Summer learning with Little E & the thorny issue of starting school

The summer holidays are a wonderful thing. As a working mum and a teacher I yearn for them. I love the idea of being with my boys all day for more than just a weekend. And my very British optimism/denial about summer weather keeps me going during the months of cold greyness when I’m working until the wee hours and missing my children.

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^^ Quality time with my boys this summer ^^

Each summer since having the boys has been different because their interests and needs change. My first summer as a mum was so easy. I didn’t realise it then but having one child was – in terms of time – a luxury. I had the time to enjoy E, to think about him, to parent him gently and mindfully. And I didn’t really need to plan. We drifted through each day at our own pace – popping to the shops, having a picnic, going to the park, feeding the ducks, meeting other mums and children for play dates. But this summer I’ve a 3 and a half year old and a toddler to cater for and it’s quite the challenge keeping both of them happy and engaged.

Screentime

Like a lot of 3 and a half year old’s E’s drawn to anything with a screen – the tv, our phones, the tablet. He knows a screen has the potential to be the source of tv and gaming goodness, and he’s obsessed. It doesn’t help that he can work pretty much every electronic gadget in our house single-handedly, so he can turn on Pokoyo or Peppa Pig and play Angry Birds or Dipdap, without my input. If I left him to it he’d happily watch tv for hours, and while I’m not immune to the benefits of using Peppa as an occasional babysitter, if E watches TV for any longer than 30  minutes he turns into a gremlin. It’s quite an interesting transformation – he starts watching TV with a normal complexion, a smile on his face and life in his eyes, and then 45 minutes later he’s a pale, floppy, obstinate shadow of himself. Suffice it to say I’ve spent a lot of time this summer trying to convince E that we don’t need to turn the tv on. It’s actually been pretty successful – I find that if I just refuse point blank at the beginning of the day, he soon stops huffing around the house and finds something to play with.

Preparing E for school

As well as minimising screen time I’ve been keen to encourage E’s learning this summer. I’m of the opinion that learning through play is best for children his age and as school starts so early in the UK I’ve had no desire to encourage formal, sit down learning. However, I’ve noticed a few things that make me think he might be ready for more discrete learning time: he’s a lot more keen on structured play than he was last summer, he gets quite frustrated and silly if I leave him undirected for extended periods of time, and he thrives on one on one time when J and I teach him things and talk through experiences. Also he starts school in 2015 *eek* so there is a part of me thinking I should probably start easing him very (very) gently into the culture of school.

The problem with education

Now…I’m already walking a fine line in terms of the school ‘issue’. I do not want to be that pushy mum who is so concerned with results and potential that I end up putting my child off education before he even starts. What I do want to do is encourage a love of learning. As the mother of 2 boys I know my children are likely to face challenges within the education system that their female counterparts wont. Statistically boys don’t fare as well in exams as girls. There are a whole host of reasons for this (and it’s taking all my willpower not to turn this into a sociological analysis of gender and the British education system!) and one of the biggest, in my opinion, is that boys are more likely to struggle with reading and writing. Something I’ve a keen (read: obsessive) interest in is the theory that reading and writing are feminised within our culture, so boys end up feeling emasculated for demonstrating a love or an aptitude for these activities (daddies: read those bedtime stories to your boys, you are their number one male role model. Foster a love of language and reading. It will make all the difference come school age). Another reason boys can struggle with education is because schools aren’t too good at catering for their learning styles and concentration spans. Boys don’t do as well as girls at sitting still and listening/writing for extended periods of time. They often need to talk and move in order to process information, but our classrooms don’t allow that kind of freedom and so male students are often perceived as difficult, distracting and troublesome.

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^^ Kid loves reading. So far ^^

I have other concerns about school, in particular the strong (read: oppressive) culture of assessment, and of valuing traditional (read: archaic) academic ‘success’ above all else. I love education and I love teaching but education as an institution is something I’m not so in love with. I think it can quash creativity (take a look at this, seriously, do it), self esteem, individuality and innovation – characteristics I associate with both success and with healthy 2, 3 and 4 year olds. I don’t want my dynamic, confident, happy little boy to be squished into a box with a number and label that dictates his life. But I’m a realist (or at least I’m trying to be), so I understand that E will have to go to school and that my role as his mother is to try and support him and his teacher in making that experience as fulfilling and positive as possible.

In an ideal world I’d send my boys to a school with a Steiner/Montessori* approach for their primary education – in my mind these schools emphasise the interrelatedness of subjects and encourage super important non-linear, and abstract thought, they promote collaboration rather than individualisation, they nurture relationships based on mutual respect rather than outdated systems of hierarchy based on chronological age, and they value the child’s natural interest in processes, instead of obsessing over ‘results’ and arbitrary targets. Failing that, in my ideal world, I’d home-school E. Alas, we can’t afford Steiner (plus I’m not 100% cool with some of their philosophy) and I would literally go mad if I had to stay at home all day (sorry, E, selfish mum alert).

So, as you can see I’ve a ‘few’ (and there are more, oh there are more!) niggling concerns about our schools. However, I believe it’s my job to try and counteract the challenges my children might face within our education system with as much love and encouragement as possible. So, this summer in a bid to minimise the lure of the tv and to try and nurture a love of learning (because that’s what I hope my boys achieve more than anything: a love of learning and a resilient self-belief that they can achieve anything they put their minds to), I’ve been working on something new with E. It’s a computer programme called Reading Eggs. It incorporates E’s beloved screen time but in an educational, mummy-son time sort of way.

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Reading Eggs

Reading Eggs is an interactive online program for children ages 4-8. Its 120 lessons are designed to teach children how to read or to build on existing reading skills, and it’s centred around five pillars of reading instruction – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The programme is a great starting point for children who have limited to no reading skills, but it can also be a really useful resource to compliment what a child learns at school. With interactive animations, songs, games and rewards, it’s an exiting little world for children within which they can learn at their own pace.

We were sent the Reading Eggs Mega Book Pack, and we were so impressed. The name is quite the giveaway – with 80 reading books, 400 stickers, 8 mini posters, 8 activity books and 2 packs of flashcards, it’s most definitely “mega”. Little E was excited from the word go, not only did he love the idea of being able to work through his own special game on my laptop, but he was thrilled by the prospect of important mummy and E time. He’s is super-keen to ‘play’ Reading Eggs whenever we get a free minute, so I’m excited to see how he gets on with the programme over the next couple of weeks. I’ll be watching with interest as he works through the lessons and games, and I’ll write back soon with my thoughts. Watch this space…

We were sent Reading Eggs for review purposes but, as always, I will be giving you my honest opinion.

* If you’re interested in Montessori education there are a lot of books out there, but for an instant fix take a look at the Montessori at home link on Abigail’s blog. She’s a fantastic blogger who writes about Montessori in a really accessible way. Oh, and her photographs are beautiful.

2 comments Write a comment

  1. Yes yes yes times a hundred! a) I totally agree with your assessment of the education system and b) share your concern with the way schools seem biased towards girls when it comes to teaching and learning – I believe this is self-perpetuating as a lot of teachers are women, who then foster a love of learning in their female students, who then become teachers, who then etc etc. Also c) that Ken Robinson TED talk is my guiding light when it comes to educational reform. Once I finally get back to my plans to scrap school and reinvent it (…) Little E will be most welcome at my new school where learning is interconnected, student-led and play-based. And not assessed.

  2. I love that TED talk, and even as the mother of girls I can see things in the education system that I would want to change (the obsession with assessments at an early age for starters) and like you there are things that really appeal to me in the Steiner and Montessori approaches – I think it’ll just have to be up to me to provide those approaches out of school and see how we get on with the more formal approach!

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