Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Keeping the Pace

It's about this time every year that I start thinking ahead to fall. While deep in the heart of summertime rhythms, enjoying these full days of sunshine and water and endless play, the notices and emails about fall classes and opportunities begin sprinkling my inbox. There is always so much to choose from, so many homeschooling and community activities to consider. It's an annual challenge trying to strike just the right balance of wonderful classes and unstructured time to just read, or play, or dream. Some years, some seasons, I do a better job than others of striking this balance. Other times, I find we get carried away with so many great experiences that the pace becomes too much. There is too much shuffling from one class to the next, too many disrupted moments of playing or reading or dreaming as we rush to some commitment. 

But plotting our fall rhythms at this time of year, at the height of free summer days, reminds me of the pace we strive for come fall. The summer pace is slow and simple. It allows for abundant stay-and-play time. It avoids the feeling of constant motion, of juggling and rushing and glancing at the clock. There is a certain peace that comes from these free and open days. The children are calmer, knowing that they don't need to rush off this way or that, knowing that they can become deeply immersed in their play without interruption. I am trying to follow in the footsteps of my friend, Tracy at OFFKLTR, who prioritizes slow and simple days, recognizing their power in facilitating childhood imagination and creativity.

This fall, some classes are a given. We will continue with sewing and math and recorder for my seven-year-old, and ukulele, math and soccer for my five-year-old. My three-year-old and littlest babe will just play; no need to rush any structured activities yet. We will fill the rest of the week with ad hoc activities that we can choose at the last-minute depending on how everyone is doing: weekly MFA homeschooling classes, weekly homeschool park days, more sewing and knitting classes, museum visits, frequent library trips, regular gatherings with family and friends, and so on. There are bound to be other classes or opportunities that pop up in the coming weeks, some that may be hard to resist. And so I'll think ahead to busier fall rhythms while remembering how special, how powerful, these slow and simple days can be.

Monday, July 28, 2014


It has been a full but magical weekend of settling into our new city house. There are still boxes to unpack, closets to organize, pictures to hang, and knickknacks to place, but we feel right at home in this cozy spot and are so glad to be back in our old neighborhood.

I look forward to sharing more snapshots of home very soon! 

Monday, July 21, 2014


It was only fitting that we began our month in Vermont at the Solstice with strawberry picking, and ended the month at the same farm with blueberrying.

And now, back in the city, we are spending this week moving into our new city house

Truthfully, at the moment this process seems a bit like performing open heart surgery on someone currently running a marathon. But I am trying to stay calm, let things go, and remember to appreciate all the joy of this week.

Wishing you a full and joyful week, too!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Mama's Pursuits

My husband and I celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary last weekend. We were married on a Hawaiian beach, just the two of us.

After we eloped, I realized that there weren't many books available for couples seeking a non-traditional wedding. We weren't running away from anything; we just didn't want the pomp and circumstance associated with a traditional wedding. And I thought other couples might be interested in traditional wedding alternatives, too. So I wrote a book about it.

After Your Unique Wedding was published in 2005, I thought someday I would write another book. Then motherhood happened and I was knee-deep in babyhood and toddlerhood, homemaking and homeschooling. I still am. But I began putting together some ideas for another book, talking with the publishing agency I worked with for the previous book, gathering early endorsements from colleagues.

I dragged my feet a bit, wondering if I could really dive into this important project, debating whether now was the time. Then, at the beach with a dear friend while our kids splashed together, I got just the nudge I needed. I told her about the book idea, how my agent was enthusiastic, how my endorsements were encouraging. But I also shared my trepidation, questioning if I could really devote myself to this project when so much of my time was pulled in other ways. I said reluctantly: "If I decide to do this project, I will probably need to get a babysitter for a few hours a week so I can write." And then she, in her gentle but wise way, said: "But isn't that ok? Isn't this important enough for you to get some help?"

I thought about her words, her encouragement. I had never used a babysitter before, relying mostly on family members to help out. But in Vermont this past month, as the finishing touches are placed on our newly-renovated city house, I realized that this book project was important enough.

For a few morning hours a week, while the final proposal for my book on natural learning came together, we welcomed our delightful babysitter, Anna, into our home. Recommended to us by a neighbor who fully understood our family and philosophy, Anna was the perfect match. Calm, quiet, gentle, she allowed the children to fully direct their play and involve her as needed, while the baby and I worked in the back office.

This whole process has been eye-opening for me. I realized not only how important--vital--it is for moms to carve out time in their busy days to create and pursue their own interests, but it is also equally important to ask for help to do this. If we don't make space for ourselves, even just a bit, we run the risk of getting overly-stressed and burnt-out. We run the risk of becoming stretched so thin--of becoming so unbalanced--that we lose the joy in mothering. We run the risk of ignoring really important projects.

Sometimes it takes a good friend to remind us of what is really important, to remind us to take care of ourselves and seek help when needed. To remind us to find that balance. To remind us that now is as good a time as any to begin.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Better Than Play-Dough

It took me a while to realize that the everyday rhythms of home create the most enriching opportunities for natural learning.

Back when my oldest two children were toddlers, I would put on a show while I made dinner, or otherwise distract them so that I could do my household work. The more I learned, the more I read, the more I watched and listened, the more I realized that by disconnecting the children from the ordinary rhythms of our days, the more they were missing out on important learning moments. Rather than viewing cooking and cleaning as separate endeavors to get through so that then we could play, or do, or learn, I discovered that the cooking and cleaning and other household tasks were the playing, and the doing, and the learning!

I began searching for recipes that would involve the children, or finding simple tasks that they could do right alongside me. I began integrating the children into my day, into my rhythms, and found that it led to calmer days and more peaceful mealtimes. Tasks were getting done, meals were being prepared, and real learning was happening.

One go-to recipe that makes its way into my kitchen quite often is homemade pizza. I used to make play-dough a lot--and still do from time to time--but I find that making pizza dough a couple of times a week provides the same enjoyment as play-dough while also being helpful in feeding hungry little bellies. The kids play with the dough for as long as they want, while I make a salad or sautee some mushrooms, and then when they are done playing, it's time to pop the dough in the oven. Fifteen minutes later, their play turns into pizza! What could be more fun--and worthwhile!

Here is my favorite pizza recipe from Barbara Kingsolver's excellent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Do you have any other tips for integrating your children's learning and playing into the everyday rhythms of home?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

On Babies and Sleep

I have been hearing through the grapevine lately about parents of young infants "Ferberizing" their babies with cry-it-out techniques. I have a visceral, physical response whenever I hear this, and I imagine many of you do as well.

I often remark that when my kids grow into adulthood and hopefully welcome their own children some day, I will be respectful should they decide not to follow my natural parenting/Attachment Parenting approach. Want to birth your babies in a hospital? Fine. Want to bottle-feed instead of breastfeed? Ok. Want to send your kids to school? It's your choice. But let your baby cry-it-out under the false and cruel assumption that babies--babies!--need to learn to self-soothe and be independent sleepers? Oh, I don't think I would handle that one very well at all! I might bite my tongue on all other parenting decisions, but that one? That one is really tough for me to swallow.

I think it's because I believe so strongly in the power and benefit of forming strong attachments with our babies and responding, as our instincts so smartly guide us to do, to our babies' cries and needs. As Attachment Parenting guru, Dr. Sears, says on his website: "With the cry-it-out method, what’s the lesson baby learns? 'They aren’t going to come, so I may as well give up,' or 'It doesn’t matter how I feel.' Less-persistent babies give up quickly. Since they can’t trust parents to be there, they 'cope' and learn a big lesson: You have to look after number one because no one else will."

By listening to our babies, and responding gently and attentively to their intense but very basic needs for love and care and feeding, we model compassion and respect. We show them that we brought them into this world to care for them, to temporarily sacrifice some of our own comforts and conveniences for their benefit. We follow our powerful parental instincts, nudging us, reminding us, that we should be attentive to our babies' cries, and we should keep them close to us and comfort them when they fuss.

My hope is that my little ones will grow up to parent with respect and compassion: that they will appreciate and value this brief gift of time with their infants and toddlers and see it as a special opportunity to form life-long bonds of attachment and trust. They may not subscribe to all of my natural parenting ideals, but when it comes to eschewing cry-it-out methods, I hope they are on-board. Because if they're not, I definitely won't be biting my tongue.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Until next year

We made it to the strawberry field several times this summer and while we didn't pick as many pounds as I would have hoped, we picked enough to enjoy strawberry smoothies well into winter. 

In this last week of berry picking at the organic farm we visit when in Vermont, I was a bit nostalgic. Strawberry picking has become such a seasonal marker for me: a way to celebrate the start of summer as a family and to vividly capture how much each child grows from one year to the next by seeing what they do, how they act in the berry field. My big girl goes off on her own now, intent on finding the best patches to pick from. My big boy continues to be the helper, busily filling baskets as fast as he can, still insistent on not eating any of that red goodness. My little girl views her time in the field as an all-you-can-eat berry extravaganza. And my little boy goes along for the ride, sitting snugly on mama's back. 

That was this year. But what about next year? My two biggest will get bigger and bolder. My little girl may pick more than she eats. My little boy will be racing through the fields to keep up with his siblings. Another year. And so much growing, so much living to do until we find ourselves again in these strawberry fields. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Junk Drawer

My junk drawer recently reproduced. What was supposed to be one drawer for all of a home's miscellaneous doodads, had multiplied rapidly into three drawers. I had been putting off emptying and organizing these drawers. Who can find the time, I thought, with four little ones scampering around all day?

Then it dawned on me: what great fun this project would be for my three-year-old! Early one morning, before her big brother and sister awoke, she and I tackled the junk drawers, organizing and consolidating them. She had a blast finding lost items and playing with fun and forgotten gadgets, and I was able to complete a household project that had been looming for quite some time.

When we think of simple ways to integrate our children into the daily rhythms of home--involving them in household projects, inviting them to move through the day alongside us--we find that our days at home can be more peaceful, more enjoyable, and more productive than we ever thought possible.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Morning Rhythms: Art

When my older daughter was a toddler, she got up very early and hit the ground running. This weary mama needed just a few minutes to open my eyes, sip a cup of coffee, and get focused on the day ahead. So I began incorporating a morning craft table--or Discovery Table, as I called it then--into our daily rhythms.

Since those early days with a toddler and a baby, morning art has found a way into our rhythms. The basics of the morning art table are constant: paper, crayons, assorted markers and pens and pencils, paints and scissors, tape and glue. Some days, when I'm motivated, I may cut out simple shapes or colorful pictures from magazines. I may add in some different materials, like scraps of cloth, or felt, or yarn--whatever I have lying around. All of these supplies and materials are laid out on the dining table for the kids to stumble upon each morning. Some days they all flock to it at once. Other days, they gravitate toward it in shifts. And some days no one uses it at all. But it's there when creativity hits, when the artists and makers among us feel inspired, when mama needs a few minutes to catch her breath.

It's simple things like this--taking five minutes to set-up or tidy a basic crafting table--that help to seamlessly integrate living and learning into busy days with young children. It's these simple things that can bring rhythm to these full days, and help us discover the joy among all the messes.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Freedom and Opportunity

Natural learning hinges on the belief that children are innately designed to direct their own learning, to discover and apply the tools of their culture, when given the freedom and opportunity to do so. So what does that mean for parents? What should we do to encourage this natural learning in our children?

We have the important job of protecting this freedom and providing this opportunity. 

Through the everyday rhythms of living and learning with our children, we can provide freedom and opportunity for natural learning. We don't need to do anything too fancy, too complicated. We don't need to know a lot or buy a lot or make a lot. We don't need to rely on curricula or activity books. We simply live and learn alongside our children while being mindful of the many ways we can provide the conditions--the freedom and opportunity--for natural learning to occur.

For example, we like to go on a lot of family walks and hikes. We don't suggest that in spring we look for buds or in fall we look for autumn leaves. We don't buy or bring nature journals. We don't lead. We follow. We go to favorite places that we all enjoy and let the children chart the course. We bring a backpack filled with simple items, like blank notebooks and pens, pocket field guides, a kitchen jar for bugs, maybe some binoculars or a magnifying glass or a compass. We let the children look through the pack so they know what's available should they choose to use anything, and let them bring along anything else they might want to. If we grown-ups spot something that interests us--like a cool bug or an unusual track--we point it out. And the kids do the same. 

Parents are like gardeners. We plant seeds, provide nourishment and nurturing, protect from harm, and then step back and allow nature to do the rest. 

There is no agenda for natural learning. No right way or wrong way. No checklist to follow or curriculum to consult. There is just living and learning. Freedom and opportunity. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

All that you do

I think we mamas of little ones tend to be too hard on ourselves. Instead of focusing on all we do during the day, we dwell on all we don't do. 

I encountered this yesterday at the end of a full summer day. I saw piles of clothes scattered across the bedroom floor waiting to be folded, another basket of clothes in the basement to be brought upstairs and sorted, and still another basket in the bathroom needing to be washed. I saw a pile of dishes in the kitchen sink and a dishwasher full of clean dishes to put away. I saw crumbs on the floor, sand in the foyer, books strewn all over the living room floor. I didn't write that thank you note I intended to draft. I didn't make that phone call I wanted to. I didn't read enough, or play enough, or hug enough.

But then I stepped back for a moment and thought, instead, about all that did happen. I prepared trays of cornstarch and water for my littles to play with. I took them to the pool for two hours. I nursed and held a baby for most of the day. I made a dozen-and-a-half maple-applesauce muffins. I handed out band-aids. I looked at bugs. I fed, and cleaned, and fed again. I finalized a book proposal due soon to my agent. I snuggled my little ones to sleep, and enjoyed a quiet conversation with my husband as the lightning bugs danced. 

So, yes, there is a lot that doesn't get done in a day. But there is also so much that does.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Managing the Summer Sun

I use sunscreen on the kids very rarely, like less than a dozen times a year. Most sunscreens on the market contain nasty chemicals that seep into our bodies, and research shows that using sunscreen doesn't protect against skin cancer. Also, those spray sunscreens? Not good for kids, according to new research by Consumer Reports. And in a nation deemed widely deficient in Vitamin D, to the point where doctors readily prescribe synthetic supplements of this hormone, using sunscreen blocks out the beneficial effects of sunshine exposure.

So what do we do in our family to enjoy the outdoors and avoid getting burned? I buy long-sleeve swim shirts for the kids that go over their bathing suits, and insist they wear them when swimming in the brightest part of the day. We try to avoid direct sunlight at peak hours, or minimize our time in the sun at mid-day, seeking shade when possible and using hats to block sun exposure. 

When we will be in the direct sun at peak hours for a lengthy period of time I use sunblock sparingly, applying it in small quantities to the most vulnerable spots, like cheeks, noses, and the back of necks. While all commercially-available sunscreen contains either chemical- or mineral-based compounds that are absorbed into skin, it's a benefit-cost proposition of determining the risk of sunburn at a particular time of day with the risk of chemical exposure to my children. I have found that a mineral-based sunscreen by Rhode Island-based Block Island Organics works well for our family when needed.

As the kids grow and my control over what they wear in the sun and for how long they play in it wanes, I hope they will take with them my guidance on natural ways to avoid sunburns. And when they apply sunscreen, may they know to seek the most natural brands available.

Block Island Organics is offering City Kids blog readers an additional 10% off their sunscreen products during their Fourth of July sale! Enter the discount code kmjuly through July 7th for this additional discount!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

facilitating dreams

My three-year-old is captivated by bugs. She seeks them, watches them, gathers them, talks to them, and incorporates them into her play. 

I spot her current passion for bugs and try to provide her with tools to pursue this passion, should she choose. We go to the library and collect books about bugs. I leave these books scattered throughout the house--on the living room floor, in a nook, by her bed--so they are there for her to stumble upon. I gather field guides on insects and take them along in the backpack for all of us to reference when we are on family hikes together. I take the kids to a nearby museum with a large and varied insect exhibit. I find brief, online videos about bugs. I leave jars of crayons and piles of paper easily accessible when inspiration hits. I let her stay up late to see the magical sight of July lightning bugs.

That is my role as an unschooling mom.

It is nothing bold or exotic, nothing that consumes very much time or energy, nothing that requires superhuman powers or advanced degrees. I simply listen, and watch, and then I help to gather or find resources that may help my child to learn naturally, organically, as she is innately designed to do. I am her facilitator, helping to bridge the gap between my child's nascent interests and ideas and the abundant resources of the community around us.

My daughter's passion for bugs may only last as long as these summer lightning bugs, or maybe she will grow up to be an entomologist. Either way, I'll be there in the background listening, watching, facilitating those important dreams.

Monday, June 30, 2014

10 Reasons To Homeschool Your Kids

There are many reasons to consider the homeschooling option for your family, but here is my top 10 list:

1. Customize teaching and learning - One of the great advantages of homeschooling is the ability to recognize a child's distinct learning styles and needs and tailor a family's teaching and learning approach accordingly.  The increasing popularity of homeschooling has led to curriculum resources for every type of learner, from a wide variety of purchased, packaged curricula to choose from, to countless online learning sites, to community programming specifically targeting homeschoolers.  For "eclectic" homeschoolers and unschoolers like us who choose a more unstructured approach to homeschooling, there are museums, libraries, academic and cultural events, classes, lessons, and a host of other resources to facilitate child-led learning.  Homeschooling allows the flexibility to adapt to a child's specific learning needs and use the full resources of the community and its people to augment learning.

2. Gain time - Homeschooling provides families with the gift of time.  Time together to learn and grow naturally, slowly.  Time for children to uncover and pursue their own talents.  Time to explore nature and the world around us.  Time to read.  Time to play.  Time to dream.

3. Cultivate curiosity - With the freedom to learn and explore, a child's natural curiosity flourishes, guiding him to discover, create, imagine.  As facilitators, we parents provide an enriching learning environment for our children and identify resources that may help to spark and satisfy their innate curiosity.

4. Reclaim childhood - Childhood today runs at a dizzying pace, with pressures to grow-up faster and earlier than ever before.  Homeschooling helps to reclaim and retain the innocence and spirit of childhood for a wee bit longer.

5. Focus on family - Homeschooling positions family at the center of a child's life, fostering family togetherness and core values, and creating a safe, nurturing environment in which to learn and grow.

6. Strengthen sibling bonds - Homeschooling brothers and sisters build strong sibling bonds, learning from and with each other, collaborating and trouble-shooting, and creating together each day.

7. Encourage positive social behaviors - Homeschooling allows children to see daily examples of positive social behaviors through close interactions with grown-ups and peers. When conflict arises, adults are able to model effective resolution techniques that help children to develop important interpersonal skills.

8. Learn from the community - Homeschoolers are uniquely positioned to use their community as their classroom, taking full advantage of the varied and plentiful offerings of the community and the many interesting and knowledgeable people who become their daily "teachers."  Homeschooling also allows children to interact and learn with a wildly diverse population of fellow homeschoolers who meet regularly.

9. Simplify schedules - Homeschooling helps families to prioritize how a child's time is spent each week to maximize curiosity and self-directed learning, and minimize stresses and waste.  Homeschooling helps families to slow down, simplify, and focus on creating more peaceful, unhurried family rhythms.

10. Enjoy outdoor learning - The efficiency of homeschooling, of individualized learning, creates many opportunities for free play and exploration, much of which occurs outside of one's home, throughout one's community, and through meaningful interactions with the natural world around us.

What are your thoughts on this list?  How does it compare with your own top reasons to homeschool your kids?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Learning To Swim

Last summer, when he was four, my older boy learned to swim. He never took lessons. He wasn’t coerced or cajoled. We didn’t encourage him to get his face wet or to kick his legs or make arm-circles in the water. Instead, we let him play.

He spent much of the summer by a pool or lake or ocean, splashing and jumping, exploring and experimenting—most of the time with a life jacket on. He watched his older sister swim across the pool on her own, saw the fun she had diving underwater for various items and playing all sorts of made-up water games. He watched other kids playfully swimming and took it all in.

And then one day at the pond, at the end of the season, he watched as a new friend, also age four, swam without a life jacket, all by himself through and under the water having a grand old time. Well, my big boy just had to try it, had to see what all this fun was about. And just like that, he could swim. Now, this summer, he’s a fish. From the moment he wakes up, he’s asking when we can go to the pool or the pond, and just before his eyes close at night, he’s asking how many more hours until we can return to the water.

I wrote last month that I don’t want my children just to learn to read, I want them to love to read. I don’t want them just to learn math, I want them to love math. I don’t want them just to learn to swim, I want them to love to swim. And the best way for that love to blossom is for them to want to do it, on their own time and in their own way, without adult coercion or suggestion.

If someone forced you to swim, told you that you had to learn, that it was imperative and non-negotiable, that these were the steps you would follow each week to make it happen right now whether you liked it or not, you might learn to swim, but you probably wouldn’t like it. Or at least you wouldn’t like the process of learning it. And isn’t that a shame, because learning to swim can be, should be, really fun. It should be a summertime rite-of-passage, watching all your friends, your parents, enjoying the water and you eagerly joining in when the time is right for you.

Learning anything is most meaningful, most fulfilling, when it is self-directed: when the resources are available, when the time and space for learning are provided, when we are not coerced into it because of some arbitrary expectation, when we see others around us—friends, parents—doing it and enjoying it.

Want your kids to learn to swim this summer? Take them to the beach, to the pool. Often. Let them splash and play and watch. Do a few laps and cannonballs yourself. And then back off.

If it’s their summer to swim, they will. If not, there’s always next year.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Peaceful Children

I wrote yesterday about meeting my new neighbor who, it turns out, homeschooled her children in the city decades ago. After telling her that we are a homeschooling family, I was struck by what she said:

"You can always tell when children are homeschooled. There is such a peacefulness about them."

Now, this is not to say that my home is filled with peace and quiet. Heavens no. But I think what my neighbor meant, and what I see in my own children and in their homeschooled peers, is a sense of peace as the children move about their days, unhurried, unforced, with hours of free, unstructured time to just be. 

They have the freedom to explore and discover, to reveal interests and talents, to collaborate and synthesize, to read and play and dream. This freedom--this time and space to learn in a personal, self-directed, non-coerced way--fosters a peacefulness in children. They get to be who they are. They get to do what they want to do, to learn what and how they want to. Their distinct personalities, their unique interests, talents and idiosyncrasies are allowed to emerge and flourish. 

They don't know about conformity. They aren't hampered by the need to "fit in" or "go along." They are their own people and there is a quiet confidence--a peacefulness--in knowing that they are not being judged, or cajoled, or laden with expectations. 

Freedom. Peace. Childhood. They go together so well.