I like this shot of Liam and Ethan rolling around together and reaching for the camera woman. Life isn't always this rosy for these two boys. Ethan is nearly three and hitting some cognition milestones in which he's realizing that life can be his fault, too. What I mean by that is he's figuring out that bad things can happen and it just might be because of his actions (a time out after pushing over Liam, a bruised knee after running around a corner too fast, time spent alone in his room after throwing a tantrum over something he already knows we won't give him). Needless to say, he's really pushing the boundaries we set in this family, as a way to understand this new-found realization. Liam is pushing physical limits by crawling everywhere, achieving stairway mastery (both up and down) and cruising like crazy. He has taken a few hesitant steps, numbering no more than five in a row, for the last month. He's been fooling all his immediate relatives into thinking "it'll be any day now!" when he keeps relying on the tried and true crawl.
Together, Liam and Ethan are definitely attracted to each others' boyness. They can be found plotting little boy schemes in hidden areas and the gentle beginnings of wrestling have already begun.
While Elly is invariably a sister, she's also a little mommy to her brothers and therefore has a different sort of relationship with them. She adores her baby brother and loves the fact that Ethan is now old enough to pretend and play-act with her and her elaborate imaginings. She cares for Liam by "helping" him more than she should and gets super concerned if he nears anything that might resemble trouble.
Liam just thinks all this playing and mothering and brother scuffling is par for the course. It's certainly been interesting as a mother to watch all these developments for each child. With our ability to be home as much as we are, Andy and I have been deeply pondering the best way to raise our children. We are unique to most families in that we both work from home nearly all the time. We are blessed by this and actively try not to take it for granted.
It was just last week, as I struggled with our home school routine for Elly, that I questioned how I would manage homeschooling her full time next year (for kindergarten). I've been struggling not only with finding a regular time slot in which the schooling takes place, but also the manner in which we school. I picked up a workbook to help Elly with her letters initially, as she was interested in learning the alphabet in writing. And at first, there was great enthusiasm. But it didn't take long for her to become frustrated with the nature of the workbook...and the way I must have been teaching her. I'm fond of saying that there's a reason I didn't go to college for a teaching degree. I just don't have the patience, let alone the talent for lesson plans, that would go into a formal classroom.
I began to question our choice to keep Elly home. While there is no requirement for 4K or even kindergarten in our state, soon I would need to be sure what we wanted for her...public school or home. I admittedly had been feeling a lot of pressure from the circles we run in, to keep her home and out of "the system." And when I talked it over with Andy last week, saying I just couldn't keep this up with Elly and that we needed to send her to "regular" school for Kindergarten...something inside me said, "You've got to keep looking."
I then recalled a book I had picked up from the local library on a subject I had referenced to me by my friend (and fellow homeschooling mother) Rita. It was sitting on the shelf for the last four weeks untouched due to the holidays and suddenly I knew I had to read it. The book was all about the concept of Unschooling.
Unschooling is a term that is very new to me, but as I read through the questions and answers in this particular book, it became abundantly clear to me this was a direction we could take Elly's (and the other children's) home education.
Are you familiar with Unschooling? The idea stems from a general disdain for one-size-fits-all, lowest-common-denominator Western education system most people entrust their children with. I was already half way there just in the simple fact that we wanted to home school in the first place. In reading this book, I learned that there is a whole other niche facet of home schoolers who Unschool their kids and they do it successfully. A definition of Unschooling, while pretty broad, might better be named Interest-Led Schooling or Child-Led Education.
On Wikipedia, a definition goes like this: “While there is significant variation in what is meant by “unschooling”, generally speaking, unschoolers believe that the use of standard curricula and conventional grading methods, as well as other features of traditional schooling, are counterproductive to the goal of maximizing the education of each child. Instead, unschoolers typically allow children to learn through their natural life experiences, including game play, household responsibilities, and social interaction.”
The book I was reading was pretty extreme, to the point of living an unschooled life all the way down to letting your child decide if they want to go to the doctor when they've got a broken limb. This author never punished her kids, all discipline was learned through interaction with the parents and talking out issues. I'm no expert in parenting, and I have no idea of the set up in this person's true home (not the one she portrayed to build her case for unschooling), but I do know that talking to a toddler does little to quell the storm of boundary pushing. We aren't spank-happy here, but we know that our babies are much happier when we are consistent with rules and limits.
So while I was excited at the thought of allowing Elly to choose her education, I was unsure it could coincide with our Christian faith. Andy was very wary of this new path I was learning about and encouraged me to dig deeper than this book. I asked myself...and then Google...can Christianity and Unschooling coexist?
My answer came in the form of a website. Called Christian Unschooling, I don't think I could have found a more blunt and specific answer! It is a resource page for unschoolers and those who are thinking of unschooling. It is a collection of blog submissions from unschooling mothers and fathers who have "been there, done that" in an arena of homeschooling that is a minority within a minority. It was heartening and interesting and exciting all at once. One specific post caught my attention right away, "Following the Rabbi." In it, a mother talked about how she justified her unschooling in the midst of evangelical 'persecution' (for lack of a better word). She talked about a book she came across that described the world in which Jesus lived and the way children were educated in ancient Israel. You'll have to read it for yourself (the link is above). I came to the conclusion that this route would definitely work within our family.
For instance, one of my struggles with Elly is letter memorization. She gets some letters and others just float right out of her head the moment we reach the next letter. She deeply desires to "write" things such as people's names, birthday messages and even short stories. She can write her own name very well and while she has this interest, learning the letters conventionally has taken the spark out of her passion. I was not helping the matter. It was hard for me to understand her way of learning as it seemed she enjoyed completing the pages of the workbook (which was colorful and varied from page to page), but her lack of retaining the letter knowledge was troubling me. This is the girl who will randomly pull a memory from nearly three years ago and tell us in great detail what we all were doing. When she was 18 months old.
So how is it that the letter M is so mysteriously out of her cognition? Why can't she keep C and D from getting mixed up? How is it that the small letters are like a foreign language to her while the capitols are nearly always retained?
Without going into too much detail, we've had many a home school session end with both of us frustrated with the other and sometimes in tears.
I knew that homeschooling wouldn't be a breeze, but the last thing I ever wanted was to keep my daughter from her innate love of learning. This is why I knew we had to stop on the path we were on. Why did I choose to take her out of public education if I was going to be teaching her the exact same way the public education dictates?
For us, it didn't make sense.
For us, unschooling did. When I showed Andy this Christian site, he and I spent hours reading the blog posts and evaluating the validity of the opinions generated by the experienced unschooling click. Much of it we agreed with. There were a few times that Andy stopped short; this is the way he would have thrived had it been an option in his childhood. Learning in bursts of interest, following desires to learn more, self-directing further education in a certain subject: all of these things he does on a daily basis! Andy has long struggled with not obtaining a degree in the education system of college. But he has never stopped learning. Our local librarian can tell you he's studied soap making, underground housing, distilling essential oils, recycled building materials, Quantum Physics and organic animal husbandry for the small-scale farm. He's studied piano, computer programming and calligraphy; taught himself how to can and preserve food, and continually stretches his culinary talents with long-studied French recipes or crazy new ideas from The Underground Food Collective.
Everything I've mentioned here was done outside of a classroom. Some of it will be immediately applicable. Other aspects of his interests may come into play later. Still others may only be an interest.
But that is the essence of Unschooling, of Interest-Led Learning. It is learning that births from each individual's natural passions. A quote from Christian Unschooling sums it up pretty well:
"As Christians, we are called to:
“Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6
Because of this we look to God to show us the way to train our child, and allow them the freedom in Christ to find the way that He has laid out for them. In other words, we train them about Him and His ways, help them develop Godly character and trust God to show us and them what they will need in order to do His will in this life. In order to do this we look to what He is doing in their lives and the interest and passions He has given them, and gently guide them and follow their lead in the directions, knowing that HIS plan for them is better than anything we could come up with. You could say that Christian unschooling is God led instead of child led, as we watch and help the children grow towards His best for them, using what He has placed in them as a guide. It is definitely trusting Him to show us the right way, whether it includes book work or not, whether it seems “traditional” or not.
The best part of being a Christian unschooler is not being bound by other’s opinions of what home education should be but being free in Christ to grow together with our children into what God has called for us as individuals and as families. We can adjust to where He has us, keep our eyes on Him, and go where He leads."
And so...with much prayer and meditation, we will continue to research this possible path for our family. Indeed, it has already taken hold in some of our daily life routines.
Just about the same time I checked out the Unschooling book from the library, I also came across a slew of resource books on playing with your 2-5 year olds. Why, I thought, I have 2-5 year olds in my house! What can I learn about that I don't know from life experience? (see, the desire borne out of experience, fueled by a passion to learn more) So I checked out a bunch of books on how to play games and make up songs and do crafts with your pre-school kids. In that mess of books was one in particular that stood out to me. Called "Creative Play for your Toddler: Steiner Waldorf expertise and toy projects for 2 – 4s," this book gives detailed instructions for hand making various kinds of toys for you children. These toys are not just random things made from a piece of cardboard and string. They are thought-provoking and imaginative toys that cause the child to use his creativity to play and pretend. The Waldorf education is largely based on this sort of early childhood experience, mimicking adult interactions within a safe home environment and allowing the budding emotions of the child to safely play out with simple cloth or wooden toys.
So I got inspired and bought a simple sewing kit and some felt and ribbons before Christmas in order to make some of these special toys for the kids. Much to my surprise, I suddenly became crafty and I was loving it! My first creation was finger puppets for Elly, Ethan and Andy. We all worked together and completed the task of tracing, cutting and sewing in about an hour.
Above is Andy's adult sized bird, designed by him to have the wings in mid-sweep. Below is Ethan's blue bird with Liam grabbing for it gleefully.
I was emboldened enough by the small success of the puppets that I thought I'd take on the next sewing project in the book. There really isn't an order based on experience; rather they group toys into categories such as "Imaginative Play," "Experiential," and "Observational." Each category is prefaced by a psychological evaluation of children at these toddler and preschool ages and what they learn or are drawn to. It's quite interesting. So below, you will see the product of 5 hours of sewing and threading and learning on my part. I made my kids a stuffed horsey. It's pretty rudimentary and there are a lot of things I would do to alter the original pattern from the book to add realism to the next one, but for a first effort, including learning a new way to hand stitch...not bad! The mane and tail were supposed to be only natural horse colors (as the rest of the book stresses, there are no pink bunnies or horses). But we don't have a single strand of yarn in our home and this came from a generous donation by a fellow home schooler who happened to be crocheting a hat for her ministry. I wasn't going to be choosy when Sarah
offered "Do you want hot pink?" I rationalized the color by the increase in imaginative play that Elly would get from her very obviously GIRL horse.
So there are threads sticking out everywhere and the stuffing was hard to contain in my final closing stitches, but it's a horse and I made it and I did it out of love for my kids and a deep desire to focus more and more of my energies into them. Elly commented after the animal was complete with its new wig that "...I like it Mommy, but...[in a whisper]...this horse looks a little crazy!"
Yes. A little crazy. I think that's what you have to be to want to throw off the norm in our society and and decide to make toys from scratch, school your children at home, follow their God-given desires on faith, and follow your own personal desires to their fullness. What better example than this morning? Elly asked me if the next animal I could sew was a chicken family and then a cow family and then a sheep family. Then, according to her, we'd have a whole farm set to play with. I went online and asked Google again if there were any free patterns to sew animals from felt. I was instantly rewarded with site after site of blogging crafty folks who were more than willing to share how they created their toys and animals and accessories. I have said it before and I will say it again: I am not crafty. Creative, yes. Crafty, no. Yet, all of a sudden, I've been awakened to a whole new side of me I must have forgotten existed. Perhaps it was pounded out of me in school as being crafty served no purpose in a career as an adult. Who knows what I would have discovered about myself had I been allowed to explore my artistic talents and desires for story-writing without the oppressive notion that "those things won't pay your bills."
While I agree that a living must be made, who determines what is an acceptable income with which to survive? Did you know that the poverty level for 2010 for our sized family is $26,000? This is the amount of money that people have to make in order to be considered at the poverty line. I can't even imagine what we'd do with over $2100 per month. Probably pay off our debts a lot faster. :-) But my point is, society would tell us that we are financially handicapped and in need of government assistance because we don't even make this much money. Society would tell me to go back to full time design work because that's what my degree is in. It would tell Andy to return to full time sales jobs and work 10 hours away from home so that we can live in American style 'comfort.' Place the kids in a well-meaning daycare and reap the tax incentives for two working adults seeing their children two waking hours per day.
In return? Stuff. Things. Maybe a vacation. Maybe a down payment on a farm. But in the mean time we'd be cultivating discontent and unhappiness and a serious ethical dilemma. In our immediate family, wealth is not measured by the U.S. Census Bureau.
It's measured by quality time. And we can't seem to get enough of it! :-)
Another Liam milestone that I would be remiss if I didn't mention is his birthday on the 11th. Elly and I made a sign for him. I drew the letters and she cut them out and decorated them with hole punches and markers.
We had my brother's family over for a small gathering. Liam enjoyed the attention...
...and his gifts, which he opened pretty much all by himself!
Continuing along the lines of my making things, I tried my hand at a xylitol chocolate cake recipe which, while tasting amazing, presentation was lacking. No photo! Liam liked it though. We took his top off just in case. :-)
In conclusion, this winter is providing us ample opportunity to grow deeper and inward and focus more directly on our family at our feet. It has been one of the most rewarding things that I've worked on in a long time and I am extremely grateful for the time I've been allowed to seek my direction in this. Thank you Lord, for our children! Thank you for all you are teaching me in my continuing education.