Aquarium.

This morning my husband had to drive his Mum back to London and offered to take #2 with him so that I could hang out with the Mancub for the day. It’s always a treat to have a bit of one on one time with my biggest, and I had it in my head that we would do whatever he wanted with the day, while free from the schedules of preschool and his little brother. It would be nice to follow his lead and see what came of the time.

As soon as I asked him what he fancied, he instantly replied, ‘The Aquarium!’. Not what I expected, but I happened to have a 50% off voucher, plus it was a rainy Saturday, so feeling awfully spontaneous, we headed straight off on the bus.

So often we are out with others, be it the rest of our family or friends and, quite rightly, we have to find compromise and go at the pace of the group. It is nice, on occasion, to not have to nudge the Mancub along, or have him keep up a pace that is either too fast or too slow for his liking. Today the day was entirely his. We rushed through the initial tanks of tropical fish and straight to the rock pool area, where he happily stayed for half an hour, talking to the expert, leaning in and touching the starfish and shore crabs and operating the mini camera. I instinctively went to move him along several times, but he was clearly completely engrossed, so I bit my tongue and let him stay. We whizzed through several other sections too, pausing briefly to take in octopus and jelly fish, before getting to a digital exhibition on prehistoric marine reptiles. ‘Prehistoric is my favourite word!’, he declared, and that’s where we spent the remainder of our outing. It was an absolute pleasure throughout.

As we were in town we popped to the library and took out some books on sharks and fish, then headed home via a pizza restaurant, where he proved that he is still my favourite lunch date, because no one else I know scoops up and eats garlic butter using cucumber as a makeshift spoon, but really more people should.

Back home he spend the rest of the day playing PREHISTORIC MARINE REPTILES! using some of his dinosaur toys and told me that mudskippers are really his favourite fish.

I can’t remember a day where parenting felt so carefree and relaxing. A nice reminder that slowing down and letting them take the lead, avoiding that instinct to always hurry on, often pays off in the end.

Learning at home: Reading.

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This week, at just shy of three and a half, the Mancub learned to jump with two feet, and read. One of those things was just on the cusp of worryingly late, the other? Well allow me at least a second to Mom brag: the boy can read. Words. Short words admittedly (cat, dog, pot, win), but he sees them, sounds them out, and then tells me what they say. To say that he is excited by this development is something of an understatement. He laughed hysterically for a minute after he read his first word before shouting, ‘Write another!’. And another. And another.

At this point I believe I’m supposed to insert some sort of platitude along the lines of, ‘It’s incredible! Unbelievable! I don’t know where it came from!’, which would be something of a misnomer. I do know where it came from, because I taught him to read. So obviously I knew it was coming and it doesn’t really surprise me, but nevertheless, I’m pretty blown away by it. I’m only human, just like he is only three.

Anyway, I thought it might be nice to share a few of the strategies I have used here, because they are things you can do with a child of any age, providing they find them fun and engaging and providing they are ready. Feel free to take a few of them away, or just ignore them and write me off as a terrible show off. If you’re new to this blog or don’t come here often I should also probably point out that I am a primary school teacher by trade, hence my ability to ramble on about this topic for far too many words.

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I don’t think there are many things that we are obligated to do as parents. Feeding and clothing our children is a good start. A few toys are essential I suppose. Love, warmth, affection, but certainly nothing as complicated as the thousands of parenting books on the market would suggest.

Reading for me, like clothes and food, is a non negotiable. Stories, comics and magazines. Poetry, nursery rhymes and information books. All children love being read to, and if they are read to frequently, all children will, eventually, want to learn to read for themselves. It might be when they are two, it might be when they are seven, but I fundamentally believe that children have an innate desire to learn that needs little encouragement.

What we, as parents, carers and teachers have the power to do, is to put out that flame of desire in an instant if we push them too soon, or make reading a chore. Learning anything, whether it’s riding a bike or reading a book should always come from a child’s willingness and ability to do so. I’m absolutely not advocating here that we sit down all kids at age 3 and teach them phonics (that that is happening in nurseries across the country makes my heart sink), just that we to read to them, as early and as often as possible, then the rest will naturally follow.

But, my kid showed an interest. He had that desire, and he has a good grasp of words and letters, so I did some things with him that moved his reading forward to the point he is at now, where he can decode short words himself and make a good guess at many others based on their context and initial letter. Here are a few of the things we’ve been doing over the past year.

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Strategies for Reading With Children.

As I have said, for me the single most important thing a parent can do with regards to their child’s education is to read to them. I had a bedtime story every night until I was around ten years old, and I still remember the feeling of sadness when I realised I was too old to have one any more. No child would ever want to read unless they have an incentive to do so. Reading them stories that they love provides that incentive, as well as about a million other benefits.

Alongside this you can begin to introduce your child to the phonetic alphabet. There is no harm in teaching letter names (A, B, C etc), but it is more beneficial in terms of learning to read to teach the phonetic sounds (A is a hard a, like at the start of Apple, B is buh, C is cuh, E is eh like at the start of Elephant etc). I bought a few simple alphabet books and used these as a starting point, (I would trace the letter with his finger and sing ‘Buh is for ball, Buh-Buh-Ball or whatever was on that page). We also played with magnetic letters (Can you find me puh for parrot?), letter jigsaws and stampers. We wrote letters on pebbles and we traced them in the sand. (Side note: our ridiculously complex language means that all letters can represent many different sounds, so it’s best to go with the most common. However the Mancub’s name ends in a y, which in his name makes an ‘ee’ sound like at the end of monkey, so I taught him right away that Y makes a ‘yuh’ sound at the start of words, but an ‘ee’ sound at the end. He doesn’t seem to find this too confusing, but usually refers to Y as ‘ee’. You might want to do this if your child also has a phonetically complex name such as Phillip or Cedric).

As your child begins to learn some of their letters and sounds you can introduce games like I Spy. The Mancub always finds this easier if instead of spotting things around the room that we can actually see, we play on a theme, (I spy with my little eye, an animal that begins with duh… Duck / a dinosaur that begins with sss… Stegosaurus / someone who begins with mmm… Mama). Sometimes I would collect a bunch of objects on a tray and we would play I spy with them, and you could also use those ‘find it’ books. The point of all this I spying is to focus on the initial sounds of words, as a segue into being able to spell and read them. As a way of encouraging them to think about it from the opposite perspective you could ask your child, I’m writing a card to Grandma, what letter does Grandma begin with? If they’re old enough they could write or use a stamper to print the first letter for you. You could also do this when your writing shopping list (what letter do I need at the start of bananas?), or you could write a story together (they tell you a story, you write it down, but ask them for help with some words).

If your child is enjoying books, they know most of their letters and can pick out the initial sound of familiar words, you might like to start helping them to segment words (break words up into their individual sounds), and blend them (put them back together again). This sounds complicated, but is basically what we’re doing all the time when we read and spell unfamiliar words. We sound them out, we turn those sounds into a word. A nice way to do this is play a game based on your child’s interests. The Mancub loves Octonauts, so I ask him, ‘Which Octonaut am I? D-a-sh-ee’, and he is able to put those sounds together to say, ‘Dashi’. We have done lots of this sort of thing on different themes, and he likes having a go at sounding out words for me to guess too.

Finally, once you put those skills together, you have the building blocks of reading. In time your child will go from having the component parts, to being able to look at a word and sound it out ‘c-a-t’, and know that it makes the word cat. It’s magic really, and it does just seem to happen over night. Of course not all children take this route to learning to read, but it is the one most commonly taught in schools now.

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This is the beginning of a long journey. The Mancub doesn’t yet know that sometimes two letters go together to make a sound like sh or ch. He finds it hard to read words longer than three letters, because it’s still too challenging to hold onto all of those letters in his head and blend them. And then there’s words like ‘the’ and ‘was’ and ‘he’, that can’t be sounded out and just need to be learned by heart.

But he’s on the road and he’s so excited to get going that it’s infectious.

I hope you’ve found some of these little activities of interest or of use. Ultimately I think my only advice is to be led by your child, to use their interests and enjoyment as a starting point and to do little bits here as they want to, (we play these games for no more than a few minutes at a time, and by no means each day).

If you’re child is anything like mine, the laughter that follows the first time they read the word ‘bum’ out loud will be worth it.

The perks of being a wallflower.

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Today we went to a birthday party. A really lovely woodland birthday party for my friend’s little girl, which the Mancub had been looking forward to for days. He’d dressed up in his new mermaid leggings and his green hat and green jumper and welly boots, all ready for some elfin fun, but in reality the whole thing was just totally over whelming for him. He was that child. The one who didn’t want to join in with the organised games and activities. The one who didn’t want to sit up at the table to eat his party food with the other kids, instead choosing a seat on his own. The one who burst into tears when the lights went out and we started singing happy birthday. I’m going to be honest, it was pretty heart wrenching.

He was fine when it was just me and him, exploring the forest together, looking at the trees and finding leaves to put in his fishing net (that he had insisted on bringing), but if I even gently persuaded him to join the group to make a magical wand or listen to the story or find things to make a fairy garden (all wonderful activities that I had been sure would really appeal to him), there were tears and sobs and ‘I want to go home now’.

And so I didn’t press him. Of course I didn’t, we were there to have fun, not for me to drag him in tears around a forest. But it worried me, to see him like that, so averse to joining in, so scared by a group of people bursting into song. He wasn’t tatrumming, or being deliberately obtuse, he was just sad and totally out of his comfort zone.

Maybe it’s my fault. He’s never been to any childcare save for the odd hour of crèche here and there, we don’t attend a lot of play groups or rhyme times and if he’s not really into something I don’t push him. I’m not a big believer in enforced fun.

But suddenly nursery and (whisper it), school are seemingly just around the corner, where there are expectations that he will sit down for circle time, join in singing groups, socialise with other children. Have I done him a disservice with my laissez faire approach?

These are some things that the Mancub enjoys: Talking to adults about animals. Rolling around with his brother, trying to make him giggle. Sitting and looking at books for a really, really long time. Going to the zoo with his Grandma and Grandad. Doing jigsaws. Having conversations with his stuffed animals / Star Wars figures / characters from books, while either me or his Dad do the voices. Watching dinosaur shows on the iPad.

He basically likes being on his own or with an adult who graces him with their full attention so he can talk at a hundred miles an hour about the things he obsesses over. Where does school and thirty other children fit into this? Where do birthday parties and chaos and rubbing along with a bunch of other kids fit into this?

As his Mum all I want is for him to be happy. I feel like we’ve kind of got the learning side of things covered at home, so nursery, and ultimately school, are places that I want to him to go to make friends, to learn, yes, but more than anything to be happy. But I know all too well that shy, nerdy kids are seldom happy at school. So I worry. About my shy, nerdy kid.

My husband is a loner by nature, where as I am much more gregarious and enjoy company. I remember him telling me that at school he didn’t particularly want any friends, but he learned to make them, because he needed to to survive. Likewise I have heard plenty of people say that there is no harm in school being boring, because it prepares children for ‘real life’. And it has always struck me as very sad, this idea of school as a place where we are taught to conform, and to be normal, and a little bit bored, whether or not we want to be. Because that’s life.

I’m probably over reacting. It was one party. On another day maybe he would have joined in, maybe by the time nursery rolls around he will want to join in. But today I saw him, across the room from me, one of those kids who doesn’t quite fit in. One of those boys who cry for their Mamas, because they’re frightened and they don’t like the singing. And it wasn’t great you know? Shyness is not generally a quality that is valued in our society.

So I worry for him, leaving the microcosm that I’ve created for him. Hoping he’ll be able to navigate the world outside, while retaining his little quirks, his intensity, his ability to lecture me on Lar Gibbons. Hoping he’ll find the perks of being a wallflower. Hoping he’ll be happy.

Learning At Home.

As a primary school teacher by trade one of my favourite aspects of being a stay at home parent is embarking on a journey of learning and development with my two year old. I’m a big fan of incidental learning, or finding opportunities to learn through play as opposed to having any specific learning goals or things that I want him to achieve. I try to be led by the mancub, his interests and the sorts of activities and play that engage him and then go from there.

I thought I would share some things that we’ve been doing lately to capitalise on those incidental learning opportunities, which we have both really enjoyed, although be warned, that is largely because we are both extremely awesome total geeks.

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We are by no means a strict Montessori family, but I do like many aspects of the Montessori philosophy. My favourite is having frequently rotated materials available at the child’s level for them to access independently. In our lounge we have a shelf that currently houses a CD player and audiobooks, a globe, some wooden animal puzzles, magnetic letters, a basket of train track and building blocks, a large collection of Schleich dinosaurs, plenty of books and… a giant Darth Vader. In the dining room the mancub has access to his own art supplies, which include an easel and chalks, paints with stencils and sponges, sugar paper, felt tip pens, stamps and ink and a tin of playdough with various cutters and tools. He can get most of these out on his own and use them at the dining room table, while others (such as the paint) require a little help setting up. I’ve found that having easy access to his own toys and materials really encourages independent play and it means he can always find whatever he’s looking for. Rotating them rather than always having the whole lot out also keeps things fresh and stops the spaces from being over crowded.

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For me, the most exciting aspect of learning from home is that you can totally follow your child’s interests. The mancub has gone through several obsessions, beginning with birds and butterflies, progressing onto animals and he is now fascinated with the world of dinosaurs. He also shares his father’s love of all things Star Wars and has a collection of figures and space ships. As each of these interests has peaked we have supported it by acquiring or borrowing appropriate reference books, toys and other materials. I am less concerned with what he is learning, and more interested in creating a love of learning through play and to help him to develop the skills to learn himself.

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A recent example of this is how we use the indexes of different reference books to look up words. The mancub likes to have me read about dinosaurs and when he wants to find one in particular he knows to turn to the back and find the corresponding initial letter sound in the index (so, ‘d’ for diplodocus or whatever). I then locate the dinosaur name, tell him what page it’s on and we find it in the book together. To him this is a game and to me the fact that in doing this he learns more information about the subject is almost by the by, because he is learning the skill of looking something up in a book, as well as reinforcing letters and sounds, which are far more valuable lessons in my opinion, but to him are incidental.

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Talking of literacy skills, again I’ve always thought that it’s best at this age (and really, at most ages) if these are acquired as organically as possible, rather than being learned by rote or pushed before a child is interested. The index game is a good example of this, but we also use materials such a letter stampers with ink and magnetic letters, which turn learning letters and sounds into a creative process. The mancub enjoys asking me to spell out words and being challenged to find certain letters himself. We also play an approximation of I Spy where i challenge him to think of a word for each letter of the alphabet, which is great for keeping him entertained when we’re waiting at restaurants or in the car. I know this wouldn’t necessarily appeal to all children, but this is really the sort of thing he loves and a fun five minute activity when we have some one on one time together.

Again, when it comes to numbers, there are so many opportunities to bring these into every day life and in different ways. Counting time (I’m going to count to ten and then turn the tap off), objects (you can have five grapes, help me count them) and movement (counting the stairs as they are being climbed) are fairly obvious examples. Then there is weighing in cookery or measuring his height, but my current favourite links to the mancub’s love of his CD player. He often asks for particular songs, so we have taught him how to use the skip function and he can identify the numbers on the display to find his favourite songs. I think this is such a lovely example of using numeracy in a practical context that he really values.

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While we subscribe to much of the Montessori way of learning, I personally place a much greater emphasis on the value of imaginative play. I try to give the mancub time every day to just play with his toys on his own without interruption and I love listening in as he narrates the story and creates his own little worlds with his action figures. Sometimes however, I will build on his independent play and take it into other activities. For example recently he was playing with a little police construction set that he has. He was putting his velociraptor in between two towers that he had built and I heard him say, ‘He is hiding behind the tree and looking for plums. Then the mancub ate all the plums in one great mouthful.’ I thought it was a really nice bit of dialogue, so I wrote it down on his chalk board and read it back to him. He really liked having his own story read aloud and asked me read it several times before drawing a picture underneath it, which he told me was a giant plum tree. All of this took about ten minutes but it was a simple way of turning his imaginative play into some shared writing.

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All of this probably sounds very formal, but it honestly isn’t. Most days we’re both just bimbling along, playing, reading, getting chores done and lunch made and nappies changed. But it’s nice if a couple of times a day I can watch what he is doing and then in some way move it forward a little, or use it to teach him something new. As I said I have no agenda. Like all toddlers he soaks up new knowledge like a sponge and my only goal is to foster and continue that love of learning and then see where it takes us.

We don’t need no education

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It’s probably a little early to start thinking about schools right? But I can’t stop myself. Education is what I do and I am passionate about it. I reflect a lot on my own time at school and look forward to when the mancub begins his own journey. However, my time teaching at a (really good) state primary school has made me realise that our educational system is flawed (well, duh) and I am interested in how alternative offerings such as Waldorf, Montessori and unschooling seek to counter those flaws.

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