Monday, 29 June 2015

Board Games - Family Rules

Board games are a great way to learn some valuable life lessons, like losing with good grace. This doesn't come easily to most people, so plenty of practice is needed! In order to make sure that we have fun, we have a few family rules which help to encourage us all to treat each other well.

The Rules:

1) Mummy usually wins. It is best if you accept this before you start, especially if the game is Settlers of Catan.

2) We won't let you win. The children get to learn how to lose graciously the hard way (SLOWLY learn!). They also are utterly thrilled when they do beat us. The older boys still talk about how they beat me at Settlers over a year ago.

3) You will be fined for making a fuss. A card will be taken at random, or a fine will be issued, or you have to miss a turn.

4) If you start the game, you should finish it (i.e. you can't leave because you are losing).

5) The winner is congratulated with a well done from everyone. Whoever wins is also supposed to be gracious in victory.

6) The winner tidies up. I'm not sure when this began, but this is happily accepted by everyone.

It's not perfect, but clear expectations help us to have more fun together, and to enjoy being competitive while still being kind to one another.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Peach Family Top 10 Board Games

Board games were a part of my childhood that I have been keen to pass on to my own children, and not just because you can't play Settlers of Catan unless you have 3 players. They are a great way to spend time together, to have fun together, to learn how to compete well, and to lose well- although my siblings would say that losing well was something that didn't come naturally to me!

For me, a good game will involve a mixture of both chance and strategy- enough chance to level things out among unevenly matched players, and enough strategy to make it fun to play.

I've made a list of my top ten games. It could easily have been my top fifteen, but I've been ruthless.

1) Settlers of Catan

This is my favourite.  It is a building and expansion game, which requires some collaboration, but with plenty of opportunities for being competitive. Even when it isn't your turn, there is still plenty to do, so it is lots of fun to play. There are various expansions which add extra rules. Cities and Knights is the one I like best, but the children generally prefer the Seafarers expansion as they enjoy the different set ups you can make. Probably for 7+, or 6 at a push for child with good concentration.

2) Carcasonne

Another building game, but using tiles to make up a board as you go. The basic rules are easy to follow, but you can get better at it the more you play and the more you learn good tactics. A 5 year old can probably play with help.

3) Romans

You move around the board fighting for garrisons in order to become Caesar, answering questions about Ancient Rome on the way. The questions are multiple choice, and you can choose easier or harder ones, so even young players can enjoy it. Probably 7+.

4) Monopoly Deal

This is a card game based on the big game, but much quicker to play (about 15 minutes a round). I slightly prefer it to Monopoly. It is a good choice for taking on holiday. The rules seem a bit confusing at first, but it's actually fairly easy to play. 6+ for a competent reader.

5) Yahtzee 

A classic dice game, which also doesn't take too long for a round. It's good for practising maths too.  5+ with a bit of help.

6) Mexican Train

This is a new addition to our collection, but has been popular. It is basically elaborate dominoes. You can play a long game, a short game, or keep score over a number of days. There are plenty of opportunities for using good strategy, but my 3 year old was able to play on her own with only a little help (though not to win!). 3+.

7) Cluedo

Another classic game, and one which is great for encouraging logical thought. Once again, this is a game that can be played at a simple level, but which you can do much better at as your deductive skills increase. Probably 7+.

8) Articulate 

This is our game of choice to play with adults, usually at a Bible study group social. It isn't too intimidating if you make it clear that you can join a team in a merely guessing capacity. It gets people chatting and relaxing together, and bonding over a shared ignorance of famous people and geography. I haven't actually played this competitively with our children yet, though I have tried it out with my older two (they loved it). It says 12+ on the box (seems right to me).
9) Pairs
A simple memory game. One of the few games for very young children that everyone is happy to play! The children usually beat me at this. 2+.

10) Uno
A simple card game which is also good for all ages. Anyone who can hold and manage their cards can play. Probably a mature 3+ (perhaps with somewhere to spread their cards out).

Note- there is not a single "educational" game on my list. The children have enjoyed them, but I would generally prefer to eat my own arm rather than to play them. They usually involve no strategy whatsoever, and take an age to play (or it feels like it!). So we play real games together, and have fun while incidentally learning stuff like arithmetic or logic, or even how to lose with reasonable grace.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Archaeology Club

We are always pleased when we find an activity that one of our children particularly enjoys, and my eldest has recently joined an archaeology club. He has had a really good time, and has come out of each session filled with enthusiasm.

They meet on Saturday mornings once a month. The first session he attended was about learning about how archaeologists find out about what people eat, and involved looking for and identifying seeds and fish bones in play dough. The next was about washing at various stages in history, and he came home with Roman bath oil and a Medieval bath bag that he'd made.

Today they met at the Thames foreshore and looked for anything of interest that had been washed up. My son came home with a bag full of bits of pottery and animal bones.

This was his haul:

According to my eldest, this is probably Victorian:

This is probably Tudor:

Probably Medieval:

According to my son, this was the best session yet!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Sacrifice or Success?

Michelle Obama made a much reported speech to a girls' school in London yesterday. Of course, much of what she said was inspirational. It is good to study hard. It is vital that girls have access to education. The fact that those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds can flourish as they receive the benefits of education is a wonderful truth.

However, the speech went further to suggest other ideas, ideas that are not unique to Michelle Obama. I have heard them many times on the radio, or espoused in newspaper columns, or simply assumed to be true in conversation. The belief is that, if you have access to education and study hard enough, and are ambitious enough, then you can achieve great things. Generally, achieving these great things means reaching some high position in society, holding an influential post, or making a lot of money. These are seen as positions to aim for both for personal fulfilment, and to be of benefit to society (even if just by "contributing to the economy"). Aspiration and ambition are highly rated. Education is seen as the means by which these ambitions can be achieved.
There are several problems with this view of the world, and of education.
Firstly, it is simply not true that ANY child who pursues education wholeheartedly can achieve whatever they want. They may be limited by opportunity, by ability or by sickness. Some may work hard, but miss the grades they hoped for and have to make some different choices. Ill health of many kinds can interrupt the plans that we make. Nobody plans to suffer from depression, or to have to deal with chronic pain. Some may find that marriage and children impacts their choices more than they expected. Some may find that never marrying, or being unable to have children are difficult circumstances that they never imagined having to face.
Secondly, this is a view which inherently places much greater value on those who meet these criteria, who achieve in impressive spheres such as politics or science. It is a view of the world which doesn't have room for those who are restricted to more ordinary work, for whatever reason. There certainly isn't much room either for those women who only use their education and their skills to teach and train their children in the home, but don't go out to work.
Finally, I think it is both too high and too low a view of education; too low because I think education is much more than a route to success, but at its best is the means by which we can grow in wisdom as we learn more about the world that God has made. (See Education- More that Exams) 
It is also too high a view of education. Even if every child had access to education, this alone would not deal with all sickness and difficulty and poverty, whether for the individual or for society as a whole. Of course, education can lead to the alleviation of disease and hardship of all kinds, but while there are people there will be sickness and conflict and harm and hurt. Indeed, at times education can exacerbate these things! There have been many educated and brutal leaders, and many ordinary people who have used their learning to accomplish evil. Even on the smallest scale, it is easy for an educated person to use their learning to snub someone else for not knowing something they think they should, or for incorrectly placing an apostrophe. Only in the Cross of Jesus is their healing for the evil in our hearts. Only in a renewed creation can we find hope for an end to sickness and suffering and selfishness.
So, what ambitions should we, as Christian parents, have for our children? What will we pray for them? It is the aspirations we have for our children that show what we really value. If we want them, more than anything, to get the top grades or impressive careers or lucrative jobs or to own their own homes - we reveal our own hearts and our own idols. We think that these things, rather than the good news of Jesus, meet the deepest needs of our children.
Of course, wealth and material security can bring some happiness. Making advances in science or practicing medicine or writing a brilliant book can do good in the world. However, none of these things compare to the work of Jesus on the cross- an act of apparent weakness that brought in a kingdom that will last forever; an act of weakness that transforms the hearts of wicked men; an act of weakness that has led to education and hospitals and social reform as God's people have followed their Saviour.
I need to guard my heart. I need my ambition and aspiration, and, most of all, my prayer, for my children to be that they will be humble followers of Jesus. Sacrifice and service need to be the characteristics that I rejoice in. If my children use their gifts to serve God and to help others, if they work for the Lord and not for men, if they lose everything for the sake of Christ, I want to rejoice that they have chosen the better way. I want to delight that they have chosen lasting treasure. I don't find this easy. I am too frequently dissatisfied with my place in the world, and hoping for something more impressive for my children. My prayer is that my heart will be changed more by my Saviour, and that my children will put their hope in him.
Another influential woman has been recognised this week. Elisabeth Elliot was also made famous by her husband- a husband so consumed with a love for Christ that he was prepared to risk his life, then lose his life, for the sake of bringing the gospel to those who had never heard of Jesus.

She has written, many books, but one that I have found particularly striking is These Strange Ashes. In it she writes about her first year as a missionary, a year filled with smaller and greater frustrations as she learned to trust the Lord more and more. At the end of her year, she has the beginnings of some language work completed. Slow study means that she has written down the alphabet for the language she was studying. Then she discovers that all her work is lost as a suitcase is stolen. The work is lost, there are no copies. In worldly terms, all that she has accomplished is fruitless. Her efforts have been wasted. She looks back, and says,
 "To be a follower of the Crucified means, sooner or later, a personal encounter with the Cross. And the Cross always entails loss. The great symbol of Christianity means sacrifice and no one who calls himself a Christian can evade that stark fact."
I pray that sacrifice, not success, will be at the centre of what we long for for ourselves, and for our children.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Silhouettes - An Art Project

Today we decided to try a new idea from our Drawing Faces book.

First we set up by shining a desk lamp at a wall with a piece of paper taped to it. Then one child sat in front of the piece of paper so that the shadow of their face fell onto the paper. We found that the lamp needed to be quite a distance away to get the shadow the right size.

This child had to sit very still while another drew round the outline of their shadow.

Then the children cut out the outline of the shadows they had drawn.

We had mixed success with this particular project. It turns out that it is quite hard to sit still enough. The younger two also struggled to remember that they shouldn't turn their head to see what was going on when they were having their shadow drawn around!

My eldest produced the best outline, unsurprisingly:

They all sort of worked, though:

The results in age order of artist, left to right.

Although a little tricky, it was fun - but probably easier for older children.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Education - More Than Exams

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis introduces us to the wonderful character of Eustace. Early on we discover that Eustace has a little book in which he records his marks:

 "He always had this notebook with him and kept a record of his marks in it, for though he didn't care much about any subject for its own sake, he cared a great deal about marks, and would even go to people and say, 'I got so much. What did you get?'"

What is so unattractive about Eustace is that he is more interested in comparing his scores to others than in what he is actually learning.

Sometimes it feels as though our education system, exam driven as it is, fosters this kind of attitude. The GCSE grades you achieve are more important than the books you have read. Memorizing the contents of the syllabus is the goal of your studies, rather than having a broad understanding of your subject. Furthermore, it is not only that grades are more important than knowledge, but that being better than everyone else is something to aspire to. I certainly feel that, though on paper I have a good education, the main skill I came out with is an ability to pass exams.
Surely a Christian view of education has to be different. As Christians, we aspire to knowledge- broad and deep- because we want to know more about the world made by our God, and because we want to see more of how God has worked throughout history. Surely we want to learn, not so that we can demonstrate that we are better than others, but so that we are better equipped to serve others.
This is what we want to cultivate in our children: a desire to study a subject, or to master as skill for its own sake, rather than in order to be the best, or to meet some exam criteria. I want them to know how to punctuate well so that they can write clearly and communicate effectively, not so that can reach a certain level in a SAT paper. I hope that studying science will not just lead to good grades and to a good career, but to a greater wonder at the God who made the world. I encourage them to read widely to enrich their understanding and fill their minds with great stories, not so that they get through a list of impressive books.
I have to work hard at doing this. Yes, my children will not be sitting exams any time soon. They also don't have many opportunities to compare their abilities to others of exactly the same age- their friends are a variety of ages, and they are more likely to talk about Minecraft than about how good they are at maths. However, our hearts are easily prone to the same weaknesses, even if we are not in the school environment. I can be more concerned about getting to the end of my curriculum before summer than about fostering a love of learning in my children. I can care more about ticking off my list than about taking time to really enjoy what we are talking about. It takes growth in maturity of faith, as well as in skill, for a child to learn how to serve, and how to be humble even when they are gifted in a particular area.
However, as home educators, we can prayerfully try to set the culture in our home. We can model an interest in the world, and an attitude of service (and apologise when we fail to do so!). 
We can set their work at an appropriate level. If it is too hard, it can be frustrating or tedious, and rob a child of any pleasure that they might have in studying that subject. If it is too easy, this can lead to complacency or boredom, or even pride. It doesn't matter if a child is "ahead" or "behind"- they probably won't even know that this is the case. Either way, they can be encouraged to work hard in order to please God, and not to meet some external measure.
One huge privilege we have as home educating parents is the freedom to be flexible in how we spend our time. If a child is finding maths easy and they want to go at double speed for a bit, we are free to allow them to do so. If we are having a good conversation about the Cuban Missile Crisis, we can extend our history session. Alternatively, if a child does not want to work hard (and not because I have over-estimated what is a reasonable task for them), then I can let them have the natural consequence of that- the task takes all day.

Our time together as a family also provides many opportunities for the children to serve each other. Sometimes the older boys read to the younger children. Often one of them will read out maths questions for my 6 year old, whose reading has been put on hold since he has significant speech problems. They will draw pictures for their little sister to colour, or help her strip her bed when it is bedroom cleaning day.

My eldest reading to his sister.
The goals we have for our children's education are big aims, big aims achieved a little at a time. Often I lose sight of what we are trying to do, many times I fail, but we trust that a deep understanding of the world that God has made is something worth working towards for our children.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Time for Science - Making a Sundial

Today the children are learning about how the earth rotates and how this relates to time, so we built a simple sundial in the garden.

A Simple Sundial

Easy to do- we just placed a cricket stump in the ground, then marked where the shadow fell on the ground at 9am.

9 am

Next we set a timer to go off just before 10am.

When the timer beeped, we all raced outside and marked the next hour with a new stick.

11 am

Then anyone who wanted to climbed onto the playhouse roof and slid off before returning to books (this is optional).

We repeated until 3pm when the shadow of the house fell over our clock.

Michael, who kindly teaches science, spent a while before tea giving further explanations to help the boys (the girl is a little young) understand more about how the rotation of the earth relates to time.

Showing how the rotation of the earth relates to time (the blue bowl is the sun).

Monday, 8 June 2015

Making Masks - A Craft Project

Craft is not something that comes naturally to me. However, I have children who love all things creative, and some good books which tell us what to do. My eldest found instructions for making masks in one of his craft books, so we decided to have a go. As you can see, it was fairly successful.

The idea came from this book:

Each child needed a balloon, a small box (e.g. a shoe box), some modelling clay, tape, PVA glue mixed with water (2:1 glue to water) and lots of coloured tissue paper.

First, we blew up a balloon so that it fitted snugly into its box so that it wouldn't move. We found that a little extra tape held it more securely.

Then we made features for the face out of modelling clay and taped them to the balloon.

Next we stuck on strips of tissue paper with the glue and water mixture. We used lots of glue so that it was really soggy when we had finished. Each child did 3-4 layers of tissue paper, and it turned out pretty well (though more layers would be more solid).

The masks were left to dry over night.

Next day, we burst the balloons, removed the clay, trimmed the edges and cut out eye holes.

They worked!

Note- very messy! There was glue and tissue paper everywhere.

This was quite a good craft for all ages. My 3 and 6 year olds needed some help, but could do quite a bit on their own and got good results. My 7 and 9 year olds managed with very little help.

Friday, 5 June 2015

The Story of the World

In a just a few weeks, my older two will have FINISHED The Story of the World.
We have learned about the Forbidden City and the Treaty of Waitangi. We have studied the Fall of Rome and the Rise of Islam. We have met Leif Erikson, Gandhi and Alexander the Great. Cuneiform tablets have been inscribed, and Chinese letters carefully drawn in ink. A Gingerbread Parthenon has been constructed and consumed, as has a medieval castle made of cake. We have started from the earliest times, and in the next few weeks we will study events that have happened during my lifetime. We have visited every area of the world- from Russia to Argentina, from Japan to France.

The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer is a narrative history for children written in four volumes- Ancient Times, The Middle Ages, Early Modern Times and The Modern Age. There is an accompanying activity book for each volume, which contains review questions, ideas for activities, extensive reading suggestions and maps to fill in.
One volume can be completed in a year (though we started early so took two years to do Ancient Times). Each volume is progressively harder, so that the later books are aimed at older children. All of them can be adapted for different ages, or used with multiple ages. The last volume has been a stretch for my nearly 8 year old, and could be used by much older children.
In each session, I will read one section aloud. I then work through the review questions in the activity book with them to check that they have been paying attention. After that, each child will sum up in a few sentences the key ideas of the passage. As suggested by Susan Wise Bauer, for young children I write these down for them.  For slightly older children, I write out their summary for them to copy out neatly (I still do this for my 7 year old). Older children should be able to summarise the passage on their own. 

A sample from each volume.

At the end of each chapter, we complete the map together (these are brilliant), and perhaps do a colouring page or another activity.

The Story of the World has been a fantastic resource. It is thorough, well-written and gives a great sense of the scope of history throughout the world. It is also easy to use (a big plus for me) and can be done with relatively little preparation. The fact that it can be purchased easily in the UK (from Amazon) is also a bonus. In addition, it is also great fun- we have lots of wonderful memories of what we have learned and activities we have done.
So, what will do once we have finished? Start again at the beginning, of course. I will teach all four children together next time- a new challenge. They are already discussing which ancient monuments we should make out of gingerbread.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

This picture hangs in our hallway:

It reads, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119v105."
It's a way of remembering that we want God's Word to be at the centre. 

We are convinced that when we read the Bible, we hear God speak, and that God's words are true and life giving. 

As we bring up our children, we want to make teaching the Bible to them a priority. We know that it is only through God's Word that our children can know God. Only in the Bible can they learn of the life-giving work of Jesus. 

I am flawed and sinful and inconsistent, and there are many, daily occasions when I fail to live up to this. However, we strive to keep Jesus at the heart of what we do as a family.

Firstly, we read the Bible with our children every day. We do this as a family, with the children individually, and as part of our teaching time. We do so at various points in the day, including over breakfast and before each child goes to bed.

We try to be intentional about applying God's Word to whatever we are discussing. Meal times tend to be particularly fruitful opportunities for this, when all sorts of topics come up- science, politics, history, TV, books they are reading.

At times, a child will be facing a particular difficulty and I will open up the Bible with them. One of our children went through a period of fear about the future (which was very uncertain at the time), and I bought him a Mars bar, took him for a walk and a chat, and read Matthew 6:25-34 with him. Jesus' words, reminding us of a loving Heavenly Father who knows our needs, were of more comfort than any of mine could have been.

We try to point the children to the gospel when we have to discipline them- so they understand their need for repentance, and the forgiveness that is found in Jesus. It is a joy to remind a child, desperately unhappy about how they have messed up yet again, that God's mercies are new every morning.

Often this is messy and frustrating. Sometimes the children don't focus. Maybe I'm more concerned about getting on with today's work than about listening to their questions, or praying with them. Perhaps Bible time with one child is interrupted by another needing me, or we have all the children about to listen at breakfast time and someone needs an urgent trip to the bathroom.

We persevere, not because it is always easy or joyful, and certainly not peaceful, but because we are convinced that the best we can do for our children is to bring them under the sound of God's Word. Only in Jesus can our children find forgiveness, comfort, true joy and peace. Only through God's Word can our children know salvation. So we persevere, and we pray that God will work in our children through his Word and by his Spirit.

By God's grace, we have seen a steady growth in our children's understanding of the Bible. We have watched as our children increase in their confidence in the truth of God's Word. We have seen them grow in their knowledge of God and his ways. We have rejoiced as they understand more of the gospel, and how good it is that they can stand forgiven through the death of Jesus on the cross.
Often this is seen at unexpected moments. One day I was reading to my children when one of the younger ones was distressed that someone had died in the story. His older brother put his arm around him and comforted him by saying, "You don't need to worry, just trust in Jesus for forgiveness and when Jesus returns you will be raised to life again." 
Sometimes it seems like we're getting nowhere, but then we see how they have taken God's word to heart, seen that is true, and trusted in God's promises.