Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mesopotamia (Meet the Ancient World 4)

After dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, and cave people, you may find Mesopotamia a bit of a challenge. There aren't nearly as many materials available that are suitable for young children, and it will take a little more effort and enthusiasm on your part to convey what's fascinating and marvelous about the ancient cultures of the Fertile Crescent, the first true civilizations on earth.

Yeah, you could just skip forward to Egypt. But then you'd miss ziggurats, the invention of the wheel, and the first cities, all of which are captivating to kids. And you wouldn't have They Might Be Giants echoing in your head: "We're the Mesotopamians! Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal, and Gilgamesh ...."


The Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of World History, pp. 110-113, 132
More solid, basic overview material from the good folks of Usborne.

"Chapter 7: Hammurabi and the Babylonians," in Susan Wise Bauer, The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, Volume 1: Ancient Times
Any child's sense of justice will be offended by an account of Hammurabi's code, and the discussion it provokes about rules and fairness can lead you in all sorts of marvelous directions.

DK Eyewitness Books: Mesopotamia
This is one of those sturdy Dorling Kindersley volumes you've certainly encountered already, those big books that cover every conceivable topic from robots to pirates to planets. I must admit that I find them informative but uninspiring (I can't tell whether my kids share my opinion or have been infected by my disdain). But these books invariably have great photos and illustrations, so when you're dealing with a topic like this one, where resources are scarce, the DK Eyewitness is well worth tracking down.

Marie Neurath, They Lived Like This in Ancient Mesopotamia
This out-of-print volume is worth tracking down. Most of he lovely line illustrations are derived from Mesopotamian cylinder seals, the intricately carved stones that were used as identifying marks on everything from clay tablets to jars of olive oil.

Peter Chrisp, Mesopotamia: Iraq in Ancient Times
This book is a bit advanced for this age group, but it has a nice mix of illustrations: color drawings imagining life in ancient Mesopotamia are presented alongside photographs of key artifacts.


Ancient Civilizations for Children: Ancient Mesopotamia
Back in the 1990s, Schlessinger Media produced a whole series of short films for children about ancient civilizations. They're officially pegged for grades 3-7, but my five-year-olds watched them with interest. Sure, a whole bunch of the material went right over their heads, but were fascinated by the visual imagery -- and liked the hokey faux-archeologist-narrator Arizona Smith. Many library systems have at least some of the films in this series; with effort, you can also find reasonably priced copies through Amazon Marketplace or eBay.

They Might Be Giants, "The Mesopotamians"
In truth, your kids are more likely to be perplexed than enlightened by this catchy video by the brilliant indie-turned-kiddie rock band They Might Be Giants. They won't possibly be able to puzzle out the premise -- Sargon, Hammurabi, et al. are skeletal members of an obscure musical group traveling by Econoline van -- but they might be amused.


The play part of our Mesopotamia unit was an utter and complete delight. We started with some good basic activities. Ziggurats, or simple step pyramids, are easy and engaging for kids to build. We used Duplos, but blocks or playdough would work well, too. We used some slabs of self-hardening clay to etch our own versions of cuneiform text, and we made some basic flatbread, talking about the challenges involved in making it back in the days of Sumer. I found an activity book that showed how to make your own shaduf, but that seemed too complicated, and I thought about having them try out a pottery wheel but never quite got around to it.

The revelations came one day when I took the kids out to a big muddy expanse at our neighborhood park and told them that their job was to create the world's first city. Like the ancient Mesopotamians, they had to either build with mud or find some way to exchange what they had in their mud flat for other materials they might need. Well, before you knew it, they had dug a Tigris and Euphrates River, excavated some precious metals (bottle caps and the like), and set up trade relations throughout the region, most notably with a nearby mulch pile. And suddenly they had a vivid, concrete grasp of such advanced concepts as the importance of raw materials and transportation in development.

Other Resources

"Gifts of Ancient Mesopotamia" poster, part of an Ancient Civilization Chart Pack from Creative Teaching Press. I purchased the entire series, and put the relevant poster up for each unit we covered.

For New Yorkers

After spending some time on this material, a visit to the Metropolitan Museum's Ancient Near Eastern galleries will make your jaw drop. If you've watched the Schlessinger video on Ancient Mesopotamia, be sure to point out the gold and lapis lazuli headdresses from the royal tomb at Ur. And definitely don't miss the panel from Babylon's Ishtar Gate (half a dozen other museums in the United States boast such panels, too -- Nebuchadnezzar's riches have traveled far). Children will be most impressed by some of the humblest artifacts: the envelopes, fashioned of clay, containing the clay correspondence of the time.

The American Museum of Natural History, meanwhile, has a reproduction of the stele containing Hammurabi's code of law in the wonderfully bizarre mishmash that is its Asian Peoples exhibit.

Know other great resources for teaching young children about Ancient Mesopotamia, or have experiences to share? Please post in the comments section ...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Earliest People, Farming, and Domestication (Meet the Ancient World 3)

For young kids, even a very brief introduction to early humans can have a powerful effect. We started not by looking at books but by sitting together in a park and imagining life without: without electricity, machines, road, buildings, you name it. We talked at great length about the basic requirements for human survival, and how one might fashion tools, clothing, and shelter out of the materials at hand. This discussion captured their imagination so thoroughly that they were well primed to continue exploring the material in more detail with the resources below.


"Chapter 1: The Earliest People," in Susan Wise Bauer, The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, Volume 1: Ancient Times
A very accessible introduction to the nomadic life of early humans, and the advent of agriculture.

Concise, richly illustrated overviews of key topics like the discovery of fire, ice age hunting techniques, and cave art.

Jan Brett, The First Dog
The famed children's book author and illustrator Jan Brett imagines how the first wolf might have been tamed, through the tale of a young cave boy named Kip. My kids loved this one.

Jane Chisholm, Living in Prehistoric Times (Usborne First History)
OK, this 1982 book is dated, and a little hokey. But it seemed more accessible to the very young than much of what I could find at my local library. Prehistoric life is largely presented here through children's experiences, which holds an obvious appeal.

Aliki, Wild and Woolly Mammoths
This wonderful book from Aliki about prehistoric pachyderms describes in detail how early humans derived food, shelter, and clothing from woolly mammoths. The hunt scene is a little gory, but if your child isn't bothered by such things, this is a fascinating look at life in the Stone Age.


You don't need to teach a five-year-old actual flint-knapping: Just point them in the direction of some sticks and stones and you ought to get some pretty creative tool-making. This no-budget activity can keep your kids engaged for hours; decide for yourself whether just to leave them to their own devices or help them think about what tools might be required for different tasks.

Cave Painting
All you need is a big cardboard box and some magic markers to get your own little cave artists launched. I taped our box to the dining room table and covered it all with a big tablecloth to make the cave deeper and more mysterious, and gave the kids a fire (e.g., flashlight) to help them see.

For New Yorkers

If you live within striking distance of New York City, I highly recommend a field trip to the Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History. The mammoth-bone house alone is magical to see.

Are there great resources or activity ideas I missed? Please share in the comments section...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Dinosaurs & Evolution (Meet the Ancient World 2)

Most kids are fascinated by dinosaurs, and dinosaur-themed books, activities, and toys abound. The point of introducing dinosaurs here, however, is to set the stage for a basic introduction to evolution, and this presents the parent of small children with a big problem: There are shockingly few good resources available to explain evolution to the younger set.

Memo to the children's book authors of the world: Please, please put your talents to work creating evolution-themed books for small kids!


This list contains a few books on dinosaurs that worked well for us, but really, you can just go to the relevant section in your local library and pick out a few good volumes. You won't, by the way, find the Magic Treehouse books on this or any of my reading lists, although many kids and parents love them and they do introduce a wide range of historical topics that are relevant here. This is a matter of personal taste: I don't like the writing style, and I can't stand the whole girl-led-by-her-heart-boy-led-by-his-brain shtick.

The Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of World History
This book is a great resource to have around, mainly for its marvelously detailed illustrations, which can spark all kinds of discussions about whatever topic is at hand. Some of the text is too dry or technical for small children, but that doesn't matter -- pick and choose. Over the course of several sittings, the first 80 or so pages of this book can provide a basic overview of evolution on earth from the beginnings of life to the advent of Homo sapiens.
Aliki, Digging Up Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs Are Different, and My Visit to the Dinosaurs
Children's book author and illustrator Aliki has published several good introductory books on dinosaurs, all within the excellent "Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science" series.
Natalie Lunis, A T. Rex Named Sue: Sue Hendrickson's Huge Discovery
A fossil with a name and story attached to it holds extra appeal for small children. Book publishers know this: There's a whole mini-industry of books about the famous dinosaur named Sue. This is simply the one we found at our library and liked. Scholastic's biography of Sue Hendrickson, My Life As An Explorer, has an appealing angle for homeschoolers and unschoolers, as it portrays a fascinating and successful career made possible by Hendrickson's decision to drop out of high school. (Scholastic, not surprisingly, made sure to shoehorn in a pious passage about the importance of staying in school, to try to prevent kids from being inspired by Hendrickson's example.)
Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld and Lucia Washburn, Dinosaur Babies
The title says it all.
Lisa Westberg Peters and Lauren Stringer, Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story
This was the closest I could find to an age-appropriate book about evolution. (Steven Jenkin's Life on Earth seemed too advanced, and I haven't yet tracked down a copy of Ellen Jackson's The Tree of Life -- let me know, readers, if you've found it worth buying.) It's written in a hushed, awed voice that I found too ponderous, but it does cover the basics in a kid-friendly way.

Prehistoric Planet: The Complete Dino Dynasty

Extra-sensitive kids might find this BBC series too scary; my kids (who were freaked out by an old tape we found at a garage sale of The Land Before Time) loved it. Go figure.

This one's a no-brainer; if you don't already have an array of little plastic dinosaurs in your house, they are easily and inexpensively acquired. Many different companies sell little dinosaur excavation kits, which my kids loved. Some children's and science museums have full-size faux dinosaur digs for kids -- ask around in your area.

Have other books or activities to recommend? Tips based on your own experience? Please share...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Learning About the Past (Meet the Ancient World 1)

The marvelous thing about introducing small children to the world's history is that it's all new to them -- but, especially when beginning, it's worth reminding yourself frequently that it's really and truly all new to them. They may not have any sense that the world was different in the past than it is today, much less that the world they see around them was shaped in significant part by things that happened long ago.

So it's worth taking a little time to talk in general terms about the past and how we learn about it. This unit can be fairly brief; we spent perhaps a week on it.

One note: I've included Amazon links to make it easy for you to learn more about the books I'm recommending, but given the mountain of books you'll be reading if you follow this curriculum all the way through, you'll definitely want to search your local library system first.


"Introduction: How Do We Know What Happened?" from Susan Wise Bauer, The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, Volume 1: Ancient Times
Story of the World is a series of four introductory world history books that are very popular among homeschoolers. The author is Christian, and her worldview seeps through at points, but overall it is well-regarded among secular homeschoolers. The writing is clear and generally engaging, but it's intended as a grade-school curriculum, and covers too much material too quickly for 4-6 year olds to absorb: If you try to sit down and read it straight through to your younger child, I'm guessing you'll have at best a very fidgety audience. At worst, you'll make the whole study of history seem dry from the get-go. So I recommend using it selectively; I'll list the chapters we found most useful, which include this introductory chapter, which succinctly introduces the concepts of history and archeology.
Kate Duke, Archaeologists Dig for Clues
A group of children accompany their archaeologist friend on a dig at the site of a prehistoric village. Well-written overview of how archaeologists work, and how they use information from the tiniest artifacts to piece together theories about long-ago worlds. From the "Let's-Read-and-Find-Out-About Science" series.
Aliki, Fossils Tell of Long Ago
Solid, informative introduction to fossils by the great children's book writer and illustrator Aliki. While the writing in this book may not be as fluid or elegant as in some of her other books, she does a good job of conveying the information to a young audience.

If just being read these books doesn't send your kid out to dig in the nearest available patch of dirt, a gentle suggestion should be all that's required. If the ground is frozen, or you'd just like to have an indoor digging activity, you can make your own cornstarch tar pit. You don't need a recipe: Mix cornstarch with water and black washable tempera paint until the mixture seems appropriately is roughly what you might imagine would fill a tar pit. Sink small objects in the glop -- seashells, bottle caps, little plastic dinosaurs, whatever -- and provide a spoon or other tool with which to excavate. Yes, it will be gooey and messy, and also very fun.

Have other books or activities to recommend? Tips based on your own experience? Please share...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cute and Sneaky

My daughter does not take well to being corrected. Today I pointed out, nicely, that she had put her pants on backwards; she howled. A gentle suggestion that she, say, try holding her pencil differently can bring forth whimpers and tears.

Now, she used to draw her capital Rs the way some people might start drawing a little chick, by making a little circle with two lines coming down from it. Sweet, but illegible, unless you wanted to give it a beak and feathers and communicate through pictographs. Meanwhile, she was reversing so many other of her letters than I started looking up whether she might be showing signs of dyslexia.

So one day this summer, hoping it might help, I copied a few capital R handwriting worksheets and casually gave them to her. She's no dummy. She knew I was implicitly correcting her little-critter Rs, and she first grumbled, then sniffled, then melted into a puddle of tears.

Various homeschooling friends suggested, ever so gently, that perhaps I should just chill out and not worry about whether she was making her Rs correctly. She'd figure it out eventually. Their advice made a lot of sense, but I didn't want to give up.

An online friend generously passed along some Handwriting Without Tears materials, and reading through them, I found a brilliant technique for preventing or correcting reversals, on letters that included capital R. They call them "frog jump capitals": letters where you first make a top-to-bottom vertical line, then jump back up to continue. Get your child to make those initial moves correctly, and voila: no more reversals (or weird critters)!

Nini loves anything cute, especially cute animals. They already suggested using a "Magic C Bunny" puppet for letters that begin with a C stroke. So I dug out a frog puppet, told the kids his name was Hop Frog, and had him lead them in doing "hop frog letters" every day.

I made a point of keeping it brief and easy. Froggy would ask them to draw a line, hop up, and then make a D or an E. That is, some letter that had never made Nini sob.

After quite a few days of this, Froggy oh-so-casually suggested first a P, then an R. Happily and cheerfully, Nini drew lovely letters, with no memory of the summer's tears.

OK, I know I'm patting myself on the back here for tricking a 5-year-old. But it worked. Both kids look forward to their brief handwriting practice each day, and both are showing real improvement. And I'm reminding myself: keep it fun, keep it cute, and, if necessary, make it sneaky.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Meet the Ancient World: A Curriculum for the Very Young

One day last winter, when my twins were 4 1/2, they were fighting back exasperation as they explained to their obviously dense mother the differences between Radiator Springs McQueen and Cruising McQueen, two die-cast metal toy figures from the movie Cars. They could describe in great detail the different paint jobs and features each boasted, and could go on at length about when each appeared in the film.

Like many kids their age, Desmond and Nini had developed a fascination with the world of the Piston Cup and Radiator Springs. They had an encyclopedic knowledge of the movie's characters and personal histories and had developed the discernment to pick out small differences between the many diecast versions of each. The characters loomed large in their imagination and play life.

Well, I thought, if they can have this complex connection to Lightning McQueen, Doc Hudson, and Tow Mater, why not to Isis, Osiris, and Anubis? Or Zeus, Athena, and Aphrodite? At a time when they were so clearly eager to learn about the world around them, might it be possible to introduce them to its history in an age-appropriate and systematic way?

Over the weeks to come, I stayed up late nearly every night researching what resources were available to teach ancient history to the very young and sorting out what kind of approach I wanted to take. And over the months to come, as Nini and Desmond enthusiastically moved from one topic to the next -- dinosaurs, evolution, early humans, Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, the Old Testament, Ancient Greece -- I developed not just a great bibliography and set of resource lists, but also an approach that seemed to work extremely well for their age.

My research sample is of course tiny and unrepresentative -- early on, my friend Joanne Rendell and her son Benny decided to do the curriculum in tandem with us, meaning exactly three kids have tested it out. But I'm sharing it here in the hope that some of you will want to try it as well, and will post here about your experiences as you do, sharing new insights and resources.

Small children have no preconceptions about ancient history, no notion that it might be dry or remote or inaccessible. They also, however, have no real conception of time -- certainly not of millenia or centuries or even decades. Dates are meaningless to them, and all but the very vaguest chronologies impossible to grasp. Teaching ancient history to small children, in my experience, involves not trying to explain historical causation or even spending much time discussing historical change: It's a matter, instead, of making introductions to the marvelous, beautiful, and fascinating civilizations of long ago.

With each topic we explored, I read the kids piles of books, favoring well-illustrated picture books, and leaning less toward non-fiction than toward fiction -- either fictionalized accounts of the past such as, say, Jan Brett's The First Dog, or kids' versions of the myths and stories of a given civilization. We often found good films to watch in tandem with our reading and, living in New York City, we have been able to take marvelous field trips to institutions like the American Museum of Natural History or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I will detail these resources in each topic I address.

Early on, it became clear to me that the key element in the whole learning process was play -- lots and lots of open-ended, imaginative play. I could always tell that the material was sinking in when it came alive in their play. Where possible and practical, I acquired toys that tied into what we were studying: little plastic figures of Egyptian gods and goddesses, for instance, and architectural unit blocks for recreating Ancient Greece or Rome. Often, though, the kids repurposed existing toys to fit the theme: their assortment of vintage Fisher-Price Little People became the Greek gods and goddesses, while one of those plastic Barrels of Monkeys enabled them to build the monkey bridge to Lanka described in the Ancient Indian epic The Ramayana. Other times, we created toys or props for their play out of simple materials, as when they "excavated" a tar pit for "fossils"; or they made the world around them into their ancient-history stage, as when they built a mud Mesopotamia in the local park or transformed one three-foot-tall rock there into Mount Olympus.

As much as possible, we've followed this course of study with our friends Benny and Jo; it has greatly enriched the experience for all of us to have a history-themed get-together one or more times a week. Jo reports that Benny, who is a single child, engages in ancient history play much more avidly after these encounters.

Our pace has been quite leisurely; we stay on a topic until it feels right to move on, usually not until three to six weeks have passed. There are no worksheets, quizzes, or anything else that would add stress or drudgery to this study. The central goal here, above all, is the same as you might want from a social introduction: to leave a positive impression, to have the kids come away with a sense that these civilizations they are meeting are fascinating, that learning about them is fun.

If you achieve that, you'll meet another goal as well: helping your kids acquire a kind of basic, broad cultural literacy that will help them understand and navigate the world around them. Most people in my generation didn't get this kind of education; I certainly didn't, even though I attended excellent schools and read avidly throughout my life. No one thinks that your child will remember all she learned about the ancient world at age five when she reaches adulthood. But by acquainting her at an early age with cultural figures from Thoth to Moses to Ganesh, imparting a familiarity with Buddhism, the Bible, and Babylon, you'll soon see her finding references to these cultural basics everywhere and delighting in the experience.

Finally: We began this curriculum nearly a year ago, and I'm just now getting around to writing some of it down. Homeschooling twins often leaves me exhausted at the end of the day, with little time or energy to write. So it may be a while before I get it all down, and I will almost certainly jump back and forth between what we're doing now and earlier material. I hope you'll be inspired to give it a try -- it's been extraordinary fun, and I've learned at least as much as my kids have in the process.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Doing Kindergarten"

One cheesy "Welcome to Kindergarten" banner, two yellow streamers, and my grandmother's old school chairs: Voila! The official start of kindergarten!

It was pretty minimal folderol, but the kids were truly excited, eager to make this new beginning.

We "did kindergarten" for about an hour each day this week: some music, a drawing exercise or two, some quick handwriting practice, that sort of thing.

I had spent an inordinate amount of time over the summer researching what resources to use, and the ones I chose for this first week were mostly well-received. They particularly liked Mind Benders, a collection of deductive logic puzzles which I got even though it promotes itself as a standardized test-prep resource (barf). The teddy bear manipulatives were a bit problematic, on the other hand, because Nini liked them so much: From the moment she saw them, she pretty much wanted to drop everything else and play with them nonstop. And not in any use-the-cute-bears-as-a-sneaky-way-to-teach-math way, either, thank you very much.

A major part of me -- the unschooly, anarchist part, the part that is homeschooling so Nini and Desmond aren't subjected to the dreary academicism of contemporary kindergarten -- says, so what? They're five -- why shouldn't Nini just want to play with the bright plastic bears? But then there are competing voices in my head, the ones that remind me that I'm also homeschooling so my kids can be challenged in a way that neither Andrew or I ever was in school, and also do want them to learn to stick with a task even when they're distracted.

My mistake, I think, was to refer to the time we now spend together in the morning, sitting at that little red table or otherwise engaged in focused activities, as "doing kindergarten." For while I think they will be learning important things, both tangible and intangible, during that time, they're arguably learning so much more through the many other things that we and they do.

For outside of those few organized hours this week, we had many other splendid adventures and experiences. We're learning about Hinduism at the moment; we spent hours reading tales of Shiva and Parvati, Rama and Sita, and especially Ganesh. We visited the Met twice to search for images of these deities in the South Asian wing; we paid a visit to Little India in Queens, where the kids admired saris and ate ladoos. The kids even assembled a puzzle map of Asia (which then became a playground first for their toy vehicles and then, somewhat mysteriously, for their Egyptian god and goddess figurines).

We read piles of other books, too: sight-word readers that Nini will read out loud to me; somewhat harder books that Desmond now sails through; Beatrix Potter tales and stories about trains and classic fairy tales that I read out loud to the kids. We spent a long, lovely afternoon at a Central Park picnic with dozens of other homeschooled kids, who chased each other around in the sunshine, made forts in the woods, and dug in the dirt of chunks of mica. We went to the beach at Coney Island with their best friend, played with our new pet rabbits, visited the library. Oh yeah, and Nini and Desmond both played, a lot, with those little plastic bears.

The kids begged me not to take down the "Welcome to Kindergarten" sign yet, so it will stay up another week. We'll keep spending about an hour most days doing schooly sorts of things -- but I think I'll be searching for a new phrase to describe that part of our day.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

(Not the) First Day of School

For kids all around the country who attend school outside the home, this is the first week of classes. I remember well the thrill of packing up the school bag for that first day of class, the allure of brand-new school supplies and new back-to-school clothes, the anxiety-tinged excitement that accompanied stepping into a new classroom and meeting a new teacher.

Homeschooling means my kids will miss out on that.

In fact, it's pretty difficult to pinpoint what is, was, or will be our first day of school.

Is the first day of school today? We're visiting my mother in Richmond this week; we went to the Virginia Historical Society this morning, where the kids got to see a dugout canoe, a range of Powhatan Indian relics, and exhibits about early colonial Virginia. Desmond read me One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish when we got back, and Nini read me half a dozen little sight word readers. Later, we'll perhaps be finishing the book we've been reading about Jamestown, painting with watercolors, and playing Sight Word Soup.

Or was their first day of school yesterday, which officially was Labor Day? They helped my mom plant some flowers (science!), drew some pictures (art!), practiced writing some letters (handwriting!), read some books to us and had many books read to them (language arts!), and played for a long time in the pool (PE!).

Especially at this age -- 5 1/2 -- learning is interwoven all throughout our days, and is often indistinguishable from play. For us, school is a way of life, not a block of time. That's undoubtedly true for lots of families whose kids did start formal classes this week, who use the time they spend together at the beginnings and ends of the days and the end of the week for experiential and loosely structured learning, but it's especially true for homeschoolers.

But what about those shiny new pencils, and that first-day-of-school thrill? Even though my kids won't share in the experience of an official first day in a classroom outside of the home, I'm hoping to give them at least a taste of what it feels like to embark on an exciting new chapter in life.

We've been telling them for some time that they'll be starting kindergarten this fall, and I'm planning to mark it as a special occasion. My mom got them schoolbags and some fresh new school supplies; I'll make a "Welcome to Kindergarten!" sign for the wall and get out my grandmother's old school bell. We'll ring the bell and mark a new beginning ... one of these days.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Summer Learning

The County Fair has ended, the asters are in bloom, and my kids say they've noticed that the days are getting shorter. We still have a few weeks of summertime before we begin relocating back to Brooklyn and officially/unofficially begin homeschool kindergarten, but I'm beginning to think in a summing-up sort of way about what we've done and learned this summer.

We didn't end up spending all that much time in the garden, or very much time in the woods, and we didn't build anything new together for either place; it was cold and rainy the first half of the summer, and mosquitoey the second half. We did some hiking and played some in the river, but the soggy, buggy weather limited both activities to occasional outings.

Our play- and literature-based introduction to the ancient world (the great homeschool delight of the first half of 2009, which I hope to recap at some point)? We took a desultory look at Ancient Rome early in the summer, but nothing more. I brought bins of craft supplies up here from the city, and mostly didn't use them; had visions of nightly ball games in the meadow, to help with the kids' appalling inability to throw or catch, but ended up playing with them only a few times.

Instead, we became regulars at the town pool, both for swimming classes and for open swim; we found a free craft class in the park, and the kids attended a drop-off program at the local library. After a decade of coming to this remote Catskills location and knowing only some local tradespeople and a few close neighbors, the kids and I suddenly made the acquaintance of all sorts of people around town. Desmond, who doesn't have Nini's enviable social grace, developed a new confidence around other kids and grown-ups. Nini experienced social awkwardness for the first time.

There's much more, of course. Desmond has been zipping through early readers at a fabulous rate, building elaborate block and Tinker Toy structures, and drawing a great deal. Until recently, Nini was the 5-Year-Old with the Supercharged Vocabulary and Stunning Command of the Subjunctive Voice who could not read a single word -- not even "STOP" on a stop sign. She became entranced first with the Meet the Sight Words movies and then with the itty bitty first readers I've been making for her, featuring her favorite stuffed animals. They've both been singing more and managing their emotions better and doing vastly better at things like getting themselves dressed and picking up their toys.

They've had a lot of fun, and done a lot of growing up. And though they both are still really lame at throwing or catching a ball, they will proudly tell you that this summer, they learned how to swim.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Two-Month Summer?

Yesterday was the last day of the school year for public school kids where I live. That's right: The poor things were stuck in school until June 26.

OK, maybe that doesn't seem so remarkable to you, but I'm old enough to remember when the school year went from just after Labor Day to just after Memorial Day, and summer was three blissful months long.

Kindergarten, back in these ancient times, was a half-day affair: three hours in either the morning or the afternoon. You made friends, played with blocks and dress ups, had show'n'tell, played on the playground, sang some songs ... and went home, where you played some more.

Maybe you can still find kindergartens like that somewhere. But more are like my neighborhood public school: Five-year-olds stuck in classrooms for a full day, expected mainly to sit at desks and either listen quietly or do worksheets. Recess is brief and often inside. And play time? As the "gifted and talented" kindergarten teacher at the school explained it to me, "Well, the children have a half hour of 'choice time' at the end of the day, if they get through all their academics first. And we find that keeps them very on task all day long."

Well, humbug to that. And humbug to full-day school for five-year-olds, and a ten-month school year for anyone. We'll be opting out of official kindergarten and doing it ourselves instead, thank you very much ... and this blog will report back on how it goes.