 13 or 14, but I don't even want to tell you how many years it's been since then, so needless to say, I had no idea what I was doing. But we figured it out, we learned together, and we had so much fun. Ella loved seeing and holding the lens, but asked that next time we cut something up, that it be something "less slimy."

I love unschooling!