Monday, November 28, 2011

Christmas with Kids

Dear friends,

Over the years I have written several articles on celebrating the Christmas season with kids, especially in a home school setting.  For your convenience, here are the links on this blog:

My Favorite Christmas Books

Great Gifts Kids Can Make for Others

Advent Adventure Unit Study

Family Advent Night Ideas

Three Christmas Poems for Children

You can find other holiday links on the Christmas page of my main blog, Virginia's Life Such As It Is.

Virginia Knowles

Monday, September 5, 2011

Synthesizing Your Own Style - and - Duty and Delight

Dear friends,

It's the start of a new school year, and while most of us have already chosen our curriculum to use, we are still adjusting as we go along.  This article is an excerpt from the chapter "Choosing Your Own Approach to Education" in my book Common Sense Excellence: Faith-Filled Home Education for Preschool to 5th Grade.  I've been thinking about it since we are always trying to find the right blend in our home of structured and delight-directed living and learning.  What works for you?



Are you boggled after reading about the different approaches to home schooling?  Which is right?  Which is right for your family?   If you think about it, what the people who teach these approaches are trying to describe is how you can most effectively allocate your family’s time, money, space, attention and decision-making capabilities to secure the best education for your children.  To that extent, each one is valuable.  I doubt that any single approach offers everything you will ever want, and there are so many overlaps that we can’t even say they are mutually exclusive. I use what I call the Eclectic Approach: attempting to combine the interest and organization of unit study, the natural methods and love for beauty of Charlotte Mason, the order and discipline of traditional education, the freedom and imagination of relaxed home schooling, the scholarship of the classical approach, and the convenience and fun of computers.   I cherish the freedom to pick and choose from whatever will work with each child.  If you ask me what my philosophy of education is, I would say:

“God is the Creator of the Universe, the Author of Life, the Prime Moving Force in History, and the Ultimate Teacher.   He has chosen my husband, children and me to be members of one family, to live and learn together.  In his grace and wisdom, he has given parents the awesome responsibility to train and educate children so they can know, worship, and serve him in practical ways all of their lives.  Our children can learn by being with us, watching us, listening to us, conversing with us, and working with us as we go about our daily lives.  Through personal relationships, reading, and writing, they can acquire and share knowledge and skills with others.  They can gain direct experience with the world around them through hands-on discovery and projects.   They can learn self-discipline as they follow plans that are not all of their own choosing, but they will also enjoy the satisfaction which comes from individually pursuing their own God-given interests and talents.”


Did you notice that last sentence in my philosophy of education? Here it is again: “They can learn self-discipline as they follow plans that are not all of their own choosing, but they will also enjoy the satisfaction which comes from individually pursuing their own God-given interests and talents.”

The dilemma for many home school moms is: “Do I make my children learn what they need to know, or let them learn about what excites them?”   The answer is YES... to both!  It’s not an either/or situation. Education needs to be a balance of duty and delight.  I think of duties as those things that must be done, the fixed expenses or work in our daily routines.  Delights, on the other hand, are the things we naturally want to do, our discretionary activities, our play.  “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” the saying goes, but I must add that “All play and no work makes Jack a useless boy.”  How do we find the optimum combination between duty and delight?

Realize the value of your work, and take joy in the accomplishment. The ideal is always to love what we do and do what we love, but it just doesn’t always work that way naturally.  It takes attitude changes.  As we think about the benefits of what we must do, then we can enjoy it more. Colossians 3:23-24 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”  He is also our blessed example in this, “who for the joy set before him, endured the cross...”  (Hebrews 12:2) Let us be an example to our children!

Make your “delights” more productive.  Use them to build relationships, serve other people, learn new skills, and improve health.  Examples of “diligent delights” for children include cooking with mom, taking a brisk family walk around the neighborhood, planting flowers, making cards or gifts, or practicing math while keeping score in a game. 

Balance the day to make time for duties and delights. Charlotte Mason always recommended doing the more structured lessons in the morning, and then leaving the afternoon free for “purposeful” delights such as pleasure reading, nature walks, art, music, tea time, etc.  As I now tell my children: “Get my assignments done in the morning, and the afternoon is yours for anything at least halfway educational!”  If they don’t get their morning assignments done, this can eat into their “delight directed” time.

Accept that learning can be fun, but it doesn’t always need to be fun.  Yes, our children should have a sense of adventure and imagination in their studies. However, if they demand that school always be “a thrill a minute” without any drudge whatsoever, not only will you burn out trying to be their entertainment director, but they will miss out on some very crucial knowledge and skills that can only be gained by disciplined work.   In future years, they will not likely have the perseverance necessary to succeed in higher education, career, and family life.   A person who bails out when the going gets rough will not make a worthy disciple of Jesus Christ.  He will be like the barren ground littered with rocks and thorns instead of good, fruitful soil that multiplies an abundant crop.  (Matthew 13:1-23)

Allow your child to choose some studies, but oversee the results.  In the unschooling model of education, the child chooses what to learn and when to learn it.  Yes, it works for some people, depending on the motivation level of the child.  I think this would be most successful if the child sets a plan for each day, instead of flitting aimlessly from one thing to the next without really finishing anything at all.  He should also still be accountable to the parent for progress, especially in weak areas. Gregg Harris has often taught about delight directed studies, where the child chooses assignments based on his own interests.  We have done this to a limited extent in our family, especially in the middle and upper grades.  Younger children usually require more direct input from their parents with this.  Those who have not yet developed self-discipline need intervention.  If your child can stay busy doing what needs to be done, that’s great!  But if he can’t motivate himself, he’ll need a little pressure from you.

Start a short seatwork time each day.  While it is not wise to push massive amounts of written work in the early years, it does not hurt to sit down and write for a little while every day. This could be just five or ten minutes for a preschooler to practice writing a few lines of letters.  In early elementary they might have a paragraph of copywork, or a short list of spelling words, in addition to a math workbook. These focused activities will help to lengthen a short attention span.  Most children can, with proper discipline, handle at least a brief session of some focused work each day.  It says to the child, “I have confidence that you can do this!”  

Transition into more structured assignments as needed.  In the primary grades, you can let children read just about as much as they want, knowing they will naturally pick up most of their language arts skills this way. However, they still need to be willing and able to complete whatever written assignments you deem necessary for them. This is especially true as they approach fourth grade, which is when many children can be expected to concentrate more on  structured materials.  Like it or not, you will need some sort of paper trail for their portfolios, including written language arts samples. When I determine that a child needs to make the transition to more formal assignments, I usually find it necessary to plan very specific lessons. I try to target the subjects which they typically neglect, while letting them continue autonomously in the areas where they excel.  I might buy a small brightly colored workbook, or assign page numbers in an easy text, or design brief Charlotte Mason style grammar lessons somehow related to their favorite school subjects. Then we work one-on-one for several weeks until they are done.  Children who are not accustomed to this will fuss about it for a while.  Don’t let this deter you!  It takes an adjustment to break into a new routine, but once they get there, it gets a lot more comfortable for both of you.  You will need to be right by their side for a while until they can do it themselves.  This takes a time commitment on your part, but it will pay off in the months and years to come!

And, a summary from the very end of the chapter...

1-2-3 Ideas to Remember About
Choosing Your Approach to Education

u Know your child’s learning style and personality, as well as your own preconceptions about education.

v Keep a balance between structured and creative methods. Hold your children accountable for their work. 

w Research different approaches, and be open to changing methods as you go.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Let Our Ordered Lives Confess the Beauty of Thy Peace...?

Let Our Ordered Lives Confess the Beauty of Thy Peace...?

Drop Thy still dews of quietness
till all our strivings cease;
take from our lives the strain and stress
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of Thy peace.

John Greenleaf Whittier 
(from the hymn “Dear God and Father of Mankind”)

            What home school mom hasn't wished for the “dew of quietness,” ceased strivings, a little less stress, and an ordered life!  Daily life can place overwhelming demands on you.  You are the family teacher, doctor, police woman, lawyer, judge, psychologist, manager, interior designer, seamstress, chauffeur, maid, chef and playmate all rolled into one.  So what in the world is Whittier talking about?  It seems that an ordered life is just an elusive fantasy or that we have to be born orderly.  Many moms claim they aren't “the organized type.”  By birth and rearing, I fall into the “messy” group, so I was in for a shock when I married Mr. Meticulous, had children, and started home schooling.  For a while I used the excuse that getting organized would diminish my creativity and spontaneity, but that soon wore thin.  I had to do something!

            Home school moms cherish flexibility and autonomy, but some of us overdo it to the point of rejecting any structure.  We try to wing it, making up our lives and school from scratch as we go along.  We end up feeling frazzled, exhausted, unproductive, unfulfilled -- and guilty.  We start to wonder if we really need a system after all, and relish the new idea of taking control of our lives with a schedule, routine, budget, and lesson plan.  We realize that we don't have to be victims of circumstance anymore. 

            When I take the extra effort at putting my life in order, I realize that this gives me peace from the storm.  Life makes sense when I follow a plan, and an added bonus is that I now have more liberty to focus my newfound spare time and energy on creative pursuits.  My brain is less cluttered by loose ends.  Order and organization allow us to live “on purpose,” to see our dreams and goals come to fulfillment.  We can make a plan and make it happen.  To be honest, there are months and even years when I am better at this than other times.  My success ebbs and flows with how much of a priority I make it, as well as what’s going on in the family, such as a new baby.  If I’ve let it slide for a while, it’s hard to get going again.  Just a word to the wise!

            Let me clarify what I mean by order.  I am not talking about a regimented minute-by-minute schedule, a white-glove-clean house, robot children, strictly structured classroom-style school, or lesson plans written on stone tablets.  Life with children is unpredictable, so we must be flexible.  There will be down days when we only accomplish the bare basics.  Even on good days, we all need room to live and breathe.  If we set ourselves up with unrealistic expectations, we will be bitterly disappointed.  There is plenty of room for different personality styles and comfort levels.  Some people can't function well with any amount of disorder; others are comfortable with a relaxed loose-ends lifestyle.  For all practical purposes, my working definition of an ordered life is: 
  • I will have specific goals and plans in various areas of life.  I will accomplish the most important ones, plus some of the optional ones.  I will not go off on tangents.
  • I will not create extra work through neglect of details.   An ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure.
  • In my schedule and home atmosphere, I will enable my husband to be both productive and relaxed.  When he gets home, I will have sufficient emotional reserves to cheerfully attend to his needs.
  • My children will know what to expect in the general sequence of the day.  They will gain productive habits and self-discipline to launch them into future careers and family life.  I will be able to give instructions, knowing they will obey without undue fussing or delay.  They will be successful in school work because I will tailor it to their needs and make sure they do it.
  • I will be able to confidently invite people into my home.  Since I will prepare ahead, I won't be so frazzled with the details that I can't pay attention to my guests.  This will make them feel comfortable and welcome.
  • I will be able to find what I am looking for quickly without disrupting the household.  I will also recall information from the “memory banks” of my brain without getting overly confused.
  • When I am sick or otherwise prevented from actively pursuing order, my system will not automatically fall apart.  It will have sufficient momentum to function for a while without me.
            These are definitions to which we can all aspire!  We can personalize these basic facets of order to our own family situations and know that we are taking positive steps in the right direction toward success. 

            I believe that this reasonable level of order is the prerequisite to true productive creativity.  A world-class composer must have a handle on the “laws” of music theory before writing a symphony.  The orchestra members must have the self-discipline to practice their instruments, read the music as it is written, and follow the conductor's cues, or the symphony will be a cacophony instead!   Our Creator is “the God of order, not chaos” (1 Corinthians 14:33).  He designed a gloriously exquisite universe, quite systematically, day by day.  He is the same God who gave intricate instructions to the creative craftsmen who fashioned the tabernacle, and he is the same God who can put your life back in order if you will follow his directions!

            The order in our lives starts from the center; for Christians, this focus is that “Jesus is Lord.”  Everything else in our lives must flow from that, or nothing will make sense.  But beyond that universal focus, God has a specific plan for each of us.  Our job is to discern our individual mission in life and report for duty.  Our approach to this will profoundly influence how we manage our daily lives.


This is an excerpt from my book The Real Life Home School Mom.  (You can read it for free here: The Real Life Home School Mom 2011 Edition or order a print copy.  See My Books tab at the top of the page.) A Canadian home school on-line magazine editor asked me for an article on structure, and this is what I found.  Of course it's a good reminder for me, too, because I'm still not naturally organized or structured.  I really need to work on these since our school year starts next week and we are rejoining a co-op where homework is assigned and checked!

Want to read more?

Will we ever catch up with the laundry?  

An old schedule... I need to make a new one!  This pic is from the post: 
First Steps to a Tidy Home / Children & Chores

Oh, just to keep these supply bins organized...  This pic is from the post:  "Bin There, Done That" (Or How to Keep School Clutter from Turning You Into a Basketcase)

Are plastic zip bags more your style? 
Organizing with Plastic Zip-Style Bags at Home and On the Go

You might also like to read the following related blog posts:
Virginia Knowles

P.S. I realized right before hitting the post button that this article also appears on my  But perhaps someone will see it here that hasn't seen it there already!  God bless!  And now it's time for me to bring order to my house!

Friday, June 24, 2011

One Potato, Two Potato

The fresh smell of spring and the heat of summer bring gardens of plentiful learning activities. Seems like every time we turn around we are enjoying another experience involving fruits and veggies. Here's a sampling of our fun, with a few extras tucked in for good measure. (For readers who heard me speak at the FPEA-Florida Parent Educators Association-Convention, some of these will sound familiar).


  • Estimate the weight of a watermelon. Weigh on a bathroom scale. Figure out the price per paid per pound.
  • Purchase a five pound bag of potatoes. Compare the quantity with a five pound bag of onions. Why the difference in quantity per pound? Younger children can weigh potatoes and arrange from lightest to heaviest.
  • Buy a basket full of veggie. Sort according to what part of the plant is eaten: stem, leaf, seed, root, flower. Eat vegetables and dip for snack.
Language Arts
  • Read Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert. Make veggie soup for dinner. (Dad will love eating what the children learned.)
  • Read the Farm Alphabet Book by Jane Miller. Make your own fruits and veggies alphabet book.
  • Play Garden Match to learn beginning consonants.
  • Read Eating the Alphabet: Fruits and Vegetables from A to Z by Lois Ehlert.
  • Read Stone Soup by Marcia Brown (a traditional tale).
  • Read Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens (a trickster tale).
  • Make a growing vegetable soup lapbook.
  • Read The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle.

Social Studies
  • Tour the produce section of the grocery store.
  • Visit a working farm, garden store, orchard, or greenhouse.
  • Plant a garden.
  • Build a grow box and grow herbs.
  • Spout seeds. Discuss vocabulary: seeds, seedlings, cuttings, sprout, germinate.
  • Read The Vegetables We Eat by Gail Gibbons
  • Read Green Beans, Potatoes, and Even Tomatoes by Brian Cleary
  • Read One Bean by Anne Rockwell.
  • Sprout an avocado seed.
  • Grow or purchase a pie pumpkin. Open. Clean. Bake. Puree pumpkin and make bread.
  • Read The Life Cycle of a Bean by Linda Tagliaferro.
  • Read Foods from Farms by Nancy Dickmann.
  • Read Plants on a Farm by Nancy Dickmann.
  • Read Farming by Gail Gibbons. Discuss farming around the world.
  • Read From Seed to Plant by Gail Gibbons.
  • Read Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert.
  • Read The Victory Garden Vegetable Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta.

  • Make prints using tempera paints and fruits and veggies (potato, cabbage, celery, corn, and oranges)
  • Read Linnea in Monet's Garden by Christina Bjork.
  • Make a seed collage.
  • Sing Oats, Peas, Beans and Barley Grow. Act out the song with motions.
  • Read How Are You Peeling? by Joost Effers and Saxton Freymann. Discuss the illustrations. Children may also enjoy Fast Food by the same authors.
  • Play Hot Potato (hand-eye coordination)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Nature Walks

Dear friends,

This is an excerpt from my book Common Sense Excellence: Faith-Filled Home Education for Preschool to 5th Grade.  I'm really glad my kids are nature lovers!  We're going back to Secret Lake Park today to catch some little fishies, with a real net this time! (See Florida Field Trips #4: Secret Lake Park)  The photos and bird sketch in this post are from my son Micah's blog,  (Note: We're having problems with his blog right now, so as of June 23, you can't access it and the pictures that I linked here from there aren't showing up.  We're trying to get that fixed ASAP!)  


Nature Walks  

Get outside and see nature!  After all, nature walks are free and easy to do, and observing nature for yourself is one of the best ways to learn about plants and animals.  Children get excited about their "specimens" and the fresh air is good for your health.  Francis Fenelon in his book Education of a Child says,  “A simple walk through the woods or splashing in a stream brings contentment to the soul and appreciation for God’s beauty in a manner that extravagant amusements cannot.”

Here are some ideas for your own nature explorations:

        Start in your own backyard. If you live in an urban or suburban neighborhood, you may not have much “habitat” at first glance.  Still, I’ll bet you could find lots of living things in your own backyard: birds, bugs, flowers, lizards, cats, worms...  To go farther afield, hike at a trail, park, preserve, lake, river, or mountain.

     Keep your eyes and ears open. Learning to pay attention is so important to nature study!  We often hear a red headed woodpecker rat-tat-tatting on our back fence.
     Be careful not to upset nature. Please remind your children to refrain from disturbing animal homes.  They don’t always know that they shouldn’t remove an egg from a nest, even if they return it right away.  This upsets the mama, and she may abandon it!  Talk about nature conservation -- how pollution and human expansion affect an ecosystem’s quality of air, water, soil, plants and animal homes.   Read about animals which have become extinct.  You don’t need to be a “tree hugger” to be a prudent environmentalist!  God has called us to stewardship!

    Practice nature safety.  Learn to avoid poisonous snakes, stinging insects, irritating plants, and hazardous bodies of water.  Wear protective clothing, sun screen, and/or insect repellent

   Collect and/or identify interesting specimens using a pocket-sized field guide. (Obtain permission from the landowner before you do this!) Look at your “finds” with a magnifying glass or microscope.  Do a scavenger hunt. Each person needs to find listed items like an oak leaf, a brown rock, a nut, etc.   You don’t need to take the items, just check them off on the list.  My friend Michelle suggests buying a plastic divided box in the sports department to store your treasures.

                           Savor the seasons of nature.  Do special activities related to winter (snowmen), spring (flower arranging), summer (beach trip) or autumn (pressing leaves).  My uncle in Pennsylvania hosts home school groups for syrup making when the sap starts running in the maple trees.  What makes each season special? Flowers have their own annual timetables for sprouting and blooming. Northern trees bud in spring, stay green through the summer, turn brilliant colors in autumn, and are bare in the winter (except for evergreens, of course)!

   Take field trips to organized nature study areas.  Go to the zoo, petting farm, botanical garden, nature center, science museum or county fair.   Out of their natural habitats, you can find specimens organized by category.  When you go to the zoo, have your child identify whether an animal is a mammal, bird, insect, amphibian, reptile, etc.  What are the characteristics of each group?  (Before you go, you can learn about this from books.)

       Find an experienced nature mentor.  This human resource can answer your questions and  help guide your explorations.  It could be an adult who works in this field, but don’t overlook home schooled kids as resources.  When we had questions about catching bugs or growing pineapples, we used to call two middle school boys in our support group.

        Keep a nature journal.  Have your children make drawings or rubbings of what they see, and then label them, also telling where they found the specimen.  For language arts, they can also  “paint” a word picture to describe a flower or other nature object.   A nature journal is also handy for recording changes in the seasons or the weather from day to day or week to week.


  Take pictures.  Show your child how to take landscape pictures or close-up shots.

    Bring portable field guides: I recommend Peterson’s or Audubon. At the minimum, you should have one each for birds, insects & spiders, and flowers.  Trees, reptiles, rocks & minerals, and other guides will be useful too, if your child is interested. A regional field guide will focus on species which are most commonly seen in your area. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Florida Field Trips #4: Secret Lake Park

Dear friends,

Now that our school year is out for the summer, the kids are eager to visit public parks as often as possible.  Today, my four youngest children chose nearby Secret Lake Park in Casselberry which is nestled among the three lakes on Triplet Lake Drive.  No matter where you live, you can probably find a park like Secret Lake.  Just explore the possibilities!

There is a wonderful playground with a huge wavy climbing structure, a spinning metal and rope carousel, swings, slides, etc.  We actually didn't spend much time on the playground today, so we'll have to go back soon.  

Micah made a beeline for the lake shore with the camera when we got there, and took these pictures of the purple flower and the spider web.  

When we went to look for Micah, we ended up taking a walk down by the canal.  We should have been better prepared!  The kids remembered how much fun it was to try to catch little fish in the canal, but we hadn't brought any containers to catch or store them.  As it turned out, I happened to see a stand with doggie cleanup bags, so that's what we used for storing them.  They caught them with their bare hands, which is no easy feat.  Next time, we bring a net and a bucket, as well as shoes more appropriate for water!  (I loaned my crocs to Naomi.)

Just got some plastic bags from the dog cleanup station...

They caught some and are taking home their trophies in the doggie bags...

A white ibis

Beautiful park!


A vulture swooping around above

The guppies in a container at home, before their new bowl was set up.

Our plan is to visit at least one park each week.  I'll let you know if we go to any really good ones!  If you have any ideas for us, leave a comment!

Meanwhile, here is some information from the Secret Lake Park web page.

Nestled within three lakes, Secret Lake Park boasts an abundance of options for any lifestyle. For the more active there is basketball, softball, tennis, racquetball and soccer. For those looking to relax and enjoy nature there is the boardwalk connected to the sidewalk which meanders through the entire park, as well as the newly built fishing pier. There is even a playground for the little ones. Secret Lake Park is home to the Casselberry Recreation Center. Whether you're looking for a peaceful place to walk, a pick up game of hoops or even hoping to watch a game of soccer or baseball, Secret Lake Park is the place to be.
Ball Field, Basketball Court, Racquetball Court(s), Tennis Court(s), Playground, Recreation path/boardwalk, Restrooms, 3 Pavilions (1 with electricity), and Casselberry Recreation Center.  For reservation/rental information for the pavilion, call or visit the Casselberry Recreation Center, (407) 262-7700 Ext. 1575 or at 200 N. Triplet Lake Drive. Monday through Friday from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Summer Writing with Journals and Blogs

Dear friends,

We are officially finishing our school year this Friday, though we have been tapering down for a couple of weeks.  I still want my kids to keep their brains active over the summer, especially with math, reading, and basic writing skills.  (Those are the 3R's, right?)  Yet I don't want them to feel like they are "doing school" (or at least much of it) during our time off. Two of my kids have some of their math workbooks to finish up (oh well!), but I think we can also come up with some hands-on projects and games to use their math skills.  They already like playing Monopoly, Pente, Yahtzee, and other games.  They can read books of their choice from the library about subjects that interest them.  

For summer writing, my first big idea is to have them keep informal journals about what they are doing and thinking each day.  In fact, my 10 year old daughter has kept a journal this past month, and it seems to be an engaging and fairly painless way to get her to write.  Not only that, it gives me an extra window into her world.  The journal is a cute, colorful little one with puppies on it.  I bought it at a dollar store.  Nothing intimidating!  She likes to write about her baby nephew coming to visit, or what she is making, all the fun things she thinks our family should do this summer, or sometimes that things that frustrate her.  I didn't start journaling until I was a teenager, and though there were long gaps during my adulthood where I didn't keep one regularly, it's still I habit I try to cultivate.

My second summer writing idea, also something we're already doing, is blogging.  All of my school age kids, except for the one in kindergarten, have their own blogs.   This is a particularly fitting idea for middle school, especially if your kids know how to upload photos and videos.  Most of them are private, accessible only to family members, but it gives them a way to learn and have fun at the same time.  They often write about educational activities like bird watching or science experiments.

Give it a try!

What are your plans for continuing a learning lifestyle during the summer?  Leave a comment for me!

See also:
Virginia Knowles
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