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.