Monday, July 31, 2006

What We Homeschooling Parents Learned From Learning About Space (A Lot More Than Space Facts)

My older son’s first real passion to learn about something was about space. He was close to two years old at the time. He was a fan of the series of videos for children called “There Goes A…”. Some of the titles in the series are “There Goes a Spaceship”, “There Goes a Train” and “There Goes a Police Car”. He liked all of the videos but the ones he asked to see over and over were the space and train themed videos. While other toddlers seem to love to learn about pets and farm animals and nature, my son was asking about space!

My husband and I would talk about space exploration with our son, casually, to respond to his questions. Really this was the first interest he had in something other than what he was doing before, which was playing all day, with typical toddler toys. Space was the first informational topic, the first science topic, the first thing that he could learn about and the first thing that others would consider a ‘school topic’ (something legitimate that other adults thought were worth learning about). Trains were also of interest to him, and trains did become another passion, the two developed side by side, but space and space travel had a different sense of wonder and curiosity. Trains were something that he could see in his daily life, they were developed by man, they were machines that we all could use (and that his father used on a daily basis to commute to work with). Space travel also involved machines, but it took astronauts to places that he could not go (unless he became an astronaut as an adult!) and space was special and different and full of wonder for him.

When my son was two, my husband went on a business trip to Houston. During that trip my husband visited the Space Center for the first time. The gift which my husband brought home to our son was not a stuffed animal or a small toy, it was space documentary series. My son loved to watch these videos, even though they were intended for viewing by older people.

At that time, we didn’t think too much about the fact that perhaps other parents didn’t indulge their children with such informational type things, when their son was just two years old. We just felt that we were supplying him with things to answer questions he had and we were happy that he was entertained and that he was also learning. Don’t get me wrong, we were not trying to push him to early academics or anything like that. It was that we saw a passion in our son; he asked questions and we answered them. We both saw that he loved those videos. And he learned from them! He really did learn things, and we were surprised that a child of that age could understand and would be interested in something as abstract as space, when most parents were focusing their children on things that were created just for children to entertain children. Of course he also watched Sesame Street and had some Elmo toys and other common toddler interests, but he loved space travel from that early age.

The important thing was that our son’s passion for space was the thing that allowed us to see that children can and do learn, easily. We saw for the first time that very young children can have a passion about something that others think is “boring” or “a school subject”. We were excited by this because we already planned to homeschool our children. This cemented for me, back at the time, that interest led learning (aka unschooling) is a good thing, and that not all children hate learning. It reinforced what I suspected from my own experience in public school: that a child has to learn to hate learning, through negative experiences that happen at school. Truly learning is not what they hate, it is school, but most children and teenagers don’t realize that fact, which is sad.

Over time, we purchased some children’s book about space. My son would look at these over and over. One book that we purchased for my son when he was just two, which he still loves reading is the Eyewitness book about Space Exploration. The book’s publisher states it is for children aged 9-12. In the early years my son would look at the photos only, and ask me to read sections to him. Now that he is close to 9 he is already reading the whole book to himself. This book was the main entertainment for our son on numerous airplane flight.

Also when he was two he developed a passion for trains and we inundated him with train toys, train videos and train books for all age ranges. He soaked in the information and played with his toy trains just as a young child should. This was more proof to us that young children can learn quickly and with eagerness, and they want to learn and that when a passion exists, learning comes very, very easily.

We didn’t go crazy with the space stuff; by that I mean we didn’t force things onto him with the intent of “filling a bucket”. We felt that we were giving fuel to his fire. The desire came from him, and we saw it in him and we supplied him with the information and that is fun to him. I see other children with passions, and some of their parents intentionally don’t indulge them, citing it as ‘not necessary’ or for some reason, they just don’t ‘get’ why they are doing their child a disservice. Some say “it is just a phase, if I ignore it, it will go away”. I think some of my friends think I take things too far, that I get carried away, by diving into my/our interests and curiosities.

We didn’t force him to learn things. We didn’t expect a certain amount of learning to take place after he viewed the videos, for example. We just let him take from the experiences whatever it was that he took away from it. The fact that he had fun in the process was what mattered to us, after all, he was just two years old (when it first started).

We were asked to read the space books over and over to him, over all these years. Now that he is reading on his own, he reads them by himself when he feels like it. On a recent trip to the library, he appeared from the stack with an armload of space travel books. I was surprised as I don’t think he’d touched a space book in perhaps a year (which is okay).

When he was three we visited a small planetarium near our home (The Discovery Museum and Plantarium in Bridgeport) and saw a short show intended for young children, and he enjoyed that. When he was 3.5 we visited Space Center Houston and he was in heaven. (That was back when my children and I would be able to tag along with my husband on his business trips, using his frequent flyer miles to pay for the airline tickets.) I was happy that we could indulge our children in this way, as I had never been to that Space Center until that same day, and here were both of our children visiting it at such young ages (our younger son was not yet one year old). When my son was four, we visited the Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City. That show was a bit long (it was not intended for young children) but my older son enjoyed it (my toddler fell asleep in my arms after nursing in the dark). My older son also loved walking around and looking at the displays with wonderful photographs of the planets and of our solar system at the museum/planetarium. When my older son was six and then when he was eight, we were able to visit the Boston Museum of Science’s Charles Hayden Planetarium to see more planetarium shows. (My younger son has not shown much interest in space, so far.)

When my older son homeschooled first grade, I had switched to using the Charlotte Mason method. We did a unit on the solar system for three or four weeks. Using the Charlotte Mason method, I read aloud the wonderful living books by Seymour Simon and had him narrate to me what he had retained. (I recommend the single topic planet and space topic books by Seymour Simon, not the big book he has on the solar system, which I find boring, as it is condensed from the original text, leaving mostly the dry facts.) During that study we also painted the planets onto black paper and made a small book of his representation of our solar system.

One big lesson that I learned during that homeschooling lesson about space was to not trust everything that one reads in a book. As I was reading various books aloud to my son I read conflicting and different information. I had been taught that the only planet with rings was Saturn. Well apparently that is now not true (who knew?). However depending on what book you read and what year the book was written in, you will find different information about which planets have rings. We all know that some planets moons, and that some have many moons. Well, some scientists now dispute whether what they thought was moons are actually just debris. I recall that another controversy was whether some moons might actually be planets. Then there was the controversy over whether or not one planet is actually a planet at all, that might have been Pluto. Even in books for elementary grade aged children, these things were discussed, that is, how we define a moon vs. a planet vs. a mass of debris. I recall going to the Internet to try and find the right information as I was getting all confused. I used the NASA site as my main reference and still ended up very, very confused. It was a big lesson for me to learn, to check several resources, and to compare facts. It is not always clear cut about who we should believe. I also was humbled, realizing that we probably know hardly anything about our solar system (we humans). My goal to find these facts was to make a simple list for my son that we could use to include the data in the little solar system book such as the name of the planet, whether it had rings (for the illustration) and also how many moons it has. I gave up on the project and the solar system book ended up being just paintings that my son did on black paper, period.

Here and there over these years we have made various solar system models from kits. I found the kids at discount stores, tag sales, or they were given to us as gifts. The first thing we did as a special event to decorate his bedroom when he began sleeping in it (when he moved out of the big bed where we had co-slept), was to hang glow in the dark models of the planets from his ceiling. Rather than try to make a properly scaled model, I let him decide where each planet went. Each night when he goes to sleep he looks up at the glowing planets, which swing gently in the breeze of the ceiling fan. We also put some cling-plastic planets on his bedroom windows.

Some other things that we’ve done that are space travel related are supply him with space shuttle toys, when he was younger, ranging from durable plastic toys to little die cast metal versions. Now he has made the elaborate LEGO model of the space shuttle. He never wanted war-related action figures, but he did love his G.I. Joe astronaut!

Our much-appreciated TiVo DVR unit has allowed us to easily find and record documentaries about space, and they have been watched for fun over the last five years that we’ve been using it. I never knew that so many different space documentaries existed, nor did I realize that there is a Discovery channel dedicated to space and flight.

As I shared in a recent blog post, we watch NASA space missions on the "NASA Television" channel that our DirecTV provider offers. That channel is not fancy but it is real; it is the raw recordings of missions and we hear the actual scientists speaking and we hear the astronauts communicating with Mission Control. On the one hand it is not Hollywood-ized and glamorous, but on the other hand it is very real and authentic, and live!

Last year my son said something that made me realize he had forgotten some of the information that he learned during our homeschool studies of the solar system. I quizzed him a bit and realized he didn’t retain a lot of what I knew we’d covered (more than two years ago). I will admit that at first I was annoyed that with all that I had put into organizing a unit on space and having used the Charlotte Mason method, I thought he’d have remembered it all, but then I remember hearing Susan Wise Bauer caution parents (in a lecture) that what they learn in first grade and the elementary years may not be all remembered but it is laying a foundation for learning, placing hooks to hang knowledge upon. He has not forgotten about space travel in general and his passion for space has not been squelched. For example I don’t think he could name every planet. His interest is more with space exploration rather than the scientific facts such as the size and temperature of the planets.

Last Christmas my brother-in-law and his wife gave my son a model rocket by Estes. This spring we launched some and had fun with it. The model that we have has an altimeter on it and it went up over 600 feet! We blasted it off at a local park, in a wide open baseball field area, and it drew attention from everyone around us. Lighting off the rockets was tricky, if you don’t pack it correctly, it won’t ignite. The rocket we have can be used over and over, just by purchasing new refills. Adult supervision is definitely needed (the manufacturer is not being overly cautious with their direction!).

My older son is nearing his ninth birthday and space continues to be his interest. After watching the recent NASA mission, he is talking about not just being some general kind of engineer, but being a rocket scientist. I don’t know how that will pan out but I am not going to squelch his dream!

I am glad that my older son has this interest in space since such a young age. My husband and I have learned a lot in our journey of supplying our son with information and experiences that he was curious about. This is what is meant when people say that the adults who homeschool their children learn ALONG WITH their children. I definitely would say that learning about space travel and the solar system was the first school-ish subject that my older son showed an interest in and that it was the portal to make us realize that homeschooling could work and it does work. My husband and I saw that our children do learn, that children do want to learn, that learning is not something that happens only at an adult’s insistence through a taught lesson. We learned that even very young children can have strong curiosities, and when those curiosities are fed and responded to, the child can handle the information and are interested in the information. Charlotte Mason believed that each child will take away different things from their experiences, that no two children will necessarily learn the same thing from reading a book or having the same experience as the other. I saw this first hand when my son didn’t retain every single thing that we had read about together when he was in first grade. I am not upset that he didn’t retain all the facts and statistics. What he came away with is retention of space information that is of interest and spoke to HIM. And most importantly he came away with the idea that learning can be interesting and fun and that there is a whole world outside that man is still trying to learn about, that even adults are still learning and exploring, and that we don’t know it all. The solar system and space are such huge topics and I am thrilled that my son is filled with wonder and curiosity about it, rather than being intimidated by it or disinterested in it.

So as you can see, learning about the topic of solar system and space exploration with our children has taught my husband and I many lessons which were not just about facts on those topics, the more important things we learned (and retained) was about children and learning and curiosity and homeschooling and education. Who knew that a child’s interest in space could lead to such big revelations for the parents?

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feldmom said...

I was so interested in your posting about teaching the solar system to your children. I think the problem you have found is finding a good curriculum that will actually stick! I happen to be working with NASA to write curriculm for children in K-4 range. The lessons are integrated Literacy/Science lessons and are new territory for NASA. Here are some links to Sun lessons and lessons on the Cassini Mission to Saturn.

I think you will find them packed full of great learning at an age appropriate level. There is also teacher information available so you can learn along with the kids. Let me dknow what you think about them.

We are in development of solar system lessons right now. I am posting information and some of the challenges in develpment at my blog.(just started this week) I invite you to stop by now and them to see where we are. Lessons should be available by January.

Mama Chaos said...

I just stumbled here randomly and I ahve to thank you for writing this! My 2 year old son is obsessd with space, the stars, astronauts, and the such. This past Independence Day we had quite a battle as he insisted that he could ride the fireworks up to the sky and be an astronaut. LOL I am definately going to ahve to explore all the links you have here. Again thank you!