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!


lenorediviney said...

lynne I agree with your thoughts on space. even though I have a large space and ample storage the kids will complain they've "nothing to do" because their toys are not layed out in a way that encourages play. We will be working on this in the fall when I move Isaac into Blake;s room and it becomes the "boys room" and trinity will get her own room. It will be very interesting to see how it goes. Trinity is unused to be alone in a room and Isaac will have to get used to a bedroom buddy.

Cindy said...

I like the pictures in a book idea. A way to go more visual for your children could be to get one of those vinyl word card holders you see teachers use, and put the pictures in that so they can pick something themselves. So, it goes along your idea that it's laid out neatly like a store, but it's in picture format. An idea that *I* actually may use now :-)

Lynne' said...

I thought about a card holder type thing, but opted for a little photo album that is easily flippable. Definitely easier for my kids and me to pick stuff! I had no idea we had SO many options to choose from. :)