Brain Age Follow Up: Does Brain Age Get Boring?

A couple months ago I blogged about the educational value of “Brain Age” a clever little video game that features a wide range of “brain boosting” activities.

For the first two months, the kids (and my wife) were hooked on “Brain Age.” They were actually competiting with each other to see who could attain the youngest age brain. See, for some reason, the object of “Brain Age” is to lower your brain age down to 20… When I first played the game, my Brain Age was 63 — I thought, “Great — I’m a wise, senior citizen.” Then I found out that 63 is very bad.

Anyway, I just wanted to supply an update. The kids and their mom haven’t touched Brain Age in about a month — maybe even six weeks. No Sudoku, no Multiplication, no saying the names of colors out loud.So, I’m guessing by their lack of play that the game has gotten boring. (I don’t know what this does to their cognitive age — so far I haven’t seen a shift in thinking ability.)

Now, you might say it’s unfair to complain about the game. After all, some kids get bored with their toys and games. However, my girls still play with some of their leapster games: Baseball Math — for examples — has been very entertaining and educational. It’s really helped with their times tables. Another examples would be Leapster’s “Junie B’ Jones Beeswax Journal.” The girls still think its fun, and despite Ms. Jones’ butchered grammar, it has encouraged my children to read and write.

So — Brain Age was fun and educational, yes, but just for a few months. What about your family? Have they played any “mind-building” games. Did they work?

“A History of US” – A Fresh Approach to American History

My girls and I have discovered a wonderful series of history textbooks. Actually, I guess I shouldn’t even call them textbooks, because that name connotes such a dour, dusty old image. These books, written by Joy Hakim, help readers visual history.

Here’s a sample from the first chapter (the author draws the reader back 40,000 years):

“When you get out of the [time] capsule you might shiver a bit; it is cold here in Siberia. But you have nice warm clothing. Because of that astoudning invention – the needle made of bone – people can wear clothes that fit their bodies. Do you see that man and woman over there, sitting near the fire? They are your mother and father.”

See how the narrative grabs the reader and puts him/her into the historical setting? It reminds me of the “Choose Your Own Adventure Books” I read when I was a kid.

So far, my kids are captivated by these chapters as the history of the United States slowly unfolds, starting with the ancient people who crossed the land mass from Siberia to North America, and reaching all the way up to the 21st century.

Perhaps best of all, Joy Hakim’s preface begins by asking: Why Should We Study History? That’s a great question, and she has some great answers. So, if you’re looking for a fun, fresh approach to American History, I highly recommend Hakim’s series: “A History of US.”

Homeschool Hair

Enough blogging about academics — let’s talk about style for a moment.

Personally, I don’t have fashion sense — I don’t even care if my socks match (but my wife does so I obey her). Since I live in a house with nothing but women (one wife, two daughters, a female cat, dog, bird, and I have a feeling the goldfish is a girl too), I have accepted the fact that appearance matters. My youngest daughter loves to dress up — she has worn three different outfits today. My older girl is still in tom-boy mode, but even she has her own sense of style when it comes to clothing.

However, when it comes to hair — with all the combing and brushing and untangling — they would rather not bother. And since there aren’t a bunch of public school 6th graders who will taunt their wild hair, I often let nature handle their hair-dos.

The result is something I call “Homeschool Hair.” It’s the sort of hair that says, “Yes, I did sleep in the Amazon jungle last night, thank you for asking.”

Now, as you can imagine, my wife is not too keen on homeschool hair. She wants the girls to look presentable when we’re out in public — which is quite often considering how many field trips we take. I try to tell her to think about how much extra time they have to read and do math. The minutes it takes to tame those hair-dos absorbs valuable study time!

But my wife doesn’t agree. So, as most men do when they live in a house controlled by women, I give in. That’s when I tell the girls to fix their hair. (And assist them if they’ve got some nasty gnarls.)

But this morning, my wife went to yoga! She’s out of the hosue now, so Homeschool Hair reigns supreme!

For now at least…. ๐Ÿ™‚

Teach Away From the Test

As most homeschool families know, the public school system all too often strips itself of vital educational programs. “No Child Left Behind” might focus on improving reading and math scores. But in the process, arts and sciences and other subjects are tossed to the wayside.

Homeschooling provides flexibility and independence. If your child is passionate about learning the violin or wants to devote seven hours each day to inventing a new gadget then parents can supply all the time and encouragement necessary.

Lately, here’s what my girls have been drawn to:

Architecture. My 10-year old has always been curious about how buildings are designed and constructed. (And for a short time she was obsessed with ship building). Because my wife and I don’t “teach to the test,” tour kids have the time and energy to gather dozens of architecture books from the library, and spend our afternoons working on blueprints for dream homes.

They probably won’t be performing on Broadway again until this summer, but every year my girls participate in Children’s Theatre programs. My girls fade in and out of “shy” stages, and even though I don’t expect them to pursue Theater as a career, I love how the drama class (which they take with about a dozen other homeschool kids) fosters self-confidence and communication skills.

It’s lizard season in our backyard. And since my girls are so fascinated by those scaly little critter, we’ve been researching online to learn more about our reptilian neighbors. After studying the habitats of our local lizards, my daughters then re-arranged our garden, tilting stones and rearranging loose boards, all of which invites more reptiles into the area. (They love warm places next to quick, safe hide-aways.)

These are just three examples, but the possibilities are endless when the teachers and students aren’t so obsessed with perfecting the art of multiple choice tests.

Has homeschooling allowed your children to pursue unique and interesting goals? Share your stories with the rest of us.

“Take Turns” Writing Activity

We had a wonderful breakthrough this week. Or maybe I should say that I had a breakthrough. The kids don’t quite realize how happy I am; I’m keeping my sense of joy a secret so I don’t make too big a deal out of this.

Okay, so what am I talking about? Well, as I have mentioned before, I am a teacher by trade. I work at several community colleges as an English instructor, specializing in Freshman Composition and Literature Studies. So, when my wife and I decided to homeschool our children, we agreed that I would be an ideal candidate to bestow the virtues of the English language upon my soon-to-be-genius children.

Things didn’t turn out well. Although my kids love to write (spelling is an entirely different issue) they aren’t too keen about taking instruction. My eldest daughter enjoys writing in her journal and writing stories. My younger girl loves to write poetry and she’s been working on a novel (as she calls it) about Adventure Guy. However, their drive to write ebbs and flows. Sometimes they’ll go weeks without picking up a pencil. On the one hand, I don’t mind this. However, I do believe that being able to write an essay — not just creative writing — is a valuable skill. I want them to be able to write arguments and persuasive writing essays. But every time I sit them down and “officially instruct,” I drain all of the fun-filled energy out of the room.

Until now. Now we’ve got a new system. It’s called “take turns” writing. Here’s how it started. I asked the girls to spend some time writing with me. We were all sitting on the couch, and my 10-year old daughter was in a glum mood. “How much do we have to write?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But since I’m in the mood to write instead of teach, let’s work together.” So, I wrote out the first sentence to a story:

“I know my Dad said to stay on the trail, but then I heard a puppy barking in the forest.”

I wrote it on each of their journals. When I handed the pages back to them I said, “Okay, for every sentence you write — I’ll write a sentence. If you write two sentences, I’ll write two. If you write eight, I’ll write eight.” Well, they immediately fell in love with the story. And as each girl wrote a different sentence, I began collaborating with them on two entirely different stories. We spent almost three hours working together. In fact, I was the one who wanted to take a break, but they wouldn’t let me!

Of course, this was a creative writing activity. Something they already enjoy. Fortunately, this “take turns” writing activity has since helped them write more formal essay paragraphs. By taking turns, they get to see my writing process. They watch me think of an idea, write a few words down, erase them, and laugh at myself if I make a mistake or come up with something brilliant. Instead of me preaching to them about topic sentences, they want to write a topic sentence so they can see how I’ll follow-up their original idea.

Of course, collaborative writing can only take students so far. Eventually, they’ll have to write entire essays all by themselves. I have a feeling that if their enthusiasm keeps up, my daughters will soon be ready to stop “taking turns” writing with dear old dad. (But I hope it doesn’t end too soon. I’ve been having a blast!)

Tide Pool Journals

We don’t exactly live near the beach. It’s about an hour drive — not too bad. So, with the distance, going to the beach is usually an all-day thing. That being the case, as a homeschool family, we like to mix in a little bit of education with our fun (or a little fun with our education, depending on how you look at it).

So, when we head to the beach we bring our sun-tan lotion, our sand toys, our towels, and our science journals. Just as we do when we analyze bugs in the backyard, the kids write a list of questions they have, based upon observations. We might wonder:

How long do crabs live?

How often does a hermit crab change its shell?

How long can barnacles live in open air?

How salty is sea water?

How did dolphins evolve? (I’m curious as to how they “gradually” developed a blow hole.)

Do jellyfish have brains? How do they sting?

Some of the answers to these questions can be discovered through observation, right there on the beach. Some of the questions will be explored on another day — perhaps with our old friend the library or our newer friend the internet. And some of the questions don’t have any definitive answers yet. The point is — even on a fun-filled trip to the beach, it’s good to press that “Scientist Button” in your kid’s brain. Get them to ask questions. Get them to explore the extraordinary everyday world.

Getting Your Kids To Write

My girls go through writing spurts. For weeks at a time, they won’t want to write a single sentence. Then, all of a sudden, they pick up a yellow pad of paper and become obsessed with writing stories, or reports, or lists.

For example, my kids received a one-month gift card for Club Penguin, an online community for kids. (It’s an amusing waste of time.) Well, it turns out, that after using Club Penguin for a month, once the girls’ membership stopped, they lost all of their igloo furniture and cool penguin clothes. Needless to say, my girls were outraged. So what did they do? They wrote protest letters to Club Penguin. They ever created sign with the following text: “Club Penguin Betrayed US!”

Long story short — I’m not worried about my girls becoming writers. They already are. (Though it might be nice if they improved their spelling — but that’s a whole other blog.)

However, I know lots of homeschool kids who can’t stand writing. These kids would rather have a root canal than write an essay. So, what do you do with this sort of student? Well, here are a few theories:

Force them to write. Set aside an hour each day — even on the weekends — and make your child do nothing but write. I call this the Boot Camp method. I’m not too fond of it, by the way. This is basically how I was taught math — Work on it till its done. Check it. Fix it. Get it right. Ugh! I hated Math then, and even today, Math and I are not on speaking terms. So, I would warn parents against the Boot Camp Method. It might improve the student’s writing in the short term (the more you write, the better you write, so they say).

Teach them the Bare Minimum. There are terribly boring things called: 5 Paragraph Essays. I call them Cookie Cutter Essays, because the structure is so restrictive, so Fill-in-the-blank, paint-by-numbers sort of writing, that t might teach them to become passable writers (think “C+”) but it won’t inspire them to become great writers.

Choose Fun Topics: That’s right, fun. Do they like video games? Have them write an story outline or a concept for a new game. Heck, have them write a few paragraphs that invents an entirely new game system — let them outdo the Nintendo Wii. If they love animals, let them choose their favorite and right a report — or a poem — or a short story. Whether it’s creative writing of formal essay writing — it might not not matter. As long as they are exploring and analyzing subjects that they are passionate about, they’ll start to fall in love with writing.

Can you tell which method I prefer?

Falling in Love with Languages

Last blog entry, I discussed the importance of learning a second language. But, that’s the easy part, isn’t it. Most of us understand that multi-lingual skills can be useful in our lives and careers. But how do we get our youngsters to embrace the idea?

Well, our kids our currently learning Spanish. Here’s what we’ve been doing lately, and it seems to be working.

Self-Motivated Learning: For the most part, our girls decided they wanted to learn Spanish. Self-directed learning is an ideal situation. If the child actually wants to learn something, then you (the homeschool parent) are no longer a task-master, howevering over their shoulder while they struggle through home work. You become a facilitator, someone who helps guide them along a path that they WANT to take!

Language Software: There’s lot of great and affordable programs available for Windows and Mac users. Currently, programs such as Rosetta Stone are very popular (and easy to use). However, the latest software can be very pricey, and not necessarily kid-friendly. If you have kids under 10 years, I suggest checking on Ebay — they usually have used software (and lots of Spanish stuff) for very low prices.

Library Books and Video: Since we live in Southern California, our libraries cater to both English and Spanish speakers. My girls have been checking out Spanish language Picture books. Also, many of the libraries videos have been dubbed over n Spanish, or have subtitles. Recently, the girls have watched Tinkerbell and Free Willy, entirely in Spanish.

Flashcards: Yes, good old fashioned flash cards. Fortunately, my girls are good-naturedly competitive, so the like working on the flash cards at the same time. Rote memorization isn’t always fun, but it’s an important part when learning the fundamentals of a new language.

Interact with Native Speakers: It certainly depends on where you live and which language your kids are learning, but if you can, get out and meet people who speak the language your family is learning. We live a couple miles away from a Market in which all of the signage is written in Spanish, and most (if not all) of the employees speak fluent Spanish. The employees are friendly, and they appreciate the fact that the girls are anxious to learn.


Should I Teach My Child a Second Language?

Is learning a new language part of your child’s homeschool education? It probably should be. However, some people simply want their child to master English first, then worry about foreign languages later. (Mastering English is difficult enough, don’t you think?) But I think it’s important to learn a second language for several reasons.

1) As a homeschool parent, I’d like to outdo the public school system (it’s perhaps foolishly competitive of me to feel this way — but I do!). Since most high school require a minimum of two years of a foreign language, I’m hoping to give my kids at least four years of foreign language instruction/experience.

2) Enhances Social Studies skills. Anytime you learn another language, you invariably learn in depth details about other cultures. That’s always a worth while goal, in my opinion.

3) Improves communication skills. If you child can speak more than one language, that means that are able to communicate with more than just English-speakers. When they become adults, multi-lingual homeschoolers will have a leading edge in the workplace.

4) Builds reading skills. No matter what the language is — you are strengthening those “reader” neurons in your brain. My daughter fell in love with learning Spanish recently, and I’ve noticed that her everyday reading skills have improved.

Of course the big question is: How do you teach your child a second language? We’ll discuss that in the next blog post!

The Gift of Spare Time

Whew! Are you tired? Worn out? Too much to do?

I know this may sound like the beginning of a bad, late-night commercial that’s going to sell some product that will solve all of your problems. But don’t worry, it isn’t. But it is a lament to how busy things can get — if you’re not careful.

A homeschool family works on a schedule different than most. In my family’s case, we get to sleep in during the weekdays (if we want to). Since I teach college classes, my schedule isn’t as tedious as a standard 9-to-5 career. During most mornings, I imagine other families are rushing to catch the bus, grab some coffee, and join the rat race (whether its at the public school or the office). While all that rat-racing is going on, I have to say that I feel very blessed to be gradually waking up with the kids, making them breakfast while their Mom sleeps in, and talking about what fun we’ll be having today.

Yet, even though we don’t have a typical schedule, our homeschool lifestyle can get pretty hectic. Here’s a brief list of things that occupy our time:

General Homeschool Studies
Field Trips (About Twice a week)
Girl Scouts (Cookies anyone?)
Work stuff
A Monthly Dinner with fellow homeschool families
Holiday parties (Happy Valentine’s Days, by the way)
Sports, sports, and more sports. (My wife recently finished coaching soccer, and soon the girls will be in track.)

All of these activities make life fun, but they also complicate things. Do yourself a favor: Make some time each week (if not more often) for you and your children to have spare time. No pressure. No errands to run. No deadlines to meet. Just time to hang out and do (or not do) whatever comes to mind.

Every once in a while, spare time is a wonderful gift to give yourself and your kids.