Friday, March 19, 2010

Spring Break

Spring hit NYC big time this week. So with the outdoors calling and the time change making us a bunch of laggards, it seemed like a good idea to take the week off from our kindergarten routine. Isn't part of homeschooling's appeal, after all, that it allows you the flexibility to make -- and change -- your schedule at will?

We'd just had ten incredible consecutive weeks. Something shifted over the winter holidays and with the advent of the New Year, it was clear that Nini and Desmond were eager to tackle new challenges. Having learned how to write the upper-case alphabet properly over the course of the fall, they wanted to master the lower-case alphabet in much less time. They were curious about math in a new way, more interested in drawing, and just generally itchy to learn.

The amount of time we spent on formal kindergarten didn't change much -- it was still only about an hour -- but they were much more focused than they had been in the fall. It blew me away to watch them enthusiastically puzzling out how to spell a list of three-letter words, the gears in their little brains turning almost visibly. Their foreheads would wrinkle as they worked out new problems, and you could see their sense of pride when they suddenly understood something that had stumped them before. They'd get all excited when I pulled out a new game to play -- say, using cards to make silly sentences once they knew what nouns, verbs, and adjectives were -- and having learned something one week, would happily pronounce it easy the next. We covered an enormous amount of ground in a very short time.

Then, this Monday, it was as if a switch had been tripped. Our schedule was thrown off by the time shift and they were all foot-draggy and bleary, so we skipped kindergarten on Monday for the first time in months. A spell of gorgeous weather began on Tuesday, and they began spending their mornings in the back yard, making "bunny cakes" for our pet rabbits and digging in the dirt. We tried doing outdoor kindergarten on Tuesday, but I could tell their hearts weren't really in it.

I'd like to report that we went on to have a blissful week playing in the sunshine, reveling in the lazy and structureless days. But I can't. There were some lovely moments in the week: making milk carton boats and sailing them in an enormous puddle, encountering crocuses and basking pond turtles and other harbingers of spring, meeting up with friends to explore and play.

But this week was also awfully bumpy, with more conflict than we've had in a while. It wasn't at all like a proper vacation, when Andrew is with us and either the four of us are adventuring together or I'm getting some actual time off. It was just a kind of kicking-around week -- not terrible, but not really satisfying either.

I'm not entirely sure what went wrong this week, but I suspect the sudden lack of routine had a fair amount to do with it. The time the kids and I spend together around the kindergarten table each weekday morning anchors our day; it's highly focused togetherness that seems to fill up their tanks emotionally, often making them more resilient and independent throughout the later parts of the day. So maybe this week should have been Game Week, where we spent that daily hour playing games together, or Do Art Projects in the Sunshine Week, or some other something that respected their need for a break but retained enough of our routine to keep us all from feeling off-kilter.

It's supposed to be gloomy and rainy on Monday, and I've told the kids that the puppets miss them and we'll resume kindergarten then. I don't know if they'll be as gung-ho as they were in the dead of winter, and if not, I'm prepared to shift our kindergarten activities accordingly. And the next time we take a spontaneous break, I'll just need to, well, plan it better.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ode to Coloursoft

With kids' art supplies, as with tools of all sorts, I've often heard the mantra, "Get the best you can afford." I always assumed that meant you should, say, buy the name-brand crayons instead of the dollar-store ones, the latter being so crappy that they're not even worth the buck you spend on them.

I'd been noticing all last fall that Nini and Desmond didn't have the hand strength to make firm marks with regular colored pencils. We used crayons for a while, but they make such wide lines that they weren't that useful for the kids' developing interest in drawing.

Then I wandered into an art story one day and discovered the miracle of Derwent Coloursoft pencils. Not having had any art training to speak of, I had no idea that pencils could be so extraordinary. The silky lines! The vivid colors! The rich tones!

The pencil set at the art store was jaw-droppingly expensive, but after hunting around on eBay I eventually found one for less than $20 and gave it to the kids for Christmas. The effect was almost instantaneous: Nini and Desmond drew more and better pictures, had more stamina for drawing, and seemed to be getting far more pleasure out of the whole experience.

Three months later, they draw on their own nearly every day. Their hands are much stronger; when they pick up a regular pencil, be it a #2 writing pencil or a regular drawing pencil, they make nice strong impressions on the paper. They've loved the pencils so much that many of them are already worn way down. Funny how simple things can make you happy: When I look at that well-used tin of pencils, I break into a smile.