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?"

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