About Me

I am a Christian mother of five, and our highest goal as a family is to serve God in every aspect of our lives. Jesus promised His disciples 'life in all its abundance' (John 10:10) - that has been our story, a rich life, not devoid of challenges, but certainly abundant. Previously writing at www.homeeducationnovice.blogspot.com, we have come to realise that education is just one area where our faith shapes our choices and direction in life. This blog seeks to share our adventure (using font only to enable access in settings with poor internet)

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Physical activity and children

This is another of those posts where I find myself scratching my head and wondering whether the world is going mad. The other day, I posted about what I termed 'day orphanages' and reflected on how our current government promotes things which are ‘in the best interests’ of children, which actually seem to miss the point entirely, and neglect some of the most fundamental needs of childhood. Later that evening, I curled up on the sofa with a leading medical journal, and was stunned by some reports on levels of childhood activity and rising levels of obesity. These findings are summarised in this BBC news article. Basically, their findings show that strategic interventions, after school exercise clubs etc simply do not replace the merits of an old fashioned childhood where children were free to play out of doors for long periods of time and expend energy. Somehow, in a culture which prides itself on high levels of education and understanding, we are taking a huge step backwards when it comes to promoting healthy lifestyles for our children. The irony is that many parents who work extra hours to be able to spend a lot on childcare and extracurricular activities may in fact be storing up a legacy of bad habits and poor future health. 

To quote an editorial in the British Medical Journal, ‘Physically active children are more likely to remain active into adulthood, and maintaining a physically active lifestyle throughout life has considerable health benefits. Current UK guidelines state that all children and adolescents should engage in physical  activity of moderate to vigorous intensity for at least 60 minutes a day. However, recent objective data from the Health Survey for England confirmed that only 33% of boys and 21% of girls currently meet these guidelines, and further research has shown a dramatic drop off in activity levels from childhood to adolescence. Thus developing effective interventions to promote physical activity in children is crucial’. The article concludes, ‘Because a wealth of evidence supports the association between an active lifestyle and many facets of child health, it is essential that funders support research from multidisciplinary teams that seek to study which sustainable environmental and policy changes result in long term increases in physical activity and reductions in sedentary time.’ 

Hello? Basically increasing numbers of research studies have shown that we are setting up a generation of children with long term health problems relating to obesity and physical inactivity, and thus we need to invest large amounts of time and effort into developing interventions which promote activity in childhood and active lifestyles. Am I being far too simplistic in suggesting that children are simply encouraged to play outside, and have restricted access to sedentary activities such as computer based games and television? (Touch of irony, I know that there are reasons for the change in culture, but how many of these are excuses?) Many of my friends and family think we are strange for the amount of time we spend out of doors, and are slightly astonished by the distances walked by our children from a young age. It can actually be discouraging - I touched on this very issue in an early post on this blog, where I considered how as parents we need to prayerfully make choices and decisions regarding raising our children, and to be fully persuaded in our own minds, rather than tossed to and fro by the wisdom of this age. The combined experience of walking past the infant school and then reading these medical articles encouraged me that some of our choices are indeed wise and best!

Again, overlapping with previous recent posts, Charlotte Mason had  a lot of wisdom in this area. She thought that a key component of childhood development involved spending as much time as possible out of doors up until the age of about six or seven, after which, outdoor activities remained prominent. This time should be spent exploring nature, learning to really celebrate God’s manifold creation and engaging in imaginative play; this can often be followed by related art or craft activities to consolidate the learning (I have recently been enjoying watching my boys painting using ‘autumn colours’ and discovering the diverse shades which can be produced by mixing the primary colours of red and yellow – often inspired by a morning in the park). Whilst out of doors, children are simply being active. Not activity for the sake of exercise, but developing the good habits of an active lifestyle. 

It makes me sad when I see intelligent, well-educated parents making choices which are so unhelpful to their childrens’ development. It flabbergasts me that in a so called highly developed nation, there is a call for concerted efforts to find solutions to the epidemic of obesity and its consequences in our children.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Day orphanages?

Yesterday, I saw something which resembled orphanages I have seen in Africa, although a little less cheerful. After five pm, as we walked home from the park on a blustery autumn afternoon, we passed an enclosed area where a group of tired, irritable looking children aged around five and six were running around a concrete area, with a few disinterested personnel standing around. My sons asked me what was happening.

In fact, what was happening is something which is promoted by our current government and takes place in thousands of locations across our country. This was ‘wraparound’ care at the local primary school, a school which I should mention, has an excellent reputation and is favoured by quite a few friends of mine in comparison with other local schools. It sounds ideal, doesn’t it? Drop your children off any time after seven am, and pick them up sometime before six. This enables both parents to work which is clearly to the benefit of the child. 

My children are at the age where they ask so many questions, and have a frankness which is both refreshing and occasionally embarrassing. Why were these children not with their parents? Why had they been at school for such a long day? Why would both parents work if they didn’t need to? I try to answer these questions fully and honestly. And in honesty, the thought made me want to cry. Many of these children were just a little older than my eldest, and the thought of having him in such an environment for such long days was not a good one. I understand that families have diverse circumstances, and I don’t know the reasons why many families make the choices they have done; to many, things are not seen as a choice at all, although some do fall into the default mode that anything which is actively encouraged must be beneficial.

In what way does this benefit the children? Do families really need a dual income? It seems so ironic to me that many parents work long, hard hours in order to be able to spend money on their children (occasionally newspapers publish statistics of what the ‘average’ parent spends on their child in terms of food, clothing, toys etc, and I am always flabbergasted). Similarly, there are many extra-curricular activities which are expensive, and are considered to give children ‘every opportunity’ in life. I understand as a homeschooling parent we have already chosen to step off the beaten track, and as Christians, our whole worldview and values system swims against the tide. But experiences like that I have described here make me marvel at how our advanced and progressive society seems to have just got things so very wrong.

Discussing it later with my husband, we reflected on whether this type of childcare (long hours away from parents at a young age becoming the norm) in any way explains the deteriorating standards in our country. Additionally, you hear terms such as ‘generation Y’, and probably now something else being used. Often these describe the prevailing worldview of teenagers and young adults, and over the past two decades seem increasingly characterised by a lack of certainty and security regarding one’s place in the world, an increasing insecurity, and rising rates of behavioural and psychological problems. As with other areas, these are complex, multi-factorial issues, but I can’t help but think that the rise of ‘day orphanages’ plays a role.

Without ever wanting to become self-righteous (and I pray that the Lord will search my own heart and test my anxious thoughts cf Psalm 139), I have once again thanked God for giving my husband and I clear goals and priorities as we seek to raise our family in a God-honouring way which is truly best for our children. I have described some of our these in posts on our reasons for home education and considerations of the best use of my time. What is the highest aim for our children? I pray that we continue to stand firm in the face of a rapidly changing society which tells us we are crazy.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Embracing the lessons of autumn

I am starting to enjoy seeing how one thing leads to another with children’s minds, and how there are just so many wonderful lessons to be embraced through daily living. Right now, we are entering autumn. The nights are drawing in (leading to lots of questions about why it is dark at bedtime and in the mornings, which leads on to discussions of times and seasons, of the earth and the sun, of different countries and different parts of the world – the very first chapters of the Bible talk about a lot of these issues as they describe God’s creation...). It is getting cooler – warm clothes are needed, and sometimes we put the heating on (more questions about how this works, the difference between a radiator and a fire, and yes, the ancient Romans!). We are having great walks in the parks and seeing the trees turning into beautiful colours – great practice for my two year old in naming and describing his colours. Also, promoting discussions of how wonderfully designed God’s creation is! We match oak trees and acorns (quite a few matching and counting games go on here), and see the squirrels busily storing things up for winter. We hunt for the best conkers, and pretend we are exploring deep in the jungle. And they are fascinated by fruit. There are two main categories, ‘bird berries’ which we should not eat, and different varieties of ‘people berries’ for which we can forage. And from there, more discussions about food, and recipes and cooking, and often a bowl of delicious fruit crumble after a brisk walk.

Fruit. That was what I wanted to write about today. We’ve been thinking about the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23 – ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’) There is so much in the Bible that is visual, associated with nature and the world around us. And what better way to teach, than to be experiencing these things, to be exploring them with a hunger to learn, rather than trying to force a set pattern of lesson or worksheet within a constrained time period? So, as we see the oak trees and their acorns, or the horse chestnut trees and their conkers, we can talk about how a tree is known by its fruit (cf Matthew 12:33 ‘Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognised by its fruit’). What does that mean in our lives? And ultimately, where does that fruit come from? Earlier in the year, we looked at Psalm 1, and learnt about trees and roots, and how as a Christian we should be rooted in God, and His truth. We planted cress and saw the roots quickly grow down towards the water, followed by the shoots upwards. We drew many pictures of trees, and the boys learnt both the psalm (if a three year old can be expected to know a nursery rhyme, why shouldn’t they be expected to memorise a psalm? I think we can limit them by our expectations) and a song to go with it. We basically did a ‘unit study’ (I am using this term, to explain it to you, because I can find myself intimidated by the terminology used in education, and on some of the homeschooling sites I have looked at; basically what I am describing in this post would be a great unit study, but I was not aware of the term before) on plants, growth, and the scriptures which use these as analogies. Now we have moved on, to autumn, to fruit, and also to the fact that grass withers and flowers fade but God and His word are eternal (Isaiah 40 verse 8). I did not plan it this way, but I have been amazed at how much of the previous lessons the boys remember, and how they are building upon their understanding every day. As they explore, I am trying to tap into the lessons they are learning and maximise and consolidate these. 

So, I have spent some time looking online to see whether there are any helpful resources I can benefit from for teaching young children about the fruit of the Spirit. I have come across helpful ideas such as those contained here: http://ministry-to-children.com/fruit-of-the-spirit-index/. But really, no such resources are needed if you just follow the lead that the children are setting. We know the Bible verses (or can use a concordance or software/ websites such as www.biblegateway.com to help us). It is not too challenging to find a craft, an art activity and a recipe for many of the lessons learnt. And it is fun! I can imagine this kind of thing developing into a spiral curriculum as the years pass.

As I reflect on this, I look back to a previous post where I asked, should I use a curriculum at pre-school level?. I find myself realising that for young children, worksheets and structure may have an occasional role, but it is far more enjoyable and more productive to embrace the opportunities that arise through the inquisitive exploration of the world around them. By relaxing and letting these opportunities develop, I find that I am covering vast areas of Bible, history, geography, science and nature, music, literature, cooking, art and probably more. Yes, I appreciate that some areas may lend themselves more to this type of study than others, but I am increasingly convinced that at ‘pre-school’ level, the majority of major subjects can be covered in such a manner. 

Previously, I have reflected on the lessons which can be learnt through daily life, such as cooking or a walk in the park.Today's reflection is a continuation of this line of thought. I hope it encourages you to see the many exciting opportunities that surround you - with no need for specific teaching methods, extreme effort, expensive resources, textbooks or curricula, but simply getting into your child's mindset and exploring their world with them.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Discipline intrinsic to education

I recently wrote about Intentional Parenting and of the Charlotte Mason philosophy of education. In both, ‘discipline’ is considered a key component. I think many people would at least assent to the importance of discipline, but that it might compose about a third of a child’s education encouraged me. Why does this encourage me? It encourages me to persevere! I know of other parents, and let’s be honest, feel the same temptation, to rush through a meal (for example) so that we can move on to the ‘important’ thing that we have planned. Those important things are often considered educationally beneficial – toddler groups (for ‘socialisation’), music groups, field trips, going to the library, exploring the park, looking at boats on the river, and many other things. But on a particular day when a discipline issue manifests itself at mealtime, what is the most important lesson the child can learn that day? Surely it is to patiently and gently focus on that issue until there has been resolution. The Bible reminds us that ‘no discipline is pleasant at the time, but painful’. And it certainly can seem painful for a simple meal to take over an hour! But the lessons are enforced, and they are learned.

It is tempting to rush through, thinking there is not sufficient time to address issues of discipline fully because there are so many other things that must be done. But is that really so? Am I falling into the trap of thinking my children need a very full schedule in order to be exposed to every possible opportunity, and to maximise ‘their potential’? (Referring to the ‘default’ parenting described in Intentional Parenting). 

Charlotte Mason preferred that a child do just one thing at a time, and do it to the highest possible standard. Rather than trying to rush through tasks and activities, she advocated taking a step back from that, and to patiently work on the one task, challenge or issue, until the child had mastered it. Often in her literature, she uses the word ‘gentle’ to describe some of these approaches.

Perhaps a person would agree with this concept, but laugh at the suggestion that they had time for patience, perseverance and discipline. But I would contend that they may be missing the most important opportunity that a day presents, and that their best efforts to provide every opportunity for their child may be counter-productive if the basics are not mastered. What do you think?

Link to another post considering discipline in education and parenting. 

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Charlotte Mason. Who? What? Why?

A friend was talking to me about the Charlotte Mason approach to education. I have come across this in some of my reading, but to be honest, most things that are associated with an individual person’s name tend to be a bit offputting to me. I think that is because I have seen too much ‘hero worship’ both professionally and within the church. You know the kind of thing, where anything associated with a particular individual is accepted, even lauded, without question. But being aware that several friends I respect have been influenced by the ‘Charlotte Mason’ approach, I decided to ignore the name and look a bit more.

Much of this approach is familiar to me, although I did not know it had a name! Charlotte Mason was a British educator living in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and her method centred around the idea that education has three key strands:

ATMOSPHERE: This refers to the environment in which a child grows up. Children absorb so much from their home environment, that it is thought to constitute a third of a child’s education. This does not surprise me, and is something I have been so aware of as I raise my children. There is much evidence showing that the fundamentals of character are formed by the age of three or four, and I have seen personally how devastating the consequences of difficulties in these early years can be, leaving deep roots and scars that persist well into adulthood. It is not enough just to talk to children about how things SHOULD be if life within our family home is not consistent with these principles. In medical education, we refer to some of this as the ‘hidden curriculum’, where for example, we are taught the need for compassion, but the attitudes of some clinicians towards their patients are anything but compassionate. Similarly, how can I teach my children the importance of generosity if I myself am mean and not given to hospitality? How can I teach them to think the best of others, if I am critical and back-biting? How can I teach them not to complain and whine, if I effectively do the same thing when speaking with other adults? And how can I assure them of my love and commitment to them, if they overhear me making negative comments relating to them (as one often hears parents doing).

DISCIPLINE: Not a fashionable word today! But so very important. Here, it refers to the discipline of good habits, and specifically the habits of character. Cultivating good habits in a child makes up another third of their education. Charlotte Mason referred to good habits as the tracks formed in childhood upon which an adult can smoothly run through life. Again, I would agree with this! Much of my time is spent quietly, repetitively, calmly (I hope!) correcting the small things which are not good habits. Good table manners, courteous ‘please’ and ‘thank-yous’, respect for others, sharing, being kind to other children who are upset, I could go on. There are days when I feel I have done little else, with mealtimes and tidy-up times, encouraging to share, and listening properly taking up most of the day. It is not easy, and it is not something which seems encouraged in today's society; I know others do think we are wasting our time and should be doing more 'important things'. In fact, this is one of my major reasons for not wishing to enter mainstream education; I cannot believe that discipline and good habits are cultivated in a classroom setting of a large number of self-willed toddlers and a handful of overstretched, unrelated adults. Even this morning, I was mortified when my eldest suddenly, and without provocation, hit a younger girl. Even with my continual presence and attempts to discipline, and the consistent re-inforcement of this by my husband, it is still a major challenge and major element of our daily living. It would seem largely neglected in modern education, and I believe this sets a child up for difficulty later (not to mention questions relating to honouring parents or honouring God!).

LIFE: This is where ‘academics’ come in. But for young children, these should be covered through a steam of living thoughts and ideas rather than presentation of dry facts. I have already written several blog posts regarding the lessons that can be embraced through everyday life, and this would be straight down the Charlotte Mason outlook. Similarly, history is far better learned through the eyes of an individual, perhaps as a biography, than through lists of dates and events. Spelling and grammar can be learnt through the enjoyment of literature, and this would avoid the tendency of some educational methods to snuff out the pleasure of reading. And importantly, a significant proportion of every day was to be spent outdoors, learning about nature, geography, seasons, exploring the world and wondering at God’s creation. I think others sometimes find us strange for the amount of time we do spend out of doors doing exactly this, but Charlotte Mason would have encouraged us to continue.

So interestingly, out of all the approaches to education, the Charlotte Mason method seems extremely close to what we have evolved into doing as a family with boys of 3, 2 ½ and 6 months. We often hear sayings such as ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. Here, I would say to myself, ‘Don’t judge a method by its name!’

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