FREE 2016-2017 School Year Calendar Embracing Motherhood

FREE 2016-2017 School Year Calendar

If you’re looking for a “year at a glance” calendar for the 2016-2017 school year that you can display in one location, look no further!

When I was a teacher, I loved printing one of these out for every subject area, and using pens and different colored highlighters to see my year at a glance. This was really helpful for keeping me on track during the year to make sure I covered all of the necessary curriculum.

Now, as a parent with two children about to be in school, I love having this “year at a glance” calendar so that I can keep track of all major upcoming events in one central location.

Download the Year Long Calendar

2016-2017 Year Long Calendar PDF

Unfortunately, I can’t upload the Publisher file where I created it (in case you wanted to edit it), but if you email me, I can send it to you!

Desk Pad Calendar

In addition to having my year at a glance calendar, I also like using this desk pad calendar because it allows me to write down a lot of details, and it’s big enough for the kids to see it and read it. I like hanging mine on the wall right in the kitchen.

I like writing homework assignments, when library books are due, gym days, and any other important school information on this calendar.

In Conclusion

Staying organized on paper is pretty much the only way my brain can function. I love using OneNote for just about everything so that I stay organized on my phone, but there’s nothing like paper accountability that’s visible and right in your face!

The Importance of Learning the ABCs

Learning the ABCs is something so intrinsic to childhood that as adults, we might hardly recognize the importance, but learning the ABCs is more than just singing a song, it’s understanding that each letter has a name, each letter makes a sound, and that these sounds come together to make words. Having a strong understanding of this concept at a young age will make learning how to read seem to happen “as if by chance” (which is how Finnish children typically learn to read).

What Does It Mean to Learn the ABCs?

  1. Letter Names: Learning the names of the 26 letters is pretty basic and straightforward. When children learn what each letter is called, it paves the way for learning the sounds that the letters make.
  2. Letter Sounds: Learning the sounds that the letters make is a bit more complex…probably due to the fact that our 26 letters actually make 44 different sounds. Knowing the different sounds that the letters make is called phonemic awareness.
  3. Letters Come Together to Make Words: Before children start putting letters together to make words, they need to understand that words represent something…a person, action, thing, idea, etc. Then, they learn that the letters “c”, “a”, and “t” can be sounded out as /c/-/a/-/t/ to make the word “cat” and this is the gateway to reading. This is what is known as phonics.
  4. Writing Letters: I often hear of children learning how to write their letters at the same time they are learning letter names and sounds, and I believe that these are two very different skills that should not be taught simultaneously (unless the window for learning has been missed, and there are no other options). Learning how to write letters requires an advanced level of fine motor skills that children do not typically possess until about 4 or 5 years of age, but learning the letter names and sounds is something that can begin as young as 6-8 months of age.

*Check out my Embracing Motherhood Shop to see all of the resources I have made to help you teach your child the ABCs! Also, check out this blog about my favorite additional ABC resources.

How Children Really Learn How to Read

There is a misconception in the United States (and other countries too) that children are not ready to learn how to read until they begin formal schooling. The U.S. Department of Education actually supports the notion that Louisa C. Moats coined in 1999 that,

“Teaching reading is rocket science.”

They go on to explain that,

“Becoming a reader is not a natural process, but requires direct and explicit instruction.”

This type of rhetoric perpetuates the stereotype that only qualified professionals are equipped to teach children such a complicated skill as reading. And while yes, teaching the letter names, sounds, and simple phonics does require a wee bit of direct and explicit instruction, it mostly occurs naturally when a learning environment is created that encourages the teaching of these skills.

If you look at the way they do things over in Finland (which boasts some of the highest reading scores in the world), you’ll see that children there are immersed in reading skills from a very young age and learn how to read “as if by chance”. (Read more about the differences in the U.S. and Finland’s educational system here in my blog: 15 Reasons Why Schools in Finland are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States).

In my blog, How Children Really Learn to Read..in 10 Steps, I explore the true progression that occurs when a child learns how to read based on what I’ve learned during my seven years as an elementary classroom educator and ESL teaching coach, throughout the acquisition of my Master’s degree centered around language acquisition, and from raising our four children who have all learned their ABCs from a very young age and then went on to read “as if by chance”.

Basically, learning how to read is about acquiring a battery of skills that starts at birth. It begins with feeling safe and loved and having all basic needs met, then it progresses into vocabulary development in a language rich environment that includes lots of songs, nursery rhymes, and repetitive reading, after that children need a solid foundation in letter names, sounds, an understanding that words have meaning, and explicit guidance to see how letters come together to form words. It then all culminates with a massive amount of word memorization that occurs almost effortlessly when a love of reading is nurtured and allowed to grow.

Brain Development

In my article, “How Children’s Brains are Wired for Learning“, I explain in depth how children’s brains are wired to learn A LOT from a VERY young age. If you look at graphics like this one and this one that show the number of neurons and synaptic connections in between neurons, you’ll see that there is an EXPLOSION of connections beginning at about 6 months, culminating at an unprecedented height between the ages of 2-3, and then dwindling beginning at the age 4 when synaptic pruning occurs. During this process, the connections that are used become reinforced and the connections that are not used go away.

What does this have to do with the ABCs? When children begin learning about the ABCs at a very young age (like 6-8 months), the brain learns that this is something VERY IMPORTANT, something that needs to be reinforced, and something that will be used to help lay the foundation for all further connections that will be made in the brain.

Understanding the letter names and sounds from a young age is absolutely crucial to being able to sound out new words and add them to the memory bank of words. When this knowledge is solidified at a very young age, it makes learning how to read happen “as if by chance”.

Research Supports Early Learning of the ABCs

In every bit of research I have ever studied about early literacy, there is insurmountable evidence that a strong foundation in phonemic awareness produces amazing results. Take a look at this meta analysis of 71 intervention control groups in studies reporting post test and follow up data looking at the long term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions. What they found is that,

“Comprehension and phonemic awareness interventions showed good maintenance of effect that transferred to nontargeted skills, whereas phonics and fluency interventions…tended not to.”

This reinforces the fact that learning phonemic awareness (the letter sounds) in conjunction with comprehension (so not just isolated phonemic awareness drills, but phonemic awareness in the context of learning say, vocabulary) is extremely important and WAY MORE so than phonics and fluency.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) research has studied 10,000 children over the past 15 years and found that the one of the main reasons why children struggle with reading comes down to their inability to do one simple thing, and that is to connect letter names to letter sounds. The research shows that children need to be explicitly taught the letter names, the letter sounds, and how to decode words, and that these are not skills that children will just “figure out” on their own with exposure.

The bottom line is that it is MUCH easier for children to learn things correctly the first time around. According to the research in “Learning to Read: A Call from Research to Action” by G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D 85-90% of all reading disabilities can be corrected if early intervention occurs (like in kindergarten). But unfortunately, many kids don’t become identified as having a reading disability or being behind in reading until they are 9 years old and by then, their brains aren’t as ready to accept new pathways of learning, and only 25% will be able to reach average reading levels with interventions.

The biggest disservice we are doing for children is that we are waiting WAY too long to teach them reading skills in the first place. If we can start to build the foundation for reading as parents when our children are young, then we won’t have to wait until it might be too late.

Observations with My Own Children

When our first daughter was born, being an educator, I naturally had great plans to stimulate her mind and help her grow, but after using portions of Your Baby Can Read and teaching her letter names and letter sounds I have been continuously BLOWN AWAY by all that she can do. When she knew all of her letters at 15 months, I was astounded, when she was reading words (that she memorized) well before the age of 2, I was blown away, and when she was full on able to read at the age of 4. Now, at the ripe old age of 6, she absolutely loves reading chapter books. (See more videos of all of our children learning how to read here.)

With all four of our children, we have taught them the letter names and letter sounds from a very young age (starting at about 8 months). At the same time, we have used repetitive reading and my own videos teaching vocabulary and the concept that words have meaning. After we taught my three older ones (now ages 3, 5, and 6) how to decode simple three letter words and continued reading to them regularly, we noticed that they all started to read (each in their own good time) “as if by chance”.

These observations have fascinated me and motivated me to document their reading progression in these blogs and to create my own “Teach Your Child to Read” program (a work in progress…check it out at my Embracing Motherhood Shop) so that any interested parent can purchase a kit that will replicate the great success I’ve seen with our own children.

In Conclusion

By teaching children the ABCs from a young age, not only will they enjoy it and be entertained by the challenge, but they will move into the next phase of learning how to read with such strength, confidence, and ease without any of the challenges that come from not knowing the letter names, sounds, or how they work together.

How Children Really Learn to Read…in 10 Steps

When should children learn how to read? Do we have to teach children how to read or does it just happen on it’s own? Why do some children struggle with reading? What can I do to help my child learn how to read?

The U.S. Department of Education would have you believe that learning to read is rocket science, which makes it sound extremely complex and like something that should only be left to trained professionals. As a former elementary school educator for seven years with a Master’s degree focused on Linguistics, I almost believed this to be true. But then I had my four children, and after following these 10 steps, I saw them all learn how to read from a very young age, much like the Finnish children do which is “as if by chance”.

So without further adieu, here are the 10 steps that I have found which have led my children to reading.

1. Make Them Feel Safe and Loved

This may sound like a strange first step for learning how to read, but it is the most important aspect of human development. I know that against all odds, there are many who have succeeded even when they have been raised in the most unfortunate of circumstances, but the best environment for a child to thrive is one in which his or her basic needs are all being met and where he or she is shrouded in love.

Ophelia Reading with Great Grandma Gene

Ophelia Reading with Great Grandma Gene

Children who are noticed, children who come first, children who matter, and children who are loved will be able to reach their own personal best in whatever areas they are so inclined to grow.

2. Provide a Language Rich Environment

When adults realize that children are blank little slates who know nothing about the world or the things in it, and then take the time to talk to them and show them all of the little things that they see and interact with, it helps their oral language development to flourish and grow thus providing them with a rich foundation of vocabulary.Add-subtitle-text-3

When little babies sit in the grass across from their parents, rolling a ball back and forth for the first time, they don’t know what a ball is, what it means to roll, to throw, or to catch. They don’t know what colors are or that the little blades poking their legs are called grass…they don’t know that the sound they hear is a bird chirping or that the tall green thing next to them is a tree. They don’t know about clouds, or wind, or sun, or rain…these are all things that they must learn, and the more we talk to them and the more they hear these words repeated over and over and over again, the sooner they’ll learn the names of the things in their little worlds and their worlds will get bigger.

Research shows that a child’s vocabulary is correlated with reading comprehension in upper elementary school and that children who enter school with limited vocabulary knowledge fall further and further behind as compared with students who have rich vocabulary knowledge. Children who enter first grade as linguistically rich will know 20,000 words and children who are linguistically poor will only know 5,000.

When children have a rich vocabulary based on experiences, this is known as background knowledge, and is a key piece of learning how to read.

3. Sing Songs and Nursery Rhymes to Build Vocabulary

Another aspect of language and vocabulary development occurs when children memorize songs and nursery rhymes. As children’s brains are growing, whatever is repeated over and over and over again will strengthen the neural pathways and lay the foundation for further brain development. Neurons that are used will remain; neurons that are not used will die. Starting at about 6 months (see a really cool image here), you’ll notice an explosion of neural connections which will reach its peak when children are between the ages of 2 and 3. By age 4, synaptic pruning begins. You want to lay the foundation BEFORE this happens and what better way to do it than with songs and nursery rhymes.

Not only are songs structured in a way that is predictable and patterned, but singing them is enjoyable and therefore, we do it a lot. It is this repetition that helps us commit what we sing to long term memory. Check out my YouTube playlist of favorite nursery rhymes here. Here’s another playlist of all of my favorite preschool songs and another one just for the ABCs. The standard Mother Goose Nursery rhyme book is good too.

With my children, I love making up songs about everything all the time! I have songs about how much I love them, songs about waking up in the mornings, a song before we go to bed, songs about getting dressed or getting in the van…and they LOVE it! It’s absolutely fascinating to me that our youngest son, who is 20 months and still developing his ability to communicate using complete sentences, yet can sing all of the words to his favorite songs and nursery rhymes.

4. Foster a Relationship with Books

Reading is so much more than just words on a page. It’s a feeling, it’s an expression, and it’s a whole new world that can be discovered just by turning a page. By building a foundation of reading that is based on bonding and love, your child will grow up having positive associations with reading that will motivate him to peruse reading on his own…not just when it’s “reading time”.

Reading with Julian in My Comfy Rocking Chair

Reading with Julian in My Comfy Rocking Chair

This is why I love creating reading routines that are just part of our day. When my babies are little, I have nursing stations set up around the house with my comfy rocking chair and a table nearby for water, burp towels, and anything else I might need. When my babies are ready (usually around 6-8 months), I start keeping little baskets of books nearby too. I love reading before bed, when they wake up in the morning, before naps, or anytime we’re just cuddled up and rocking together.

While this early reading is going on, children are learning about some very important pre-reading skills such as how to hold a book, how we read from left to right, how we turn pages, how books have a beginning and an end, and how words are used to represent pictures on the page. Check out my blogs: How to Engage Your Baby with Reading and Best Books for Babies for more ideas on reading with babies.

Throughout the entire process of learning how to read, this step remains crucial. We need to find the time in our busy lives and in our busy days to read often. We need to build libraries of books, use reading as part of our routines so that it doesn’t get missed, make reading fun, and make reading about snuggling up in the arms of someone you love to explore something new. As your children grow and changes, find out what engages and excites them, and continue to look for new books that they will like.

4. The Most Important Pre-Reading Skills

Instead of listing these separately, I wanted to lump them together to emphasize that they are best taught simultaneously, but each one is of vital importance. In fact, without these skills, children will struggle as readers for their whole lives, but with a solid foundation in them, they will learn to read from a young age “as if by chance”. When my children are about 6-8 months old, I have found that this is the optimum time to start teaching them these skills.

Ophelia (2) and Her Fridge ABCs

Ophelia (2) and Her Fridge ABCs

  • Words Have Meaning: Before children start learning about the alphabet, they need to know what the alphabet is used for, and they need to see that words have meaning. I learned about this valuable skill when our first born daughter was 6 months old and we started watching Your Baby Can Read videos together. It took awhile for her to master the first batch of words, and she didn’t really start articulating her understanding of them until about 12 months of age, but once she did, her word memorization skills cascaded like a waterfall. (The Your Baby Can Read program did have it’s flaws, and has since gone out of business. This has inspired me to create my own reading system called “Teach Your Child to Read” which is coming soon…check out the progress at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!) I have also loved using books like this – Hinkler First Words to teach my babies that words represent things.
  • Letter Names: Teaching letter names is where it all begins. Learning uppercase letters is in some ways easier because they are more distinct and easier to differentiate, but children will encounter the lowercase letters more often, and so I like to teach them simultaneously. In the English language, we have 26 letter names that children must learn, which is a pretty straightforward process that simply requires repeated exposure and rote memorization.
  • Letter Sounds: Learning the letter sounds is a bit more tricky because while we may only have 26 letters, they make up 44 different sounds. Being able to understand and recognize the different sounds in a language is called phonemic awareness. (So it’s really more auditory than visual.) When children are learning their letter sounds, I have found that it’s best to work in layers. First teach the consonants (using the hard c and g) and short vowels. After these are mastered, you can start getting into more complex letter sounds such as long vowels (and all of the different ways they are represented…starting with the most basic), digraphs (two letters that come together to make a single sound like the /ph/ sound in “phone”) and dipthongs (vowel combinations where neither vowel sound is heard such as in the words “coin” and “moon”).

5. Decoding Three Letter Words

Learning how to decode three letter words is where the true act of reading begins. When children can look at the word “cat” and are able to isolate the individual sounds that each of the letters make, “/c/-/a/-/t/” and then blend those sounds together, “c-a-t”, to make the word “cat” this is what is known as phonics.

Ophelia and Elliot Spell Words

Ophelia and Elliot Spell Words

Children are ready to embark on the journey of learning three letter words once they have completely mastered their letter names and letter sounds. If you push them into decoding too soon, they will get frustrated, lose confidence, and possibly hate reading forever. Okay, maybe it won’t be that severe, but it’s much much better and way more effective to wait until they are ready.

One of my favorite tools for teaching three letter words is Starfall’s Word Machines. (Watch a little video of us using it here.) This is a really fun and cute way for children to become familiar with decoding three letter words. After that, I love using a muffin tin like this and some foam letters like these to teach word families. It’s best to first start with three letter words before branching out to words with four letters or more. Read more about this process in my blog: Using Magnet Letters to Teach the ABCs.

I wouldn’t have realized that this step was so important unless I had seen it with my own eyes with all of my children. It’s like once they figure out this step, the floodgates open and they start reading more and more words at an increasingly rapid rate.

6. Memorizing Words with Repeated Reading

Once a children have sounded out the word “c-a-t” many many times, they eventually will just know that this is the word “cat”, and they won’t have to sound it out anymore. Children can also just memorize words that they encounter often without ever learning how to sound them out at all.daddy reading with elliot

The more children are read to and the more that they “read”, the more they will be exposed to words over and over and over again which will help commit them to long term memory. Going back to the brain development I discussed in the songs and nursery rhymes session, it is this repeated reading that will help children commit words to their long term memory.

When you think about how you read as an adult, especially when you encounter a slightly challenging text like a college textbook, think about how you read, and in particular, notice how you read when you come to a word you don’t know. Many times, we simply see the beginning and ending letters of a word and this leads to recognition, that’s why we can still read and make sense of a paragraph like this. Other times, we will rely on a plethora of other skills (not just decoding) to figure out a new word such as our background knowledge, context clues, and looking at the structure of the word (i.e. root words, syllables, etc.).

In the primary grades, there is a HUGE emphasis on teaching phonics, as if learning every single rule of the English language is the true key to learning how to read, but the reality with all of these phonics lessons is that while they are really good for helping children learn how to spell, they are not a crucial component of learning how to read. In fact, a meta-analysis of 71 intervention control groups looked at the long term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions and found that phonemic awareness and comprehension interventions made a difference whereas phonics and fluency interventions did not.

As a teacher, but mostly as a parent, I have been enlightened as to what learning truly is and is not.

Learning isn’t about memorizing a series of facts and rules. Learning is about creating meaning. True long term learning occurs when something is so entertaining, so engaging, and so useful, that the repetition needed to commit it to long term memory seems effortless.

7. The Different Stages of Reading

There is a progression of reading that children will go through at different ages based on a variety of factors. You might just notice your children are going through each of these stages on their own, or you might see that they need a little nudge and some guidance in getting to the next stage.

  • Picture Reading: This is basically where children flip through the pages of the book and just talk about whatever is seen in the pictures. You can read to your children this way to teach them what picture reading is like or you might just observe them doing it. This was something our daughter Ophelia would do on her own starting at about a year and a half. After watching Dora programs, she LOVED all of the Dora books and would flip through all of the pages saying words that she knew. With our son Elliot, who wasn’t quite as interested in books, I would encourage him to read picture books like this and this and this because he was ready to “read”, but not quite ready to tackle the words on the page.
  • Repeated Reading: When you read books over and over and over with your children, especially really good interactive books where they can lift the flaps and such, you’ll probably fall into some patterns based on what entertains them. For example, if there’s an animal, you might ask what the animal says, or if there’s a rhyming word, you might pause to let them fill in the blank. By having these predictable routines, your child will love anticipating his or her participation.
  • Reading Single Word Books: This is an excellent way for children to memorize words that will help them read while letting them practice their reading skills. Sometimes, word books can get very busy making you think you’re getting a better value because in 10 pages, they cover 100 words, but trust me, less is more. I absolutely love the simplicity of these Hinkler First Word books and how they keep it simple with just one picture and one word per page.
  • Reading Sentences: Once children are out of the baby stage and have a good foundation of basic reading skills, they will love reading books with simple sentences. Gone are the Dick and Jane books of the past, today’s easy readers are Mo Williams books! One of our favorites is this, but we try to buy as many as we can because every single one is pure gold.
  • Reading Books of Interest: Teach your children how to find books that they like at the library and even on Amazon. Organize your books at home using bookshelves and baskets of books so that your children can easily find new books that peak their interest. They might choose books that are too hard and just look at the pictures, they may select all of the baby books they enjoyed reading over and over with you from long ago, or they might discover a new genre that they can read on their own.
  • Reading to Comprehend: There are a variety of comprehension strategies that you can engage your children with as they become more accomplished readers, and I explain these more in detail in my blog: How to Teach Reading Comprehension. One of the best ways to help your children with their comprehension skills is simply to talk about the books they are reading. You might want to read the same book as they are or read together so you know what the story is about, but sometimes it’s fun when you don’t know what the book is about and they have to tell you as much as they can.

8. Let Children Progress At Their Own Rate

As I created my “Teach Your Child to Read” program (coming soon…check out the progress at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!), I debated calling it “Teach Your Baby to Read” because I have seen that it is totally possible, but at the same time, I have learned that it is not always probable.

By going through this progression, three out of four of our children have become very early readers (before the age of two), but one of our children only started reading recently at the age of 5. Now, this may be due to the fact that we skipped the memorizing words stage with him (due to the fact that we were in the middle of a huge life transition at the time…see my blog: How I Became a Stay at Home Mom) or it could just be that due to his personality, he wasn’t interested in learning until now.

At any rate, I believe strongly in letting each of our children develop at their own rate and according to their individual interests. My strongest teaching philosophy is rooted in the zone of proximal development that encourages teachers to continuously provide students with learning opportunities that are not too challenging, but just challenging enough, and then providing scaffolding as they learn the new idea or skill until they can do it on their own. In this manner, I am always creating learning goals for all of my children that helps me to meet them right where they are.

Learning how to read is not a race, and nobody is going to give you an award for being the best parent just because your child reads at a young age. BUT, when you place these pre-reading tools in front of an eager learner, and they POUNCE on them, it seems almost cruel to think our society would have us wait until they are in school to begin reading.

9. Encourage Your Child to Ask for Help

This is a reading comprehension strategy known in the teaching world as “Monitor and Clarify” meaning that good readers know how to monitor their reading to make sure that they are understanding what is being read and working to clarify anything that they don’t understand.

When I was a teacher, I designed many lessons to teach this concept, but it wasn’t until I read with my children, side by side, every day, that I truly grasped the importance and the organic nature of this process. Every night as part of our bedtime routine, I read with our oldest daughter Ruby (currently 6). She has a HUGE stack of chapter books she keeps in her bed next to her little nightlight, and every night we cuddle up and she reads to me for 10-20 minutes any book of her choosing. As she reads aloud to me, she’ll pause at a word that she doesn’t understand to say, “What does this word mean Mom?” I never taught her how to “Monitor and Clarify”, and yet somehow she just does it.

Ruby Reading in Bed

Ruby Reading in Bed

How? Well, when she asks me a question, I answer it. I don’t put it back on her and say, “What do you think it means?” or “Let’s look at the context clues to figure this out.” Yuck. No thanks. When Ruby asks me the meaning of a word, I simply tell her, and we move on. When she struggles to correctly pronounce a word, I quickly read it for her, and she doesn’t skip a beat. There is this misconception that we need to let our children struggle in order to learn, and I disagree. What typically happens after I tell her the meaning of a word is that she knows what that word means and she applies that knowledge the next time she encounters the word or phrase in question. If she somehow can’t remember and asks for help again, I’ll simply tell her again…just like that.

10. Become a Family Who Reads

Both my husband and I love reading. Our children know this, our children see this, and they know we are a family of readers. Our house is FULL of books, and we have bookshelves and baskets of books in every room. We read books every night before we go to bed, we cuddle up and read throughout the day, we listen to books on tape, we go to the library and get as many books as they’ll let us check out, we pay regular library fines for late books, and we don’t even mind, we have book wishlists on Amazon for ourselves and for every child, and we buy books to add to our library for birthdays, Christmas, from the tooth fairy, and anytime there’s a really good book that we just have to have.

When you become a family of readers, your children will become readers. When you teach your children not only how to read, but how to access books (from your home library, from the public library, and from Amazon), they will become masters of their own destiny. Instead of going to you like an empty vessel waiting to be filled, they can fill their own tanks with whatever knowledge they desire. Here’s what I mean…

When we found out we were pregnant for baby #5, our daughter Ruby went straight to our Basher Books collection (an EXCELLENT source for teaching young children higher level concepts…we have purchased just about every single one), and read the book about the human body. She came to me later and said,

“Mom, did you know it’s really up to dad if our baby becomes a boy or girl because he’s the one who carries the x or the y chromosome?”

And that’s what I’m talking about folks! This is what reading is all about. It’s not about reading early or getting high grades, and it’s not about becoming proficient or advanced or reading the right number of words a minute. Reading is about unlocking the world around you, discovering new things, exploring new ideas, getting lost in another world, and having access to all of the knowledge that the world has to offer.

In Conclusion

Learning how to read is not rocket science, it is not something that should wait until formal schooling to be learned, and it does not need to be taught by a trained professional. In fact, very little “teaching” is actually needed in order to lead children to reading. What is needed is an environment conducive to reading, deliberate exposure to word recognition, letter names, and letter sounds, guidance in discovering the structure

By creating an environment conducive to reading and by building a foundation of some key basic skills, children can learn to read “as if by chance” and in the process unlock an entire world that is just resting at their fingertips. Check out the teaching tools I have created to help children learn how to read at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!

Happy reading!

Videos of Our Kids Reading

  • Reading with Julian 18 months. Notice how much he interacts with the books I am reading. These are some of his favorites that we read all the time.
  • Ophelia reading at 2.5. Ophelia started reading from a VERY young age, and it really blew our minds!
  • Elliot reading some Mo Williams at age 5. Elliot started reading on his own fairly recently, and he is so proud! He has a nightlight by his bed, and we hear him over his monitor reading to himself every night.
  • Ruby reads The Princess in Black at age 6. Ruby start reading at a VERY young age like Ophelia and absolutely LOVES reading!
  • Here’s a playlist of our kids learning how to read over the years. *Showing children videos of other kids reading can be a great way to get them motivated to read!
15 Reasons Why Finland's Schools Are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States at Embracing Motherhood

15 Reasons Why Finland’s Schools Are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States

Unless you’re really interested in education, you might not be aware of what’s going on in Finland’s schools. If you are, you may have read a few click bait articles about more recess, delayed kindergarten, and play based learning, but the whole story is much more interesting…and complex.

In this article, I hope to shed some light on why Finland has become such a buzzword for educational experts, how they got to be where they are, and all of the parts that make up the whole of their successful educational system. Throughout this article, I will compare what is working in Finland to what is currently being done in the United States to help paint a complete picture.

PISA Results

Let’s begin with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that put Finland on the map (as an educational buzzword that is) in the first place. PISA in an international test given every three years to 15 year olds in the areas of reading, math, and science with the 65 countries that have chosen to participate.

Below, I have listed the most recent scores (from 2012) from Finland and the United States in the three categories that the test covers. Below that, you will find their overall ranks listed with all of the other countries who participated. *Also note that Finland was ranked 1st in reading, 4th in math, and 3rd in science in 2000, 1st in reading and science and 2nd in math in 2003, 1st in reading and 2nd in math and science in 2006, and 1st in reading, 6th in math, and 2nd in science in 2009.

Finland

  • Reading – 6th
  • Science – 5th
  • Math – 12th

United States

  • Reading – 24th
  • Science – 28th
  • Math – 36th

2012 PISA Results

  1. Shanghai-China
  2. Singapore
  3. Hong Kong-China
  4. Taiwan
  5. Korea
  6. Macau-China
  7. Japan
  8. Liechtenstein
  9. Switzerland
  10. Netherlands
  11. Estonia
  12. Finland – 12th
  13. Canada
  14. Poland
  15. Belgium
  16. Germany
  17. Vietnam
  18. Austria
  19. Australia
  20. Ireland
  21. Slovenia
  22. New Zealand
  23. Denmark
  24. Czech Republic
  25. France
  26. UK
  27. Iceland
  28. Latvia
  29. Luxembourg
  30. Norway
  31. Portugal
  32.  Italy
  33. Spain
  34. Russia
  35. Slovakia
  36. US – 36th
  37. Lithuania
  38. Sweden
  39. Hungary
  40. Croatia
  41. Israel
  42. Greece
  43. Serbia
  44. Turkey
  45. Romania
  46. Cyprus
  47. Bulgaria
  48. UAE
  49. Kazakhstan
  50. Thiland
  51. Chile
  52. Malaysia
  53. Mexico
  54. Montenegro
  55. Uruguay
  56. Costa Rica
  57. Albania
  58. Brazil
  59. Argentina
  60. Tunisia
  61. Jordan
  62. Colombia
  63. Qatar
  64. Indonesia
  65. Peru

Since PISA began in 2000, Finland has held 1st place for reading year after year after year (which is why it initially gained such notoriety). The 2012 testing year saw Finland fall in rank from it’s usual top spots; read the theories about why that happened here. One of the theories is that countries like China, who are now showing up in the highest positions, emphasize rigorously preparing for tests via rote memorization which leaves children lacking in social and practical skills, self-discipline and imagination, and curiosity and passion for learning (source). Another theory is that Finland has been so preoccupied with being in a fishbowl while everyone analyzed what made them so great instead of focusing on their continuous progression. Always room for improvement, right?

1. Finland’s Reform

It is important to note that the educational system in Finland hasn’t always produced such pleasing results. In his article in the New Republic, “The Children Must Play“, Samuel E. Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College, explains how Finland turned it’s educational system around in the 1970s.

“Finland’s schools weren’t always so successful. In the 1960s, they were middling at best. In 1971, a government commission concluded that, poor as the nation was in natural resources, it had to modernize its economy and could only do so by first improving its schools. To that end, the government agreed to reduce class size, boost teacher pay, and require that, by 1979, all teachers complete a rigorous master’s program.”

By recognizing the need for change and taking radical steps to do so, Finland is now performing near the top of the list. They faced a lot of scrutiny about their methods until the PISA test results came out in 2000, and now everyone is trying to figure out what makes Finland’s schools so successful.

In the rest of this article, I’ll focus on the hallmarks that have contributed to Finland’s successful educational system with a brief comparison to the educational system in the United States. Please keep in mind that it is all of these components working together that contribute to Finland’s success.

2. Being a Welfare State

As one of the world’s best functioning welfare states, Finland takes care of all of its citizens equally. With a poverty rate of just 5.3%, you won’t find huge disparities between the rich and the poor. Even if you grew up in poverty here, however, you would still get the same resources including high quality education as someone who grew up with more privileges.

Some people say that Finnish people are paid like doctors, but it’s not because teachers get paid more, it’s that doctors get paid less. In Finland, the amount of money you pay for a speeding ticket is all relative to your income. One millionaire was fined the equivalent of $103,000 for going 40 mph in a 35 mph. In Finland, the playing field is made as level as can be.

United States: In the United States, there is not the same sort of equality. The poverty rate in the U.S is 15%, but it’s even higher for children at 21%. That means that there are 15.5 million children, or roughly 1 in 5, that live in poverty. (Check out this poverty map to see the huge variance of poverty statistics from state to state.) In the United States, there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, and if you grow up in poverty, you will NOT be afforded the same opportunities as those who grow up with more privileges. In fact, the United States is the ONLY nation in the world where the quality of public education is based on local wealth

So, in the end, Finland’s economy promotes social harmony, but the competitive nature of America’s economy has fueled many innovations…but at what price?

3. A Culture of Literacy and Learning

Finland is a country that prides itself on their love of learning and literacy. Check out this great PowerPoint created by the Finnish National Board of Education that explains what they do as a society (not just as an educational system) to create successful students.

One way that Finnish society supports literacy is by having one of the world’s best library systems. They are constantly getting new books and there is a high check out rate. Most homes subscribe to at least one newspaper, and the typical Finnish family starts the day at breakfast reading the morning paper and commenting on the day’s news.

About half of all Finnish TV is broadcast in a foreign language (mostly English) using Finnish subtitles (rather than dubbing). So when children are watching foreign TV, they need to read everything in Finnish! Bedtime stories are also a very important ritual.

United States: What are the priorities of the United States as a whole? This was kind of a hard one to sum up because the United States is so much bigger than Finland, but I think that this guide to living in America for foreigners gives a very revealing portrayal of what foreigners should expect when trying to fit into “American culture”. First of all, it explains that Americans are individualistic and time oriented as well as friendly and direct. It goes on to say that Americans love their sports, love their hobbies, and are fastidious about their appearance. It also warns of the prejudices and racism found mainly in small towns and in the south often expressed in off color humor where the presenter maybe doesn’t realize that they are sounding racist. 

In my opinion, I feel that there is this pervasive (yet erroneous) notion of the “American Dream” fostered by stories such as Abraham Lincoln living in a log cabin and rising to become president just because he worked hard enough when the reality is best expressed in the story of “The Death of a Salesman”  which gives a much more realistic (and grim) portrayal of this ideal. The majority of American culture that I have encountered (throughout my brief exposure to the entirety of the United States) can be summed up by our stereotype of nerds. They are often portrayed in sitcoms, movies, and life as being very smart yet socially awkward, not into fashion, not invited to parties, and thus a less desirable position to be in. Then you have those who slough of school, who don’t need to work hard, and who have all the friends and popularity portrayed as the ultimate achievement leading to true happiness. The fact that the notion of “nerds being unpopular” even exists reveals that our true opinions are of learning and literacy are that it is more important to look cool than to be smart and that the two don’t typically mix.

4. Teacher Training

I think that one of the most important things that Finland did to reform education was to create highly qualified teachers. They did this by not just requiring all teachers to get a Master’s degree, but by paying for it as well. Not only is college in Finland free, but when teachers are enrolled in the graduate level teacher’s program for three years, they get a stipend for living expenses so that they don’t go into debt while they’re going to school.

Getting into this graduate level program is tough with only 10-15% of applicants being accepted, so the teacher education program is truly getting the top of the pool. Being a teacher in Finland is considered a highly prestigious position because the entire Finnish culture supports learning.

United States: In the United States, most states require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate, but because of teacher shortages, there are many alternative routes to becoming a teacher and private schools do not often require teaching certificates at all. Also, there is no free college here. You may get some financial aid for a bachelor’s degree, but the average debt of a Master’s level degree in education is $50,000.

5. Taken Care of From Birth

One of the hallmark’s of Finland’s success is how they take care of their mothers and children. All working mothers are provided a 4 month paid maternity leave in addition to a free Finnish baby box (or cash value) that includes everything needed for a newborn. Then, either the mother or father can take a paid parental leave until the baby is 9 months old. This benefit is extended to adoptive parents as well.

If a parent chooses to stay home with their child until he/she is 3, they will get a Child Care Allowance in the equivalence of $385/mo. Approximately 50% of all mothers take full advantage of this. *This is in addition to the $107/mo. Child Benefit package that is given until the child reaches 17.

United States: The United States is pretty much the only country that doesn’t provide maternity leave for mothers…or fathers, except for assuring twelve weeks of unpaid paternity leave without losing their job. The Child Tax Credit does take approximately $1,000 off your tax bill per child, a recent increase which is actually pretty cool. 

6. Early Childhood Education (Day Care)

When parents in Finland choose work and send their children to day care, it is not at all considered to be a babysitting service. There are National Curriculum Guidelines that discuss such things as the child’s well-being as the target, the role of the educator, the joy of learning, the role of language, how young children learn through play, parental engagement, and content orientations in the areas of mathematics, nature, science, history, aesthetics, religion, ethics, religion, and philosophy. This is because day cares fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. In addition, most teaching and guidance staff in day cares hold a bachelor’s degree.

About 80% of mothers with their youngest child between the ages of 3-6 are working and most take advantage of the municipal day care system which is heavily subsidized based on family size and income. There is also a private day care allowance if that is the route parents choose.

United States: In the United States, it is a completely different story. First of all, there is no unifying system for day cares, no guiding curriculum that focuses on the “whole child” or any sort of educational or enrichment standards whatsoever, and the Department of Education is not involved in any way shape, or form. Instead, day cares are overseen by the Licensing and Regulatory Affairs that merely provides a massive checklist of possible health and safety violations. (Check out this example from Michigan.) Even though every state is slightly different, most day cares require only a high school diploma for employment. 

A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development found that the majority of day care facilities were either “fair” or “poor”, and only 10% were found to provide high quality care. The recommendation is that there is one caregiver for every three infants between the ages of 6-18 months, but only one-third of settings meet that standard. Horror stories like these are way too common in day cares across the United States.

The overall statistic says that 61% of all children ages 3-6 are in some sort of center-based care. The reality is that for poor families, this looks more like 45%, and for wealthier families, it looks more like 72%. And even though the government subsidizes up to $3,000 per family for daycare (regardless of income), this only covers a fraction of the costs which can be upwards of $15,000/year.

7. Pre-Primary Education (Pre-School and Kindergarten)

While kindergarten may not start until children are 7, mandatory preschool starts when children are 6. Before this became mandatory in 2015, 97% of children were already attending preschool.

Just like with the day cares, the preschools are governed by the Ministry of Education and use a very holistic pre-primary curriculum (used for preschool and kindergarten) that focuses on the development of the whole child. This document discusses the purpose of pre-primary education, general objectives of education and learning, the concept of learning, what constitutes a good learning environment, and more. And while yes, they do include paragraphs detailing the big ideas for language and interaction as well as mathematics, they also have sections explaining the instruction of ethics and religion, environmental and natural studies, health, physical and motor development, arts and culture, and more. It is a very well rounded curriculum guideline.

United States: In the United States, preschool starts at the age of 3 or 4, and it is not mandatory. A 2015 report by the Department of Education called A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America, explains how only 41% of 4 year olds attend preschool and that there are racial and socioeconomic disparities that prevent access to high quality preschool programs for all children. It also explains how we know that the preschool education provided is abysmal and that steps are being taken to correct that…but are they the right steps?

Grants were recently given to 20 states to design better plans for teaching young children, and states like Missouri did a nice job of creating Early Learning Standards, but the problem is that the focus is just too narrow and too specific. Instead of presenting a narrative that gives the big idea while still allowing for teacher and student autonomy and flexibility, everything is broken up into core subjects and then extremely specific descriptors are given for every possible skill that anyone could ever imagine covering. The document is so large and overbearing that there is no way someone could teach all of this without carrying around a little guidebook telling them what to say and do every step of the way.

8. A Curriculum That Focuses on the Whole Child

Here are the Finnish standards for the basic education, which covers grades 1st – 9th. Like with pre-primary education, they focus on the whole child and cover a wide variety of topics that extend far beyond just what is measured on standardized tests. While art, music, and PE are being cut for budgetary reasons in the U.S., Finland still finds time to teach crafts, home economics, foreign languages, health, religion, ethics, music, visual arts, physical education, and more. This focus on the whole child is one of the hallmarks that makes their educational system not just work, but thrive.

The Center on International Education Benchmarking, an organization dedicated to learning from the world’s high performing education systems explains how,

“Finnish classrooms emphasize the importance of learning through doing, and place particular emphasis on group work, creativity and problem-solving skills. From primary school onward, students are expected to work collaboratively on interdisciplinary projects. In many cases, students are expected to contribute to the design of these projects as well. In upper secondary school, students are expected to contribute to the design of their course of study.”

They also describe how,

“In the early years of school, Finnish students often stay together in a class with the same teacher for several years. That way, the teacher can follow their development over several grade levels, and they are able to learn in what many consider to be a family-like environment.”

United States: In the United States, we have federally created Common Core Standards that most states have adopted and then adapted for their own personal use. Since I live in Michigan, here are Michigan’s standards. I encourage you to at least browse through their categories. You’ll notice an emphasis on core subjects with standards that give very specific examples for how each grade level should progress through each standard. Check out these English Language Arts Standards for K and 1st grade to see exactly what I mean.

There is this sense in the United States that we have to teach skills to mastery and that it is facts and skills that will lead to knowledge and success, but Finland has touched on something that I have found to be highly successful in my own teaching experience both in the classroom and with my own children, and in my opinion, it is this:

Children are not empty vessels to be filled. They are curious, inquisitive, and imaginative beings that only need to be given the tools to reach their given potential. Our role as teacher should be to guide them towards their interests, to provide them with the skills and resources necessary to take their learning to the next level, and to be an audience as they share their discoveries.

If we can do this, our children will reach greater heights than anything we could ever design for them.

9. How Finnish Children Learn to Read

There is a misconception that because Finnish children don’t start going to compulsory school (kindergarten) until they are 7, they don’t start learning how to read until then, but that is simply not true.

Because the National Ministry in Finland is in charge of the day cares and preschools, it designs a curriculum that supports the literacy growth through all developmental phases. In day care, children are engaged in play based learning that prepares them for preschool. In preschool, they teach phonological awareness and vocabulary through a variety of genres and types of literature.

And this is why the Finnish National Board of Education states that,

“half of the pre-school pupils learn to read as if by chance.”

There is also a lot of support for struggling students. 37% of first-graders get some kind of additional support, but the students who struggle rarely do so because of a lack of basic skills. (i.e. Students enter school with a strong foundation in basic skills.) Early intervention is strongly emphasized, and all teachers have knowledge and expertise on learning difficulties. The cooperation between parents, teachers, and other experts is intense and is a HUGE part of student achievement.

Finally, Finnish is actually one of the easiest languages to learn how to read. The Finnish alphabet is similar to the English alphabet but with only 21 letters (that are used anyways) and no weird exceptions (like the hard and soft g and c and diagraphs). In addition, every Finnish word is pronounced exactly as it’s written, and there are simple rules for everything with very few exceptions. This makes it very easy for children how to read “as if by chance” and explains why the vast majority of Finnish students enter school with strong reading skills.

United States: Children in the United States are taught to read according to the five components of reading.

  1. Phonemic Awareness: Letter sounds
  2. Phonics: The relationship between letter names, sounds, and how they work together
  3. Fluency: Reading with accuracy, speed, and expression
  4. Vocabulary: The meaning of words
  5. Comprehension: Understanding what is being read

The instruction is systemic (meaning that it is carried out by the entire system), and systematic (meaning that it is carried out in a step by step process).

When it come to reading, the U.S. Department of Education supports the notion that, 

“Becoming a reader is not a natural process, but requires direct and explicit instruction.”

Remember how in Finland kids were learning to read “as if by chance”? Well, not so in the U.S. Here, students must patiently wait until their empty little brains are filled with all of the facts and skills that teachers can cram in there.

And how well is this working? Not so well. According to the most recent 2015 national reading test as reported by the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) otherwise known as the “Nation’s Report Card”, only 36% of 4th graders and 38% of 8th graders were proficient in reading. Yikes!

10. No Standardized Testing

One of the biggest hallmarks of Finland’s educational system is that they have no standardized testing whatsoever. The only test they are required to take is when they graduate high school if they wish to go on to a university. Samuel E. Abrams explains how,

“While nations around the world introduced heavy standardized testing regimes in the 1990s, the Finnish National Board of Education concluded that such tests would consume too much instructional time, cost too much to construct, proctor, and grade, and generate undue stress.”

United States: In the United States, we spend $1.7 billion on standardized testing every year. In her article in Education Week, “Why Bipartisanism Isn’t Working for Educational Reform“, Ann Stuart Wells, a professor at Teachers College points out that since NCLB, we now spend five to six times more funds on testing with 90% of this going to private testing companies. In this environment, teachers can’t help but feel inundated with testing that seems to drive every aspect of their teaching day. Even Obama says that he regrets “taking the joy out of teaching and learning with too much testing”. 

11. Teacher (and Student) Freedom and Autonomy

Not only are all teachers in Finland highly qualified, they are trusted to do what is best for their students. Samuel E. Abrams explains how,

“Teachers in Finland design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide, not a blueprint, and spend about 80 percent as much time leading classes as their U.S. counterparts do, so that they have sufficient opportunity to plan lessons and collaborate with colleagues.”

In his article, “Inside of a Finnish Classroom“, Tim Walker, an American teacher teaching in Finland shares his observations of what Finnish classrooms look like.

“In Finland, it’s common to find classrooms that are very different from each other. This makes sense given that a teacher’s individuality is deeply respected.”

He goes on to explain the slow pace of the classroom where the teacher is calm instead of, “anxiously pacing around the classroom, checking in on everyone”, which is so often the mood in the U.S. schools, especially during testing time. Teachers also dress casually, are called by their first names, and students don’t even have to wear shoes.

Check out this video of a teacher in a Finnish school where you’ll notice her calm demeanor, the freedom and autonomy that the children have, the lack of discipline problems, the way that the students are engaged and on task, and the way that each child is given time and attention. At no time does it feel like a script is being followed.

United States: Check out this video of a teacher in the United States teaching literacy. This is pretty much the exact same thing you will see in just about every primary literacy lesson because teachers in the United States must follow a very scripted method of teaching which leaves little room for freedom and autonomy for teachers or students. The teacher is typically either addressing the entire class as a group or working with small ability groups.

12. Less Time in School

In Finland, school starts between 8 and 9 am and ends between 1 and 2 pm. During this 5 hour school day (7-8 year olds attend half days), there is lunch (hot lunches are provided free for every student) with a 75 minute long recess and 15 minute breaks every hour where kids must go outside to play. Their playgrounds are also elaborately designed (sometimes with the help of the children) in ways that encourage lots of movement as well as creative and imaginative play.

In his article published in Education Week, “Classroom Shock: What I Am Learning as a Teacher in Finland“, Tim Walker explains how not only are the kids getting a break every hour, but the teachers are as well. During their 15 minute breaks, teachers are encouraged to catch up with their colleagues while drinking coffee in the teacher’s lounge rather than frantically trying to prepare for the next lesson.

Finnish teachers work on average 570 hours a year, nearly half of the 1,100 hours that U.S. teachers do. In addition, they also have little to no homework.

United States: Students in the U.S. spend about 7 hours a day at school with a 30 minute lunch recess and maybe a 15 minute morning recess for the younger grades. 

13. Smaller Class Sizes

In 1985, when authorities in Finland postponed tracking from 7th to 10th grade (meaning the separation of students based on ability), they knew that they would need to make class sizes smaller to accommodate these heterogeneous groups. Now, the average class size in 1st and 2nd grade is 19 students and in grades 3 through 9, it is 21 students.

United States: It’s very hard to find reliable data about class sizes in the United States because we are governed by a 16:1 student to teacher ratio, meaning that specialist teachers from speech therapists to music teachers who might not be in the room every day count towards this ratio leaving some classrooms to balloon to 30+ students. We saw this in our daughter’s kindergarten class before we switched schools.

14. Play Based Learning

Finland encourages play based learning as the foundation of day care, preschool, and kindergarten.

In an article published in the Atlantic by Finland education blogger Tim Walker, he explains how kindergarten students only engage in desk work, like handwriting, once a week. He goes on to explain what he noticed while observing classrooms:

“Instead of a daily itinerary, two of them [teachers] showed me a weekly schedule with no more than several major activities per day: Mondays, for example, are dedicated to field trips, ballgames, and running, while Fridays—the day I visited—are for songs and stations.”

During his observations, he noticed kids singing songs and chants, attending stations such as fort-making with bed sheets, arts and crafts, and running a pretend ice cream shop.

United States: In select preschools in the U.S. there is a remarkable programs being used Tools of the Mind that uses play based Vygotsky-inspired learning that encourages creative and imaginative play, but this is the exception, not the rule.

15. Cooperation not Competition

In his article, “The Finnish Miracle“, published in Great Kids!, Hand Pellissier, a freelance writer on education and brain development, explains how,

“Americans give lip service to the notion that ‘all men are created equal’, but our appetite for competition creates an intense focus on ranking low and high performers — whether they’re schools or students.”

Without standardized testing in Finland, schools aren’t ranked against each other, teachers aren’t evaluated primarily by the test scores of their students, and the curriculum isn’t organized around these tests. This creates an environment without the pressure to “perform” on one single measure of assessment, but to allow for more open ended model of learning.

Students aren’t ability grouped, and the advanced students work alongside the struggling ones. There isn’t a sense of one group looking down on another, they realize that they all have different strengths and weaknesses, and they work together to help each other out.

There are also no private schools, no schools of choice, and no sense that the best students are being skimmed off the top. Also, most schools don’t even provide organized sports.

In Conclusion

Since their reform in the 1970s, Finland has turned around a stagnant economy by focusing on the improvement of their educational system. As a result, they have a thriving economy and one of the world’s most respected educational systems. They didn’t do this by just having children start kindergarten at a later age or providing more recess time (which are the two big buzz topics that always get all of the attention), they did it by focusing on the entire infrastructure of education from the ground up…from funding, to training, to best practices, to seeing results.

In the end, what makes Finland work is a mindset. They love learning, they enjoy it, they see each child as an individual, not a test score, and they provide an open ended method of instruction that leaves the sky as the limit. By adopting this mindset within our families, within our homes, and within our communities, maybe that can be the first step in a long journey of educational improvement in the United States…and around the world.

Check out my Embracing Motherhood Shop where I am working on creating a system that teaches children how to read!

To Learn More:

In my article, I have provided links where appropriate to all of my sources. These links below are either resources that I didn’t link to in the article or that I thought provided a very thorough and complete look at this topic.

Embracing Motherhood Teaching Children in Their Zone of Proximal Development

How to Set Learning Goals for Young Children

As a former teacher and now parent, would you expect anything less than me setting learning goals for my children? 🙂 But this isn’t about me trying to breed academically superior children (although they probably will be), it’s about me wanting to give my children the best childhood possible…and guess what? Children actually LOVE learning!

What Are Learning Goals?

As a teacher, my learning goals were tied into grade level expectations and state standards (Common Core), but now as a parent, I have the freedom to look at where my children are…not where they should be. By teaching my children in their zones of proximal development, I am able to create learning goals and activities to accompany them that match the exact strengths, interests, and developmental levels of each individual child.

Learning goals can pertain to a desired behavior, the next steps in an academic progression (reading, writing, math), an artistic or musical goal, a concept or idea, a new understanding, movement, or anything.

Setting and Using Learning Goals

Here are a series of steps that I follow to set and use learning goals for each of my children. If you would like to see examples of these learning goals check out my blog: Examples of Learning Goals That I Use with My Children.

1. Know Where They Are

Being a stay at home mom has truly been a blessing in my life. I love being home with my little ones and having the time to really get down on the floor with them and play. Sure I have my hands full with laundry and preparing healthy meals, but my favorite parts of the day are just spent immersed in whatever my children want to do.

On any given day, I can be found building Lego towers, tickling and wrestling, reading piles of books, playing catch outside, using our imaginations and dress up clothes to transport ourselves to new worlds, playing music on the keyboard, making Play-Doh creations, doing flashcard activities, playing Starfall, or any other number of things. I just love to let my children lead me to what they want to do and then get lost in their worlds with them.

When I get down on the floor and play with my children, it really helps me to know first hand what things they are good at, what things they enjoy doing, what they are curious about, where their passions lie, and what things they are struggling with.

For example, when I play imagination games with Elliot, I can see how crazy obsessed he is with getting into these imaginary worlds where good versus evil, and I think, “How can I bring this idea into reading? Could I make some favorite things books with his favorite characters and give them word bubbles? How can I help him to expand his imaginary world? Are there some new problems and solutions that I can show him that he can use in his made up world?”

2. Discuss It

It’s one thing to just think about it, but these thoughts can get lost in the daily minutia if we don’t express them somehow. I am constantly talking to my husband about each of our children. We love talking throughout the day and into the night after the kids are all in bed about all of the cute, funny, and amazing things they are doing. We also like to discuss the things they are struggling with along with possible solutions.

I also love keeping journals where I record the milestones and special moments of our daily lives, and sometimes I will even make charts with each child’s learning goals. Through thinking, writing, and/or communicating in some form about where my children are, it helps me to be able to visualize where to take them next.

3. Set Learning Goals

Each child is completely unique and different. I don’t think about what they need to learn before kindergarten, I don’t worry about what other kids their age are doing, and I don’t go to the Internet to look up “preschool activities” or something overly general of that nature. I just look at them, listen to them, observe them, think, get in their minds, and let my creative juices flow as I ponder,

“What would excite them? What would engage them? What would they love to do over and over and over?”

Sometimes, we have a technical goal to work on like correcting a backwards letter in writing or pronouncing a word correctly, but mostly, I like to set goals according to each child’s strengths and interests.

*To see examples of specific learning goals that I’ve set for each of my children and what I do to to help them achieve them, check out my blog here.

4. Share with the Children

Whenever I set a learning goal, I like to share it with each child. For the younger ones, I don’t explicitly say, “This is your learning goal”, but with my 2 year old, I might say something like,

“You’re reading all of the words on the whole page! I’m so proud of you for reading so well! You’re learning how to be a reader!”

With my older ones, I’ll either write down their learning goals or just talk to them about it. For Ruby (6 years old), I would say,

“I’ve noticed that you’re really interested in meiosis and mitosis. What would you like to know more about? Would you like to make a poster or a book to show what you are learning?”

Or with Elliot (4 years old) I would say,

“You are really good at addition and subtraction. I think you’re ready to start learning about multiplication! What do you think?”

When we praise children for vague and general behaviors simply giving the old standard, “Good job!” they lose sight of why they were doing a certain activity. “Is the ultimate goal to get praise?” they might wonder. But by praising them for specific actions, ideas, or behaviors, we are using praise to actually help their brains give a name to what they are learning, and this helps them to form their identities. (To read more about children and praise, check out my blog: When You Tell Children They are Smart It Actually Makes them Dumb.)

I like to encourage my older children to set their own goals too. Sometimes I’ll just say,

“What would you like to get better at?”

Or I might give them a little more guidance and say, “We’ve been learning a lot about the body and how it works, what would you like to learn about next?”

4. Find the Time to Teach

It can be hard finding specific teaching times, especially if you’re like me with a bunch of little ones, but instead of designating certain teaching times of the day (or year), I simply find ways to embed teachable moments throughout each day.

Many people have asked my why I don’t homeschool my children. Read my blog here if you want to read the long answer, but the short answer is that I’m doing homeschool all the time. From the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed, during summer break, winter break, spring break, and even on the weekends, I am always looking for teachable moments. My entire home is set up for learning, and I’m always looking for ways to make our environment conducive for learning in a fun and engaging way.

Throughout the day, I balance getting things done, dealing with basic needs, and finding time for teachable moments.

It’s like I have this little dial in my brain that keeps track of who had one on one time last, who needs it next, who seems to need more of it, who needs a little nudge, who is doing wonderfully on their own, and so on.

While I try to balance things out during the day, sometimes my balancing is a little more long term. For example, I might feel like there’s one particular child who needs my attention more than the others, and so I’ll really work to make that child the focus for an extended number of days.

5. Teaching

Teaching in my home as a parent looks very different from what teaching looked like in my classroom. As a teacher, I would see all 28 students like one gigantic mega blob student that I had to keep under control at all times. When I would get ready to teach a lesson, I would either gather everyone up to circle time or have them sit in their seats as I would begin with an anticipatory set to get their attention. I would then launch into a mini-lesson where I would make the learning goals very clear. Next, I would model what I expected, give students guided practice (working with me in a small group, working with others in small groups, working in pairs, working with an aide, etc.), and then give them a chance to practice what they learned independently.

Now, as a parent, all of these steps are intermingled and actually, most of the learning takes place with the two of us side by side going through things together. In this way, the learning always stays in their zone of proximal development, and I’m able to scaffold appropriately where needed.

As Elliot and I are sitting on the floor together playing with Legos for example, I’m modeling how to build a multi-dimensional tower as he works on his own. He might look over at mine and use some of my ideas, or he might continue on his own path. As we play, I encourage him to talk out loud about what he is doing, and I listen asking questions along the way. Every once in awhile, I might suggest something new, like I might take a toy figure and have him climb on Elliot’s tower saying, “Hey, what’s going on up here?”

The bottom line is that as a parent working one on one with my child, I’m able to make the learning outcomes open ended. As a teacher, it was very hard to design lessons and activities where the students could have the freedom to go in their own direction while trying to hold both them and myself accountable. I think that the learning is far more engaging when children can decide their own direction. It also takes a lot of the pressure off from me to try to guide them to just regurgitate the right answer.

I’ll share another example with Ruby and a writing project. I know that she’s really good writing single words and short phrases, but she hasn’t been able to write complete sentences or paragraphs independently very well. So the other day I suggested we do some writing about her favorite topic, Digimon. “Would you like to write a story or make a favorite things book?” I asked her. She chose to make a favorite things book and excitedly gathered all of her materials.

As she glued each of her favorite characters down and wrote about them, I actually didn’t really do or say anything to guide her along. I just listened. I was an audience. I asked her questions or talked about what was interesting and I helped her to spell a few words, but I wasn’t trying to force her to do something my way.

I knew that whatever she created would be amazing…and it was.

6. Independent Practice

Once I sit side by side with my children and help them navigate through a new activity, it then becomes something that they can do independently.

When I work with my children on new learning goals and new activities to support these learning goals, I like to think about guiding them towards activities that they can do independently for extended periods of time.

In this way, my “homeschool not homeschool” day usually functions with everyone working on independent centers which frees me up to work one on one with a child, with a few children, or to get caught up on some cooking, housework, or take care of the baby.

We don’t have just one playroom or one designated homeschool room where all of the learning takes place. Instead, I have little areas set up around the house where learning can take place, and let me tell you why. First of all, even though my four children do like to all play together sometimes, other times, they like to be alone. I often hear an older one scolding a younger one for taking his or her toys and I always have to remind them, “You used to be just the same way until _____ (us, older sibling) taught you how to play.” At any rate, it’s nice to have things spread out so that they can be spread out.

Another benefit for spreading things out is that I usually have work to do in just about every room (particularly the kitchen), and I like to have them nearby me so I can hear what’s going on. The final and most important reason I like things spread out is that I find that children seem to do more with less. They like little spaces with a minimal amount of toys where they can use everything. Sometimes a gigantic playroom with lots of toys can seem overwhelming. As an added bonus, as kids migrate from room to room, it’s easier to pick up after them.

In Conclusion

By setting individualized learning goals for our children, I can be ready to jump into teachable moments as they arise. When children are gently scaffolded in their zones of proximal development and given the freedom to learn in an open ended environment, I think they can make the most amount of growth in the areas that are of the most interest to them. The amazing thing about setting learning goals (like these) is that instead of performing “at grade level”, your children will blow all of your expectations out of the water and take you to places you would have never even dreamed possible.

Happy learning!

How to Set Up a Summer Routine That Keeps Kids Productive

With school out and summer upon us, I find myself wondering how I can make the best use of time with all of my children. Yes, I want to sleep in late, be outside as much as possible, go to the beach, make forts, be silly, and have the freedom to do whatever we want at a moment’s notice, but by having routines in place, I can ensure that my children continue to learn and grow while we have fun together.

The Importance of Routines

I am a huge fan of routines, and as a teacher and now a parent, I have seen them work wonders in many situations.

When routines are in place, especially ones that allow for flexibility, kids feel safe and can run on autopilot without constant hovering and redirection.

After my daughter has been in kindergarten all year, and will now be spending her summer days with her three younger siblings, I knew that a routine for her and her four year old brother especially would be very beneficial to keep them productive, to minimize the fighting, and to minimize them wanting to just watch TV or play on their ipads all day.

Using Charts

I am also a big fan of making charts, and I love how making them with my children gets them to buy in to what I’m trying to teach them. I usually set up the structure for the charts on my own, then get their input as I begin to fill it out, fill in most of the rest of it on my own, and then get their final input. They especially like to get their help with the coloring!

Ruby Helping Me Color Our Charts

Ruby Helping Me Color Our Charts

For the purpose of this summer routine chart, I knew that I would need to provide my kids with routine, ideas, and flexibility, so I decided to include our daily routine, ideas for activities they could do, and a separate goal chart to remind all of us of what they needed to work on.

homeschool summer school and goal chart

Summer School and Goal Charts

Your charts have to work for you and your kiddos. They have to reflect both your needs and theirs. I have a lot of work to do around the house on a daily basis, and I need to spend a lot of time with the younger two, so my charts reflect this. I also want to be able to guide and scaffold my children during teachable moments, and these charts serve as a good reminder for how I can use my time wisely with them.

Setting Up a Learning Environment

I know that my teaching experience may make it easier for me to get into “teacher mode”, but the things that I do are so simple and easy that anyone could do them.

The number one thing that I do is create a stimulating learning environment.

I believe that children like to learn, they like to be challenged, and they like to stay busy. By setting up little learning stations all over the house, I can ensure that my children can do all of these things independently. This also allows me to jump in at opportune “teachable moments” to help scaffold them to the next level. (Check out how I set up a learning environment in my blog: How to Create an Environment that Encourages Independent Play and Learning.)

Activities

I am a big advocate of giving children choices, and the charts allow children to see what all of the possibilities are. Sometimes I like to make a big list of all possible activities so my kids know what all of these are and sometimes just need a reminder of all that is possible. When thinking about new activities for my children to do, I like to create learning goals to guide the activity choices. (To read about how I write learning goals, check out this article, and to read some examples of learning goals that I have created for my children, click here.)

Examples of Activities:

  • Imagination games
  • Dress up
  • Reading
  • Coloring
  • Write a story
  • Favorite things books
  • Play music
  • Build with Legos or blocks
  • Board games
  • Play outside
  • Rock garden

Usually, my children know how to use their imaginations to entertain themselves (because I’ve worked really hard on this with them), but if they ever falter, then I just drop what I’m doing and get down on the floor and play with them to help scaffold them to independence.

Daily Routine

After writing out a list of all of the activities, I created our daily routine.

I wanted to create a routine that would get them to use the best parts of their brain first thing in the morning.

I have found that we can all be most productive if we get up and get dressed right away. My oldest daughter is so used to this anyways from her school routine and both her and my four year old (who will be attending preschool next year) will need to do it again, so I think it’s best to leave it in place. I also needed something that would allow me to do some direct instruction, but also allow me some flexibility if I need to be with the younger two. You’ll need to tailor your daily routine to meet your specific needs, but here is what works for me.

  1. Get Dressed/Bathroom
  2. Eat Breakfast
  3. Brush Teeth
  4. 2 Workbook Pages – Handwriting, ABCs, basic math, cursive, mazes, etc.
  5. 1 Chore – Pick up, clean room, help with laundry, cooking, etc.
  6. 3 Activities – The workbook pages, chore, and activities can occur in any order.
  7. Lunch
  8. Choice Time (Rest Time) – When the little ones take a nap, the big kids can watch a movie (any length), watch one hour of an educational program, or play an educational game on the computer for one hour.
  9. More Activities
  10. Free Choice – If the big kids are good and do all of their workbooks, activities, and chores, then they can have 30 minutes to do whatever they’d like. (Lately it’s watching Digimon on Netflix or toy videos on YouTube)
  11. Daddy’s Home!

*I updated this routine June 2016 after we decided to take a break from ipads, touchscreens, and video games for a bit. (Find out why here.)

Goals

I like to tell my children specifically what they are good at (Check out by blog: When You Tell Your Children They Are Smart, It Actually Makes Them Dumb to see how I use specific praise.) and in addition to that, I like to talk to them about what they should be working on next. So with Ruby, for example, who at 5 is reading fluently at a 3rd grade level, we are going to start focusing more on writing. With Elliot (4), we will be working on reading skills and basic math, with Ophelia (2) we will be working on reading as well as language development, and Julian (1) is all about beginning reading and vocabulary development.

While it is helpful for the children to know what their goals are, it is even more helpful for me so that I can keep my mind aware of where each child is and what he/she is working on.

Then, I can design learning stations, create activities, and look for resources to support each of their goals. Click here to see my blog about learning goals that I set for my children.

Other Tips and Tricks

  • It will seem really hard at first, but it will get easier. The first day always seems impossible and like an incredible amount of work, but the longer you stick with it, the easier it will get. After about a week, they will get the “feel” for their new routine, and you will be surprised how well they do with it.
  • Find time to fill their tanks first. I love trying to find one on one time to play and cuddle with each child as soon after they wake up as possible. Once their tanks are full of love and cuddles, it’s much easier for them to play independently.
  • Create an independent environment. Make sure that there are games they can take out, toys they can play with, and activities they can be engaged in that don’t require your direct involvement or supervision.
  • Be consistent. Be really strict and consistent in the beginning, otherwise they will know that the routine is merely a suggestion instead of “just the way things are”. No matter how much you want to take a shower or get some free time, don’t turn on the TV no matter how much they beg! If you give in even once, it will set a prescience for future behavior.
  • Be patient, you’ll get some time for you…eventually. When the summer first comes, I initially say goodbye to any free time I ever had, but once we settle into our new routine, I start to find more pockets of time for myself.

When Things Aren’t Working

It’s inevitable that problems will arise even with the best laid plans.

One of the best lessons I ever learned as a teacher is that if you see a routine not working, don’t try to change it right away.

For example, one day in my 3rd grade classroom, I noticed that as we got lined up to go to lunch it was too chaotic, too noisy, and it was just not working. It was a gradual progression that all of a sudden came to a head, and I knew that something would have to be done.

Rather than talk to the students about the way they were lining up and how it was not okay in the moment, I bit my tongue and I waited. When they came back from lunch, I planted a seed by asking them how things went. Kids started sharing about how it was noisy, how it took a long time, and how we were late for lunch. I simply told them that we’d try to do better the next day.

The next day, I had a chart ready. I made the title “Lining Up” and then made two columns. One said, “Looks Like” and the other had the words “Doesn’t Look Like”. Then, long before we needed to line up for lunch, I had the kids act out what it would look like to do a really bad job of lining up. We wrote down on the chart paper all of the things they observed. Then, I had them act out what it should look like, and we wrote down on the chart what that looked like too.

When we lined up for lunch that day, it went so smoothly, I could hardly believe the difference. After lunch, we talked about how it went, and they were very pleased with themselves.

Every day for the next week, I reflected on the chart, and then after awhile, I didn’t need to anymore. Every once in awhile, they needed a reminder, but for the most part, things ran smoothly for the rest of the year.

We make a huge mistake when we simply bark orders at children to do better without really showing them what that looks like. If we can take the time to be very clear with our expectations and make sure that they understand what those expectations look like, then children will have a much easier time of doing what we expect them to do. This is why I think it’s very important to be clear about your summer routine and be consistent with your expectations.

How Our First Day Went

The biggest struggle we had was getting dressed. Whenever Ruby doesn’t have to go to school, she loves staying in her pajamas and will often want to stay in them all day. This is all well and good on the weekends, but during the week, I want to create a sense of formality and a sense of pride about our day that transcends pajamas. By getting dressed, brushing our teeth, and brushing our hair even if we won’t see anyone else, I feel that it instills a sense of pride and purpose. At any rate, it makes me feel better, and I like doing it, but try explaining this to a five year old! *Update: One year later, June 2016, Ruby and Elliot get dressed on their own without complaint every single morning. Yeah!

After that, the kids were really excited to all be together, and they loved the idea of “Homeschool Summer School”. They were very motivated to do their activities, and they worked very well independently. I think this was because this is so similar to what we do on a normal basis anyways. Because they are so used to independent play, they didn’t need much guidance from me. I would help them get started on new projects, scaffold them a bit, and when they were done, give them a reminder to clean up. It was a great day, and it’s going to be a great summer!

Elliot is Learning How to Write His Name

Elliot is Learning How to Write His Name


Ruby Coloring Her 1st Grade Writing Packet

Ruby Coloring Her 1st Grade Writing Packet


Ophelia Loves Learning Her ABCs using leapfrog abc games

Ophelia Loves Learning Her ABCs!


Julian Doing Tummy Time

Julian Doing Tummy Time


Elliot Reading a Star Wars Book

Elliot Reading a Star Wars Book


IMG_3394

Ruby Reading “A Book with No Pictures” by BJ Novak


Ophelia Loves Reading Dora Books

Ophelia Loves Reading Dora Books


Julian and I are Having a Conversation

Julian and I are Having a Conversation


Elliot Playing with His Mini Figures

Elliot Playing with His Mini Figures


Ruby Playing the Keyboard...and Feeling It!

Ruby Playing the Keyboard…and Feeling It!


Using Unifix Cubes During Imaginative Play

Elliot is Using Unifix Cubes During Imaginative Play


Ophelia is Mesmerized with Balls and Ramps

Ophelia is Mesmerized with Balls and Ramps


Making healthy oatmeal cookies with kids

Making Cookies!


Elliot Playing with Legos

Elliot Playing with Legos


Ruby Collecting Leaves

Ruby Collecting Leaves


Ruby, Elliot, and Ophelia Playing Together

Ruby, Elliot, and Ophelia Playing Together


Elliot is King of His Domain

Elliot is King of His Domain

In Conclusion

If you have children, summer is a fun time for them to take a break from school and enjoy playing outside in some much needed sunshine and fresh air. (Especially if you live in a place like Michigan where you are trapped inside by the weather for at least 9 months of the year.) But I believe that children need more than just undirected play all day. I feel like they thrive most when they are challenged and can see themselves grow. If you are fortunate enough to be able to stay home with your children over the summer, then I think that devoting a bit of time in the morning towards learning will be beneficial for everyone involved.

Happy learning, and here’s to a great summer!

Embracing Motherhood Setting and Achieving Learning Goals for Young Children

Examples of Learning Goals That I Use with My Children

I love setting learning goals with my children so that I can keep track of where they are and what I can do to help facilitate their growth to the next level. Teaching children in the zone of proximal development helps me to achieve this. By scaffolding their learning to where they are, not where they should be as deemed by grade level and age level expectations, I can help each child grow in a way that fits their specific needs.

Even though we are involved in public education, I still design a homeschool atmosphere for my younger ones who are home with me all the time and the older ones who are learning at home after school, on the weekends, during breaks, and over the summer. During the summer months, I am especially focused on their goals because it helps me to establish a successful and productive routine.

Examples of Learning Goals

How I set learning goals is just as important as what the learning goals are, but I thought it best to separate these topics into two separate posts. By seeing a brief description of each child along with their learning goals and how I can facilitate their learning, I hope to provide a clear picture of what it means to set learning goals.

These goals are always shifting and changing depending on their interests and moods, my interests and available time, the time of year, whether or not everyone is sick, how much sleep I got the night before, and so on. Sometimes I write them down, but usually I just tuck them away in the back of my mind. I don’t follow some strict daily schedule, but rather try to incorporate these learning goals into our daily routines and into the one on one time I spend with each of them throughout the day.

*Note: I wrote this article a year ago, and am finally publishing it now, so my current learning goals are different.

1. Julian (11 Months)

Julian is the happiest little baby you’ll ever meet. He gets to have his mom at home all the time and breastfeeds on demand. After he gets lots and lots of love and cuddles from me, he loves to crawl around like crazy and explore his world. He is very fascinated by whatever his siblings are doing, and he loves chasing around our cat! He also loves watching Your Baby Can Read videos (which sadly aren’t available anymore so we are currently making our own videos) and cuddling up on my lap to read interactive books.

Julian’s Learning Goals

  • Learn about his environment
  • Crawl safely
  • Go up and down the stairs
  • Walk
  • Babble and talk
  • Learn how to make different sounds
  • Learn about the names of things that he interacts with in his environment
  • Say words
  • Turn the pages in a book
  • Interact with books
  • Grasp objects
  • Play with toys
  • Interact with others
  • Play independently

What I Can Do to Facilitate Julian’s Learning Goals

  • Babyproof the house so he can explore freely
  • Sit behind him as he learns about the stairs
  • Hold his hands to help him walk
  • Sit him on my lap and let him explore my mouth as I make exaggerated sounds
  • Have conversations with him where I speak, then pause waiting for him to speak, and so on
  • Say certain words over and over (His favorite words are clap, mouth, and daddy. I’ll say, “Clap. Clap. Can you clap your hands? Clap your hands like mommy. Good clapping Julian!” Or I’ll say, “Mouth. Mouth. Can you open your mouth? Mouth. I can open my mouth.”)
  • Talk to him about his environment, whatever we’re doing, and tell him the names of things (Check out my blog about oral language development for more tips and tricks for developing oral language.)
  • Repeat what he says
  • Watch Your Baby Can Read videos WITH him and talk to him about what is happening, use these words often when not watching the videos (Here’s a video we made to teach our children vocabulary.)
  • Sit him on my lap and read cloth books, board books, and any other kind of interactive book that he can touch and feel (Check out my blogs: How to Engage Your Baby with Reading and Best Books for Babies)
  • Help him to turn the pages of a book
  • Set up baskets of toys that he likes and can explore by himself
  • Set up furniture so it is easy for him to pull himself up to stand
  • Show him how certain toys work and play with him

2. Ophelia (2, Halfway to 3)

Ophelia needs to have her tank filled with lots of cuddles and love, but after this happens, she’s ready to be independent…extremely independent. She loves language like crazy and is already reading quite well. When she finds something that she likes to do, she will do it over and over and over again. She also loves putting things into things (like marbles into a metal tin), sorting objects, and stacking things.

Ophelia’s Learning Goals

  • Read words she knows automatically
  • Read words in sentences
  • Read words in books
  • Picture read books
  • Read flashcards independently
  • Review letter names and sounds
  • Sound out words
  • Learn new vocabulary words from her environment
  • Learn new vocabulary words that are abstract (in books, etc.)
  • Sing favorite songs and learn new songs
  • Expand her imaginative play
  • Learn Spanish words and phrases (and maybe other languages)
  • Count to 20, count higher
  • Demonstrate one to one counting principle
  • Say the names and descriptors of shapes (number of sides, etc.)
  • Do puzzles independently
  • Continue stacking and sorting
  • Color on paper with multiple colors

What I Can Do to Facilitate Ophelia’s Learning Goals

  • Make flashcard rings of words and phrases she knows
  • Make flashcard rings of words and phrases that she is learning
  • Set out her favorite books in easy to reach baskets
  • Read books with her, model picture reading, point to words as I’m reading, read simple level 1 books and point to words that she can read on her own, give wait time (You might like this blog: How Children Really Learn to Read or this one too: How to Raise Children who WANT to read.)
  • Make mini-books with her favorite words and phrases
  • Make favorite things books with lots of pictures
  • Talk to her about her world as we play together
  • Sing songs together, teach her new songs that have hand motions
  • Model imaginative play, play with her
  • Find some intro to Spanish videos to watch
  • Make counting books, practice counting objects and pointing to them
  • Make shape books with descriptors
  • Set up an independent puzzle station
  • Set up stacking cups, add some small objects like golf balls that she can put into cups
  • Color together

3. Elliot (4, Almost 5)

Elliot marches to the beat of his own drum, literally. He absolutely loves rhythm, music, dancing, and any type of music. He is very empathetic with a big heart and desperately needs his daily dose of cuddles. He has an incredible imagination and loves making toy figures come to life during imaginative play. He also loves anything that has to do with building like Legos, blocks, and especially Minecraft.

Elliot’s Learning Goals

  • Play the keyboard
  • Play the drums
  • Play on the guitar
  • Dance to music
  • Learn how to dribble a soccer ball, and shoot a basket
  • Play different games that involve lots of running and motion independently
  • Build elaborate structures with a variety of materials
  • Pick out books that he would like to read together
  • Read his favorite things books independently (picture reading, basic words)
  • Read words that he knows when we read together
  • Read simple 3 and 4 letter word flashcards
  • Read all Your Baby Can Read words
  • Read all Dolch words
  • Read simple sentences
  • Draw pictures of his choosing
  • Learn about science topics he’s interested in: dinosaurs, weather, rocks and minerals, etc.
  • Do science experiments
  • Play imagination games with elaborate and complex themes
  • Play independently with activities of his choosing for extended periods of time
  • Learn about basic math functions: Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division as well as learn a variety of math vocabulary
  • Memorize basic math facts
  • Count as high as he can
  • Count by 2s, 5s, 10s, 20s, and 100s

What I Can Do to Facilitate Elliot’s Learning Goals

  • Teach him how to play simple songs on the keyboard
  • Teach him how to read music using a color coding system
  • Teach him how to play drum beats using both hands and a foot for the bass drum
  • Teach him how to make different guitar sounds
  • Set up music playlists that he likes to dance to, have dance parties
  • Do yoga, play basketball, play soccer, fly a kite, play tag, run races…anything to help him move
  • Show him how to use different building materials (Big Legos, small Legos, wooden blocks, small colored blocks, K’nex, etc.) to make new and elaborate structures
  • Make sure his favorite books are accessible in our book baskets
  • Set aside time to cuddle up and read his favorite books
  • Work on his favorite things book
  • Make flashcards with his favorite characters and add little phrases for each one that he can read
  • Cut up flashcards with pictures on one side and 3-4 letter words on the other, practice reading, play little games like flipping them over, putting them on my head, etc. (or something like this)
  • Quiz him on Your Baby Can Read words
  • Practice Dolch word flashcards
  • When reading together, pause and let him read the words he knows
  • Read Basher books together and make the characters talk to him
  • Encourage him to draw pictures using a variety of colors, draw together, print out and color his favorite things together
  • Play imagination games with him, introduce new problems and solutions, new characters, new settings, use props, etc.
  • Play board games together, let him make up whatever rules he wants
  • Do science experiments together, start with vinegar and baking soda ones and move on to others, find some online, Usborne Science Experiments book
  • Play Starfall math during breakfast time, let him choose whatever he wants to do and talk to him about what he is doing (Here’s a video of us doing Starfall Math together.)
  • Quiz him with math flashcards
  • Find times to count throughout the day

Ruby (Just Turned 6)

Like Ophelia, Ruby also started reading at a very young age, and now in 1st grade, she is reading at a 3rd grade level. Being able to read really helps her to do many different independent projects. She likes getting really deep into a certain show (right now it’s Digimon) and then printing out pictures, writing stories, and making drawings with that theme. She is very creative and crafty and she is always working on drawing, art projects, and a variety of crafts. She is also really fascinated by science. My mom talked to her about biology from a young age, and I have fed her curiosity ever since.

Ruby’s Learning Goals

  • Find and read beginning chapter books on her own
  • Comprehend longer texts
  • Write complete sentences
  • Write a paragraph
  • Make mini books
  • Make Digimon books
  • Create a variety of craft projects
  • Color using a variety of mediums and styles
  • Free draw using drawing templates
  • Complete needlepoint projects
  • Learn about meiosis and mitosis
  • Learn about biology, chemistry, and any science topic she is interested in

What I Can Do to Facilitate Ruby’s Learning Goals

  • Take her to the library and show her how to pick out beginning chapter books
  • Encourage independent reading during “rest time”
  • Read chapter books together and talk about the story
  • Sit with her while she’s writing to encourage her to write more about a single topic
  • Make more blank mini books and write stories together
  • Make Digimon favorite things books together
  • Find drawing videos and drawing templates for Digimon characters and draw with her
  • Teach her how to free draw by erasing and adding more
  • Sit with her while she does needlepoint so that she doesn’t get frustrated and give up
  • Make a new YouTube Channel for the science topics she wants to learn about
  • Make mini-books about the science topics she is interested in, print out pictures and leave room for her to write about what she is learning

In Conclusion

I know that children are children and should have the freedom to explore nature, use their imaginations, be wild and free, and to even yes…get bored. But their brains are growing at a rapid rate (especially until the age of 3), and by the time they enter school, the pathways of their brains are established and ready to be specialized. By constantly and consistently nurturing them with new learning opportunities from a young age that match their strengths, interests, and developmental levels, we can give them the best chance to reach their fullest potential in life.

And let me make it very clear that I am not suggesting learning goals as a way to make our children academically superior (although they probably will be), I am advocating for them because children actually LOVE to be challenged, they love to learn, and they love to be engaged, especially when it means that they get to spend more time with their favorite person in the world…you!

Embracing Motherhood How to Make an Outdoor Teepee

How to Make an Outdoor Teepee

Making an outdoor teepee is a fun and easy project that will provide a natural play area for your children. Who needs expensive plastic playground equipment when there’s old free tree branches lying around anyways?

There are lots of different variations and ways to embellish your teepee once you get the frame up…anything from being completely covered with bark to having living walls with something like beans or flowering vines!

Ruby and Elliot Playing in the Teepee

Ruby and Elliot Playing in the Teepee

Materials

  • Long Sticks: I drove around in my husband’s pick up truck and stopped along the side of the road whenever I found some really good long branches. Look for a few that have like a “v” at the top so that they can interlock and form the base when you get started.
  • Shovel: You want one with a point that you can really step on.
  • Gardening Gloves: These are optional, but be warned, you will end up with dirt under your fingernails!

Directions

  1. Make a Circle: Stand in the center of where you want your teepee and using a small to medium stick, draw a circle around yourself. Mark the edges of the circle by scoring it with your shovel.
  2. Plan Your Opening: Consider the position of the sun (if you want to have shade or not) and the location in relation to the rest of your yard. I wanted my opening to face the center of the yard so that I could always see who was inside, even though this meant that it would be really sunny inside all the time.
  3. Dig Holes: You’ll want to start with three holes for the anchor sticks. Dig a circle (much bigger than your stick…about 8-10 inches in diameter) and take out the piece of sod intact. Continue to dig down about another shovel’s depth. Make sure you leave a lot of loose soil at the bottom.
  4. Anchor Sticks: You might need some help to steady the three anchor sticks as you place them in at the same time. If you can find at least one stick that has a “v” at the top, it will really help to lock the sticks together at the top. Position the sticks in the ground, and lean them into each other until they are steady.
  5. Bury the Sticks: Fill in around the stick with all of the loose dirt that was taken out, and then place the piece of sod back on top. Stamp it down with your feet.
  6. Fill in with Sticks: I buried about eight more sticks, and then I just started leaning the rest of the sticks against other sticks. My little ones liked weaving in and out of the stick openings, so I left some spots more open than others.
  7. Cover: You can choose to leave the sides somewhat open, continue layering with sticks until it is filled in more, or find some other material such as pine needle branches or bark to fill it in completely. You might even want to grow something like beans or morning glories along the sticks to create some living walls.

In Conclusion

I probably had as much fun building this teepee as the kids have had playing in it. Once the weather starts to get nice, my husband and I like having outdoor projects to work on. It’s a fun way to be outside, get a bit of physical activity, and accomplish something! We are currently working on making some big dirt hills covered with sod, stepping stumps, obstacle course, and preparing our garden as we try our best to transform our 1 acre of regulated city land into as natural and fun of an environment as we can. (Here’s a little video of our backyard projects.) It’s going to be a fun summer!

Our Teepee One Year Later

Our Teepee One Year Later

Embracing Motherhood How to Make a Stock Tank Pool

How to Make a Stock Tank Pool

What’s the one thing that always feels good on a hot summer’s day? Water. Running through a sprinkler, splashing in a kiddie pool, going down a slip and slide, and floating in a pool are all ways to make the summer heat mesh nicely with your body.

Swimming in Our Stock Tank Pool (2017)

Swimming in Our Stock Tank Pool (2017)

With five young kids seven and under, we don’t really like to go anywhere, and this stock tank pool has been an amazing cost effective addition to our yard for both us and our kids. When the temperature is above 70º F (we’ll even settle for 60º F on an early spring thaw), our kids will play in it for hours every single day. This is our third summer using it, and has held up beautifully.

Another early spring swim on a 60 degree day!

Swimming in our stock tank pool in mid April! Brrrr…

They love sitting in their round doughnuts bouncing up and down, riding around on pool noodles, jumping off from the ladder, and just splashing around. My husband and I like to find a way to float and relax. When we close our eyes and feel our bodies bob around in the water, we can almost envision that we’re floating on the shores of some tropical island…until Elliot does a cannonball that is!

With our stock tank pool, homemade sandbox, garden, backyard teepee, stepping stumps, and homemade obstacle course, we are content to just stay home all summer long! *Video note: We don’t typically run the filter while kids are swimming in it. The suction is incredibly strong and can be quite shocking if you accidentally press your butt against it! 🙂

When we started researching pools last summer, I was almost tempted to buy a 12 foot Intex pool, but after reading reviews about patching pinholes and knowing that my kids like to play rough (which it couldn’t sustain), I didn’t think it sounded like a good idea.

Growing up, my Aunt Sue always had a round stock tank pool that she placed on a deck in her backyard. She always kept the water crystal clear with a filter and had it set up on a little deck. It was beautiful! We had an oval shaped horse trough pool growing up, but we never really kept it clean, and it turned into a holding tank for the tadpoles and turtles that we would catch in our nearby lake. It was still really fun though!

I scoured the Internet for some good directions for making a stock tank pool and could only find really cute pictures (that often showed crystal clear water with no filter…not possible!) without many good directions, so I hope that in this post, I can be a little more specific. Needless to say, we learned how to do everything wrong before we learned how to do everything right, so hopefully, if you’re looking to make your own stock tank pool, you can avoid some of the pitfalls we had.

Summer fun in our stock tank pool

Summer fun in our stock tank pool

Materials

  • 10 Foot (diameter) Round Galvanized Steel Stock Tank Pool: An 8 foot would work too. They are typically 2 feet high – which is pretty much shorter than anyone who is really good at walking, so it’s safe for toddlers! If you want to buy something online, Amazon has these plastic 8 foots, and the hole saw kits I talk about later work on plastic as well. Stockyards Ranch Supply in Colorado also has them, and you can call for a delivery quote.
  • Sand Filter Pump: You don’t have to have a pump if you’re okay with just emptying the pool when it gets dirty or using some chlorine or bromine tablets, but I highly recommend buying one for the long haul. It’s great for filtering out algae and debris, has a 24-hour timer with preset cycles for automatic operation, is low maintenance (you only need to empty out the sand every 5 years), and has a six-function control valve that lets you filter, backwash, rinse, recirculate, drain, and close the system. We bought the filter for a 16″ diameter pool. It filters 2,450 gallons per hour, and it does a very nice job, but we still need to add shock treatment or drain it completely several times over the summer. They also offer a 12″ filter that cycles through 1,600 gallons an hour and a 10″ filter that cycles through 1,050 gallons an hour. *FYI: a 10″ stock tank pool holds 1,100 gallons.
  • Pool Filter SandWe just used some sand from our sandbox, but this type of sand that I linked to was recommended by our pool filter system manual.
  • *Additional Filter Systems:
    • Saltwater System: It pretty much makes its own “natural” chlorine. You could use this in addition to the sand filter for optimum performance.
    • Cartridge Filter Pump: If you’re looking for the cheapest option, you could get this cartridge filter pump, but you’d have to replace the filters every two weeks.
    • Floating Dispenser and Bromine Tablets or Chlorine Tablets (bromine is safer than chlorine…slightly).
    • Pool Water Shock: Kills bacteria and algae in one big “shock” of chlorine.
    • Because of the dangers of chlorine, we try our best to avoid it. We’d prefer not to use any of these methods, but we have used the pool shock a time or two when things got bad (mainly because we didn’t use our pool filter properly). It did a fine job of killing the algae, and we just avoided the pool until it all evaporated, 24-48 hours. 
  • Drill: You’ll need to drill two holes into the pool if you’re going to attach a filter. As convenient as a cordless drill can be, we have had much more success with drilling projects that need a lot of power to use a corded drill. You’ll also need a hole saw kit to attach to your drill.
  • Hose Conversion Adapter KitWe got some metal hardware from the store, but the plastic ones I linked to here should work fine as well. Basically, you just need something to attach the pool filter to the hole you’ll make in the pool.
    For attaching the pool filter tubes to the hole in the pool.

    For attaching the pool filter tubes to the hole in the pool.

    We cut our hole too small, so we needed some extra pieces!

    We initially cut our hole too small, so we needed some extra pieces!

  • Plumber’s PuttyThis stuff is waterproof and great for plugging up all leaks! If I could do it again though, I think this epoxy would’ve worked better.
  • *18″ Pool: If you’re looking for something bigger that is super easy to set up and comes with EVERYTHING you’ll need, you might want to check this out. 🙂

Directions

  1. Get the pool to your house! You can order a stock tank pool online and they will deliver it, or you can purchase it from a store and for a fee they can probably deliver it too. My husband knew someone who had an open trailer. They went to the store, picked it up, strapped it down, and drove it to our house.
  2. Prepare the pool location. You want a place that is flat and level that isn’t close to too many trees that will annoy you with their random leaves cluttering your pool. When we made our sandbox, we put an extra load where we wanted our pool, and it made an excellent base. (You don’t have to do this, it’s just a nice touch.)

    laying down the stock tank pool

    Getting the Stock Tank Pool Home

  3. Set up the pool filter. This seems a lot more complicated than it really is, especially after you watch the instruction video, but bear with it, it’s not that bad. Basically, you’ll need to put it together and fill it with sand. You can put it on a base, but we never did and it worked just fine.

    Pool Filter for the Stock Tank Pool

    Pool Filter for the Stock Tank Pool

  4. Measure the pool filter tubes. We made the mistake of measuring the interior diameter rather than the exterior diameter of our tubes and since the drill bit needs to connect with the center, once you make a hole too small, you can’t make it bigger. This made the entire process of connecting the tubes turn into a HUGE ordeal for us (and is why you’ll notice lots of adhesive covered with cloths over our tubes). We had to get extender pieces and everything leaked in every possible place, but we eventually got it all sealed up and running great. So basically, measure twice and cut once!
  5. Cut two holes in the stock tank pool for the filter tubes. You’ll want to position the holes about 2-3 feet apart from each other in about the middle of the top half of the pool walls. Use a drill and a metal drill bit to cut the holes. Some protective eyewear is probably a good idea. 🙂
  6. Attach the hardware into the holes made in the stock tank pool. Get as snug of a fit as you can, and then seal everything up with epoxy or plumber’s putty. You might even want to put some plumber’s tape around the threads.
  7. Attach the pool filter tubes. Once again, get everything to fit as tight as you can then seal everything with plumber’s putty or epoxy. Don’t worry, you’ll be able to detach the tubes at the filter to drain the pool. (Plus there’s a little screw thing near the bottom of the pool that you can take out to drain the pool too.)

    Stock Tank Pool

    Stock Tank Pool

  8. Fill with water. Fill the water just above the holes to make sure they are not leaking. If they are, drain the water a bit and seal any holes. When we did this, we just used whatever sealers we could find in our house. It made a big mess, but it did the job!

Stock Tank Pool Maintenance

  1. Keep the junk out. We made sure to establish some rules with the kids about not putting sand or other debris into the pool and put a little foot rinsing bucket in front of the ladder. I also like using a pool skimmer about once a week or so to fish out any stray floaties. But seriously, we don’t get too strict here because it’s no fun if you start getting paranoid about every speck of dirt that might get in.
  2. Run the filter. Pay close attention to the owner’s manual for your filter and run all scheduled maintenance. We did a poor job of this the first year we had our pool, and as a result, the tubes filled up with green algae as did the filter, and it became very hard to keep clean. I highly recommend watching the instruction DVD that comes with your filter (if you choose to use one…you really don’t have to). It has a 24 hour timer attached, so it’s easy enough to schedule about an hour every day for the filter and rinse. Just don’t forget the backwash and rinse…very important!
  3. Drain it. After the first fill up during the first year of having our pool, it stayed pretty clean and clear for about 6-8 weeks. Then, it started to get a little green looking, and then like the next day we couldn’t see the bottom of the pool! When this happens, all of the shock treatment in the world won’t make a difference, and it’s better to just drain it. To drain the pool, unscrew the tubes from the filter and pull the plug out from the bottom. It will make the ground nice and swampy for the afternoon, but the water will all drain away eventually.

    Draining the Stock Tank Pool

    Draining the Stock Tank Pool

  4. Power wash it. Having a good power washer like this is useful around the house for so many reasons, but for cleaning out a dirty pool, it’s simply the best! Unless you want to be super meticulous, you won’t get every little speck, but it will dislodge most of the gunk, and the rest you can get with elbow grease.

    Power Washing the Stock Tank Pool

    Power Washing the Stock Tank Pool

  5. Scrub it. I like using this natural cleaner called Sol-U-Mel (it’s AMAZING and cleans EVERYTHING…it’s like Goof Off without the toxins). Spray, scrub, spray, scrub, spray, scrub…

    Scrubbing the Stock Tank Pool

    Scrubbing the Stock Tank Pool

  6. All clean! Now that the pool is nice and clean, make sure the pool filter is free from debris, and fill it up again! Check for leaks as it’s filling, and if you notice anything, a little plumber’s putty should do the trick.

    Our Stock Tank Pool is Nice and Clean

    Our Stock Tank Pool is Nice and Clean

Additional Pool Items

  • Pool LadderThis is the one we got, and it’s quite a bit taller than our pool, but our kids love it!
  • Solar CoverThis works great to keep debris out of the pool and to warm the water. If you get this, I don’t think you need a pool cover.
  • Pool SkimmerThis is great for getting out grass clippings, small leaves, and any other little floaters.
  • Life Jackets: These life jackets are our favorites for the little ones (30-50 lbs) and are great for teaching kids the mechanics of swimming.
  • Swimming Diapers: As much as I love to have my kids run around naked in the summer, I don’t like them peeing and pooping in our pool!
  • Flotation Devices: This pool isn’t that big enough hold anything too big, but our kids have enjoyed some basic round tubes. We have also enjoyed getting some fancy full body floating devices for a really tropical experience!
  • Pool NoodlesThe kids have enjoyed playing with these in the pool more than anything! Scott and I like tucking one under our neck and one under our ankles and floating like we’re in the middle of the crystal clear waters of some tropical resort!
  • Diving Rings and Sticks: Once kids can hold their breath underwater, these diving rings and sticks (with goggles) make for a lot of fun!
  • Foot Rinsing BucketWe like putting a large rectangular bucket in front of the ladder so that the kids will rinse their feet before going in.

In Conclusion

If you want something sturdy and fun that will allow you to enjoy hours and hours of backyard fun in the summer sun, I highly recommend getting a stock tank pool set up. If we had gone with one of the cheap Intex pools of a similar size, we would constantly have to nag the kids to be gentle and then it would probably still pop a hole at some point anyways. This has stood up VERY well to lots of roughhousing, and I’m hoping that it will last for years to come!

Happy swimming!

My Favorite Books for Babies

Best Books for Babies

These are the books we have loved reading with our four children when they were babies.