Preschool Years at Home

Laughing, Loving, and Learning Together

The Mess, er Magic, of Discovery

Our solar system study complete, I pulled all the asteroids, meteorites, planets, astronauts, and satellites out of our sensory bin and set the tub of water beads and crystals in the kitchen to dry. The kitchen is the one room of our apartment that is gated and, therefore, beyond the reach of little hands.

… except, of course, if Mommy forgets to shut the gate.

If Mommy forgets to shut the gate, she can rest assured that Baby Bear will discover that oversight. And if there’s anything messy or with the slightest potential to become messy, Baby Bear will avail herself of the opportunity while exploring virgin territory.

“1000 water beads on the floor …”

In case anyone wonders, a gallon of water beads doesn’t seem like a lot when the aforementioned beads are all confined to the bottom of a plastic tub. In the hands of a toddler, however, they multiply like the biblical loaves and fishes.

I discovered my oversight in short order. (More than 30 seconds of silence sets off Mama Bear’s internal alarm system.) But Baby Bear was having such a good time that I decided to let her keep playing. It had been a long day, and she was happily occupied — not screaming, clinging, or trying to destroy the Duplo barn her older sister was in the process of building. After all, I reasoned, how much of a mess could water beads possibly make?

Ten minutes of play and 20 minutes of clean-up later I had the answer to that question. For the record, water beads and linoleum are not a great combination. They’re like marbles — wet, tiny marbles that shoot out of one’s fingers and dissolve into dozens of tiny, sticky pieces when accidentally stepped on.

On the up side, Baby Bear got a great hands-on physics lesson as she experimented with matter in motion.

Nobody ever said exploration and discovery were neat, tidy processes!

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A Lesson in Readiness

Success!

I’m typing with one hand tonight and feverishly scratching mosquito bites with the other. Why? Because a certain Little Bear wanted to ride and ride and ride her bicycle this evening while Mommy sat outside watching … and donating blood to the local vermin.

Now, most people of normal intelligence would have probably been driven inside by the horde of bloodsuckers. But I’ve been waiting nearly a year and a half to see my little girl pedal up and down that sidewalk, and I wasn’t about to put a stop to her fun tonight.

You see, I made the mistake of looking at a child development chart a couple of years ago and deciding that my child should learn to peddle a tricycle or bicycle some time between her second and third birthday. I watched sale prices for months and scored the tricycle of my dreams — a big, shiny, red Radio Flyer — for Little Bear’s third Christmas.

… only to discover that Little Bear wasn’t really interested in big, red, shiny tricycles. Oh, she’d sit on it happily enough. She’d even push it around the house and use it as a makeshift step stool to reach stuff we didn’t really want her reaching. But she simply did not get the concept of pedaling it, and even more disconcertingly, she seemed to have no interest in learning.

I modeled. I encouraged. I cajoled. I attempted to bribe her.

When her third birthday came and went and she still showed no interest in actually pedaling her tricycle, I finally resorted to threatening. (After all, I couldn’t stand the idea that my child was “behind.”)

“If you don’t start riding your tricycle like a big girl, I’m going to put it on Craigslist and sell it to someone whose child will actually use it,” I warned her.

“Ok,” she responded nonchalantly.

Worse yet, she rolled out of bed the next morning, walked into the living room, and asked, “Have you found anybody who wants my tricycle yet?”

With some reluctance, I posted the thing on Craigslist, and it sold within a day. I feared that she would be sad to see it leave, but she wasn’t. I feared that she would soon miss it, but she didn’t. In fact, she never mentioned it again.

We went without any ride-on toys for a few months, until her father found a pink princess bike at a consignment sale. Surely that would entice her to ride, he reasoned.

It didn’t. Oh, she loved her new bike. She loved to sit on it. She loved to be pushed along on it. She would even occasionally put her feet on the ground and scoot herself along on it. But pedal it? No way. Within a few weeks, her bike was parked in the bike rack near our apartment and practically forgotten.

… until last month when one of her playmates rolled past our door on his bicycle and called out, “Hey, look at me! Look what I can do!”

Over the next few days, Little Bear would stand at the window or sit outside watching him ride. Occasionally, she’d get on his bike and try to pedal. Once in a while, she even succeeded. Finally, she turned to me and said, “Mommy, I wish I had a bike.”

“You do,” I reminded her.

Daddy Bear cleaned her bike up, restored it to good working order, and presented it to her a second time. This time, though, instead of trying to make her ride it, we simply made it available to her. If she pedaled it 10 feet or rode for two minutes before running off to do something else, that was her choice. There was no pressure. Yet with no pressure, no cajoling, and precious little adult intervention, she taught herself to do something I hadn’t been able to teach her in all those earlier months of pushing her.

I delighted in watching my little girl zip up down the sidewalk tonight, in hearing the confidence in her voice as she cried “Mommy, look at me!” But while she learned to pedal a bicycle, I learned a much bigger lesson.

The “experts” did not create my child. They did not birth her. They do not live with her. They are not rearing her. They have not observed her. And quite frankly, they have no interest in her. While they may be able to document developmental norms, my child is not bound by those norms. Some things she’ll do well ahead of the norms, such as rolling over within her first two weeks of life. Some, she’ll do right on target, like walking at 12 months. Others, she’ll do later than average (and in some instances — like sleeping through the night — much later than average).

My task as her mother is to love her and guide her into becoming the person she is meant to be, nurturing and encouraging her all along the way. In due time, in her own time, she’ll develop the skills she needs, just as she’s learned to walk, talk, and yes, ride a bicycle.

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Math Before Breakfast

Arithmetic, geometry, and fun!

Little Bear rolled out of bed this morning eager to start the day. After some good morning snuggles and a story to start the day, she pulled her Konstruk Tubes off the shelf, dug the project guide out of the canister, and flipped through it. A few minutes later she walked into the office, booklet in hand.

“Mommy, doesn’t this look like a clubhouse?” she asked?

I glanced at the picture she was holding and had to agree that the hipped roof structure looked very much like the clubhouse at our apartment complex.

“What pieces do I need to build it?” she asked.

Each project in the booklet includes a grid that shows how many of each type of rods and connectors are needed to construct the project. I showed her how to read the grid, then asked, “Do you want me to help you?”

“No,” she replied. “I want to do it all by myself!”

As she walked out of the room, I looked at my husband and said, “And that would be our math lesson for today!”

At first glance, she was “just playing.” But as she plopped down in the midst of 144 tubes and connectors to begin her chosen project, she had to identify the pieces she needed — matching, sorting, and comparing at its finest. She had to count out the correct number of pieces — basic arithmetic. She had to manipulate angled connectors to assemble the rods into a three-dimensional shape — geometry in action. She had to read and follow a pattern. And when her first attempt didn’t yield the result she was after, she had to step back, assess her work, find her error, and correct it.

She was indeed playing, but in the process, she was using more math skills than she would have used to complete any preschool or kindergarten worksheet. She was working not to please a teacher, get a good grade, or earn a gold star, but rather to accomplish a task of her own choosing. She worked diligently, persevering through difficulties until she reached her goal. Then came the cry of success:

“Mommy! Daddy! I did it! Look at what I made!”

She went out to point out the squares and triangles in her design, to compare her clubhouse’s height to her sister’s height, to see how many stuffed animals she could fit inside … more math in action, more meaningful learning based on real life experiences.

I guess I could have pulled a math book off the shelf and had her start the day tracing the number 4, printing a row of 4’s, and coloring all the groups of 4, but thankfully I didn’t. I’m pretty sure she learned more “just playing,” and I know she had more fun!

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First Art

There’s something about the word “free” that draws me like a mosquito to a bug zapper. So when I heard about Crayola’s My First Crayola summer contest, I dutifully filled out the entry form … and promptly forgot about it. …

Until today. When FedEx showed up at the door with a box bearing the Crayola logo. DH asked whether to open it in front of the girls or put it up for later, and I shrugged my shoulders in genuine confusion. “I haven’t ordered anything,” I replied. Then, I remembered the contest.

“But I did enter a contest on their Facebook page last month,” I continued. “You know, one of those contests where you fill out the entry form and never hear anything more about it?”

He handed me the package and allowed, “Well, I guess you just heard more about it.”

We didn’t win the $1,000 Amazon gift card they awarded as a grand prize, but we did get a cute little My First Crayola No Mess Marker and Paper Set. Baby Bear immediately began clamoring for the marker (which looked like a cow), so I handed it to her. It took a couple of minutes for her to understand that it was to draw with — not to chew, toss, or hammer with. But once she understood its purpose, she promptly put her new tool to work:

Little artist

I have to say that this product is probably not one I would have purchased had I simply seen it in a store. It’s comprised of one solitary marker and 15 sheets of paper, and it retails for $7.99. Something in my admittedly cheap frugal genetic make-up rebels at the thought of spending roughly $0.60 per page after tax so that my 14-month-old can scribble. But after seeing my child actually use this product, I may well consider purchasing a replacement in the future (especially if it’s on sale!). She loved it. She was overjoyed to be coloring like her big sister. And I loved the fact that she could scribble to her heart’s content without getting marker anywhere other than on the specially-designed paper.

Thanks to Crayola for putting art within the reach of even the youngest children!

Baby Bear’s first drawing

 

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Fun in the Sun — and Out

With triple digit weather in full swing, we woke the girls earlier than usual this morning and headed to the park for some fun in the early morning sun. Baby Bear, our little sun lover, literally hit the ground running:

Little Explorer

The girls enjoyed the swings …

… and Little Bear obligingly seesawed with Baby Bear …

More than anything else, though, the girls simply enjoyed running and playing in the great outdoors — observing a family of baby prairie dogs, climbing trees, playing in the sand.

Little climber

Back at home, Little Bear built a MagnaTile house for her Melissa & Doug Wooden Family Doll Set. She drew on her MagnaDoodle and created a pony sticker mosaic. She completed cutting, paper-folding, and pasting activities in her Kumon First Steps workbooks while Baby Bear slept. We also played a memory game, reviewed numbers 1-23, and built patterned Duplo towers.

A late afternoon storm kept us from enjoying our usual pool time, but the cubs enjoyed watching the rain from the windows and splashing in the puddles it left behind. With more storm clouds gathering, they reluctantly headed in to eat dinner, take baths (and fingerpaint with shaving cream in the tub), build a Duplo grocery store, and share bedtime stories.

Tonight’s read-alouds included:

… and a couple of stories from The Lion Storyteller Bedtime Book. All in all, it was a day of active fun and a day of learning. The girls followed their hearts and followed directions. They cultivated their minds and their imaginations. What could be better?

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Bits and Pieces

With package after package of new educational goodies arriving these days, it’s hard to say who’s more excited — the girls or their Mommy! Our Timberdoodle Co. order arrived this past Friday, and both girls zeroed in on a tin of Heat Sensitive Thinking Putty. Little Bear is a sensory seeker, so I expected her to love having a tin of bouncy, stretchy, color-changing goo in her favorite colors. What I hadn’t counted on, however, was Baby Bear’s fascination with the stuff. The container alone captivated her, and once she figured out how to empty it of its contents, there was no stopping her! I stepped out of the bathroom one recent morning to be greeted by this scene:

Good clean fun!

She’d gotten the tin off one of the school shelves, taken it to the desk, opened it, pried the putty out, and started playing with it in less than two minutes of unsupervised “freedom.” She played independently for at least 15 more minutes (no small feat for a 14-month-old!) before reluctantly allowing me to pry it out of her hands so that we could go bye-bye. Thankfully, the tin holds 3 1/2 ounces of putty — plenty to entertain both girls and at least one parent.

I have to admit, the color-changing properties of this substance are less spectacular than I had hoped. The girls, however, have been so busy stretching it, squishing it, squeezing it, and shaping it that they haven’t even noticed the color variations (or lack thereof).

My overall rating? At least 4.5/5 stars. I can’t quite bring myself to give it that fifth star since you pretty much have to refrigerate to see more than minimal color changes, but it will be on our homeschool supply list for years to come.

We also got our Rainbow Resource Center order this week and dug through it this morning. Among other things, I picked up a magnetic tile and tray set to accompany our much-used Mighty Mind design cards. Little Bear couldn’t wait to try them out and create some freestyle magnetic art on her easel:

“Who’s the best Mighty Mind artist around here?”

Mighty Mind is easily a 5-star product in my book (so much so that I already have Mighty Mind Challenger and Super Mind waiting in the wings). The addition of the magnetic tiles and board make a great product even better.

Magnetic Mosaic

Along with new tools, we’ve also been pulling some older items out of the closet and putting them to good use. Little Bear got the Orb Factory My First Picture Maker for Christmas, but one whiff of the magnetic foam design tiles that came with it sent me gasping for fresh air. I broke the tiles apart, spread them out in the box so that they could air out, put the box out of reach of little hands, and promptly forgot about it … for six and a half months. I finally noticed it again yesterday, gave it the sniff test, and happily observed that the reeking chemical smell was gone.

Little Bear was eager to try it, so I set her up with the first pattern card in the deck. She worked alone for about 20 minutes before getting frustrated and asking for help. The magnetic backing on the foam mosaic tiles is quite weak, and the slightest bump was enough to displace them. Digging through a bag of 300 tiles to find the ones she needed was also a bit daunting. Inevitably, every time she’d turn to hunt for tiles, she’d bump her project and skew half the tiles she’d already positioned. In the end, I dug out tiles while she positioned them, and she finished the task happily enough. She said that she liked this product, but not as much as sticker mosaic kits made by the same company because, in her words,  “the stickers stay where you put them.”

I was admittedly a bit disappointed by this product. On the one hand, I love the idea and versatility. It comes with 20 reusable pattern cards which challenge kids to match tiles by color, number, and letters. It also has great potential for free play. The magnetic tiles are rather flimsy, though. Five of them lost their glittery top layer during the first play session, and we were handling them gently. The pattern cards are also quite thin — similar in weight and feel to glossy fingerpainting paper. Laminating them for added longevity isn’t really an option due to the weakness of the magnets in the magnetic tiles. Last but not least, the chemical off-gasing concerns me. Yes, the odor has decreased with time, but I don’t typically expose my children to chemicals that leave me gasping for air.

Overall rating? 3.5/5. We’ll probably get a decent amount of use out of this product, but I wouldn’t order it again.

So what else has our week been filled with? Lots of reading and lots of time in the pool, a few games, daily fine motor work, Duplo zoo building, Magnatile farm building, and Konstruk Tube rocket building … lazy summer fun with a purpose!

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Little Writer

My child who loathes handwriting practiced handwriting for nearly two hours today. Yes, it’s Saturday. No, I didn’t make her write. In fact, I didn’t even suggest it. She picked up her MagnaDoodle, drew for a few minutes, then decided to write her name.

“Oops! I made a mistake!” I heard her say to herself. “I need to erase and try again.”

It took her a few tries to get all the letters of her name on one line of her MagnaDoodle, but she kept writing, erasing, and trying again until she got it just the way she wanted in. Then, she looked up and asked, “Mommy, how do you spell {my baby sister’s name}?” I spelled it for her, and she repeated the write, erase, re-write process. Then, she moved on to my name and her father’s name.

About the time she finished, she decided that she should include a family picture along with our names, but the writing surface of her MagnaDoodle was full. Without a second thought, she erased the names she’d so carefully written, drew a picture of her family and started again. She soon discovered, however, that she couldn’t fit all of our names on the board with her picture, so she erased everything and started from scratch a third time, all without a word of complaint.

To an outsider, writing four names several times over might not sound like much. But this is my child who has cried over being asked to write a single row of numbers in a math book, who has complained time and again that writing letters in her phonics book was “just too hard” — and she was writing happily.

After finishing and showing off her work, she erased and wrote our names a fourth time.

Eventually, Baby Bear awoke from her afternoon nap, and Little Bear set her MagnaDoodle aside for a couple of hours while we played in the pool with friends. After a bath and a snack, though, she sat down to write our names a fifth time.

Was her writing perfect? No, her S’s were backwards, and she mixed uppercase and lowercase letters. But she was writing — working to the best of her ability and doing it solely because she wanted to. What a joy to see my little girl embrace new challenges in her own time!

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Of Dinosaurs and Dress-Up

“Mommy, will you play a game with me?”

Not being a morning person, those aren’t really the first words I want to hear in the morning … especially when I’ve been awakened half a dozen times during the too-short night by a grumpy teething toddler.

“We’ll talk about it later,” I mumbled. “Right now, I’m trying to get your sister back to sleep.”

Little Bear sighed deeply. “I’ll just go into the living room and wait for you,” she said.

A couple of minutes later she was back at the door. “Mommy, is it OK if I just play a game all by myself since you’re busy taking care of {Baby Bear}?” she asked.

*Insert Mommy Guilt here.*

“That’s fine,” I told her. But I eased a then-sleeping Baby Bear out of my arms and into bed, dressed quickly, and headed into the living room to play with my sweet older girl.

… only to find that her game of choice was none other than Fancy Nancy’s Ooh-La-La Tea Party. Sigh. … At some point during her tween or teen years, she’s probably going to try the “You don’t love me!” drama card. And when she does, I’m simply going to say, “Do you think I would have played Fancy Nancy’s Ooh-La-La Tea Party with a child I didn’t love?”

It’s really not an awful game — for a 4-year-old. In fact, it’s much better than, say, Candy Land (which I pawned off on some other hapless parent a couple of consignment sales ago). But it’s very much a game for 3- and 4-year-olds and very much my least favorite of all the kid games currently on our shelves. (Unfortunately for me, it involves both Fancy Nancy and Colorforms, making it one of Little Bear’s favorites.) On the plus side, it’s quick. We managed to play 2 rounds in less than 15 minutes, much to Little Bear’s delight. Then I headed into the kitchen to fix a much-needed cup of coffee.

Little trumpeter

After breakfast (and more importantly, caffeine), the girls played dress-up, then pulled out their noisemakers toy musical instruments while I cleaned house. Next, it was time to read.

We’d read a couple of Magic Tree House books a few months ago, and at the time, they didn’t seem to capture Little Bear’s interest. As we were swimming yesterday, though, she suddenly suggested that we pretend the pool was a magical tree house and that we were Jack and Annie. This morning, she asked if we could read the series from the beginning. So I pulled Dinosaurs Before Dark off the shelf, and we sat down to begin reading the series “from the beginning.” Little Bear climbed up in my lap, and we read the entire book from cover to cover in a single sitting. No sooner had I closed the finished book than she was off my lap and headed for the office.

“I’ll get the next book in the series, Mommy!” she informed me.

Thankfully, Mommy’s voice was spared by an impromptu play date. After a bit of fun with friends, the girls and I headed to the pool for a late morning swim. Little Bear chose to swim without her swim vest this morning and once again braved the deep end of the pool. She’s far from being a proficient swimmer, but she’s certainly managing to get around! As usual, we couldn’t just swim. We had to scoop up and examine insects, play “I Spy,” count the birds we saw flying overhead, toss around an octopus squirt toy, jump across the pool with the octopus balanced on our heads, and more. Suffice it to say, Little Bear does not lack creativity!

After a late lunch, Baby Bear took a nap, while Little Bear watched a couple of episodes of Ni Hao Kai Lan. Little Bear also spent some time drawing, coloring, and using picture cards as a springboard to make up stories. Then, Baby Bear awoke, and we headed back outside where Little Bear practiced riding her bike.

The heat soon drove us back inside, and the girls played dress-up and drew on their MagnaDoodles while I got dinner started. Just as I finished in the kitchen, one of our neighbors knocked on the door and asked if the girls could play outside. So we braved the heat for a third time. … After a good half hour of riding bikes, trikes, scooters, and other ride-ons, Little Bear wanted to play pirates. Baby Bear, of course, had to get in on the act also.

“Ahoy, mates!”

Little buccaneer

Eventually, the parents tired of the heat, and we again retreated to the pool where half a dozen kids, all 4 and under, played until the sun faded.

By 8:40, an exhausted Little Bear was fast asleep, and Baby Bear soon followed. Now, here’s hoping they stay that way until morning!

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In Lieu of Pre-Kindergarten …

As we venture into the world of unschooling, even I get excited when I see our school shelves overflowing with fun-filled opportunities for learning. In lieu of textbooks or formal curriculum, here are a few of the resources we’ll be using:

Math and Logic:

… and more. Amazon limited me to 10 items per carousel, and I wrestled to choose the 10 most fun, versatile, and age-appropriate items I could find. In reality, math makes its way into virtually everything we do — counting apples and bananas at the supermarket, charting the girls’ growth, measuring milk to add to muffins, keeping score in a game, or comparing prices on second-hand books.

Language and Literacy:

… along with books, books, and more books. We do have a few beginning readers on the shelf these days since Little Bear recently discovered My World: Now I’m Reading! and happily began reading through them on her own. She also enjoys reading through titles in the Brand New Readers series with a little assistance. As a rule, though, she’d far rather listen to “real” books than subject herself to the plotless narratives and mediocre artwork of beginning readers. And so we read, day in and day out, delighting in the beautifully illustrated stories of Elisa Kleven, enjoying the humor of Jack Prelutsky, relishing classic tales retold and beautifully illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, and feasting on the timeless writings of authors such as E.B. White and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

People and Places

Although history was one of my favorite subjects in school, the topic seemed a bit deep for a 1- and 4-year-old. Little Bear is currently fascinated with countries and cultures, thanks in large part to two lift-the-flap books (Animals Around the World and People Around the World) we’ve acquired over the past year. Over the next year, I’m hoping that we can go on a “virtual” tour of the world, reading stories from different cultures, sampling international cuisine, watching video clips, and of course, reading about lands and people groups.

Science

… to be supplemented with observation, experimentation, and nature studies galore. When you have a child who notices (and questions) everything, it’s impossible *not* to teach science through daily life.

Fine Motor Skills

Little Bear still struggles a bit with motor control, especially fine motor skills. I faced the same issues as a child and never want my little girl to feel like I felt when all the other first graders made fun of my coloring or my third-grade teacher made me spend recess after recess sitting inside with the “bad” kids and practicing cursive. Little Bear is a fantastic little girl no matter what her handwriting looks like. But any creative, open-ended toy that offers painless opportunity for her to hone her motor skills is money well-spent in my book.

Last but not least, there’s The Workbook Shelf:

I’ve gone back and forth over whether to have a workbook shelf, and I know that the use of workbooks is hotly debated among unschoolers. Little Bear, however, likes workbooks. We can do half a dozen activities, but if she doesn’t have something to take to her desk and do on her own, she doesn’t feel like she’s “done school.” So I’ve pulled together a collection of simple, inexpensive workbooks that she can do when and as she chooses. A few will help her review basic academic skills, but most focus on motor development. Could we do without these? Sure, but when you have a child who LOVES cutting, coloring, pasting, paper-folding, stickers, and such, ready-to-go, full-color activities that cost less than a nickel apiece seem like a bargain. Add in a tub filled with markers, colored pencils, and twist-up crayons, and even workbooks can be kind of fun!

Hmmm. Mommy Bear should probably end this post, get off the computer, and go to bed. We’ve got a busy day of “school” (aka “life”) ahead tomorrow!

P.S. Speaking of life and learning, I unearthed this magnetic art board and pattern cards while digging through some old teaching materials. Little Bear has spent several afternoons happily “playing” with it, all the while sharpening her visual perception skills and painlessly exercising her fine motor skills. I loved her smile, radiating confidence, after she followed a pattern card to create a horse.

The sweet smile of success!

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New Year, New Directions

July marks the end of our first year of semi-formal homeschooling efforts. Odd timing, I know. But Little Bear had been begging to do “school” almost as long as she’d been able to converse in complete sentences. In the early months, we focused almost exclusively on theme-based activities, with her only “bookwork” being some fine motor activities from Kumon First Steps workbooks and the Big Skills for Little Hands series.

Somewhere along the way, we began to add in more formal textbook-based math and phonics lessons. And as we did, her interest in school began to wane. I wrestled with the disparity between her comprehension level and her writing level. Preschool books bored her to tears. She’s known colors, shapes, letters and numbers since she was a toddler. More challenging workbooks, however, frustrated her because she had the writing skills of a 3-year-old, not a 5- or 6-year-old. Her letters don’t fit beautifully on lines, some of her numbers are recognizable only with the help of an active imagination, and I might as well ask her to climb a mountain as to write two sentences.

The more I tried to “encourage” her to practice writing, the more resistant she became. And then came the day when she spent an hour tearfully (and eventually angrily) protesting that she absolutely could not write the numeral 4.

… I turned to the Internet and began researching handwriting curricula, looking for something — anything — that would engage her, build her confidence, and ultimately make math and phonics less of a chore. I filled an online shopping cart with books and supplemental resources, went through the first two screens of the order process, then stopped.

Calling DH to the living room, I showed him the materials I’d selected. “My background is in early childhood education,” I said. “I know what’s on the market like I know the back of my hand, and I believe these are the best textbooks for our child. But I don’t think they’re what’s BEST for our child.”

Somewhere along the way, I’d lost sight of the forest for the trees. My goal wasn’t to have a child with textbook-perfect handwriting, a child capable of reading independently at the age of 4, a child who could count to 100 by 2’s, 5’s, and 10’s. I wanted to whet her curiosity, foster her confidence, appeal to her interests, equip her to achieve her goals, and ultimately ignite a lifelong love of learning.

So I backed off.

For the past month, I’ve been filling workboxes with read-alouds, puzzles, crafts, games, theme activities, fine motor tasks, and random fun, then leaving her to pick and choose what, if anything, she feels like doing. I’ve discovered that she likes “easy” tasks that she can successfully complete on her own. These build her confidence and foster a sense of accomplishment. She loves showing us what she did “all by herself,” and she delights in praise for a job well done.

She enjoys open-ended activities that leave ample room for creativity and self-expression — using stamps or stickers to create the patterns of her choosing, drawing and writing with assorted media, crafting stories around a series of pictures.

She also enjoys more difficult activities that we can tackle together. She’ll rise to almost any challenge with a bit of support and encouragement. She thrives on camaraderie and teamwork and savors one-on-one time with the grown-ups in her life.

What doesn’t she like?

Drudgery. Monotony. Busy work. Painstakingly using a No. 2 pencil to form the same letter or number again and again. Drawing black stripes on a zebra or coloring the sun yellow simply because the workbook says to. Circling groups of three (or 5 or 10) again and again and again.

… I really don’t care whether she writes in workbooks, on her MagnaDoodle, in the sand, on a Buddha Board, or in shaving cream on the bathtub wall as long as she’s forming letters and numbers. Pink stripes on a zebra? Fine by me! She’s honing her motor skills just the same whether she follows “the rules” or indulges preschool fancies of pink zebras and rainbow kittens. And as for counting, as long as she can pair up socks, count out three eggs to put in a cake, hunt until she finds all 10 stacking cups that her baby sister scattered throughout the apartment, and make sure all 17 Zoologic tiles make it back into the game box, we’re good. She really doesn’t need to circle groups of three eight times over either to master basic counting or to demonstrate proficiency.

With that in mind, our K4 “curriculum” looks more like Christmas in July than a school order. We’re restocking the craft bins and adding to our game and puzzle collections. We’re pulling new toys out of the closet and expanding the family library. Will there be written work? To the extent that Little Bear wants to do it; instead of buying expensive textbooks, though, I’ve picked up some cheap preschool and kindergarten workbooks, sticker books, and a few more wipe-off activity books. She’ll have markers, crayons, colored pencils, and a shelf full of colorful, engaging activities to complete as she chooses.

In short, I’ve officially divorced the classroom teacher mindset and followed my child — and my heart — into the liberating realm of unschooling.

Does that mean that we’ll someday have a 14-year-old what wants to learn to raise goats while her peers are studying Shakespeare? Perhaps (although she’s just as likely to delve into the writings of Shakespeare while her peers are drooling over the Justin Bieber of the next decade). We’ll evaluate and address the girls’ future needs in the future. For now, we’re not dealing with a 14-year-old. We’re dealing with a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old, children who learn best through play, through real life experiences, and through meaningful interaction with the adults who love them.

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