Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Counting by 10s

We've started skip counting recently, and I found that our bin of battered, miscellaneous Hot Wheels made the perfect teaching tool.

The technique was easy as pie: Put stickers on the cars, and give them to the kids to play with. In this case, I labeled the cars by 10s. I gave the kids a jumbled pile and asked them to sort them out in order. Then I'd take a car or two out of the line-up and ask them what was missing. Finally, I'd pull out a car or two and ask them what car would come before or after if they were counting by 10s.

They caught on very quickly, and not surprisingly, were soon playing these simple games on their own. When they're ready, I'm planning to do the same for counting by 5s, this time using the plastic counting bears.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Egypt (Meet the Ancient World 5)

Ah, Ancient Egypt ... what a delight! Pyramids, mummies, stunning art and captivating mythology: The material is so rich that you may want to linger on this unit for a good long time -- and return to the topic often.

There are also tons and tons of great resources for introducing Ancient Egypt to young kids. I've only listed our favorites.


Both Story of the World and the Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia (discussed in previous units) contain useful introductions to this topic. You could fill whole shelves with children's books about Ancient Egypt -- just find the appropriate section at your local library and you're sure to turn up something good. This short list highlights those that worked best for us.

Henry Barker, Egyptian Gods and Goddesses
This early reader provides a clear, well-illustrated introduction to Ancient Egyptian mythology, with a lovely account of the soul's journey to the afterlife. It was a huge hit with my kids, who must have acted out the Weighing of the Heart a dozen times. Highly recommended.

Twelve Egyptian dieties are introduced in this volume, which is sadly out of print but not super difficult to find. The bright, bold illustrations are eye-catching and appealing.

Jacqueline Morley, Egyptian Myths
Wonderful compilation of Egyptian myths, also out of print, alas. The haunting, ancient tales of Osiris, Isis, Set, Horus, and more are presented through compelling text. Some of these stories are violent and may disturb particularly sensitive children, but the stories are so marvelous and make such a wonderful introduction to ancient mythology that I strongly recommend tracking it down.

Shirley Climo and Ruth Heller, The Egyptian Cinderella
This picture book retells the original Cinderella tale, first written down in first century B.C. Greece by the historian Strabo. In it, a young Greek girl named Rhodopis is kidnapped and made a slave in Egypt; because of her talent as a dancer, her master gives her a beautiful pair of dainty slippers, and the story proceeds from there.

Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen, Ms. Frizzle's Adventures: Ancient Egypt
Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame joins a tour group on a trip to modern-day Egypt, and with the help of her magic time machine, leads the group back to ancient times. The goofy premise and cartoon-style illustrations have great kid appeal.

Miles Harvey, Look What Came from Egypt
Colorful guide for children to the many inventions and innovations of the ancient Egyptians.


Ancient Civilizations for Children: Ancient Egypt
Another video from the Schlessinger ancient history for kids series I discussed in the Mesopotamia unit, featuring faux-archeologist Arizona Smith. The film is short and the VHS format antiquated, but this series works well for young kids, so it's worth trying inter-library loan if you can't find it locally.

Reading Rainbow: Mummies Made in Egypt
Sorry -- it's another tricky-to-track-down VHS, this time from the beloved 1980s/1990s kids' TV series Reading Rainbow.

National Geographic's Mysteries of Egypt
Yep -- yet another one on VHS. But it's Omar Sharif! Sitting at the base of a pyramid and opining majestically about Ancient Egypt to an ersatz granddaughter! The camp value for grown-ups is reason enough to seek this one out; the story-told-to-a-sweet-moppet framing appeals to young kids. (Please, dear readers, if you know of good films for kids about Ancient Egypt that are actually available on DVD, post a comment below.)


As with any of these ancient history studies, you can encourage Egypt-themed play at little or no cost. We mummified a little man cut from a potato, wrapped the kids' baby dolls in toilet paper, built a pyramid from a cardboard box, and made a scale of justice using a coat hanger and two small plastic cups. (Yes, that's Desmond as the goddess Maat, holding the Feather of Truth.) There are a couple of different books of Egypt activities for kids that can give you more ideas and detailed instructions.

But if you're going to make one purchase for this unit, I strongly encourage you to get a set of little Egyptian play figures. The easiest-to-find is the Ancient Egypt Toob from Safari, which includes Anubis, Thoth, Isis, and a Bastet cat -- many toy stores carry it.

If your budget allows, there are all sorts of other wonderful Egypt-themed playthings, including a wide array of excavation kits and a full line of fabulous toys from Playmobil, like the really cool pharaoh's temple my sister gave the kids last Christmas. There are card games and flash cards and puzzles and even a modern-day version of the ancient game of Senet that's easy enough for five-year-olds to play. Our oh-so-worth-it splurge was the awesome wooden pyramid-building set from Haba, which functions both as a construction puzzle and as a backdrop for play.

With all the great Egypt material available, I'm sure I've missed something I shouldn't have. Please share your favorite resources and activities in the comments section below.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Our Fall Semester

The new year is upon us, and I'm thinking back about how our kindergarten fall went, and forward to what our spring will be.

We developed a consistent, relaxed rhythm to our days all fall. Each weekday morning, at sometime between 10:00 and 11:00, we'd "do kindergarten." Despite my early qualms about labeling the brief structured part of our day that way, the phrasing stuck, and that was okay.

We'd spend somewhere around an hour -- usually a bit less, occasionally a bit more -- sitting at a table together. We'd start with a piece of story paper. First, the kids would practice handwriting, as we slowly worked our way through the upper-case alphabet, and then they'd draw a picture of their choosing. At first, I had them using #2 pencils and ordinary colored pencils, but I realized quickly that they didn't have the hand strength yet to make firm impressions with them, so we switched to crayons.

Next we'd often do something gently mathematical, like one or two Mind Benders puzzles or an activity with pattern blocks. Many days, we'd tackle a small art project, like painting the horizon, and we'd usually do some musical activity -- playing rhythm sticks or singing along to my guitar, that sort of thing. That was it.

Well, that wasn't it at all: They spent hours and hours playing, both with friends and on their own. We read mountains of books. We made lots of trips to the library and the zoos and museums. We hiked in the country and explored in the city.

But that brief time each morning was the extent of our formal, structured schooling. And with just a couple months of it, I've noticed changes in several areas. They weren't much for drawing before -- I think they felt unsure of themselves -- but little by little, they've been gaining both confidence and skill. Now they love bringing little sketchbooks along when we go on outings. Their hand strength and handwriting have improved tremendously, and they're ready to move on to lower-case letters.

There's a less tangible but more important shift, too, that's not that easy to articulate. We've chosen to homeschool our kids in significant part because we want them to have many more opportunities for free play and informal learning than they would in the foolishly academicized setting of many kindergartens today. And yet, there's something about these small but consistent doses of more formal learning that has given them a new sense of themselves as active, focused learners. As people who have worked steadily on something they found challenging and felt themselves progress.

It would be so easy to overdo. I watch carefully for when they seem tired or drained, when the activity we're tackling seems like too much, and I back off. For now, at least, they answer with an enthusiastic yes every time I ask them, "Hey guys, do you want to do kindergarten?"