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Fluid structures: a climbing frame

Russian households have a long history of indoor climbing frames, created as a space for a physical development and play. Our house in the Netherlands was no different and for many years we had a small scale climbing structure (Early start) in the middle of our living room, used extensively for physical activities, lounging and playing. Its best feature was openness: the frame could be turned onto any side, afforded multiple uses and could be extended endlessly with add-ons and accessories. When the kids grew out of it, I sold it to a friend with a newborn and promised to the kids that we will create something similar that can grow with them further.

So, what did we expect from the new structure?

  • A space for physical activity on a spectrum between gymnastics/climbing and lounging/intuitive movement with elements of sensory integration therapy. The sport side of it is more or less obvious. There is probably more scientific explanation to what I call “intuitive movement”, but simply put it’s about providing opportunities for the kids to engage in sensory activities that their bodies need. Since hammocks are big in our household I know that nesting and swinging are something that is definitely appreciated.
  • A structure to play and explore. A space that could be turned into a scene for their play – a house, a ship, a movie scene. A space that could be converted by them into what they need, providing opportunities to practice with form and function while configuring something that they need. And, as I like it with everything in life, it should be hackable: giving a sense of ownership and inspiring tinkering.
  • Something that fit other requirements: realistic budget and amount of work, repurposing of what we have, cool learning experience for the whole family and the most important thing relative invisibility, since we, as parents, would like to have a sense of living room, where we can relax and hang out with out friends without feeling that we are in the middle of a playground (while actually being in the middle of playground :))).

Of course, it was designed and build together with the kids. I spent hours on Pinterest looking at ideas, designs and ready-made solutions. Kids thought of dream structures and  desired uses, some of which (a tower with a usable top and a hiding space in the heating space under the floor) made Robert scared of raising unrealistic expectations. We looked at what was needed and what we could use.

We already had a climbing wall in Alexander’s room, which wasn’t getting much use, because it afforded a limited number of opportunities (climbing with a connection to high bed, attaching one end of a hammock, hanging things). We also had two rings in the ceiling of the living room, which provided opportunities to hang various sport attachements (rings, rope ladder) as well as all sorts of nest and swings. The rings were a hell of a work to put in place, but very versatile and practically invisible without things attached to them.

Combining those two options gave us opportunities to go 3D in the space between the wall and the ceiling. We finally got a good use of all those threaded holes in the climbing wall, various hanging attachments that we have, carabiners and other climbing equipment from Alexander and an excessive number of hammocks that we have in our house. The only things I find missing are a net (to climb and to make a nest higher up) and a figuring out a way to use rings in the middle of the living room together with the wall structure.

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Winter rhythm 2018-2019

September-October are always transitional months, where travel and projects with inner rhythm give space to the weekly structure of externals clubs, sports and lessons (see previous winter seasons). This year there are also more online group lessons that kids do in Russian (marked “R”). There are also more shorted courses that might be replaced by something else later in the season. So this is how our “external schedule” looks so far:

  • Monday
    • (Oct-Dec) History of life online (R), Alexander and Anna
    • (Oct-Jan) Proefrondje Muziek, girls
    • swimming, girls
    • (Sep-Nov) History of inventionthes online (R), Alexander
  • Tuesday
    • choir, all kids at three different levels (Alexander and Anna do two levels each)
  • Wednesday
    • math online (R), Alexander
    • judo, girls
    • swimming, Alexander
  • Thursday
    • homeschooling meetings
  • Friday
    • judo, Alexander

Making choices for the external activities to follow is always a tough process. External activities add a lot of value, providing a structured guided experience in social settings, often in the fields where we can’t do it good enough (sports, music) or with other “extras”, such as concerts and social life of the choir or Russian in online lessons. But having a fixed external structure eats into the time that could be more flexibly used for our own projects and travel. It also asks for a time and energy spent on the logistics (preparing and processing content-wise, packing, travel, communication), although that part became much easier for me since in the last two years Alexander gradually switched into travelling to all of his local activities by himself and he sometimes also helps with the girls. And, of course, money is also an issue.

With the sports and other activities, my preference usually goes into those in the beginning or end of the day, so that the kids can have a few uninterrupted hours to study in own rhythm, to do a project, to meet people or to go a field/musea/garden trip. We also have a strong preference for keeping the weekends as free as possible from fixed external events to travel further away, do things together as a family and to have a social life. And I have learnt to keep short school holidays (where Dutch regular activities stop) as free as possible from the homeschooling group activities, so we have more time to spend with family friends with school-going kids, travel, picking things from a wide array of interesting holiday activities for the kids or just live structureless, which I personally always appreciate.

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Aan het filmen

Kids from our homeschooling group are working on a movie. We are not supposed to know much about it, since it’s their own project. It is managed by a 9,5 years old, who is busy with shooting and editing videos for a couple of years by now.

So far they had two days to work on it f2f as a group and in-between communication to sort out what is needed. During the first day they brainstormed the story, decided on the characters and who plays whom, chose the location and wrote part of the scenario. They had two weeks before the second day, dedicated to shooting on location. In between there were back and forth emailing (finishing the scenario, discussing and arranging the requisite, as well as other logistics) and discussing project-related things during the other meetings.

Kids in the group have a long history of doing things together and a couple of smaller-scale video projects done. It was interesting to see how the roles in the project got distributed:

  • Most of the “management” and keeping everyone in the flow is done by a triangle of older kids 9.5, 11 and 12 years old. Those three were also the ones who did practically all email communication and they were actively engaged during the shooting process. The 9,5 years old drives the whole thing and does a lot between the meetings.
  • Next to them was a group of four 8-10 years old, who are actively contributing to the project. They are playing bigger roles and actively involved in decision-making. During the f2f meetings they get get on and off with the process, getting distracted to do something else (that’s actually easy to see when once in a while kids from the first group are looking for somebody who has to be shooted in the next episode.
  • Then there were five 6-7 years old who had episodic roles in the project, alternating their participation in the video ьфлштп with parallel activities and playing on their own. From what I understand from my kids there was a deliberate planning to make sure that the younger ones did have a space in the project, but also that that space was not on a critical path in case they change their mind at the last moment. I also got a glimplse of the team helping my own six years old to overcome her fears and act.
  • And we also had four younger brothers and sisters between 1 and 5, who didn’t have any particular role in the project.

So, it was with 17 kids in total, with 13 taking part in the project. The whole thing was facilitated by six adults, who took care of the travel logistics, food and keeping the younger ones away from where the work was done. Parents also supported and coached their kids to a degree that was needed and accepted.

 

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Looking for a task management tool

I am looking for a task management tool to organise work across people and contexts. So far we are with Trello, but I’m not happy with it.

What do I need?

  • a pool of tasks, some of which are shared with the others and belong to projects
  • being able to assign a task to multiple contexts (projects/views/boards/tags)
  • an overview on those tasks that I can easily tweak
  • personalised views and organisation of the tasks (including shared) for the other team members

RTM+iGoogle combo

I actually had something that worked very well when during my PhD time. It was a combination of Remember The Milk for task management and iGoogle (discontinued) that I used to create an overview on the work to be done. It was a really handy combination and I really regret of not posting a blogpost about it then (it still somewhere in drafts, but doesn’t make much sense without the screenshots).

My tasks in RTM were organised into smart lists, which essentially allow showing one task in a many different contexts. For example, something like “write an introduction to chapter 3” could be shown in “PhD: discuss with profs”, “PhD: Chapter 3” and “Next week”.

I had a couple of iGoogle overview pages, each of which included a bunch of customisable gadgets used to show tasks from RTM smart lists. As far as I remember I used two views the most. One included an overview of everything related to my PhD, another – all the tasks, including non-work ones sliced by urgent/important, locations and types of activities (e.g. “all writing” or “all shopping”).

The only real problem I had with that combo was lack of intergration of non-work tasks between me and Robert, since he used Trello at work. I could send him tasks by email, but this is how far it got. But for my own tasks it worked perfectly, allowing me to add tasks easily, to snow them in various combinations and to switch contexts easily.

iGoogle was discontinued around the time when I stopped working. I continued to use RTM on and off. At slow periods it was too much hassle: I operate pretty well with a paper lists that I update as soon as needed. At more busy times I missed the dashboard of iGoogle to manage the complexity and reverted to a combination of paper lists for urgent tasks and various reminders/events for long-term and repeating tasks.

Trello and what doesn’t work

Now, since we work together with Robert, I decided to give a try to Trello. We also added kids to the mix, with the oldest two having their own Trello accounts and learning how use them. We have tried various paper lists with the kids – they work for a short term projects, but do not help much with repeating tasks, so an online option is something I wanted to explore (another one is a paper version of Scrum :).

I created a couple of boards and started to fill them in, share and do things. I quickly run into the problem of getting a good overview across the boards. Trello home page and a personal overview both have a very limited way of showing what’s up. Yes, I can filter and orders the tasks, but what I miss being able to organise them in space manually and switch on/off specific contexts.

I schould have been warned about lack of proper overviews in Trello when Robert told me that he uses one board to manage work and private tasks. Since higher level overviews do not work for me I ended up doing the same – adding everything into one board. Of course after that I quickly lost overview within that board as well as the flexibility of choosing contexts (e.g. focusing on homeschooling tasks only).

I also miss the flexibility of RTH smart lists: I’d love to be able to have a task in a “project” and “today” lists simultaneousely and allowing the kids to add it in some other list of their own.

By now I’m pretty frustrated with it, but not giving up before digging dipper in what are the options within Trello. May be what I need can be done with add ons or saved searches feature of the paid verstions. Of course, any advice, experiences or ideas for alternatives are welcome.

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Evidence of a friendship

A friend from Moscow, who was coming to our house to celebrate my birthday with me was refused a visa. Because, between the other things, they couldn’t see clearly why she was coming. Which made me thinking of what can actually can serve as an evidence of a friendship.

She is a singer. And as long as I know her I enjoy both, listening to her own songs and singing together, across times and locations. Do I have an evidence of planning my trips to Moscow so I could come to one of her concerts? I do have photos from those few that I was able to attend and posters of many more that I missed.

I wasn’t up for celebrating anything after my mother passed away two year ago. But once an idea of her singing in our house for my birthday came up I was up for a party. The one coming Sunday. It is still on, but will be different without her physical presence here. Still, I am very grateful that she gave me the impulse of doing it, as a sign that life gets back to normal.

Our FB “friendship” goes back three years. Does it say much about 33 years that we know each other? Can it show ups and downs, eating pasta with mayonnaise after school, sharing stories of falling in love and various songs sang together that come up thinking of when we were 15 or 22 or 30somethings?

Do I have photos of us together? Hardly. We don’t think of making selfies when I come staying in her house adding my three kids to her five. We cook and talk, feed the kids and make sure that they can play outside while we have some uninterrupted time for tea. We pack swimming gear, water and food to go to the lake nearby. Or we look for the right sizes of boots, gloves or skiing shoes, so my kids can enjoy building castles in the deep snow or try cross-country skiing in the fields behind the house. Or we escape to the sauna, to share stories of falling and standing up again, interrupted by her husband knocking on the door because her baby or mine is hungry and can’t wait any longer.

Do I have much evidence of her being next to me at the hard times? Two of us sitting in the kitchen (the one of pasta with mayonnaise) after the funeral of my mother? Her offer to host three of my kids when I was up to the last stretch of emptying the house I grew up? Coming to pick them up again instead of having a sauna time together when I couldn’t finish that in time?

I might have a bit of photos of the good times. Those where she sings at our wedding. Photos of camping at Valday (but how do you capture the fun of singing by the fire or jumping in the cold lake after the heat in the sauna tent?) I do have photos of our kids together in various ages and combinations. Of the capes that she made for her kids because mine had them. Of our kids making and eating sushi in her kitchen. Of them playing in their garden, in the deep snow or in the warmth of the sun.

But still, how much photos can say about the friendship behind? About the meaning of having a party to celebrate coming back to life after the hard times? About the fun of finally being able to share my house and my garden with her, after spending so much time in her house and seeing it morph from before kids “walls with window holes” structure into a family home?

Anyway. She changed the tickets to mid-January and we are up for a visa quest again. May be we should be smart and write an exciting tourist program for her in the Netherlands. That’s probably easier to justify than spending a week in my house with signing at my birthday, baking bread, working in the garden and sharing the life that I live here.

 

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Learning highlights: September 2018

September is a busy month: as school holidays are over there is a time to celebrate the beginning of new learning year with Not Back To School Parties and to sort out the routines of regular sports, clubs and other activities. This year we did more than usual since the kids are older and I wanted to talk more with the parents who have more experience of homeschooling beyond primary school age. So, here is a list of things that kept us busy.

<photo collage goes here once I’m brave enough to make it>

Sailing: a day with other homeschoolers and testing the waters in Enschede with Enschedese Watersport Vereiniging. Clearly to be continued given the interes. * First swimming lessons for Emily and Anna’s back to swimming after a year off after A-level diploma (which was a year off hanging out around a swimming pool for me and a logistical trick of having two of them on the same time slot now :). New schedule for the choir practice and sorting out the logistics of getting everyone there and back. Judo lessons: the girls practicing of coming back home by themselves. *  Tryout online courses in Russian. Third year of online math for Alexander: learning to use new tools. * History of inventions, Romans and the role of women in history. * A trip to Den Haag: English, pinquins and catching up with old-time friends. Surfing and wind at NBTSP-Zuid and exploring Archeon. *  Sallandse Heuvelrug at NBTSP-Oost: enjoying the forest and makeshift clothes for Emily after she fell into the water. * Wowlab workshop, fourth from a series of making a board game: reflection on the process that didn’t go as far as we envisioned it, hard work in groups and fishing for plastic in the pond. * Tech your future festival: planes, drones and fire-fighters. * Building a geodesic dome at the university garden with Sustain (was fun watching Alexander doing that in English). *  Excursion Kasteel Hernen and a follow-up: daily life in middle ages, chicken at home and playing quests. * NVvTO workshop on homeschooling after the primary school age. * Vrede concert Alexander and Anna. * Spies, detectives and indians. * Building tree houses at Sofia’s birthday party. * Harvesting in the garden, lots of raspberry smoothies, apple pies and still tomatoes and cucumbers. * Sorting out lots of backlogs in the house.

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Making flexible structures (2)

This is something I always liked, growing in a small apartment with lots of usable corners and self-made furniture, some of which survived for almost forty years of ebb and flow of uses. Switching away from digital with the kids gave me much more opportunities to play with making fluid physical spaces myself.

First, it was about various learning spaces, then I enjoyed redesigning and rebuilding the room of our two girls, playspaces in the garden, convertible climbing structure in the living room… Now I enjoy seeing all those spaces being used creatively, with countless new scenarios.

A couple of days ago we moved things in the girls’ room again (after a round of sorting out the mess, of course). It’s fun to see this new version, but it’s even more fun to see the youngest one turning into an independent builder as the other two: she refused all the suggestions and help and insisted on making furniture for her doll herself.

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Learning highlights: July-August 2018

It’s way into September now, but I still want to catch some of the highlights of July and August. We took it slow, taking time to recover from all the changes in our lives, letting go things, thoughts and feelings that didn’t belong anymore and sorting out that is needed for the new phase.

Learning highlights July-August 2018

Some of the highlights of this period:

  • End of the school year business: open lessons at swimming and judo, choir concerts, judo exams (first coloured belts for the girls.
  • Slowing up with homeschooling Thursdays:  instead of the weekly meetings with the others, we did just a couple of things, traditional blueberry picking and swimming event, robot-making workshop and a camping on a farm of homeschooling friends.
  • Discovering lice (which felt like a “socialisation” milestone :), making microscope slide sets from them and Emily’s shorter haircut.
  • Tending the gardens to survive the drought: redoing our rainwater installation and irrigation  devices (seeing the kids experiencing the water going up in communicating vessels is priceless), learning about ground water and the inner working of wells and hand pumps in the university garden, enjoying rain and surviving falling trees while being caught in the eye of the storm. Harvest time.
  • Mornings and walking with Aldo during his stay with us; lots of Pokemon events with the tribe; looking into fermenting and alcohol making with Ferial; local history and nature at Het Lankheet with BTD; boating and sleepover with friends who came back after a year away; friends from Amsterdam staying with us, new experiences at an orthodontist.
  • Slow camping holiday in Monschau: figuring out German; playing with water in the stream and making friends at the camping; glass blowing, Mustard Mill, timber-framed houses, secret codes and steep hills of Monschau; lots of forest trails and an an adventure combining Wild Kermeter route with hiking to the lake shore and a boat to another side; swimming, snorkelling and stand-up puddling at Rursee; medieval history in Niddegen Castle and its museum; exploring Rursee dams, learning about water management in the Water Information Center Eifel and beautiful Heimbach power plant; crafts, history and industry in Torburg Heimat- ind Handwerksmuseum in Stolberg and getting out with free cakes; discovering after the trip that we managed to miss all the rich history of WWII in the area (Battle of Hürtgen Forest and Siegfried Line fortifications).
  • Legitimate peripheral participation: a brainstorm and setting website for a project of their grandmother; Alexander helping neighbours to clean their garden and to working on a car with a homeschooling father; earning money by DJing at a family party; making Smart Stuff That Matters and hanging out at the unconference, organised in the new house of Elmine and Ton.

 

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Dealing with resistance and difficulties

This is something that was in drafts for a while and I hesitated about publishing it – it is personal and about difficult things. Yesterday we had a discussion with other homeschooling parents about “everything is cool and easy” picture that you usually get from the social media profiles of others and the importance of talking about the reality which is challenging enough. And I thought that I should start with myself and share a bit more of the “difficult” stuff that we have to deal with.

The original text is two years old and comes from the document written as part of a certification by Stichting Keurmerk Thuisonderwijs in September 2016 (more from it is at Facilitating unschooling). We are much further now and I have more things to say on it, but that would take more time to put into words.

***

Alexander is visual-spatial learner. Grasping a new concept, recognising patterns and relationships, keeping an overview, all come in a natural way for him; attention to detail and routine tasks that require automatisation do not. He is a natural builder, who uses construction as a way to explore the world and to process and internalise new knowledge.

He has a strong motivation to explore subjects he finds interesting and a resistance to those that don’t make sense to him, even when extrinsic motivational factors are brought into play. He has a strong preference for learning that is embedded into real-life tasks or obviously related to them.

From an early age language was not Alexander’s strong side, complicated even more by multilingual environment of our family. At the moment, his main challenges lay with the written language and language use in situations with high expectations/significance (e.g. reading aloud when somebody sits next to him). In informal settings, Alexander rarely has a problem grasping new words; he is often asking questions and explaining his point of view. Alexander uses language functionally. For instance, he is not afraid to communicate with foreigners in English to explain a point, even though he is aware of his level in English.

All these personality traits make learning to use written language particularly challenging: it’s a process with a lot of sequential steps that require automatisation and there is lack of meaningful practical applications for intermediate outcomes. In addition, at some point difficulties with reading and writing begin to serve as a barrier, preventing independent use of written materials as a reference or for self-assessment.

Reading games, RussianWe use several strategies to address those challenges:

  • Decouple practices for developing persuasion with routine or boring tasks from “difficult” domains. Practice dealing with “stuff that has to be done even if it’s not so much fun” in situations where the need for it and its impact are obvious (e.g. helping with household activities). Provide opportunities to take end-responsibility and develop ownership of a task (e.g. responsibilities for timing and preparation for judo or swimming lessons).
  • Create an environment where use of written language has visible practical outcomes and rewards: navigation in the computer programs, lists and instructions essential for carrying out an activity, digital communication… Take care that language requirements lay within the zone of proximal development and do not become detrimental to working on a task.
  • Create opportunities to practice tasks that require automatisation in playful and engaging way, through meaningful activities, board games, computer programs and free play. Draw attention to “practice makes perfect” attitude and value of intermediate results when the progress is slow.
  • Provide low-text alternatives that build on Alexander’s strengths for independent exploration of new domains, practicing and self-assessment: hands on learning; making, building and experimenting; story-based communication; use of videos, visual material and infographics; games and computer programs with built-in feedback.
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Small things to enjoy

Sorting out photos I find back all those small things I enjoyed this summer:

  • coming for blueberry picking and being greeted by a newspaper clip with a photo of Emily from 2016;
  • spending an afternoon in Monschau climbing hills and discovering secret codes with Anna;
  • watching Alexander doing things with other adults – helping neighbors cutting wood in the garden, peeling apples with a friend, working on a car with a friend’s father;
  • learning to use scythe with the “elders” of our vegetable garden and evening “dates” there with Robert, harvesting and making berry pergola;
  • walking forest trails with the whole family and then being slow watching kids playing in the waters of Rursee;
  • reading books – in a hammock, on the beach, in bed, in a camping chair…

Those and many other moments were definitely needed to recharge and rethink.

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