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Learning activities

An excerpt from the document written as part of a certification by Stichting Keurmerk Thuisonderwijs in September 2016, when our kids were 9, 6 and 4 years old.

In this section we describe specific ways to support learning that have emerged in our family over time. Most of those activities contribute to multiple domains at the same time, so we note them under the title (when not stated specifically “language” refers to both, Dutch and Russian). Language learning and math are integrated into many of the activities, additional ways to support them are addressed at the end of this section.

Thematic explorations and projects

nature, technology, science, creative expression, language, socio-emotional development

A thematic exploration usually shows as an interest in a particular topic over an extended period of time, usually several months. It is visible through the choices of a child, questions asked, choices of games, books or videos, ideas for activities or museums to visit, and it shows repeatedly in the play, objects and artwork created. There is no specific goals other than to explore, understand and build an internal representation of a particular aspect of the world. In this way the following themes has been explored in depth in the last few years: evolution theory; military machines and World War II; traffic rules and road signs; shipbuilding, maritime travel/trade and underwater exploration; astronomy and space missions; human body; paleontology and archeology.

Next to it there are projects, with a focus on a specific goal, which is often about making something – an artwork, a performance, a construction in Lego or Minecraft. Children are usually busy with a project for days, sometimes for a couple of weeks.

Both, themes and projects, provide us opportunities to engage with our children around something important to them, by discussing their interests, by helping to plan, to find resources, time and place to create an understanding, work on a product or develop new skills.

Household work

practical life, socio-emotional development, math, language

In our family household work and participation in family activities is viewed part of the curriculum. It exposes children to the components of adult life, helps to develop self-organisation skills, to learn taking responsibility and to experience a sense of achievement. In addition, many household activities provide good starting points to show how reading and writing, math, physics or chemistry are used and applied in everyday life.

Household routines and activities are organised in such a way that children have opportunities to participate, as well as enough time and guidance to master a task. As they grow, children acquire specific responsibilities. For example, at the moment Alexander and Anna have the responsibility for planning fruit, snacks and sweets, and preparing one evening meal per week. Those activities involve identifying necessary ingredients, make shopping lists, shopping (as part of the regular groceries route with their father), cooking and cleaning after themselves, as well as related calculations of money, proportions and time.

Other regular responsibilities of the children involve organising their own spaces and materials, packing food and clothes for activities and trips, help in cleaning common spaces in the house, doing dishes and laundry, taking part in repairs and garbage recycling.

Exploring natural ecosystems

nature, science, language, practical life, physical development

Learning with and about nature is an important part of the family life. Children are actively involved into Lilia’s permaculture exploration: a sustainable way of growing vegetables, berries and fruits. They are also participating in gardening and related volunteer activities as part of Biologische Tuinvereniging Drienerlo (Organic gardening association of the University of Twente). In both gardens children have their own plot to experiment.

Wild nature exploration is led by Robert, who is a bushcraft enthusiast. It involves nature walks and occasional camping in the wild, identifying plants and animal traces, learning survival techniques (e.g. purifying water or making fire).

In both cases special attention is paid to observing and understanding ecosystems “in action” (e.g. what is companion growing and why it works), identifying scientific explanations underlying natural phenomena (e.g. physics and chemistry of making a fire) and learning in practice interacting with the nature in an ecological and sustainable way (e.g. composting household waste to use as a fertiliser in the garden).

Maker culture

art, technology, science, math, language, socio-emotional development

Our family shares values of the Maker movement: focus on producing rather than consuming, interest in new tools and technologies, bringing together art and engineering. At home materials and space for tinkering and creative expression are available and used regularly. The children are exploring programming and robotics: creating their own projects in Scratch, interactive structures in Minecraft, machines and mechanisms with Lego Technic, WeDo and Mindstorms. Making is not limited to a technology-mediated way, similar attention goes into arts, crafts and handwork, experimenting with paper, clay, wood, stone or textile. While we guide the process of learning how to use new materials and tools, those projects are mostly self-directed.

Children are participating in maker workshops for homeschoolers with a local artist, Wout Zweers, in his atelier equipped in a FabLab manner. As Lilia works together with Wout on designing and organising those workshops, the children are helping along, exploring underlying theme, bringing their ideas while brainstorming or prototyping, serving as a reference group at tryouts and helping other kids during the workshops, since by then they are a bit further with the material. In this way they have opportunities to observe professional work from a close distance and understand what it entails.

Reliving the past

culture, history, technology, language, English

When possible, exploring history happens through imagining or experiencing how people used to live in the past, for example, by watching documentaries, visiting ethnographic museums, reenacting practices of the past through play, experiments or participation in history reconstruction events.

For example, recently there is a particular interest from the kids in watching BBC historical farm series where a life of a farm (or a castle) is lived for a year by a team of historians and archeologists. We watch those documentaries together, in English, stopping to provide translation or comments on difficult to understand moments, discussing similarities and differences with other historical periods or our experiences with the family garden. Some of the activities are explored further over time, for example, looking for information and videos to understand more about quicklime production or helping their Russian grandmother to use leeches as a part of her medical treatment after seeing similar practices in a Victorian pharmacy episode.

Schooltje spelen

math, Dutch, creative expression, socio-emotional development

As part of their contact with their Dutch grandparents children are regularly “playing school”, which involves reading, writing and math tasks, as well as activities exploring history and art (their grandmother is an artist and art historian). These activities provide opportunities for an extra practice of Dutch and give the children a different experience of learning process in the family than with their parents.

TO muziek en improvisatietheater

creative expression, Dutch, English, socio-emotional development

Together with their mother the children are participating in the activities of TO muziek en improvisatietheater group which partly overlaps with TO-Oost. Usually meetings include joint music making, singing and theater improvisation practices, where homeschooling parents play a leading role, while kids are welcome to participate at the level comfortable for them. Singing songs sometimes involves exploring the meaning of words (what is ranzige tweebak in “Al die willen te kaap’ren varen”?) or geographical and cultural context of a song (finding Louisiana from “Cotton fields” song and learning about the realities of growing cotton there).

In addition to observing or practicing improvisational theater, preparing performances as a group is a common activity during our regular meetings with other homeschoolers. Those usually involve a big dose of planning, coordination and conflict resolution, as well as dealing with different needs and abilities of younger siblings. Parents serve as an audience and provide feedback.

Languages

At lot of our practices in respect to learning languages are influenced by the multicultural values of the family: we strive to make an environment where children are expected to communicate equally well in Russian and Dutch. In this way, they are able to gain full access to the cultures of both parents, can easily communicate with extended family and friends outside of the Netherlands, and eventually have an option for continuing their education in Russia. English is equally important, as language that provides access to the world.

In daily life we often use two or three languages simultaneously (for example, commenting on an English video in Russian and asking kids to look for the Dutch equivalent of a word). The choice of language for an activity is context-depended and takes into account the purpose of the activity, the needs of the people involved and the language of available materials. For example, while Lilia primarily uses Russian to speak to the children, she would switch to Dutch when understanding of what is communicated is essential for Dutch speakers involved.

When using language we pay particular attention to exposing children to its authentic use (e.g. by using scientific terminology when needed and commenting on the words children do not understand), different forms of written language (from shopping lists to encyclopedias) and their uses, specific requirements for an effective communication (pronunciation, intonation, spelling, grammar, argument structure, etc). We try to read aloud every day in Dutch or Russian, and we occasionally read books in English.

Dutch is practiced through everyday communication inside and outside of the family, in play or joint activities with friends and as a language of instruction in sports and events that kids attend. As learning materials we use books, posters, board- and iPad- games, printed exercise sheets or workbooks. Formal guidance and feedback on Dutch is provided primarily by the father, who is a native Dutch speaker. During the day reading and writing exercises are often facilitated by the mother, providing feedback to the children when her knowledge of Dutch is sufficient for the task or learning together with the children when it is not.

Russian is practiced through communication with the mother and a few Russian-speaking friends, as well as through an immersion during time in Russia (around 6 weeks per year). We have a selection of books (including encyclopedias and informative books) and audiobooks in Russian at home and occasionally borrow some from friends. While we use Zaitsev’s cubes, workbooks and games to practice reading and writing, most of the practice happens during writing notes and stories for each other, as part of the play or other activities.

English is introduced via playful activities inside the family, in communication with friends and via media resources (e.g. Muzzy series and documentaries from BBC, Lego and Minecraft videos). Given two other languages we do not focus yet on facilitating reading and writing in English, however children are exposed to written English through books we read, printouts of song lyrics and computer menus.

Math

In our house construction is a starting point for many math activities, where we incorporate measurement and calculation in the process of drawing models or building prototypes. Math is also practiced in everyday life, for example while shopping with pocket money, cooking, programming or calculating time and distances while driving. In addition we use games and exercises from the Math Circles approach and other math games. There is a selection of math workbooks at home that children could use to practice.

For calculations that require automatisation we use website uchi.ru, where children can practice math skills and participate in math competitions that involve tasks that require creative problem-solving and thinking outside the box. Alexander also participates in an online Russian math group.