THE VALUE OF FREE PLAY IN WILD PLACES.

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Reading this wonderful brief article by Dr Kumara Ward (a lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of Western Sydney) is a delight and explains the research surrounding the need for children to develop a connection with the natural environment.

I cannot add more to her thorough understanding in this area (but highly recommend you read her post). I will simply add my own personal experience to her wisdom, and a small solution that we use to ensure our own city dwelling kids do not miss these opportunities to connect with nature.

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TEACHING CREATIVITY IN AUSTRALIA

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I was recently reprimanded for drawing with my young daughter. Upon observing this horrendous act – of us drawing together – a very experienced and well-meaning teacher took me aside and gently explained that this kind of activity could be undermining my shy daughter’s confidence. My daughter would see her own work as inferior and thus I was crushing her soul… admittedly not the exact words the teacher used!

What the teacher didn’t know is that before I was a mere mother, inadvertently breaking the rules at this parent-child session, I spent a good chunk of my working life collecting an impressive pile of awards for my work in Community Cultural Development. Helping teachers and students to be more creative was my job. Thus in this instance, I felt I had the appropriate formal qualifications and recognition to draw with my own child without damaging her… but what if I hadn’t? Should just anyone be allowed to draw with children?!

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THE IMPORTANCE OF BLOGGING IN THE CLASSROOM

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This topic strikes fear into the hearts of safety conscious educational leaders, but I believe every school should have a blog, written by the children, and preferably linked to social media.

Having worked with high risk, and extremely sensitive groups in the past I fully understand the reasons why many schools do not have a ‘school blog’ (privacy, ethical and even marketing risks).  But I believe in most settings the potential for learning far outweighs the risk management involved (which can largely be managed with clear process and simple digital solutions).

I’ve talked before about digital literacy in the early years, and how record keeping influences memory and identity. I’ll explain how blogs aid specific class room learning in more detail later, but for now let’s see how my own children arrived at blog writing…

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EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: FIRE AND MARSHMALLOWS

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I grew up in a rather remote area of Tasmania. So did my husband. We could each make and maintain a pretty good fire by about the age that we could tie our laces. Living remotely meant that all our heating, hot water and cooking were reliant on a good fire – fires were simply a daily and essential part of life.

Respect for fire safety is not something that comes naturally to my own children. We live in a city, we don’t have a wood fire at home and we don’t light a campfire as often as we could… But this is going to change!

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EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: BECOME A BUTTERFLY!

In the honor of letter M we’ll be mulling over the Magnificent Monarch Butterfly who migrates to Mexico each year.

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Monarch butterflies go through four stages during one life cycle, and through four generations in one year. Not all the generations migrate, but every year the generation that migrates will fly around 20,000km to find their warmer climate for the winter! (That’s a long way, as our butterflies discovered after they traveled part of it!)

There are lots of cool things to learn about butterflies in general, and the 4 stages of their life cycle is captivating for all ages:

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EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: FREE PRINTABLE FOR A DIY EGG STORY!

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We were lucky enough to find a fresh chicken egg in our friends new chicken coup, but chickens aren’t the only ones who lay eggs.

First lets talk a little about the magic of finding an egg: Even as an adult, I am swept with joy if I find a little eggshell left behind by a wren. The whole prep class was mesmerised when a girl bought in a sharks egg that she had found. And, there is nothing quite like collecting chicken eggs. The other day we were introduced to our friends new pets: 3 stunning young chickens who (to our collective delight) had produced an egg! The girls took turns nursing the treasured egg all the way home, and tomorrow morning it will be used to make a small batch of our traditional celebration food: pancakes.

Birds eggs in themselves are a structural marvel. Calcium formed so perfectly that it is strong from the outside (particularly to vertical pressure) and weak from the inside (so that the small and weak new creature can break free with relative ease). Not only this, but all eggs contain everything the little creature needs to develop (regardless of what species – platypus, lizard, frog, shark or chicken!) they are amazing, and a marvel well worth sharing with your young ones.

This is a great free printable for you to create your own ‘Brown Bear’ inspired story. (And if your young literary nuts are anything like mine, you can probably recite ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear’ backwards, while sleeping – yes, that book it well worn!)

Each page is designed by Mrs Wills Kindergarten so your tot can depict their own creature that starts life as an egg. Obviously the template isn’t necessarily the exact shape of a frogs egg, or a turtle egg etc. but the joy of making a little book  with the freedom to decide what will be included (rather than proscribed by the egg shape) makes up for this in my opinion.

If you are up for a full afternoon of craft you may like to layer tissue paper to create your works (Eric Carl style) or alternatively simply hand over a biro and your little artist can complete the book at the kitchen table while dinner is on!

E – IS FOR EGYPT, LEGO PYRAMIDS AND DEATH

While modern day Egypt is a great topic, this time we’re just taking our Big History concepts and looking specifically at Egypt at the time that the great pyramids were built.

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The physical pyramids themselves are a great engineering tale, it’s a big topic to add to your timeline, and the cultural significance is a brilliant introduction to the concept of death rituals. (Kids are so fascinated by the idea of kings, pyramids and mummification that the idea of a lost life seems interesting, rather than tragic.)

At this grim point I’d like to note that while death might not be on too many early childhood agendas, I approach this as the mother of a child who (in the process of simply removing spent sunflowers from the garden) realised that everyone she loves will one day die, and then proceeded to sob for hours as it sunk in – one grim reality at a time.

It started with a throw away comment that we were removing the sunflowers because they ‘weren’t alive or growing anymore’… And after a series of small logical conclusions eventually brought her to the realisation that she too would die… and so would her whole family…. and all her friends… This was not the intended outcome of our gardening session, but it hit her like a brick wall.

This was one of the most heart breaking things I have ever had to help my children grapple with, and it seems to have stayed with her. As a ‘reward’ after her 4yo needles she asked to visit a graveyard so she could see where the first settlers were berried (yes, we’d visited the invasion room at TMAG) and even a couple of years on (when she had to write a wish on a lantern to release) her wish was ‘not to die before my birthday!’ (Said with a casual smile as though it’s something every 5yo thinks about!)  … Now I swear that I do not direct her anywhere near the topic of her own mortality, or anyone’s for that matter, but it is evidently something that is important to her!

(Releasing the wish lantern to live to her next birthday.)

While I am absolutely positive that not all children take death so seriously, I feel it’s something we need to build a healthy acceptance of (in our family at least, and dare I say it – death is probably a healthy thing for most westerners to feel a little more comfortable about!)

So, let’s get building one of histories biggest monuments to death out of lego! Woo hoo!

(Check this link for a very brief refresher on pyramids so you can add some facts to your Lego game – we were also given the Egypt book from the ‘why is’ series by a dear friend, and that’s lots of fun if you have access to it at the library/Amazon etc)

Ok. The mission is simple. Get your lego and start building a pyramid. For older kids, let them at it and watch them work it out themselves. (For younger kids they may need some assistance to understand how to overlap bricks etc for strength.)

Unlike the Egyptians, you may wish to start at the top of your structure (with a square block) then build out from there with the more common rectangle blocks. As long as you step out each level, this is all you need to repeat until you reach your desired size.

You may wish to leave an entrance at the base (remember to set some soldiers near your entrance to watch out for tomb raiders – that’s what the Egyptians did to protect their pyramids!)

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As you build talk about how easy it is as you click on the uniformly shaped blocks. Ask your little engineers to think about what the life sized pyramids are built out of… how would they personally do it if they were alive in an Egyptian build? (Listen to their answer in full, then remind them of a few obstacles that might come up in their story – ie there were no trucks, the stones were all different shapes, they were a long way from the building site etc – and see how they solve the problem.)

You may also like to set your lego man in his tomb with all his worldly treasure (that he wants to take with him to the next life.) Perhaps spare bringing the slaves, pets etc (unless you really want to end up talking about death and sacrifice with your tot!) We chose a treasure chest and decorated his tomb.

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Next time you are at a rock beach (or any other place with good supply of rocks) challenge your little builders to make a pyramid out of natural materials. See how they interact with the stones after practicing on the lego (do they remember to overlap for strength etc?) and remember to join in as part of their team – it’s quite fun and a challenge at any age!

I hope to post shortly a little more about mummification (still deciding on the best approach for this one!) and we’ll get some tomb art underway shortly.

Enjoy building your mini monument to death (I mean; ‘fun lego pyramid’) and we’ll see you soon for some more grim adventures soon!

AN ANSWER FOR ALL THAT BEHAVIOR. (THE IMPORTANCE OF DOWN TIME).

Long time, no posts.

Almost every culture and religion has sacred time of rest. A variation of the Sabbath that is proscribed across cultural, religious and geological boundaries. A ritual that (in most cases) honors the god(s), but importantly takes care of ones own mental wellbeing and family/community connections by resting and simply being together. To read more on the community and personal benefits of a Sabbath day read this wonderful ABC article by Natasha Moore.

As Natasha points out, it is rumored that Australia is a country that excels at this notion of rest (lovely long weekends, the revered gap year etc) but this part of Australian culture escaped me. I don’t have religion (thus no Sabbath day) and my primary ‘culture’ (though it is sad to say) was my work. (Indeed by the statistics in the report, it seems this is the case for many over worked Australians!)

Personally I went from studying so intensely that the university mistakenly offered me a place before I had finished high school (as my educational record had made me look ahead of my grade). After uni I progressed on to working such long hours that my husband and I took our ‘honeymoon’ on a work trip to Shanghai, the day I went into labor we had to stop in at work on the way to the maternity ward, and on our first day home with baby, a client came to work with us in our lounge room!

Both my husband and I then continued to work the equivalent of full time jobs each (with baby on hip all the way). And it wasn’t until after the arrival of my second child (and with my first needing extra care due to her newly diagnosed arthritis) that I technically took ‘maternity leave’ (meaning I still worked a bit, but was not on call to clients 7 days a week for the first time since I was 19.)

As you can see we are not very good at ‘rest’. In fact even now (when we have toned down our work commitments) – I can count the weekends that we have had off as a family (this year) on one hand. Like most families; even those weekends were full of work calls and birthday parties etc! This lack of true ‘down time’ is not uncommon in any modern family, but it isn’t healthy.

These past Easter holidays I decided to take a true break, to stop, and hide in our house with the kids.

For the first week: we slept in, we pottered around the house, we didn’t clean anything (that we didn’t really have to in order to eat etc!), we didn’t embark on any projects, we didn’t have anyone over, we didn’t even go out to the supermarket.

We did read 100s of books. We watched a couple of movies. We took naps. The kids sat in the sunny spot and played dolls, I drank tea and watched them. Etc.

By the end of the first week we were largely back to the pleasant relaxed family that had somehow got lost during the term.

There is extensive research into why we turned back into a nice family after a little bit of true rest. It’s best explained in these few presentations:

This is a talk by circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster about the neuroscience behind why it is vital to get enough sleep to be a good (and healthy/functioning) person.

This article that I mentioned before is a great look at some of the history behind the Sabbath day. (And a great look at the proven community and personal benefits of having a day of rest.)

And if (like us) you can’t schedule a set day each week – this presentation takes a more whimsical approach to ‘down time’ – designer Stefan Sagmeister talks about how he takes a full year off every 7 years (and the benefits that has for his productivity as well as his own creativity and personal development).

None of these talks are directly related to young children or families, but the principals are easily transferable.

If you would rather take a more fictional look at the subject I highly recommend the 1973 book MoMo by Michael Ende. It is perhaps one of my favorite works of literature about a girl who grapples with the men from ‘time savings bank’ – men who syphon people’s free time to exist (while no one remembers seeing these bankers, the more people try to ‘save time’ the less time they have, and so on). It’s brilliantly clever, an easy book to digest and thoroughly enjoyable to read. (For adults, and children who enjoy hearing picture-less chapter books too).

While our designated holiday rest period is over and we are back to the normal program of activities (albeit a little more refreshed!) we intend to focus on actively on spending more ‘down time’ this year. Our house renovations might not progress as far as they could, we might miss out on a few activities. But we will be able to function and develop at our full potential.

AFTER SCHOOL ACTIVITIES (how are you programming your child?)

Programming is strong language to use when referring to a child, (and as the parent of 2 independent thinkers, I have no illusion that children are robots who will blindly do as you instruct!) but with the ever expanding research into how our brains develop, there is a good deal of ‘programming’ that we do of our children every day, weather we are thinking about it or not. From the moment they are born, what we say, what we do, and what we encourage is shaping our children’s physical brain, and thus determining (in many ways) the way our children respond in adult life.

Of course I fully support the notion that the brain is plastic into adulthood, so I’m not saying childhood experiences fully shape the mind and are irreversible (indeed quite the contrary!) but how our children develop is largely shaped by the experiences that we choose for them.

At 4 and 5 my children are somewhat late starters in the sea of classes. With classes in everything from engineering to dance, lego to piano, chess to soccer, languages to horses riding – the choice is immense, and most of their peers attend at least 2 formal classes each week. To date my own children have had no ongoing formal lessons.

My children have always attended Launch into Learning, or Rock and Rhyme, or Playgroup – and these things have been truly beneficial for my children as they developed. (I might touch on this in another upcoming post). However outside of these ‘parent and child’ preschool activities (most of which encourage free play) we have never partaken in the formal ‘out of school classes’.

This year however my children are ready. They are not too tired at the end of the day, they have plenty of time for free play (something that I believe is essential for childhood development) and they are looking to learn more; they are seeking a degree of formality.

That leaves me with the question of many parents: What should my own children be taught? With so much evidence that experience actively shapes the physical structure (and function) of these young developing minds, the decision has far more impact on their adult lives than just weather they can kick a ball or play a tune.

Of course a common solution is to let the child choose (though parents are often highly involved in selecting what choices their child is offered). Or to partly let the child choose (ie ‘you can choose what ever you like, but you must do swimming as its a matter of safety’.) Another is to go with what the child shows skills for (ie a natural climber might enrol in rock climbing or gymnastics) or in contrast what the child could improve on (ie enrolling a shy child in dance or drama to improve their ability to present.)

Ideally I would like to have my children experiences a range of activities that awaken a variety of different parts of their brain, and indeed to encourage the values I believe to to important. This seems ambitious (especially while keeping in mind that I don’t want to overload my children as I fully support the notion that a child needs free time to develop fully!)

Making concise choices about what to suggest to my own children presents a set of problems that every parent faces… What do we REALY want for our children?

In this presentation by Jennifer Senior she talks of how most parents would agree (regardless of beliefs or parenting style) that the primary thing they want for their children is ‘to be happy’. Senior suggests that the idea of ‘happiness’ is somewhat of an unreasonable expectation of any child (or parent for that matter!) – this may seem like a rather pessimistic statement, but in contrast I actually found it to be quite optimistic in tone and well supported by various studies – the presentation is well worth a watch, I can’t say it better than she does!

After having wished for happiness for so long I found this left me in a difficult position of needing to actively re-define my ambitions for my children as the values that I thought could be taught (indeed with the hope that these may in turn result in happiness as a byproduct of their endeavours, but not happiness as a primary goal.)

What do you value? What abilities or traits do you want to give to the next generation?

For me I would like for my children to have the confidence and self worth that comes from a sense of accomplishment. I would like them to extend their physical skills, as well as their analytical and creative thinking. I would like to encourage compassion for (and a genuine love and appreciation for) other people, animals and the environment they are a part of (man made and natural.)

In order to gain these skills they need to work as part of a team, understand their place in history, spend time with animals, in the environment… The list goes on.

There are many out of school activities that support these things, however the difficulty comes when you need to narrow down a selection to something your children will adore, and will also support the values you believe to be important… all while not overloading the child or sacrificing free play!

My own solution is to address some of the goals through less formal activities (ie camping can be largely child directed, and can address goals of environment and physicality as well as engaging a good deal of creative and analytical thinking – map reading, building, investigating etc).

For more formal lessons we have chosen to space these out over a month rather than have every lesson every week. (Ie music every second week, horse riding once a month and so on). This gives our kids more opportunity to experience a variety of activities without overloading each week to accommodate all the classes. This system gives my children the chance to experience a diverse range of skills (to see where their heart lies) and also ensures that their learning is still largely dictated by them (ie in the extended time between lessons it is their own initiative that drives their learning in each area.)

As my children grow I am sure they will self select the areas that they want to continue on a more regular basis, and the other aspects will fall away to a memory of something they once did. This is our solution to out of school activities. In a generations time we will see if it worked!

EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: MAKE CHOCOLATES FOR FRIENDS!

Each year we set up a small chocolate factory at someone’s house and make simple chocolates with friends – we then divide the creations and give the assortment of chocolates to each family.

This year was a rather impromptu, and on a school day, so the younger members of the families represented their clan in the chocolate making.

If you feel like adding some home made treats to your gifts, then here are our top 3 child friendly chocolate making endeavours:

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White chocolate (melted) mixed with shredded coconut and then simply heaped into blobs of sweet goodness on your foil/baking paper.

We then chose to add some sugar bling to these, just for fun.

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Similarly easy is dark chocolate (melted) mixed with nuts (we like slivered almonds, though any fruit and/nut will do). These then also become blobs of tasty treats on your baking paper.

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Each of these are delicious and very easy for even the youngest hands to master. If you want to get a little creative with an actual Easter egg then you may like to try the following. (Afraid we didn’t do this one this year so there are no pictures to go along with the instructions this time, but it is a simple activity even without pictures.)

  • Obtain a pre-made Easter egg and chocolate chips of the opposing colour. (Ie white chocolate egg with dark chocolate chips, or dark chocolate egg with white chocolate chips.) The colour of your base egg will be the primary taste, so choose as per your gift recipients tastes!
  • Open your Easter egg and sit in an egg cup.
  • Melt you chocolate chips in a separate bowl.
  • Using a paintbrush (suitably clean for edible artworks!) simply paint your own pattern onto the existing egg (using the melted chocolate chips of the opposing colour as the ‘paint’).

If you are ‘painting’ with white chocolate you can even add a little colour paste to your chocolate (just as you would normally when colouring chocolate) and this gave us a range of coloured ‘paints’ to work with. We did this last year and even added a few edible sparkles to our eggs.

Of course once you have finished your chocolates let them set while you make a card to accompany the chocolates, and lick the bowl clean!

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Enjoy your Easter creations.