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Trusting Little Minds with Big Subjects

Trusting Little Minds with Big Subjects
By Tracy Aitken

A common concern for potential homeschoolers and their loving families, ranking perhaps right after the number one concern of socialization, is math and science. “How,” they ask, “do you make sure they are getting what they need? Which curriculum do you choose? And what happens when they get to those upper years and Algebra, Physics, Calculus, Chemistry?”

This concern becomes almost frantic disbelief when one suggests they go without a curriculum. “What?! How do you teach math and science without textbooks? That may be well and good for the really little student, but by age 9 or 10 they need to have their times tables down. It’s the very foundation, the building blocks, of higher math. And Physics doesn’t just happen!”

As a life learner, I have to bite my tongue, since my first instinct is to answer, “If it doesn’t just ‘happen’, then why do they need to know it?” But in reality, this answer isn’t a comprehensive one. Nor will it successfully calm the fears of the family that is new to self-directed learning. As a society, we consider these subjects as big, reverent topics that require serious lengthy study. The fact of the matter, of course, is that it does just happen. Math and science just “happen” in our lives. Below are some examples from personal experience. Apologetically, all of my examples are from boys, because I have no daughters; please don’t consider this a gender study!

A five-year-old boy: “Mom, how old is the oldest person in your family?” Not at all an unusual question for a five-year-old, nor was his response when I told him my father was, at that point, 65 years old. “Wow, he is really old, I hope he doesn’t die soon!” I explained that Grandpa was in excellent shape. He still ran in competitive races (and won); he ate healthily; his weight was good, as was his blood pressure, blood sugar. Heck, Grandpa could live to be 100, I said, and that is 35 more years....that’s how old Mommy is! He could have a whole lifetime ahead of him, he – “But, Mom, he’d only be 90 in 35 years.” “No, he’s 65 now, in 35 years...” “But, Mom, three and six are nine, so 35 and 65 are 90.” So, with pencil and paper, Mom showed him how those two fives turned into a ten and that ten has to go somewhere, right? After a half-hour of successful carrying, my five-year-old asked me, “Does this work backwards?” In a single hour, my five-year-old mastered carrying and borrowing. Not only would he not have learned that in school yet, the school system had already announced that, because of his late birthday, my son wouldn’t even be eligible for kindergarten; he’d be in pre-kindergarten instead.

A seven-year-old boy, in the car: “Mom, how many miles is it from our house to the freeway?” “3.3 miles – Daddy measured it for his running course.” “Okay. Don’t talk.” We were driving to Aunt Deenie’s house at the time, with two younger brothers in the car. I’m not accustomed to being ordered not to talk by a seven-year-old, but, okay! While he’s thinking, let me tell you about the route to Aunt Deenie’s. We have to drive to one freeway, get on, get off and onto another freeway, get off that and get onto a third freeway, get off that onto a busy road (with exit numbers), then drive from there to Deenie’s house. “Mom, how many miles from Brian Parkway to Aunt Deenie’s driveway?” “About four, maybe?” I guess, surprised that he knew the name of that busy road. I’d be hard pressed to come up with the name myself. “Okay, don’t talk.” Then, presently, “Mom, it is 83.3 miles to Aunt Deenie’s house.” “How do you know that?” “Because,” he said, “We go 3.3 miles to the freeway, getting on at exit 36. We get off at exit 52, which is getting on at exit 151...” and so on and so on. It took me a bit of time (I’m afraid to compare the actual amount of time to the amount it took my son!) to discover that he was right.

A four-year-old boy, talking to Grandma on the phone: “Well, I fell down on the sidewalk and my skin rubbed against it the wrong way. The concrete rubbed away my skin layers and then my blood vessel broke, and the blood came out. That’s called bleeding. Bleeding is okay, it makes all the germs fall out, too. But blood vessels fix themselves fast, so it stopped bleeding. Now I have what they call a scrape on my knee.” After the phone call, I asked, “Where did you learn all that stuff about your scrape?” “[Big Brother] explained it to me.”

A six-year-old boy: “I heard [famous artist] had a stroke, Mom. Which side of his brain did he have the stroke on?” “I have no idea, honey.” “Well, I sure hope it wasn’t his left brain, because he’s probably right handed, and then he’d maybe not be able to draw anymore.”

As you can see, the question most asked in my house is “How do you know that?” I’m the one who is always asking it. In this case, the answer was, “We watched the Discovery channel last night for our bedtime story; it was about how the brain works.” My children will choose either a book, a short video/show, or a made-up story for their “bedtime story.” There’s no telling what they’ll choose; the previous night Daddy had put them to bed while I went out, so I was unaware of the choice.

A six-year-old boy: “When do we go on vacation?” “About three weeks.” “A week is seven days.” “Yes, it is.” “Let me think. That means, two weeks would be, um, 14 days?” “Yes.” “And so three weeks would be, hmmm, 21 days?” “Yes.” “Three weeks sounds like a long time, but 21 days sounds even longer!”

A nine-year-old boy: “Look at my new LEGO, Mom. It has remote control with a motor, and see what happens when you push this lever? And there’s a secret hiding place here. This hinge makes the leg go up to kick and over here, if you flip up his head....” “Wait. When did you get new LEGO?” I generally know when new toys are acquired, since I am the one with the checkbook. “Oh, this is just stuff from other LEGO I had left over.”

A twelve-year-old boy: “Mom, come listen to this song I made up on SimTunes.” “Wow, this is really good! Did you get the background picture from the gallery?” “No, I drew that. See, it’s a rainforest song. This part sounds like the rain and that part is the thunder. The guitar is supposed to be lightening; I guess it’s the closest sound lightening would make, sort of electric. And so the picture is of the rainforest. Want to see my other songs?” “I sure do!” “Okay, this one is a math song, see the background and how I used multiplication for the pattern? And this one is cyberspace; this one is Bionicle....”

By the age of six or seven, all three of my boys were familiar with solving for the unknown. I find I use rudimentary algebra on a fairly regular basis, and I think it is really a neat skill to have. Whenever I catch myself doing it, I show it to the closest boy; it’s a puzzle solved! Because I think it’s neat, they think it’s neat too (this technique works best, obviously, when they are still in the “Mom knows everything” stage.) And then when they need to find an unknown, they will show me how they did it.

While I can’t give you examples about physics and calculus (because I don’t use these enough to recognize them when I do), I know my boys have some basic knowledge of both. We have a lot of building/thinking games in our house, from Brio train sets that they put together in every possible permutation as very little boys (I know there is some physics in there, with the bridge building, etc.) to marble ramps, where they really have to calculate, or work trial and error, to get the proper angles and set up or the marble doesn’t run through. LEGO has been a major factor in our lives, of course. And all our computer games are educational in some way. I have purchased a lot of logic games so that the boys can stretch their minds. In a way, one may argue that these games are not part of “everyday life,” so shouldn’t count as an example...but the games are not being used to teach in a formal setting, so I will use the example for that reason.

While I doubt that my six-, nine-, and 13-year-old are ready for college prep courses (though perhaps the eldest is), I can argue confidently that they have strong foundations in math and science. I know that, should they choose a profession that requires heavy math or science skills, they will do well. Many times, people use cooking and grocery shopping as science and/or math examples. I don’t, because they are a “given,” as is money management, on the ice cream truck/allowance level. It may sound like my boys are science/math-minded but, actually, they are history buffs, as well as insatiable readers. Math and science are just what happen along the way!

Tracy Aitken and her husband Jeff unschool their three boys in Spencer, North Carolina, where she runs a thriving home business.

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