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!

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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: Not back to school

September has snuck up on us, seemingly out of nowhere, and with it a new academic year. Both online and in real life, parents I know are talking about their children returning to school or starting for the first time. However, for the second year running, Sophia (my only child currently of school age) won’t be going to school. I still see September as a milestone of sorts though, not least because we do roughly stick to national term times in our home education. It’s a chance to reflect on the past year, assess where we’ve reached and what areas might need attention and to plan ahead for the coming year.

Last year we threw ourselves head first into being officially home educated by following a curriculum (albeit a fairly gentle one). It was a lovely start to things and helped give me something to follow whilst I found my feet with Sophia. The first term was a roaring success but the novelty and ease of using a curriculum wore off with the subsequent two when you added a restless three year old and new baby into the mix. So this year, we’ll be winging it a bit more. Sophia is a competent reader, getting better every day – her first real reading love is the Rainbow Magic fairy books, not quite War and Peace but we’ve all got to start somewhere! She loves maths and requests to do workbooks or exercises with manipulatives (such as cuisinaire rods or money) with me at the weekend so I think as long as we keep up with those and add in handwriting practice we’ve got our basics covered. We’ve inherited several science kits that she is keen to try her hand at and our home education group is looking at the Victorians this term so I think we’ll take that project home to expand on.

However, having just said all that, I am a firm believer and advocate for play based and informal learning in the early primary years. Countries with a school starting age of 6 or 7 consistently show children with higher academic scores and in my mind, more importantly, higher levels of general well being and happiness (though I admit, I’m still not quite sure how you measure that) than the UK and other countries where children are more likely to start at age 4. So this year I’m going to encourage lots of play, make sure we continue to spend time outside everyday even when the weather turns, spend lots of time with friends and ensure we do lots of crafts and baking. I’m taking a holistic approach to incorporate learning into every moment of our day, from watching the formations of geese fly south whilst out walking to measuring ingredients for some delicious creation that we can then curl up and watch Bake Off with! And I feel certain that by next September, I’ll be looking back and marvelling at how much she has learnt, informally and through play as well as through our more structured time, and once again, will be feeling blessed that I’ve been able to join her on these early years of her learning journey.

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A (non) milestone

My news feed on facebook today has been full of pictures of friends’ children, smiling for the camera, dressed proudly in school uniform, ready for their first day at school. In a bit of a contrasting damp squib moment, Sophia spent the day with Isaac and me at my Mum’s, reading books, dressing up, squabbling, catching crabs and making fudge. We’ve had a lovely day but not quite the momentous first day at school experienced by many of her peers today. image

Not that she minds (and I don’t really either). I think we’re both looking forward to the ‘not-back-to-school’ home ed picnic on Monday, our home education groups restarting after the summer break and as Sophia puts it, having a timetable. By this, she is referring to us starting the Wee Folk Art ‘curriculum’ that I mentioned in a previous post. It’s a very gentle approach, we’re going to do it over 3 days a week, have 2 days ‘off’ for groups and getting out and about and hopefully will be manageable as I get more pregnant and then busy with a new tiny one in the Spring.

There isn’t much point to this post, I just wanted to mark what could have been a milestone in some way. It’s a funny feeling, diverting from the mainstream path so dramatically. Although some of our early parenting choices may have put us in the minority (breastfeeding past a year, babywearing, co sleeping), choosing to home educate feels like a completely different ballpark. We’re embarking on a journey that less than 1% of parents in the UK have chosen to take.

But, we are not alone. We are part of a thriving community and have friends that home educate scattered all over Mid and South Devon. And that is what makes it, not a potentially isolating, but an exciting and enriching experience, not just for Sophia and Isaac, but the whole family. So I enter this school year looking forward to what it holds and to being able to be an active part of Sophia’s education and most importantly, without a hint of regret.

I’ll stop rambling now but just leave you with a lovely photo of crabbing during Dartmouth Regatta with some of our further flung friends. We were delighted to have the newlyweds and their girls to visit last week and look forward to seeing them again soon-congrats Matt and Jo, we love you guys!

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Starting back

It’s been a busy week, this week. Sophia did her first full day at pebble house, forest school and dancing started for a new term, we managed a sneaky crotchet lesson and cloth nappy gathering mission at a friends AND we went to visit the last working water mill in Exeter today with our home ed group.

On top of this, the kids are yoyo-ing from playing beautifully together to screaming at each other. Normal sibling behaviour I’m sure but man it’s hard getting used to! I can see both sides and trying to help them reach a balance that is fair is tough.

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Although she isn’t school age yet, a lot of Sophia’s friends from Topsham have started full time school or ramped up their time at pre school so our decision to home educate suddenly seems very real.

And I’m excited!

Our trip to Cricklepit Mill was a good example of what I’ve been envisioning in my head when I think about home education. A man from the Devon Wildlife Trust gave us a tour around the mill and enough water had gathered so the millers were able to release it to turn the wheel which in turn turned all the cogs and finally the mill stone which ground the grain (paragon) into flour. Sophia was really interested and captivated by the whole process and Isaac spent the whole time excitedly shrieking ‘WHEEL’ at all the moving wheels and cogs.

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We saw the wheel from outside, were shown where the otters like to play and their hydro generator which they use to generate electricity when the wheel is turning. We also explored their garden with a special habitat for bees, fruit trees galore and lots of beautiful flowers.

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We finished the trip by buying some bags of flour which we sampled in freshly baked bread this morning…yum!

After a quick lunch in the Cathedral Green we popped to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, partly because Sophia loves it and partly because I knew they had a box of cogs in the kids area. Sophia experimented making pathways with the cogs which was great in understanding how the wheel turning in the mill made all the others turn to make the mill stone grind. I felt that by actually manipulating the cogs and seeing how when she turned one the rest moved it would make the process easier to understand.

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As we’re in the season of harvest I think we’ll look a bit at how the grain is planted and how it grows so we can complete the whole cycle from seed to bread. We’ve got a few blank scrapbooks so we’re going to do a page with some photos from our trip, some drawings and a bit of writing about what we’ve learnt which will be good as it’ll help practice her handwriting. I think we’re gonna continue to do this as we follow different avenues of exploration. Our next year or so will be quite gentle and child led as we continue in this style alongside the reading eggs and practice with cuisenaire rods that Sophia has been doing already.

Don’t get me wrong; I know many parents of conventionally schooled children will do these kind of things in their time together at home but I’m really looking forward to having the time and freedom to fully explore what the children are interested in and what is relevant seasonally as well as being able to facilitate all the other things small children like to be able to do (the park, playdates, swimming, reading ridiculous amounts of books, painting, play dough, baking…etc)!

Sophia is also obsessed with what time, day and month it is at the moment so I think a birthday/Christmas present will be one of those wooden or magnetic calendars that can be used year after year. I also want to make them a wheel of the year which my Mum found here. In fact, I need to get on with that!

So I’ve got lots to get on with and think about (as well as a growing mental list of knitting projects for new babies and the like!) but I’m feeling energised and ready to go and blessed to be in a position where I am able to embrace this lifestyle.

I’ll leave you with a picture of the kids discovering one of the many gorillas dotted around Exeter, I’ve promised Sophia and expedition with Dan to find be rest!

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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.

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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…