Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Quest for Playgrounds

We hit two completely different but exciting playgrounds on our southern travels, both worth a mention because I’m totally obsessed with playground design.  It’s just so exciting to find a playground that isn’t made up of the exact same set of a dozen different elements, just arranged differently or set out in different colors.

Chehaw Play Park in its old-fashioned wooden glory.

First, the play park at Chehaw, in Albany, Georgia, was a sprawling playground with lots of imaginative elements, including a boat and a rocket ship.  This was the sort of playground that I saw more of in my youth but which has been almost entirely replaced by prefabricated plastic and metal equipment.  I guess wood was deemed to not hold up well enough.  Another nice thing about this playground was how shady it was.  The planners had clearly planted trees and designed the space a long time ago with a shady future in mind, that was greatly appreciated by us on this day in the upper 90′s.  This is in complete contrast to the playground near by grandmother’s house (one of those prefab kinds of affairs) where there’s not a tree in sight.

Mushroom and BalletBoy on the "slide" made of tiny rolling wheels in Centennial Park in Atlanta. Check out those molded "rocks."

The second was the playground in Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta.  This is more of the prefabricated type of play equipment, but there were a few innovative additions.  Also, the otherwise flat space had been cleverly molded into rubbery faux hills and rocks.  I’ve been seeing these increasingly in parks, especially on a small scale.  I hope more playspaces decide to install them as they are so much more open-ended and interesting than just another slide.  Large sunshades covered the area.  Overall, worth the stop after we had finished our run through at the aquarium.

The Kids Want a Haunted House

As we gathered up unread Judy Moodys and a pile of audio books for our trip at the library the other day, Mushroom happened to spot a chapter book series I wasn’t familiar with.  The Araminta Spookie books are about a girl who lives in a huge, creepy mansion with her aunt and uncle.  Araminta bears a resemblance to Wednesday Addams.  She desperately wants to find ghosts in the house and keeps a different bedroom full of odd supplies and experiments for each night of the week.  At the end of the story, after her aunt is convinced not to sell the decrepit mansion, a new family, the Wizzards (yep, they’re wizards) move in with them to share the space and the work fixing the boiler.

One of the potential drawbacks to having a mother who thinks she knows children’s books is that she’s forever picking out all your books.  I’m also a bit of a book snob, which, if you saw how I won’t read the Berenstain Bears anymore, you’ll understand.  The kids do find their own way to books occasionally, but it’s honestly pretty rare that they introduce me to anything that I don’t know a thing about.  Especially now that we’re moving away from picture books and into more longer read alouds and stacks of early readers, there’s less to discover on the shelves anyway.  But Mushroom found this book for us completely on his own and the kids thoroughly enjoyed it.

I admit that it wasn’t the most amazing book.  There are so many of these purposefully creepy, supposedly-dark-but-not-really-dark books out there now.  We also sampled one of the Franny K. Stein books recently and that falls squarely in that category as well.  However, (unlike Franny, who I didn’t enjoy at all) Araminta’s first person voice was well written and fun to read.  There were some loose ends, but I expect they were left for future exploration.  I understand there’s at least another title or two in the series, so we’ll check those out as well.

Southern Travels

BalletBoy at Edventure, our midway point stopover in Columbia, SC. Oh, this pretend shopping is so stressful!

For anyone not in the know, we’ve been trekking through the south this week and having a grand time.  Now I know for sure that the kids and I can all survive a fifteen hour trip in the car together in one day.  On the other hand, all those people who told me to start at 3 am because then the kids would sleep through the first few hours of the trip were very wrong.  They were up by 4 am in the car with me.  I guess it was still worth it to arrive at a reasonable hour instead of late at night, but I’m still lamenting that my kids won’t sleep in the car a little better.

Mushroom at Edventure. Please don't eat me, giant kid!

Car travel is hard on my body and hard on my need for personal space.  However, it’s good to see family and take my city kids out to the country, or the swamp, as the case may be.  When traveling with the husband a few weeks ago, Mushroom was heard to remark on a “cow racing stadium.”  I think that comes from a Wii game, but it’s hilarious that he thought it was some sort of actual rural activity.

With a friend, pretending to be meerkats at Chehaw Animal Park.

On this trip, when passing our umpteenth corn field as we headed through back roads, Mushroom commented, “There are a lot of corn mazes out there.”  I guess when you’re a city kid, people only grow corn to provide you with a corn maze.  Still, we had some excellent adventures.  The kids didn’t freak out when we headed out into the Okefenokee with only their mother and a canoe paddle to defend them from the dozens of alligators that swam past our canoe.  And they got excited to go see the huge state farmer’s market, where I scored an entire box of fresh tomatoes for a measly $10.  The tomatoes are now residing in quart jars ready to go home and be turned into soup this winter.

BalletBoy admires the jellyfish at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.

But no matter how much country I try to foist on them, I think I’ve got city kids at heart.  I kept remarking how cute or beautiful the small towns and country fields were.  Neither of the kids said much on the landscape until we got to Atlanta, where Mushroom immediately began to extol the praises of the tall buildings and the downtown.  Well, I guess I asked for it raising them in the middle of the city.

Two hot kids after canoeing through alligator-infested waters in the Okefenokee.

Spies Like Us

Last summer I got really into the Alex Rider books and this summer I can already foresee that my spy reads will probably be the Gallagher Girls books.  I read the first one in an afternoon and there’s a new one coming out at the end of June.  I don’t know what it is about spy stories exactly, but they sure are hilarious fun, especially if there’s spy gadgets.

In case you don’t know the Alex Rider books, this is a YA series by Anthony Horowitz that’s extremely popular across the pond, about a boy who stumbles into becoming an MI-6 spy after the death of his uncle.  All the fun games and activities his uncle did with him growing up seem to have been designed to turn him into the perfect spy.  Each of his adventures is more preposterous than the last.  The eighth book in the series, Crocodile Tears, was just released last winter, so you can imagine how preposterous that one was.  However, there’s something incredibly fun about watching Alex succeed against all odds and with ever more impressive gadgetry.  It’s great how these books hit that familiar YA theme of adults just not getting it, but played grand in life or death situations where MI-6 refuses to give Alex any backup.

The Gallagher Girls books have the same teen spy feel from an American perspective.  However, these books are at least as much romance as adventure.  I admit that the writing wasn’t perfect.  The dialogue isn’t very well done and some of the cleverness just gets a little cutesy.  Actually, there’s a whole silliness factor that needs to be toned down, which is really saying something in a genre that thrives on being silly.  However, the premise was good and there’s potential in the characters.  Each book has an excellent, if lengthy, title.  The one I just finished was called I’d Tell You I Love You, but Then I’d Have to Kill You. In it, we follow sophomore Cammie at the prestigious Gallagher Academy, a school for young women to become spies.  There’s not too much real action.  Instead, Cammie finds her first romance with a normal boy who she meets while on a covert ops training mission and must figure out what to do.  Later books in the series apparently present more action for the Gallagher Girls.

And now for my own spy secret.  The writing project I’m working on now is a little bit spy.  Actually, that’s sort of an argument for me to stop watching Spooks reruns and reading spy novels so I can do my own thing.  That probably won’t happen though.

Tightrope Parenting

There are some things I’m dogmatic about.  I don’t ever intend to send my kids to school, for example.  But with most things, I feel like parenting and homeschooling are a tightrope walk.  Not A Man on a Wire sort of tightrope walk, because that thing made me afraid of heights.  More like the Wii Fit sort of tightrope walk, because then if you fall, no one dies and you can just hit “retry” to get across the wire again.  Here are some of the balancing acts I feel like I’m trying to walk:

Structure vs. Freedom
I feel this in everything we do.  How much should we schedule, both officially, with classes and activities and unofficially with times to do things, like that a specific morning is for a specific subject?  How much should we just live for the teachable moments that arise and make space for more of them by not scheduling anything?  Too much structure tires everyone out and is undoubtedly a creativity and/or interest killer.  There’s absolutely something to be said for being in the moment and learning right there.  But not enough structure can lead to anxiety on the part of the kids because they don’t know what’s coming and on my part because life is just harder (at least for me!) when you don’t have any plans.

Pushing vs. Laying Off
When do you say, whatever, he’s got plenty of time to figure out how to brush his teeth properly/write the letter e lowercase/remember which is dollars and which is cents?  And when do you push on skills?  I think it’s all about being alert to the individual kid (not to mention the need for any particular skill), but it’s a tough act.  Sometimes I believe kids need a little push.  On the other hand, too much pushing and you’ve got a kid with a complex.

Leading vs. Following
There’s this whole concept of child-led or child-centered households.  I feel like that sounds great in theory, but in reality, I like to think we’re all equal members of a family.  The reality is that someone has to lead.  Sometimes it’s them, whether they’re pointing the way for how or what to learn or what’s the best activities for all of us.  Sometimes it’s me, deciding what’s possible based on our budget or my expectations of them.  It’s hard to let go and trust the kids, but I know I need to do it sometimes.  This is one place where I don’t know if I’ve got the balance I want, but I’m looking for it.

Philosophy vs. Reality
I get these grand ideas about how things should be sometimes.  I also really believe that you have to have a philosophy.  Without any moral backbone to what you’re doing – in life, as a parent, as an educator – then I don’t know what the point is.  On the other hand, you also have to do what works.  I think there’s a danger in only doing what works, but reality has to inform philosophy.

Family Time vs. Alone Time
This one is more than just a two way pull.  There’s the need we have for time as a family, for social time in our community, for alone time as individuals and for one-on-one time with each other.   The husband and I are strong introverts.  I suspect Mushroom is as well.  It’s often our desire to push the kids off on one parent at a time while the other gets to hole up and ignore the world (as we introverts are wont to do).  I hope we can keep looking for this balance and find it.

Enchanted Glass

Enchanted Glass is Diana Wynne Jones’s latest middle grades novel about a man who inherits a magical manor with strange colored glass panes and a boy who runs away and happens to find a place there.  When I went to remind myself what was the last book I read by her, I discovered that she’s seventy-five years old so now I must add her to my list of authors I aspire to be like.  I hope I’m writing new books that are just as sharp as ever when I’m seventy-five.

No one writes a wibbly wobbly, twisty turny magical tale like Diana Wynne Jones and this was no exception.  I always feel like I’m being slowly given puzzle pieces as I solve the mysteries she crafts.  There’s little to say about this new one except that any fan of her work would enjoy it.  If you’re not a fan of her work and you like twisty turny magical stories, then you should be.  The characters here didn’t get quite as much development as in some of her works, so I can’t say it was my favorite of her books, but I haven’t ever read anything bad by her.  The world she created for this one was so similar to her most recent Crestomanci book, The Pinhoe Egg, that up until the end, I half expected Crestomanci himself to make an appearance.  She has a funny habit of surprising me with characters from other books.  I remember being very far into The Merlin Conspiracy before I realized it was a sequel to Dark Secret.

Just as a point of comparison, I happened upon the UK cover of the book so I put it on here as well, to your right.  It’s one of those cases where the covers are radically different.  I don’t dislike the American cover, which is by Brandon Dorman, whose cover art I usually adore.  He did the cover for Savvy, not to mention the amazing cover for my friend Laura Quimby’s book The Carnival of Lost Souls, which comes out in the fall (you know you want to go pre-order it now).  But as is often the case, apparently my tastes are more in line with the expected tastes of British consumers.  The UK cover is more appealing to me.

Have Kids, Will Travel

Having kids and especially homeschooling kids, has made me wake up and notice things going on in the world around me that I never noticed before.  I always thought I was basically with it on the local cultural front.  I went to some concerts, hit the museums often, knew a bunch of good walks in the woods.  Now I know that I knew nothing before I had kids.  Seriously, nothing.

Take the fact that I had never picked a single blueberry, apple or sugar snap pea at a local farm.  Or take the Washington Folk Festival, which took place just a couple weeks ago.  Before kids, not only had I never been, I had never heard of it.  Now, I would hate to miss it.  Two days full of every kind of folk music and dance you can imagine and completely for free (unless you need to buy a funnel cake, which you might).  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of stuff I have discovered since having kids.  I find these things because I want to take the kids and introduce them to the world.  However, I often think about how I enjoy these outings at least as much as them.

This week, we’re off on an adventure to Georgia to see relatives.  Before we left, I excitedly told the husband about the millions of side excursions I envisioned.  He laughed at me and said I had such a homeschool mentality.  “Of course you want to go everywhere.  Because you think it will be educational!” he told me.  It’s so true!  The question is, am I escorting them on these trips or are they just my excuse to see new things?  Who’s educating who here?

Somehow I doubt I would have shown up to see the Roman reenactors the other day if not for my two lads. But I'm so glad I did!

Summer Geography

I am the map master!

We signed up for a postcard exchange with other homeschoolers this summer.  So far we’ve gotten postcards from North Carolina, New Hampshire, Missouri, Florida and Saskatchewan.  So, using the giant printable maps resources at Owl and Mouse, I printed us up a big U.S. map.  While we were at it, I labeled us with a star.  (Isn’t that perfect that we live in the place that’s usually marked with a star on maps?  I wonder if they’ll grow up thinking that means “you are here” instead of “capital.”)  Then I had them color in the states they’ve actually visited.  Then we found all the places on the map.  Then, afterward, when I asked them if I could take their picture with the map before sticking it up in the basement stairwell (site of important, large educational things in our house), they decided it would be best to wrestle in the picture.  Oh well, I guess it’s summer.

That'll teach you not to mix up Vermont and New Hampshire!

The Joy of Assessment

That’s right.  I think it’s a joy.  I’m here to proclaim my love for it.  Assessment in schools is usually a dreary affair of grades and standardized tests, with lots of pressure thrown in.  Our assessment isn’t like that.

We are lucky enough to live somewhere with what I consider to be pretty minimal homeschool regulation.  On the one hand, it’s overly vague.  On the other hand, they reputedly don’t have any staff to enforce the vagueness anyway, so it’s hard to get too fussed about it.  Of course, the fact that I have a master’s degree in education and therefore can speak at least a little of their language probably makes me overly cocky.

The primary requirement we have is simply to do something for every subject (exactly what is the vague part) and to keep records (exactly how is similarly vague).  We would do this anyway.  I can’t imagine not doing this in some form.  Beyond disorganization (which I totally understand and suffer from as well), I don’t really understand why any homeschooler wouldn’t want to keep track of what their kids are doing.

I’ve tried to make a steady routine for us, which we’ve used for more than two years now.  The writing elements for me are usually pretty quick.  I try not to spend more than an hour on them total.  Every two months, we update portfolios.  Here’s what what we do:

  • I make a list of every class, performance, and field trip we’ve taken, as well as all the read aloud books we’ve finished
  • I write a 1-3 sentence summary of what we’re doing in each subject.  For some subjects, this doesn’t change from time to time or only changes in small ways, such as that we’re studying Rome instead of Greece.
  • I write a quick assessment of each kid where I answer two questions with a few sentences: What’s something to be proud of?  What’s something to work on?
  • I give the kids all the “work” we’ve saved up over the last two months.  This is mostly drawings and a few worksheets or evidence of projects.  I tell them to pick three or four pieces that are special and worth saving.
  • Next, I pick three or four pieces that I think are worth saving.
  • The kids and I sit down and make between 2-4 goals that I type up for the next two months.  This is totally their call.  Often, the goals surprise me.  They can be very silly or very ambitious and academic.
  • I compile all the parts into a binder.  We sit down and read through all of it together and we each sign the front sheet.  We also look at whether they met their goals from the last go around and occasionally look at the older work in the rest of the binder.
  • Very last, I throw away all the drawings, worksheets, pamphlets and junk that has accumulated over the previous two months.
BalletBoy's Portfolio. It has one of the signs from his lemonade stand.

After we’re finished, I always feel amazing about what we did.  I’m usually amazed to realize that the kids saw multiple plays and concerts or that we finished as many books at bedtime as we did.  When I type up things I think the kids should be proud of, I feel prouder for them than I would otherwise.  When I think about what we need to work on, it prioritizes it for me and when I read it to them, they take it seriously.

Mushroom's Portfolio from earlier in the year. Notice the super-awesome Dalek he colored! The other page is from a class about fingerprints we did with our mystery themed co-op.

That’s the joy.  Our lives are full.  They’re full of activities, social commitments, books, projects and errands.  Assessments make us stop and appreciate all that we do and, by talking about goals and things to work on, they let us look at the road ahead.

Mushroom the Artist

This picture is a testament to the unusual and creative quality of kids’ art projects everywhere.  We have a huge bag of junk from a place called The Scrap Exchange, near my mother’s house.  It’s a wonderful place full of crazy items that no one needs anymore.  Here, Mushroom has turned some of it (and a broken IKEA ice tray) into a “video game.”  He’s holding the “remote” in his hand.  Sometimes, Mushroom draws amazing, detailed pictures of robots.  Sometimes he makes me paper creations, like the actual functioning bag with a handle he gave me the other day.  In his art class on still life, he drew a beautiful apple with its shadow and some gorgeous shading.  But sometimes, he makes abstract sculpture that even the curators of the Hirshorn might find perplexing.  My main question is, why does this installation have to be on my kitchen floor?