Some advice on learning at home

So you are stuck at home, the children aren’t in school, but you still need to get some work done. The internet is now full of activities for you to, as they say, “keep the learning going”. As a parent of homeschooled children, and someone who was working from home a lot already, things have changed less in our home than they have for most parents of school-aged children. For that, we are grateful. And so I thought it might be useful to not give you yet another list of activities to do, but step back and discuss some more big-picture things as we struggle with the physical and emotional havoc the Covid-19 situation has caused. Here’s some advice.

Trust yourself

When you get your child’s report card back it all seems like a very well thought out and scientific evaluation process. Here’s a little secret: it’s not. But busy administrators need simple numbers to rank not only the students, but the teachers, principals, schools, and even countries! The irony is that “one size fits all” fits no one at all. 

Testing can be useful if it is used and contextualized properly. But as a parent, you probably know your child better than they know themselves. It’s a problem in that you know them so well, you can hardly put into words what you know about them and how they will react to things. But this intuition is unique and yours alone. So you are the only one that can be trusted to know what is working for you and your child. Use this power to your advantage and don’t stress about what a particular day’s activities might mean for the far future. 

Take it easy

Do you remember your time in school? Have you ever volunteered in or observed your child’s classroom? If so, you’ll know that the amount of formal learning — whether it’s a lesson or one-on-one — is quite limited in classrooms with upwards of 30 students. 

There is a large variability among countries, but taking the average, students spend less than 1000 hours per year in the classroom. How many of these hours are effective? That’s impossible to say. But certainly less than half of them would involve direct teacher-to-student interaction. What does this all mean? It means, realistically, your children are getting — very roughly — 1.5 hours of formal learning per day (averaged over the year). The rest of their day is lost in thought, socialisation, and play. (These are arguably as important as formal learning for creating intelligent, healthy adults, and we’ll come back to that next.)

Since you are giving your child(ren) your mostly undivided attention, the amount of formal learning at home need only be a couple of hours at most. Some might breathe a sigh of relief. Ah ha! But what are you going to do with the rest of the day? Well, more learning, of course. The philosophy in our house is anything that is not mindless consumption of media is learning. This might involve playing board games, making a meal, playing hide-and-seek, drawing pictures, building with LEGOs, and so on. But make sure the child is choosing the activity — curing your own boredom is an essential skill many people are now realizing they don’t have! Remember: you can tell if mental or physical tools are being used and developed simply by observing.

Be proactive

In our house the order in which the activities play out can make a huge difference. We could do the same thing on two different days, in a different order, and one day could be great while the other terrible. Here are rules of thumb we play by.

  1. Don’t start the day with media and distractions. Do the formal stuff first. If your children aren’t keen on breakfast, do this first. If they are hungry as soon as they wake up, do it immediately after breakfast.
  2. Don’t end the day with media and distractions. If only for your own sanity, but also probably for a healthy sleep, end the day in bed with some calm reading rather than trying to tear a child away from their favorite movie.
  3. Every activity ends in disaster if allowed to go on long enough. Whether it is copying out hand-writing exercises or playing an addictive app on the iPad, eventually a meltdown will occur. Don’t allow something to go on too long before a break happens. Try a walk, a stretch, or a snack to break up the day’s activities.
  4. One activity must be completed and cleaned up before the next begins. This is not only to emphasize good organization and concentration, but also necessary if you are a parent working from home. The day simply cannot be a chaotic mess that requires your own constant attention.
  5. Consistent with the above rules, the rest of the day is completely unstructured.

Be flexible

What works and doesn’t work isn’t something you are trying to find as if there were a fixed perfect schedule out there. Routine is important. But as we are all keenly aware now, those change. Hopefully they don’t have to change so abruptly often, but they will change. Adapting to change is generally something humans are good at, and successful people seem to be better at. 

Your job is to find what works, while still working, knowing that what works will ebb and flow. Your children will be watching you now more than ever, learning how to react and deal with uncertainty, change, and boredom. It’s not going to be easy. And that’s why these might be the most important lessons your children receive. 

Polling and Surveys for Babies

When I started writing children’s books, they were for my own children. Since I never stop singing the praises of science, I wasn’t much concerned about how scientifically literate they would be. But how am I doing outside my own family? I don’t know! That’s where you come it 😁

Your children will kill you, and maybe that’s a good thing

Over a hundred years ago an American medical doctor performed an experiment to weigh the human soul. The number he came up with is the now infamous 21 grams. While this is scientifically uninteresting, it is still fascinating to even the most radical antitheistic rationalist. Try as we might—though I’d argue we shouldn’t—to remove the human element from science, there is one inescapable human inevitability: death.

The 21 gram soul nonsense is often used as proof for life after death, or at least out of body experiences. But it turns out you don’t need any of that pseudoscience to existentially experience your own death. I know this because I died once. And, it was having kids that killed me.

The difficulty of raising children is a constant theme of the blogsphere and Twitterverse. There is no shortage of lamentations. These are often met with both harsh criticism and earnest sympathy. The exhausted parent is shamed on one side and lauded for their honesty on the other.

The great thing about your own death is you hardly remember it. And, maybe I shouldn’t talk about like it was mine, as if I own it. It was his death and I can only pity him because, honestly, I don’t get why it was such a terrible thing anymore. But I’ll continue to talk about it as if it were my own past because in a literal sense it is, and it would just be awkward reading otherwise. Or, poetry.

Before children, I was a work hard, play hard college student. I had infinite freedom and I took advantage of every minute of it. Basically, I was the worst candidate to have real responsibilities, and there is nothing like the responsibility of being handed a helpless baby when you’ve never held a child in your life. Seriously, the nurse hands you the baby, says, “congratulations, dad,” and then everyone leaves the room. What the fuck? What I am supposed to do with this? If you want to see the definition of karma, hand a 27-year-old college student who sleeps 10 hours a night until noon a newborn infant.

But, like I said, I hardly remember it. Today I am woken up at 5:00am to a creepy child silhouette—like, how long have you been standing there?—which whispers as soon as it knows I’m awake, “can I watch a movie?” 7 years and he doesn’t know that he’d get an infinitely more favorable response if he had coffee in his hand. But, the thing is, now I love mornings. There is a calm about sunrise that you don’t experience the rest of the day.

There are so many things about life that being a parent has taught me to enjoy, and many that it has forced me to realize are not important. Sure, you lose a lot of freedom. You can’t play Xbox or binge-watch reality TV every night or have those loud friends over. But, those shows were trash anyway and are people that get grumpy because they can’t drink all your beer until 2am anymore really your friends?

Like a phoenix risen from the ashes, with children I am reborn. Now, where is daddy’s coffee?

5 Picture Books that Encourage Abstract Thinking

Wow. It doesn’t take long for a blog to get neglected, does it? Let’s make an easy transition back in and start with a listicle. Here I am going list 5 books that we like which are suited to the 3–6 age range and encourage abstract thinking. This won’t be your typical reading experience. There will be a lot of interruptions, questions, and dialogue. It’ll be fun.

In My Heart: A Book of Feelings

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The kids seem to like the novelty of the heart cut-outs, but they also enjoy the imagery the author instills for each emotion experienced by the sole character. The melodic flow makes it easy and fun to read as well. The books ends with a question, “how does your heart feel?” and I always get an interesting answer.

This is Not a Book

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book (bʊk), noun: a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.

So this is a book. But your kids might argue with you on that. I often catch them “reading” this one on their own, even the ones who can’t read. It’s hard to describe. Just get it.

Ask Me

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This might be for a little bit older audience, but it works for the younger ones in small spurts. It is book full of personal, intriguing questions accompanied by a photography or drawing. For example, one page asks, “Have you ever been really alone?” and there is a picture of a child under a tree staring up at the sky. Sometimes they just describe the picture or say “I don’t know”. Occasionally you get a interesting answer and learn something you maybe didn’t know about your child.

The Curious Guide to Things That Aren’t

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For each letter of the alphabet, an idea or non-material thing is first described with clues. The reader must guess before it is revealed and described with a scientifically accurate explanation. For example, D is for Darkness. It is first described cryptically by where you can find it (a cave) and what makes it go away (flashlight).

The Book With No Pictures

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I don’t get it. I mean, I can see why the first 10 times are funny. But over and over again, really? And now you are reading these words because that’s how blogs work. BLORK.

Nature vs. Technology

The picture of the world presented in children’s books today is a baby boomer’s fairy tale.

This quote from a recent NPR article about Physics for Babies has been cited several times.

When reading to his kids, Ferrie noticed that most books used animals to introduce new words. In today’s world, that just didn’t make sense to him. “We’re not surrounded by animals anymore,” says Ferrie, a physicist and mathematician at a university in Sydney, Australia. “We’re surrounded by technology.” So he created some math and science books for his own children and self-published them online.

Recently, I received a question about it:

I disagree on many levels having grown up in a neighborhood of kids who played in the creek, woods, underground camps, and treehouses that nature can ever not make sense. It seems possible you aren’t listening closely enough. Technology may surround us but nature surrounds technology…you just have to look past the technology to see it. Would love to hear more of your thought on nature and it’s place in your and your children’s lives.

This was my reply:

Thank you for your message. I tend to agree with you. Of course, by taking a sufficiently broad definition of nature, then technology itself is nature. Computers are built from materials which are made of naturally occurring substances which are made of fundamental particles. All is nature on some level.

When talking to reporters, I usually speak for about 30-45 minutes. But what gets printed is one cherry-picked sentence. I can only hope I didn’t say anything that sounds terrible out of context.

But in this case I do stand by the above quote about animals, which was referring to the pets, farm, and zoo animals we see all too often in children’s books. Now, whether you are an animal rights activist or not, the trend is clear: farms are becoming invisible to the public, zoos are removing animals or closing, laws about pet ownership are changing, etc. That is, cruelty is becoming more recognizable to the public and will either end (by social or legal pressure) or become more concealed.

The picture of the world presented in children’s books today is a baby boomer’s fairy tale. Creeks and treehouses and sneaking on to Ol’ Man Bill’s field and late summer baseball games and a meadow full of fireflies at dusk—an eternal summer. That is, if it weren’t for [insert Gen X, Y, or Z]. These books are drugs for a generation drunk on nostalgia and reference material for traditionalism.

It is an oxymoronic picture of a world manufactured for a false sense of exploration. For example, it shows us that we should be fascinated by wild animals (lions, tigers, giraffes, etc.) that coincidentally debuted in safari zoos to sate the boredom of that same generation.

But there is a infinite world out there to explore. It’s just that new tools are required to embark on that journey. These are the tools of science and technology. So, yes, not only does nature plays an unavoidable role in my children’s lives, it is the very motivation to give them the tools necessary to discover more of it on their own.

Daily activities to promote mathematical fluency in kids

An outline of a day in my life of practicing mathematical literacy. These are activities I do with all my children, ages 0, 3, 5 and 7.

If you perform an internet search on some topic of interest, say “math puzzles for kids”, you end up with literally millions of pages. It can be overwhelming. But, just pick one and go! Don’t over-prepare or have high expectations or push too hard—the vast majority of experiments fail. In fact, failure is one of the most important ways we learn.

Below is an outline of a day in my life of practicing mathematical literacy. These are activities I do with all my children, ages 0, 3, 5 and 7. I may spend longer on the more complex information or tasks with my 7 year old, but I don’t shield my 3 year old completely from it.

Numeracy

I try to constantly be aware of when I am internalizing numbers or mathematical concepts and then encourage my children to participate. These are all things I usually do silently and unconsciously, but now ask my children. Just this morning I have done the following: I asked the children to read the clock; add change; discuss routes on our daily errand run; count and weigh fruits and vegetables; ask how long is left in a video; set a timer on my phone; ask how many crossings are required to tie a shoelace; and so on.

Puzzles

There are many puzzles and games you can play that can promote and improve mathematical thinking which are branded or advertised as math games. For example, today we played the following games: Tic-tac-toe, Dots and Boxes, made mazes, played some Lego (classic blocks), and built a dodecahedron with a magnetic construction set.

Books

Attempting to connect young minds with abstract ideas is relatively new. Our bookshelf contains: Introductory Calculus For Infants by Omi M. Inouye; Non-Euclidean Geometry for Babies and The Pythagorean Theorem for Babies by Fred Carlson; and a great deal of children’s and adult reference books and encyclopedias. Of course, some nights we can’t get through enough Harry Potter and the math has to wait.

Videos

YouTube is a blessing and a curse in our house. We don’t generally let the kids watch without supervision as the value seems to be quite low without constant feedback and discussion. Today we watched a few episodes of Amoeba Sisters and I showed them some MinutePhysics, which is directed more toward adults. I keep those sessions short as the language is often too complex.

Drawing

Drawing and coloring are great ways to relax and have many cognitive benefits. Sometimes I need to give them something to imitate by joining in and other times, like today, I just put a blank sheet and some markers out. My 3 year old has recently graduated from scribbling to drawing discernible faces and intentional shapes. The other day, my 7 year old found Art for Kids Hub, a fun and engaging set of drawing tutorials which has boosted her confidence quite a bit.

Coding

Getting children into computer programming has received a lot of attention in the past couple of years. Each of my 3, 5 and 7 years olds play the games and go through the exercises on Code.org. I find it very helpful when they work simultaneously or in a pair. We didn’t do any coding today on the computer, but we did play Robot Turtles, a board game meant to teach coding skills.

We also went to the park and ran around in circles screaming, for no reason in particular.

Phew! Even when I write it all out, it looks like a lot. But, it only adds up to a few hours spread over an entire day—time I would be spending with them anyway. I try to make life rewarding and engaging not only for them, but for me as well.

Let kids be kids

Quantum Physics for Babies. Some find it hard to believe. But it is indeed a real book, and other books which introduce abstract scientific concepts to young minds have followed. It’s a quirky idea and I’ve told the story about how it all came about before. And people do love the quirkiness, but the honeymoon is short and sobering questions are soon to arise, like, “Isn’t this a bit much—do we really need another thing to teach children?”

Fear and uncertainty about the daunting task of teaching children about science and mathematics comes to the forefront and then it hits, shot straight from the hip, “Let kids be kids.” You hear that a lot. In fact, it’s said in so many contexts that it’s lost any meaning it might have had, but I think the gist is this: whether guided by gut instinct or scientific research people know the value of play in childhood—but their idea of education as an activity is the exact opposite of play.

I believe this is the wrong way to interpret education. The formal education system that you and I grew up with has existed more-or-less unchanged for several decades. It chops up knowledge into components which are introduced in a linear fashion. Sometimes the paths fork and the major branches are called “careers”. For a time, the system worked quite well—but that time is passed.

This is understandably a source of stress for parents. The education system was supposed to be the rock. Of course we don’t know everything, and so we send the kids to school, which has experts on all topics to fill those gaps. But technology is becoming more and more ingrained into society and everyday life. The problem is that technology is changing so fast that it is nearly impossible to keep up. The idea of having a single career has gone out the window.

This leaves us questioning the role, even the identity, of education. My view is simple: life is education. Maintain that childhood curiosity and drive to ask questions, and whatever you call education will come for free. Besides the obvious things—survival, independence, morality—what is the mark of successful parent? Even ignoring the fact that it is an immense privilege to entertain such a question, this is dangerous territory. But I’ll risk an answer: the goal of parenting is the help your child find their passion, which is that thing that fuels their curiosity.

Are you happy? If so, it’s probably because you do something that you love, at least as a hobby. I’m very lucky in that people pay me to do the things I love. Wouldn’t it be great if I could arrange for that situation to be a little bit more likely for my own children?

So how am I going on helping my children find their passion? I don’t really know. I guess I won’t find out for some time. But here is one step I think can go a long way: variety. Not necessarily for them, but for you. If there is something you avoid, they will never experience it.

I can’t think of any interest my children might have that scares me. But many parents I talk to find mathematics and science scary. Whether it is intentional or not, they steer them away from these topics. The situation is so bad that we discuss when is too young to introduce science to children. Science is just a formalized way of exploring our natural curiosity. You don’t introduce it; you reintroduce it—and only because you’ve taken it away.

Books about mathematics and science for young children are not educational tools for the children. They are reminders for the parents that this is not something to fear. This is something that people derive a lot of passion from. And, if some day your child sees some science topic that interests her, she won’t be afraid of it, because you are not afraid of it.

So, don’t feel you need to read Quantum Physics for Babies because you need to keep up with the Zuckerbergs Joneses. Read it because it’s something you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. Read it because you might be curious about the topic. Read it because you had a really cool friend that gifted it to you. Read it because it’s fun. And, if it only leaves you with more questions, good—ask away.

This post originally appeared on the Early Learning Review.