Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Geography has been a regular subject of study for N. this year. He is very interested in maps and the lay of the land in general (sometimes I try to soothe him to sleep by reciting the streets and turns of the route I drive to work, and he likes to assemble a mental map of places we visit), so we try to make to most of the geography learning occasions that seem to be everywhere. We don't want N. to be one of the many Americans who are notoriously ignorant about basic geography. While following N.'s interests, we make a conscious effort to cultivate his geographical knowledge.

This big map hangs in our breakfast nook for easy reference. When N. first started investigating the map, he was confused by the colors. He thought there was some connection between all the countries that are green on our map, for example, and when he saw other maps that randomly used other colors to differentiate countries, he thought those maps were wrong. I thought this was really interesting. He has now learned to look past the colors (a hard thing for a kid to do!) to focus on the shapes and locations of the countries.

Another abstract concept that had been hard for him to grasp is the nesting relationship of city, county, state, country. He seems to have this down pretty consistently now, although the fact that New Mexico is a state but Mexico is a country and New York is a state but York is a city caused some confusion and then turned into a favorite joke.

How is it that geography comes up in our conversations all the time? N.'s passion for old buildings naturally leads to this as we talk about the cities and countries in which his favorite buildings are located. The Random Encyclopedia Entry exercise which Tim and N. do almost daily is heavily weighted towards geography, due to the nature of encyclopedias. We subscribe to National Geographic in N.'s name (the real deal, not the kids' mag); we talk about it as his magazine and he looks forward to its appearance in our mailbox every month. Our family members have done a lot of travelling lately: my sister lived in Abu Dhabi for nine months a year and visited Dubai, Greece, and Amsterdam. My brother is marrying a woman whose parents are from India so there have been various trips to Mumbai by assorted family and future family.

With all these, we go back to the big map to reinforce and make connections. When I was in 5th grade, we spent a ridiculous amount of time on a project called "State Reports," which consisted of meticulously copying out information about all fifty states from the World Book Encyclopedia onto lined loose-leaf paper. We drew little state birds and flags, copied out the capitol cities and major manufacturing products. It was the ultimate busy-work; entirely unengaging, it took forever and I at least retained almost nothing from it. In contrast, I hope that since it is contextualized and interest-driven, N.'s exploration of geography has a more lasting impact.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Unschool Craft Projects

Lately N. and I have been making lots of cardboard structures as impromptu weekend projects. He gets an idea, and I try to help him create it, and then the ideas morph and multiply. This weekend, inspired by the Olympics, he wanted to make a skating rink for Violet, one of his Barbies. His starting idea was putting a sheet of waxed paper on a cardboard box; then he wanted stairs, then railings, then we decided to take the whole thing outside to paint it.

We also made Violet some paper-clip ice skates.

January weekends were dominated by The Dollhouse Renovation Project. N. has never played much with the dollhouse, but he suddenly he decided to convert the basement to "an addition." This led to creating a bathroom, fireplace, windows, interior walls, a front door, fenced yard, gates, roof and roof embellishments with carboard and blocks. One day we made stained glass windows from crayon shavings melted between wax paper.

In December we made some paper dolls and a stage. This started as a two-dimensional drawing I made, just doodling around while N. did his own drawings. N, thought my drawing looked like a stage, so we cut it up and mounted it on cardboard. Then we had the idea to make a man and woman to perform on the stage; they turned into a family when N. asked for a little boy!

I like it that these projects are driven primarily by N.'s ideas, with occasional suggestions from me. I could never plan stuff like this! And if I did, the projects would likely go in another direction from my plan anyway, which might frustrate me. I like making things, so it has taken some discipline and practice on my part to hang back, to facilitate and collaborate without dominating. It is so rewarding to help N. give shape to the visions in his head.

Monday, February 1, 2010


I firmly believe that a person’s approach to sleep is part of his temperament, one of those hard-wired elements that make us who we are. So one of the challenges that I face in parenting is how to work with rather than fight my child’s sleep temperament. I found the first nine months of N.’s life at night quite easy. Although he would never nap out of arms in the daytime and even in arms slept usually for no more than 40 minutes at a time, N. nursed to sleep easily at night, and when he woke to nurse he usually fell back asleep easily.

After nine months, as he became increasingly engaged with the world, he woke more frequently and often found it difficult to go back to sleep even after nursing. I am militantly opposed to any form of “crying it out,” so I did whatever I could to help him fall back asleep in those days. He hated his crib, so he slept with us from 9-12 months, after which he slept on a futon on the floor in his room, which adjoins ours. I made a conscious effort not to focus on “sleeping through the night” as if it were a significant goal; Meredith Small's ethnopediatrics helped me remember that “sleeping through the night” is nothing more than an American cultural norm, and that far from having any scientific basis, the “sleeping through the night” ideal probably runs counter to evolutionary logic of children’s sleep and the child-parent attachment. Despite all my efforts not to focus on this, I can tell you that N. slept without waking exactly 5 times between age 1 and age 4.

Until he weaned himself at age 3, N. always went to sleep by nursing.It was the only thing that worked for him. I worried a lot about this at the time, but now I am glad he had this, since it clearly helped him to relax and let go of the day. An effect of his nursing to sleep was that bedtime was (and remains) exclusively Mommy’s domain unless I have to work or travel. Once he decided he didn’t want to nurse, we instituted a Pavlovian routine of reading and singing lullabies, then quiet as I lie with him on his futon till he falls asleep. This routine often works well. But the times when it doesn’t work are really challenging. N. is remarkably self-aware about his resistance to sleep. Once when he was 3 ½ or so, and we were wrangling about going to sleep, he cried out, “But I can’t go to sleep, Mommy! I still have so many questions!!!”  He is intensely alive and he just doesn’t want the day to end.

Why is this a problem? I gather that the radical unschooling perspective on sleep is not to enforce a bedtime but to let children control when and where they go to sleep, thus learning self-regulation. Even Mrs. Piggle-wiggle cures the “Never-want-to-go-to-bedders” by recommending they stay up as long as they want until they are so exhausted they beg to go to bed at 8 p.m. In Mrs. Piggle-wiggle’s world, however, this only takes a weekend. In most of the radical unschooling parent accounts I’ve read, it takes about six months, and neither Tim nor I can handle six months of a sleep-deprived child. We tried it for one month, and then decided it didn’t feel right for us or N.. I feel like a neglecting parent when N. doesn’t get enough sleep, because the effects on him the next day are so obvious. One of the reasons we don’t send him to school is our resistance to the overscheduling and early morning start times that lead to increasing sleep loss among American kids, so I want a home routine that fosters sleep for fully engaged learning and general happiness. N. can’t take full advantage of the homeschooling that he so enjoys when he is tired and cranky. His natural waking time right now is around 8 a.m.; if he is asleep by 9 p.m. he is fully rested the next day.

So, we’ve tried many strategies for the times when the bedtime routine doesn’t work. Sometimes we try to wake him up earlier. I tried to come up with a metaphor that would help him conceptualize what it means to get ready to sleep; drawing on his passion for vehicles, I would tell him it was time to turn off his engine. Because N. doesn’t go to school, he often isn’t completely exhausted or sensorily overloaded by day’s end, and I think that’s a good thing. But to compensate for this, we try to make sure he gets a lot of physical activity during the day playing outside or taking long walks with Tim; in winter weather this becomes a bit harder. When he is clearly just not tired yet, lately we’ve let him turn on his reading light and look at books by himself until he is tired. (I worry that this is a further incentive for staying up, however.) When he reads, I leave the room because I do a lot of work preparing my classes etc. at night and I can’t hang out with him till he’s tired. Occasionally he falls asleep with his head on a book (which I later remove!) and I think this is great practice for him as he learns to let go and fall asleep by himself. The challenging nights are when he doesn’t fall asleep by himself but asks me to come back in his room. Sometimes I resist this because I don’t want to reward him for staying up late with yet more Mommy time. Or I simply have a ton of work to do before my morning class and don’t want to lose my work time or to risk falling asleep myself before I am done (and I hate when my work interferes with my parenting). If I refuse to return to his room (and I can be stubborn when I am frustrated), N. gets upset, which in turn upsets me, because even though he’s not a baby I still hate for him to cry himself to sleep. At the same time, I worry that he is 5 ½ years old and he almost never falls asleep by himself. I can’t decide whether it is important that he learn to do so more regularly (though how I would make this happen I have no idea) or whether, like so many things, N. will go to sleep by himself when he is ready to and not on anyone else’s schedule.

Further reading: Meredith Small: Our Babies, Ourselves
Elizabeth Pantley: The No-Cry Sleep Solution
William Sears: The Sleep Book
John Butler: Hush Little Ones (the last book we read every night!)