Not quite to plan

As the summer holidays rolled around towards the end of June, I had all sorts of plans. With all that time on my hands, I planned to prepare to take the B1 Spanish exam, write like a demon every day and plough through a large pile of books. I had Lily’s and Katie’s summer mapped out too. We would work together on two educational projects. The first, an Iberian geography project, would involve the construction of a 3D map of Spain and Portugal, which, over the course of the summer, would become populated with the peninsula’s rivers, mountains, regions, coastlines and major cities. We all need to improve our geographical knowledge of our adopted part of the world and this would be a fun way to do it. The second project was to be a learning-by-doing bread project. I thought of how fun and educational it would be to learn about the history and culture (no pun intended) of bread and to try making different breads together.

I’m sure you can all anticipate the big ‘but’ that I’m to drop!

Of course, we did none of these things! I haven’t opened my Spanish books since mid-June and my plan to take the B1 exam moves further and further into the future. The first half of the summer holidays was mostly writing free too (regular blog followers will have noted the absence of new posts and all other writing also failed to materialise). Since early August I’ve been writing again, and feeling all the better for it. And as for that pile of books? The pile grows higher, but I’ve read very little. Wolf Hall took up most of the summer, not because of its length (it’s long) or its complexity (it’s complicated), but because I simply didn’t have time to read. I fell in love with Thomas Cromwell and spent my days wondering what would happen next, but only managed about 20 pages a day, if I was lucky.

And the educational projects? Well, let’s say that once I got over the guilt of not getting them up and running, I realised we were better off with a more organic approach to the summer holidays!

My summer has mainly been work-filled. I didn’t intend it to be this way, but that’s how it worked out, and if you’re a freelance editor/writer/teacher, then you take the work when it comes your way. I hadn’t expected to teach any English between June and October, but instead (ironically) I’ve been preparing some local teenagers for B1 English exams (my first student received her results today…she passed!!), and having regular conversation classes with adults and children, all adding up to nine or so hours of contact time each week.

My editing work usually dries up during summer as well and, although it’s been a little slow, I’ve been sent more work than I was expecting. On top of all that, I was offered two new online jobs, one of which has been keeping me busy as I learn some new skills in a field completely new to me.

But what a summer we’ve had. We’ve been house-sitting in a very old and much-loved house in the village (subject of a future blog post, I promise), looking after an old and much-loved dog. The spacious house provided a great opportunity to invite family and friends to visit, and a full month of the summer has been taken up with visits from some of our nearest and dearest. Friends from Ireland and a friend from the UK brought their children along, and Lily and Katie had a wonderful time having week-long sleepovers with friends.

In the absence of my organised educational projects, Lily has taken to the kitchen and baked her way through the summer, following recipes, experimenting with alterations to recipes, inventing her own recipes. She’s in the kitchen as I write, making lemon sandwich biscuits of her own invention. I blame her entirely for the half stone/7lbs/3.3kg I’ve gained this summer. I can’t imagine my organised bread making would have been half as successful as her own self-taught summer in the kitchen, where she has learned how to work with ingredients, count and measure, enhance and embellish. She’s made baking her thing, and has been teaching her sister and all her guests from overseas and the village how to bake too. She’s a far more patient teacher than I am. Sure, her washing up skills still leave a little to be desired, and the pots and pans she’s ‘washed’ often need to be washed again, but at least she understands that cleaning up is all part of the process.

We’ve swum a lot this summer. My two sacred parts of the day all summer have been siesta and after-siesta. A curse be upon anyone who interrupts my siesta! Very early mornings, very late nights and the oppressive heat of the middle of the day, mean that taking a siesta has been an absolute necessity. We go swimming most days after siesta, sometimes to the beach in Alcoutim, but more often to the public outdoor swimming pool in El Granado.

My friend Rosemarie gave Lily a lesson in diving at the start of the summer and she has spent the summer perfecting her technique. Katie made up her mind at the start of the summer to learn the front crawl and has been working on that, with a little technique help from my friend Sarah when she came to visit from London. Katie is a loner in the water, preferring to be underwater, and constantly working on extending the length of time she can stay below the surface. The swimming ability of both girls has improved immensely over the summer, once again, with minimal input from me. I just take them to the water!

For three weeks both girls practiced five evenings a week with the other children from the village for a dance performance during Cultural Week. The performance was delightful (if you happened to be a parent of the performing children, that is!) and since then the girls have been choreographing their own dance moves and putting on little shows for us in the garden.

With only ten days until the start of the new school year, I could look back and think about all the things I failed to do. But instead I choose to look back at all the unexpected things the girls have done – the baking, the swimming, the dancing – and the unexpected and interesting work opportunities that have come my way. I still can’t tell you the name of the highest mountain or the longest river in Spain, but do I really care? Now, where’s Lily? I need another cupcake!

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The power of independent play

Lily, rosy-cheeked and sopping wet in her long-sleeved t-shirt and leggings, clambered aboard Carina. ‘Mummy, please come and look’, she begged. I put aside the supper I was mid-way through preparing and followed her off the boat.

All afternoon, in wind and rain, Lily, Katie and their friend, Ruben, had been hard at work. Having spent the morning making comfortable homes out of shoe-boxes for their army of pet snails, they had then turned to making a home for themselves. On a scrubby patch of overgrown hillside near the cemetery in Alcoutim, they had cleared a patch of land, woven branches into walls which they then covered with long strips of paper they had found. Bricks were carried in to make seats and shelves to store their precious found objects – cans, bottles, margarine tubs. Wandering up around the castle in search of objects for their den, they had found branches recently lopped off a lemon tree. They dragged these back to the den to give the place a pleasant aroma.

The rain had stopped but the ground was wet when I followed Lily off the boat and up from the pontoon in the gathering dusk. From the edge of the scrubby hillside there was no hint of their four hours of labour. But, as I scrambled down the slippery bank in my inappropriate Crocs (will I ever learn?), a circular gap in the canes and trees began to reveal itself. I peered in through lemon branches to see Katie and Ruben sitting inside, Katie with a big grin on her face, eager to show off what they had made. ‘How do I get in?’ I asked. Ruben moved a branch aside so I could step in and then closed the ‘door’ behind me.

I squatted on the floor of the low-ceilinged den as the three of them proudly showed off all the features of the den – the brick seats, the storage space, the front and rear entrances, the addition of the lemons.

After visiting for a little while I left them to it, and told them to come home in half an hour. The next day, after all, was Monday, the start of the new school week, and we all needed to get to bed at a reasonable hour. The next evening, and the one after that, as I prepared dinner, they went off to check on their den, to make sure no-one had disturbed it. They borrowed my head torch each evening and off they went in the dark.

What struck me about the whole endeavour was how palpably proud they all were of what they had achieved. These three – two seven year olds and an eight year old – had spent a good four hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon cooperating, planning, using their imaginations, designing, constructing, building. They had made something that was their own and that they had made together. There was no adult around to say ‘Maybe you should put this here’, or ‘Maybe it would work better if you tried this’. It was theirs alone. They owned it.

My children enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom and independence. They have boundaries and rules but, compared to living in a town or living in many other parts of the world, their boundaries are vast, as are the boundaries of most of the other children who live here. That’s just the way it is.

They spend a great deal of time outdoors, playing with stones and rocks, trees and soil, using their imaginations to create worlds of their own invention. At home they often plan and organise their next adventure, and when they are out and about they make up stories and worlds and make and transform objects on the spot. A friend from London once expressed her astonishment at how easily our children amused themselves, as we watched my daughters and her 11-year old daughter create their own ‘restaurant’ out of the stones and rubble and tree branches we found up at the old windmill. It was many years since my friend had seen her daughter so engaged and happily occupied for so long with objects that were decidedly non-technological or human-made.

We hear a lot these days about children not playing enough, or spending too much time indoors, or of having too much of their time planned and organised, so that they lack the time and freedom for their imaginations and creativity to run riot, and they lack the space to learn to organically cooperate, share and work together. My girls are technology savvy, and they play a little soccer and basketball in after school clubs. But far more of their time is spent doing things of their own invention.

As a parent, it can be difficult to give them that space and time to be themselves and to learn by themselves and from and with each other. Our lives are busy, we are constricted by timetables and schedules. But I think we also often create busyness for our children, when there is no need to do so. Give them space and they will keep themselves busy. Children are naturally curious and inventive. They want to learn and socialise and create and, left to their own devices, they will do so.

Ask anyone who knows me, I’m quite controlling by nature – I like order and I like everyone else around me to be ordered and organised too. So, taking a step back and recognising the children’s own agency and need for space to be themselves, is something I have had to learn, and something I continue to learn every day. But I want my daughters to grow up to be happy, confident, independent and capable women, and giving them the space and freedom to be playful, imaginative, creative and happy children, I hope, will influence the adults they will become.

Neither of them have mentioned the den in the past few days. Maybe they will want to visit it this weekend. Maybe they will never think of it again. Lily has now taken to cooking. She has been reading one of her cookbooks for days now. Yesterday evening she asked me to go with her to the shop, where she produced a shopping list she had written. We bought what she needed and this evening she plans on cooking dinner for Katie and me. Will I have the self-restraint to not get involved, unless she asks for my assistance? In my kitchen, my domain?! I’ll just have to try my best.

A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

A new chapter

Sunday evening. I take the girls for a shower while Julian makes dinner. Make sure they’re scrubbed and spotless. After dinner I check there are pencils, erasers, rulers and colouring pencils in their pencil cases and I place them inside two Peppa Pig backpacks along with a copybook each. In the morning I’ll add a sandwich and an apple to each bag. Finally, I lay out their clothes for the morning. We all need an early night before the big day ahead.

A new chapter of our lives has begun. Lily and Katie have started school in the tiny village school in Sanlúcar on the Spanish side of the river. When we came up the Rio Guadiana in April we met Rafa and Pilar and their three boys. The family had sailed from Majorca in February, were now living on the river, and the boys were attending school in Sanlúcar. What they told us about the school sparked our curiosity and soon we were talking to other live-aboard families whose children had attended or were currently attending the school.

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Monday morning, heading off for the first day of school

One day the girls and I visited the school, took a look around, met some of the teachers and I expressed an interest in enrolling them at the start of the new school year, in September. The principal was most welcoming and open to the idea, despite the girls (and our) inability to speak Spanish.

Julian and I thought long and hard about enrolling the girls in formal education. I always imagined that as we sailed we might avail of opportunities to immerse the girls in local languages and cultures by sending them to small rural or village schools for six months or a year. The school I have always imagined enrolling them in is the school in The snail and the whale, which those of you who are fans of Julia Donaldson will be familiar with.

The school in Sanlúcar comes pretty close. Serving a village of 400 people with a decidedly aging population, the school is tiny, with less than ten children per class. We saw this as a wonderful opportunity for Lily and Katie to learn Spanish, become immersed in southern Spanish culture, and for all of us to get to know this lovely little village and its inhabitants better.

During our months back in the UK we all studied Spanish in preparation for this new adventure. I had understood little of what the principal said to me on our couple of visits to the school in May and another teacher who spoke some English had to be called over to translate. I didn’t want that to be the case when we finally returned to the school in autumn.

With a date for my operation not until October 1st, I emailed the principal (helped by Google Translate) to explain the situation and, given the circumstances, he was happy for the girls to start school in mid-November.

Lily has generally been very excited about the prospect of going to school, but Katie hasn’t been too sure (‘I want to be a home schooled kid’, she told me repeatedly). On our return to the Rio Guadiana we visited the school. The girls met their teachers – Martina and Cristina. Lily smiled and Katie scowled. I was delighted that I could understand most of the instructions the two teachers gave me in preparation for the first day.

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Julian rows the girls over to Spain for their first day of school

A few days later it was Monday morning. We happened to be on the Portuguese side of the river, so I waved them off as Julian rowed them across the international border for their first day of school! I was on tenterhooks all day, expecting a call from Cristina to say that Katie was inconsolable or had run away. But no such call came. In the afternoon when I picked them up they were both beaming from ear to ear. It had been a good day for Katie to start school. Louisa, one of her classmates, turned five, and they had a birthday party in class, complete with a Frozen cake and strawberry milk.

The school is indeed tiny. Katie is in kindergarten with six other children in her class. Lily is in a class of Year 1 and Year 2 combined. Lily is in Year 1 with six other children and there are two children in Year 2. Nine children in the entire class! The school day is short, from 9am to 2pm. (This was one reason we chose to send them to school in Spain rather than Portugal. The Portuguese school day is longer. Our other reason was that internationally, Spanish is the more widely spoken of the two languages).

So far they seem to love it. Lily appears to enjoy most of her lessons, with the exception of maths, because she’s doing maths she already knows how to do. Her teacher, Martina, says her handwriting is terrible and she needs to work on it, so she’s busy practicing the loopy, flowery writing style particular to southern Europe. On Wednesday, at music lesson, Katie learned about a piano player in funny clothes with white hair, curly bits around his ears and a ponytail with a ribbon. I’m guessing Mozart. Julian’s going for Elton John!

After only a week of school, Julian and I are astounded at how much Spanish peppers their language. They don’t know much, but they are mimicking the sounds of the language and liberally using whatever snippets of Spanish they know. We grin at each other across the table as we listen to them. (It took me a while to figure out that Lily’s ‘Qué fresa’ was actually ‘Qué pasa’. I set her straight!) Julian and I are having our language skills pushed to the limit too, as we work our way through the multiple sheets of paper we’ve been given with instructions for what they need to bring to school each day, the specific pencils, notebooks and folders we need to buy, release forms for using their photos on the school website, and so on, and by hanging around with the other parents before and after school each day. My vocabulary has taken a huge leap forward this week!

And it seems we’ve started a trend. Our English friends aboard Spirit of Mystery have decided to enrol their daughters in the school and on Tuesday we were surprised to see the cruising family from Oregon back again. Having told them about our plans to send our kids to school they decided to postpone their return across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and back to Oregon and instead return to the Rio Guadiana. They have enrolled their three children to start school in Sanlúcar in January. All of this is wonderful news for the school which struggles to remain open in this village with an aging population where most of the young people have moved to Seville and other larger towns to seek work and life away from farming the land.

So we have thrown ourselves into a winter of routine, which feels strange at the moment. 7am alarm, making snacks to take to school, breakfast eaten and clothes on by 8.30, 8.40 into the dinghy to go to school. After school we go to the beach or go walking in the hills for an hour or two, making the most of daylight and the hot sunshine, before returning home for dinner.

The girls are certainly enjoying their new adventure and Julian and I are getting used to it too.

An educational perambulation

While we still had the hired car we’d used to get from Faro airport back to Carina, we decided to go for a hike a little farther downriver. We drove five miles back to Laranjeiras, parked the car, and we did an 8km circular walk up into the hills on the Portuguese side of the river. The 15th of November and it was already hot at 9am, the late autumn sun shining down from a cloudless blue sky. The walk took us up through the tiny village of Laranjeiras, along steep paths so narrow you could almost touch the old whitewashed houses on either side. On the outskirts of the village we passed an olive grove with tarpaulin spread beneath the trees, catching the falling olives. We were soon out of the village, the winding path taking us past scrubby bushes festooned with dew covered spider webs, higher and higher up through olive and almond groves, higher than the mist that still lingered over the river.

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The path wound down again, through the village of Guerreiros de Rio, where we stopped for coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and pastries, and then the even smaller hamlet of Alamo, where the path once again wound steeply uphill through the houses and into the hilly countryside beyond.

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The path was dusty and rocky, the olive, almond, fig and other trees gnarled and ancient-looking. There was a species of tree that befuddled us. It had acorns growing on it, but didn’t look like any oak tree we’d ever seen before. The leaves were small and shiny, more akin to holly than oak. This tree too was gnarly and twisted in trunk and branch. The one-page leaflet with the trail map soon set us straight. It is the cork oak. The first cork oaks we saw were small, but later we saw bigger, older trees, that had been harvested of their cork coats on the lower parts of their trunks. We thought of the importance of this tree to the economy of the region. How the cork from the oak tree seals the bottles of wine from the vines and the bottle of olive oil and jars of olives from the olive trees. These three trees all looking so old even when they are young are the lifeblood of the region’s culture.

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As we walked along we looked out for rabbits and hares, guessed at the names of trees, and discussed what we knew of the border history of this part of the Portuguese/Spanish border. At the highest point of our climb was a windmill which had been in operation up until the 1940s. We could still see the cog mechanism inside. That got us thinking about food and we got the girls thinking about grain, the uses we have for different grains and how important this windmill would have been to the people of the area when it was in operation.

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Katie wanted a ‘math’s challenge’, something she’d picked up from her Oregon friend Kenna when we’d been out walking a few days earlier. So we challenged her, giving her easy addition at first, and making it more complicated as the morning wore on. Lily didn’t want to be left out, so Julian threw maths problems at her and she surprised us with the speed at which she solved them in her head and with her ability to add and subtract fractions – something we didn’t know she could do.

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We practiced Spanish on each other as we walked along. Because Julian and I know slightly different things and remember slightly different vocabulary, we’re able to challenge each other with what we know. So a game ensued of saying what we knew, making us sentences, all four of us trying to figure out what the others were saying.

This wasn’t the first time that I’ve been struck by how much learning happens when we go walking. My family loves to walk and the stream of consciousness that is inspired by what we see in the world around us as we walk inspires us to do all sorts of learning. Maths is somehow much more fun when practiced in the fresh air than when sitting at the table with books and pencils. Spanish too. Geography, botany, agriculture, history, ecology, meteorology are all around us, and it’s impossible not to learn.

We returned home from our walk exercised in body and mind, hungry for lunch and hungry too for the things we’d discovered we didn’t know – such as Portugal’s area and population, it’s recent history, and a plethora of Spanish words that we decided we simply had to know.

Fractions with Granddad

‘Do you want me to do some colouring or reading with them?’ my father-in-law calls up the stairs.
‘They’re learning fractions at the moment’, I call back down, and leave it at that.
Fifteen minutes later, when I come downstairs, Lily, Katie and Granddad are sitting at the kitchen table, deep in learning.

Katie is colouring in a pizza on a piece of paper, to be divided into equal segments once it’s done. Lily has multiple pieces of paper in front of her, circles and squares. She has moved beyond the halves and quarters that she has recently become comfortable with. Granddad is challenging her with thirds, fifths, sevenths. And when that seems easy, he moves things up a level, challenging Lily to see that 1⁄2= 2⁄4, 1⁄4 = 2⁄8, and so on. Katie’s pizza is ready now (‘Katie’s pizza’…Katie reads it without prompting…horray!) and I join in the fun. We work out how many pieces we would divide the whole pizza into if greater and greater numbers of family members wanted equal shares. All this talk of pizza is making me hungry!

Fractions with Granddad

Fractions with Granddad

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed how the input of other people can lead to sudden or dramatic leaps in Lily’s and Katie’s understanding and skills. Partly, I think this is because of someone else taking a different approach to a problem, and partly because the girls enjoy the novelty and want to impress other people more than they want to impress Mum and Dad.

Katie is generally adverse to learning to read, but in the past few days has been making some progress, usually under duress. When I told Granddad about Katie’s amazing reading, she did a fantastic thing. Instead of scowling, she leapt up, grabbed the book she’s been reading and insisted that Granddad come sit with her in the sitting room so she could read the book to him. And, as I lay in the bath the other night, I could hear Grandma and Katie downstairs, writing together – Katie asking Grandma how to spell certain words and Grandma prompting Katie to figure the spellings out for herself.

Lily had been keen to learn to knit for some time. My attempts at teaching her didn’t get very far, but I was happy for her to get comfortable with the feel of needles and wool. The knitting would come with time and the improvement of her fine motor skills. About a year ago, Mammy came to stay and in the space of 15 minutes Lily’s knitting took a leap forward. Then, this summer, Julian’s mum brought Lily the final step. Lily can now knit (plain stitch for the moment) and is currently knitting a scarf.

Lily has learned to do underwater handstands by observing an older boy doing them at the pool and Katie has learned to cartwheel by observing teenage girls at the beach. I’ve been told I learned to write my name at the age of three and a half, thanks to my cousin Brendan.

Over the past few years I’ve observed the girls learning from adults and from other children, people they’ve known all their lives and people they’ve just met. I’m not fobbing off my duties and pawning off my children’s education onto everyone else who comes along, althought it might seem like it from what I’ve just written! As a home educator I’m always eager to involve as many people as possible in the children’s very informal education. Julian and I have two different approaches, but when we include other family members, friends, and people we meet along the way, the number of different perspectives and approaches to learning that the girls are exposed to vastly expands. The approach Granddad took to fractions was different to the approach I took. He used different words to describe things, he came to the problem from a different angle. I was tempted to jump in and use the words and phrases I had been employing to teach fractions, but I decided to keep my mouth shut, observe and see what happened.

Granddad’s different approach didn’t confuse the girls. Instead, it pushed their understanding of fractions further.

Life is complex and the best way to solve life’s problems are to approach them from multiple perspectives. As adults we engage with people who have different world views and who approach life differently to us. Developing the skills and aptitude to accept and be able to work with those differences is very important. I’m often reminded of my research in Arviat. One hunter would show me a method for skinning a caribou, one seamstress would show me a method for scraping a seal skin. Aha, I’ve got it, I would think. Until I did the same thing with a different hunter or seamstress, and I realised the method one person had taught me was merely one way to do things. There was no universal way to accomplish a task, but rather multiple and unique approaches that worked for each individual.

It inspires me to see how open the girls are to learning from a variety of perspectives and how quickly, when presented with an alternative approach to a problem, they come to an understanding of something that has been befuddling them for some time. As they learn maths, reading and writing from a variety of people they are also learning the very important lesson that there are multiple ways to approach a task and over time they will find the way that suits them.

Post-script: Yesterday morning Lily and I went out for a walk. When we returned home Katie had learned to strip an electrical plug and put it back together again, thanks to Granddad. This morning I had an appointment to see the nurse and left both girls at home with Granddad. When I returned they were both sitting at the table on the patio, screwdrivers, plugs, a disused iron and a broken electric kettle in front of them, busy stripping and wiring plugs! That’s my girls!!

Blackberry picking

Temporarily leaving Carina this summer to return to the UK was tinged with sadness for, among many reasons, lost foraging opportunities. At anchor on the Rio Guadiana, Julian often returned home with bags full of sweet oranges from an orange tree he’d found growing wild along the river bank. We ate them fresh, juice running down our chins, squeezed oranges to make juice for breakfast, and combined oranges with wild lemons and rosemary to flavour chicken for our dinner. We snacked on loquats plucked from a tree growing on the side of a street in Alcoutim, and made fresh mint tea from leaves growing in abundance on the sides of the roads in Sanlucar. As we prepared to fly back to the UK, I gazed with longing at plums only days away from ripeness, and hoped we would return to the river in time to forage the figs, almonds and grapes that grow in wild profusion on both sides of the river and would be reaching ripeness in summer.

Alas, the months have slipped by and autumn is almost here, and still we are in the UK. But even in the urban Midlands of England we are blessed with wild and cultivated food and the harvest spoils are upon us.

A few weeks ago, Jim and Jean, who live next door to Grandma, invited Lily and Katie around to pick raspberries. Grandma went with them, and they returned with bowls full of raspberries and extraordinarily sweet blackcurrants. We ate them as they were, straight from the bowl, our fingers and faces turning red with their juices. We had them with yogurt, added them to muesli and porridge for breakfast, turned them into crumble for dessert, and used them to make cupcakes. Grandma had plans to make jam, but she never got the chance – we devoured them all far too quickly.

The produce grown in the sensory garden at Jephson Gardens in Leamington Spa is there for anyone who wants it. There are herbs and raspberries, courgettes and Swiss chard. I’ve left the courgettes for others, as we’re growing our own here at Grandma’s house, but the chard has become a regular feature of our meals. Each time I walk through Jephson Gardens I pick three or four giant leaves. We substitute them for baby spinach in salads, slightly cook them for dinner, chop them into stir fries and add them to vegetarian lasagne.

But what thrills me most is the wild food we have found growing in the city’s green spaces. It was Lily and Katie of course who first found the blackberries. They’re like trained sniffer dogs. Every summer and autumn of their lives has been spent blackberry picking. This time five years ago Lily and I were picking blackberries from the hedgerows of Boxworth until the day before Katie was born and we were back out there again the day after she was born, this time with Katie in her sling. They’re blackberry picking experts – and addicts.

A couple of years ago in Plymouth I discovered new and unexpected uses for a boat hook. Carina’s hook became an essential tool on our blackberry foraging expeditions along the Southwest Coast Path, allowing me to push aside thorny briars and nettles to reach the succulent out of the way blackberries inaccessible to the casual rambler. I did come a-cropper one evening, however, when a large nettle I had pushed aside sprang back and whacked me full-on in the face. But as I tell the girls, the nettle stings and thorns are the price we pay for such a splendid harvest. We can’t expect blackberry bushes to give their fruit away for free.

We’ve discovered a huge blackberry patch in Leamington and we share it with wasps, ladybirds, butterflies and many other small creatures. This morning, when we arrived with tubs and bags, we were thrilled to find a new resident in – or rather, under – the briars. In the few days since we were last here a badger has moved in. There is the tell-tale excavation of a sett, with the red earth fanned around in a wide semi-circle. We were very thankful to the badger, as it had also made forays into the briars, and the tramped down nettles and thorny branches allowed us to forage more deeply into the briars than before. There are moles here too and, given that our current bedtime reading is The Wind in the Willows, we are all very pleased that Mole and Mr Badger are hereabouts.

Seamus Heaney knew the temptations of picking too many blackberries, and each time I go blackberry picking I try to limit what I pick, but inevitably I can’t stop myself. This morning, with our tubs and bellies full of blackberries, we climbed to a hill-side meadow and the two plum trees we recently discovered. The grass grows taller than Katie here and we have to wade through it to get to the two trees, one bearing yellow plums and the other red. I warned the girls to be careful of wasps, who are also enjoying these ripe fruits at this time of year. People walked past on the path as we picked the plums. Two couples stopped, curious as to what we were doing. Some of the yellow plums are already overripe, so we left those to the wasps, but we filled a shopping bag with small sweet fruits from both trees, and brought our bounty home to Grandma, snacking from the bag as we walked along.

Back home, Grandma brought out Mrs Beeton and a couple of other cookbooks and we’ve been pouring over recipes for jams, jellies and chutneys. Grandma knows the whereabouts of a wild apple tree, heavy with fruit – we might have to check it out in a couple of weeks.

Julian’s itching to go mushroom picking, and behind the plum trees I found a big sloe bush and if we’re still here after the first frost, then we’ll be gathering sloes to make sloe gin and sloe jelly.

There’ll still be plenty of foraging to do when we return to Carina. But for now, I’m so happy to gather some of my old favourites, and looking forward to some busy days of baking and preserve-making ahead.

Blackberry picking
By Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Let’s pretend

When was the last time you pretended to be someone you’re not? When was the last time you made up a story about yourself? Made up a fake history? Made up non-existent relatives and friends? When was the last time you pretended you had a baby when you don’t? Or a horse? Or a dragon?

Chances are, if you’re an adult (and not an actor or a professional story-teller) then you haven’t indulged in this type of behaviour in a long time. Or if you have, then perhaps people are whispering behind your back and suggesting you seek professional help. If you’re a child, you’ve probably done it in the past hour.

If I was to record every word Katie says over a 24-hour period, my guess is that ‘pretend’ would be one of her most common words. She’s doing it right now, as I write. ‘Lily, pretend you come in the door’, ‘Lil, pretend she’s your aunt’, ‘Pretend this is my horse’, ‘Pretend my dinosaur is your dinosaur’s sister’, ‘Pretend I’m going on a plane’ and next thing the sitting room’s been transformed into the inside of an airplane with refreshments, safety announcements and arrivals to Egypt, China or Mexico.

All day they play these pretend games. Sometimes the pretending is accompanied by dressing up. Back home on Carina they rifle through the dressing-up bag or the hats, gloves and scarves bag; at Grandma’s house they use whatever is around – towels, tea towels, sheets – anything to transform their appearance. Sometime they use props – bags, cushions, books, chairs – anything that can be imaginatively transformed into something else. They pretend indoors and outdoors, upstairs and downstairs, at home and when they’re out in the world. Left to their own devices, their imaginations run amok with inspiration from the books they read, the movies and TV shows they watch, and their real life experiences.

Through it all they are learning – learning about relationships, learning to cooperate and to work together, learning to create and tell stories. Through such imaginative and free-form unstructured play they are learning about themselves and each other. Reality is inconsequential and nothing is beyond the realms of possibility.

At what point in our lives do we start to rein in our imaginative impulses? Or do we simply divert those impulses elsewhere? Do we succumb to peer pressure or pressure from elders to ‘grow up’, ‘get real’, ‘stop wasting time’? But it’s not time wasted. For children the serious business of pretending is time well spent learning about the world, about how people interact with each other, and about how to treat each other fairly. Whether they are pretending to be dragons or princesses, physics defying space travellers or dessert shop owners, I see them working out and negotiating cooperative working relationships. They want their alter-egos to be treated the way they themselves want to be treated. They act out aspirations, and they act out behaviour they observe around them.

I hope my children continue to be un-self-consciously imaginative for a long time to come. I love to hear their imaginations run wild, taking them (and sometimes me, when I’m included in their games) to unexpected places. Who knows where their imaginations will lead them.

Now, anyone up for a game of ‘Pretend my dinosaur’s flying this plane’?

Out and about education

One of the myths about home education is that it happens at home. People sometimes think it’s just like school but, instead of a classroom, kids sit at the kitchen table all day doing school work. One concern people often have about home education (and people seem to have lots of concerns!) is that home schooled children lack opportunities for socialisation. Of course the parents of home educated children (at least those I’ve encountered) spend a good deal of time planning and organising opportunities for their children to socialise with a great variety of people of all ages and backgrounds.

Home education is a misnomer. Home is just one of the places where children learn, and home educated kids spend a great deal of time away from home. Maybe some kids sit at the table all day sticking to a strict curriculum, but for the most part, home educators follow a very different educational model. Like many of the home educators we have met or have read about, our pedagogy is one of learning by doing. So, in any given week, Lily and Katie probably spend no more than three hours sitting down at a table engaged in ‘formal’ learning. Three hours per week! It might not seem like a lot (it’s not!) but the only things I want them to do in that time is learn some basic maths, reading and writing. Lily’s mastered reading and she enjoys writing independently, so we really only do maths with her now; and we’re still working on the basics of all three skills with Katie. And we’ve all been studying a little Spanish recently.

The rest of their time at home is spent playing and doing whatever they want. What they want to do might be reading, writing, drawing, building, creating, researching (online or from books), imagining, inventing, etc. We might all be involved in a project – sewing, baking, making, etc. Or they might be helping with chores – dishwashing, laundry, cleaning the boat, tidying, etc.

But a lot of our time is spent away from home. The girls help with everyday activities such as shopping and banking and they participate in decisions about what to buy, and so on. Our walks in the countryside are opportunities to learn about plants and animals, and in towns we seek out museums, art galleries, and (free or inexpensive) activities of all sorts.

Now that we’re back in the UK for a (hopefully short) while, I’ve been finding interesting and educational activities for all three of us to get involved in. (Blowing another home education myth – that the parent is the teacher – out of the water. In our pedagogic model, we all learn together, irrespective of age). Right now we’re dividing our time between my father-in-law in Coventry and my mother-in-law in Leamington Spa. Before coming here a few weeks ago I didn’t know either city very well, because I’ve always blindly followed Julian around when we’ve come on short visits and I’ve never had any reason to check out the education potentials. So, from the first day I got back I’ve been discovering a bounty of resources to keep us busy and engaged with the community around us.

On our second day in Coventry, we joined the local library in Stoke. We’re each allowed to borrow 20 books at a time (although I limit it to 5, because I’m certainly not going to carry 60 books up and down the street every couple of weeks!!). But book-borrowing is only one resource the library offers. There are days when we go to simply sit and read quietly in the large children’s section, which also has some art resources. Twice a week Katie and I go to Rhyme Time, for under 5s. Following half an hour of singing nursery rhymes the big play boxes come out and Katie and the other children play together while I sit with the other mums chatting and drinking the complementary coffee! On Saturdays, Lily joins us for an hour of Story Time followed by a craft activity, aimed at 4-11 year olds.

We walked from my father-in-law’s house into Coventry city centre on our first weekend and discovered a resource that we can’t get enough of. The Herbert Museum is one of the most child friendly museums I’ve been to, putting even the RAMM in Exeter in the shade! Right now it is hosting a fantastically joyful exhibition on the history of children’s television, with lots of interactive displays – the girls have dressed up as Scooby Doo, Daleks, Princess Sofia and Robin Hood; they’ve played with famous TV hand puppets and they’ve watched the TV shows Granddad and Dad watched as lads! (UK children’s TV is alien to me. I grew up with Wanderly Wagon, Anything Goes and Bosco!)

But this exhibition is merely the icing on the cake of an otherwise excellent museum. Each gallery has activities that include children and help to bring the exhibits alive. The Old Masters room has a dress-up box for dressing up like the people depicted in the paintings. Last week Lily dressed up as and posed beside King George III. The Lady Godiva exhibit has a story-room attached, where myths and legends from around the world are presented in books and on an interactive screen. There are costumes for dressing up and Lady Godiva-inspired art to do. In the sculpture gallery the children can make their own sculptures using large foam blocks and there are large coffee table books about art and sculpture that children are welcome to sit and browse through. In the Elements gallery we’ve done brass rubbings, touched narwhal tusks, crystals and a variety of exotic seashells, and listened to birdsong. Each gallery is similarly welcoming to children and it will be a long time yet before we exhaust the possibilities of the Herbert Museum.

I was keen to meet other home educating families in the area and get involved in activities, so I joined a couple of home education Facebook groups. They’ve provided a wealth of ideas for activities in the area. The one we have immediately become involved in is a weekly informal gathering of home educating families in FarGo on Far Gosford Street in Coventry. The gathering is hosted at Allsorts, a magical place, run by a wonderful woman called Margaret, where children (and adults) can indulge in all sorts of arts and crafts, or simply play. The first week the girls made and played with play dough, made block prints, and got to hang out and play with other home educated children ranging in age from 11 months to 12 years old! And I got to hang out with other mums and shoot the breeze for a few hours.

Going to Allsorts for the first time, I discovered my new favourite place in Coventry – FarGo. This old industrial estate has been converted into a site of pop-up shops, second hand shops, shops selling up-cycled, recycled, new, old, organic, and sustainable products. There’s coffee a-plenty, and space for meeting with friends, relaxing and reading, in a very child-friendly space. It’s Shoreditch in the Midlands. My favourite place, apart from Allsorts that is, is The Big Comfy Bookshop – a second hand community bookshop that serves refreshments and some devilishly delicious-looking cakes. Once a month it runs Sheroes, which celebrates female heroes from history; it has poetry readings and music sessions; and I think I need a grandparent to look after the kids so I can take Julian there one night!

Granddad has taken us twice to Ryton Pools and Wood midway between Coventry and Leamington. It’s on the site of an old quarry that has been landscaped and turned into a country park. There’s a huge and exciting adventure playground, a sensory garden, a small but very informative information centre and walks around pools filled with ducks, geese and moor hens. The first day we went, Granddad took us off the beaten track into the woods, to show us where his dad used to hunt pheasants. The woods were carpeted with bluebells and we found badger setts and evidence of muntjac. Our only regret was that we hadn’t come earlier in the day, because we could have happily spent hours playing in the woods.

In Leamington Spa, we’ve discovered the rather formally landscaped Jephson Gardens
which Lily in particular loves because of its profusion of squirrels, bumblebees, pigeons, ducks and Canada geese. She insisted on bringing a notebook the second time we went and decided to survey the wildlife. She made a list of all the animals she had seen in the Gardens previously and then each time she encountered one she put a tick beside it! Watching Springwatch before going to bed every night seems to have made an impression on her. Jephson Gardens also has a sensory garden and The Glasshouse, a hothouse featuring exotic plant species from around the world. Lily was particularly intrigued by the method of pest control used on The Glasshouse – using tiny trichogramma wasps to keep the population of pantry moth caterpillars down. I tell you, the kid’s a naturalist in the making. No, strike that. The kid is a naturalist.

Across the road from Jephson Gardens are the Royal Pumprooms which house a museum and art gallery and an excellent library where we have whiled away the hours reading and doing research.

Besides all of these we have uncovered an endless round of free music concerts in the parks of Leamington, Warwick and Coventry; we’ve been to one parish fête so far, where the girls played games and won prizes, and we’re on the lookout for more fêtes, agricultural shows, open gardens, summer festivals and anything else that takes our fancy over the next few weeks.

We have our quiet, stay-at-home days too. We pitched the tent and camped in Granddad’s garden for two nights, and the girls have been learning to ride bikes, play basketball and badminton at Grandma’s house. They’ve sown cress with Granddad and chard, courgettes and lettuce with Grandma, and they’ve been caring for their plants. It was with great excitement that they added their own home-grown cress to the sandwiches last week!

Given the to-ing and fro-ing at the moment, it’s difficult to develop a routine. But what I have is a diary full of alternative activities, with dates for one-off events and on-going activities, and no matter where we find ourselves, we can always pop along to something or other to meet interesting people, discover something new, a learn a little more about life in the Midlands.

Observing and learning

DSCI3940Katie says she doesn’t want to learn. What she means is she doesn’t want to be taught. She’s learning all the time. She’s four, she can’t stop herself. She refuses most formal attempts at education: sulking, clamming up, monkeying around or storming off whenever Julian or I offer an opportunity to read or write or learn some basic maths. She even resists games that might have an educational purpose, so we have to be very subtle. If she gets the slightest whiff of something being ‘taught’ she gets mad.

Yet the other day, when I asked Lily ‘What is 4 times 3?’, Katie whispered in my ear (while Lily was still thinking) ‘12’. And when left to herself, she writes letters and numbers, spells a few words aloud, and solves number problems.

While it’s generally not helpful to compare siblings, or any children – one was doing this by this age, so why isn’t the other one – I think observing differences in learning styles is instructional. And Lily’s and Katie’s learning styles are radically different. It’s difficult to put those differences into words. There are subtle and not so subtle differences, and methods used to facilitate Lily’s learning have not worked with Katie.

Lily seems to progress gradually, going from step A to step B to step C. She takes constructive criticism and wants to please us by doing good work. We can look back over a month or a year and (if we were so disposed, which we are not) plot the steps she has taken to get from where she was then to where she is now.

Katie, on the other hand, can give the impression that she is not learning anything, until one day she does or says something that stops us in our tracks and we scratch our heads and ask ‘When did she learn that?’

Her handwriting went from chicken scratches to legible seemingly without any intermediate steps. While Lily’s writing gradually improved over time, after Katie’s first attempts she sulked and refused to write for months. Then one day took up a pencil and her chicken scratches had become writing. I guess in the intervening time her manual dexterity had improved by doing other things like drawing, colouring, painting and using cutlery.

And then there was the day when Julian was showing her some animal words on flash cards, and asking her to spell the words aloud. At first she seemed not to know. Indeed, she kept saying ‘I don’t know’. But then a light went on in her head and she seemed to realise that if she told Daddy what he wanted to hear, then he would leave her alone to get back to the fun stuff. She rolled her eyes, put her hands on her hips, sighed and flawlessly spelled the words on all the cards Julian held up to her.

As parents who take sole responsibility for our children’s education, dealing with such different attitudes to learning can at times be challenging. While Lily generally enjoys written and mental maths and writing stories, lists and letters, we have had to learn to give Katie more space to learn on her own. Formal approaches to teaching don’t work (or at least they don’t work at present – they may work in the future). But more subtle forms of learning – playing, helping with number-based chores such as laying the table, sharing out food, following recipes, etc, all allow her to learn without realising she’s being taught.

The rest of the stuff that isn’t reading, writing and maths – the geography, history, science, art and languages – are all the stuff of our day-to-day lives that we all learn together, each one of us delving in at a level appropriate to our ages and life experiences. Katie is gradually making her way to independent reading, writing and maths, but she’s taking quite a different route to that taken by her sister. Julian and I are learning to step back, give her space and trust her to learn in a way that makes sense to her.