Local Spotlight: Alley Pond Environmental Center

The Alley Pond Environmental Center (APEC) is an environmental educational center in Queens, NYC dedicated to preserving nature in an urban setting.  At APEC there are nature trails, salt marshes, forests and meadows.  APEC is open to the public and also offers weekly classes, a nursery school program, after school care, vacation programs, family and adult programs as well as teacher trainings.

APEC also hosts amazing homeschool classes for kids age 4 and up!  Ethan took a class here in the fall.  We drove from Brooklyn and depending on the NYC traffic, it was anywhere from a 35 minute to 2 hour commute.  Most often 35 minutes though!  When we arrived on the first day, we were greeted by this sign…

Alley Pond - Welcome Sign

I almost cried.  Never, have I ever, seen a sign like that anywhere in NYC!  It was so exciting.  And were we ever welcome!  Each week Ethan spent an hour with his class of other 4 and 5 year olds.  The teacher read books, sang songs and led the kids through hands-on experiments and games. Each week they learned about another animal that lives at Alley Pond and they got to meet a live animal right in the classroom!  At the end of each class, the kids took a hike with their teacher around the nature preserve.  It was a great class and I’d highly recommend it!  Ethan’s teacher was warm, friendly and knowledgeable (about children and nature).  He really liked her.  

Alley Pond - Class Time

While Ethan was in class, Lillian and I were free to explore APEC or spend time in one of the classrooms that was not in use.  She really loved this.  She got to play with the toys, look at the books and at the end we were careful to put everything back right where we found it.  There are also lots of live animals inside the class building at APEC that Lillian loved to visit.

Alley Pond - Exploring Animals

Definitely consider APEC if you are a homeschooler in NYC! 

Poetry Tea Time

I first learned of the idea of Poetry Tea Time from Instagram.  It looked lovely and I knew I wanted to learn more about the idea!  Julie Bogart creator of Brave Writer, the online writing and language arts program, first created Poetry Tea Time when she was homeschooling her own children.  She loved poetry from an early age but knew there was a “culture of anxiety around poetry.”  She wanted to introduce her children to poetry and thought about doing that over tea, a time when “there’s a universal urge to pause, to rest, to draw in to self and community around a soothing beverage.”

Doesn’t that just sound so lovely?

You can check the #poetryteatime on Instagram and see that thousands of families, all over the world, are now enjoying Poetry Tea Time, just like Julie and her family.  We tried it and it’s as delightful as it sounds!  We now have Poetry Tea Time once a week.  We will usually bake a small treat to enjoy with our tea and then gather at the table to read some poems!

I purchased Julie’s book, The Poetry Tea Time Companion, from Amazon (affiliate link).  It’s a great book with wonderful poems arranged by season.  But although I am happy to own it, I don’t feel you need it to make Poetry Tea Time work for your family.  You can check out her website – http://poetryteatime.com or look at Instagram for inspiration.  It’s so much fun to set a pretty table and sit down together.  I’ve picked up a few seasonal mugs at Christmas Tree Shops and my kids love this added flair of a pumpkin mug or a shark mug, depending on the season!

Shark Week Poetry Tea Time

I definitely agree with Julie that poems and tea go well together!  I’m glad to have another time of our day when we include poetry.  It feels natural and special at the same time.

Do you have Poetry Tea Time in your house?  If you need any inspiration of good poetry books for children – check out this post or you can find a .pdf list in the Booklist section of the blog that you can download with poetry books we enjoy.

What We are Reading Wednesday: Books about Classical Music

In our family we listen to a lot of classical music.  I’ve compiled a list of books about classical music that we enjoy reading and included some CDs that the kids enjoy listening to too. 

(these are affiliate links)

Leonard Bernstein’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

We first started listening to this CD when my son was about 2 years old.  It is a great introduction to instruments, the orchestra and classical music for kids.  It’s still something that we all love listening to.  I’m sure you can stream this now or download it.  

Peter and the Wolf translated by Maria Carlson

This has been a favorite for a few years now.

Peter and the Wolf

The Nutcracker by Susan Jeffers

This book, coupled with the music was a HUGE hit in our house.  I pretty much listened to nothing else from Thanksgiving to about March.  

The Story Orchestra:  Four Seasons in One Day by Jessica Courtney-Tickle

Both kids love this one.  It’s a lovely story that matches the music from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  On each page there is a button to push with a piece of music.

Story of the Orchestra by Robert Levine

Ethan loves this one.  I caught him conducting one of the songs in his room the other day using one of his arrows from his bow and arrow set :).

I have my eye on these:

Maestro Classics 12 CD Collection

Each CD comes with an activity book.  I think my kids would love it!  

Do your kids like classical music?  Do you have any book recommendations?  Let me know in the comments!

“The Joyful Illiterate Kindergarteners of Finland”

Today I wanted to share with you an article I read recently, “The Joyful Illiterate Kindergarteners of Finland” from The Atlantic.  This is not a new article, just new to me.  It was definitely one of the most thought-provoking things I’ve read on the subject of early-childhood education.  I also found it quite pertinent, as my son is in what would be his Kindergarten year of school.

If you have time and are interested, take a look at the article.  It’s a really interesting glance inside a typical Finnish Kindergarten and a brief explanation on their philosophy of early education, which puts play, the natural way children learn, above all else.

The differences between Finnish Kindergarten and today’s American Kindergartens are stark.  Since Finland ranks as the number 1 literate country in the world, I was quite intrigued.  Here are some of the biggest differences I learned from the article:

Finnish Kindergarten

American Kindergarten

The children are 6 years old. Here in NYC, children can start the year they turn 5.  Many kids are still 4 in September. “Redshirting,” or starting Kindergarten later, is not allowed here in public schools.  Private Kindergartens have an earlier cut-off than December.
School is 4 hours a day. School is 6 hours a day.
Children are engaged in pen and paper work only once a week. Children are engaged in pen and paper work multiple times a day.
The curriculum is 100% play based. In most/ many classrooms play has been all but eliminated.
Finnish teachers will teach a child to read only if they are willing and interested. Literacy instruction is mandated for all students – reading, writing and phonics.

Clearly, these Finnish children all grow up to read!  However, their educational system does not push reading instruction on it’s young students.  I think today’s American school system could learn a few things from Finnish Kindergarten! 

American Kindergartens used to look more like Finnish Kindergartens.  I wonder what happened?  The developmental abilities of 5 year olds did not change here in the US.  But our early-education programs did.  I wonder why?

This article is one reason why we are putting such an emphasis on play, especially outdoor play, in our homeschool.

Had you heard about Finnish Kindergarten before?  Let me know in the comments!

Local Spotlight: Zucker Natural Exploration Area

One of our favorite places to visit in Prospect Park is the Zucker Natural Exploration Area.  It is often referred to as “the natural playground.”

The Prospect Park Alliance created this space using trees from the park that were downed during Hurricane Sandy.  These trees and other other elements of nature such as a large sand area, tree stumps of varying heights and a water pump feature form a natural playground for children.

 

My kids can spend hours there.  We usually only bring a bucket and shovel and the rest of the time they play only with the natural materials in the area.  While there, my kids are immersed in sensory, imaginative and unstructured play, all outside.  What a gift for city kids!

I think it is interesting to note that there are many, many traditional playgrounds in NYC.  We have been to a lot of them!  My kids do not have as much fun and do not have lengthy sustained play sessions like they do at the natural playground.  My kids, like others, definitely prefer to interact with nature.

My kids love Zucker because they have so much fun there.  I love Zucker for many other reasons!  There are so many opportunities for my children’s health and development simply by being at a natural playground.  I feel lucky that we have this amazing place to play, so close to home.

At a natural playground like Zucker, children have the opportunity for risky play; something that has been all but eliminated from traditional playgrounds which are covered in rubber padding and where jumping off the swings or climbing up the slides is prohibited.

Wait, isn’t risky play dangerous?  Yes, but it is also vitally important to a child’s development and it is sadly being eliminated from modern day playtime.  How can anyone begin to know their own limits if they haven’t been allowed to independently test them?

Angela Hanscom, pediatric occupational therapist, forest school owner and author of the book Balanced and Barefoot, explains that a child’s neurological system was designed to “seek out the sensory input it needs on its own in order to reach the next developmental level.”  Whether it’s rules on the playground, the disappearance of recess or overly anxious helicopter parenting, you can see how modern times are getting in the way of natural human development.  Risky play is an important part of building confidence and self-esteem.  It allows a child to experience frustration and learn coping skills.

Below is a picture of my son, perched atop a rather large log, really wanting to jump, but not sure if he should.  He is practicing self-reflection and regulation all in this peaceful pause.  He may or may not have started to scream in frustration because he really wanted to jump but he was scared.  He’s learning his own physical limits and how to accept them.  He didn’t jump, for the record.  Maybe one day in the future, he will.

Wild + Free 5

There is also much more room for creativity in a natural playground than in a traditional playground.  The logs can quickly become sharks or ships, or anything children can pretend.  At a traditional playground, the structures are more fixed, making this type of imaginative and dramatic play more difficult.

Making Bear Tracks at Zucker
My son used a stick to create bear tracks in the dirt.

There is also far more physical activity and exertion happening at a natural playground.  At a natural playground kids can climb trees and logs, carry buckets full of sand and water, move heavy logs and rocks, roll down hills and run in green space.  At a traditional playground, these opportunities are simply not present.  A natural playground provides greater opportunities to expand gross motor skills.

 

At a natural playground, children are immersed in natural sensory experiences.  They can take off their shoes to feel the grass, sand and mud between their toes, hear the leaves rustling, cover themselves in mud, “cook” with dirt, splash in water and smell flowers.  While they are surrounded by sensory input, none of it is overwhelming as it is all naturally created.  There are no overstimulating colors, bright lights, loud music or voices reverberating against the walls that you might find at an indoor playspace.

 

Another aspect unique to a natural playground are loose parts.  Loose parts have been popularized as part of the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education.  This term was coined by the architect, Simon Nicholson, who observed that when children have access to loose parts (simply materials that can be moved around), there are more opportunities for interaction, engagement and tinkering.  When children have access to loose parts, their creativity can really take flight!  They also create natural learning opportunities for counting, pattern making, geometry, problem solving and fine motor skills.  Loose parts abound at Zucker in the form of rocks, sticks, leaves and flowers.

Loose Parts at Zucker

While at Zucker (or I imagine, another natural playground), children have the opportunity to engineer and build.  My children have moved huge sticks around both independently and cooperatively with friends to build a wigwam and to create an imaginary bonfire.  Again, these incredible opportunities are unique to natural playgrounds.

Building with Sticks at Zucker
Working together to build with large sticks and branches

As an added bonus, in the summer, the Prospect Park Alliance brings in goats to eat the invasive plant species that grow near Zucker.  The goats are kept in a fenced in area but are clearly visible to the kids.  My kids love to watch the goats!

Do you still need more reasons to believe why natural playgrounds like Zucker are better than traditional ones?  In How to Raise a Wild Child, author Scott D. Sampson cites studies which prove that bullying and aggressive behavior are greatly decreased at a natural playground vs. a traditional.  He details that real estate prices in one neighborhood spiked by 20% one year after the city of Toronto’s first natural playground was installed there.  The incidence of broken bones at a natural playground are a fraction of what they are at traditional playgrounds.  I could go on and on!

Do you have a natural playground in your area?  Have you been to Zucker?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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What We are Reading Wednesday

While we not so patiently wait for spring to come to where we live, we have at least been enjoying reading books about warmer weather, rain, flowers, worms and baby animals!  

I’ve included a  list of spring books that we recommend as a .pdf file in the Booklist section of the blog.  

Below are Amazon Affiliate links to our favorite reads about spring!

Young Children (0-2)

Baby Loves Spring by Karen Katz

Spring by Roger Priddy

Gossie by Olivier Dunrea

Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert

Duck and Goose, Duck Needs a Hug by Tad Hills

Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert

Lola Plants a Garden by Anna McQuinn

National Geographic Kids Look & Learn In My Garden

Preschool Age Children (3-6)

Singing in the Rain by Tim Hopgood

What a Wonderful World by Bob Thiele

The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle

National Geographic Kids Seed to Plant by Kristin Baird Rattini

National Geographic Kids Everything Spring by Jill Esbaum

Flower Garden by Eve Bunting

Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner

A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Aston

Worm Weather by Jean Taft

Rabbit (Watch Me Grow) by DK

Do you have any other favorites?  Particularly about worms?  Those are my son’s favorite!  I’d love to hear any recommendations you have in the comments.  Thanks!

Starting a Wild + Free Group

Wild + Free

I remember when I joined my first local homeschool Yahoo group, a veteran mom wrote an email giving advice to new moms who were just getting started.  She said, if there is something you want for your children but it doesn’t exist, start it yourself!  She said that chances are, others will be looking for something just like you and will happily join in.  She could not have been more right!  

When I found the Wild + Free Instagram page and began listening to their podcasts and subscribing to their monthly bundles, I knew right away this movement was going to have a huge impact on how we homeschool.  Their motto reads, “Our desire is to give our children a quality education but also to preserve the adventure, freedom and wonder of childhood.”  I thought to myself, yes, please!  Sign me up for that.  

So I began to think of how great it would be to meet other Wild + Free mamas.  Not so surprisingly, there was no group in NYC.

Soon thereafter a thread popped up on our neighborhood Yahoo board about a mom looking for alternative options to Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) for her daughter.  Now, in NYC, UPK is FREE full-day pre-k.  Very, very few people pass on this opportunity.  At this point, I had only met a handful of moms who were saying no to pre-k and who were questioning why three and four year olds should be in school six hours a day.  So I took a deep breath and replied that we too, were passing on UPK and I had this idea of setting up a Wild + Free group.  Guess what?  So many other mothers wrote back that they were interested!

And so it began, in the spring of 2017, NYC’s first Wild + Free group.  We meet once a week and the kids have free, unstructured play outside in nature.  My kids have made some really great friends this way!  And so have I! 

This Wild + Free group is another opportunity for my kids to engage in mixed age play, something often missing from a traditional school experience.  The older kids have each other to explore with and also have the opportunity to not only be role models for the younger kids but also to help them take off their shoes, fill up their water bottles and give them a boost up a tree.  Everyone in the group is fully included and valued, no matter how they join in. We often stay and play together for about 4 hours.

It has become such an important part of our week.  This group has helped me feel much less isolated as a homeschooling mom.  Currently, there are 63 families on the email distribution list.  No, 63 families do not join us each week.  But still, it’s comforting to know these other families exist and that we are not alone in our quest for alternative education options.  

Do you have a Wild + Free group near you?  Are you familiar with the Wild + Free movement?  Anyone going to the conference in September?  I am!  I’d love to hear from you in the comments.  

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