Home Education Magazine
November-December 2002 - Articles and Columns
Ask Carol - Carol Narigon
Looking at Those Lessons
I spent a few days in Sacramento this past August at the Home=Education Conference sponsored by the HomeSchool Association of California. I always enjoy homeschool conferences. I come home energized, inspired and refreshed.
I didn't just play at this particular conference though. I gave a workshop with Lillian Jones and Bev Krueger (senior editor of Eclectic Homeschool Online) on how to start homeschooling with young children. These questions were among those asked during our workshop.
"Should you be concerned if your 4-year-old can only do lessons in 15-minute intervals? Is it as effective to do short lessons throughout the day or do you need to have schooling for long uninterrupted periods (1 1/2 hours)?"
I'm more concerned about the idea of doing lessons with a 4-year-old than I am about his attention span. While there are times a 4-year-old might be interested in something for 15 minutes, I don't believe it would happen during a planned, sit-down-at-the-kitchen-table lesson period. If, during the course of the day, something comes up that interests him and you study or discuss it together for 15 minutes, I'd say you had a highly motivated four-year-old on your hands.
An hour and a half would be torture for both of you. I can't even imagine trying to implement such a schedule with a child of four, either in one long period or in short sessions throughout the day. It's a recipe for burnout--yours and his. He'll beg you to send him to kindergarten next year.
Not only do 4-year-olds resist that kind of formal schooling, they are right and you are wrong if you try to do it. Your 4-year-old isn't wired for lessons. He's wired for play. That's how he learns. Through play.
Play has gotten a bad rap in our Protestant work ethic culture. So if play sounds like goofing off to you, and worksheets at the kitchen table sound like learning, just take some time to watch your child and see how hard he works at his play. You'll find his imagination is constantly making up stories and creating scenarios as he explores and learns to manipulate his world. You'll see him working hard learning to control his body and strengthen both his large and small motor coordination. You'll notice he's starting to develop interests of his own.
Don't thwart him! He knows what he needs to do. It's up to you to get on his level, not the other way around. He's not a little adult. He's a guy who's only four years into his development on this earth.
Don't be seduced by the image of yourself as teacher and your adorable child as student. Don't imagine yourself at the chalkboard, filling his mind with your hard-won knowledge. That's not going to be fun for him. What he needs from you are the basics. His physical needs met, a stable and loving relationship with his family, encouragement to try new things (not learning the multiplication tables, please), praise for when he succeeds at his goals, time and space for physical activities, and lots of music and reading.
If you want to spend 15 minutes with your 4-year-old, put on a fun CD or tape of kids' music and dance to it. Make animal noises. Get moving and laughing. Read a book together. Talk about the pictures. Read it in a funny voice. Act it out together. If he can't sit still with a book, read to him while he plays with his Lego Bricks%A8. Let him lead you in a pretend game with his dinosaur toys. Help build a fairy house under your tree. Construct a castle in the sandbox. Go to the park, swing as high as you can and slide down the slide.
Go for walks and talk about what you see (language). Stop to examine small things like spiders or groups of ants (science). Pick up colorful leaves and stones (small motor development). See how far you can kick a rock down the street (large motor development). See how many of your feet you kicked the rock and how many of his (math). Read the signs you see along the way (reading, spelling and geography). His attention won't stay on one thing for long. Keep moving. When you get home, press your leaves in big books, then make collages with them in the winter (art). Make a display of stones you've collected and count how many you have (math). Use the kitchen table only for eating (common sense).
If you don't believe me, do some research on brain development. Read some of Frank Smith's books. Really think about what your child needs at this point for his brain and body to develop appropriately. When you read to him, you're teaching him to read and you're teaching him language. His eyes aren't ready to read and write yet; it's not good for them. But his brain is ready to learn language. You don't have to make it harder than it is. Just talk with him normally and read to him a lot.
I know parents are eager to start "teaching" their children. (I've been there.) I'm sorry to tell you it just isn't necessary, especially at age four. Oh, sure, there's a large industry perpetuating itself on the idea that children need professionals to teach them how to survive in the big, bad world. Nonsense. Children need parents who follow more than they teach and know how to get out of their children's way so they can get on with the business of growing up.
It will happen fast enough. You don't want to spend those years doing lessons at the kitchen table.
"How do I help my 11-year-old regain his trust in himself? I've been homeschooling (unschooling) for almost a year now and my son is scared and doubtful, feeling like he's increasingly 'falling behind' his peers. He keeps waiting for me to 'teach' him things public-school style."
What is he asking you to do? Buy him some books, a curriculum? So get some already! Ask him how he wants to organize his learning with these materials and then help him do it. Does he want to make himself a daily schedule? Get him a school planner and show him how to do it. Explain that he's responsible for doing the work he's committed to doing, and you will be there to help as much as he likes. Sit down with him and go over the material he's working on with him. Have fun with it!
Obviously your son believes he will feel better if he has some "school" work to do. Unschooling doesn't mean he can't have those kinds of materials if he wants them. In fact, it means if that's the way he wants to learn, that's the way you should do it.
At 11, your son is old enough for you talk about how learning happens. You can point out to him how much he learns from his regular activities. If he's not convinced, just drop it. This is his education, remember? You won't be kicked out of the unschooling social club if you follow his lead and do some lessons at home.
Since he's been in school before, ask him to remember a typical school day. How much time did he actually spend with the teacher, one-on-one? How much time was spent on standing in line, announcements, saluting the flag, lunch, recess, discipline, changing subjects and anything else that isn't really considered "learning" in school? Show him how little actual learning goes on during some school days.
Frankly, it sounds like your son wants more of your time. Make sure you spend one-on-one time together reading aloud, watching videos, playing video games, doing fun science experiments, drawing, journaling, writing poetry, playing music, kicking a soccer ball around--whatever he likes to do that you can do with him. Get involved in his life and involve him in yours.
He will get his confidence back through his strong relationship with you, because he'll know the most important person in the world to him wants to spend time with him and likes learning with him. Unschooling doesn't mean leaving him to his own devices all day. It means not forcing school on your child. If your child is more comfortable doing "school" right now, then help him find a way to do it that works for both of you.
It was a big decision when you decided to homeschool. Big decisions often take time to bear fruit. You took him out of school for a reason, and it's a sure bet he wasn't thriving there for some time. Be patient. Hug him and tell he has lots of time, and, just like you, he needs to be patient with himself and the process.
© 2002 Carol Narigon
November-December 2002 - Articles and Columns
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