Ebb and Flow

(Little late this one I’m afraid but I still liked it enough to post it late!)

Even if you don’t make a conscious effort to mark or celebrate the summer solstice or equinox, you are probably aware that the longest day of the year was last week, a signal that we are almost exactly half way through the year. If you are anything like me, you are probably enjoying the light-filled evenings (although perhaps not the early starts quite as much – my youngest seems to be a little bit like a farmer, rising with the sun…which at 5am is just a bit too early for me at the moment!) My evenings have been fairly languid and lazy, I’ve been going for evening walks with friends, watering the parched plants at the allotment and generally fully embracing this time of year.

However, it has taken me a little while to fully acknowledge the natural ebb and flow effect that the seasons have on other areas of our lives. Recently I’ve been fretting that the kids haven’t been doing enough ‘sit-down’ work and that we have been spending a lot more time outside, in nature and on organised home education day trips. It took me a while to remember that this happens every year and for us, is just part of our normal academic rhythm. Each winter, when the weather is unwelcoming and hostile, I throw them outside for Forest School once a week and then we spend the rest of our time hibernating and engaged in quite a lot of project-based work and more traditional academic learning. At some point in the winter I start to worry that I’ve overloading them with information and that we might be doing too much and then usually these worries are put on pause by the Christmas holidays.

As the weather improves each Spring though, our ratio of indoor to outdoor learning seems to slowly swing the other way and by late June I am worrying about our lack of time spent indoors at the table! Remembering this has filled me with relief and also allowed me to fully enjoy spending as much time as possible outdoors whilst the weather is still fine. So we’ve been at the allotment enjoying soft fruit season this morning, we’re off to Tiverton Museum for a field trip tomorrow and our regular hall-based group on Thursday is temporarily moving to the beach to make the most of the heatwave whilst it’s still here.

This realisation has been a reminder of two things for me. Firstly that learning can take so many different forms; the kids can learn through hands-on maths whilst we’re pottering at the plot or at the beach, through discovery at Forest School of new plant or animal specimens, can develop their physical skills through outdoors sports and can work on their social skills almost constantly through the people we meet. Secondly, that there is so much to be gained from observing the seasonal changes around us and not fighting against the opportunities they present. So this week, I’d encourage you to take any opportunity you can to get outside and be in nature, soaking up the sun or perhaps relaxing in the shade, before Wimbledon brings with it the inevitable week of summer rain (although at least the gardeners will be grateful)!

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: 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…


A more traditional day of home education!

The Best Laid Plans…

…gang aft agley.

But nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about our plans for the education side of life this year. I remember at the beginning of last year vaguely thinking about what we’d like to achieve and then being pleasantly surprised recently when I realised that we’d pretty much done everything I’d hoped to but without any timetable or direct sit down ‘learning’. I had wanted Sophia to get a better grasp of the alphabet, to approach reading if she was ready and to practise handwriting. I’d also hoped we could start exploring time, the seasons and days/months. This year she pretty much taught herself to read, there was some help and guidance from me but it was most definitely driven by herself. For her 4th birthday she got a oxford reading tree first readers book (by Julia Donaldson who we love!) and she’s having lots of fun attempting to read the stories to me (and has successfully read the first 4). She has got a real grasp on the concept of time and seasons and to my surprise has started doing simple addition and subtraction. The joy of learning through play! She just casually told me one day that if a train had 3 wheels on one side and 3 on the other it had 6 altogether. From there we played games where I had x cakes and then gave one to her and how many were left and so on. We’ve discussed life cycles a lot, from acorn to oak tree, frogspawn to frog, caterpillar to butterfly. We’ve had conversations about the movement of water and she’s talked a lot about the earth moving round the sun and how the sun rises on the other side of the world to us when it is her bedtime. She really noticed stars for the first time and was absolutely awestruck by them as well as amused that they were just round ‘not like the shape they are in pictures’. Really, it’s been a year full of discovery. 

What I’ve loved is how much has been learnt simply through questions and conversations we’ve had. I find it really reassuring that there isn’t one formula for successful education and that are so many approaches, depending on what suits your child. Given that I’m a big talker and Dan’s a big thinker I guess it was only natural that Sophia would want to think about a lot of things but to explore them through incessant chatter.

I haven’t looked at the key stage ‘goals’ for her age as although she is 4, she doesn’t technically have to be in full time education until she’s 5 so I didn’t want to look and then get stressed if I thought we weren’t at the right stage. I’d much rather continue as we are with the emphasis on learning through play (which has been in the media a lot recently as they’ve been discussing the school starting age and our approach to early years education) and then evaluate this time next year when she has turned 5. Having said that, the childminders she sees on a Monday at Pebble House are always full of praise for her which is lovely to hear and good to dispel any worries!

Having said all that, Sophia does like the idea of ‘doing school’ so we have started a simple routine at the start of our day which she has been enjoying. I noticed that although she can write every letter of the alphabet, like a lot of small children, she was getting some mixed up with others and some the wrong way round. So we are currently practicing a letter a day so I can show her the correct or easiest way for her to draw letters to ensure she can write them correctly. I figured it was something she enjoys and it was good to nip any bad writing habits in the bud. After we’ve practiced writing the letter several time she’s been coming up with some words that start with that letter and sounding them out then writing them down. We’ve finished the half hour by her getting one of her early readers to read me and Isaac a story or two. The whole thing only takes 30-40 minutes but it’s a good start to the day and makes us all feel productive! Once I’ve researched a bit more about how I can use cuisinaire rods I think I’m going to add in an invitation to play with them once or twice a week as well.



This year we will also continue her scrapbook that we started in September. Whenever we go on a home ed outing or special trip, we’ve been sticking some photos in and writing a little bit about what we did. It’s good handwriting practice for her and good practice to recall what she’s been doing to reinforce what we learnt/experienced. It’s also a good way for us to keep a record of what we’ve been up to for when I have those moments where I think ‘oh my goodness, we’ve done NOTHING useful for weeks’!

Alongside these we will just carry on as we have been. Sophia is still adamant she’ll be a chef when she grows up so we do lot of baking and cooking together. Isaac helped us for the first time just before Christmas and now wants to ‘mixy mix’ every time I’m in the kitchen with a bowl and spoon so I have two willing helpers now. They both love to do crafty activities and play board games. We experienced water beads courtesy of our lovely friend for the first time recently which was a hit and soundtracks, a fishing game and frustration are the favoured games of the moment. Soundtracks should get a special mention, Mum got it for them after remembering us playing it as children. You each have a board with 9 pictures on and then you play a CD with various sounds and you have to match the sound (e.g. fireworks, cat mewing, someone playing piano) to the pictures on your board. It’s so simple but they both love it. Isaac’s also been working on his hand eye coordination and fine motor skills (not that he knows it!) by getting thoroughly stuck into a box of brio trains and track which are on long term loan to us from one of my oldest friends. And I finally got Sophia out on her bike without stabilisers and she was going in no time – all the practice on the balance bike paid off, it was amazing! Unfortunately though, it’s temporarily out of action as I need to take it to a bike shop/ friend with lots of bike experience. But hopefully we’ll be out on it again, a lot, soon!




My only other definite plan for the year is to make a model of the solar system (a good friend linked me to an amazing one which  I can’t find now but will!) to further explore that with Sophia while she’s so interested in it but I’m sure that many more things will crop up along the way for us to explore and create.

I was finding it tough in the weeks leading up to Christmas with the smauls and starting to doubt myself. They were both being quite full on as Isaac was cutting 4 teeth at once and Sophia was ridiculously overexcited at the combination of her birthday, Christmas and family and friends visiting. This meant they were both prone to silly tantrums, screaming and lots of crying. I felt touched out and a little trapped. I was talking to a friend about the new Steiner Academy in Exeter and despite my previous negative experience of a Steiner school I was intrigued. Apparently they are open to the idea of flexi schooling and I love their emphasis on nature, the arts and the gentle start to formal education. I was planning on going to their open day to look round and I think I will do that but not with a mind for them to go quite yet (Isaac of course, can’t anyway). But I’d like to know if the option of flexi schooling is open to us in years to come. A Dutch friend of mine reminded me how lucky we are in the UK that home educating your children isn’t controlled in terms of restraint or restrictions from authorities and that it doesn’t have to be forever. It was a timely reminder. Home education is what we are doing now and as far as I can foresee, will be doing for a good few years to come. But it doesn’t mean we’ll do it for all of their school years. I just need to focus on the here and now, for that is where I’m needed.


Thoughts turning to Autumn

Summer seems to be slipping away in a delicious haze; it’ll be September next week, the season is changing before our eyes. We’ve been eagerly watching the blackberry bushes and watching the blossom turning to small hard green berries, reddening and slowly, slowly turning dark. We went for a nature walk this week down to the marshes which are protected/cared for by the RSPB and as well as doing some bird watching (with the help of some friendly locals Sophia spotted some curlews and black headed gulls as well as the obligatory ducks and pigeons!) we were hunting for that autumnal treat. Most of the berries we saw just weren’t ready yet but then I found a bush high up with an abundance of juicy blackberries; I picked them for the kids and before I knew what was happening little hands were invading the basket and they were gone faster than I could say crumble!

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2013-08-26 12.07.23As several of Sophia’s friends are heading to school full time this September, I’m trying to inject our lives with a bit of a home – ed rhythm this ‘term’ (as it were).  She’ll be 4 in December and she likes to know what’s going on (like mother, like daughter!) so I thought we were probably ready to not be super structured but to have a loose idea of what’s happening each week. I had contemplated starting  this  seasonal based kinder curriculum this September but I just don’t think it’s the right time. Isaac is still quite full on and shortening his naps so I don’t think I’d be able to properly focus on it with Sophia and then she’d get frustrated. Also, she’s still really interested in learning to read and write and basic mathematics (addition mainly – more on that later!) so I thought we’d just dedicate this academic year to continuing aiding her in her exploration of that and to really embrace their youth – lots of baking, arts and crafts, time outside, playing..etc.

Sophia will be starting Pebble House (a lovely gentle childminder/pre school with 5 other children) for one day a week in September which I think will do both her and Isaac some good. I can’t really explain properly why; I realise she’ll only go for one academic year and then be at home full time again but I think Isaac could do with some regular time just me-and-him and she is really excited about going and it fulfills her desire to try out a preschool type thing.  As well as this I am aiming to do a weekly nature walk in the same spot so that we continue to observe the seasons changing and stay in touch with that element of things. We already bake weekly but I want to try and include Isaac in that now. We need to get the garden in order; after harvesting nearly everything this month it’s very empty so we need to buy some seeds or possibly seedlings at this point to fill our beds in time for the winter growing season. Sophia is also still going to do her dancing class which she is very excited about starting after a long break over the summer.

We are also continuing Exeter Forest School’s preschool group (Tree Tots) which I think all 3 of us have missed! However, I’m aware that Sophia is fast approaching the upper age limit and is by far the oldest in the group. Embercombe run a natural learning group on a tuesday morning which attracts a lot of home educators. We haven’t been yet as it is the same morning as Tree Tots and also costs twice as much (although includes lunch which is probably why). I am very keen to go so my vague plan is that Sophia will do Pebble House for 3 terms and we’ll continue with Tree Tots for that time and then I think both those will stop and we’ll move over to the Natural Learning Group. I am mildly concerned that she’ll not appreciate leaving Pebble House but she’ll be too old to continue then so hopefully I’ll find a good way to transition her across and I’m hoping the Natural Learning Group will be a good replacement.

As well as all of the above, we’ve been part of a new home education group in Exeter for parents with younger (mainly preschool) children; we’ve been meeting weekly all summer and it’s been lovely to watch friendships between such small people blossom and to be able to chat to parents who are taking the same path as us. In fact, I think it’s been really helpful in helping me feel confident in our decision and Sophia loves going and seeing everyone.

That looks like we do a lot but really, it all seems to come together quite nicely, I would say we’re out of the house most days but never for a 9-5 amount of time and as both of mine love going out it suits us all well and we still have a fair amount of time at home to rest and just be a family together.

I was going to go on to talk about some books and resources which I’m hoping to draw from this academic year but I think that probably constitutes another post in itself now! I realise this post isn’t particularly interesting but I’ve written it mainly to make a loose plan somewhere that I can refer to easily and in case anyone else with children of the same age might find it useful; especially in context of having peers that are all heading off to school.

But I will end things with a more ‘human’ side with some pictures from things we’ve been up to over the last few weeks.

Upon our return home from Creation Fest our lovely friend Sam came to visit with her two gorgeous boys and we had a lovely few days swimming in the rain, playing in the park and visiting Bicton Park. We melted on several occasions at how well the kids got on and especially enjoyed Isaac and Tom who are only a month apart playing silly shouting racing games with each other. I love that the friendships we made in Brighton have endured with the distance and look forward to many more mini visits (both ways) and breaks with the lovely Brightonian lot! (If any of you are reading this, join us for Beautiful Days next year?!)

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Then before we knew it it was Topsham Carnival Week. The Committee did the town proud with lots of events and activities on. We went to the Dog Show on Tuesday (to satisfy the dog mad Isaac) before my parents babysat so Dan and I could play at the Topsham Town Fayre Musical Extravaganza. It went really well and we very much enjoyed ourselves! (Check out Dan’s music page for some pictures of us playing and info on upcoming gigs)

On the Wednesday was an afternoon of craft activities for children including the judging of the decorate-a-welly competition. Sophia was ecstatic to win second place in her category and was rewarded with a box of puzzles. The look on her face was priceless, especially as they misread the list at first and said Sophie won only to be corrected by the judges. Her face just lit up!

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This was followed by a flower arranging competition on Thursday which Sophia again eagerly took part in. Her disappointment at not winning this time was quickly dissolved when presented with a lollipop as a thank you for taking part.

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The week culminated with the Carnival Procession on the Saturday evening, Isaac slept through it but Sophia was mesmerised. She especially loved all the majorettes and Dan was enamored by the war hammer robot!

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Finally, after a plan to go camping was thwarted, Dan and I ended up playing a set at the Chill Out session at the Passage House Inn (where I work) on the Sunday afternoon. Late notice meant we couldn’t find a babysitter so we took the kids with us, Isaac rocked out on my back whilst Sophia danced around with a little drum loving the whole thing.



All in all, a brilliant few weeks. The gigs especially have reignited my love of playing music so I’m hoping to practice enough to maybe be able to gig with Dan on a regular basis. Watch this space…