7 Family Activities for Fall

scarecrow (2)Fall is a busy time of year with back to school schedules, Friday night football games, and evenings that offer less sunlight. However, families can take advantage of these changes in the season with a few easy, inexpensive fall activities.

1. Add a Family Member (or at least a Homemade Scarecrow)

Build a scarecrow to stand and welcome your friends and family to your garden or yard, and make sure you get your kids in on the action. Years ago I gathered the kids with my limited construction ability and we built a lovable scarecrow who visits our garden every fall.

Materials

  • 2 sections of narrow – at least 2” inch wide – wood (1 for the arms and 1 for the body). You can even use scrap sections of baseboard trim or curtain rods you find at the local lumber yard. The length of the wood can be determined by the shirt and pants you plan to dress on your scarecrow.
  • Screws and drill or nails and hammer
  • Circle of wood or other material for the head. My husband cut the head for me out of scrap plywood, but you can also use the bottom tray from a plastic flower pot, a circular picture frame, or the plastic lid to a 5 gallon pail.
  • Spare clothing – pants, shirt, garden or canvas gloves, an old floppy hat, scarf, or anything else you can rummage from the back of the closet or the sale at the thrift store.

Let the kids paint the face or you can even use some sharpies on the plastic lid. Assemble as a family and don’t forget to give your new scarecrow friend a name!

2. Apple prints

Take flour sack dish towels or plain cotton napkins (you can even make your own square napkins from a yard of white or off-white cotton cloth), then take an apple that has been cut in half. Pat dry the juice from the inside meat part and have the kids paint the cut side in red, orange, or yellow fabric paint, then press the apple onto the corner or along the edge of the cloth. Let the print dry and present these as a special Thanksgiving or Christmas gift.

3. Painted Gourds

Give the kids gourds or miniature pumpkins they can decorate. Let them use markers, googly-eyes, glitter glue, or even foam stickers to decorate unique fall decorations. You can even tie colorful ribbons to the stems and create a trail of Gourd Friends.

4. Make a Mummy for Mom

This one is especially for dads… help your kids plant a mum plant in a plastic pot for Mom. The catch is that the kids first decorate the pot with a face, either painting it or adding it with markers. The mum flowers (think yellow, deep golden red/brown) become the hair and you’ve got your own little mini mummy for Mom to thank her for all of her hard work – and it’s not even Mother’s Day!

5. Caramel Apples with a Twist

Prepare caramel apples with a caramel wrap or coating, but before the caramel sets have the kids roll the caramel apple in a saucer filled with their choice of “extra” topping: chopped nuts, raisins, cookie sprinkles, chocolate chips, broken bits of candy corn, etc.

6. Sock Seed Exploration

Take a pair of old socks – the fuzzier the better – and have your kids put them on their feet and pull them up as high as they can. Then hike (without shoes) through the yard and woods. Carefully remove the socks, keeping the outside on the outside. Place the sock in a shallow plastic or aluminum dish (old pie tins work well), and have your kids sprinkle them with water and put the kids in charge of keeping the socks moist every morning with a watering can. Place the dish in the sunlight and watch for the next few weeks as your old socks start to sprout tiny plants from the fallen fall seeds that were collected – a great conversation starter for the topic of the plant life cycle!

7. Pressed Leaf Bookmarks

Have the kids fill a bag with colorful fall leaves, then take those and press them between the pages of large books (use waxed paper to protect the pages). After a few weeks, remove the pressed leaves and have the kids either glue them onto tag-board to make bookmarks, or send the leaves through a laminator to create unique 2-sided bookmarks. Hole punch the tops and have the kids tie ribbon through them or create special name tags. These make great Christmas gifts from the kids, and you’re months ahead of schedule!

Don’t forget to make homemade pumpkin pies (and stick them in the freezer for the holidays), apple cider, and stock up on cocoa for these cool weeks ahead. When you take a few minutes each week to create special memories with your kids, you are building the platforms for their identities, dreams, and hopes for the future. I hope this fall is kind and full of warm family fun for all of you!

Tools for Visual & Linguistic Learners

Tools for Visual & Linguistic LearnersHelp Your Child’s Learning Style Come Alive

The world must be a uniquely beautiful view for one of my kids. He sees things many just walk right past, hears things in a different way, and finds the humorous, perplexing, and inspiring in what we might consider the mundane. His learning styles are unique to him, but I consider it my job to help find tools that will enhance his learning. If you’re the parent or teacher of a child who thrives on visual or linguistic learning strategies, you know that his or her view on the world is intriguing, and that it is not always easy to use typical teaching tools.

Linguistic learners have skills for reading, writing, speaking – those tasks that revolve around words and communicating ideas through them.

Visual learners thrive on seeing things in action, through demonstrations, charts, graphs, pictures, and any other way they can visually connect with an idea.

You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way. ~Marvin Minsky

I treasure that quote by Minsky. It reminds me that just because things have been taught in certain ways for so long, it doesn’t mean those are the only effective ways to learn. Visual and linguistic learners often have similar traits – they enjoy stories. The following learning tools incorporate both of these in unconventional, yet successful ways.

Language Arts Learning Tools for Visual and Linguistic Learners

Idioms

We use idioms often without thinking too much about them. They are a natural part of the English language. Some people, however, struggle to decipher idioms, usually taking them literally (which would be a very confusing way to spend the day). One of the markers of kids on the Autism spectrum is an inability to comprehend idioms. The phrase, “I’ve got a frog in my throat” takes on a whole other meaning for these kids.

Teach your kids about idioms using books like my son’s favorite, Horsing Around – Making Sense of Everyday Idioms, by Katherine Scraper. In the book there are 50 common idioms, each illustrated with funny interpretations and a story passage using the idiom in a dialogue situation (a few short paragraphs). This book appeals to both visual and linguistic learners. The pages also each give space for kids to write their own interpretations of the idioms.

Understanding idioms improves language by

  • Helping with oral language development, especially in the early preschool and elementary years
  • Building reading skills
  • Developing creative writing skills
  • Improving speech for ESL students (English as a Second Language)

Mathematics Learning Tools for Visual and Linguistic Learners

Math doesn’t have to be just rote calculations. Perhaps it is my love of the written word that draws me to these next two math tools, but I’ve also seen my kids relate to numbers and mathematical theories in a different way since adding these resources to our bookshelves.

Life of Fred

  • The Life of Fred books are a series of “story” books, ranging from elementary all the way through high school, that are designed to get students thinking about math. The unconventional approach uses humorous or just plain wacky stories to teach kids how to apply mathematical concepts.

Charlesbridge Math Adventures

  • This series of math adventures, perfect for early elementary students (even my older kids love to listen to these, too), is an engaging way to introduce and reinforce math concepts. Colorful and wonderfully illustrated tales have characters experiencing adventures that are all intertwined with mathematics. Some of our favorite titles include:
    • Sir Cumference and the Isle of Immeter (a tale that teaches kids how to calculate things such as the area of a circle)
    • Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi (yep – a story about calculating with pi)
    • Alice in Pastaland (an adventure centered around problem solving skills)
    • Cut Down to Size at High Noon (ratios and proportions set in a western story)

Social Studies Learning Tools for Visual and Linguistic Learners

Do you remember memorizing the list of presidents when you were in elementary school, the names and locations of countries, or the capitals of states? If you were like me, it was simply based on rote memorization, grouped by perhaps 10 names at a time. And the memorization lasted long enough to pass the test – and it was usually not an entertaining experience. If you’re looking for a new way to help your kids memorize these basic (and sometimes boring) facts, try some of these books.

Yo, Millard Fillmore!

  • This fun and engaging book helped all of my kids not only learn the names of the US presidents, but their memory of these facts is long lasting, and they really enjoyed the illustrative approach. Each president has a picture and short description as to how the picture fits with that name. Then, each picture (president) is somehow linked to the following one, helping to reinforce the order of presidency.

Yo, Sacramento!

  • Just like Yo, Millard Fillmore!, this book engages readers through humorous illustrations that teach kids how to relate the capital names to the state names.

The Scrambled States of America

  • You might be familiar with this title of the book that teaches about the US states. I also use the board game (by the same name) to reinforce the illustrative concepts presented in the book.

Visualize World Geography

  • I admit that when I first saw this book I raised an eyebrow. The graphics are – unique – and I wasn’t sure I would be able to get past their uniqueness in order to actually learn from the materials. But then my kids and I started using it and we realized that these mental maps that the book creates really do work. There are short bits that go with each graphic to help tie the mental map together, appealing to both my visual and linguistic learners.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a homeschool parent is that learning styles not only influence academics, but they transcend our personalities. It is more than learning about reading, writing, and arithmetic. It is about learning what makes each one of us tick – what gets us excited to try new things, and helps us overcome failures. When we tune into our kids’ learning styles, we give them tools that go far beyond their report cards.

Standardized Tests – Are We Losing Focus?

standardized testsTeachers, parents, and students all face the stress of superfluous standardized tests. Teachers are accountable for training students to take these exams – and pass them. Parents are often responsible for making sure their children are constantly preparing for these tests. Students have perhaps the biggest burdens of all: they must not only repeatedly attempt to regurgitate information in the forms of shaded bubbles, but they bear the labels those test results give from the earliest ages. Average. Below-Average. Above-Average. They also suffer the unintended consequence of missing out on the opportunities to learn how to learn. Instead they are all too often in classrooms where teachers must teach to the test.

Author and outspoken critic of standardized testing (among other failures in education), Alfie Kohn digests and dissects the increasing ritual of testing students in the United States. In his article Standardized Testing and Its Victims, Kohn submits eight facts that support his theory that standardized testing is in part ruining our schools. Among these facts, Kohn disseminates the ever-increasing trend to test more and more, and to place increased value on standardized tests as well.

Kohn is not alone in his distrust of and distaste for standardized tests. Professor Rhona Weinstein reports on research that demonstrates that standardized tests are actually eroding the education of our children. Kohn, Weinstein, and others like Sir Ken Robinson, find many reasons why standardized tests are not leading our children into brighter futures, but instead showing them a limited viewpoint of themselves, as if they are seeing themselves in a mirror which is mostly covered in black and only allowing small glimpses of reflection.

  • Few countries around the world place the emphasis on standardized testing like seen in America. These other countries do not routinely test children younger than high school age, and are countries with high academic outcomes.
  • Standardized tests pressure teachers to teach to the test. The job requirements to end the school year with test scores of certain marks take away from the job description of actually teaching children.
  • Schools that focus on standardized tests are sometimes forced to decrease classes and opportunities for arts, physical education, social sciences, and more so they can devote more time to test prep.
  • Standardized tests measure students’ abilities to answer finite questions in limited areas of focus. They test a student’s ability to weed through possible answers, make guestimates, and interpret the language on a test.
  • Education in America is at risk of losing teachers who have the passion and ability to educate children who can think for themselves. The New York Times reports that the pressures to increase test scores results in schools unintentionally making the difficult job of teaching even more demanding, and less rewarding.
  • Students who can afford more tutors and rigorous test preparation courses might be able to improve their own test scores, but then increase the already growing gap between socioeconomic groups.

Even among these voices of reason, there are those who feel that standardized tests are the best ways to measure our children’s performances in school and their preparedness for their futures. Some researchers report that standardized test scores are among the best predictors of college and graduate school performances. However, perhaps this is because those students who are able to “test well” are the same students who are able to “test well” on in-class pop-quizzes and the regurgitation of information in college courses. Perhaps both standardized tests and college grades are not the best predictors of life successes and abilities after all.

As Kohn writes, “The focus among policymakers has been on standards of outcome rather than standards of opportunity.”

About 12 years ago my oldest took her first standardized test, and I was anxious and wracked with self-doubt as the “teacher” in our homeschool. At the age of 7 and homeschooled all of her life she had never taken a standardized exam. I felt as though I was about to be assessed more than she, and the future of our academic choices resided in those test results. Although Iknew she was extremely capable and bright, I did not know how she would perform on a test where each circle needed to be shaded precisely and she could not question the questions.

Fast-forward many years and I now know the truth about standardized tests. I know before my kids take their exams if they are passing or failing math, excelling in reading, or surpassing expectations – I don’t need a test to tell me that. My kids don’t need a test to show them how much they know or don’t know. Every year now they take the exams, as mandated by our state’s homeschooling laws, and the kids actually have fun with them and have learned to look at them almost as a game. We don’t fret over scores or fear time limits. The scores are just a generalized glimpse of a small portion of their abilities, but they don’t reflect all of who they are and who they are becoming.

I, and teachers and parents like me, can spend countless hours injecting the precise materials we know will be tested into our kids, but we won’t be teaching our children lessons that will let them succeed. They won’t learn to learn and think for themselves, and they won’t have the opportunities to be creative, insightful, and questioning. Without those qualities, what will our future look like?

Homeschool Questions – Critics or Curiosity?

homeschoolAnswering Questions About Homeschooling

As wonderful as it is, homeschooling is hard. There have been days when the educational and life successes of my children has weighed so heavily on my mind and I wonder if I somehow forgot to teach someone to count by threes or how to identify prepositional phrases. These self-doubts weigh heavily enough. Then as homeschoolers we some days feel the added crush – from the in-laws, the neighbors, the clerk at the grocery store who wonders why you’re there with a full minivan at 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. That crush can sometimes make those challenging days of self-doubt squish you more than a minivan full of your own kids – plus their friends – all piled in for “park day”.

I used to memorize statistics of the benefits of homeschooling, armed and ready to tackle the critics and the questioners. Then I realized that in a way my family was a curiosity more than something people were criticizing. Sure – there are still those critics who feel perfectly justified telling me of the multiple ways my children (who are all thriving) will undoubtedly be ruined by homeschooling. But for the most part, people are curious and sometimes it just comes out awkwardly and uncomfortably for all of us. Which is why over the years I have tried to move from defense – relaying all of the positives about homeschooling, to humorous offense – having fun with my life and being proud of our decision to homeschool.

Top Questions for Homeschoolers

(and how to answer them graciously with a side of humor)

Are all of these kids yours?

My stretch-marks would confirm for you that, yes, these children are all mine. My favorite one is the kid who brings me fresh coffee every morning (FYI – none of my kids bring me coffee in the morning so ergo I don’t have a favorite).

How can you stand spending so much time with your kids?

Before I know it there won’t be any choice and they’ll be off living their own dreams. When I am older and greyer I will probably spend sad moments in the bathroom when no-one comes knocking, needing to know at precisely the moment I sit upon the porcelain throne what we are having for lunch, where he put his math book, and how many pieces of gum I guess he just fit into his mouth.

(This is the question that actually bothers my children the most. They always remark about how sad it is to hear parents speaking of the relief they feel when fall rolls around and it is time to send the kids back to school.)

Do you work at a real job, too?

Nothing gets more real than taking on the responsibility for the education of children for 20 years. My paycheck must just be lost in the mail. (BTW – I also work at a real job as a writer and editor, but I don’t worry too much about handing out my resume. I also don’t ask other people for their resumes unless I’m working.)

Or

According to my coffee mug I am a domestic engineer.

How long do you plan to do that?

We “plan” to do this until it doesn’t work. Right now it works. It has worked for more than 15 years. I’m less worried about how long I plan to do this than I am with how can I make this continue to work for our family as long as possible?

No school today?

Oh my gosh – we forgot!!! (smile)

Or

We homeschool – every day is a school day. Poor kids don’t even get snow days or time off for parent/teacher conferences – that’s just me talking to myself – again.

What about college?

Been there, doing that. With one senior and one freshman in college what we’ve learned is that colleges embrace homeschoolers. In fact, in my daughter’s first semester one of her professors made a general announcement in class that in his years of experience, there are two kinds of students who do well in college: homeschooled kids and music students. They know how to independently study and ask questions.

Are you worried that your kids won’t be socialized?

If you mean socialization by spending 8 or more hours a day with age-segregated groups in a socioeconomically flat environment, then, hmmmm. Nope. If you mean the stereotypical kinds of socialization (prom, bus ride antics, etc.), some of my kids get that, too by participating in public school sports (and I’m pretty certain they would still thrive without those experiences).

Full disclosure – I know wonderful kids who attend public schools. Some of the best friends of my kids (gasp – my kids have friends!) get on the school bus every morning. My kids also have friends across age and experience demographics, and feel comfortable in a wide variety of social situations. They have the time to experience more in their homeschool classroom – their community (or wherever we happen to travel). Although some days I do dream of a day of seclusion from the rest of the world like those fake visions of homeschoolers so that I wouldn’t have to get out of my lounge pants and remember which activity needed the snacks and which community education class needed the samples of pond scum – you do not want to be the mom who messes up those two things. Socialization – check.

If you homeschool – how do you handle all of those questions from curious people?

An Invitation – Free Writing & Reading Printables

Years ago – in the blink of an eye and with a gentle whisper to myself – I started homeschooling. I collected curriculum resources like some women collect shoes. I also started my own personal collection of files and PDFs, creating my own miniature lessons (especially for reading and writing). In an effort to purge my files and track my paper trail of personal resources, I developed A Powerful Pen. Consider it my tiny corner of the homeschool world where I share the resources I developed for my own kids. Some of them you may have already seen here at Happy Medium Homeschooling – scattered in the blog posts. A Powerful Pen takes them and devotes some space just for printables.

So – you’re invited. I’ve just started uploading the files, adding in notes about how to use the printables when necessary. Print what you need. Take what you will. Grab what might help your child learn to love words and language and everything amazing about communication. And if you want me to share your resources, send me a note with the link.

Children who learn how to absorb words, communicate their thoughts, and use language to its fullest are steps ahead in life. I believe in the power of the pen. 

powerful pen

Explosions in the Kitchen – AKA Science for Homeschoolers

Homeschool Science

You know you’ve made a lasting impression when the furnace guy who makes the yearly maintenance checks wants to know what science experiment we have planned for the day. Turns out he vividly remembers the first time he showed up right in the middle of a volcanic eruption in the garage.

Explosions, messes, and gooey-gadgets are mainstays in homeschool science lessons (at least they are if we’re having fun). Below is a list of some of our favorite resources for science of all types.

Online Science Resources

There are some fabulous YouTube channels that provide great short videos for free about a wide variety of topics. Just search on YouTube for these names:

  • MakeMeGenius
  • Adventures in Learning
  • The Spangler Effect
  • Minute Physics

Free Printable Science Worksheets

I’ve also put together Steps to Good Science for kids – a free PDF you can print and use – as they conduct their science experiments, based on the scientific basics of:

  • Observations
  • Questions
  • Hypothesis
  • Testing and experiments
  • Drawing conclusions.

Books

There are tons at the library but these are three we’ve kept on our shelves over the years.

Hands-On Gadgets

We just can’t get enough of hands-on experiments, and these are some of the staples we like to have around for science.

  • Snap Circuits sets
  • Wild Goose science experiment sets
  • Magnets – the bigger the better

I’ve been there – watching the horror as green goo rose up and walked all over my kitchen counter with a life of its own. And while these kinds of moments call for extra paper towels, they also give amazing memories and lessons well-learned.

 

 

Halloween Party Printables

Halloween Party Printables
Halloween Party Printables

A Goblin Good Time – Fun and Free Halloween Printable Activities and Games

Goblins, ghouls, and sticky candy – what else could your little ones want? It’s hard to believe that we’ve been carving pumpkins and bobbing for apples with the kids around here for more than 15 years! We usually start our Halloween adventures with some games, printable activities, and anything else to have some fall fun. (And shhh, don’t tell the kids, but they are learning along the way, too!) If you’re planning a Halloween party, or you just want to have some extra fun with your kids this year, try some of these spooktacular Halloween party game ideas and printable pages that I’ve developed to use with my own monsters over the years.

Games and Printable Activities

Start by printing these Pumpkin Points – instead of handing out individual prizes for games played, your kids can earn Pumpkin Points to go towards “purchasing” their prize at the end. I like to have non-candy prizes, such as headlamps or glow-sticks for them to wear trick-or-treating, Halloween tattoos or stickers, mini-flashlights, or fun Halloween books. Why not make a full week of fun and have them earn points for a fun movie night or adventure?

Goblin Good Games

Halloween Word Bingo

This version of Bingo is great for early readers (but anyone can play). Take a look at the instruction sheet for how to use this at your Halloween party, then print cards for each player.

Pumpkin in the Dark

Print one template for every player. Take turns blindfolding one child at a time (it is fun for the others to watch each turn) and place the pumpkin template in front of the child and hand him or her a crayon or marker. Have the player design the jack-o-lantern face blindfolded – and then you can use these creative pictures for placemats. Run them through a laminator for extra durability.

Who Am I?

This game is great for all ages. You can print these easy Halloween themed words or come up with your own for older kids and adults. Each player should have one name card taped to his or her back (but they shouldn’t see which one they get). Then set the timer for 2-5 minutes and let everyone go around asking Yes/No questions. At the end, see if anyone could figure out who their Halloween character is.

Happy Halloween Word Creation

Print either one page for each player, or split the group into teams and have one page for each team. The goal is to come up with as many new words with the letters in Happy Halloween – you can give bonus points for Halloween related words. Set the timer for 3 minutes or so – depending on the age of your group.