Seizing the Moment

Homeschooling, like any other educational style, has its pluses and minuses, ups and downs, joys and challenges. But one thing I really enjoy about how we do school is the freedom and flexibility in how we organize our homeschool day.

I like to be planned and have a schedule so at the beginning of each school year I always come up with a written schedule for each of our kids that I print out and put inside a clear plastic cover so each subject can be marked off with an erasable pen and then reused each week. This school year I thought I’d be super organized and I worked hard to plan the exact times for each class and when each person would be working on what subject throughout the day.

But in addition to being scheduled, I also like being flexible and I soon realized that those exact times aren’t all that useful for our family. Sometimes kids wake up really excited to work on a writing project or other subject and want to get started on that first. Bryan (who teaches algebra and geometry to the boys) often needs to plan his math class for the day around other commitments, which means algebra could start at 9 am one day and 9 pm the next. I used to feel discouraged and frustrated that I couldn’t get us to stick exactly to the schedule, but now I realize that our flexibility is actually one of our biggest strengths.

Each kid (and parent) in the family gets to help decide how each day will flow, depending on what we feel like tackling first. And we can also schedule impromptu breaks between subjects into the day, like a some jumping on the mini-trampoline to get the blood flowing again or a few minutes with Ethan watching his favorite nature show on YouTube, Brave Wilderness.

A couple of days ago, we had beautiful weather. The sun was shining gloriously in the cloudless sky and the ducks in the river next to our house we’re quacking away. After lunch Katie asked if she could take a quick break to go feed the ducks some bread. She came back a few minutes later and excitedly told us that she’d spotted a mother duck and her six ducklings swimming along in the water. So, Ethan and I hustled out to see if we could spot them too. We did and the three of us enjoyed a nice break from math and English together as we oohed and ahhed at their fluffy sweetness.

After a little while, the task master in me reappeared and I called us all in to get back to our regular studies, but I really enjoyed that nature break with my kiddos. We don’t do that as much as we did when they were little tykes, but I hope we remember to do it more from here on out. It felt great to seize the moment!

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Bread in hand and on our way to find the ducks!

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Mama duck and her ducklings

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Trying to get a better view.

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Heading home

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This is our humble abode. It’s fun to live next to a river.

Animal Encounters

This month our family broke out of our normal routine to enjoy some encounters with animals at well-known spots in Ibaraki and Tochigi prefectures.

The first place we visited was the Aqua World Aquarium in Ooarai, which is about an hour away from us in Ibaraki Prefecture. For fifth grade science this year, Katie is studying marine biology with the Apologia science curriculum so we thought this would be a great chance to get up close and personal with some of the amazing creatures she would be studying about. 

Highlights here included watching penguins feed, dive, and swim around their enclosure, enjoying a truly amazing dolphin and whale show, and oohing and aahing over stumpy sun fish and smiling sea turtles.



Then later in the month, our family hopped in the car and headed an hour in a different direction to visit the Nasu Animal Kingdom with our good friends the Abarra Family.  Nasu is located in Tochigi Prefecture where we live, but this was our first time to explore the Animal Kingdom.  Wow, were we impressed!  
We were able to get very close to many of the animals and there was quite a variety of species: lazy sloths, napping bats, lounging capybaras, some adorable red pandas, and fuzzy-antlered reindeer were just a few of our favorites.  The wild bird show was also a treat.  We had a fun, full day of being with dear friends and enjoying God’s creation.  It was great!  We’re already looking forward to our next adventure, whatever that may be!


Hands-On Fun at Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts

Today the kids and I had an open Saturday afternoon so we decided to use our free passes to the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts where a dear friend works.  We pedaled our bicycles through the blustery weather to the museum, which is only about ten minutes from our house.  After the kids goofed around a bit outside with the sculptures that decorate the grounds, we headed inside for a little art viewing.  Our good friend, Yumi, happened to be working that day so we got to ask her questions and hear her explanations about some of the art. Katie is the biggest art enthusiast of the family.  It was fun to see her looking closely at the art and even taking notes on which paintings she liked and why she liked them.

Highlights of the visit included seeing a painting by famous British artist J.M.W. Turner and getting to participate in some hands-on activities that helped the kids pay closer attention to works that are currently on display.  And it was fun to see our friend Yumi in action as well!  Then on the way home we stopped by the local convenience store for a little snack.  It was the perfect ending to an enjoyable day.

Here are some photos.  You can click on individual images to see them more clearly.

 

 

Our Journey Through the Human Body

A slimy cow’s eye, a wrinkly sheep’s brain, a tough pig’s heart, x-rays, and more.  These are the tools we used last school year in our study of anatomy.  We took a nice leisurely trip through the systems of the human body and greatly enjoyed the journey!  As the base for our studies we used Sonlight curriculum’s Science F, but replaced a book of  worksheets with The Body Book, a super cool text that has you build a paper model of the human body step-by-step as you learn about each body system.  The kids really enjoyed creating paper models of themselves!  The book also contained several other paper models as well, such as a model of human skin, a model of the eye, and a model of the ear.

In addition to the Body Book, we made a few purchases on Amazon.com to add more hands-on activities.  I found an inexpensive otoscope and we took turns looking into each other’s ears to find the eardrum. Amazon also had a cool flannel graph set of very realistic drawings of the body systems.  The set came with a fun book giving interesting facts about the various organs and their functions.

I also found a great source for inexpensive dissection kits.  We ordered them on Amazon and then Bryan brought them back to Japan when he returned from a business trip.  Since my kids are huge animal lovers, I decided not to order any kits that involved dissecting whole animals (such as a frog) because I thought it would be too traumatic.  I decided to go with a sheep’s brain, a pig’s heart, and a cow’s eye, which we dissected at different times during the year, but in that order.  Somehow, the sheep’s brain seemed the least intimidating so we started with that.  We saved the cow’s eye for last since that one seemed the most creepy to me and we invited our fun-loving friend Len to join us for that dissection so we could laugh while doing it.  It was so interesting to actually feel the difference between gray matter and white matter for ourselves, learn that hearts actually have heart strings (and see them!) and touch the parts of an actual eyeball!  The kits came with instruction booklets for how to do the dissection and what to look for, but we also used Youtube to find some very helpful videos that took us step by step through the dissections and gave interesting information about the part of the body we were dissecting.

In addition, I ordered a set of x-rays for building a two-dimensional human skeleton.  The kids followed the instructions for assembling it and we hung it up on our homeschool window so the light would shine through and we could see it better.

The textbooks that came with our science curriculum were very interesting and fun to read, but the hands-on activities we added definitely made our science studies come alive!  This was a science unit that we will all remember for a long time!

Candy Fractions Game – Homemade Educational Fun!

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Years ago, I invented a homemade board game for Austin and Ethan called “Candy Fractions.”  Katie knows about this game and occasionally requests it for homeschool math so she can eat some candy while learning about fractions.  We played a round recently, so I thought I would write a short post about the game.

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I hand drew circles divided into pie pieces and rectangles divided into several sections.  Players start at the first shape and take turns rolling the dice and placing small candies like m&m’s or chocolate chips onto the board.  The first player rolls the dice and whatever number they get is the number of candies they place on their square or circle.  One candy goes on one small space within the larger shape.  That player then has to say what fraction of the shape is covered with candies and what fraction is not covered.  The candies are then cleared and it’s the next person’s turn to roll the dice and place candies on the next shape.  The game ends when all the shapes have been covered with candies.

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Then each player gets to pull a fraction card from a small pocket on the back of the game board.  The cards are marked 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and 4/4 to decide what fraction of four candies they are allowed to eat.  My kids enjoy playing the game several times so as to maximize their candy intake.

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This has been a fun way to add variety to homeschool math and I think it has really helped the kids get a basic understanding of fractions as well.

 

Learning About Our Insides by Making an Anatomy T-Shirt

 

 

In my proactive search for cool hands-on science activities, I came across this blog post that explains (with free printable templates) how to make a t-shirt with a realistic drawing of human internal organs on it.  While the kids already know basically what their heart, lungs, and stomach look like and where they are located, I thought this activity would be a great way to help them remember the names and locations of some of the organs they might not be as familiar with, such as the pancreas, appendix, and spleen.

To do this project, I bought white long-sleeved kids’ undershirts, which came two in a pack and were less expensive than regular shirts.  Since I wasn’t sure how excited the kids would be about going around town with their organs in full view, I thought they could just use them as pajama shirts or for wearing around the house (especially when we are doing science together!)  The t-shirts could easily have been short-sleeved, but since it’s winter I thought that long-sleeved would be cozier.  I printed out the templates from the website on white card-stock.  The templates were two pages so I stapled them together to make the full picture.  Then I inserted them inside the t-shirts so that the picture was where we wanted the drawing to be when it was done.

The kids then used fine-tip black permanent magic markers to draw the outline of the organs.  Since the card stock paper was in between the two layers of the shirt, it kept the pen from bleeding through to the other side.  The t-shirt really needs to be white so that you can see through to the template underneath.  This part of the project was a little bit tricky because depending on the light in the house it was harder or easier to see through to the picture on the template.  Austin and Ethan moved around to different locations until they found a spot where they could see best.  They also had to be very careful not to move the template if they moved the shirt so that the picture would end up in the right spots.

After the kids finished tracing the organs the best they could, they used another copy of the picture that I printed out that had the organs labled (also from the same website).  This helped them see where the different organs began and ended.  They then colored the different parts their colors of choice using fabric markers and fabric crayons I had gotten on Amazon Japan.  With both the markers and crayons, you have to place a piece of paper over the colored places and then iron it for a bit to make the color permanent when you have finished coloring.

We all really like how the t-shirts turned out and they came in very handy when we were reading about digestion the other evening!  When the book mentioned a certain body part involved in digestion, I had them find it on their t-shirt.  We also used our science textbook’s description of where each body part is located to see if their t-shirts placed their intestines, heart, stomach, etc. in anatomically correct locations.  They weren’t perfect (the amount of intestines is a bit less than in a real human body) but they were pretty close!

All in all it was a worthwhile project that will hopefully help our anatomy studies “stick” in their brains better this year.  Katie was actually so excited about her t-shirt that she wore it to school and showed it off to all of her friends and teachers!  So, I’m calling this project a success!

 

Learning about DNA – the Hands-On Way

One of my goals for 2015 is to get back to blogging more frequently.  Another is to make sure I include plenty of hands-on activities in our homeschool on a regular basis.  I feel like the hands-on component of our school time has waned recently.  It’s easy to feel like I just don’t have enough time to fit it all in.  But reading blog posts like this have been reinspiring me to make sure we don’t leave out the fun stuff!

We’re studying about the human body in science this year with the Usborne Complete Book of the Human Body as our base.  It’s a fantastic book with lots of great photos, but it is still easy to have the content of the book go in one ear and out the other, especially when the topic is something complicated like DNA.  So, I decided to take a chunk of our day yesterday to first brainstorm together what we already knew about DNA and then watch several youtube videos like this that did a great job of explaining what it is and what it does.  Then I let the kids make edible models of DNA out of Twizzlers and mini-marshmallows with this method to help solidify what we have been learning.  It worked out great and we all had a fun time doing it!  Now that the kids are getting a little older, the hands-on projects aren’t quite as chaotic as they used to be.  My kids actually don’t like the taste of either Twizzlers or mini-marshmallows, so they still haven’t actually eaten their projects yet, but they turned out to be terrific materials to use!

Yesterday’s success definitely inspired me to keep the hands-on activities coming on a regular basis again and I will be sure to write about them here.

Here are some photos of our learning time yesterday.  You can click on individual photos to enlarge them.

Embroidering the Kanji

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It’s always a challenge to find fun and memorable ways to help my kids (and me!) remember the 1006 elementary school level kanji (Chinese characters that are used in the Japanese language). (See these posts here and here for what we’ve done in the past). One thing we commonly do together during homeschool kanji study time is to look closely at the characters, figure out what their parts are, and then make up silly stories about them. For example, the kanji means “what” and the part on the left means person.  The kids and I decided that it looks like a person wearing a huge backpack with some secret stuff inside of it.  Looking at it makes us wonder, “What is in the backpack??” So that helps us remember that the kanji means “what” and how to read it in Japanese. The kids also write the kanji on paper (or sometimes in the parking lot with sidewalk chalk or on cookies with chocolate pen if we’re feeling creative) and of course they practice reading sentences or stories that have the kanji in them.

Katie is now in second grade so this year she is charged with learning 160 of these characters. To help get the kanji to stick in her brain better, we decided to start a kanji embroidery project.  After Katie practices a kanji in her book and then sticks it to her “kanji tree” on the kitchen wall, she gets to embroider it onto a blue sheet that will later grace her bed.  Not only has this helped Katie remember the kanji she has embroidered so far, but her embroidery stitches have really improved with all the practice.  The project has also inspired her to watch Youtube videos on her own to learn new stitches like the lazy daisy stitch, the french knot, and the chain stitch. (Now all I have to do is find a way to combine kanji memorizing with Lego building and the boys are all set!)

Here are a few more photos of her adventures in kanji embroidery.

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After Katie practices the kanji in her textbook, she writes it onto a blank fruit, flower, or leaf shape and then sticks it to her kanji tree. This tree is for kanji that relate to people. Once she learns all the people-related kanji we will add more trees with other themes to make a kanji “forest.”

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Pottery Making in Mashiko, Japan

We live in the Japanese city of Utsunomiya, which is less than an hour away from a town called Mashiko that is famous for pottery making.  Tourists from all over Japan make their way to Mashiko to buy pottery and to try their hand at making it themselves at one of the famous pottery kilns.  Despite living close to Mashiko, we rarely go there and no one in our family had ever tried pottery making.  But one weekend Bryan had plans to take Austin and Ethan to a sports camp so Katie and I decided to head on over to Mashiko and let the family Queen of Arts and Crafts give it a try.

We ended up going to a place called Hasegawa Touen, one of many pottery makers who have inexpensive classes for beginners and who welcome children.  Most of the shops in Mashiko offer two kinds of pottery making experiences: forming pottery out of a ball of clay with your hands or using a pottery wheel.  We decided to go with hand forming the clay since it sounded easier.  The staff woman who helped us was very friendly and she assisted Katie whenever she had any questions.  Otherwise, Katie was free to make whatever she wanted and could make use of various tools and clay stamps that the staff provided.

After a bit of deliberation, Katie decided to make a mug that she decorated with various animal-shaped stamps.  When she was finished, the staff woman engraved Katie’s name and the date in the bottom of the mug and told us it would be ready  in about a month.  When we inquired about why it takes so long, she said that first they have to dry the clay, then bake it, then glaze it (in the color of Katie’s choice), and then bake it again.

Several weeks later, we received a call from Hasegawa Touen and went to pick up Katie’s pottery creation.  She was very happy with the results and it is now her go-to mug for all types of beverages!  Way to go, Katie!  You did a great job!  Maybe next time we will try the pottery wheel!

Exploring the Microscopic World

Bug parts, cheek cells, fabrics, leaves, hairs, paper scraps, drops of slimy pond water.  These are just some of the ordinary-turned fascinating items that we have examined under the lens of our microscope so far this school year as part of our Sonlight science curriculum.  It’s amazing how getting a chance to look closely at items we normally take for granted can elicit ooohs and aaahs from kids and parents alike!

We also recently did a project where we made gelatin, added it to petri dishes, and then stuck our fingers in potentially germ-infested substances.  We then poked our fingers into the gelatin to see what kinds of creepy microscopic organisms would grow!  Gross stuff like ear wax, nose mucous, river water, dust behind the refrigerator, and more made it into our petri dishes.  We also pushed a clean finger into one petri dish and in another a finger disinfected with Germ-X alcohol gel so we could compare the dishes that had been touched with something clean with the dishes that had been touched with something dirty.  A week or so later,  we got to look at all the dishes under our microscope.  Wow!  Exciting stuff!

Since we’ve been reading about the structure of cells in our Usborne World of the Microscope book, we decided to make models of animals cells out of cake.  A couple of years ago we did the same project with plant cells, but it was so much fun (and so delicious!) that we decided it was worth doing again.  This time Katie was old enough to join in the fun and make her very own cell model all by herself.

Science is one of our most hands-on topics and it gives a chance to marvel at God’s creativity, intelligence, and attention to detail so it is definitely a favorite around here!