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.