Help your children connect the information skeleton

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by Susan August

I've read a lot of homeschool magazines and books over the last several years. A lot of the things I've read have long been forgotten. There is one idea, however that has stuck with me. I would even venture to say that it has become somewhat central in a lot of my homeschooling decisions. I don't remember where I read it, but it was in an article by Mary Pride. She said that her blueprint for homeschooling was to create a sort of information "skeleton" and then keep adding on to it until it was a living thing instead of just bare bones. In other words, link new material to things your kids already know.

This made sense to me. Think about how hard it is to memorize a series of seemingly random numbers or letters. Not only is it difficult, but it's also hard to motivate yourself to persevere since the exercise seems pointless. Now, what if someone showed me a pattern in the series of numbers or taught me a few phonics rules so that the series of letters was now a word. All of a sudden the excessive memory work and futility of the task disappear.

As homeschooling families, we have the perfect circumstances for this sort of connecting framework. Since we are with our children almost all the time, we can be aware of what they're learning, observing and experiencing, thus making it so much easier to form these connections.

I don't have a formal plan for implementing this kind of framework. I'm hoping it will become sort of second nature as I see it happen successfully time and time again. Here are some of the simple connections we have made without much strategic planning.

When my young son started asking repeatedly "How long until..." and "How much longer..." instead of just answering his question, I showed him how to count by fives on the clock. Because I caught him at a time when his need to know was strong, he practically taught himself to tell time.

After a trip to Wheaton Village (a glass museum, glassmaking demonstrations and home of Ken Leap's stained glass exhibits), I chose a fiction book from the library about a glassmaker, The Glass Phoenix (some objectionable language). Reading about one chapter a day, it took us about two weeks to finish but it was definitely worth it. Jack also chose a "stained glass" kit from AC Moore when he received his $5 birthday coupon that same month. Here's how that "information skeleton" was fleshed out. The bare bones aspect was the information presented at Wheaton Village. Seeing Ken Leap both at Wheaton Village and at church every Sunday made the whole world of glassmaking relevant and not so far removed.

In reading our novel about glassmaking in New England, many new pieces of information were added to the skeleton. Our story dealt with the tension between those who cling to the traditional ways and those who will do just about anything in the name of progress. My son also got an introduction to the many implications of the industrial revolution and how an artist might feel when a machine replaces him. He even got a glimpse of the potential for conflict between management and labor and how delicate the give and take can be. In working on his own stained glass project, Jack could appreciate how patient an artist must be if he wants to create a masterpiece. Because all these topics were linked to the glassmaking information from Wheaton Village, this body of information is now much more than bare bones.

You might be thinking that you would never have time to put something like this together. The amazing thing is that this all fell together accidentally. My husband is the one who suggested going to Wheaton Village. There was no plan other than to have something to do on his day off. He happened to mention our plans to Ken (the stained glass artist from our church) who then made an effort to take extra time with us when we were there. Receiving the coupon from AC Moore was a mere coincidence. The only planning I did was the five minutes browsing through the card catalog at the library to find a good book. We didn't even spend extra time reading this book. We just always have a couple of chapter books in progress, so it made sense to choose one with a connection.

For those of us who went to Howell Farm (a living history farm in Mercer County, New Jersey) to learn about ice harvesting, we couldn't help but be impressed with the following scenario. We were gathered outside the icehouse listening to a woman explain the process of getting huge chunks of ice from the pond into the icehouse. She asked, "Why do you think there is all this sawdust on the ice chunk?" Before I could even begin to think about why this might be, a little 4 year old girl immediately piped up, "To keep the ice chunks from sticking together!" How could she know this? It was new information for the rest of us. However, this little girl often lives in the world of the Ingalls family from the Little House Series. She loves those books and those characters have really come alive for her. Just a couple of days before our field trip, her mother had the wherewithal to read the chapter from the Little House Series that was all about ice harvesting. This made the whole field trip relevant to her since it was all about people she knew.

One other simple connection, we use regularly, is in the discipline of practicing penmanship. As often as possible, we stray from the workbook page to write thank you notes instead. This helps our son Jack see how neat penmanship can be useful and of course, we can never have too many lessons about gratefulness and how to express it.

I'm not advocating throwing out the textbooks, and the idea of child centered learning or always catering to a child's interests makes me shudder. What I think I'm looking for is a more subtle form of connecting information. Instead of throwing out the textbooks, try skipping around a little bit. If you're planning a vacation, find the chapter that deals with the history of that particular place. Find some "living books" that will immerse you in the subject. (According to Charlotte Mason, a living book is a book written by someone who has a passion for that particular topic.)

Slow down in your studies to locate things on a map or find more information in the encyclopedia. Board games and computer games are great connectors and can reinforce basic skills a lot less painfully than drilling with flash cards. Make the connections in whatever way works for your child and flesh out the information skelton. 

Copyright 2006. Used by permission of the author. Originally published in the ENOCH of New Jersey newsletter.

Susan August is a retired homeschool mom from NJ.  She and her husband served on the board of ENOCH of New Jersey (Education Network of Christian Homeschoolers) for many years.  Even in their "retirement" Mark & Sue continue to serve homeschoolers in their local area.

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