Like many homeschoolers, I am a curriculum junkie. I love math curriculum, language curriculum, and book lists. One thing that that made it into our curriculum basket this year (and I mean this basket literally, because on our days out I can fit all our school supplies into it) was kittens. It turns out, kittens are educational. So if you're feeling that you'd rather just sit and pet your cat than make your kids fill out worksheets, here's why:
Animals teach us about life. They teach us about life cycles, sex education, instinct, and behavior. Just try explaining neutering to your six year old, and he'll learn all kinds of things.
This summer we were lucky enough to foster this mama and her five kittens until they were old enough to be adopted, which meant we got them young at 11 days old.
We were able to watch her protect them, feed them, communicate with them, and groom them. She even brought in mice to train them, which added some problem-solving to our biology lessons.
Animals teach us social skills, especially when your sibling is holding your kitten. We've had a lot of discussions on sharing, on being gentle, not grabbing, and saying please.
Animals teach children time management. They feel bad if they forget to feed the pets breakfast, and they try harder to fulfill their responsibilities.
We hoped that getting pets would help teach self-regulation, but somehow we ended up with really tolerant, curious, gentle pets instead. Oh, well. I guess we'll just have to keep working on that one.
In our homeschool, the kittens have been inspiration for art. My daughter has experimented more with photography, has written poetry about them, and is working on Meme #31, cataloging their every expression.
Then there are the literacy benefits of kittens. When I started the year, I wanted my kids to work on their fine-motor skills to develop their handwriting. So during storytime (1 hour, taking turns reading aloud), I encourage them to do "handwork." The idea is, if they're knitting, quilting, or building a puzzle, it keeps their fingers busy and their mouths quiet[er]. Want to know what the most popular form of handwork is? Petting kittens.
Here's my youngest reading his reading lesson to his kitten. He has struggled with reading, and on this day he couldn't quite face up to a lesson with me. But he could read to his patient, non-judgmental ball of purring fur.
Since the kittens all needed names, we used the opportunity to add in some history and biography. You can't name a kitten Hypatia without getting to know her namesake a little better.
Sometimes I like to think they might actually be interested in what we're reading.
Kittens make good wrestling buddies.
They teach emotional resilience when, you're 11 years old, and your mom "never listens" and even though you're trying to be mature, right now, you just, can't.
Kittens play hide and seek. They evade predators (owls, hawks, coyotes, brothers) time and time again. And each time you find them, after you thought this time they were mincemeat for sure, you discover just how capable you are of love.
Young children are so interested in animals because they are figuring out who they are. To understand what is human, you must understand what isn't. You must parse out what makes you the same, and why, and what makes you different. I could either add a study of metaphysics to our curriculum basket, or, we could just pet a kitten.
But what about math? Yes, kittens even teach math. The kids were in charge of weighing them and calculating how much to feed them, and how much their expenses might cost.
And, now we can all count to five.
We adopted two of the kittens and had to say goodbye to the other cats, who hopefully found quieter homes. Someday, maybe our two remaining kittens will also teach us something about loss, but I hope, not yet.
Socialization is not a priority for me.
Friendships are. I hope that my childrens' education teaches them how to be good friends. I hope that they learn to be honest, to be loving listeners, to be kind, and to stand with integrity.
Kids can certainly learn these things in a traditional school setting, but the academic social priority seems to be teaching them how to behave in school. ("Oddly enough," says one homeschooler, "our kids seem to do just fine with sitting in a classroom or standing in line or being quiet when the need arises. These don't tend to be skill that take 13 years to acquire.") As John Taylor Gatto puts it, "school is about learning to wait your turn, however long it takes to come, if ever. And how to submit with a show of enthusiasm, to the judgement of strangers, even if they are wrong, even if your enthusiasm is phony."
Then I hear stories about lunchtime ... how public "students are not allowed to talk to each other ... there isn't time, because they only have 17 minutes to eat ... and there's a giant gauge on the wall that measures the noise level, and when the arrow points to the red zone, then the whole cafeteria has to eat with their heads down." I'm not even kidding ... a first grader told me that. Or I hear how when they are walking to class, they march in a line with their arms folded and aren't allowed to talk or smile (true story). How they can't ride the bus, because it's too dangerous, and the 4th-graders are dealing meth in the back seat (true story). Maybe public schools teach social skills in the classroom during all those hours you're sitting in a room with your same-age peers--except you have to raise your hand to speak, and even then, you're speaking to the dictator at the front of the room.
I'll be the first to admit that there's a whole other side to the argument (isn't that why homeschoolers are so defensive on this issue?). I once warned a friend that if she took her kids out of school, they would be weird. "Yes, but they'll be weird like us!" True, true. Not only will they be weird, but they will be statistically more likely to sass their parents! (Why am I doing this again? ...) For public students there are some wonderful teachers and parents who really do teach children how to have beautiful friendships, and who model how to be honest, and loving listeners, and to be kind, and to stand with integrity. They let students have discussions, and there is time for school to be a laboratory of social studies. Probably there are more wonderful teachers and classrooms and social experiences than negative ones. I just wondered, hey, could I teach these things just as well at home? As with math, can we use our freedom to learn social skills more efficiently, or perhaps more creatively?
Here's what I list in my mind-map under the subject "Friendship":
"Friendship. See also: Playtime, Co-op, Art Academy, Pottery, Gymnastics, Early Childhood Development, Chores, Field Trips, Nature Studies, Fledgling Fun, Ethics, Soccer, Library Storytime, Cousin Reports, Letter Writing, Cooking, and Viola"
I am reminding myself that our lives are full of friendship-building activities. We arrange playdates with other people, of all types. My kids are homework-free, which means they are ready to play and out the door the moment "the School Kids" get home. They spend many, many hours with the wonderful kids in our neighborhood.
We also get together with homeschool kids, who are available during the day. One of my favorite years in school when I was a kid was the one where my family (we had 7 children) paired up with another family who had 9 children (or was it 10? :) whose ages generally lined up with ours in pairs. I had a best friend, and we got together nearly every day and giggled through our work. Our moms took turns giving amazing lessons (medieval feasts and charleston dances, and the like), and there were plenty of childhood politics to pick up on during unstructured play.
We try to spend one day a week participating in a Co-op, where students learn in a group dynamic, and compare teaching styles, and form friendships that last a lifetime.
My kids make friends in their community-based classes; in art classes, athletic classes, and science classes.
They (or at least my two eldest) get to learn how to care for and teach a younger sibling, and have distinct responsibilities which will leave them better prepared for babysitting later, and dating, and their own future family life. (I need to make sure my youngest gets similar training ... anyone know how to hire a baby to come stay with us?)
Siblings love each other the most and also fight to the death, so practicing social skills on one another prepares us for future positive relationships and negative ones. Having been homeschooled till 10th grade, I was never picked on in the playground--but I've definitely been punched in the face :)
We learn to work together; there's no custodian at our school, only a family sharing the load. We love doing service projects with other homeschoolers (park clean-up, care center visits, water conservation, etc.) and would love to be involved in more of these activities that help us contribute and feel less self-absorbed.
We frequently meet with other families for field trips, nature studies, and presentations over the internet.
We spend time as a family each week studying ethics together, a practice we hope to expand.
At viola lessons, my kids are learning how to show respect and follow instructions from their teacher, even when the work is hard. They get a thrill when he plays alongside them--a prequel to playing socially in an orchestra.
We attend library events regularly, just to make little friends and gain exposure to circle-time.
We write letters to old friends and cook for new ones.
My secret hope is that by spending time together, their siblings will be the ones with whom they are the most honest, and the most loving, and the most kind. And maybe, for a little longer anyway than otherwise, I'll get to be their bestest friend.