Author Archives: abh21

Easing In

It’s hard to set a start point for homeschooling, because the way I view it, we have a certain family culture that encourages curiosity, exploration, independent play, projects…all the things that could also fall under the heading of “homeschooling.” I don’t worry at all about the “summer slide” (what else is summer for, after all?), but on the other hand, especially when my big kids’ time is taken up with school for so much of the year, summer is our time to do things together–the sorts of things I just don’t have time for during the school year. We take day trips, we explore local habitats because we want to, we visit the library often and read, read, read–the quietest times in my house this summer were the afternoons after returning from a library trip, when all three kids–even the one who can’t read yet–were sprawled around the living room, absorbed in a new book. The kids had projects that didn’t involve me at all (that pile of cardboard in the corner of the living room), and we did things together, too.

Even so, a few more items will be introduced as part of officially homeschooling my eight-year-old, and my plan was to ease these in gradually this week and next, even though my ten-year-old began school this past week. Adjusting to his schedule and the change in dynamic was enough all on its own. I was much more tired than I expected–I’m only getting up about a half hour earlier, but apparently that half hour is crucial. And we’re getting used to the absence of the older brother, which also gives my younger son the chance to be the oldest child for a good chunk of the day.

And yet, we have already added in more than I thought we would. My eight-year-old is excited. (He was also glad to see that my homeschooling to-do list was much longer than his.) We’re continuing with a chapter of Fred per day. We’ve begun history; we’ve started with science experiments and how to write a lab report. We have time to play in the yard and finger paint on the deck and dive into the stash of washi tape with wild abandon. (Thank goodness Target sells some too, a less expensive yet still fun option.) So even though my son is telling anyone who asks that he’s not really homeschooling yet because Mama doesn’t believe school should start until after Labor Day, I know better.

Field Trip: Dinosaur State Park

Last weekend we took a day trip to visit Dinosaur State Park, which is not too far south of Hartford, CT–about a 90-minute drive for us.

This is just a *fun* picture!

The main attraction is the dinosaur trackway. The Connecticut River Valley had great conditions for preserving dinosaur tracks, but not at all good conditions for preserving fossils. We’ve seen tracks before, at the Amherst Natural History Museum, at the northern end of the Valley, which boasts the largest collection of dinosaur tracks, many collected locally. But these tracks are right where the dinosaurs left them. It’ll give you goosebumps, if you think about it.

Dino tracks

The trackway is complemented by additional displays, which were all interesting to the adults in the family, too. In fact, we went on my husband’s birthday, and he chose the destination. He’s a big dinosaur fan. Isn’t it amazing that during our lifetimes, the dinosaur-bird link progressed from a crazy, derided theory to fact? The exhibits mentioned this as well, because one of the first people to examine these tracks when they were discovered was Yale University’s Dr. Ostrom, who revived the dinosaur-to-bird evolution theory.

This is a fossil of a fish (obviously!).

Fish fossil

The explanatory text said that the arching of the neck and back indicated the fish entered and died in toxic waters.

The park includes nature trails, too, so after we explored the inside, we took a walk outside. We kept seeing this red dragonfly, and finally he posed quite nicely for me.


He’s not quite as large as his prehistoric counterparts, but still, quite pretty.

This trip included a lot of time in the car, but it was a nice day for a picnic lunch, and an interesting destination, with lots of information about local (-ish, to us) geology and the always-big pull of dinosaurs. Worth a day trip!

The Times Tables

Sometimes, you just need some flashcards.

My oldest, who returns to school this week, began learning multiplication two years ago in the third grade. But they don’t require them to memorize them anymore, apparently. This summer, I decided he was memorizing those multiplication tables before starting fifth grade. Mind you, his grades in math are fine. But as he moved into division this past year, I could see it was harder than it had to be. Do you remember chanting the times tables as a class? It was boring as anything, but knowing those facts make everything that comes after easier. My son, however, was really resistant to memorizing them. Eventually, early this summer, he was able to verbalize why: “I want to figure out the answer on my own.”

A-ha! He thought that memorization was somehow akin to cheating. I picked a neutral time–we were alone in the car together, on the way to the supermarket–to try to explain my reasoning to him. I told him that if he didn’t understand the process of multiplication, if he didn’t realize that 8×3 was the same as 8+8+8, then I wouldn’t want him memorizing the facts. Facts without understanding is no good. But he does understand the process, and now it was time to know these facts so well that his brain isn’t wasting time with 8+8+8, it just spits out 24. Just like he doesn’t have to start from A just to know what letter comes after T–he memorized the alphabet in order a long time ago without even thinking about it. That’s not cheating, he agreed.

He thought this over for a bit, and then he said, “I think writing them out would be a good way to memorize them. Often when I write myself a note so I don’t forget something, I end up not needing the note because writing it down made me remember it.” I told him I thought that was an excellent start, and chose not to remind him that I’d suggested this months ago and he refused. He needed to understand why he was doing this, and I was glad he came up with this strategy on his own.

Once he understood, the rest was relatively easy, because he was on board. I’d read somewhere to group the like tables, so we started with the 2s (easy), and followed that with the 4s and 8s. He wrote out the table, and I quizzed him with flash cards. I got out our Cuisenaire rods and we grouped them different ways to see how 2s, 4s, and 8s are related. Then we moved on to 3s, then 6s, then 9s, and finally 12s. I reminded him to use what he knew–if 7×2 is 14, then 7×12 has to end in a 4. If he wasn’t coming up with 12×8, I’d ask him 10×8 and then 2×8 before repeating 12×8. We left the 7s for last, because they’re not really related to anything else, but we’d covered everything in them by then, at least. (5s, 10s, and 11s didn’t need much work at all.)

They’ll need to be reinforced, of course, to make sure they stick. Sometimes I just ask him multiplication questions out of the blue, which has led to my youngest randomly stringing numbers together into math problems for us to answer. I wouldn’t have said I’m a fan of rote memorization, but it turned out I felt strongly that he should know these, really know them. Again, if he didn’t understand what multiplication is, I wouldn’t want him memorizing facts with no understanding. But I can also remember having to memorize oral presentations when I was just a little older than he is, and it certainly trained my mind in a certain way. Maybe next summer we’ll memorize some poetry…

A Plan, of Sorts

[Insert your own metaphor here] The other day at the beach, it was so clear we had a great view of Block Island offshore. But this is rare.

As I described in the last post, I’m not one to plan the learning step by step. But I’m not unschooling, either. That’s where I thought I’d fall, when I started homeschooling way long ago. The reality, though, was that my oldest wanted and needed a bit more structure. He liked workbooks. (Me? They give me hives.) He liked seeing tangible progress of work completed. He was five. I adjusted. I even bought a complete curriculum for his first grade year, but I ended up changing and adding so much that I was going to take a completely different approach the next year, except then he began school.

This time around, with my younger son, I’ve gathered some books and I’m keeping it loose, with a very short list of items that need to be completed daily. Because three years of school has him convinced he hates math, I started him with Life of Fred over the summer. The addition in the early books is below his current ability, but those books have reinforced some items that just didn’t stick at school, such as telling time and the order of the days of the week and months of the year. My only math requirement to begin the year is a chapter of Fred a day. I know without a doubt that math will be included in all the other subjects we do, in his daily life, and in his project work. This child needs to see the practical use of something; he’s not going to learn anything just because somebody tells him to. (And I don’t think he will ever be asking for workbooks.)

My state doesn’t even require we teach history, just geography and civics. Perhaps this is why he apparently learned no history through second grade. (My older son had a completely different–and better, in my opinion–second grade experience at the same school with a different teacher, but that was before they revamped the second grade. He did learn history, though. We’d already covered many of the same topics in our first grade homeschool, but still.) Nevertheless, I asked him if he’d like to start at the beginning, in the ancient world. He’s very enthusiastic about learning more about the ancient Egyptians. I bought the first volume of Story of the World to help us tie everything together in historical context, something I was having a hard time doing myself with books that focused just on Egypt. I’m not using the activity books, though, since having somebody else decide what to do takes all the fun out of it! We’ll be supplementing and going more in depth with library books, the local art museum (which has a wonderful collection of ancient art), and whatever related projects my son decides he wants to pursue. We’ll move on when he’s ready.

He also asked to do chemistry experiments. We’ll be using Adventures with Atoms and Molecules, Amazing Kitchen Chemistry Projects You Can Build Yourself, and library resources (including a science dictionary for any terms that need to be looked up).

And finally, we’ll be incorporating project time.

I’m keeping the extras light. I think he needs to unwind from school and rediscover how much he likes learning things when he has a choice of what to learn. His knee-jerk response to anything schoolish is “I hate it” and “it’s boring.” After years of struggling to get him up and on a bus, I don’t plan on spending most of our homeschooling time trying to get him in a car on time. We have one co-op day, and I’m really excited to be part of a great group. We are planning on enrolling him in karate; we think this might be a very good fit for our intense, oppositional child. (Team sports? He can’t stand them.) And that’s about it, at least to start the year.

We will begin where we are and see what develops, maintaining flexibility at all times. That’s the main gist of any plan I’m making.

“But You’re Supposed To Know Everything!”

I’ve been (sort of) planning the two classes I’ll be teaching at our homeschool co-op this fall, which has led me to realize that I basically evolved my teaching style by instinct and default almost 20 years ago. Most of my paid jobs—and several unpaid ones—have been in what I think is still called “nonformal education,” that is, education that doesn’t take place in a school setting. Summer camps, environmental education programs, Girl Scout programs, after-school programs, urban outreach…I did lots of that sort of thing, usually creating my own program rather than following somebody else’s script.

I began planning my own programs primarily while working in environmental education, and I think that contributed to how I planned. Firstly, I was the sort of “teacher” who liked to plan more activities than I’d need, so I could tailor what we did to the group and circumstances. I also liked to leave room and space for the unexpected discovery and the emergent interests of the group. Right from the beginning, it seemed backwards to strictly plan everything without an important component: the kids. (Or, sometimes, adults.) Instinctually, I wanted the learning to be a group-tailored activity, not a top-down affair.

Sea star: Ruthless carnivore

Secondly, by default, I couldn’t be afraid of saying “I don’t know.” I was never going to be an ace naturalist, who could identify every native tree, shrub, wildflower and weed, every track, every sign, every fleeting bird call. My greatest strength as a group leader was my enthusiasm. This world is amazing! The wonder and drama and beauties—both minute and grand—of the natural world still thrill me. It never got old, no matter how many times I hauled my touch-tank of local marine life into an after school program and told the gripping story of how a sea star wears down its bivalve prey until it cracks open the shell just enough to slip its stomach—just its stomach!—inside the shell and digest the clam or scallop or mussel in its own home before slurping it out again. How is that not fascinating? My genuine passion is my strength.

Knowing everything, though? I never even thought I could. One of my favorite stories about my nonformal “teaching” is from a summer I spent as the nature director at a day camp run by a prestigious private school. Many of the campers and counselors were students at the school. One day two girls, about 10 or 11 years old, came to find me and asked, “If only the female mosquitoes bite us, what do boy mosquitoes eat?”

“That’s a good question,” I said. “I don’t know, but let me show you my shelf of guide books…”

“But you’re the teacher!” one of them exclaimed. “Yeah, you’re supposed to know everything!” her friend chimed in.

I wondered if that was really what they were learning at their expensive private school, that teachers knew everything? “Nobody knows everything,” I told them, “but I know how you can find out.” I walked them to my storage area, showed them the shelf of resource books, suggested a couple that might have the answer, and left them to it. Not too long afterwards, they came to me with a book. (This, of course, was in the days before 11-year-olds carried the Internet in their pockets.)

“Male mosquitoes suck nectar, like butterflies!” they told me. I’ve never, ever forgotten that. I hope they haven’t either. I could teach a kid what boy mosquitoes eat and answer one day’s question, or I can teach a kid how to find out the answer for herself and enable her to answer anything. Oh, and I only lasted one summer at that nature director job. I thought wandering through the woods overturning rocks was a fine way to spend some time during the summer, even on more than one afternoon. The camp director felt I wasn’t imparting enough facts and I repeated the same activities too much—I had a tendency to let the kids enjoy themselves and just be in the woods (on summer vacation!). We mutually agreed that our education philosophies didn’t match.

I’ve held onto to those two basic tenets of “teaching” all the way throughout all those nonformal education jobs and into parenting as well: leave space for the group’s interests and the unexpected, and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know, but here’s how we can find out” (or “let’s try it,” or any variation thereof). It’s why I can’t really plan more than a basic outline of ideas and supplies for those co-op classes. I’m just there to guide the discovery; the ultimate path is up to all of us together.

Project-Based Homeschooling {Book Review}

I’m so happy Lori Pickert of Camp Creek Blog has returned to the Internets this summer. She took a break, understandably, while she was writing a book. Now the book, Project-Based Homeschooling, is finished and available and she’s back with a new website. The blog is back, the forums are back, and I couldn’t wait to read her book, too.

During my first stint of homeschooling, Lori’s blog and ideas really inspired me. I kept reading even when we enrolled the boys in a local charter school, because there is plenty to delve into there whether you’re homeschooling or not. Anyone who considers themselves the ultimate guardian of their children’s education—and I never felt I relinquished that role just because they went to school—will find ideas to think about and act upon. Now that I’ll be officially homeschooling at least one child this academic year, I’m excited to really dive into project-based learning.

In fact, one of the reasons I felt like I could adjust to schooling the boys is because the school stated it had a project-based curriculum. Unfortunately, over the past three years I’ve realized that schools and individual teachers within schools may define that term very differently. Ultimately, I don’t feel that my children were experiencing true project-based learning. I feel I was completely misled, and I’ll leave it at that.

Because this particular blog began as a documentation of parent/child explorations of open-ended, process-oriented art activities, the quote I want to share with you from Lori’s book pertains to art:

Draw and paint and create alongside your child if the spirit moves you. Don’t worry about being “better” than he is. Art skills are no different from skills like reading, writing, cooking, or driving. You aren’t afraid your superior reading skills will make your child reluctant to read…Draw and paint together. Enjoy each other’s company. Your competence will inspire, not inhibit him, especially if you communicate your confidence that he’ll steadily grow as an artist, designer, and builder.

I was so thrilled to read this that I emailed Lori to thank her for writing it (and the book as a whole, too). That’s another thing about Lori—she is entirely accessible as a mentor. At any rate, this entire blog was built upon the idea that my children and I were being creative together. At a time in my life when I was not finding time to be creative on my own because of the needs of my children, being creative alongside them saved me in so many ways. I would read (online, usually) how parents mustn’t draw the same things as their children, mustn’t let them see our work while they were still working, lest we harm their fragile self-esteems or unduly influence their natural development of artistic skills by tempting them to copy our styles…that sort of thing.

That never felt right to me. While my kids and I were enjoying drawing or painting together, we were all of us, from the toddler right on up to me, inspiring each other, giving each other new ideas, marveling at each other’s own unique ways of seeing the world.  It only ever felt good, for all of us. I consider myself very in tune with my children, and not once did I feel I was doing them any sort of harm by sharing the joy of making art alongside them. It became a wonderful family activity, actually.

Art-making is only one part of Lori’s book, which is all about how, at home, to implement project-based learning—the deep investigation of a subject of the child’s choosing, with support from an adult mentor who walks the fine line of supporting without directing, encouraging without coercing. I am so excited to make this type of learning part of our home education.

{As always, I bought the book myself and my opinions—and biases—are all my own.}

Back to a Transitioning Space

After two months away, I’m still not exactly sure how to approach this space, except that I plan to broaden the scope to include more than just art topics. We’re transitioning into homeschooling here, something that comes, overall, as a huge relief to me. This space seems to be the best place, for the time-being, to share our life-learning adventures. Blogging is still just a hobby for me, so I don’t have the time or energy right now to figure out if I want to change the hosting service/domain/web address…I think it’s best, anyway, to see how it all evolves. I’ll work on updating the pages and adding new ones as time allows.

In the meantime, we’ve had sun, sun, and more sun here, and we’re enjoying our usual summer activities. Our summers tend to focus on exploring the environments we like best: where the ocean meets the land. So there is a lot of this sort of thing going on:

In the salt pond, early morning

We like to visit our favorite rocky shore to explore tide pools, too.

The sea star population is down this year, and the invasive Asian shore crab is seemingly everywhere. Fortunately there are still plenty of hermit crabs, a favorite of ours.

Little hermit crabs

We are balancing our day trips and beach days with lazier days at home, with lots of time to relax, too.

Summer reading at its best

It’s a good rhythm, for the most part, one I was sorry to leave behind when school began last fall. I’m looking forward to carrying more of this peaceful rhythm through the year than I was able to last year.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll come along on this transition. I plan to share what we’re doing and the resources we’re using and where my heart lies when it comes to education…as well as continue to share any art-related adventures and inspirations along the way. And I hope you’re having a fabulous summer so far!


When I began this blog in the autumn of 2010, we had a newish art/craft area that I felt wasn’t getting used. I wanted to make it a priority for my kids and I to make time for art-making together, and I used this blog to both record what we did and keep me on track. In that regards, it’s served its purpose for me personally. As evidenced by my spotty posting lately, it feels as if, in its current form, it’s come to a natural end. However, I don’t want to close this space. Lots of people land here via Google searches, and I hope they find inspiration and ideas. Various posts have been pinned, and I don’t want those pins to come to a dead end. As our family life is evolving, I suspect this space may evolve too, but I haven’t quite decided yet what form that will take.

So I’m officially taking a break from this blog for a month or two while I think about it, and I hope to return with, well, a plan. In the meantime, if you’re interested, I blog about my own creative projects at Salamander Dreams. You generally won’t find ideas for art projects specifically with the kids there, but you may find inspiration all the same, especially as I believe there isn’t a clear delineation between what the kids do and what the adults do, creatively speaking. It’s always overlapped here, to the benefit of us all.

May your days be filled with joyful making, until we “talk” again!


Review: Art Lab For Kids

Note: I purchased this book myself via Amazon. All views are my own.

When I ordered Drawing Lab, Amazon suggested I might also like Art Lab for Kids by Susan Schwake. I was skeptical. I don’t much differentiate between art activities for kids and those for adults; my kids (especially my older ones) and I use the same quality materials and do the same activities, so I’m a bit wary of “for kids” books. But eventually I ordered it anyway. Turns out, this is the book I wish I’d had a year and a half ago.

I began this blog because I wanted to make creating art together with my children a regular occurrence. I wanted to make use of the space we had and introduce my kids to different materials and techniques beyond the usual art supplies that were always available to them. I was hoping I could find a more or less sequential presentation of art activities–not crafts–that covered the basics (drawing, painting, printmaking) all in one place, so that I could gather materials and follow along without having to re-invent the wheel. I didn’t find that. Instead, I pulled together ideas from various sources, my own experiences, and my own head, and decided to document them here for my own use and anyone else’s, if anyone else was interested. But if I’d had this book, it would have done nicely.

The Lab series of books all present 52 “labs” or lessons in the chosen subject matter, so if you chose, you could proceed through the book using one lesson per week. The Units in this book are Drawing, Painting, Printmaking, Paper, and Mixed Media. Theoretically, you could start anywhere. Pick and choose what interests you and your kids the most. But if you’re looking for a book to lead a group, or to build a homeschool art plan around, or to get started with family art making (like I wanted to do), this would be a great guidebook. Although the title says “kids” right in it, the activities look interesting and inspiring to me, too.

The first unit deals with setting up a studio. I suspect this section will look overwhelming to many, especially if you are new to the world of art supplies. She lists everything needed for all the units–you don’t have to have it all! I’d suggest figuring out the first few lessons you might want to start with, and gather those supplies. (Quite frankly, it’s a little astonishing how many of these items I have in my basement already.)

I think we’ll be working our way through many of the activities in this book, all of which meet my desire for open-ended art experiences for my kids and myself. I love books as resources. The Internet is wonderful, but it’s also huge. Trying to piece together ideas from here and there can be overwhelming, and it’s great to have everything all in one place–to let someone else plan the lesson and just follow along and have fun.

Further links about Art Lab For Kids:

Author Susan Schwake’s website
Art Lab For Kids website
Guest post on Whipup
Review on Maya*Made

Experiments With Natural Dyes

Dyed with onion skins (with some sticker resist)

Last year we painted wooden eggs for Easter, but my youngest has since outgrown her egg allergy, so we were back to decorating real eggs this year. However, I wanted to get away from the fluorescent, fake colors. I’m the one who eats most of the eggs, and the food coloring dye that leaks onto the egg white always gives me pause. So this year we experimented with natural dyes.

Way back when, in the dark times before the Internet, I experimented with natural dyes while working at a summer day camp. A group of kids and I tie-dyed t-shirts using dye made from beets and blueberries. (We’d been learning about local Native American tribes, so I’m thinking, but am not positive, that I found these dye suggestions in my research, which would have taken place in the library, with books.)

So that’s where I began with Easter egg dye, and I added in onion skins after reading this post. That blogger boiled the eggs along with the onion skins, but I was a little hesitant to give my three-year-old a raw egg to wrap, so I decided to make the dyes separately and dip already-boiled eggs into the dye. There are lots of tutorials on this–such as here (via KiwiCrate) and here (via Craft)–but it looks like many dyes need a long soak, even overnight. I wanted something the kids could see working rather quickly.

The two orange eggs were dyed in onion skin dye. The reddish one at the front is from beets, and the bluish one at the back is from blueberries. The blueberry dye and beet dye looked almost exactly the same in liquid form, but as the blueberry-dyed eggs dried, they became bluer. For all of these, I boiled and then steeped the dyeing agent, then strained the liquid through a wire mesh strainer and added a splash of vinegar as a mordant.

Dyed with blueberry dye

A couple of days later we tried spinach and red cabbage as well. These weren’t as successful. I think the red cabbage would have required an overnight soak, and something interesting happened when I added vinegar to the strained spinach dye. First off, I didn’t need to-spinach contains its own acid, oxalic acid, which is strong enough to act as a mordant all on its own. When I added the vinegar, the liquid, which was a dark green-gold color, lightened into the color of lemonade–and had no effect on the color of the eggs. I’ve been searching for an explanation (what reacted with what?) and haven’t found one yet, so if you know, please tell me!

The Easter Bunny usually leaves my kids little rhyming clues as to where their baskets are hidden. This year, my oldest mentioned he hoped his clue was in code.

Cracking the code

I used a simple number/letter substitution, but I began at “N” as “1.” I helped him work through the first word, which was three letters, using logic to figure out where the vowel probably was (in the middle) and going from there. Then he was off and running. Every year, the Easter Bunny has to get a little smarter…

Have you experimented with natural dyes? What worked best for you?