CBC Kids’ Programming: Combining Learning and Fun

photo (8)File this under things I never thought I’d say: if I had it all to do again, I would let my preschoolers watch more television.  At least, that’s how I feel after meeting some of the great minds behind CBC children’s programming.

I love meeting people who are infectiously enthusiastic about their jobs, and that was very much the case at CBC Kids’ Days when I met Kim Wilson, creative head of CBC children’s programming, and Dr. Lynn Oldershaw, child psychologist and children’s’ programming consultant for Kids’ CBC.  They were introducing three new shows coming to CBC Kids– Chirp, The Moblees, and You & Me–and they invited 4Mothers along to their Very Important Picnic, where parents and kids could mix and mingle and meet some of the people in front of and behind the camera.

(Confession: I have a crush on Mamma Yamma and I got to meet her!  In the potato flesh!)

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Almost as exciting as that celebrity spotting, I learned a lot about their whole child approach to children’s programming and how their shows fill their mandate to educate and empower children.

“We are not just making content, we are making a difference.”

Kim Wilson

Both Kim and Lynn emphasized how television can make a positive difference to preschool-aged viewers, and, I confess, I was a bit skeptical at first.  As a rule, I place tight limits on screen time because I’d prefer my kids to be active, but as Lynn pointed out, preschoolers do not watch television passively in the way that adults and older children do.  Their minds are constantly working as they watch, and they are active consumers of what’s on the screen.  If you make sure to put them in front of quality, interactive programming, then they will engage and learn.

The team at CBC ensures that learning happens with their Whole Child Development Approach to programming, in which five areas of development are being targeted in shows that are very interactive:

1.  Cognitive Growth (science, spelling, numeracy, learning to read; Bookaboo, Monster Math Squad)

2. Social Skills (equally important in preparing for academic success is how to get along with other children; Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood)

3. Emotional Intelligence (empowering kids to identify and regulate their emotions and then problem-solve to cope with powerful emotions; Poko, The Adventures of Napkin Man)

4. Creativity (music, art, storytelling–children have an enormous capacity for creativity, and quality programming will stimulate it, not stifle it, by enabling kids to extend on what they see and hear; Artzooka; I noticed how simple the monsters in Monster Math would be to draw ourselves)

5. Physical Development (many aspects of the programming encourage, and even require, kids to move in order to propel the story; Bo on the Go)

I was thrilled to learn that John Mighton, of Jump Math fame, was a consultant on the numeracy content in Monster Math Squad, and Mary Gordon, who founded Roots of Empathy, was a consultant for the emotional intelligence content of The Adventures of Napkin Man.  These are thinkers and activists whose work I have long admired, and to hear that they are contributing to children’s television is nothing short of delightful.

We had a great day at the CBC studios, and I left feeling really grateful to have had the chance to look behind the curtain.  It has given me a much rosier view of how the small screen can be a positive part of at home learning.

 

Online Learning versus Learning with Nature, by guest blogger Catherine Ross

“As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth; to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of the flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unconsciously to the soughing of the trees…”, wrote Valerie Andrews in her book called ‘A Passion for this Earth’.

Online Learning vs Learning with Nature

Photo Courtesy: Philippe Put

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of playing games like hide and seek and blind man’s bluff with the kids in the neighborhood. We were a bunch of 8-10 kids who would gather in the biggest garden available (which was, luckily, ours) or the park every evening around tea-time and spend at least two hours together. We would either play one of the above mentioned games or simply make up new and innovative games of our own, squealing away as we chased each other. And the feeling of accomplishment which came with emerging as the winner in such games was unparalleled – we would strut around the house all evening, proudly proclaiming the same till our moms shut us up!

Another vivid memory is the annual treat of going out camping with dad for a weekend in our summer holidays. My younger brother and I used to start badgering him a week before the summer vacations actually began – eventually he would have to give in and then off we would go, with our sleeping bags in tow. One particular summer, dad was out of town for the entire duration of the holidays and we were particularly morose until our mum came up with a brilliant idea – we ended up camping with our tents and sleeping bags in our very own backyard!

However, if you ask my kids today what activities they enjoy the most, they would probably say it’s the PlayStation game ‘EyePet and Friends’, ‘Temple Run’ or some such online or mobile game. Playing outdoors would never figure in their list of activities at all, let alone favorite activities!

A study carried out in the USA titled – An Investigation of the Status of Outdoor Play – came up with the following major findings:

* Children in the USA today spend less time playing outdoors than the previous generation.

* The number of regular play activities is higher for indoor activities than outdoor ones (96 per cent kids watch television regularly, 81 per cent play online games every day).

* Obstacles to playing outdoors focus on the child’s increased use of television and computers at home.

Then comes the question: Does it matter? After all, one should change with the changing times. In the present age of tablets, smart phones, cable TV, Facebook and YouTube, is it actually important for today’s kids to know the difference between the daisy and the chrysanthemum, a fowl and a chicken?

My answer would veer somewhere between a yes and a no. I don’t think kids would be affected as adults if they don’t know the difference between two different species of plants; what would matter more is picking up qualities like problem-solving skills, cooperation and teamwork, which they could have picked up while getting dirty climbing trees and splashing through mud puddles with other kids of the same age group. These little joys of childhood learning are slowly but surely disappearing today.

I, being a homeschooling mum to my two kids, definitely feel we are better off with the internet at our disposal today. And though some parents may not agree with me, I do feel children can benefit from educational games, provided they are regularly monitored as well as used in moderation. One, they get a sense of accomplishment while clearing the different levels of a game. It spurs them on to try harder and inculcates self-confidence in them. Two, it does help to improve eye-hand coordination as well as gets them more tuned into how a computer works, which undoubtedly, is something one must know in this day and age. Also, certain games do test the reasoning abilities of the kids, thus sharpening their logical power.

However, outdoor activities in the lap of nature teach things which online learning cannot match. First of all, outdoor games are multi-sensory activities wherein you can touch, hear, see and smell things. It is an imaginative process, where there are no pre-conceived ideas and you can change rules to suit your needs. Interacting with other people in person develops a certain level of empathy and understanding between fellow beings plus improves communication skills, which is impossible in the case of online learning. And last but not the least, kids build up their immunity levels and keep themselves fit with all the running around. Would all this be possible if they were cooped indoors all day, with a touch screen tablet in their hands? No way!

So when Richard Louv writes: “We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when our world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist…”, I completely agree with him. Because it is possible to strike a balance between the time our kids spend indoors and the time they spend outdoors, in order to make them have the best of both worlds.

After all, in the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. That’s the fun of it. Don’t we owe it to our kids?

Author Bio: Catherine Ross is a full-time stay-at-home-mum who believes learning should be enjoyable for young minds. An erstwhile elementary school teacher, Catherine loves coming up with creative ways through which kids can grasp the seemingly difficult concepts of learning easily. She believes that a ‘fun factor’ can go a long way in enhancing kids’ understanding and blogs at http://kidslearninggames.weebly.com/

Kids and Fishing

2011_09 - various 032I’ve long been a convert to the idea that children (and adults) thrive with regular opportunities to explore and interact with the natural world, and more or less nodded my way through The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv when I read it several years ago.  Reading Louv’s arguments felt less like a revelation than a discovery of the unconscious familiar, as if he were putting into words a series of unformed ideas that already existed in my head.

The one exception to this familiarity was Louv’s section on hunting and fishing, which did feel new and prompted thoughts I didn’t have before.  It’s been a good while since I read this, but what I most remember is that Louv makes some arguments – a bit tentatively, if I recall – in favour of hunting and fishing.  He suggests that it’s an important means by which many people still interact with nature in a world of declining exposure, and that this demographic can support environmental conservation through advocating for the preservation of hunting and fishing grounds.

I find myself thinking about this often, because my husband loves to fish, and he is sharing that love with our children.  Louv doesn’t hunt, but he does fish, and he recommends catch and release.  I’m actually much more comfortable with my family’s fishing expeditions if they are catching fish for food (and while we don’t hunt, I feel the same way about hunting).  We eat fish, and assuming that applicable fishing regulations and quotas are followed, catching our food feels like a connected and responsible way of eating, much more so that buying fish from the grocery store (which we also do).

But sometimes my husband takes my kids out fishing for fun.  They never keep fish for mounting or display, but they will pursue catch and release fishing.  As someone who doesn’t want to harm animals unnecessarily, I struggle with this.  Catch and release is not without harm – some fish that are released will nevertheless die from injuries sustained when they were caught.

I’ve talked to my husband about this.  He is not defensive about it, possibly out of respect for my feelings, but also because he is comfortable with how and why he fishes.  When we are outdoors (at the cottage, at a seaside vacation, at the lakefront down the road), he wants to interact with his environment.  In particular, he loves water.  He knows that catch and release is imperfect, but it mitigates the consequences of sport fishing.  As for food, he loves and appreciates eating a fresh catch.

It’s also become an important way of connecting with the kids, and a love shared with their grandfather – we often have inter-generation fishing.  It’s also been a huge opportunity for learning and exploration outdoors.  Both of my older boys could independently wield a fishing rod by the age of 5; no doubt my youngest one will too unless he masters it even earlier as youngest children will often do.  My 8 year old got a fly fishing rod for his birthday and caught his first fish with it last week.  The kids know about fishing equipment and technique, types of fish, preferred fishing habitat, which lures attract which fish, and whatever else they talk about on their expeditions which can last hours upon hours.

I can’t tell you what else they talk about on their expeditions because I don’t go.  Routinely I am invited, they always want me to come, and routinely I don’t go because I don’t enjoy it.  But Louv has helped me have some equilibrium with my husband’s and children’s love of fishing:  within the confines of fishing not for sustenance, they are fishing responsibly and inhabiting their natural surroundings more fully than they otherwise would, which probably translates into a visceral rather than just intellectual desire to protect the environment.

This isn’t the only way to create powerful bonds with our surroundings, and it’s not the only way we do it.  We pick berries at the cottage too, and kayak, and swim, and find snakes.  We bike at home, go to parks and ravines, and participate in the PINE project, an amazing Toronto organization that fosters deep connection between individuals and communities to their natural environment.  We garden.

As with so many things, maybe the best thing to do is remember that there are many roads to Rome, and few are without potholes.  I went out for dinner last night, and by coincidence a friend mentioned that she just finished reading The Last Child in the Woods, after which she resolved to get her 8 year old daughter outside more.  The goal was to get to the park by bike, which her daughter is still a bit afraid to ride.  The first day they tried this, they ended up at Legoland.

But they are trying again today.  And maybe they’ll end up at Canada’s Wonderland.   Or maybe, at this very moment, they are riding on the boardwalk at just the right speed, with the breeze blowing in their hair, already planning their next adventure outside.

 

The Summer Of Running Free

photo (51) copyThis summer has been glorious. It has been slow, uncluttered and deliberate. It has been uncomplicated. Moments of serenity have peppered the routine whining, that at this stage of the game is more like the soundtrack to my life; a white noise that occasionally demands to be hushed.

Almost one month in and I can say so far this has been my favourite summer with my boys. My favourite summer since becoming a mom.

The choices that I have made this past month have been mindful. After a grueling winter trapped much of the time inside, my only desire for this summer was to be outside.

It was years ago, my first born was still an infant, tucked into his snowsuit with just his rosy cheeks exposed to the cold air, when I pushed our red stroller up and down the city sidewalks. The thick treaded tires ploughed through the snow and my son cooed contentedly. It was when I was stopped at a traffic light that an older lady, weighed down by her heavy wool coat peered into the stroller. She smiled and asked me if the bundle was a boy or a girl. When I replied a boy, she said that she had one piece of advice for me. I bristled. I was hesitant to listen. I was tired of well-meaning strangers giving me their two-cents on everything from feeding to sleeping and hat wearing.

“Sometimes a boy just has to run free outdoors.”

Most intended perils of wisdom have been forgotten over the years, but this one has stuck.

It didn’t take this crippling winter juxtaposed with the summer that proceeded it for a what felt like a fleeting minute to confirm that, yes, sometimes a boy just has to run free outdoors.

This summer has been the summer of running free.

The boys have passed more of their waking hours outside. They’ve toiled in the garden, snorkelled in the sea and fished the lake. Untethered by any schedule they have indulged their curiosities. They’ve asked questions and sought out answers. They’ve collapsed in bed exhausted with tanned skin, grazed knees and dirty feet.

I’ve watched my sons gently pick up snails, caterpillars and geckos. I’ve watched them marvel at how small a person is in comparison to an ocean, but how powerful a human’s actions can be.

My middle son, devastated to learn how lionfish are encroaching on Caribbean sea life schooled his brothers resulting in a serious discussion that united them together as eco-warriors. My misty-eyed boys have brought the plight of the monarch butterflies and the serious threats facing the bee population to my attention. It’s humbling and inspiring to witness how awestruck they are by nature.

The idea of nature-deficient children and what Louv suggests that will mean for the well being of our society, is frightening to me.

It’s as frightening to me as drowning polar bears.

50 Things to Do Outside

Have you seen the list of 50 Things to Do Before You Are 11 3/4 from England’s National Trust?  It’s brilliant.

I’m a big fan of the bucket-list approach to living.  (We are steadily working our way through 1001 Children’s Books to Read Before You Grow Up.  I plan never to be too old for anything in that book.  I love the whole series.)

Give me a list and I itch to get ticking.  Is it even possible to try 1001 Whiskeys Before You Die?  There’s only one way to find out!  It’s the journey and not the destination, right?

What I love about the National Trust List is that it is as much a starting point for infinite adventures as it is a finite list.  It works for the task-oriented, but also for those who like to wander off the beaten path.  It pushes you further into the wild, and it makes you open your eyes to the wilderness on your urban doorstep.

Middlest and I were walking through a ravine the other day, and he said, “People just see the danger in the wild.  They don’t see the good things.”  We started to name the good things.  We ran out of ravine before we ran out of ideas.

conkersI grew up playing conkers in England.  You tie a chestnut onto a string, and then you try to knock your opponent’s chestnut off of her string.  The enormous crispiness of those brown leaves, the prickle of the nut case, and the smell of weather cooling is forever part of my sensory memory.  I don’t know why conkers isn’t popular in Canada, but because it isn’t, chestnuts are just another tree to my boys, and they probably could not name it.  Chestnut, maple, oak: these are trees that I am confident I can identify in almost all seasons, but as Middlest and I were walking, I realized that I could not name nearly all of the trees we walked past.  It awoke in me a desire to learn to identify all of the trees in our neighbourhood.  They are so much a part of our lives, and yet we don’t know all of their names.

treeI’ve taken to carrying my tree guide to the park, to taking new routes with new trees, and while the kids play soccer, I wander around looking at the trees.  Then they wander over and have a peek and help me to identify the leaf shape and find the right name.

And, lo and behold, we all have a name for the fragrant tree that brings us so much joy when it’s in blossom in June and July.  Hello, Linden.  So nice to know your name.

At Issue: Kids, Parents and The Great Outdoors

Ruth Lera could be any mom.  She describes herself in her 2012 article “Learning To Love The Natural World” for Today’s Parent as a “hodgepodge” and says that finding a place to pat herself on the back can be difficult.

Being a parent is wrought with not-so-proud moments, so when you recognize something you’ve done well it’s nothing short of inspiring.

Lera has made connecting with nature a priority and because of that her children have developed a love for it.  A respect for it.

Author Richard Louv is worried that not enough children are making connections with nature and fears that many children are suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder.  This is very concerning to the man who authored Last Child in the Woods and who believes that when childhood passes without any connection being made to nature during the formative years, the resulting deficit is a serious detriment to society’s wellbeing.

Louv has spent years researching, collecting anecdotal evidence and inspiring policy makers because he believes a connection with nature can boost mental acuity and creativity, promote health and wellness, and build smarter and more sustainable businesses, communities and economies.

This week we will be discussing parenting and nature.  Catherine Ross, a mother of two and of the blog Learning is Fun will be our guest this week.

As always we welcome your comments and insights.  Join the conversation by leaving a comment or follow us and share via Facebook and Twitter!

Here are a few videos on the subject to get you inspired:

Encouraging Unplanned Learning by guest author, Catherine Ross

One of the biggest defining factors of a school education is that the learning that happens there is almost always planned. Teachers begin with a curriculum, from which they formulate lesson plans. During the lesson, all learning is directed to fit into the structure advised by the lesson plan. Teachers have a clear goal when they begin, and then test the students to see whether the goal has been achieved. At the end of the year, there is a clear record of what the students have learnt, and to what extent they have learnt it.

However, the learning does not stop when kids leave the classroom. It continues in the playground and after school hours, perhaps with more interest and involvement than ever expressed in the classroom! When kids capture and observe a worm that they dug out of the backyard, or experiment with various structures to figure out how to make their wooden blocks building sturdier, they are learning very important lessons in science and math without even realizing it. This alternate, unplanned way of learning comes naturally to kids and requires no formal structure or process at all. This is unplanned learning, and based on my experiences I have come to believe that it is the more effective and enjoyable form of learning for all involved.

Encouraging unplanned learning - 1

Photo by James Emery

Unplanned learning can happen anywhere, and at any time of the day. It can happen with kids who go to school, as well as those who are homeschooled. It can happen on a lazy summer day or while you’re vacationing in Hawaii. It can happen between any two individuals. It is inexpensive, exciting and stays with the learner for much longer. However, it does require a few basic conditions in order to be effective.

Imagine a classroom setting, where the teacher is discussing insectivorous plants. A student, excited by the topic, asks the teacher more about how the insects are tricked into landing on the plants. However, the teacher, equipped with a lesson plan and limited by time constraints, tells the student that the question is not related to what they are supposed to be learning. While this began as a perfect opportunity for unplanned learning, it progressed in a way that was demoralizing to the learner and may even dampen the student’s natural desire to learn. While unstructured learning does come naturally to kids, certain experiences may reduce the frequency of their occurrence and sap the joy of learning and discovery from their lives.

However, as a parent, you are in the perfect position to encourage unplanned learning right at home. Here are a few things that you can do to get your child learning by leaps and bounds, and enjoying every minute of it.

1. Take every interest of your child’s very seriously. If your daughter is fascinated by horses, take her to the library to pick out books on horses. Better still, take her to a stable where she can pet, feed and interact with them and get her questions answered by the caretaker. Apart from learning more about horses, your daughter will be practicing her reading and social skills and learning lots about animal behaviour in general!

2. Look out for learning opportunities. When you are at the grocery store, allow your first grader to pay for your things and collect the change. When your child asks you a question, encourage him to do research instead of answering it directly. While waiting at a doctor’s office, give your child reading practice (and a few lessons in life science) by helping her sound out the posters on the wall.

3. Create a healthy learning environment.Instead of waiting for learning opportunities to come your way, create them on your own. Buy your children educational toys such as tangrams and let them play learning games online. Plan trips to a zoo, a nature center or/and a museum. Make regular trips to the library. Do fun science experiments at home. Supplement these learning opportunities with interesting discussions and additional reading material, especially if they show an interest in the subject.

And very importantly, never ridicule a question of any type. If you don’t know the answer yourself, find out together. Show your child that learning does not just happen with textbooks and worksheets. You will plant the seed for a lifelong love for learning in your kids, and they will be ever grateful for it.

 

Author Bio: Catherine Ross is a full-time stay-at-home-mum who believes learning should be enjoyable for young minds. An erstwhile elementary school teacher, Catherine loves coming up with creative ways through which kids can grasp the seemingly difficult concepts of learning easily. She believes that a ‘fun factor’ can go a long way inenhancing kids’ understanding and blogs at http://kidslearninggames.weebly.com/

Learning in the Garden

095One aspect of summer that has grown in importance and scale over the years is our garden.  My husband started it on his own, trying to tame the very elaborate and overgrown garden that was our backyard.  It was pretty but impractical or worse:  not only was there nowhere to walk or play, but enormous rosebushes threatened our babies with thorny tendrils (talons?) at every turn.

And… I wanted to grow food.

So we worked at it.  I joined my husband’s efforts, and we have slowly, incrementally, created a fairly decent garden out of a small and partly shaded space of perhaps 500 square feet.  It looks like we’ve done it ourselves – there’s no landscape designer’s touch here – but it’s a living, producing garden where there wasn’t one before.

And… our kids are learning about growing food.

It’s true that they’re not always involved in every step.  At the end of February, for instance, when I planted my seeds in the basement, I did not invite the kids.  Normally I love doing hands-on activities with the kids, but I know (some of) my limits, and putting a 7, 5 and 2 year old together with soil, water, and lots of seed packet (and tiny seeds!)  in a subterranean room was beyond what I could gracefully do.

With confessionals such as this out of the way though, it’s still completely possible to share lots of gardening love with children, and I do.  They’ve watch seeds emerge under the warmth of the basement grow lights, and see the seedlings planted into the backyard and into pots.  They ask about things that grow, learn what seeds look like, and try planting new ones they’ve found.  They become curious.

They helped me build raised beds, which we tried for the first time this year.   When the soil was poured in from the local garden centre, they helped me carry it into the wheelbarrow and fill those beds (which, by the way, hold a deceptive lot of soil).  I assigned one bed to each of the older boys, who decided  what to plant there.  We witness how their arrangements are panning out.  We are all watching, for the first time, how dramatically larger and stronger the plants in the raised beds are than the ones in the regular garden beds.  I’m trying to show them which of the tomato branches we should be pruning, with the understanding that my knowledge is incomplete and growing like theirs.

And bless them, they eat the food.  The lettuces, the kale, the cucumbers have been in for awhile now.  Raspberries are prized and I often decline the little bursts of sun sweetness to give my babes just a bit more.  Snap and snow peas are, well, snapped up, but they won’t be able to eat all the beans which are just starting to come in so I’ll get some of those.  The radishes are all pulled, but they know we can sow again.  The chard and possibly the beets have failed – we’ll see if the roots are doing better than the green tops.  They know to give the herbs more time.  The mushroom logs have been ravaged by the raccoons, and they know this is my biggest disappointment of the summer.  The ground is littered with the leaves of our potatoes, which we trust are growing peacefully below.  They sometimes bend to eat the plantain sprouting wild where the grass once was, and wonder why I am not making soup from the wood sorrel.  They cook with me.

The garden comes at a cost, as does everything else we choose to do – it occupies the space something else could have used.  Our yard is really not a yard anymore, but a garden.  My children have no open green space to play (although there is a little paved garage space for ball).

But I hope that there is something for them in this garden all the same, and I hope it is there during their everyday wanderings among the plants, or when my son says he’s going to the garden to have some space to himself.  It is so important to me that they are engaged in their food for the benefit of their health and for the environment, but I also hope there is a simple pleasure in it.   It’s the pleasure of being outside, of watching things grow wherever we find ourselves, and knowing we can nurture and help that growth along.  The concept of fruition isn’t theoretical in the garden:  the children can see and feel and taste it.  The garden also offers lessons in patience, observation, and failure.  Sometimes a seed is planted, takes a long time to grow, grows and dies, or doesn’t sprout at all – there’s no re-set button then, only next spring.  Sometimes our seeds grow well, just as experience and attention suggested they would.  And sometimes seeds reach skyward beyond our imaginings.

My sons’ school is wonderful in its strong ecological ethic, and the children learn about gardens there.  But in Canada, the heart of the growing season falls during summer holidays (when, once upon a time, children were needed to help parents in their fields and gardens), so working in the garden and watching it unfold is special to summer learning at home.

And if ever there was inspiration to garden with children (or anyone) in the city, this is it:  Ron Finley’s Ted Talk about guerilla gardening in South Central Los Angeles:

 

Summer Curiosities

IMG_4999I used to love the Fall: the reddening of the leaves, the crisp air, the blue bird skies but now it’s the summer that tugs at my heart.  I love the slow-down, the indulgence, and the warm weather but more than anything I love the break from routine.  Most people look at me like I am clueless, an amateur, when I say that my kids take a break from all organized activity in the summer and yes, that includes camp.

It’s a conscious choice- a more mindful one.  Before we became parents we would dream about our future family.  We never discussed what to name our babies (that could explain why we found it so stressful), how cute they’d be (given!), or what we thought about attachment parenting, but we did talk about the big picture.  And by big picture, I mean huge.  What sort of foundation would we lay?  What are the most important values we want to instil?  What memories of our own childhood do we hope to transfer to our own children?

A seed that grew from those early conversations was meaningful together time.  Admittedly, in the early years of parenting survival was key, and escaping for alone time topped my list of priorities.   Now, just like everyone said that it would, things have changed again – in what seems a blink of an eye.

No more diapers or strollers or sleepless nights.  No naps or a constant stream of illnesses.

We’ve crossed a bridge and I find myself on the other side, somewhat weary, a little bruised; simply amazed we made it through.  Now it’s time to put into action our plan for our family.

There are downsides to being a stay-at-home mom but there are a lot of incredible perks too.  It’s taken a long time for me not to feel guilty about enjoying them.

And so this summer, I did just that.  I made a dream become a reality.  I crossed off two weeks this summer, packed-up the boys and rented a house far, far, away from our everyday life.

These two weeks have been void of anything overly familiar (except whining and bickering), very limited screen time, and heavy on the family time.  What I have learned is without the constraints or pressures of our lives, our family unit grows stronger.  We challenge each other to try new things and spend time really talking and listening.  Most of all we each feel more vulnerable without the trappings of home and we only have each other to lean on.

I see my boys’ personalities developing.  I see their strengths and admit to myself their weaknesses.  I see them become more pack-like: defensive and protective while playfully mauling each other like lion cubs.

I have slowed down and allowed myself to indulge their curiosities.  How do seashells get their colouring?  Where does sea-glass come from?  Why do some fish swim in schools while others glide along the reef independently?

I hope to increase the time we spend on summer retreat over the years to the full two months.  I may be unrealistic.  It may be a harebrained plan.

But I have made it across one bridge and I see another on the horizon and experience has taught me that objects are closer than they appear.

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Comparative Literature for Kids

hr_Maleficent_42One of the at-home learning activities my kids have been most invested in and most enthusiastic about has been my kid-friendly version of comparative literature: taking one fairy tale and finding as many versions  of it as we can find.  This includes not only looking at different authors’ but also different illustrators’ takes on the standard tales.  Sometimes, we even discover clever retellings of the stories that draw attention to their absurdities.

My kids have loved this approach to fairy tales, and it offers so many points of departure for discussing the stories and how they are told.

  • Is there a reason why the bad guy is a bad guy?
  • Does the story give any motivation?
  • Are the good guys always good?
  • Do girls always have to be princesses?
  • Do boys always have to be the heroes?
  • How does the author change the original story?
  • How does that change the message?
  • Why are so many kids in stories orphans?
  • Why is the forest always scary?
  • Is the animal a helper or an enemy?
  • How would the story be different if an animal told it?
  • Which illustrations do you like best?  Why?
  • How would you change this story?
  • How would you illustrate it?

Including movies in this comp. lit mix gives you a lot more to talk about.  With Maleficent out now, it’s a great time to dig out “Sleeping Beauty” again, both the tales and Disney’s original animated movie.  I loved watching it with my kids and talking about what a difference it makes to tell the story from the antagonist’s point of view.  I loved how they reference Disney’s illustration of Maleficent with those magnificent cheekbones!  I loved how we finally get a motivation for a terribly two-dimensional Disney demon.  The movie gave us so much to talk about in terms of stock characters and how it’s so much more interesting when the story is not just about good vs. evil.

Here’s what has worked for me and my boys.

For kids up to age six, decide on a fairy tale, and go to the library and find as many different illustrated picture book versions as you can.  This worked wonderfully for us with boys of different ages, because each child will spot different things and be attracted to different aspects of the books.

fairy-tales-from-the-brothers-grimmFor kids from six to ten, go back to the original versions from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Andrew Lang and Hans Christian Andersen.  Some of these are much more creepy and violent than their Disney incarnations!  Some you’ve never heard of.  Philip Pullman recently published his tellings of the stories of the Brothers Grimm, complete with information about the origin and adaptations of the stories and why some have lasted longer than others.

Fairy tales are so elastic, they even lend themselves to including tweens and teens.  If you read the picture books to all the kids, middle grade readers can go off and read books like The Grimm Sisters, or for mature readers, Angela Carter’s retellings in The Bloody Chamber.   For movie adaptations for older kids, there are recent movie version of Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Huntsman.

Here are some  other great retellings to share:

  • Philip Pullman retells Cinderella from the point of view of one of the rats who got changed into horses in I Was a Rat.  Funny.
  • The Sisters Grimm series of nine middle-grade novels by Michael Buckley tells the story of two girl detectives in the land of Everafters.  Addictive.
  • A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz is the first of a trilogy that retells the story of Hansel and Gretel for middle grade readers.  Page-turners.
  • Sweetly by Jackson Pearce also retells Hansel and Gretel for young adults.  About to find out….  Just ordered it.

Can you suggest any other retellings?  (Honestly, I’m hopeless.  I’ve added a dozen books to my wish list while writing this post and looking at these lists.  Hennepin County LibraryGoodreadsEpic Reads.  )

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