Autumn Days

I feel like Autumn has most definitely arrived over the last week or two with the recent
spate of windy and wet weather heralding the change in seasons. I know it’s a cliché but I can’t believe how quickly this year has progressed. With less than 10 weeks until Christmas (sorry!), I feel that despite predictions of an Indian summer, summer is now completely finished for another year.

At this time of year, our home education seems to always focus on traditions surrounding harvest time, Halloween and Guy Fawkes night as well as the science behind the life of trees. We’ve investigated why and how leaves change colour, why the nights are longer (we looked at the Autumn Equinox just a few weeks ago) and have chosen a nearby tree to observe throughout the changing seasons.

And whilst I love the long warm days of summer, endless beach trips, swimming in the sea and spending so much time outdoors easily, I do also have a massive soft spot for
Autumn. I love getting out the hand knits to keep heads, necks and hands warm. I love the excuse for having a fire in the evening, autumnal casseroles and soups and snuggling
under big blankets whilst the elements rage outside. I love mulled wine, roast dinners,
piles of golden and orange leaves crunching underfoot, the winter sun shining in a frozen sky.

What I don’t love quite so much is the near constant stream of Christmas and Birthday related chatter that has started to ramp up and will remain at a steady buzz until the events themselves. With all three kids birthdays and Christmas within a 12 week period, this is a busy time of year for us! Last year however, inspired by Monbiot’s article ‘The Gift of Death’ (about the effects of consumerism on the environment) and trying to stem the tide of unused toys building up in our tiny terrace, I committed to more thoughtful gift buying, both in terms of the recipient and the environment.

This year I am trying to do the same and make sure that we only choose to buy things that the kids really want or need, items that will be used and hopefully items that are long lasting and durable, unlikely to break or end up in the landfill within 6 months. I’m also trying to prevent the excitement from building up quite yet, if the kids spend weeks getting increasingly more worked up about an event, on the day itself, disappointment (and tears) inevitably awaits!

So this Autumn I’m trying to put the focus on our planned Bonfire Party on Halloween to clear up our allotment plot, fireworks at the rugby club, the making of our pond at the plot and embracing the present, rather than looking towards the tinsel laden and gift wrapped few weeks that lie tantalisingly ahead. So…bring on the baked apples and the woolly hats and let’s enjoy the Autumn, whatever it may bring!

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Not Back To School (again!)

It’s that time of year where the sun suddenly reappears in full force and the streets and parks grow eerily quiet, that’s right; it’s the start of a new school year. But for a growing number of us in Exeter (and beyond) there is no last minute mad rush to buy shoes or socks, no PE kit to unearth from some godforsaken corner of a smelly room (sorry school Mum friends!) and no ‘starting school’ photos. We’ve been home educating the kids since the word go and as the older two are already of compulsory school age, this year brings with it no special or meandering thoughts, merely a sigh of relief that all our groups are re-starting after drifting aimlessly for the last six weeks.

But I did think I might take the opportunity to chat a little about home education for those folk out there who might be intrigued but not quite sure what it’s all about! Firstly, yes it is completely legal! Under law, parents are required to ensure their child has a full time and suitable education, at school or otherwise. By home educating we’re falling into that vague ‘otherwise’ section! It is up to us as individual parents how that education looks, a scary thought at first but once you delve in, actually refreshing and remarkably accessible.

So why do we do it? After several years, I still don’t have a soundbite answer to that question and indeed, often ask myself it when the kids are being particularly trying! I suppose that the main reason for me is that I love having the freedom to follow my children’s interests and passions at their own pace. Many countries around the world do not start formal education until 7 and that really resonates with me. 4 or indeed 5 seems so little to be sat at a desk, there is so much playing to be done! And the great thing is that playing in itself, is bursting with educational value.

I also massively appreciate the freedom it gives us as a family, to take our learning to the beach if the weather demands it, to have a slow start if we’re feeling under the weather, to spend a day doing science experiments and nothing else if the kids have got the bug. At almost 8 and 6, my big two are on a par with their schooled peers so I don’t think they are lacking and for the most part, we are more than happy with the decision.

However, since increasing my freelance work, I have been craving a bit of a break from the kids so I can actually be a bit productive… Luckily, Forest School has saved the day! Sophia and Isaac are now both going to be attending one of their Home Ed groups every Friday for the full day. To say I’m a little excited is a bit of an understatement. I suspect Dan is also looking forward to less BBC Interview moments during his Friday meetings…

Perhaps you have found yourself nodding along with some of the things I’ve said and if you’re at all interested in home education or would like to find out more, why not join the Exeter Home Ed Community facebook group…a friendly group of folk who are always happy to help! Education Otherwise and the Home Education Advisory Service (HEAS) are also great organisations and provide a wealth of information. But regardless of whether you’ll be doing the school run later this week or not, I wish all the children of Exeter a great school year!

Green Therapy

Just before Easter a friend of ours kindly approached me to see if we would like to share their plot at the local allotment. We enthusiastically accepted and consequently, the last few weeks have seen me nipping up whenever we can spare the time to get a bit of digging in. I had forgotten quite how much I love gardening and just how therapeutic it is. This plot has a few fairly overgrown areas that need tackling and even just the simple act of digging and weeding has brought me much joy (and peace) recently. I’ve taken to digging barefoot, mostly because it irritates me less than getting soil in your shoes but I must admit that there is something wonderful about feeling the earth between your toes as you get to grips with the task at hand.

The children have been nothing short of delighted to have a patch of ‘proper’ garden to tend to although their efforts at helping me weed have often been waylaid by the far more attractive option of exploring the site or darting off to play with other children. I will give them their dues though, they are diligent (and sometimes over enthusiastic!) water-ers and I suspect none of the plants will be going thirsty with Elijah around… I’m looking forward to the Easter holidays being over and dedicating a regular chunk of time once or twice a week to the allotment as part of their home education.

When we arrived there was an impressive strawberry patch, an asparagus bed, rhubarb and raspberry canes galore. Since then potatoes, beetroot and sweetcorn have been planted, I have tomato and brussel sprout seedlings at home ready to go up and just today, my spaghetti squash seeds arrived (I’m a bit too excited about the latter…here’s hoping they are bountiful)! It has been a real pleasure to be up there in the recent run of beautiful sunshine and I don’t see our initial enthusiasm wearing off anytime soon, even if the weather does turn.

All three of the kids seem to have inherited my love of gardening and are keen to see the process of growing your own through from the admittedly sometimes boring stages of weeding and preparing beds to the exciting time that is harvest. I sometimes think that if I achieve nothing else significant with their home education, as long as they love being outdoors and can grow food, I’ll be happy. Nothing tastes quite as good as fruit and vegetables you’ve grown yourselves and although I might sound a little kooky, the conspiracy theorist in me thinks that in this day and age, it’s probably one of the must useful skills to have. So a huge thank you to Jess for letting us share her plot, we will do our best to help keep everything green and growing!

FOMO

In Exeter at the moment, there is a veritable plethora of opportunities for home educated children. Choir, yoga, athletics, veterinary classes, theatre trips, craft sessions, nature groups, science workshops, Forest School, trampolining…the list goes on and on. Although I am obviously thrilled by the opportunities on offer for the kids, at the same time I’ve been finding myself getting a bit panicked every time a new post goes up advertising another group or activity. After talking to a friend, she suggested I may be suffering from FOMO, a Fear Of Missing Out. Not an acronym I was familiar with but when she said it, I immediately identified with the ‘syndrome’!

Without a time machine and an unlimited supply of funds, it is simply impossible to do everything. But although in my heart of hearts I know this, every time I turn down an opportunity I find myself worrying that I’m doing the kids a disservice. What if there is a future Olympic gymnast in one them and they never realise that potential because I didn’t take them to the relevant classes? What if one of them has an unrecognised passion for singing but they never actualise it? I do know that I’m being a bit ridiculous and that these are extreme examples. But still, that fear (of missing out) remains!

And it doesn’t just stop with their education. I have a tendency to try and make sure that we can accept every party invitation, that every time the sun shines we maximise the opportunity to do something exciting outside, that we fit in as much as possible as a family. However, having pondered the matter somewhat, I had a bit of an epiphany. Namely that actually, the kids (and Dan) aren’t bothered about doing everything. They are all perfectly happy having a day at home, playing board games, hanging out with the guinea pig, building lego spaceships, watching a bit of TV and generally chilling out. In fact, if it follows a busy few days, it is their activity of choice when asked what they fancy doing on a rare free day.

I realised that I’ve been focused on making happy memories for our family that I’ve been getting caught up in doing big, amazing things whereas it doesn’t really matter what the content of the memory is, what we’ll remember is how we felt whilst doing that. So dragging them all onto Dartmoor when they’re tired and just want to chill won’t be a day to treasure, it’s more likely to be something we have to endure before heading home to relax. Likewise, if I want to ensure they have a full, rounded education, that doesn’t necessarily mean dipping superficially into everything physically and financially possible but following their needs and interests to develop their knowledge and skillset to a deeper (and therefore, more useful) level. No need to fear missing out, what we’ve got is pretty good already!

Back to School (sort of)

The last six weeks have flown by and somehow, we’re now at the beginning of September and with it, another school year. Although we’ve chosen to home educate we still follow national term times and so have spent the summer in the same manner as thousands of other families…having long lazy mornings, plenty of beach trips, a bit more TV than usual and generally just relaxing after a year of more structured learning and activiites. This September, my number of school age children has increased to two as Isaac would be starting reception (and Sophia year 2) if the kids were at school.

Up unto this point, I’ve slotted learning with Sophia into life with the boys with us finding chunks of time wherever convenient to carry on with what she’s studying. However, I’m guessing that this year I will need to adjust that style slightly as the balance leans heavier in favour of ‘schooling’ as opposed to entertaining babies and toddlers! I will do the same with Isaac that I did with Sophia at this age and that is to take a very minimalist approach to education. 4 is still so young and I know that at school, a large part of reception is learning through play. I’m also aware that generally speaking, boys tend to be slower than girls in terms of sit down learning. Although having said that, Isaac has expressed an interest in learning to read and write so I think we’ll slowly start with that and see how he gets on. I’m looking forward (mostly!) to the challenge of working out what his learning style is and identifying the best way to capture his attention and engage him. I’m slightly apprehensive about how much Elijah might interrupt us but hoping I can distract him with certain activities or toys when the older two need my attention.

From past years experience though, I know the biggest challenge for all of us will be establishing and maintaining a routine over the first few weeks. After a languid summer of spontaneity and no commitments, adjusting to having certain groups to attend and things that we need to achieve each week will be a bit of a struggle I’m sure. The big two have also taken to sleeping in late and still being in PJs come 9am and although we don’t have to be dressed and out by a certain time, I like to get into the habit of being ready for the day by a reasonably early time. I’ve got mixed feelings about the end of summer but can at least say with confidence that we’ve definitely made the most of our summer and are probably ready to get back to some semblance of normality this week. So parents of Exeter, I salute you as the summer holidays have finished and although I don’t have the school run to do (and massive sympathy to those of you that do!), I’m feeling solidarity with you as we start another academic year.

Sophia enjoying her summer off!

(Published in the Exeter Express and Echo on 5th September)

E+E Column: P is for Politics

This week I’ve been thinking about how to engage children and young people with politics, at what age should we start talking to them about it and to what level? I remember mentally yawning at secondary school if someone mentioned anything to do with politics. It wasn’t until (ironically) I started my International Relations and Politics degree several years later that I realised what a dynamic, involving and relevant subject it really was. Politics permeates every facet of our lives but I think to young people it can often seem confusing and not particularly important. My 18 year old sister brought this home when she spoke to me about the upcoming EU referendum and commented that none of her friends were particularly bothered about talking around the issue. She said they needed people to explain it to them. The choice of whether we should remain in the European Union or not is a weighty one indeed, with long lasting (and in my opinion, dire) implications if the vote is to leave. It is important that the younger generation fully understand what they’re voting for or against.

But perhaps if we started broaching the subject with people when they are still children, they wouldn’t feel so disconnected from it when they reach voting age. Some might argue that it’s too complex but I maintain that you could start giving a simplified explanation of what government is, of the party system and what decisions they make that affect us from as early as Year 1 or 2. Kids deserve much more credit than we give them. Last year as we approached the General Election, Dan and I explained to Sophia what was happening, what it meant and our personal views on who we were planning to vote for and why.  She soaked it up and initiated conversations on it at a later date which seemed to show that she understood what we’d told her.

I think it is so incredibly important for our young people to be able to engage, to be able to make informed decisions at the polling booth. The average age of our political party membership is skewed massively towards the older generations and the average age of our MP’s is 50. Whilst there is an argument to be made that experience is vital in this role, there is a counter that in order to represent society in an effective manner in parliament, you should have politicians falling across the age spectrum. Politics shouldn’t be seen as a dusty old relic, something just for ‘old fogies’ but in order to have a system that truly works and represents the electorate, I believe that it is of utmost importance that young people get interested, get informed and get involved.

E+E Column: An Evolving Strategy

I’ve been reassessing the way we ‘do’ home education in our house recently. Not in the sense that I’m considering throwing the towel in and sending them to school but just in terms of thinking about how much of our approach to education is one of structure and how much is one that still heavily revolves around informal learning and play based activities. As the old adage says, there’s more than one way to skin a cat and I strongly believe that what works and is best for family isn’t the same for another. Hence why some parents choose to send their children to state school, some choose an alternative like Steiner or a private school and some choose to home educate. And then within each of these spheres, there are even more offshoots, philosophies and ways of doing it.

We go to a few different home education groups in the area regularly and as such, spend a lot of time around all sorts of home educating families, from those that buy a curriculum and follow a fairly strict school-at-home approach to those that embrace the unschooling philosophy and don’t do much or any structured learning, preferring instead to explore opportunities to discover and learn as they naturally occur. I think it’s fair to say that we fall pretty much smack bang in the middle of the spectrum. With my only school age child being just about to turn 6, I’m still quite relaxed about structured learning, taking my lead from the European countries and educational philosophies that don’t start formal learning until 7. Said countries tend to have better levels of academic achievement and general well being for children so it seems to be that they are good example of the research in practice.

Having said that, she is a smart cookie and eager to learn so I’m eager to capitalise on that and keep her engaged and challenged appropriately. She’s a fluent (and avid) reader, a keen crafter and cook and absolutely loves maths and anything that takes her outdoors. We’ve tried a curriculum for two terms, a bit of unschooling when the baby arrived and now are kind of winging it with a mixture of workbooks, project based learning, day trips, groups and educational websites. It feels like we’ve been chopping and changing a lot and I was starting to think that maybe we should just choose one method and stick with it but today I realised that that just wouldn’t work. A child’s educational journey is a constantly evolving one so it feels to me that sticking to one rigid way of doing things would just result in stagnation and frustration all round. My job is to identify what is required in the stage that we’re in and change our strategy to suit it. In the summer, we spend a lot more time outdoors so maybe it’s about packing nature discover tools and spotter books in my bag and grasping the opportunities as we find them in the woods, in rockpools and at the park. In the winter, there is plenty more time for stitting at the table, working out maths, plotting science experiments and crafting together. It was a reassuring realisation for me and one that I think can be applied to many different areas of life. It’s ok to change our approach and method of dealing with things. Situations change and people change and we need to adjust and adapt to keep up with them. And I guess that is what makes life interesting…

7.12.15

A more traditional day of home education!