Monday, 28 December 2015

The den building craze

It's been a long time since I last wrote here. Life has been quiet for us recently, with quite a lot of time spent at home as the weather has been rather wet. For the last three months, Finn has been fully involved in one of his new passions: building dens. He uses anything he can find in the house; sofa parts, cushions, dining chairs, his table, his Fun Pod, blankets, string lights... anything at all. It has been such a strong interest for him, that he would build new dens twice a day, every day. In the past three months there hasn't been a single day without a new den somewhere in the house.

He carries such a sense of purpose when building. Gathering materials, arranging them into the shape he imagines, creating multiple tunnel entrances, cosy corners, even toy storage inside the dens, which he calls his houses.

Experimenting with tunnels

Using chairs to prop up sofa cushions, a blanket for a roof. This particular blanket has an integrated pocket on one side; he spent a long time thinking up different ways to drape it over his structure so that the pocket would be on the inside to become toy storage.

Here he decided to build the house around the existing toy shelf for ease of access

He loved using a very large cardboard box to make a wall.

The den above has several areas: a snack and Lego table, a book nook, a doll's bedroom and a sleeping area.

Yes, he did sleep in it one night. And so did I!

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Coral, jellyfish and seahorses: Learning about the oceans

It looks like a new interest is emerging around here: Ocean life. It all started when Finn spotted the children's book "Old Shell, New Shell" (by Helen Ward) in a charity shop and wouldn't leave without it. I highly recommend it by the way. It tells the story if a hermit crab looking for a bigger shell. The illustrations are very realistic, picturing an incredible number of different sea creatures. The last few pages at the back of the book give the name of each and every animal pictured, as well as a few facts. 

Old Shell, New Shell by Helen Ward

This book naturally led to him making connections with another book we own and that I have mentioned previously on here, "Skeleton" by Steve Parker. He excitedly showed me the double page with pictures of crustaceans, asking me to read the words to him. We talked about animals with their skeleton inside their body (humans), outside their body (crabs) and animals with no skeleton (jellyfish).
He was interested in shells in particular, what they are, where they come from. We compared the shells in our collection and I explained how one shell (of a scallop for example) is actually just one half of the complete shell. We tried to pair our specimens with their matching halves. We then researched how molluscs eat and how they use their shell. We talked about the difference between crustaceans and molluscs.
He took a special interest in starfish and tried to figure out where their mouth is. I let him figure out how to find out that fact and he did find it in one of our books.
We also talked about coral reefs, the location and names of the world's oceans, how fish and shellfish consumption damages the eco-system, food chains, food webs, life cycles, different reproduction techniques used by sea creatures, why a seahorse is a fish, why it is dark at the bottom of the ocean, and so much more. This boy is so curious!

Fish by Sabine Krawczyk
Under the sea, by Kate Davies

His interest for this fish skeleton puzzle was renewed.

He also enjoys this brain teaser puzzle, which has a fish theme.

A few more things I'm planning on offering him on the topic of oceans:

- Watching  Big Blue UK about Seashores (available on BBC Iplayer until 26th sept if you are in the UK)
- Making a plastic bag jellyfish
- Learning about ocean zones 

And as usual, he'll lead the way as well!

Monday, 24 August 2015

All about the human body

One of Finn's current explorations is the human body. It started with him being very interested in skeletons at the start of the year, though I never understood where it came from. So, I gathered resources and ideas from Pinterest, and we set off to learn about skeletons. Little did I know that 8 months later we would still actively be learning about the topic. Actually, it has extended from skeletons, to the digestive system, the circulatory system, the brain, muscles, nerves, senses and everything in between! Our ressources have multiplied and I'd like to share my best finds as well as the various activities Finn and I have enjoyed.
We started with a skeleton puzzle printable. I draw Finn's body outline and we filled it in with the bones in the correct places.

We also did the "boneless hand" experiment, where you fill a washing up glove with water to show what our hands would be like without bones.
Observing that the interest was only stronger after those activities, I ordered Look Inside Your Body and the Eyewitness guide, Skeleton. Look Inside Your Body was amazing to introduce him to other parts and functions of the body, while Skeleton made it really easy to observe the features of different animal skeletons and compare them with ours. Best of all though, are the What's Inside Animals? cards, which allow the child to see the outside of a selection of animals as well as the skeleton when held against a light.

We also have the Beleduc cat layer puzzle, showing the skeleton, organs and muscles of a cat.

After exploring skeletons in great detail, Finn became naturally interested in what else the body books were showing: the digestive system. I found a great activity on several places on Pinterest, which we really enjoyed as it clearly showed what happens to our food inside our body.

I put a Weetabix inside a food bag and let Finn turn it to crumbs with a pestle, mimicking the chewing action (minus the saliva). Then we added water to the bag to act as stomach acid and Finn massaged the mixture for a few minutes. After that, we had to suck the water out as does the large intestine, so we sieved the gloopy mess. Of course Finn thought it was hilarious that we had made poo!

We bought him the Leapfrog Human Body discovery pack, which he has used most days in the past months. The child uses the electronic pen to touch the pictures in the book and listen to facts, songs, and play games about the human body.


Below he was observing his fingernails with a microscope we borrowed from a friend.

We came to have so many ressources related to the human body, that we created a theme basket.

Here are the contents that I haven't mentioned above.


See Inside Your Body, Usborne
The Incredible Human Body Activity Book (Finn is too young for this but he loves it anyway. I'd recommend it for a child aged at least 5)
Where Willy Went by Nicholas Allan (human reproduction in a matter of fact way, which we highly recommend)
I know why I brush my teeth by Kate Rowan
Inside your outside, The cat in the hat's learning library
Watch me grow, Professor Stuart Campbell

Hands-on materials:

Edu-toys human torso
Wood and plaster skull
Skeleton 3-part cards 

 It may look like we spent a lot of money on ressources, but those purchases were done over close to a year, with many of them bought second hand on Ebay.

In May we went to @Bristol, Bristol's wonderful hands-on science museum. There were many exhibits about the human body, which we all really enjoyed. Below are some photos from our visit.

That's a real brain!

Incredible "see-your-veins" machine

We are by no means finished with this topic, as Finn has asked to learn about how the body fights diseases next. Having chickenpox right now, I can't think of a better time!

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Exploring Japan

I love it when an interest opens a whole new world, which happens frequently with Finn. He has been extremely interested in trains, and in particular Japanese high-speed trains. His curiosity has been piqued at the mere mention of Japan recently, and he was the one suggesting we make a Japan display.
We collected a few relevant artefacts from our Asia continent box: A small buddha, children's chopsticks, a bookmark with a picture of a Japanese lady.
I added a white felt top to our volcano model to make Mount Fuji, wrote a Haiku on a blackboard, and grabbed two books: I live in Tokyo and Children Just Like Me.
We discovered riddle haikus, which we found quite amusing.

We made origami cats, a flag of Japan and a Japanese carp streamer. The books really interested Finn and he asked many questions. We watched this video about making Kokeshi dolls. Of course, we also had to watch a video of Japanese bullet trains.
We had noodles, which he ate with his chopsticks, and are planning on making sushi together.
Japan has of course cropped up in Finn's role play. He rehearses his trip to Japan most days, pretending to row a boat while escaping sharks. He has even converted quite a few playmates to this exciting game!

Who said geography can't be fun?

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Flaps, rhymes, transparencies: Appealing fact books for young children

Finn has always been very much into books. He has an extensive and ever growing library of children's fiction and non-fiction books. While he loves stories, he also enjoys books about his favourite topics. He has been asking a lot of questions about various topics and one way to acknowledge his curiosity and respond to it has been to provide him with non-fiction books that specifically address his questionings.
We have been buying our fact books mainly from four children's books collections. Here is an overview of what we especially like about each series.
The "First discovery" books are published by Moonlight publishing in the UK, Gallimard Jeunesse in France, and Scholastic in the US. Follow this link to know more about the books.
These books are simple, short, and suitable for children aged 2.5+ I would say. The illustrations are beautiful and they have transparent pages that add to the appeal. The topics are quite varied: animals, buildings, sports, physics, biology... The simplicity of the information given is a great advantage of this series. The facts are well chosen to appeal to young children, with the last page linking the topic to something real in the child's life to extend the child's learning. We own quite a few of these books, and Finn uses them a lot. They are quite special to me as I had a few as a child.
"My first discoveries" also include Torchlight books. These include a white paper "torch" that you slide underneath a dark page to reveal what lives underground, for example. Extremely appealing to young children!

"Bears," My First Discoveries Books

Finn and I have fallen in love with The Cat in the Hat's learning library books. The well-known character of the Cat in the Hat is a reassuring, friendly figure for a young child, and of course the text rhymes! To me, the rhyming text is the main reason why we keep buying the books. It really flows and is a pleasure to the ears, while at the same time delivering fascinating facts. We have three of these books, "Inside your outside", "Fine Feathered Friends" and "Oh say, Can you say dinosaur". The first two are outstanding in originality and offer many little-known facts while being highly engaging. They are both written by Tish Rabe. "Oh say, can you say, dinosaur" is written by Bonnie Worth. I would say this particular book is not as high quality as the other two. The storyline is not as appealing and there are fewer facts. It's still one of Finn's favourites though!
"Oh say, can you say, dinosaur?" by The Cat in the Hat's Learning Library

Usborne books, in particular the series Look Inside and See Inside, are truly wonderful. Both series are "lift-the-flap" books, each aimed at a particular age group. Look Inside is for children aged 4+ while See Inside is for children aged 6+. With many topics to choose from, funny, honest illustrations, these fact-filled books are irresistible. We go from surprise to surprise with those books; a flap inside a flap, inside a flap? We borrowed "Look Inside your body" from a friend when Finn had an interest in skeletons a few months ago, but he loved it so much we had to buy our own copy. It was his bedtime book for weeks and he asked many questions about all body functions, not just skeletons, which were his original interest. Recently I found several "See inside" books at a charity shop. I bought them all regardless of topic, which has proved the right decision as Finn has been interested in all of them, even when he hadn't shown an interest in the topic before. Pirates, Houses Long ago, Underground, Atlas, The Ocean... The books are so appealing he couldn't resist! The Usborne website has plenty of information about the books available and even includes previews.

"Look Inside Your Body", Usborne
Finally, we turn to "Let's read and find out about Science" books when Finn has a specific question. The most recent example I have is when he asked "Can we make molecules?" I try not to give him definite answers but instead offer him the information he needs to figure it out for himself. The book "What is the world made of, all about solids, liquids and gases" has been perfect to give him an introduction to the facts he needs. Like the Usborne series, they come in two collections; Stage 1 is aimed at preschool children and Stage 2 is for primary age children. The book we have is a Stage 2 book and even though it was made for children a couple of years older than Finn, it seems quite suitable for a child like him who likes to know the details about everything. The book proposes experiments, which really grab Finn's attention and make the topic alive and relevant to him. The amount of subjects covered is mind blowing. They have six different books just about dinosaurs! Each focuses on a more specific topic relating to the dinosaurs. Talk about in-depth exploration!
"What is the world made of?" from the collection Let's Read and Find Out about Science

Which fact books do you like? Do you have any recommendations?

Saturday, 18 July 2015

How long is a year?

How long is a month? A year? When is my birthday? Do you remember when it snowed? How many sleeps until... ?
The passing of time is a difficult notion for little ones to grasp, but essential if they are to exercise some control over their existence. The idea of past, present and future is one that can only be understood through personal experience.
We marked the beginning of 2015 with the introduction of a yearly timeline. Finn had been asking a lot about when Christmas or his birthday would be, so it seemed right to start introducing tools to learn about the passing of time. I found a very good download here but chose to make our labels for days myself as I wanted them to be colourful. Each day has its own colour, which really helps Finn see a pattern when he looks back at past days. Each label simply has the name of one of the seven days of the week handwritten on it.

Every morning, Finn enjoys figuring out what day it is by looking back at the colour pattern and reciting the names of the days. Then we say the date together.

The timeline is very long on purpose, as its length gives the child a visual impression of how long a year is. It covers two of the walls in our bedroom. At the moment it is clearly visible that about half a year has gone by.

We also use the timeline to mark future events like a birthday party, departure for holiday or a relative's birthday so that Finn can easily count the days until the event. I chose to write the description rather than use symbols even though Finn can't read fluently yet. He is curious about writing so this is another opportunity for him to try and decipher.

We store the day labels as well as blank event labels in a compartmented box that is inviting and easy to use. Everything is laminated so that it can be used year after year.
This year I am consciously keeping the timeline simple as Finn is just 3 and a half and it is the first year we have had one. Next year I would like to add photos of events and display them on the wall with a thin line of tape showing the day they were taken. I think adding a new element each year will allow us to keep up with Finn's understanding as well as keeping it interesting for him.  
Do you use a timeline? A weekly/monthly calendar? I'd love to know what other families are doing to help their children understand the concept of time. Please leave a comment!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

With or without Montessori

When Finn was a baby, I enjoyed thinking about how I would set up his Montessori learning space in the future, what kind of activities he would enjoy and whether we would have a reserved time each day for Montessori works. I admired bloggers who managed to set aside 3 hours each day for Montessori, in a beautiful prepared environment, with high quality materials and planned presentations for each child. I never imagined not doing Montessori as it seemed the best educational philosophy, encompassing everything a child needs to grow healthily in mind and body. I could only hope I would be able to pull it off!
As Finn grew up, I offered him the number rods, spindle box, sandpaper letters, moveable alphabet, objects to play I spy and spell, and more. These were specifically to support numeracy and literacy.
He has rarely used them. He has (almost) never used any of those independently, and when I suggest he does, he refuses.
Yet he can count, he can spell and read simple words. I stopped suggesting he uses materials *I* find interesting a while ago, and instead just let him be. I observe him mentally working but still not touching the materials. I frequently hear things like "s-l-u-g. slug" while muttering to himself in bed, or "c-a-s. castle. Mummy how do you spell castle?" The other day he did use the moveable alphabet after he had decided, out of the blue at 10 pm, to spell the word Norway in French (his favourite country). He did a great job. So yes, he has used it, for what must be the first time in six months. He just doesn't seem to have a need for it.
He doesn't use sandpaper letters but he will happily and spontaneously trace whole book titles and ask me for the correct way to do it. He notices how some fonts differ, and I have come to see the benefit of being exposed to many ways of writing early on: a much more rich and interesting experience! I feel he chooses to live in the real world when what I originally offered him was limiting, classroom-type pedagogical materials.
For a few months he has been spontaneously creating his own "author study" by exploring his Roald Dahl audio book collection. First he couldn't go a day without listening to The BFG. He would ask so many questions about unknown words. Always listening intently, fully focused, sitting still for more than an hour. Then he got to Fantastic Mr Fox, again staying with it until he had extracted all useful information from it. Now he is onto The Enormous Crocodile, which he listens to at home, and asks me to read to him as well. I estimate he must have heard the story 20 times in the last 3 weeks, at the very least. I feel this exposes him to a very rich vocabulary. I can definitely observe a sensitive period for language, and Roald Dahl is meeting his needs. If he was going to school/preschool, I doubt he would be exposed to books with such complicated plots and varied, unusual words at his age (3.5 years old), while having enough quiet time to study them deeply.

As for numeracy, his dad and I agree that he doesn't seem to need any specific support. We are not disappointed that he shows no interest in the number rods, intrigued rather, because he shows us everyday that yes, he can count. He can do simple addition and subtraction. He has a good understanding of quantities. He recognises numerals. Most comes from everyday living. Baking, shopping, sharing food, measuring, weighing, building with unit blocks, conversations... He knows what he needs to know right now, which is how it should be.
With or without Montessori.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Cathedrals, strawberries and foxes (and more!)

I'm afraid this post is going to be a bit of a muddle. Just a snapshot of a few things we have been doing.
A few weeks ago, we tried Paint Dough, from the book First Art by Mary-Ann Kohl that I have mentioned previously.
It's basically liquid salt dough with paint added. It's perfect! Squeeze directly out of the bottle onto a sturdy surface. The colours don't mix and you can layer the paint. A nice experience!

We went on holiday recently and since we came back, Finn has been building with his blocks as if he had never seen them before! The picture below shows his model of Europe, decorated with artefacts from our Europe continent box.

A few days ago, freshly out of bed, he told me he would like to build a church with his blocks. We looked at pictures of churches and cathedrals in some books, and Notre Dame cathedral caught his eye. He recognised it from the book The man who walked between the towers. I showed him an interactive visit to Notre Dame on our tablet so that he would get a sense of its shape and size.

Below is what he built. It has no depth at all, the blocks are arranged on a line. But if you look closely, you will see what he worked on: Symmetry. That's what he got from looking at the pictures in the books. I feel that this is just the start of a bigger exploration of architecture. He seems really interested in visiting a real church as well, which we will do very soon. I'm thinking about taking drawing materials with us on our visit so we can truly observe the symmetry that interests him so much.

Strawberries are ready! So much fun on our first Pick your own visit of the season. There was lots of talk about how strawberries grow and why the plants at the farm look nothing like the ones in our garden (sigh...)

A couple of evenings ago, as I was lying in bed with Finn to help him settle down, I remembered how I would count to 10 before leaving when he was younger, and how that simple routine had taught him to count. I thought he could count to 11 or 12 now, so I asked him if he would like to do some counting with me. He agreed and I said I would count to 13, and then it would be his turn. He listened to me carefully. When it was his turn, he counted all the way up to... 19! Without hesitation, without a mistake! We both laughed so much as neither of us knew he could do that! It was a really sweet moment. Over the next days it was apparent to me that he was more confident with numbers as he couldn't stop counting things.  
He has also shown an interest in clocks, so to help him learn to read a clock (we have ordered this one for him), I thought I could see if he was interested in learning the symbols for higher numbers, starting with teens.
I have been thinking that he may enjoy our DIY version of the Montessori coloured stair (I would like him to become familiar with it so I can introduce Seguin Board A, to learn about teen symbols). I got it out with no expectations - it seems to be the only way anything may work nowadays - and he really got into it!
I showed the bead bars to him in the triangle shape before mixing them all up for him to build the triangle by himself again. He has never, ever, been interested in the number rods, so I wasn't sure at all this would be appealing to him, but it was! He sweetly commented on how nice the pink bar looks :)
After he had finished the triangle, we did a bit of a memory game to associate the number of beads to the colours as it will help him with the Seguin Board later on. He could remember the colours of the first four bars but lost interest afterwards. I was quite pleased with how this presentation went nonetheless!

And lastly, Finn and I have been reading Fantastic Mr Fox for the second time in a few weeks. He is understanding the story and role of each character differently this time. This morning he recreated a scene from the book in his sandpit. There you can see the three farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, who have stick guns in their hands, and an excavator digging away at the hill where Mr Fox and his family are hiding. Finn really surprised me when he made his own version of the story where the farmers get the fox! (In case the story is unfamiliar to you, the foxes are supposed to get away!)

A lot more has been going on here for us, with plenty of learning and new experiences, but that will have to wait for another post.
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