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!

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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!

WORKSHEETS: LIMITING CREATIVITY OR PROVIDING A FRAMEWORK?

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There are lots of ways to learn your  letters, and different things will work for different children.

My oldest child knew all the shapes and the names of the letters long before she had a grasp of their use or sound. My youngest is the opposite and can sound out any word and tell you the letters, but can not recognise (or form) many letters. Each child benefits from different learning methods (and indeed enjoys different styles of learning.)

In our house, with learners on different ends of the letter learning spectrum, we are going for a bit of an immersion style of learning environment focusing on each letter (yes, learning about P means we had pumpkin soup for dinner, then pomegranate for desert!) and this is wonderful to encourage the recognition of sounds (something Anica is learning fast and seems to come very naturally to Elkas learning style).

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This is fun, but doesn’t teach the formation of the letters (in Anica’s case to improve her hand writing, and in Elkas case to recognise and form the letters). For this we have a series of worksheets (enjoyed most by Anica as it appeals to her learning style, but perhaps of the most obvious benefit to Elka as she links the sounds she knows with the formation of letters.)

Of course worksheets are not the only solution. We’ve talked before about ‘finding the o‘ or ‘sparkle writing‘, forming letters on the screen… and indeed we write letters on each other’s skin, in the sand, have them on the fridge, in the bath and so on… But for Elka in particular it seems that these worksheets have the most direct improvement on her ability to recognise letters.

Perhaps it is the repetition of the letters, or the novelty of the formal learning style, but I wanted to test what seems to be a very effective way for my children to supplement their learning: Half way through our work on P (before we had done the worksheet, but had done a number of other activities), I asked Elka a series of questions about the letters we’d been working on. The only letter that she knew but still couldn’t form was P (having already completed the other letters). Immediately after the worksheets (and then again a couple of days after) she could then form the letter P to complete her knowledge of the letter (adding to what sound it makes, what words it starts etc – i.e. this image below is Elka realising that ‘pen’ starts with ‘P’ and she was writing P’s with a Pen – hilarious!) While printable worksheets are not always appropriate, as a small dose for my family they are working very well.

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If you are new to the site and want to re-visit the post where I detail all the free printable that we are working from then head back to: Setting up for simple success.

ALL PARENTS FEEL GUILTY (BTW, IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT).

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To my surprise one of the most common responses to my little blog is people saying it makes them feel guilty. But why do these attempts to share lead so many of us to feeling guilt at our own parenting efforts? Is it because we only see the glossy clean houses of our blogging friends, the smiling faces of their delightful children, and wholesome ways they live?

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HOW TO LIMIT SCREEN TIME WHILE BUILDING DIGITAL LITERACY.

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Screen time, it’s an issue that we all confront. An issue that is changing drastically in our kids short lifetimes. I highly recommend listening to this segment from our favourite radio host Ryk Goddard speaking with Professor Stephen Houghton on ABC Radio.

On the other hand we also want to prepare our kids for the future, and building their digital literacy is an important part of that. For a little listen on this front you might like to click over to this segment where ABC Radio’s Rachael Brown speaks with Jillian Kenny about how Australian students are chasing non-existent careers.

As many of you may know, I have spent a good deal of my life creating videos for a living. (Everything from film clips to schools programs on drug education – a wonderfully divers and mind-blowing job). Yet when I had my first child we didn’t let her watch TV or videos. Even now, with a 3 and a 5 year old, we still don’t have a TV at our home.

But this lack of TV does not mean we don’t have screen time, we indeed do have a wide range of screens in our house, and our young kids are no stranger to using them: They find their own audio books on the ipad, they send e-mails on the laptop, they draw letters on my phone (indeed they asked how I could have possibly learnt hand writing in the olden days when there were no ipads with LetterSchool to teach me!) and they also like a good deal of shows on iView (particularly when our oldest is suffering from her Arthritis, there is nothing quite like a movie to take your mind off feeling sore and sick!)

While I certainly don’t believe kids should spend their entire lives waiting for the next show, I do think that screen time comes in a range of different levels of educational quality, and while we are living in such changeable times that there is no clear research from the past that we can accurately apply to the long term effects of what our kids are faced with today, this is how I have built my own personal philosophy on screen time:

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With less than 5% female representation among professional coders (and indeed; low representation across all technology fields) I actively want my daughters to be given every opportunity to “think like a coder”. Fortunately for us my brother is a software developer and has been able to introduce my children to the simple puzzles that allow them to gain the first basics of code. Like any activity for children, these games are fun, playful, challenging and lets them solve puzzles of increasing difficulty. Watching the intensity that my 5oy has when solving these puzzles I am in no doubt what so ever that her analytical brain is building at a rapid rate during this type of screen time. Puzzles that are programmed to respond and change individually with the child’s developing mind is far more advanced than ever before, and indeed personalised development supersedes any previous notion of following a precise generic sequence of puzzles laid out in a work book.

Physical interaction with the screen is something that is not taken into account with many of the previous studies done into kids watching TV. A 3 month old who is learning the finer points of controlling her fingers was held in front of a touch sensitive light pad, and her little arms went wild as she discovered the colours she could create by touching the screen. She explored fine details, sweeping motions and saw what her actions could make. Very few parents would be willing to let their 3 month old baby loose with finger paints, and yet this (less the valuable tactile squashy feeling she will get to experience a little later in life!) was exactly what she was doing. She was painting with light, learning physical control and the relationship between cause and effect. The ‘screen time’ was giving her an opportunity to do something that she would otherwise not have been able to do. Screen time will never replace the learning that is achieved with direct human interaction, but when used as an age appropriate tool (rather than a substitute) the learning potential is immense and to be encouraged.

This TED talk by Salman Khan is a great look at how screen time can assist rather than hinder in an older educational setting.

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Let’s sit and watch something. This is the one we all feel a little uncomfortable about, myself included, and yet in smaller doses I believe that this entertainment is a valuable and important part of growing up. In recent discussions about volcanos my 5yo clearly explained to me the cause of hot springs, volcanos, and tectonic plates (while she was missing some of the technical terminology, her understanding was surprisingly comprehensive!) I asked where she had learnt this – perhaps school? Or did her grandparents explain it to her? No, it was the “dinosaur train” – one of the shows my kids like that I am the least enthusiastic about but in watching it she has gained a conceptual understanding of the Earths structure that astounds me.

I am careful about what my children watch for entertainment because I can directly see the themes and relationships shown being re-created in their games, wiring in to their understanding of the world. But I also know it is important that they have a connection with those around them. I myself grew up largely without TV and radio, and while that had a great impact on my life, my adult friends often need to explain cultural references that I miss because I do not have the same “cultural background” as them. The entertainment of a culture is part of that culture, thus TV watching (even the trashy kind!) is part of growing up and being a part of this culture too. In a sense, it is important for my kids social and emotional development that they know who Elsa is, but they don’t need to watch Frozen enough that they model themselves on it!

Of course, none of us will know how this new kind of screen time effects our young ones until many years from now, and indeed what ‘screen time’ is will continue to evolve at a rapid rate, but this is how I personally navigate the current screen time dilemma. Love to hear how you are approaching this with your young ones.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO: CELEBRATE LETTER LEARNING WITH A SEASIDE SUNDAE

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Farewell S. It was fun hanging out with you, we are looking forward to starting our adventure with W on Wednesday.

To finish off the week we stopped in for a special Sundae. While many of our regular haunts don’t serve Sundaes we found that Mures (now known to my kids as the ‘Seahorse Shop’ because it has a seahorse for it’s emblem!) was more than willing to help us out with the girls first ever Sundae experience. If you head down their for your own sweet treat see if you can spot some S creatures on your visit – Seagulls, seals, and 100s of seahorses are to be found around the walls of the dining area.

ONE SIMPLE STRATEGY TO HELP KIDS OVERCOME FEAR.

Each of my children, at a particular point in their lives, have become terrified of spiders. Not caused by any traumatic event, but as though an instinctive ‘fear switch’ for 8-legged creepy crawlies is suddenly turned on. I’ve talked with other parents, and this seems common.

Elka, the 3yo, recently started being scared of spiders. She is fine with all other creatures, but spiders make her squeal.

As luck would have it, when we were looking for S words on our first day we spotted a spider on the wall. Initially seen by her older sister who said ‘SPIDER!’ I replied ‘Yes, SSSSpider SSSStarts with SSSSS too! well done!’ But then she corrected me, there was one on the wall behind me. And this is when the screaming started. Elka climbed on the table and squealed in a pitch that could shatter windows!

I trapped it under a glass, and showed it to her. It was a little one (locally known as a ‘daddy long legs’ because of it’s ridiculously long legs in relation to it’s tiny body). I asked Elka to count the legs, to think about how the spider was feeling trapped in the glass with all us big people looking at it. To look at it’s funny knee joints. She instantly relaxed and started using the logical part of her brain to think about the spider, rather than the instinctive part of her brain to react to the spider.

Before long she was drawing the spider, squinting to get a closer look at it’s eyes, and very happy for me to “let him go in the garden so he wouldn’t be scared any more!”

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This is a technique I have read about and trialed a number of times for various situations. In this instance the conditions were right for Elka to face her fear and very quickly overcome it. It may not have been so successful if she hadn’t been as receptive (ie tired or hungry etc) but for now Elka is far more sympathetic towards spiders than she is scared of them.

If only all the problems of the world were this easy to solve!

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Update: This last image was taken recently at SIngapore Zoo and and I thought I should add it to show how Elka’s new found curiosity for our 8 legged friends has truly taken over any fear that we dealt with all those weeks ago, putting in the effort to deal with the situation as we did seems to have paid off in this case!

BIG HISTORY FOR LITTLE PEOPLE

The stories we tell about our being (both public and private) are a cornerstone to our developing sense of identity – for an individual child, and indeed for the community as a whole.

After watching a presentation by David Christian (a key mover and shaker in the Big History movement) I am further inspired to incorporate ideas of ‘Big History’ (that is; history understood form a big picture perspective) into play based learning for early childhood.

My own daughter, Elka 3yo, insists that everything before now is ‘last year’ (yes; yesterday is a very long time ago when you are 3!) So with this daily reminder I fully understand the realities of a developing mind struggling to grasp the concept of time passing. Research shows that neurological pathways in Elkas young brain are forming to understand the complex idea of time, but the extensive process of developing that understanding will only be fully accomplished with the experience of time passing.

With this unquestionable evidence noted, even 3yo Elka can tell you (with some genuine understanding) that ‘dinosaurs lived a long time ago, and they’re not alive any more’. This is a concept that has been built upon by the numerous references to dinosaurs around her (from dress ups, toys, and stickers, to book and even all out dinosaur birthday parties). While history is usually reserved for older students, it is not such a giant leap to conclude that other milestones in our ‘big history’ could equally be as engaging subjects for play based learning in these early years!

From imagining the world of ancient civilisations to looking at how our landscape was formed (volcanic eruptions and a century of erosion is as simple as sand play with some added baking soda and vinegar!)

While I am yet to experiment on my darling offspring, I believe that her being able to understand a vague order of chronology (ie dinosaurs before kingdoms, pyramids before Nan and Pop etc) is well with in her abilities and would be aided by a general time line in her environment that we can refer to when we make new discoveries.

This sense of belonging (and owning a place in time as well as physical space) is something that will enhance all aspects of the growth: from empathy and understanding, to exploration and a desire to invent the next thing to change the course of history.

Now, on the topic of history: the Yoyo is believed to be the second oldest toy in human history. (Without google) do you know what the oldest is? (Note your answers in the comments below, future post will show how we made the oldest toy in history.)