Thursday, September 27, 2007

Play is a child's work

So, in this year of feeling out how learning at home might look for our family, I am so thankful for moments like the one pictured here. Aidan and August spent a good part of the morning constructing a castle with their bricks. I was glad to hear them playing together so cooperatively because I was trying to get a little housework done. When I made my way into their room they had both moved on to other individual activities. I then asked them to help clean up the bricks because I needed a clear floor in order to vacuum. In a way that always seems to surprise me they both got busy with my request. August and I were working together to stack up the bricks when Aidan suddenly calls out, "Hey, Mom! Look, I made a pattern!" Sure enough, the bricks were stacked green-red-red-green-red-red-green. Now, in the grand scheme of all the things Aidan will learn, this isn't amazing, but what is amazing is that something so fundamental to further, more complicated, mathematics came about so very naturally-- through play. It's becoming more and more clear to me that we, as a culture, are most definitely forgetting the importance of that playing. Just as I am learning how much my children need spaces and times of quiet within which to think so, too, do they need time to play.

It's so very interesting to hear the dialogue that ensues when August pushes around his big wooden car filled with fire fighters. "Okay, it's time to go. Okay. Goodbye, I love you. Goodbye, I love you." Now, I don't honestly think that the fire fighters up at Station 20 exchange "I love yous" before heading out to each call, but wouldn't it be great if they did? And maybe one day they will, if August joins the fleet.

You know, until I started making it a point to really hang with my boys this year and witness with new eyes what they do with themselves when given their own time, I think I had lost touch with that childhood lens--the lens that is still innocent and pure and gifted in ways that our clouded adult lens's aren't. And isn't that part of the gift of childhood? The freedom to pretend and play act and try on all that we might want to be, only to completely change our minds the next minute with no consequence? Ahh, what a gift.

It does seem that, with so much focus on measured academic success, the legitimacy of genuine childhood play becomes fuzzy. What a shame. We really do have the rest of our lives to grow up. Really! I'm still trying on new hats, maybe not on a daily basis, but I certainly haven't picked the one I'm going to where every single day until I die. Granted, there are bigger consequences to my fly by night hat exchanges, but still, I go into hat stores now and then. If that is our reality then we must keep play a reality for our kids.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


We took the boys camping for the first time this weekend. We went with some of our oldest and dearest friends in Atlanta, the Coleys, with whom we have many camping trip memories. Those, however, were all pre-children camping trips and thus we were long overdue for a trip together. We camped outside of Blueridge, Georgia at a camp site on the Toccoa River. This picture shows the view from our tent. We spent Saturday hiking a trail that led to a waterfall that, under non-drought conditions, would have been really beautiful. It was still fun. When we returned to the campsite our friend, Bryan, proceeded to teach the kids how to play "Kick the Jug" (otherwise known as "Kick the Can", but we only had an empty water jug). They loved it!! They begged the rest of us to join them in the fun. I wish that you could have seen the look on Aidan's face when I told him that I used to play this very game when I was a little girl. A golden thread of connection was woven in that moment.
As we were playing we kept hearing bluegrass music faintly in the distance. When we noticed people clapping at the end of each song we decided to investigate further. Turns out, the Bruce Weeks Family was camping just down the road from us. They tour around playing at churches and other venues but we were able to enjoy their music around a campfire. I taught Aidan some square dancing moves, which he thoroughly loved, and we just enjoyed the pleasure of listening to good music live. It was quite an unexpected treat.
Once they settled down enough to sleep, the boys did really well. We still managed to wake up at our normal time (about 7 a.m.), thanks to some Canada Geese that honked their way down the river. We spent the morning breaking down camp and leisurely enjoying the river, the nearby trail and nature in general. We drove around Blueridge looking for somewhere to eat lunch and finally ended up at the Village Inn, which had been recommended by a local. Wow!!! Delicious southern food at its finest. We then drove around Lake Blueridge, hoping to find a place to wade or play in the water but to no avail. This was where the drought was painfully obvious. It wasn't just that the boat docks were grounded. The water didn't begin until 50 more feet past the end of the docks. It was unbelievable. Needless to say, we didn't recreate around Lake Blueridge. After a brief stop at a little playground, we pretty much called it a day and headed back to Atlanta. The boys were exhausted but they still managed to stay awake the whole ride home and didn't fall asleep until 9:00 once we got home!!! We are still suffering from their action packed weekend, but we'll recover.

A little night music

I know these pictures came out really dark but I was hoping to catch the essence of what we experienced last Friday night. The kids loved making music around the campfire and accompanying the more practiced musicians nearby. At one point, as I sat on a bench in front of the fire surrounded by some of the greatest neighbors in the world while listening to awesome music being created at the very moment I listened to it, I couldn't help tearing up a bit. Although John and I are excited about the next chapter in our lives, the reality of leaving this neighborhood that we have come to know and love is bittersweet. It's taken about 6 years to get to this level of interaction with folks on a regular basis. Having kids helped forged a lot of new bonds but for whatever reason, it's just taken time to feel invested. But now that I do, it's hard to leave. Hopefully, my kids won't forget this night.

The power of imaginative play

Ah, the inside homemade tent. What a glorious place of escape and intrigue! It always amazes me how easily blankets and chairs can transform a playspace, despite the fact that I, too, used to make a tent underneath the dining room table. I remember that I used to pretend to cook over a fire with my parents ancient copper fondue set.
It's very interesting to watch the order in which they set up camp. Aidan and August quickly established their sleeping spaces (complete with their own special pillows, blankets and stuffed animals) and storage areas (for all of the knight fighting equipment). Then, food stores. After that, maybe some books. That's about it. If only we all kept it that simple. The first picture was an attempt to catch Aidan in a familar pose these days. I'm trying very hard to hold my tongue every time I see him in such repose because I find myself always wanting to ask him if he is okay. I've realized now that Aidan is going to tell me if he is not okay so I need to leave him alone when he is simply musing. Because that is what he is doing. How novel to not think of a child deep in a thoughtful state as "weird" or "sad" or whatever else I've been guilty of thinking. And who knows what is going on deep down in that quiet busy mind of his. I need to be patient.
The second picture was me trying to be all artsy and capture the essence of pretend play. But don't you think it's pretty neat how Aidan's image is kind of there and kind of not? Is he a real knight or a figment of your imagination? Or of his?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Finally some rain

Well, much to the state of Georgia's relief we finally received some much needed rain this past week. According to our amateur rain gauge (a test tube type contraption with a frog figure attached) we received about 3 3/4 inches of precipitation in two days. One storm provided 1 3/4 alone. Unlike earlier in the summer when it rained for the first time in months (truly) and August started going crazy because he didn't seem to recognize this thing called rain, the boys were very excited to watch the drops fall like mad this time. On this particular day, we had already had a lot of time outside. We woke up to cloudy skies and very muggy air but I suggested that we go to our neighborhood park anyway. My thoughts were that the creek that runs through Emma Millican Park might actually have some water in it because of the heavy rain the day before. I knew the boys would love mucking around in it so we packed up their boots and for the first time they rode their bikes there. I could kick myself for not sticking the camera in my pocket because they did some serious creek exploring that was really neat to watch. Plus, we found an amazing spider web complete with a yellow garden spider deep in the throws of paralyzing some prey. The next storm hit after we had returned home and eaten some lunch and the boys begged me to go out and play in the rain. I relented. Who knows when it might rain again? Shortly after they set out to play, however, the rain stopped and the sun came out. But that was okay with them because our street gutter provided another marvel to behold. We live at the bottom of a long street that has a gradual decline until shortly before our driveway, where it then drops off more dramatically. As a result, a rushing torrent flows right in front of our house whenever there are heavy downpours. This, as you may well remember yourself, is a child's dream.
What was so interesting to observe was the different way in which both boys studied the rushing water. Aidan, with boots on, stood safely on the ledge of the gutter and carefully dropped objects of various weight and length into the stream. August, however, immediately stripped off the boots and jumped right in. He just had to feel the water, even if it meant risking life and limb. Before long, the seat of his shorts were wet and I calmly reassured myself that I was already doing laundry so it didn't matter that this would mean a third set of clothes. At the end of the day we were all simply thankful for the gift of water and the gift of play.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

An excerpt from Aidan's "Book"

Well, I gave you the background regarding Aidan's fascination with PlayMobil and I told you about his stories inspired by the various scenes from the catalog. Well, today, I took a moment to listen to him read aloud one of these stories to himself. I was caught off guard as to how involved and detailed they were and I found the few sentences I heard to be quite good. I was intrigued so I asked him if I could write down the stories as he told them to me. He was very excited about that possibility and cooperated quite willingly. When he finished I knew that I had to share it here so that those of you who know and love him could enjoy it along with me.

…But Drake did not see him head for the forest. He saw him starting for the direction of his small castle. He went past the castle, jumped over the lake, went into a forest and was gone. Suddenly, the cannon guard came running. The King has decided that Sanc (the evil knight) can go out of the castle whenever he wants to. “Do you mean he is gone now?” asked Drake. “Yes,” said the cannon guard. “I’m going to go get Rant,” said Drake. He got Rant and the door opened, the drawbridge went down, and Drake and Rant were after the evil knight. Good thing they got out the door and over the drawbridge before they shut. Wham!! He bumped into some trees. He just got to Rant when a “thump, thump” sound came. It got louder and louder. He saw the evil knight’s horse mask come out of the trees. The horse and the evil knight were right there with them. Fanc (the evil knight’s horse), and Sanc were trying to look for the dragon.

Chapter 2
The Magic Dragon
Drake hurried through the forest. They passed the dragon and the dragon driver. Slowly they passed the dragon castle and their friend’s house and then they came to a halt. Right in the middle of the road was a dragon. Drake climbed onto the dragon. Something happened. Drake rose up off the dragon and landed in front of it. “This is a magic dragon,” he said to Rant. Then the dragon got to live in their castle.

The End.

What I want everyone to understand is this: the above is pure dictation directly from Aidan's mouth to my keyboard. I had nothing to do with any of the above words except to type them for him. There was no editing on my part, not even for grammar. What is fascinating to me is how much of what we read aloud on a regular basis is greatly reflected in his style. And it also reassures me that by continuing to read aloud to Aidan, even after he can read on his own, we will be planting seeds for his own writing ability. I know that many great writers began by simply imitating writers they admired and maybe that is what is happening here. Our plan is for me to continue to type up these stories for Aidan and make a collection. Let me know if you're interested in a copy.

A little "unschooling"

So most folks know that our family plans are to have our boys learn at home with us rather than attend a local public or private school. Although the execution of this endeavor will be totally new ground for John and me, the reasons that drive us have been percolating for some time. I think I will reserve the bulk of my thoughts and ideas on that for another post. The very condensed version would have to include my argument that we have a flawed educational system in our country. It seems like despite most efforts (longer school days/years, more emphasis on core academics, standardized testing, pre-K programs, etc), as a whole, we still don't have much to show for our efforts and we fall behind most other developed countries. And I'm not trying to say that I believe the mark of Aidan and August's ultimate academic success will be that they can compete with the Japanese. The problem, I believe, is that we try to apply one method of doing things to all children, when all children learn in different ways. I like the idea of being able to follow my kids' lead and adapt to their interests and strengths. My boys already have a love of learning and I don't want that to get squashed amid all the other trappings of school life (bullies, pressure to fit in, focus on things that aren't really important in our world view, and just general busy-ness). I recognize the need, however, for kids to relate to other kids, and thus I won't keep my kids isolated from the world. That's where things like scouts, church, and volunteering in the community come in. I want my kids to be able to relate as easily with a senior citizen as they do with a fellow 6 year old. Plus, I guess I just don't agree that people should learn very particular things in specific grades.
So, this will be new ground for all of us. It will probably mean that we explore subjects not typically assigned to 5 year olds or that we exhaust a particular subject of interest to the -nth degree. Regardless, I still see it as a great adventure. Hopefully, the boys will too. In all of my research regarding homeschooling, I've come across many different approaches, philosophies, and attitudes. And many have resonated with me. I love the teachings of Charlotte Mason (quoted above) that emphasize learning through the reading of "living" books and is heavy on nature study. Classical approaches also grab my attention, especially since John was a Classics/Philosophy major in college. And then there is the "unschooling" approach, which essentially balks at all of the structured forms of learning with which we are familiar and aims to stand all tradition on its head. The fact that this latter approach even appeals to me in the slightest is really curious since in most areas of my life I am a classic rule follower and like to do what I'm told. But something about embracing learning at home has caused a slightly subtler part of my personality to emerge. It is the side that doesn't want to buy any particular curriculum or do exactly what any one other person is doing with their kids. And that is exactly what gets me so pumped about this whole endeavor. I have that freedom. I don't have a state standard that I have to meet in a particular way. I don't have a certain district's historical educational format to follow. It's incredibly liberating. And it's incredibly frightening. That's why this year is particularly precious to me regarding homeschooling. We are not legally bound to anyone to show anything for our efforts (age requirements for officially registering for homeschooling don't go into effect until 6) and Aidan is still "young enough" to not get too much pressure from others to "do something" with all of our time. So we are just working this out as we go along. Thus, the above picture. Aidan came to me and said, "I want to experiment and see what things float and what things don't." We've done this exercise a couple of times before. In fact, I'm pretty sure the first time it was attempted was with my mom, while John and I were out of town. But each time, he tweaks his floating craft a bit, literally testing out the waters. I have done nothing formal as a follow up to his inquiries. I simply ask a few questions about what he is doing. Essentially, this is the heart of "unschooling" but I still have my doubts about what we are accomplishing and/or what he is learning. This is not how I "did" school all my life, that's for sure. It's weird to stand back and not offer up my knowledge. But it certainly is fun to watch him try to figure things out. I'm sure this is the first of many "letting go" moments.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The magic of PlayMobil

My son, Aidan, is obsessed with PlayMobil. Specifically, knights. His first introduction to them was when he received a single figure as a birthday party favor. He then received the knight on the far left as a reward for some good behavior, although I can't for the life of me remember what said behavior was. We then innocently picked up a PlayMobil catalog at our favorite toy store (called "The Toy Store"--how great is that?) while shopping for a gift for a friend once and the rest is history. Aidan was continually drawn to the various knight sets displayed in the catalog but would never ask if he could have any of them. That was why we decided to surprise him with the "SuperSet Castle" for his 5th birthday. The set consists of a fort with dungeon, large shooting cannon and four knights. He also received a supplemental set from some friends (with a horse to boot!), bringing his knight collection to 7. His birthday was in July and not a day has passed in which he has not played with some or all of the figures. Over the course of his play, he has come to give the knights names, which he came up with completely on his own. They are Salt, Prince, Buckhead, and two Rants and two Drakes. The horse's name is Sergeant. Yes, there are repeats in the names. I haven't been given a clear enough explanation as to why the repeats, but I figure he has his reasons and that is good enough for me. What I am blown away by, day in and day out, is the incredible amount of imaginative play that has come from these figures. But not only the figures, the PlayMobil catalog is also part of his imaginary world. As it has been explained to me, each page of the catalog (which shows the various figures and playsets arranged in incredibly detailed scenes complete with painted backgrounds) are "chapters" of a "book" that Aidan is, essentially, writing aloud on a daily basis. He pours over these pictures and scenes with a tenacity that can only be described as admirable. Perhaps I will get him to dictate these stories to me so that we can capture the magic while it is so tangible. On the other hand, maybe their mystery is what makes his musings so very magical. I'll keep you posted.

Our very own hungry, hungry caterpillar

Look what came climbing down our tree the day after the tree guy came and trimmed our dead limbs! We think his roosting spot must have been disturbed by all of the chainsaw activity. It may be hard to get some perspective on how big this caterpillar is but you have to trust me on this--it's HUGE! The other pictures that I took where he was climbing on fingers and hands and such just didn't come out very well and the perfectionist in me couldn't post them. Just believe me when I say that he was longer than my middle finger and thicker than my thumb. When you held him you could feel how strong and muscular he was. It was incredible. We are still trying to figure out what he will become. Since I've never seen anything this big before I can't help but think some small bird will emerge from his cocoon. Maybe something more along the lines of a luna moth is more reasonable. This is a prime example of why we need to start acquiring more field guides for quick reference. The internet is a great resource but sometimes the sheer volume of information is overwhelming and I still haven't mastered the "advanced search" technique. In the meantime, we will just continue to muse on what this big guy will become.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Goat love

So we went to the Atlanta Zoo on Wednesday, a) because I woke up and decided that it would be fun and, b) we have a membership, of which we have not taken full advantage. It did happen to be the birthday week of Mei Lan, the one year old panda born last September here in Atlanta, although that was not our main motivation for going. Before I write any more though, I feel I must make a comment about the Atlanta Zoo. Basically, I think it stinks. Having grown up in St. Louis, I am a complete museum, zoo, and all other possible cultural attraction snob. The fact that I regularly frequented an art museum whose building's beauty competed with the art work within makes me so particular. St. Louis is an incredible town in which to "get cultured" and I am so thankful for the many opportunities that I had to browse wonderful collections at my leisure. Oh, and for FREE! That being said, we can still go to the Atlanta Zoo and have a good time. In fact, because it is so close to our house and so small, frequent short trips are actually very simple and more apt to happen than if it was a huge zoo that was far away and cost a fortune. Don't get me wrong, this zoo does cost a fortune (when compared to FREE) but the family pass makes your investment work for you.
A fun part of our experience at the zoo was the chance for Aidan to show off all that he learned from attending Zoo Camp this past summer. I was amazed at how well he knew the layout of the zoo and he led us straight to the panda exhibit, as well as to the reptile house. Every once in awhile he would share some tidbit of information about a particular animal we were observing and that proved to be very charming. Those of you that know Aidan can appreciate the fact that although it is true that he knows quite a lot of things, he also has a tendency to speak of things as fact when, in actuality, he has just made up what he is explaining. I suppose that "made up" isn't quite fair, because often, you can see the relationships between his fact and fiction speeches. Regardless, it is an endearing trait, for now at least.
One of the main reasons that I was excited to go to the zoo was for the goats and sheep in the children's section. I was in desperate need of a "goat fix" and the boys had to beg me to leave the exhibit so that they could see the other animals in the zoo. I was excited about the fact that I was able to correctly identify the three breeds of goats that were there. I guess I have learned something from my Goats and Goatkeeping book! That is a Boer goat in the picture above, in case you were wondering. I really do love goats and being around them made me so happy and they were worth the trip for me.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Our backyard

I'm still working out the kinks of how to keep photos that I've uploaded formatted correctly, so bear with me. In the meantime, you might find that I will make several posts in the same day just in order to make the pictures do what I want them to do as they relate to the text. How's that for complete inefficiency? I'm sure you don't care, but it is very frustrating to me.

Aidan took this picture this morning as we watched the butterflies and moths descend upon our lantana. Our yard has not really become the beautiful sanctuary that John and I had always envisioned, for various reasons. I think that is one of the hunger pangs we experience when we imagine having more open and wild space with which to work. But, we have managed to plant something that simply won't be killed--even by Noah the Great Dane, who was determined to dig up this hearty lantana, but obviously didn't completely succeed. And let me tell you, the butterflies love this stuff! So I have eeked out some joy from the yard this summer, even with the drought. I have not watered these plants since I first planted them and they have never complained. Obviously, they are in a good spot in terms of sun and soil drainage, but I also choose to think that they are a little gift from God to me. A little, "I know that you want to grow and nurture things, Holly, and although you have so very much to learn about what all that entails, I will give you hope." And it works. Plus, the kids love to watch the butterflies. Me, too.

Maybe Autumn is on the way...

I know that the calendar says that it is September 4 but the thermometer belies that truth. It's hard to really believe that the autumnal equinox is only 3 weeks away when it still hits 90-something every day. But I have new hope. The acorns. They started falling about two weeks ago, small and demure at first. Now, they are a variety of sizes and I really can't remember a year when they looked more perfect. I've started collecting them just because I like to look at them. Maybe we'll make a wreath or some little forest folk out of them. Or maybe Aidan will just drop them all down the hole in our yard as his humble offering to Mr. Chipmunk.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Some wishful thinking

At one point today we were outside cleaning up the limb debris that was scattered across our driveway (one of the many dead limbs that hang precariously from our many trees just couldn't hang on any more). As we began to clear away some of the little branches, I told Aidan about a time when I was about 10 or so and a ginormous tree fell in a neighbor's backyard. Thankfully, it did not do any damage to anyone's house or other property. It just managed to fall right square in the middle of the long backyard. Well, as I mentioned, this tree was huge and because of its large and numerous limbs it made quite the natural playground when sprawled prostrate across the grass. My friend Jenny Streck and I played on that tree for days. I'm not sure exactly what all we imagined that tree to be but I'm pretty sure at some point we were supposed to be forest fairies or elves or something else of the like and I just remember it being magical. Well, my Aidan just thought this was the greatest story and I could just see his little mind turning those images over and over in his head. Sure enough, a moment later he emerged with his beloved sock monkey, Bobo, and proceeded to hang him from the limbs and carve out a little house for him. Unfortunately, we didn't have the luxury of leaving our big limb there for him with which to play. Remember, it was in our driveway, which, by the way, I failed to mention, fell to the ground during the few moments of yesterday when no cars or kids were in its path! Thank you, God! And yes, we do have someone coming to take care of our poor trees--this limb just couldn't hold out. Anyway, when he realized that he couldn't build a tree house for Bobo, his next brainstorm was to build a fire with all the dead wood. Nice use of resources, little man. I explained to him that he couldn't set a real fire in our yard due to the drought, lack of a suitable place for a fire, and because we've already tried it before and had the fire department arrive on the scene. I told him that he could go ahead and build up a campfire and pretend to light it and, amazingly, that satisfied him. The picture above is his creation. I was very impressed with the nice rock fire ring that he built first. Oh well, a boy can wish.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Here we are

This was on one of our trips to Sweet Water Creek State Park. It's a very short drive to a great place for short day hikes. The boys love it and we've gone enough times now that they are beginning to notice changes in the landscape from one visit to the next Most recently, because of our drought of historic proportions, there was absolutely no sign of any water, other than the "creek" itself. The notorious frog bog was glaringly absent and the creek shore had more exposed rocks. It has been on some of these hikes that my desire to be closer to nature on a more regular basis has become more evident and tangible.

In the photo on the right, Aidan and August are watching a fly fisherman (off camera) do his thing. They were quite mesmerized and, as the picture captures, practicing their "patience of a fisherman" poses. They have quite the fishing shoes to fill, what with their grandpa, uncles and cousins being regular anglers. We'll see how that goes....

And so it begins

Well, I have been percolating the idea of a blog for quite some time now. Mainly because I have things that I would like to write about from time to time and somehow, after I read over what I've written, I make more sense to myself. Further, I would like to chronicle my family's journey through life, learning at home and the general blumbering we do on a daily basis in some meaningful way and I have thus far NEVER actually managed to crank out a single scrapbook page (despite the best laid plans and some darned good photos). So, I figured there was something to a September 1 start. I really love September for some reason and seeing as this is a traditional time for kids Aidan's age to be starting school, I figured I'd start this blog journey now, too. Our family is entering into a new phase of our life as we prepare for a big move and so I'm sure many ideas, plans, and dreams will be fleshed out here. You're welcome to come along for the ride.