Working With Clay

It's been awhile since our last clay exploration, which was this past summer and was a full body immersive experience. Clay between toes is the best! It was time to pull it back out again as we progress through the projects in The Language of Art, which we are using as our art curriculum and which I still love and highly recommend.

The intent was to have this be an open-ended exploration of the effects of water on clay; noticing how the characteristics of the clay transform as more and more water is added. My dear Silas, though, really, really likes to make representational objects. I told him that artists often "mess around" with their material and experiment to learn what they can do and encouraged him to do the same, but he would not be deterred and continued to make his snowman.

For language arts this year we are reading folk tales from around the world. This past week's story was The Sparrow and the Crow and in it, crow is trying to make a clay pot to hold water so that he can wash his beak. So, we had our first experience in making pinch pots.

This was really hard work! Silas had to use all his muscles to push his thumbs into the center of his clay.

"I like to make holes. They're fairy houses!"

"I'm making it all level so no water splashes out when crow fills it."

"I put a deeper layer of clay on the bottom so it's a little more waterproof."

We dove back into our homeschool routine the first week of January. Looking back on the first semester of this school year I've decided that I'd like to be more specific in my planning and more intentional in my documentation to facilitate more frequent and deeper reflection. I'd like to bring a little bit more of that into this space. We are having such a positive experience with kindergarten at home this year, I love to offer encouragement to anyone who might be considering it.

Handmade Holidays: Solstice Jammies

So, I've been wanting to make mama-made Solstice Jammies a tradition in our family for the past six years. Finally (finally!) they made their first appearance this year.

I love the winter solstice traditions that SouleMama has nurtured for her family. The pre-dinner bonfire, the candlelit dinner, and the mama-made matching p.j.'s for the kiddos. Those first two elements will make an appearance for us eventually, but for now I was delighted to just have the jammies made for the kids.

Silas' are the Alex & Anna Winter PJs from Peek-a-Boo Pattern Shop and Theda's is the Piper Onesie from Sadi and Sam, both in the leftovers from the birthday shirts we made earlier this fall. I am still quite new at sewing knits, so I'm glad that no one will be looking too closely at these pajamas. There were some tension issues and an overuse of zig zag. Overall, though, I'm really happy with them. Silas' fit, he likes them, and it absolutely makes my heart melt to see him wear them. Total win! Theda's, on the other hand, while totally cute, were about 2 sizes too big. I tend to always start my sewing projects at night after the kids are in bed, and didn't have the foresight to actually measure her, so I just went ahead and made the 18-24 month size. Whoops! How about we spin it that I'm just really ahead of the game for next year, okay?

Handmade Holidays: Kid-Made

Oh my! Are we a quarter of the way through January already? Huh. That's crazy. There was such a flurry of making around here in the weeks leading up to Christmas - I didn't do a good job of documenting it at all. I was too worried about everything remaining half-finished. But, fortunately, (almost) everything made if off the needles/sewing machine/drawing board in time to find its way to its recipient on Christmas morning. The exception being Steve's hat, which was wrapped still on the needles with 6 or so rows left to go, but I figure that's kind-of charming, right? Right?

First up is Theda's gift to Big Brother Silas. She found this little bit of a fossil several months ago in the gravel right in front of our house; a favorite play spot for her throughout the past summer. She was fascinated by the way that it felt and I thought it was pretty neat too, especially with the hole already in it. So, I tucked it away thinking that we could make something with it for him. I had envisioned incorporating it in to some sort of sun catcher or chime or something like that. But, we were getting down to the wire, so a necklace it became. And he loves it!

Now for the gifts created by my dear Silas. For Daddy, he drew an entire box full (yes, that is a unit of measure) of drawings with the instructions that Steve was to put them "everywhere" at work. 

Theda received an undersea drawing populated with sparkly puffy sticker sea creatures. She was delighted by it because these were the very same stickers, in fact, that she had tried to swipe from him at some point prior.

And for mama? Well, I think I made out best of all. One day, out of the blue, Silas asked me, "what's your favorite animal, mama?" Of course I answered, "fox." He just nodded and didn't say another word. A week or so later we were picking some things up at the fabric store. He was looking around one aisle over from me and when he came around the corner he was embracing a bolt of bright yellow cotton. "Mama! Can we bring this home?" he asked, "But, I can't tell you what it's for." So, I pointed him towards the line for the cutting table and coached him to say that he wanted "half a yard" when it was his turn. Of course, I had to make sure that I had something very pressing to do alone and out of the house on the morning of Christmas Eve Day, leaving the kiddos with Steve.

Steve reported that this fox sculpture really was all Silas. Initially, he had a grander design that involved wood and a saw, but when Steve suggested that they might want to scale it back a bit, Silas bounced right back and found a way to make his vision come to life, even with Daddy's limited woodworking capabilities.

And, of course, no gift would be complete without an accompanying book.

I'm a lucky mama, indeed.

Third Week of Advent: The Light of Animals

The third Light of Advent, It is the light of beasts:
The Light of faith that we may see In greatest and in least.

I've written before about our slow journey to creating family rituals and celebrations. We took a year off of pretty much everything last year as we focused on moving. So it was with renewed enthusiasm that we dove in this year. In some sense, we're taking all of December "off" from most of our usual homeschool activities so that we can focus on the winter festivals. But, that preparation and celebration is so in keeping with what we do for schooling anyway; it all really flows together.

During yesterday's dinner we lighted the third candle in our advent spiral, signaling the beginning of the week in which we honor the animal kingdom.

In the past we've made bird seed feeders and strung popcorn as treats for our outdoor animal friends during this week and we do plan to do that again this year as well. I wanted to add a bit of handwork, though, and to create something to add to our winter garden.

Over the past year Silas has gathered a ridiculous number of snail shells from our yard (a good head's up as we plan our first garden, no?). We got them out, along with a few he gathered at nature school and a couple from our collection of treasures from the sea and gave them a good scrubbing. Then we warmed up some modeling beeswax in bowls of hot water and he made some little snails to live in them.

This is the first time that we've set up a full display for advent and it's been so much fun for us all to watch the space come to life as we add to it over these December days and weeks. We started with just the green silk. On the Sunday of the first week, the week of minerals, Silas chose stones, crystals, shells, and bones (yes, bones! It's amazing what you find in pockets) and arranged them all just so.

On the first of December we added the star path - 25 stars to countdown Mother Mary's journey to the stable. The first thing Silas does every morning is to move Mary and her donkey one star closer and then count how many stars are left until Christmas. Our stars were made from clementine rinds, a cookie cutter, and a hammer.

The space really came alive the following week as we celebrated the plant kingdom. We potted some new plants just for the occasion and made a few things as well. Out came the orange and clove pomanders we made two years ago and they are still incredibly fragrant! We made two little Christmas trees by dripping green beeswax onto pine cones and Silas made little hedgehogs out of teasel seed heads (which we gathered on a nature walk this fall) with three black-headed straight pins for the eyes and nose.

The stable is re-purposed from our very first project at the beginning of this school year. Silas built it from sticks that he gathered, measured, cut down to size, and adhered together with clay he dug himself from our backyard. It was an amazing project that he attacked with enthusiasm. Not every week since then has been so idyllic, but it was a wonderful way to kick off our kindy year.

After he placed his snail creations, he had fun going through all the wooden animals to choose who got to come to the party in the winter garden. He wanted the fox to be hiding and ready to pounce on some prey. Hmmmm. I'm pretty sure that peace prevails in the winter garden, kiddo. Lions and lambs and all that.

Next week we celebrate humankind. I hope you're enjoying this holiday season as well!

Theda's Muti

I started this little knit dress for Theda way back in June. June! Can you even remember back that far? Back in those days we were sweating it out without air conditioning, spending many days at the pool, and eating lots and lots of homemade ice pops. At that time, she was still a crawler and so I was avoiding any actual dresses and instead favoring shorter tunic-type tops that wouldn't trip her up as she crawled about. 

Silas took his first steps on the late end of the spectrum, walking at fifteen months. So, I didn't worry when month fifteen came for her and she still had no interest in being bipedal. But then month sixteen and month seventeen came and went. We'd take her by the hands and try to help her stand, but she would get so mad at us when we did! She simply did not want to walk and would not be coaxed into doing so until she was ready.

Two days before she turned 18-months-old, she walked ten steps across the room to get to grandma (I missed it!). There was no warm up, no cruising around while holding on to furniture. She just waited until she was ready and then she walked. And then she started to run. And climb. She is a far more daring soul than Silas was at this age, which I'm sure is in part due to differing personalities, as well as to the fact that she has an older brother encouraging her to climb onto the table.

So, the dress. By the time I did finally finish it, she was up and walking and totally able to navigate while wearing it. The timing was meant to be. The pattern is Muti (Ravelry notes here) and I used Quince & Co. Finch in Kumlien's Gull. Love, love, love. Q&C is quickly becoming my go-to yarn. It is a pleasure to knit with and I always know that I'll like the results. And the dress? It is such a sweet little thing, but not nearly as sweet as the little girl who wears it. Whenever she has it on she rubs her fingers over the front and says, "mama!" It's pretty precious.

Joining Ginny.

Quick sewing

Goodness, I don't think I've sewn but two things since we moved over a year ago. There was a little treasure bag for a friend's birthday back in the spring and maybe something since then? I'm not sure.

Like any flat surface in my house that is not actively being used (so...everything that is not the dining room table) my sewing table became a catch-all for little bits and pieces that had no home. Having to clear all that away and then also find the motivation and time to start a project? Well, I found that challenging. But when Halloween was upon us and Silas handed me his design for his desired costume this year, well, it became a priority.

He went through many possible costume ideas, most of them involving combinations of things, the most elaborate being a train/clock/dragon ensemble, before he settled on a robot ghost. You got it, kiddo. Can do.

We luckily found a white sheet at the thrift store without too much searching and the rest were bits and bobs from around the house that we sewed or glued on. Silas had grand plans for the light panel, wanting it to flash red, yellow, and green, "like a traffic light!" I handed this portion of the production over to daddy, who, of course, over-designed the whole thing, spending several late nights writing code to make said lights happen and make it all remote-controlled via his smart phone. I just made a pocket for it all to sit in and didn't ask any questions. 

While sewing, the foot pedal on my machine started to make a concerning crackling noise. There were sparks. Luckily, my mom handed down to me a spare machine, which was waiting patiently in the basement for me to actually learn how to use it. Well, no time like the present, right? And while my old machine could only do a forward straight stitch, this new-old machine can do a zig-zag. Knits! How exciting!

Initially, the Little Miss was going to be a chicken, prompted by her love for visiting our neighbor's "bok bok's" on our daily walks. But, well, we just never made it to a craft or fabric store to get the necessary ingredients for such a costume, so we had to come up with something we could make with what we had on hand. And it ended up being absolutely perfect. This girl does a mean great horned owl impression.

And with those two projects completed, we were on a roll! Silas was invited to celebrate the birthday of a dear fashion-loving friend. Matching friend shirts was the obvious choice for a gift. Silas and I scrolled through looking for "something red." These "barnacles" caught his eye.

"What else does your friend like?" I asked. "Unicorns" he replied without hesitation. Well, that made the choice pretty easy.

Of course, I was sewing right up until he and daddy were putting on their coats and getting ready to head out the door to the party, but they did leave with two completed shirts. One nicely wrapped, and one on a bouncing 5.5-year-old. He was absolutely thrilled to wear it and I think the birthday boy was pretty happy too.

And can I just pause for a moment and say how amazing this kid is? I mean, look at that sweet face. All too often these days I get swept up in just getting through each day. I've fallen into doing more managing than mothering and it's really no fun for anyone. We're not quite to the season of making resolutions, but if I were to make one right now, it would be that I return to a practice of being fully present in the moment. Of being open to silliness and laughter. Of really looking into these little eyes and hearing his voice. Because when I do, all the anxiety and worry that I have about getting things done simply melts away. All the pressure about how to spend my time evaporates. It's clear. This is what's important. This is my work. It (and he...and she) deserve my focused attention. Every. Single. Day.

Beginning Reading

Silas is starting to show a keen interest in learning how to read. I believe strongly that a child who is raised in a literature-rich environment will learn to read when they are ready with very little instruction. Reading together has always been a daily activity for us and I make an effort to model reading for pleasure by doing so when the kiddos are around. 

About a year ago Silas asked to learn all of the letters and how to write them and we've been doing so off and on, following his interest. Now it is a frequent occurrence that we have to pause on our daily walk or linger in the store because he wants to sound out the words on a sign.

Wanting to continue to follow his lead and to provide materials to support his interest I've been looking at some beginning reader books. I found a set of Bob Books at the thrift store, so I thought we'd give them a try. They are absolutely fine. But, I've spent the past five years being really choosy about the books that we add to our collection and I hoped to find readers with a little bit more beauty, warmth, and soul. So, when the folks at Home Grown Books offered to send me a few books from their collection to review, I jumped at the chance.

The first thing that I noticed about these books is how beautiful they are. They are the result of the collaborative efforts of artists and educators; the warm illustrations draw you in and the word choice and sentence structure are carefully chosen to encourage development of literacy skills. With titles about things such as gardens, the earth, and animals, the subject matter definitely draws him in and holds his interest.

These have lived in a basket on our shelves for awhile now and Silas often returns to them; sometimes to look at and ponder by himself and sometimes to have me read them to him. There are several other titles available. I just may have to get them all.

Books were provided for review courtesy of Home Grown Books. All opinions expressed are my own.

Nature Study: Mosquitoes

It started with a dead mosquito on the floor and turned into a two month long interest led, Reggio inspired nature study. Luckily (?) it was a banner year for mosquitoes, so we had plenty of opportunities to collect specimens, observe them, and to learn all about them.

At this age (5.5) most of our nature study is simply learning to look closely, notice details, and to translate what we see into words and drawings. We also practice thinking of questions and coming up with strategies for finding answers. 

To look at the whole mosquito body that we found, we first looked at it under our tabletop magnifier (we have one similar to this). Silas wanted to see it in more detail, so we got out our magiscope and used it for the first time. This is a popular microscope in homeschooling circles and for good reason. They are heavy duty, making them durable enough to take out in the field, and they are simple enough to use that even the very young can use them independently and without frustration. As an added bonus, you can use them with slides as well as with 3-D specimens, making it perfect for getting a closer look at our mosquito.

In our very first viewing I first wrote down all of Silas' observations as he narrated them to me. Then, I asked if he had any questions and wrote them down as well. Some of them were pretty straightforward ("why do they drink blood?" and "why do bug bites swell up and get red?") and then there were some that revealed inklings of critical thought ("If we're sick and they bite us, how do they not get sick?" and "How do we know it it's a he or a she?"). All of them provided points of entry for further study and discussion.

When we collected a second dead mosquito, we used it as an opportunity to practice wet mounting slides. I had been searching high and low for a collection of slides that included several mosquito parts and almost bought a vintage set, but then had the epiphany that we could just make them ourselves. At every stage he drew what he saw and asked me to label them for him.

At some point in the summer Silas filled up a tub of water and stashed it in a patch of weeds in our backyard saying that he wanted to "create habitat for the frogs." I kept saying that we needed to dump it out, but he insisted that there were "tiny little tadpoles" swimming around in there. Well, when I finally crawled back into the weeds myself, I saw that they were definitely not tadpoles. They were, of course, hundreds of mosquito larvae. We scooped some up to bring inside before we dumped the tub. As we set up the larvae in their new indoor home, Silas asked if we would set the mosquitoes free when they emerged. We raised butterflies in a similar fashion and released them once they reached adulthood, why are mosquitoes different? Good question! Why is a mosquito different than a butterfly? Who says kids can't think philosophically! 

Inside, we tried a couple different strategies to look closely at the little wrigglers. Of course, we just watched them swimming around in their jar, but we also put the larvae in a clear acrylic tray, along with some water, and then put the whole thing on the light table. 

We also got out the OHP and experimented with putting the tray on there to project their image on the wall. Here, Silas is holding a piece of paper up to the wall and is tracing the projections of larvae.

We made the assumption that there was enough bacteria in the water to feed the larvae, but we were wrong. They ended up cannibalizing each other until there was only one left. When we realized what had happened, we put in a small bit of an outer leaf of lettuce that had gone bad, with the hope that one little larva could find enough bacteria there to survive. It did and we did get to see it change into a pupa. An adult mosquito never did emerge, though, and the pupa seemed to just disappear. We've read that their metamorphosis is an incredibly sensitive time and jostling the water in the jar at just the wrong time could have caused a newly emerged mosquito to drown before it would have been recognizable as such.

Through all of this he was asking questions and finding answers. We read The Life Cycle of A Mosquito by Kalman and matched models with cards of the process to reinforce that learning.

We took an afternoon trip to our local museum of natural history to view their collection of mosquitoes. We adore our museum and go there very frequently. Their entomology collection is not on permanent display, so they got it out just for us to see and the collections manager did an amazing job of answering all of our questions. 

In all of our studies I try to find opportunities for us to engage with our larger community. While looking for resources I stumbled upon The Invasive Mosquito Project and it gave us a chance to participate in crowd sourcing data. The idea is that you put mosquito egg collection cups (just cups with water and strips of paper, really) outside. Then, after a week, you dry out the paper and any eggs floating on the water should be preserved on the paper, which you then send off to be counted and recorded in an attempt to gain a better understanding of which species mosquitoes are breeding where and in what numbers. We put out our cups, but didn't collect any eggs. It was quite a cool week that we set them out, so we may have missed our window of opportunity and will have to try again next summer.

Above is our Interest Table. On the wall is a poster of Mosquitoes of the Midwest. We have the magiscope with the slides that we prepared as well as a magnifying glass to observe our adult mosquito specimens as well as the larvae in the jar. A clip board with paper and fine-tip Sharpies are always available for recording observations.

Mosquitoes have compound eyes, so we looked through this prism to get a feel for what the world looks like to a mosquito. One other thing we did to "be" a mosquito was to play mosquito tag. Silas LOVED this and asked to play it again every day after I introduced it. Each player gets a sheet of stickers (the little red dots used to mark garage sale items are perfect) and the goal is to get all your stickers on the other person before they get all of theirs on you. It's really less of a game of tag and more a game of chase. The really wonderful thing about it, though, is that you can tailor how long the game lasts by how many stickers you have. We found that three stickers was the perfect amount for burning off some mid-afternoon energy.

You'll also see here the life cycle cards and models as well as one of Silas' first watercolor observational paintings, illustrating how the larvae move in the water. We also read Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, a West African folk tale, and really enjoyed it. We watched several YouTube videos, including a magnified view of a mosquito head, a larva turning into a pupa, and an adult emerging after metamorphosis is complete.

I should note that this Interest Table is not something that I put together myself and then presented to Silas. Rather, we start with an empty table and then fill it up with our resources as we find and gather them together.

Looking back on this exploration, it really was a fantastic one! Not only did we learn a ton about mosquitoes, we gained a better understanding of these little critters that are a near-constant presence in our summer outdoor play.

Exploring Water: An Inquiry Approach

This summer was a hot one. It was the first that we've spent without air conditioning. In general, we try to seek out water wherever we can, but on the hottest days it was absolutely crucial that we do so. July seemed like a perfect time to star an inquiry about water.

Here Silas is creating a "fountain." Shortly before starting this exploration he saw an episode of Mr. Rogers (1999, episode 1741) that focused on water and fountains and he was blown away by it. It inspired many plans and drawings of how to recreate the fountains that he saw.

I pulled out my copy of Exploring Water with Young Children (another title from the same series as Building Structures with Young Children, which we followed last winter) and started gathering materials. I really can't speak highly enough about this book. It's intended for early childhood educators to use in the classroom, but it is so easy to adapt to the home setting. Everything is clearly laid out; all I had to do was glance at it in the evening and I felt prepared to make meaningful observations of Silas' play the next day.

The biggest purchase was the water table. Prices on Amazon are so variable, I stalked it until the price dropped and then snatched it up. I looked for months on Craigslist, but only ever saw the plastic ones that are really for younger children. For our initial open exploration, I set out clear plastic containers, gathered from our recycling bin and the thrift store; clear flexible tubing in a variety of diameters and cut to various lengths, which were just a few cents a foot at the hardware store; and a set of funnels

It was so interesting to just sit and observe his play, taking notes, recording his comments, and photo documenting! It was such a window into his ability to problem solve and I got so many clues about his understanding of the properties of water.

He created this double funnel apparatus (picture above) over and over again. The first time he created it he said, 

I’ll put this [a second funnel] in the opposite side and this [the tube] in a circle and see what happens. Look! It [the water] goes in a circle!

Several play session later and he was still making the same apparatus. We had this exchange about it:

You’ve done this experiment before. Is anything different this time?

The tube is longer.

Does that change anything?

It takes longer for the water to go around.

It can be so hard to refrain from "instructing" in these moments. I try hard to choose my words carefully and to ask questions that help me better understand his thinking rather than questions that "test" his knowledge by seeking a "right" answer.

Kids are learning all the time. So often we expect them to demonstrate their learning in ways that don't really suit them. But if we adults just take a step back, observe, and ask some open-ended questions, we would be amazed by what they understand.

For example, If I asked Silas to explain displacement to me or asked him to demonstrate his understanding of that concept in some abstract way that would appear on a test, he would most likely be hard pressed to answer correctly. But, he totally gets it. I know, because we had this conversation during the moment photographed above:

“It’s spilling out.”

“Did you add more water?”


“So, why do you suppose it’s spilling out?”

“My arm takes up space and pushes the water out.”

The book guides one from this initial exploration to two focused inquires into how water flows and the nature of drops of water. In all honesty, this summer we just focused on the open exploration. The water table is stored away now for the winter, but both of us are excited to bring it back out again next year and pick up where we left off.

To close out the investigation, I invited some of our homeschooling friends to join us on a trip to the wastewater treatment plant. Silas has for years been fascinated with where the water ends up when it goes down the drain and a recent interest in watching the "ball float" (we have to watch the tank fill up almost every time we flush) paired well with our water inquiry.

In situations such as these - in a large group, in an unfamiliar place - it's hard for me to discern how much Silas is taking away from the experience. He stayed pretty quiet and seemed a little bit anxious. But, when describing the experience to daddy that evening he do so with great detail and enthusiasm and in the days and weeks that followed, he brought up things that the tour guide said. It was clear that his mind was working through all that he had seen and heard.

There are so many children's books about water and the water cycle. These were some of our favorites: Kumak's River, Water Can Be, A Cool Drink of Water, All the Water in the World, and Water in the Park

To extend learning from our trip to the waste water treatment plant, we read: Toilet: How it Works and looked at select pages from Material World: A Global Family Portrait. (A note about the second title: its purpose is to give a real and raw picture of living conditions around the world and that it does very well. As such, there are images that may be upsetting to young children and I encourage you to preview the book before leaving it out for children to have free access to. I chose to have us look only at the two-page spread of "toilets around the world.")