The Children’s Festival

From silly to strange, from colorful to soothing, from crafty to creative; the Children’s Festival has a little something for everyone.  The Children’s Festival is a four day long gathering of children’s theater groups from around the world accompanied by booths from pretty much every organization which works with children in the city. There are arts and crafts, balloon animals, street performers, food trucks, a dress up photo booth, hula hoops and jump ropes, Lego car races and so much more – all for FREE!  The Children’s Festival is a great example of why homeschooling in the city is so much fun.  We have attended the festival for several years now and always find tons of interesting things to do there.

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The beginning of our Children’s Festival adventure is always the bus ride downtown. We do not take the bus often even though the bus stop is a block from our house because the only place the bus goes is downtown and there isn’t normally much there for kids to do.  The week of the Children’s Festival is definitely an exception to that rule.  The excitement of going to the festival builds through the wait for the bus, the process of boarding the bus and finding our seats, the ride through the busway tunnel and finally the trip through busy downtown.  We emerge a block or so from the festival in the middle of the city bustling with people going about their daily business; it’s a lot to take in for a five year old! I love that the journey to the festival is as much a part of the tradition as the festival itself is.

This year we saw “Egg”, “The Sheep” and “Goodnight Moon and the Runaway Bunny.”  The variety of theater and the vastly different approaches the theater groups take to children’s theater amaze me every year.

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Egg was a dialogue-free performance which featured three birds as they grew from hatchlings to young birds ready to leave the nest and fly with the other birds.  It was sentimental, repetitive, and addressed the challenges of being left behind.

The Sheep was also free of dialogue and was hilarious. Rather than taking the life lesson approach taken by Egg, they took the physical humor approach. The show included a “sheep” escaping the pasture and running into oncoming traffic on Penn Avenue, a “sheep” being “milked” and the milk being fed to a child in the audience and even the shepherd tackling a “sheep” and shearing it. The kids, and most of the adults, were cracking up the whole time.

The third show, Goodnight Moon and the Runaway Bunny nearly put me to sleep; I suppose that makes sense given the topic.  The production was slow and soothing with beautiful imagery in the sets.  As lovely as it was, the slow pace did not hold the attention of any of the children near me for long.

These different approaches to theater made me think about the myriad of ways we approach homeschooling based on our needs and the needs of our children. Each show appealed to different kids in different ways just as each approach to education appeals to different kids in different ways.  As homeschoolers, we have the freedom to pick and choose the methods and curriculum we use, the topics we focus on, the mix of active and sedentary times we work into our days and the pace at which we proceed.

We can throw in a sentimental Egg-type activity when our kids is struggling with a new developmental milestone, a silly The Sheep kind of day when we all need a break from the serious business of learning or an afternoon of Goodnight Moon and the Runaway Bunny-inspired quiet time to reconnect when things get too hectic and overwhelming.  This freedom and flexibility to craft our days around the needs of our family are two of the things I am most looking forward to when we start our kindergarten studies in the fall. – PLH

Road Trip!

A road trip has always held the promise of wonderful adventures for me.  You never know what you are going to see and who you are going to meet along the way.  Sure, there is a plan, but at least a couple of the best memories that make the trip special come from all of the unplanned happy accidents along the way.  I remember when I was young and a road trip held the promise of all of that road trip magic but didn’t entail any work in planning.  My mom did that.  And she did it so well that I never realized that there was work involved.  Now I am the mom.  My son gets to experience the magic of the road trip and I have pleasure of making the magic happen.  I can only hope that it appears as effortless to him as it did to me when I was little.

My son and I just returned from our first road trip together. It was our first road trip, our first trip without any other family members, his first night in a hotel, the longest period of time he has ever been in a car…it was a lot of firsts. It was awesome!

In the spirit of full disclosure, I got the idea from an article posted months ago on Facebook by a friend.  It was a tour of Ohio with stops at several waterfalls along the way.  We both love the woods and have a special place in our hearts for waterfalls; this trip seemed perfect.  I spent a couple of evenings on the internet gathering maps and information about each waterfall and away we went.

Mid-May seemed like a good time. The water is still high from spring rains; the other kids aren’t out of school yet; hotel rates are still off-season; the weather is nice.  Perfect, let’s go!  I packed up the car with way more food and clothing than any two human beings could possible need for a two night trip (because that is just who I am) and away we went on our adventure.

What happened next defined the spirit of our trip and in some broader ways the spirit of our homeschool.  First, it started to snow. Yes, in the middle of May, there was snow.  I brought winter coats, hats and mittens. “It’s OK, little dude”, I said, “Lets bundle up. We can still see the waterfalls.” Then my GPS dropped me in the middle of Youngstown and said “You have reached your destination.”  “It’s OK, little dude”, I said, “My cell phone also has a map and we will find our way to the waterfall.”  We found the waterfall and I noticed that my phone was down from 100% fully charged when we left the house a little over an hour earlier to 20% charged and dying quickly. “It’s OK, little dude”, I said, “I will turn the phone off and we will worry about it later. Let’s go see that waterfall.” Our teeth chattered; we shivered; the path to the waterfall was closed due to construction.  “It’s OK, little dude”, I said, “We will take the road instead.” We saw the waterfall; we walked along the river; we saw an older gentleman wearing a coat and gloves filling hummingbird feeders and had an interesting conversation with him about the migration habits of hummingbirds.   Unplanned happy accidents, remember?  When we got back to the car, I got out my old fashioned pen and paper and turned my phone back on to copy the directions to the next waterfall and to the hotel onto paper so that we could continue our trip. When the phone powered back up, it was down to 10% battery.  Halfway through my copying, my pen ran out of ink. “It’s OK, little dude”, I said, “I have another pen!”  By the time I finished frantically scribbling the directions, I was down to 2% battery power. Time to take a deep breath and re-center.  Breathe, mama, breathe. It’s going to be OK!

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This was not exactly the start I was planning to our little road trip. Remember the magic I mentioned back at the beginning?  This was not the magic I had imagined.  I was picturing sunshine, idyllic wilderness, clear directions, and technology which worked.  I got snow, road work, a tour through industrial Youngstown and a dead phone battery.  It was time for me to live the example I want to set for my son – an example of the way to approach both life in general and education. We talk frequently about optimism, persistence, problem solving, diligence and not giving up.  We also talk about doing all of those things with kindness, compassion and a smile on your face.  It would have been easy to get frustrated and give up, to turn around and go back home to our comfort zone, to take out my disappointment in the beginning of our trip on my son, but that is not who we are and that is not how we do things in life or in school. Instead, I took that deep breath and we talked some more about optimism and persistence.  We talked about how we could have reacted negatively to the situation and how we made a different and better choice.  We persevered and continued with our trip.

It continued to snow for the rest of the afternoon. We made several wrong turns on the way to the next waterfall, but we had fun along the way.  The next waterfall was beautiful and we found a bike path nearby. Another happy road trip accident. A bike path is always a mood-lifter for us!  By the time we got to the hotel that night we were both exhausted, but having a great time on our waterfall adventure. The hotel far exceeded my expectations and set up an entirely unrealistic image of what hotels are like for my son.  There was an indoor pool, an arcade, a huge indoor fireplace, pool tables and ping pong tables in the lobby, free popsicles with the kid’s meal dinner in the restaurant and a playground outside.   The next day was everything I had hoped for in our waterfall trip and more. There was sunshine; there were waterfalls; there were wildflowers, there were wild chipmunks and singing birds.  We were both relaxed and happy.  The trip got off to a rocky start, but turned into everything I had hoped for.  Just think, I could have missed all of that if I had turned around in Youngstown and gone home in a frustrated, defeated huff.

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Sure we talked about nature, rock formations, the ice age, hummingbirds, using maps to navigate, Mohican Indians, and red winged blackbirds on our trip, but I think the most valuable lessons were those about optimism and persistence.  Those lessons about what happens when you push through the hard moments and come through on the other side are going to be recurring ones through our homeschool experience.

I’m sure all parents worry about instilling the good values and important character traits in their kids when they are young. In our case, I spend a lot of time talking about optimism and persistence as I mentioned above.  I wonder if, as a homeschooler, I put more pressure on myself to do that character-molding than I would if I was sending my little guy to kindergarten in the fall. Other role models would be more readily and consistently available in a school setting.  He would spend more time with peers and would learn to regulate himself through their example.   As a homeschooled kid, he has to rely on my influence and on the influences I introduce to him.  This concept both intimidates me with its enormous responsibility and appeals to the control freak in me.

What values are most important to your family? How do you go about instilling them?  How do you make sure that all of that character molding doesn’t fall directly on your shoulders? – PLH

Bird Mania

Celebrating a homeschool win whenever I can! These beginning years when I’m jumping around, trying this approach or idea or curriculum and it’s all seeming so disconnected and simply a flop, I’m learning to focus on the small wins.

I read Project Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self Learners and was inspired to empower my children to direct their own learning. It’s been a balance of encouraging J along her path while remaining an observer. Oh, how many times I want to steer her in a direction towards her goal but have to step back and watch her stumble with  failed attempts. It’s certainly a tricky dance that I’m still learning. 

There have been many topics, ideas and projects that arose and either fizzled out after a short period or never even made it to the first step. Sometimes I found myself pushing ideas or topics that J just wasn’t that interested in after the first few steps (reading a few books or completing a small project). These topics did not develop into a big project nor the months of inquiry that I had hoped for. 

One topic sprouted and really took off this year. J has been passionately absorbed in all things bird during the past five months. She has created and maintained a Book of Birds where she sketches and labels her drawings. She will try out various mediums (markers, watercolor pencils, oil pastels, so on) while she observes the details of birds in our books. She keeps returning to this book she has made even after periods where it seemed to be forgotten. All of the bird books have been collected in the house for this project and new ones periodically checked out on our weekly library trips. 


Miss A received some bird themed gifts as her Christmas gifts which really fueled the bird love in the family this winter and spring. One gift was a bird feeder that suctioned onto the outside of our sliding glass door in our living room. We have a variety of birds regularly visit the feeder. I’m amazed by our middle of the city super developed neighborhood hosting such a large variety of birds. The girls are thrilled to observe and even identify the different birds. Our days are often filled with shout outs about this or that bird we saw feeding as we went about our day.  


The other gift Miss A received was Bird Bingo. We have played it non stop and have not tired of it yet. I just love when Miss A correctly identifies a bird we see at the Aviary or outside by it’s proper name she learned by playing this game so often. It’s become a neighborhood favorite as she has all visitors to the house join her in a game or two or twelve! Miss A insists it is always played until someone fills up the whole card!

It’s been great to watch the whole family enjoy and engage in the bird fun of learning. I am hopeful  both girls’ interest in this topic will continue to grow and I will get to see the same motivation in other things they pursue.  

~Kate

Homeschooler VS. The Library

I love the library.  Any library, I imagine.  I’ve been in tiny, basement archives, and I’ve been in enormous, breathtaking repositories.  Each library has something to offer, and for a homeschooling family, the library is a true lifeline.  For the homeschooling family, a good library can mean the difference between financial contentment and painfully stretching for each penny.  If you’ve homeschooled for any length of time, you know how easily the book budget can be reached and exceeded!  Also, the library helps reduce clutter because you send the books back and keep your shelves clear.  Perfect.

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In my experience, the library is about books primarily, but it is also where we meet friends, take classes, explore rotating displays, hear stories, make crafts, pick up fliers for other events in our community, discover new music on CD and sometimes in live performances, and of course, supplement our curriculum with interesting media of all kinds.  We live in a suburb, so we can easily access three great libraries in our immediate community and in the city.  We have to look no further than our libraries to reach more activities and more materials than we could need in our whole homeschooling career.  What isn’t to love?

But here is why I often feel like I’m in a battle against our libraries.  The library is filled with wonderful literary goodness, and I want to bring those things home.  With three library choices and four kids, we can end up with many, many books!  Even just a day or two of late fees ends up being a fortune, and I feel like a library failure.  It’s a tough call.  When my children are browsing the FREE goodies, I have a very hard time saying no or setting limits.  Wouldn’t you?

So I would love to hear from our readers.  How do you organize library books in your household?  How do you avoid late fees and stay on top of those pesky due dates?  My solution to the library-induced stress is to simply consider all my late fees to be a generous donation to my favorite organizations!  But, you know, that’s probably not sustainable.  🙂

~*~ Erica

 

May Days

The month of May has its own vibe.  Summer is close.  We can almost reach out and touch it.  Word is spreading of farmers’ markets, plant sales, and park playdates.  The weather, in this area, can be unpredictable (nearly 80 degrees yesterday, calling for frost on Sunday), but the promise of warm days in a nice long stretch is out there, and the possibility makes concentration on the sit-down work a little hard to come by.  My children are very aware of the warm joy (and a little extra freedom) building as we close out our official academic year, but they aren’t the only ones.  I feel that tingle, too, and I find myself cutting lessons short in order to embrace the equally (if not more) enriching experience that the outdoors provide.

But I have something else drawing my enthusiasm.  Planning!

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I love planning for our new homeschool year.  When I plan our subjects and the experiences that will accompany them, I have the opportunity to dwell in the blissful possibilities.  I allow myself to imagine my ideal weeks without the interruptions of dirty diapers, pet dramas, dental and medical appointments, ill-timed broken pencils, apparent math aversion (Is that genetic?), irritation with irregular verbs, and the other realities of home education.  I like to just dream, make lists, wish, read inspiring books  and blogs, and roll around in the happiness of it all.  Of course, I eventually have to explore the realities of our homeschool, our budget, and the needs of four (soon to be FIVE) children.

But these May days are set aside for dreaming, for gathering, for living in the certainty of the magic that will come when my dreams and my real plans converge in another homeschool year.  I’ll get to the nitty gritty in June and allow those days to take on an excitement of their own.

What does planning look like for you?  ~*~Erica

On the Outdoors, Trashing my Expectations, the Dreaded S-Word, and the Challenges of Community

A secret that I don’t usually confess in real-life company is that even though I have always adored nature and indeed, crave trees like chocolate, I often tend to function as more of an “inside girl.” When I was a child, you could often find me in my bedroom on a sunny day reading a book or creating elaborate worlds from bits of paper. (This love for quiet activities, by the way, made me a pretty good performer in school.) And this is still truer than I would like it to be. When summer vacation comes, I am more easily drawn to my comfy home office with its ready stack of unread books than to the garden, the park, or even the porch. Perhaps this is partly because I have also always been shy and introverted, frequently preferring my inner world to the world outside.

This, I suspect, is true of many adults who choose to homeschool their children. Perhaps this is why I sometimes think that there is a small kernel of truth hidden within the mostly fallacious socialization argument; some of us, even (especially?) those of us in the city, want to cocoon away from others, at least sometimes. Then again, we are not alone in this. Distance from others is, after all, part of the disease of modern American life—which is why, perhaps counterintuitively, homeschooling offers such a compelling remedy when we’re able to leave our cocoons and venture into the outside.

My five-year-old homeschooled son possesses none of my quietness or shyness, as you will see, but he sometimes goes through phases where the outdoors have little appeal to him compared to the latest Lego sets and I feel compelled to drag him outside to avoid letting him become too much like me (plus, Vitamin N and all). So, I was happy one day about a month ago when he agreed to take a walk around the block with me after dinner. My happiness quickly turned to unease when my son became fascinated not with the birds, which have become my adult loves and which are wonderfully ample in our neighborhood, but with the piles of trash in front of each neighbor’s house, left out for recycling.

I should have known; my son has, almost from birth, been attracted to gadgets and machines (he recently told me that he has an “instinct for building”). Still, I wasn’t sure what to do as he began to climb in the piles and paw through other people’s cast-offs. I was a bit horrified when he demanded (loudly) that we take things home with us. Large things. Things that the neighbors might see us taking. While I love the idea of reusing everything and of living in a place where neighbors all know each other—and see absolutely no shame in curb surfing from a social and intellectual standpoint—none of these are my current reality.

My son, undaunted (unyielding!), convinced me to carry home a giant piece of piping attached to some sort of indiscernible plastic apparatus. I am reminded in hindsight of Shaun Tan’s brilliant children’s book, The Lost Thing. I struggled to hide my embarrassment as we approached another yard where the neighbors were sitting outside. I (barely) managed not to run home with my face in my hands as he greeted them and proceeded to go through their trash with their help, ultimately ending up with a completely usable fold-out lawnchair (like the kind I had as a kid in the 80s) and a pile of old newspapers.

I think I was able to rise above my awkwardness in part because it was giving way to pleasure and pride. Here was my homeschooled son, interacting with other people with ease, building community beyond my abilities and reclaiming materials to use for his art. He was pushing my boundaries, but in a good way. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

The outcome of this adventure is as follows: My son proceeded to build what he called the “Paw Patroller” out of the materials that he collected (the Paw Patrol, my son’s favorite TV show, has been an incredible source of creativity and invention in our family, giving rise to his own original characters, stories, and building projects, not to mention hours of play). Soon after, I got a reminder about an annual uncensored, non-juried community art show, Art All Night, located in another city neighborhood. The show is fairly unique in that it is open to people of all ages and the organizers cultivate an atmosphere of supportiveness and inclusion, built upon a deep respect for the multiple ways of creating art. My son participated last year with the encouragement of a fabulous mentor he worked with for six months in a research study at the wonderful Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh Make Shop. The event itself is very child-friendly, though it literally goes all night and I hear that it gets more raucous in the wee hours.

My son decided to submit the Paw Patroller to the show and to hang a sign on his art inviting children under five to climb inside. He watched with pride from the children’s activity area (a rockin’ cardboard city) as babies, toddlers, and kids played in his creation—and he beamed later when one of the organizers told him that his piece was her favorite among the many submissions, including adult-created, professional works.

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I am by no means a practiced homeschooler. With a five-year-old, I have barely begun. But the more I roll this undertaking around in my mind, the more I come to a vision that this story conveys better than any homeschool “mission statement” (not that my plan-averse husband would let me write one of those anyway!). When I took my son out in “nature,” I thought I was creating the conditions for something good. And I was right. But he knew what it was more than I did. I think this might apply to a lot of the lessons that we parents try to teach. The treasure I was trying to pass to him (some abstract, idyllic idea of nature) was his trash; my trash was his treasure—but in the crucible of real life outside, something meaningful (and educational!) happened for both of us. And possibilities were opened beyond my imagination.

I harbor no illusions that things like this only happen to homeschoolers, but I submit that this unexpected trajectory of mutual learning represents some of the best potentials of an education outside school in

  •  its flexible and respectful approach to humans’ fabulously diverse ways of creating personal and collective meaning from the raw materials of our world (which I managed to foster despite my initial resistance to making meaning from or even acknowledging seeming trash!)
  • its ultimately unstoppable tendency toward human creativity and connection (indeed, its demand that we not lose faith in such, despite our increasing awkwardness at pushing past our comfort zones to speak to and delight in the creations of others in our community)
  • and its small, but powerful, resistance to the unspoken rules of privacy and distance that shape our modern lives (particularly the lives of children, who increasingly occupy the isolated islands of home and school and are seldom unqualifiedly welcome in the parts of our culture zoned as public, especially as active participants and creators).

Such experiences convince me that my homeschool will be a success if my son can transcend my best dreams for him and follow where his best impulses lead him, even if into trash piles.

As we drove away after picking up my son’s piece from the show, my husband commented that our city has a “really great community.” As I tend to do, I was thinking many things when he said this—about what it means to have real community, about what kind of community I want for my son, about how far I still have to go before I feel comfortable talking to my neighbors, about how my son is knowing more community than I ever did in school—but what I said in reply was “yes.” Yes.

~ Anne

Along for the Ride

My husband and I are “city people”. We both grew up in a rural environment, and while we have fond memories of games of hide-and-seek in nearby cornfields and knowing trees by their ease to climb, we can both also recall a sense of isolation from an age long before we knew what ‘isolation’ meant. We yearned for more connection – to friends and places and the opportunity for adventure. Now don’t get me wrong… There is SO much adventure to be found in the great outdoors, not to mention freedom. We had so much freedom! Freedom that isn’t afforded to my city kids. But we still felt like something was missing.

The first chance we had, we both ran fast and far to big cities, hundreds of miles from home. We have since settled in this midsize city, still hundreds of miles from our childhood homes. And we absolutely love it.

One thing that we keep coming back to, again and again, are the opportunities to be exposed to…so much. To museums and science and art and history. To food from all over the world. To a library system so comprehensive it blows my mind and has yet to disappoint (and I search for A LOT of books). And, as we grew our family and then decided on homeschooling, on how easy it is to utilize all our city has to offer as a living classroom.

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Our middle child, Linus, is an intense, sensitive kid who loves with a passion that burns bright and hot. He lands on a topic of interest and consumes every morsel of information he can get his hands on. But as he’s only four, he is dependent on us to feed it to him. In the past six months, we have all learned a huge amount about snakes, dinosaurs, and Star Wars. (The amount of knowledge available to be learned about the last topic has proven particularly impressive, as my husband is a huge nerd and knows the series inside out. Alas, he has found he had pockets of missing knowledge. Linus has ensured that that has been corrected.)

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The love of all things reptilian, past and present, has led to many trips to just one of our amazing local museums, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (affectionately referred to as ‘the dino museum’ by our two-year-old, Rupert). Once inside the massive doors, our children lead the way, knowing the exact turns and hallways to go down that will navigate us to their sweet spot, the Dinosaur Hall. At this point, Linus will find a docent to start asking his extremely detailed questions, while our oldest, Calliope (6), will begin to sketch some of the exhibits. I’m not exactly sure where this habit comes from, but she has a special notebook just for that museum, and it is filled with lovely observations. And this is such a huge part of why we love having this opportunity to homeschool – we get to watch each child react to a new topic, a new setting, a new love in his or her own unique way. And as the three kids are fairly close in age (6, 4, 2), what one loves often becomes what they all love, and they each take turns dictating what this day’s or week’s or month’s new passion is going to be.

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My husband and I often joke that we don’t have a plan, per se, as to how we are going to do this homeschooling thing, that we’re just winging it. In reality, we love learning, and know that perhaps our biggest goal will be to instill a love of learning in our children. If they leave our nest with a thirst for knowledge, we will have done right by them. And in these early years, we are following their lead. Their passion is the driver, we’re just along for the ride.

-Becky

A day in the garden

Learn something new every day.  We say that a lot around our house.  Living are learning are interchangeable in my world; you can’t have one without the other.

My son and I are going to be starting our official homeschooling experience in the fall when he would be starting kindergarten in a traditional environment, but we really started the day he was born.   At this age, so much of learning is play and so much play turns into learning that school just happens as we live our lives.

This week, we made a plan to meet some friends at Phipps Conservatory. For those of you who are not from Pittsburgh, Phipps is an amazing indoor greenhouse and garden in operation since 1893. There are some beautiful images available at www.phippsconservatory.org.

Our friends were late so we headed to my son’s favorite place, the outdoor children’s discovery garden. The garden is a treasure trove of 6-8 foot long branches cut from the gardens, weather worn logs cut into stumps to sit on, and stones of all sizes from pebbles to dig in to bricks big enough that it takes two kids to lift them.

My ambitious little guy decided that he wanted to build a ladder to climb an evergreen shrub.  Okay, let’s try!  Well, the shrub was about 6 feet tall and not very strong. The branches he piled against it fell off of the weak limbs of the shrub. The shrub bent and he was left with a pile of sticks.

Was he discouraged? Not this kid.  He took it upon himself to roll three tree stumps, which each weighed about as much as he did, over to the shrub to form a base for his ladder of branches so they would be more stable.  He pushed and pulled and arranged them precisely the way he wanted them. He restacked all of his branches with their ends in the base of stumps and their tops lodged in the shrub.  A minute later there he was clinging to the top of that poor little evergreen shrub, as proud as a peacock.  A little preschool engineering, anyone?

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That experience alone exceeded this homeschooling mom’s expectations of the educational content for the day, but our fun wasn’t over yet.  It is butterfly season at Phipps and we were fortunate enough to catch a butterfly in the act of opening its wings for the first time as it climbed out of its cocoon.  The butterfly garden was full of newly emerged butterflies landing on flowers and on people as they explored the garden.

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We spent some time that afternoon looking at images of butterflies in various stages of the butterfly life cycle and talking about the relationship between caterpillars and butterflies.

We weren’t sitting at our desk practicing our letters and doing worksheets; we were out living life and learning through play.  It was a great morning in our homeschool. – PLH