A Day in the Life of an Independent Learner

The more I witness independent learning in action, the more I am convinced that children can successfully chart their own paths. Yesterday I wrote an essay, “Fostering Kids’ Autonomy Works,” on this topic. This is a follow-up to describe my son’s self-directed adventure yesterday.

My wife, who had the day off, again took lead on homeschooling. (So this was not a typical day; usually both of us parents are busier with our own projects.) She started the day by asking our child what he wanted to do during the course of the day. He initially laid out three projects on a chair: a magnet kit, a card-matching game, and a dinosaur 3D wood model kit. Then he added a Lego T-Rex kit and a printed 3D figure set that a friend had given us.

Then it was time for breakfast, and my wife asked our son if he wanted to help make it. He said yes, and together they made pancakes out of a recipe book that a relative had given our son as a gift. (Our child is interested in cooking, so we try to foster that.) To help make the pancakes, my son had to work with measurements and simple math.

Then, all of his own accord, my son played the card-matching game with my wife for half an hour. This is a good memory exercise. Then our son colored a print-out for a 12-sided shape, and my wife helped him cut it out and glue it into the 3D shape. That took around an hour. He spent another hour working with a magnet kit. Then he spent a solid 2.5 hours building the Lego T-Rex. That is extraordinary concentration. (I wrote more about Lego kits elsewhere.)

Then our child obviously was getting tired, so we agreed that he could watch TV. He chose something about mechanized “dinosaurs.” Then, as a family, we watched the original Pete’s Dragon (see my post about films) and discussed aspects of it. Our son closed out the day watching some science videos and then reading with Mom. (He never did get to the wood kit.)

Obviously self-directed learning does not mean learning in a vacuum. We’ve collected lots of materials for possible projects for our son to do based on his interests. We sometimes suggest projects he might be interested in and also help him with his projects. As I’ve written, self-directed learning is compatible with, and I’d even say dependent on, interactive parenting.

In short, this was an extraordinarily productive day in terms of my son’s education. He was basically in charge of crafting his day at every step, and he thoroughly enjoyed his day. Self-directed learning works!

In Praise of Lego Kits

Lego kits help kids develop spacial reasoning, learn to patiently follow detailed directions, and grasp some basics about mechanics. They provide a great opportunity for parents and their children especially at younger ages to work on a project together. And kids end up with fun toys.

Various themed lego kits (dinosaurs, space exploration) also present an easy segue to lessons about science.

Although some of the kits recommend ages 7–12, my son started working with them (with adult supervision) at age four. Just be sure kids have gotten over putting small objects in their mouths! Use at your own risk.

A couple of my son’s favorite kits involve dinosaurs and spaceships (paid links). One thing I really like about the T-Rex kit is that it has some interesting hinges and ball joints to allow movement.

Films for Kids

Here I briefly review films that my family has enjoyed and that I think are great for kids.

Coco, Disney+, disk (paid link)
Coco is a strange but wonderful film that draws on traditions surrounding the Day of the Dead. The mythic background is that, after people die, they enjoy an afterlife so long as people living still remember them. Our hero is a young boy who, wanting to explore his love of music, visits this land of the dead in search of an ancestor who was a great musician. But things are not as they seem, and the boy must race against time to put right past wrongs. The film explores the value of family and the importance of doing what you love. The animation is amazing; my five-year-old was enthralled.

Mary Poppins, 1964, Disney+, disk (paid link)
This is one of the absolute all-time great musicals and children’s films. Although I also enjoyed the sequel, to my mind nothing can match the magic of the original film, led by the amazing Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. The story is a simple one of a father learning to relax a bit and enjoy time with his children. The songs and performances are excellent, and animation blends perfectly with the live action.

Pete’s Dragon, 1977, Disney+, disk (paid link)
I rewatched this film with my five-year-old and had forgotten how violent it is! It shows threats of child torture and enslavement, child abuse (a teacher beats a child in class), and public drunkenness. It also has some wonderful songs and a great story about friendship and family. The basic story is that Pete, having run away from a brutal family that had enslaved him, finds a new home with a kind woman who runs a lighthouse. Oh, and Pete has befriended a dragon that can turn invisible. When a snake-oil salesman comes to town, he sets his sights on capturing the dragon. We paused the film a few times to discuss child abuse, drunkenness, and snake-oil products.

I’ll add more entries here over time.

Image: Dejan Krsmanovic

Fostering Kids’ Autonomy Works

Kids want and need substantial autonomy. When, as parents, we help our children develop self-responsible control over their lives, we make their lives better and our lives easier. Yet the temptation to default to authority (“because I said so”) can be strong.

A regular sort of post on the homeschooling groups I follow runs something like this: “My child just won’t do the work I’ve assigned. He/she keeps fighting me about it, refuses to do it, and acts bored and listless. Help! This is driving me bonkers and I don’t know what to do!”

But think about this from the child’s perspective, and I think the main problem will quickly become apparent. If, as an adult, someone decided what tasks you would do regardless of your interests and buy-in, forced you to do those tasks every day for a set number of hours, and then continually berated you for not doing the job very well, how would you feel and react? My guess is you’d be grumpy and irritated about it. So why are we surprised when kids react that way?

Continue reading “Fostering Kids’ Autonomy Works”

Parasitism in Nature

If you’re looking for a creepy science lesson, check out parasitism in nature.

There’s a type of fungus that takes over an ant and causes the ant to crawl up a branch and latch on, where the fungus grows and spreads. Different types of fungus can attack different animals.

Wikipedia has an entry. The Atlantic and National Geographic also have articles.

National Geographic has a short video about this.

Continue reading “Parasitism in Nature”

Tactile Triangle Fun

My five-year-old had fun playing with foam sheet triangles I cut out—and we even introduced Pythagoras’s theorem for right triangles.

I was inspired by some sample materials offered by Math Expressions (start on page 14 of this pdf). One thing this source recommends is to discuss the difference between “turning” a triangle piece and “flipping” the piece.

Continue reading “Tactile Triangle Fun”

Tips for Keeping Your Kids Safe on Social Media

Although I think the documentary The Social Dilemma is overly alarmist (as I’ve written elsewhere), it raises legitimate concerns about children’s use of social media. In one dramatized scene of the film, a girl posts a photo of herself to social media and someone makes fun of her “big ears,” leading to her crying in the bathroom. Social media use can lead to (or at least exacerbate) bullying, addiction, self-image problems, self-harm, and conspiracy mongering. What can parents do?

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt (who appears in the film) recommends three main steps for parents: Forbid all devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, forbid social media until high school, and limit total daily device use.

Continue reading “Tips for Keeping Your Kids Safe on Social Media”

Tabletop Dinosaur Dig

Grandma brought the five-year-old some plaster blocks with little toys inside. Surprisingly, my kid loved digging out the toys. (This would drive me crazy.)

Of course you could get some plaster and molds and make your own kits. Once our initial supply ran out, we just ended up buying a 12-pack of blocks from Amazon (paid link). I like this particular product because the “bones” are also decent-quality plastic toys.

Continue reading “Tabletop Dinosaur Dig”

Individual Podcasts on Education

See also my Resources page for links to various podcasts. Here I link to individual podcast episodes about homeschooling and education.

My own Self in Society Podcast offers several episodes about education and homeschooling:
* Michael Donnelly on Homeschooling and the Law
* Kevin Currie-Knight on Crisis Schooling Versus Homeschooling
* Kevin Currie-Knight on Self-Directed Education

Kevin Currie-Knight discusses homeschooling at Libertarianism.org. On the same podcast (Free Thoughts) Currie-Knight also discusses “Education in the Marketplace.”

Bryan Caplan discusses his approach to homeschooling with EconTalk (video).

One-Off Science Videos

Elsewhere I’ve discussed some science video programs that my child and I really like. Here I want to list some fun one-off science videos we’ve found. (I’ll update this page over time.)

Bats and White Nose Syndrome
This article and Ted Ed video discusses a fungus that attacks bats in North America. The video is more general.

How a Piston Works
The piston in a gasoline engine is a wonderful example of the conversion of chemical energy to motion. Good videos on this include those from Toyota of Orlando, Automotive Basics, and Yasha Verma.

The History of Steel
Jason Crawford gives an hour talk on the subject.

A Five-Minute History of Concrete
Jason Crawford gives a great five-minute history of concrete (embedded in a longer video; I’m included the appropriate time stamp for the start point).

How to Make Charcoal
This is a really fun video by Primitive Technology, via Jason Crawford.

Parasitism in Nature
I collected a variety of videos on this.