Friday, April 12, 2013

Following Stage Education: Mimic A Million Mentors

I think educating the Following Stagers (ages 1-8) is my favorite. Watching them burst with enthusiasm gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. 

Starting around age 12 months, children's brains are much more awakened to the world around them. They not only keenly observe details with an intensity that most adults have difficulty matching, but their steady increase in brain capacity allows them to innocently and easily mimic the sights and sounds that they absorb so naturally. If we don't squish this natural ability with our teaching intentions and disciplinary tactics, children remain motivated to far surpass the learning we could ever dream of trying to cram into them.

With this in mind, our primary educational tactic for our children ages 1 until about 8-years-old is to actively inspire them with mentors. That's it.

One who is capable of accomplishing something can be a mentor. Essentially there is something to learn from anyone or anything anywhere in the universe...parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, musicians, soldiers, gymnasts, artists, actors, jugglers, chimpanzees, ants, blue whales, waterfalls, volcanoes, solar systems... Real life is ideal (the brain soaks in more), but YouTube is a fabulous resource as well. When our minds are openly, but intensely focused and in tune to something or someone, so much learning is accomplished. Children are naturally so so good at this. I see it every day at our house.

Here's a brief list of what we DO to educate our children ages 1-8:
*keep in sharing what we do, we don't wish to declare that our way is best for all. every family is different. but if you read or see something that strikes a happy chord, feel free to create some music of your own with it. much of our inspiration has come after observing other families after all. i truly believe that every family can be inspired on their own unique path.

Basically, to "teach" during this stage, we simply introduce our children to positive mentors and our children's minds take care of the rest.

To explain in more detail, Brent and I...

1. Study hard. During the first couple of years of homeschooling, I spent most of my personal free time after the kids went to bed studying educational philosophies, curriculum, and teaching ideas so I could figure out what my kids needed to learn and how to teach it. (I've been inspired by the book The Well-Trained Mind and anything Thomas Jefferson Education or Montessori.) This sounds tedious, but I found it to be incredibly enlightening and uplifting. I couldn't wait to wake up the next day and bond with my children in a new way and observe how my new knowledge fit into our family. After a few years, I'm certainly not a pro, but teaching phonics and long division feels likes cookin' up a familiar recipe these days...toss in a little of this, a little of that, let simmer...all without having to dig out the cookbook.

2. Be a positive mentor. We, as parents, are obviously our children's first mentors. It is such a privilege. Our big parenting job is to be a good example of whatever we want them to learn. Their systems are naturally set up to want to hang out with us during the younger years (so we do a lot of that...and sometimes it feels like an eternity!)...and copy us. They watch carefully as we comb our hair, brush our teeth, talk on the phone, prepare our meals, and place each leg into our pajamas at night. Then they courageously try it too. I get all tingly inside every time I notice their mimicking efforts. It's so genuine, it fills me up every time. Before long we're counting by tens, singing the alphabet song, spelling words, sharing historical stories, making scientific discoveries, and discussing brains all while playing and working together. 
*I just had to add another nostalgic photo of Brent and the Boys (ages 3 and 2).*

If we notice an area intelligence or behavior where our children are lacking (it could be anything from telling time to picking their noses) then first, we try not to freak out (unless it's a highly-threatening situation). Instead, we strive to peacefully notice a weakness and put it on our list of things to ponder. We earnestly seek inspiration for how to inspire progress in that particular child on that particular topic. Answers always come when we seek them with the intention to nurture an innocent child--as opposed to seeking answers to settle our own frustrated and disgruntled parental feelings because our child's behavior bothers us. Then when we spend time with that child in coming days, months, and years, we use our energy to implement the inspiration that came into our hearts and minds.

3. Lead them down purposeful paths. If we know where we're headed and our children are happily following along, we can wisely lead them in directions that will have positive impact on their lives. Inspiring these young ones is not a passive pursuit, but a very active endeavor that keeps us on our toes (and keeps us using our prefrontal cortex...Yeah!!). On the academic front, during the Following Stage years (pre-K through 3rd grade-ish), I consciously try to spend about 20-60 minutes each day helping my child(ren) gain skills in reading, writing, and math. Many times this is done without the child even knowing that we're doing "school"...for them it feels like play time or snuggle on the couch and read with Mom time. Montessori methods work great for this. For writing and grammar lessons, these books (here and here) are a wonderful guide. 

4. Endorse free time. Then, my favorite...there are so many hours left in the day to play and study whatever they want.
*My Allison just adores flowers.*
*Diggy wants to own a zoo when he grows up.*
*Ahh motherly and musical all at once.*
*The boys worked together to build the above city. They dreamed up every inch of it.*
*Science and history are easy to work into "free" time. Kids are always up for an experiment or some baking or an interesting story...especially if they have to wear a protective mask to stay safe.*

And kids love maps.
*Kenny has spent hours duplicating maps, starting at age 5. And Diggy, at age 9, was determined to protect his territory...California...where he was born with his blue soldiers. I don't blame him. It's a lovely place.*

5. Mingle among inspiring mentors. With a secure attachment in place, we also take our young children out to explore the world and meet inspiring people. They accompany us to the grocery store, to the bank, to concerts, to plays, to athletic events, into nature, and on vacations. Sometimes we point inspiring things out. But mostly, we observe what catches our kids' attention...and wait for questions. "How much does this cost? What does that sign say? When is it going to snow? Can I do that?" all prompt loads of learning opportunities. They notice the check-out lady, the garbage man, the butterflies, the falling leaves, and the girl at the park who can already ride a bike and shoot a basket. Inspiration strikes. Their minds and bodies are off to the races in a very natural and exciting way. Their positive energy is contagious.
*For a budding saxophonist, like Kenny, who better than THE Jon Irabagon to turn to for inspiration? I'm proud to say I drummed for Jon when we were both in high school...but even prouder to be buds with an outstanding someone who can ignite a fire in the next generation. (Thanks again, Jon! Kenny just got a 1 on a very challenging sax solo.)*
*I definitely need someone else to mentor my children in dance.*
*It has been a real treat to be involved in community about inspiration.*

*Mother Nature is always one of my top choices for inspiration.*

*The adventure of exploring man-made cities hits a sweet spot, too.*

6. Use the library. We go 'library shopping' about once a month and check out 100 more mentors on any subject they (or we) find fascinating. It feels like Christmas all year round.

*Love that our library now has a self-check out. They are incredibly kid-friendly over there. Those librarians...they just get it...and my kids reap the benefit.

7. Allow lots of crafting and costuming. I think of myself as relatively frugal...but I spend plenty on art supplies, books, and costumes. And...I let the kids go to town when inspiration strikes as often as is feasible.

*Kirsten launders her dolls clothes in Little House.*
*Below is her scrapbook in progress.*
*Diggy makes the most interesting things out of paper and tape.*

*Diggy...testing out his Pachycephalosaurus skills.*
*And we can't leave out Mary Poppins with Michael and Jane.*

8. Limit brain junk food. We do limit technology time like video-game playing or movie watching to about 30 minutes per day for these under-8ers (unless it's movie night). This gives their minds lots more space in the day to be active as opposed to passive. We find they develop much more creativity because to process the loads of information they've soaked in, they've got to get up off the couch and and use their bodies in real life. 

To execute a limit on the lure of technology overload, we, as parents, often need to unplug and get on our hands and knees and play alongside them--what a novel idea, huh?. This is actually when most of our academic "teaching" occurs anyways, so we all win. Also, we've noticed that most technology interactions get recreated in real life, so we're of course careful about which shows and games captivate their attention and inspire their futures. I know way too much about brain development to allow them to watch just anything that's on.

9. Cry sometimes. Because teaching, guiding, and nurturing children doesn't always go well. And because crying has a nice cleansing effect. When I cry myself to sleep, I often wake up with a clearer mind and feel more ready to try again the next day.

10. It feels like I should have a ten, but I don't. I'm just making these up as I go along. Any thoughts for a #10?

Well, let's move on for now...

A list of what we try NOT to do during the Following Stage:
  • We don't expect or require a certain amount of work during this entire stage. If a child gets tired, we stop. This sounds anti-academic, but it's not. It actually has a very positive effect on motivation toward long-term academic success.
  • We don't give assignments. It's fascinating to watch children create their own, more effective way of internalizing material...there are a few examples on this page.
  • We don't formally keep track of progress or require "testing" unless we have a child who loves test-taking type challenges. But I do take personal notes on my observations...this helps when I'm pondering a specific child's needs.
  • We don't hold our kids responsible for meeting certain goals or learning certain material. We obviously have various goals in our minds, but we typically don't verbalize these goals much to our kids at this stage...sitting down and setting formal goals with them comes during the Accountability Stage.
  • We don't use rewards like grades, treats, stickers, or presents as a primary way of motivating them to make progress. But we do bask in the natural joy of learning...and we do enjoy plenty of treats and stickers just for fun.
  • And we certainly don't punish--like take away privileges, delay play-time, withhold love or praise--for lack of academic motivation or progress.
  • We don't nag them to finish something. (unless I'm in a grumpy mood. arg!)
  • We don't label our children as lazy or dumb if they become disinterested in a certain subject. That's kind of an obvious one, but it can hard to do if you also consider how children interpret our sighs and body language.
  • We don't stick to a curriculum just because we started it.
  • We don't zone out as parents. Following Stage kids play for hours and hours. But even if we're bustling around in the kitchen or sitting behind a computer while our children are pretending in another room, we try to stay aware of their wavelengths and remain ready to set our busyness down to assist them again when they come back to our world.
I'm wondering if these thoughts sound crazy. They did to me a few years ago. But honestly, after years of attachment education, we are quite in tune to our children and they to us and we can 'feel' where they are at, we can study and ponder about where they are going, and we can model how to get there--or lead them to someone else who can--and instinctively know how to help them progress. It's kind of magical. And I know we're not the only ones on this path...I know many parents who do the same with their children.


If our children seem relatively unmotivated during a particular day or week or even year during the Following Stage, we don't put accountability on their shoulders for this yet by throwing a carrot or getting out the stick. Instead, we work on our personal patience and take responsibility ourselves.** I ponder what can I do to ignite a new fire, to inspire them toward a worthy cause, to connect with them again in a way that builds a natural motivation in favor of goodness and progress. Maybe I need to change how I'm spending my time. Maybe I need to change my tone of voice or my body language. Maybe I need to challenge myself on the very topic I want to inspire them on by researching, creating, memorizing, practicing. When my kids see me trying to figure something out, trying to stretch my mind a little, a new light comes into my life and my children are naturally attracted to it and grow from it, unless I shine the light right in their eyes.

Or maybe we all just need to pause and eat some ice cream.

Or maybe I need to pray about who or what to introduce them to next. In many cases, we watch YouTube videos, attend concerts, or call up family/friends in search for inspiring examples of talented people. The world is full of positive role models. Children are very motivated by them. We have found that they are extra willing to follow during the early years. And this motivation continues into later stages if we don't coerce them with rewards and punishments when they are young and innocent.

**During later developmental stages, we slowly and naturally shift accountability to their shoulders. But during these young years, we find great joy in positively shouldering the burden of their challenges. It makes both them and us more mature (think stronger and more balanced brains) and more ready for the turbulent times ahead.

The cool thing about education during the Following Stage:

All through the Following Stage, life's light bulbs turn on in our children's minds. After being introduced to amazing people and things, they start to recognize various academic challenges and choose to immerse themselves in them without us even saying a word...because they want to become amazing people, too. 

And if I'm willing to listen, I hear plenty of reports on their progress, which is why I don't have to formally test them:
"I can count to 1000!" 
"I can name all 50 capitals." 
"I know the diameters of all the planets." 
"I can play 'Mary had a Little Lamb!'"
"Look at my picture of a skeleton."
"Mom, do you want to read my story?"
"Watch us do the 'Wizard of Oz'" (with the exact lines and blocking they observed the community theater pros do several months back...and the costumes Grandma made for Halloween that year...I think they should've charged us for tickets)

etc, etc. 

Bottom LineWhen we focus our energy on nurturing them with the gift of emotional and mental freedom, they choose academic challenges for themselves. And they accomplish them. And each child does so in his or her own unique and beautiful way.

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