Friday, June 21, 2013

The slower simpler pace of schooling

After finishing "The Right Side of Normal" a few days ago I feel like my thought process has been altered in a good way.  I not only see my children differently (or more to the point, I see them as who they actually are instead of "what they are supposed to learn at this age.")  I feel like I'm "seeing" them for the first time in a long while.  Though one might be good or doing well with learning something it doesn't mean she actually likes it or "should" be learning that at this moment in time.  I want my girls to experience things and try different aspects of learning and life, but I want to avoid the push or "drive" that is so common in our culture today.

Near the beginning of the book she says, "One of the hardest things I will ask of parents and educators in this book is to wait out the time frame of the creative learner.  I didn't come to this conclusion lightly.  Though there are thousands of research studies indicating academics shouldn't be rushed, our fast-paced society influences decisions to learn sooner..... 'We would be aghast at such a performance in medical science.  We wouldn't tolerate such ignorance even in the manufacture of our cars.'  Yet, the research on when children optimally learn is ignored."  (The underlined part was my own... I  never used to underline or mark in books, but after realizing my own Right-Brain dominance thing I decided to go with it and it is SO much easier to find those nuggets when I flip back through the book!)

So this brings me to Perfectionism.  I found it interesting to note that Left-brain dominant learners have a different type of perfectionism than Right-brain dominant learners. 
Quote-- A left-brained person tends to exhibit external perfectionism.  This is when she wants to exact perfection on everything she does and others do because she thrives on accomplishment (products).  An external perfectionist might think, "I want a perfect product; I'm frustrated because I want it to turn out right."  A right-brained person tends to exhibit internal perfectionism.  This is when he wants to exact perfection on everything he does and others do because his creative expression (process) is an extension of how he feels about himself.  An internal perfectionist might think, "Why am I so stupid?  Why can't I get this right?  I'm no good!"  Because many right-brained learners tend to be highly sensitive, this tendency to internalize the effect of their actions or products makes sense.  Interestingly, both perfectionist acts can look similar to one another; the difference is in the motive and inner effect.

She goes on to talk about her son and how he gave up drawing for a time because he couldn't do something as well as his father could.  I HAD that moment as a child and had given up drawing for years because I "couldn't do it."  I remember when I was older and was in a drawing class with my Dad, I was feeling like an idiot because my drawing looked so terrible compared to everyone elses (I think I was about 12).  The teacher didn't say anything about mine, but had an expression that told me enough, then he turned to my Dad and praised his drawing.  I actually did later go on to learn to draw on my own and got quite good at drawing, but I see that perfectionism in me.  Not to get the product perfect so much but to be satisfied with it.  It is heart breaking to be this sort of perfectionist (I always called it "overachieving") and be satisfied with what you've done only to be told all the "mistakes" that an external perfectionist will point out.  Once you recognize this however you can hopefully keep yourself from crushing the spirit of your child and also help them to realize that trial and error and trying again are great!  The external perfectionist is just trying to point out how you can make the product more perfect, but to an internal perfectionist your criticism is attacking them and their value as a person.
At the beginning of this week my oldest (7) learned about trial and error.  While working on her "Cat Shmat" game that I found on a math games website we had to try and fail and try again to figure out how to move the pieces so that the cookie would roll to the cat.  (This was perfect with the cat school theme!)  And I was able to talk out loud about what they could try.  When it was my 5 year old's turn I would ask, "What would happen if we put it here?"  or "Where do you think the cookie would fall if we turned this piece?"  All trying to get her to think logically and try and try again.  That last level was even hard for me, but it was okay because the girls saw me figuring out how to make it all work and failing, but trying again and again till we finally figured it out!

For father's day we'd gone to an art museum and I HAD to buy this book.It was just so creative and messy and fun!  Definitely NOT something you should try to get perfect or "inside the lines"... I remember that being a big deal when I was a kid and I have no idea why it should be.  Why do we care if our kids color outside the lines of a coloring book?  I remember the feeling of sadness as a little girl when my coloring accidentally arched outside of the line. 
Staying with the "cat school" theme I bought and photo copied some coloring pages of wild and/or big cats.  The coloring book emphasized in detail how each cat was colored in real life.  I wanted to avoid this "perfection" mindset and didn't feel the need to have them color the pictures realistically.  I encouraged them to color the pictures however they wanted.  "You can color them as rainbows or poke-a-dots or scribbles."  But the whole time they worked on their paintings they listened to some cat facts and were interested enough to repeat them back to their Daddy when he got home!  It was a lovely little time and all of my girls enjoy painting.
 Now for another quote about halfway through the book--
--There are two criteria for good reading resources for right-brained children.  They have to be meaningful and interesting, and highly visual.  Many reading programs contain dry and stilted material barely bordering on a storyline.  Because reading is all about the visualization for the right-brained person, such material doesn't capture the imaginations of these highly creative learners to entice their efforts.  As if that wasn't bad enough, many reading programs separate learning words from the context of reading.  Some reading programs even leave out visuals to prevent "cheating."  Because right-brained learners are whole-to-part people, they want to capture the big picture and they use the story and visual context to do so.  Separating words from context cripples their learning process.  (end quote)

Now I understand why I actually enjoy watching a movie before reading the book that it came from (usually) because I can pretty easily change how I see the characters if the book pictures them differently, but watching the movie first helps me get that over-arcing "big picture" and I love to go to the book and get all the details to really enjoy it (I'm rarely disappointed because the book is generally better!  So if I liked the movie then I'll like the book even more).  I probably would never have read "Pride and Prejudice" as a teenager if I hadn't watched the movie first for instance (and the book is full of so much more humor in the style of writing that I just loved, but wouldn't have sat through without that big picture first.)

My goal now as I read out loud to my kids or teach them something is to give them that "big picture"... rather than becoming impatient because they "just weren't listening" or because they need to "keep listening" - that doesn't work.  They need to picture it.  Re-capping a story to help them "see" where we were is so very helpful.  I remember how frustrated I was as a child listening to nursery rhymes or other stories with too many words that I didn't recognize and how I couldn't visualize it. I want to take the time to paint a mental picture for my children so that their vocabulary can grow as they enjoy the stories!
While the girls were having lunch I turned on a free on-line reading of The Chronicles of Narnia and when their attention seemed to be wandering I turned it off only to find they wanted me to turn it back on.  I asked them where we were and they'd lost the visual of what they were listening to so I caught them up by retelling (dramatically) what the story was talking about and what it looked like (it's hard for them to catch some of the words that we don't often use here, like "parcel" for "packages")  After we'd listened to the first 25 min segment and they were wanting to hear more I decided to hold them off and show them part of the movie just so they could understand more and talk about it more (They only watched as far as they'd heard the story.)  My oldest was especially interested in SEEING what she'd been hearing to really catch the visual.  We talked about how some things are different in movies than the books... how they will change hair colors to say the least.  As the 7 year old was watching this she suddenly wanted to grab her camera and take a picture of the movie playing.  So the picture above is her taking a picture of what they were watching.  I see more and more how her mind works and how I can better teach her and talk to her.  She so clearly is visualizing things and she is so picture oriented.  Note:  The words that I had her illustrate that I'd blogged about a month or so ago I finally hung up on the wall and she remembered practically all of them right away!  That visual stuck so well with her that suddenly reading was the easiest thing in the world.  ;)

 Which brings me to another great thing that I found.  A reading program specifically for right-brain dominant picture oriented thinkers.  I looked through as much as I could on their site and felt this sense of relief as a teacher.  I WISH I'd known about this when Lily was almost 5 and wanting to do school.  We did "Sing Spell Read Write" and while the first book was fine, the second book was more difficult for ME to teach even then for her to learn from.  I found myself changing or slowing SO much of it down that it was getting ridiculous.  They said not to move on from one place until the child can do the thing perfectly, but at one point I had a choice to either keep trying to go ahead or discourage my child by staying there when it clearly wasn't teaching her what they wanted her to learn.  Plus I felt very scattered when trying to figure out how I was supposed to teach her with it.  My husband tried to help me, but his "lesson plan" didn't help in the long run.  I think I was just sensing the resistance of my daughter and was growing more and more frustrated that I couldn't teach her with that method (the thing is expensive too!)  Anyway, resistance in learning is a red flag.  If your child is resisting learning something or more specifically HOW you are trying to teach them then you've got to back up and try a different road.  I'm learning how to do some "trial and error" of my own.  I thought it would be so great if I could pick one curriculum and learn how to teach it and use it for each kid.  It would save money in the long run, but while I might be able to use similar things for each kid I've got to look at them as individuals first.  My second two girls could probably be able to do a more traditional learning to read style (since they were are more verbal than my first), but my oldest being so picture oriented really needs a more specific program for her.  But here's the thing.  It's SO much more interesting and it's actually easier for a left-brain learner to translate pictures into symbols, so even if my younger ones "could" learn from a traditional method they might have more fun with the picture oriented program.  And.... lets be honest, this right-brained teacher thinks it will be much more fun to teach.  :]
306 SnapWords Teaching Cards
These flash cards were so fun to find too as I'd already started having my daughter illustrate her own!  I'd like to get these and still have her make some of her own too.  I showed her some of these and she looked so interested in them and wanted to see each detail of how the word was portrayed in the picture.
So, all my reading and linking and looking brought me to some more schooling style discovery.  Now about what Waldorf schooling looks like.  It values oral story telling before age 8 and doesn't teach reading till 8 years old.  Using amazing visuals and gentle teaching style it is so exactly what I'd imagine a combination of simplicity parenting and right-brain dominant learner moshed together would become.  Here's an article about teaching reading Waldorf style.  And here is another article about some of the ways you can incorporate Waldorf type schooling into your home.  Whenever I read about Waldorf and their toys and so on before I always sort of stopped short with that because it can get so basic that it become unrealistic.  I don't have the finances to buy beesewax clay (is something I thought back then), but I guess I'm beginning to catch the flavor of simplicity schooling rather than getting caught up in how THEY do it.  Eating by candle light is a beautiful idea and my children love doing that!  It's not practical for this to happen ALL the time though.  My goal is always to simplify and create a nurturing rhythm to our days, but as the last blog entry demonstrated.. it's just not always possible.  We can easily turn an "ideal" into an "Idol" and anything short of meeting our ideal is too tragic for words... that's not a healthy way to live.  If good things become too important to us then they are suddenly in a place of worship without us even realizing it.

Another quote from "The Right Side of Normal"  -- "Right-brained children wilt under these pressures to perform on demand, especially in the early years.  Their process focus is about creatively figuring things out, unlike the product focus of getting it done."

I not only saw that in my first born (even as a toddler!) but I see that in myself and now recognize it in my own quest to teach my own children.  The left-brain teaching sequence was pressing down on me even as a teacher.  Perhaps if I had a left-brain dominant child I wouldn't have felt so discouraged since then it would have "worked" but as it was, I felt myself wilting more and more.  But in many ways that's okay because it drove me to find something better.  Here pretty soon, maybe I won't be on my computer so much searching for help and resources and be more present with my kids.

Speaking of not being on my computer to read as much.  Yesterday I just went with the Waldorf encouragement that values hands on activities and knitting and felting and weaving and (frankly) all the stuff I got super into when I was in my mid teens and totally loved!  I dug through my dwindling supplies that I haven't looked at in too long and pulled out some project ideas.  I already had the strips of paper cut from back in the day when I was making my art to sell (Still have some available to sell even though I haven't been making any recently.)  At Paper Artist on Facebook

And the weaving project was created.  I used double sided tape to put the first strip on so that they could keep following the pattern.  Bend back every other paper and slide your next paper in!  They were delighted with the pattern of squares that they made. 

Here is what it looks like with every other one bent back.  My oldest loved this project so much that she made 2 more!  She called it a "Paper quilt"  .. Our next project might involve fabric.  :]

My five year old was fascinated with this little hand knitting tool and did amazingly well at it!  And we had a relaxing quite afternoon listening to music in their room for several hours while doing projects.
My girls love making and playing with snakes.  The purple one that my oldest is holding was mostly made by me from yarn that I spun way back in the day.  They had fun picking out the buttons for the eyes and my 5 year old is still excited about making more snakes and even made another one today!  She wanted a little brother for the red girl snake.

We pulled out my ball winder at this time as well and they both took turns winding up yarn balls that were a little messy.  I also loved doing this at a young age.  I'm not sure why it's so fascinating, but it was.

When the 2 year old woke up she helped me pull the buttons all off the papers which made another sensory bin type thing for her to play in for later besides the usual bean boxes and rice bags.
The little one also had a blast helping with dinner this day.  She cut the cucumbers in half.

While I love the ideals of the Waldorf school, the spontaneity of unschooling, and "living books" and the outdoors like Charlot Mason emphasizes... it's important to realize that those ideals are just that.  Our days will look different.  I probably won't ever be introducing the school day with a song and provide only faceless dolls for my children (who insist on adding faces to anything that doesn't have one.)  I will strive for less TV time for them and slow our days down so that they can play more and be entertained less, but I probably won't cut out cartoons in the morning when they first wake up (only because I'd much rather sleep in than make them turn the TV off!)  Computers are here to stay and so are video games and technology.  What I feel like we need is not to get rid of it all, but to use it wisely and to find the balance of using it well so that we control our own pace in life.  That balance will look different for each family and if we were living in different circumstances it would probably look different for us.  It's been difficult in the heart of such a big city by a busy highway on a busy residential road completely full of apartments IN a little apartment to find nature and a slower pace, but it can be done.... a little bit at a time.  It's always a re-balancing act though as other people press their ideals onto what life should look like, but what we each need to get to is what our own family's pace of life should be.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The hundreds in reality

I always appreciate blog posts or writers (like this one for instance) that not only give advice but are "real" and honest about what it's truly like to be a parent or home educator.  Very very often the plans that we make go in an entirely different direction in school time.  It's easy to think we can't do something or might be close to giving up.  I think this is especially hard for people that are already surrounded by the homeschooling critics.  Hopefully this post will be an encouragement. 

Okay, so every now and then I throw in a post about "what it's really like."  I mean, if you just read the last post all on its own, you'd probably think what a great easy relaxing wonderful nurturing week we had.  The balloon hundreds chart and the themes and games sounded like such a great idea. And maybe they would have been .. on a different week.
I'll Teach my Dog 100 Words By: Michael Frith
Add this to the list of stuff we did for the "Hundreds party" (only we didn't read it ON the day of the party as you will find out when I describe the other stuff that went on.)

Last week our "hundreds chart party" was on Wednesday because that's what I promised my girls.  I'd been putting it off too long and finally pinned the day down.  But the week was full of way too much busyness.  From a dinner with new friends to a last minute realization that VBS was happening all that week from 6 to 8:15 at night, to gymnastics, and getting pulled over by a cop for an expired inspection sticker (that I'd never had to deal with before and had no idea was overdue), then the middle one getting car sick and throwing up her raspberry smoothy several times on the way to a funeral (plus having to deal with not having the extra clothes in the car that usually were there.)  I'd promised to make a bunch of cotton candy for the VBS goers all individually bagged and I also made balloon animals for them all to take home.  In the midst of this we had a few unexpected visits from my mother-in-law (which I really wish I'd had more time to enjoy.)  A trip to the Zoo to get a gift for my nephew and mailing a birthday package and the usual grocery shopping and craft mess and messy house stress all happened that week. At the beginning of the week we'd found out about the death of a friends baby (just a few weeks from her due date) and the whole week felt like a blur of not quite knowing what to do except try to keep up.  Some parts felt tragic and some parts felt like a comedy of errors and most parts were punctuated by overly tired children that seemed to whine and fight and pick on each other infinitely more than usual.  Also my littlest who is shy and introverted naturally and hasn't been ready for being left in a nursery at church was with me when I volunteered to watch the babies (from 4 months to just under three.)  The almost constant crying (a few of the babies weren't ready to be left in a nursery like this and cried on and off so much that they kept setting the other ones off too) put so much stress on my sensitive toddler that it took her the full week to recover from it.  She was a trooper though and made it half way through the volunteering time before losing it.  Such a bummer too because I'd helped her get to a point where she was getting more comfortable with strangers and I feel like we are almost back to square one.  She's also suddenly afraid of the dark and has been having a harder time going to sleep.  Anyone with a toddler can relate to how hard it is for the Mom when the littlest one is exceedingly clingy and fussy and sleeping poorly.  Every sound is too loud and every nerve in your body is too sensitive.  The only way to survive at this point is to ask for the grace of God and thank your husband for the hard cider he brought home for you.

I'm sure I left something out from last week, but suffice it to say that emotionally it was tougher than it probably was in reality.  Isn't that how it always is?

The girls DID enjoy the VBS and that brought some good conversations about salvation and dinosaurs and so on, but sometimes homeschooling is over-run by life and it's a miracle that anyone learns anything at all.

But even if there isn't overcommitments happening or unexpected grief or forgetfulness or fussy babies, sometimes the great plan that you thought your kids would love for sure - doesn't pan out.  Even the little projects that you'd think they would like they just don't want to do.. are you going to FORCE them to make a puppet craft that fits the fairy tale you read them that went along with the moral and a rhyme?  How do you keep them active and busy and get the rest you need yourself.  How do you keep that simple living and balance when they are with you constantly?

-- You feel overwhelmed by all those little things that amount to too much and you just made a hanging curtain with 100 balloons while the kids enjoyed roasting marshmallows over a candle (while you watched them like a hawk lest they set them on fire and burn your table) and now just a few hours later they are complaining that they never get to do anything "fun" and say "aren't we going to start the party soon?" and your nerves are fried from the build up of that proverbial straw that breaks the camels back.  And you try to redeem the moment by driving to the bank for 100 pennies to teach them about money and different ways to get to a hundred, and you get pulled over by a cop giving you a ticket for something that wasn't your responsibility to take care of and you over extend yourself and you feel judged and you feel like you need to do more.

In reality you need to step back and unplug.  When the kids see the VBS starting at another church (the very next week) and are asking you if they can go to that one TOO you need to say "no."

When you can't think of what to teach them or just feel like you need a breather in order to organize the next phase of their school time, pull out a free online game for them to work through like "Cat Shmat" and other math or alphabet games.  (My 7 year old had fun with this site word bingo game as well.)
In Cat Shmat you get to add pieces to the picture so that the cookie will roll to the cat.

Find a way to have a breather and realize that the life that keeps "getting in the way" is the very thing they will learn from the most.  It's more important for you to take that breather and let them watch an educational show (or one just for fun) while you figure out what in the world you should do next.  Bribe them with money to do work.  Note: when you are a grown up this is called "being paid for working your job."  In our house who ever folds the most towels gets the most money and it's at least a penny a towel.  Several months ago I got $30 of nickles and dimes for this very purpose.

Most of all, just slow down and unplug.  Sit on the floor and dig through legos with your kids for an hour (or whatever it is that you'd enjoy doing with them.. like reading stories or taking a walk and looking at flowers.)  Yes, this means you have to actually have the TIME to do this so rushing to this or that or the other commitment is probably a bit too much.  If everyone is snapping at each other then perhaps they all need to go to sleep earlier which means you need to make dinner sooner, which means that you've got to be home soon enough for wind down time, which means you need to be at your house for the toddlers nap time.  For more simplifying ideas check out this book -- Simplicity Parenting.

A week later with some simplifying measures in place I am amazed at the difference in my children and myself.  I feel like I'm enjoying them again and seeing them for the first time.

It seems ironic that it takes effort to slow down and do LESS, but it does.  It's also really really worth it.  While times like I had last week are pretty inevitable there's much we can do to prevent them from happening and it's all about doing less.

And if no one has told you yet -- as you hit that bad week/day/hour please realize that you haven't "failed."  I recently was explaining to my oldest about what it's like to be a Christian, "Being a Christian isn't about doing everything right or getting your life perfect, it's about learning that you need Jesus more and more and can't do anything good without him."  I have many moments (especially since becoming a parent and homeschooling) where I know that I'm just not enough.  I can't do any of this in my own strength.  I need God's grace and strength in every hour and only "fail" when I'm able to (somehow) do it all on my own and appear "perfect."  That's why I've got to write posts like this for you all.  It's too easy to hide the bad and only reveal the good, but that doesn't help anyone.  It can be a scary thing to be honest and I've been burned for revealing my faults and/or struggles and being "real" with people, but I've got to keep being honest to be any good to anyone.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Hundreds chart days!

 Last fall we started a 100's chart and counted each day starting at one and adding one (or two) numbers. The little jar is for the "ones column" and the blue tub is for the bundles of tens.  I didn't do it every day with the girls, but we did it enough over all and consistently enough that it worked well.
I sort of stalled for a while in having them finish the chart because I knew I was going to throw a party for us and finally this week I planned for us to do the party and got balloons and so on for it. 
And here is where we are today!  We completed the hundreds chart (sometimes with the girls taking turns counting so that one did odds and the other counted the even numbers.)  Ten bundles of ten sticks.
The girls got to roast marshmallows over the 100 candles while I was blowing up balloons.
Counting marshmallows to help the kids associate the amount with the symbolic representation of the number.  (We did this before lighting the candles actually.)

They were super excited about the marshmallows.

And this is what I was doing while they were roasting marshmallows.  It is a balloon hundred chart!  My 7 year old helped me write the numbers in order on the balloons.  In retrospect I think it would have been better to have each row the same color instead of using all white.  I think the girls were most excited about the balloon animals that I made (not pictured) which don't really match the theme of one hundred, but they DID match our learning about animals.

And I made up a fun hundreds chart game that is sort of a combination of bingo and tic tac toe.  Print out a hundreds chart like THIS one twice.  Use one chart for the "board" and the other one you can cut apart so that you have all the numbers in a box or bowl or something place to draw from.  The kids take turns (unlike bingo) and play onto the same board.  The goal is to get three in a row (or more if you want to make it harder.)  I used my "announcer voice" as I drew a number for each child (put used numbers in the discard pile) and make sure they have differently shaped stickers to use or different colors to cover the number that is called out on their turn.  If they couldn't find the number without looking at what I drew I would just show them.  This is going to be a game we will play again to practice recognizing numbers!

This was the final "game board" after the winning number was drawn for my 5 year old (her squares were on the 13, 14, 15) and like I said, you could easily change it to be 4 or 5 in a row (diagonal, vertical, or horizontal of course.)
So, as we were playing I noticed that it was hard to recognize the 9s from the 6s when I was drawing the numbers AND this board is much prettier, but I don't have color ink in my printer right now.  However, I think this would be a really great way to do it.  There's always the other option of using magnets instead of stickers though so you wouldn't have to print this chart out every time.  I might do something more permanent later like that.  For now, there you go.  :)

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

"To the zoo Tuesday"

There are so many great right-brain dominant learning tools these days!  Check out this tag reader map The girls are so into it that I'm really going to need to get a new tag reader pen thing so both girls can play at the same time..

On the monorail at the zoo today with some homeschooling friends!

We got to see a Serval - wild African cat - at the zoo and learn all about it.  (Special talent is how high it can jump!)

Such great timing with our "cat school" theme and when we got home we read more about servals and talked about why they have shorter tails and longer legs and large ears and so on.

They are the second fastest cat (the Cheetah is the fastest cat of course.) They can run 45 mph and are the best hunters because they catch half of what they hunt for (Lions succeed only 1 out of 5 times.)

Pretty coat. 

We ate lunch with the lions who were snuggled up next to the glass enjoying the coolness by the air conditioned building and shade.

Lily took these pictures and of the lions paw.  She's been enjoying taking different shots with her new camera and telling me what she takes pictures of and where they will go in her alphabet sorting book.  "I took a picture of a plant to go under "P" for plant."  -- that sort of thing.

Sleeping Cheetah.

The baby was taking pictures with her phone (pretend) but saw me with the real camera and wanted a turn.

After dinner we pulled out the new "Cat-opoly" game to play with the girls.  My husband wasn't as impressed with it as it's just a re-make of Monopoly and is very long, but I think it's helpful for the girls to play games like this and have to add the money and so on and there are some fun facts about cats in this game too.  I kind of want to make up our own cat themed board game now though.  Note: the middle child on the right is pretending to act like a cat.. hence the crazy arms and face. 
It's been a full day and guess what?!  Before bed Lily (7) who a few weeks ago was crying because she "hated reading" was actually reading some of a book OUT LOUD before going to sleep!  Amazing what can happen when you take the pressure off a kid and start teaching them in other ways.  We are definitely building a positive atmosphere around learning and reading and school in general now and I think that is great.  :}

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Creating "the environment"

As I try to pin down what I want to blog about this week, the thing that seems to be connecting all the different ideas is how to create the right kind of environment (home and learning) for my children.  I'm still reading "The Right Side of Normal" and also a book called "Simplicity Parenting" and if you've been reading this blog for a while you might have noticed the times when I've talked a lot about organizing or other school related posts.  I feel like those posts were how I was struggling with knowing what to do (generally they were about trying something that I thought would work or help) and perhaps that is always how this blog will be;  None of it has "the answer" but I feel like our life is slowly moving toward the dreams that my husband and I originally envisioned.  We always talked about wanting to be a "reading family" or that we wanted to play a lot of games together (my husband is really into games) I value creativity and want to have a lot of space for my girls and myself to create.
My girls watched a cartoon called "Lallaloopsy Land" (perhaps you've seen the button eyed toys in stores?) Lily said that she wanted to buy one of the dolls and I suggested she make one instead!  Renna made hers out of paper and glue.
Lily (7) drew the picture to show me what she wanted to sew and Renna (5) wrote her big sisters name under the picture to be helpful.  ;)
We used felt and embroidery floss and buttons for the Lollaloopsy kitty and Lily did a fine job of hand sewing!  We need to buy some more felt now to re-stock.

Finished project!  She's now working on a doll twice as tall as the kitty.

It's been difficult to find the room in our tiny town-home apartment to make these ideals happen and still keep my sanity (that last part is the key here.)  I find myself dreaming about a school room that looks like a Montessori or Waldorf type classroom, but in reality our main living area, where we spend the majority of our days, is only about 600 square ft.  That's our kitchen, dinning room, living room, and a tiny bathroom and where we do school and projects and play and read.  I'm quite thankful for a vaulted ceiling in part of it and the added windows that we have now compared to our old apartment that was the same layout as this one.

Living in a small space isn't all bad though.  Just the other day my husband and I were talking about how secure (from a break in) our house really is.  When the coat closet at the front door is open you can't open the front door (without breaking the closet door) so that's a good warning that we'd hear.  And if someone tried to come in through a window or the sliding door we'd hear them trip over the lego or marble works or slip on books, and since our room is a loft room and open to the rest of the house we'd hear any of that and my husband could call the police with the cell phone he uses for an alarm.  Another bonus of a tiny space is being able to plug the vacuum into one outlet and be able to vacuum both the downstairs AND the upstairs without replugging the cord into another outlet (I actually like vacuuming -- it drowns all sounds for a time and afterward everything looks nice again!)
My girls discovered that their "reading buddies" from Hallmark (GREAT gift from Gramma for Christmas!) will respond to some of the OTHER toys story book.  So when they were listening to the Scooby Doo story, Renna's Abigail bunny said a few things in response to his story.  It was pretty cute.  I wouldn't mind getting more of these books for them! 
Renna got a new lego figure to inspire her to play with the lego more.  While her older sister will build some simple houses, Renna mainly likes to play with the people and dress them differently and create imaginary stories with them.
I read part of a kindle book recently called "organizing small spaces" or something like that and was annoyed at most of the pictures they used of kitchens and dinning rooms that were at least TWICE as big as mine.  I've contemplated writing my own book about "organizing small spaces while homeschooling with a baby under foot and cooking healthy meals from scratch because of food allergies and dealing with limited outdoor space" (that is just a working title.)  Our apartment has a pool which is wonderful, but most outdoor activities require the Mommy or Daddy to be present for safety reasons.  I'm also VERY thankful for the tiny patio area that we have now that we are on a ground floor apartment so that my girls can have a little sand box to muck around in (and I can see them while doing dishes and what-not.)

Anyway, I'm mentioning all that simply to point out where I'm coming from.  I'm less in a complaining stage and much more in the "what do I do about it" stage.  So, about environment -- Ideally I'd want to live in the country or at least in a place where my kids could play outside more independently.  I'd wish for an actual "school/play room" to facilitate learning and building and not lose sanity points when absolutely no part of my house (ever) is tidy for longer than an hour.  But this is real life and it's not usually ideal.
The pile of books spread onto the floor more as the week wore on.  My two year old was having so much fun looking at stories!  I want to encourage that love of reading and some how organize our space so that I can easily put it back together so that my home is restful for my husband and myself.
As visual people as my children and I are, we tend to be the most inspired to create something or play with something when we see it.  But as the organizing pro talks about in her books and blog it's really important to have "white space" so that the eyes can rest.  Uncluttered living is a freeing way to live!  And indeed as the "Simplicity Parenting" book talks about how our culture is so bombarded with information and "stuff" in general that children especially can't process what they are taking in and it's making them more anxious and stressed out.  What we need to get back to is an environment where a child can play in the dirt or with a single toy for hours and use their imaginations.  How can I provide right-brain dominant style learning resources for my kids WHILE living in our tiny space AND keep our home as uncluttered as possible?  Honestly, the children get almost as stressed out as I do when a space is cluttered and messy and they also can't play as well and enjoy themselves as much either (Again, see "Simplicity Parenting" to understand this phenomenon.)
We put together a 200 piece cat puzzle this week.  I fondly remember my Mom teaching me how to put puzzles together -- start with the edge pieces, look at the picture on the box.. Not to mention how often the mother can nudge a piece toward the child to "try" so that she can figure it's position out on her own and feel victorious when it fits!

I've developed an intuitive understanding of how a room should be arranged to facilitate the best play time for little ones since having my own kids (you just get used to knowing what works and doesn't in this 24/7 job.)  Basically if you take all their toys and dump them in boxes it won't be as appealing as each "set" of things in it's own area or set up prettily as it might be in a store.  I'm convinced that one reason why children want so many new things is because it's all right there!  It's all pretty and together and inviting.  But I can create this same feeling with toys that they already have by going through it all and putting all the pieces of each thing together and getting rid of the things that are broken or not played with.  Changing batteries when need be and so forth is also very helpful.  Also if you stack toy containers up in piles and make it too hard for a little one to get to they won't play as well as if you'd positioned things in areas that they can reach by themselves.
Later this week we made one at least twice this tall using almost ALL the pieces.  It was very impressive.
Now to creating "the environment" which is to say creating the home environment that my husband and I value (this will be slightly different for each family) and creating the homeschooling environment that I'd like (again different with each family) so as I talk about what I'm trying to do or what I think is best, please realize that it might not be best for you and it's a continual process of re-thinking and re-working to make it fit the time since the kids change so quickly as they grow.  "The Right Side of Normal" talks a little bit about unschooling (though I think it is quite valuable to any parent homeschooling or not) but I'm reluctant to embrace that definition for what we do.  Partly because what we do does not feel like "unschooling" so much as "always learning."  The "unschooling" title sounds easy but living and learning this purposefully feels anything but "easy" yet for our family it feels like we are going to a more natural way of learning.  I have discovered in this past year especially that my favorite way of doing our school is to not really follow a curriculum but to just have a stack of books that we read a little bit out of each day and when we've finished a book we move onto the next.  I'm learning with them as we read about parts of a plant or watch a dvd from the library about flight.  I feel like I'm naturally really good at sensing what my children "get" and don't get and how I can teach them in the moment by grabbing this or that and seizing the opportunity.  I'm really terrible at planning too far ahead.  I need to plan a little ahead, but in a lose enough way to be able to go with the flow of the moment.  Perhaps an unschooler would see this and say that's what it means to be unschooling.  I don't know, but I don't think it matters what we call it.  Montessori, Waldorf, Charlotte Mason, Literature based something or other this or that philosophy -- I'm going to just keep doing whatever my kids and my family needs and that might sway from one style to the next depending on the year or moment.
We had some extra boxes from the new school stuff I ordered and the girls spent several hours over a few days working on their box cars.  My oldest was super proud of hers and kept saying "doesn't it look like a real car?"  I could see her imagination flying as she cut this and taped that.  She made locks for the doors with tape.  Over all it was just nice to see her mucking about on her own project.  As the resident adult in this tiny space I got a little stressed with all the cardboard on the floor and had to come up with a solution (pictures at the end of this post.)

Back to avoiding clutter.  I wanted to come up with a system to have a visual way of looking for something to do or work on since I don't have a large Montessori type room with friendly baskets and shelves all around waiting to be discovered.  I've got to put the stuff away or I'd go mad!  So, last week I took pictures of all the school type resources and games and project stuff that we have right now.  There were 70 some pictures (and many things I'd doubled up on if they seemed to be related some how, like story telling games or math manipulative resources.)   The plan is to put these pictures in a little album under general headings just to help me not forget about what they have and help guide them to a nice variety of subject material.  Obviously if they are super excited to work on the math manipulative stuff every day I won't discourage it, but if they are ho-hum about everything (you know, when they get "bored" and just don't know what to do) I can give them a few options to choose from that they will enjoy but still be making sure they are growing and stretching themselves in their school time.  My girls do want to have a regular school time in the day and it's helpful for me to have a specific time set aside to help direct them and read to them.  Even though they tend to groan at the mention of it being time to start school they act upset at the end of the day if we did another sort of school time that was less formal.  I should explain, by formal I mean sitting around the table while they draw and I read to them and talk about the subject for the week and perhaps show them a new song or short youtube video relating to the weeks subject (we also might have something to memorize or something short for them to write.)  Text book type work is almost non-existent anymore as it seems more detrimental than helpful (my oldest would start out being really good at whatever it was and then after working in a tedious textbook way would slowly lose the ability to do any of it.)  I'm impressed at how much the hundreds chart that we've been adding to on most school days has taught them.  They've learned to count by tens and they take turns counting the even or odd numbers (note: we haven't been "working" hard at learning these things.  They've just picked it up naturally as they see the chart and as we add numbers.)  We add a number to the chart and a popsicle craft stick goes into the "ones" jar and the bunches of tens are bundled together with rubber bands in another container.  Very visual and right-brain dominant and now that I know more of how that works I can do right-brain dominant things on purpose!

Check this out Magnetic cubes to make designs with.  Even I thought that making these was a challenge!  My 7 year old was so thrilled about getting these and playing with them.  She's changing some of the colors from the pattern on purpose, but that is totally great because she can use her imagination and creativity while working with this.  It reminded me some of putting squares on a water-color quilt together.  You've got to be pretty visual/spacial to do this.
Too often I feel like my life is just responding to my children's needs or a problem that comes up and that I'm always behind and catching up but not able to prevent the spill by moving the glass because I didn't notice the glass because I was too busy cleaning up the previous spill (so to speak.)  While I'm always struggling with this tension I also see our days going in the right direction.  My two year old asks "Mommy read to me?" and holds out one of her favorite books for the 10th time that day and I'll read to her right after I get the clothes in the dryer (or whatever I'm doing that can be finished quickly, if not finished quickly then I'll drop it and read to her right then.)  My older girls have been learning some money sense of how to save and how to spend money recently.  I'm planning on doing some pretend play shopping times with them so they can learn some money skills and math all in one.

This was a great find for Lily's new "cat school" that is a puzzle type game utilizing visual/spacial skills and logic.

Another new game for her "cat school" theme - it's simple addition and subtraction problems but in a memory game style.  I'm always impressed at how well my children can add and subtract when we've hardly done any real "book work" sheets for learning this.  We count and we play games and we do real life math.  While I want to be more purposeful about teaching them some concepts in a right-brain dominant way I'm glad that they are picking things up on their own.  If you are looking for some great math teaching ideas check out my Math Board on Pinterest.
This past week I've been thinking a lot about all the great stuff my Mom did with my brother and me when we were homeschooled:  The times when she'd kick us outside or tell us to turn off the TV when we didn't want to for starters, and I remember feeling annoyed at the time but underneath was actually glad that she made me do something that was good for me.  I keep trying to figure out with my own kids what those things are.  What things do I need to insist that they do or don't do as their parent and what things do I need to listen to their reluctance about?  I vividly remember a friend of mine when I was 7 or so (she was a year older than me) who loved to read and thought it was fun to get together with a friend and sit up in a tree with a book and read silently.  I thought it was about the most boring thing ever to do with a friend, but I went along with it.  She was surprised that I'd finished the chapter so soon (I'd skimmed as quickly as possible so that I could go play) and she made me read out loud because I don't think she believed that I could read.  I could read out loud, but hated it and was embarrassed that I couldn't read more smoothly.  I remember her mom talking to my Mom and sounding concerned and my Mom just brushed it off.  It wasn't a big deal.  Of course Lynne' wants to go play more than read.. she's a little kid!  When I was 9 or so my Mom made me read a little bit each day and I'd complain about doing it, but hit upon an interesting book and actually started to enjoy reading!  Then when I was about 14 I decided that I should practice reading out loud so that I could read like my Mom could.  She pushed a little at the right time to get me to read more, but over all she just enjoyed reading to us and inspired me to learn to read out loud well because she was just so good at it!  Now I love to read out loud especially to my kids with special voices when the story requires it.  ;]

The baby likes to look like mommy and daddy with her laptop to "work on".. it's pretty cute.
 So again, back to the environment and organizing and this simplifying thing and tie that in with having to insist about something that my kids weren't too thrilled with.  A few months ago the girls wanted to take their bunk beds apart so that they were side by side.  I really hated to do that as it left so little free space in the room, but they were having trouble sleeping and missing family since we live so far away and I hoped it would help to change their room around for a while.  I don't know if it helped a lot, but I did have to insist this week that we change it back.
As you can see they were having a blast in the open space!  Their room is the only other place besides our living room where you can actually lay down on the floor or spin around pretty comfortably.  I now feel comfortable up there enough to play lego or games with them and use it somewhat like a school room so that not EVERYTHING has to be in our main living space.  It's pretty amazing to be able to send them to a room that actually is out of the main area.  My husband even said what a difference it made "I'm starting to feel like a human again" I think were his words as he began to rest from the noise and business of the children from this morning.

Their closet is easy to get to but closeable to keep that "white space" of no clutter and rest for the eyes.  Their clothes are always a challenge as they like to change their outfits so much throughout the day.  I finally came up with this system with the basket on top and hooks and see through drawers.  It still takes some work to keep the clothes off the floor but it's better than it has been in the past.

Little fabric dollar store containers help to organize as well as adding to the eyes resting place to lessen the cluttery feeling of toys and stuff.  (Note: my closet is to the left of the open door and it's SO nice that I can finally get into it!)

All of their American girl stuff is tidy and easily accessible.  The lego bin is visible under the bunk bed.  Both girls at different times told me that they wanted their beds to be the way they were before instead of stacked (They told me this when they were trying to go to sleep), but I needed to insist on this one and keep the open space in their room available.  We played a few games at their little kids table tonight and I have to say again that it was so refreshing to NOT be in the same room that we are always in for everything else that we ever do every day (for the past 3 years.)  
 Now that their room is more open it actually feels worth it to have given up the master bedroom for the tiny loft room that barely fits our queen bed.  I keep sensing that if I can get a better handle on the flow and order of our home, then I will be more free to learn with the girls and engage with them rather than constantly feeling overwhelmed and behind.  So far so good!