Thursday, February 28, 2013

Garden Magic

After an abundant zucchini season (okay when aren't zucchinis abundant) we've eaten this vegetable in a multitude of ways - roasted, pan fried, on the BBQ, steamed and pureed, and in a selection of  breads, cakes and muffins.  I've shredded it in quesadillas, eaten it raw in salads and put slices of it in sandwiches. I think I overdid the zucchini slice last season so I haven't made a single one of those and I haven't yet become so desperate as to again attempt to make "apple" crumble with zucchini as I did a while back.

After so much zucchini, I just may have neglected to check on them for a few too many days.

Riker and Ari survey the harvest and offer some perspective on the size of our haul.

I just couldn't be bothered to come up with anything to do with so many giant zucchinis and so I decided to weave a bit of garden magic and turn them into eggs!

As it so happens, chickens adore the tender flesh of zucchini and it gave me much pleasure to watch them devouring it. Come to think it though, zucchini chocolate cake also gives me much pleasure so the next harvest may have already found its purpose!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

First Day

Riker's first week of preschool was a resounding success!

We'd been talking about school with him for weeks - how he'd be there with the teachers and the other kids all day for two days in a row, how he'd eat his lunch out of his lunchbox and lie down to have a rest on a mattress on the floor. He'd been getting really excited about it and I was pretty sure he'd love it, but I couldn't help but worry that he'd get nervous or scared at the last minute. Not so.

On the morning of the first day he jumped out of bed and said he wanted to go to school. He insisted on wearing his backpack all morning, even at the breakfast table, and he happily brushed his teeth and washed his face and posed for the requisite first day of school photos. Here he his is with his backpack and special red lunchbox. (I've lost track of how many stores I had to go to to find a lunchbox that was red, insulated, PVC free and not covered in cartoon characters.)

When we arrived at the school, he happily greeted the director and told her his name. We were then directed to a recently renovated building where we discovered little Saskia settling in to the same classroom - (her parents were in our birthing class and we've kept in touch since). Next we found a cubby to put Riker's things in for the day and then we proceeded to explore the classroom.

Unlike some of the child care centers I'd visited that left me feeling overstimulated and anxious, this space was a sensory delight. Full of natural light, the play spaces and decor were thoughtfully planned and the ambience was peaceful. There were turtles in one tank and fish in another and a table with magnifying glasses and leaves, pine cones and shells. Another table held a light box with interesting pieces of glass and stones and several others were set up with paper and small bowls of paint. There were comfortable couches, shelves of books, a large wooden dollhouse, a construction space and a corner stocked with cars and trucks.

It wasn't just the space that left a positive impression however. The teachers (there are lots of them and it will take another week or two to remember all of their names) have a very respectful way of engaging with the children. It irks me when people talk to children in condescending tones and the way in which adults speak to children conveys a lot about how they view them. When an adult is clearly interested in what a child has to say (or not) that message comes across loud and clear.  I was pleased to note that the teachers clearly viewed the children as competant and capable and I expect the children in turn to live up to the confidence placed in them.

After chatting for a while with one of the teachers and another child near the fish tank, the teacher mentioned that whenever I needed to go I could sign the book and head off. Riker promptly said, "bye mama" and turned back to continue chattering away about trains and chickens. I took that as a cue that all was fine, stole a kiss and a hug and headed off.  I was so busy beaming proudly that I didn't even shed a single tear once I left.

Later in the day when I arrived to pick him up, this was the conversation that ensued:
Hi Riker.
Mama, I want to come back.
Okay, well we can come back to school tomorrow.
No, I want to go home and get Diesel 10 and come right back.
I convinced him that we should spend the evening at home and then return the following morning with his special train and he agreed.

The next morning I was up packing lunch and making breakfast when Riker stumbled sleepily into the kitchen, rubbed his eyes and said, "I want to go to school." And with similar ease and excitement, he settled into his second day.  

I hope the enthusiasm continues and I look forward to hearing about the new experiences that await him!

Sunday, February 03, 2013

To School or Not to School?

To School or Not to School?

We've always thought that we would home-school our children on the assumption that one on one individual attention is always the best approach to a child's education. As well-educated and conscientious parents, we've assumed that we ourselves would be best placed to provide a stimulating and nurturing educational environment though a variety of hands-on activities, travel and interaction with people of all ages.

As Riker grows however, and his very social personality begins to shine though, we've started to wonder whether he wouldn't benefit from an engaging classroom situation as long as it meets the criteria outlined in A Preschool Primer. As with so many other aspects of parenting, we're learning how to take cues from our child about what his needs are, as opposed to how we thought things were going to be. 

In Canberra (and especially in the Inner North), we're very fortunate to have a selection of well regarded schools on our doorstep. Preschool begins at age four, but given the waiting lists associated with most child care centers and some schools, I set to researching our options early on.

The Reggio Emilia Approach

One of the educational philosophies mentioned by my early childhood expert friend was an approach called Reggio Emilia. It was founded in Italy after WWII and is based on "the principles of respect, responsibility, and community through exploration and discovery in a supportive and enriching environment based on the interests of the children through a self-guided curriculum."

The Reggio approach shares some of the values of the better-known Waldorf (Steiner) and Montessori schools, but it's not a philosophy with a set system of beliefs. Rather, it's an approach based around certain fundamental values about how children learn. The core values of the Reggio Emilia approach include recognizing the child as an active participant in learning, an appreciation of the environment as an important educational factor and a view of the parents as active collaborator in the learning process. Furthermore, the teachers foster collaborative relationships with their students and can be considered co-learners rather than just instructors - a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.

The thing I find most attractive about this philosophy is its image of the child. Rather than seeing children as empty vessels ready to be filled with facts, the Reggio approach sees children as competent, full of potential and capable of building their own theories and pursuing their own interests. They are viewed as inherently good and as active authors of their own development, strongly influenced by natural, self-righting forces within themselves. 

Blue Gum Community School

Feeling rather excited about this newly discovered approach to education, I Googled "Reggio Emilia Canberra" and found several mentions of a small school called Blue Gum Community School. Blue Gum doesn't label itself a Reggio school, but from what I can gather, it draws on aspects of all three alternative educational systems mentioned above.  For a brief overview of the the three styles, see Approaches to Natural Learning: Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf.

Having been informed that the wait list for the Blue Gum preschool program can be very long (how was I not surprised) I put Riker's name down thinking that he might get a place for the 2014 program. Through some unusual circumstances involving school refurbishments and a number of families on the waiting list having to choose other schools while renovations were completed, we were offered a spot in their three year old preschool program after only a month on the waiting list!

Now we were faced with a real decision however - to put Riker into a school program earlier than we'd anticipated or risk losing a place at this well regarded school. After much deliberation we decided not to let the opportunity pass us by and we've enrolled him for two days per week. Having made the decision, I'm feeling very good about it. Of course, it doesn't hurt that several like-minded friends are also enrolling their kids there. I figure that he may very well enjoy the experience and we'll get a taste of whether or not this school thing is for us, I mean, him. And if not, then that will have been valuable too. 

School as a Supplemental Tool

Successful or not, we consider this venture into the world of preschool to be an experiment of sorts.  We'll be very interested to see what effect it has on his social skills and whether it might improve his abilities to share and solve conflicts with other children. Importantly, we view preschool (and all stages of formal education), not as a substitute for our role as our children's primary teachers, but rather a supplement to the experiences we can provide, not unlike swimming lessons. We've been starting to experiment with other supplemental educational tools as well including reading websites such as ABC Reading Eggs and Starfall and educational apps and games on the iPad like Cargo-Bot to promote logic and reasoning and other games that introduce reading, math, music, drawing, art, writing and so on. As he shows an interest in a particular activity or game, we'll work on it together until he's ready to move on to other interests. 

Off to Preschool

So, come Thursday, Riker will officially be a preschooler. The grounds of the school are beautiful and brimming with creative play spaces and they have chickens so he'll feel right at home. It will be really interesting to see how he reacts to this new experience and to hear his response to his first day. As for my response, it seems probable that you'll find me sniffling out front after that first drop off. I'm sure I won't be the only one.

Friday, February 01, 2013

A Preschool Primer

I'm fortunate to know a veritable expert in the field of early childhood education.  Since our oldest is of the age where formal education looms on the horizon, I asked her if she wouldn't mind sharing some pearls of wisdom on things I should keep in mind as I begin researching our educational options.  After a really interesting conversation on child development, educational theories and the merits of formal education, I came away with this list of things to look for when choosing a preschool classroom.

The Learning Environment

Is the classroom stocked with toys that represent diversity?  Are there ethnic food toys and paints of varying skin tones? Does the library of books represent cultural and familial differences?

Are there dress up clothes for boys and girls beyond the traditional princess gear often associated with dress up play?

Do the classroom materials offer challenge and inspiration?  To add depth and interest, a teacher might strategically rotate toys so that one week children use blocks and trucks and the next week they're offered blocks and dinosaurs in an attempt to stimulate creative play.
Do parents have access to the classroom at all times? An open door policy is important for transparency and parent engagement.

What is the staff to child ratio?  Preschool should have no less than a 1:14 ratio.

The Educator and Curriculum

Are the children encouraged to produce original artwork?  If every project displayed on the walls appears to have adhered to a strict template, it's a tell tale sign that the teacher is not terribly creative or engaged and is probably more interested in conformity than individuality.

What percentage of time in the classroom is devoted to the children's agenda versus the teachers agenda? Preschool classrooms should follow a play-based child-led model of learning.

The school curriculum should not be hinged on holidays.  Surprisingly, I'm told it is quite common for a teacher to plan activities and art projects almost exclusively around holiday celebrations.

Are the teachers oriented to child development rather than grade level? Grades are somewhat arbitrary and children are most likely to succeed if their individual learning style and abilities are respected.

Does the school offer multi-age classrooms?  Valuable interactions and lessons exist when young children can learn directly from the big kids and then later become the big kids themselves. 

Does the teacher utilize an integrative curriculum?  No single curriculum model will ever meet the needs of a whole classroom of children.  A good teacher will pick and choose from a variety of models and discard approaches that don't suit his or her students.

How are the formal standards of education implemented?   Is the curriculum engaging such that it promotes joy in learning or is it rigidly devoted to meeting the standards?

What levels of teacher training are required by the school?  A degree in child development is a must for early childhood educators and a bachelors degree is preferable.

Does the school hold recognized accreditation?  Parents in the US can rely on the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) to identify early childhood education programs that have met professional standards. 

The Affective Environment 

Is guidance offered before discipline?  Does the teacher assist children to learn strategies to solve social problems rather than taking a punitive approach?

What is the style of interaction between teacher and student?  A teacher who has the emotional development of a child in mind will a facilitate whatever it is the child is showing interest in and help the child to clarify what they are experiencing.

Is there a policy on bringing a child's comfort objects? School is major transition for most children and the ability to bring a much loved toy may help to ease the adjustment period.

Reflecting on these points has been incredibly helpful in thinking through the type of educational experience I am seeking for my children.  I expect that it will also be useful in critically analyzing a classroom situation once they do begin school.  Many thanks to Suzanne for summarizing knowledge gained from years of experience in the field and for reviewing a draft of this post. In the next post, I'll discuss my research on preschool options and the decisions we've currently made regarding school.