Life Skills for Homeschoolers: Food and Its Many Aspects

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As I was considering topics for this month’s post regarding life skills, I reviewed the topics already discussed. Then I asked myself, “What else is important to know?” In my opinion it is essential for children of all abilities to learn about food and its many aspects — how to grow, preserve, and use it in a healthy manner to promote optimum mental, physical, and spiritual health.

That’s a pretty big topic to cover in one post. Many children today grow up without knowing how to even prepare food from real ingredients. They may know how to pop a box into the microwave or dump something into a pan of boiling water. This is not real food preparation. Personally, as I work with people who have challenges, I always start with food. Often times it is even more important for kids with challenges be eating a healthy, real-food diet. That’s real food made from real ingredients.

As mentioned in a previous post, despite graduating with honors, I knew nothing about meal preparation or even menu planning. This is a good place to start. Have your child help you make menus for the week (health/nutrition). Once they get up in years (tweens and up), they can even do meal preparation as part of their weekly chores. They can learn to shop (price comparison, coupons, budgeting). For those challenges, the child may need a small notebook you create to help with measurements, simple directions using pictures, etc. It depends on what ability level your child is at. For my son, we ended up creating a special recipe book with things he knew how to make. When younger, I would use pictures to help him remember how to cook something.

Another thought when coming to meal preparation is allowing the kids to experiment. When my older kids were young, they would get in the kitchen and experiment with creating their own recipes. My only rule was that they had to eat what they created so there was no waste. The boys cooked just as often as my daughter. Today, my daughter can create the most delicious recipes. She has become a “foodie.” In fact, I have even learned more about meal creativity from watching her create.

Depending on your own family situation, gardening can be part of the food learning. Gardening is a wonderful way to learn about eating healthy and even to tie in spiritual lessons. There’s the science part of it (photosynthesis) also. From gardening, it is easy to move to food preservation. This can open up many options, including cultural dishes to tie in with social studies/geography. Again, use healthy choices here, and learn to cook from real ingredients. Gardening is actually good for mental health also.

Using gardening as a spring board, another helpful topic could be medicinal and culinary herbs. As we move closer to Christ’s second coming, knowledge of medicinal herbs will be very important. (It is easy to see how this could later tie in with medical missionary training.)

For the child with challenges, remember to keep things simple and hands-on. It could be useful to utilize nature journals and other notebook methods to help organize learning. For part of gardening, it is beneficial to record weather info so that future gardening plans can be improved upon (science).
Food is the basis of who we are. There is a cliche about “we are what we eat.” This is so true. As I have studied about food and behavior, I have learned the importance of our children learning how to cook and use real food for optimum health.

How to Create an Early Learning Center

When our youngest child was born, we obtained lots of little toys for her. It had been a long time since we had an infant, so we had to replenish our toy supply. As she has grown into a toddler, her little section of toys on the floor in our living room grew to a huge overflowing eye-sore. There were so many options that she became overwhelmed and didn’t want to play with any of it. Not to mention the stress of having such a mess! So, in my toy-buried desperation, I decided to take everything out and start fresh!

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In my early childhood education classes, I learned about the importance of having an aesthetically pleasing environment — one that promotes imagination and creativity! In this environment there should be options that invite open-ended play. This means toys that have more than one use, which can be used in many ways creatively. Having an area with few toys or activities invites the child to rediscover and appreciate the items they have. Bonus for mom is less to clean up!

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I started with a simple shelf that matched our current décor. Then I went through all her toys. I donated ones that she had grown out of, discarded broken toys, and categorized everything else. Toys that went together by themes or sets I stored in clear plastic containers with lids and labels in the garage. These I could rotate through or bring out at particular times. For her shelf I really wanted to think carefully about what types of activities I wanted to make available. I really only wanted high quality simple toys and activities that would promote engaged learning. Then I thought about a particular theme I wanted to focus on. Since I rotate out toys every month or so, I usually focus on a seasonal theme.

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If you’ll notice in the current set-up, I have each shelf divided more or less as a theme or grouping, including kitchen or cooking, reading or drawing, and sorting or counting. There are so many ideas you can incorporate. This type of setup follows loosely with Montessori. If you look online there are a plethora of ideas you can use. Since setting up her learning area, the toys stay centralized in one place, Mama has much less mess to clean up, and she actually enjoys playing and using her imagination!

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What We Teach Our Kids

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By far the most common response I get from people, mostly women, when I say that I homeschool is, “Oh wow. I could never do that. I’m just not organized enough.”

And, I picture my disorganized home, my busy life, and my kids who many days wear pajamas until, at the earliest, when their friends get home and they toss on mismatched outfits to go play. Wait. Stop. Scratch that. Emme wouldn’t be caught dead in mismatched clothing. She’s also the one who cleans my house. At 11 years old. And makes dinner.

My 11-year-old. SHE homeschools my kids! I’ve just had an epiphany!

But, I digress.

The point is that I really want to sit down with some of these women and tell them that homeschooling is not just a classroom in the basement with your children sitting in desks waiting attentively, awaiting learning to be imparted.

No, some days homeschooling is doing nothing.

Which brings me to my next topic. What exactly DO unschoolers do?

Remember the photos you’ve seen on Facebook — some of you, anyway — where there’s an idealized picture of something and the caption “What my neighbors think I do”? Another picture has the caption, “What my mother thinks I do,” and a third picture says, “What I actually do.” Or whatever!

With unschoolers, the “What I actually do” varies as much as there are unschoolers!

Debate even amongst unschoolers has raged with the eternal question, “Are you really unschooling if you use workbooks [or any formalized learning media]?”

One extreme of homeschoolers answer with a resounding “NO!” One must not fetter one’s mind with structured learning, or even worse, regurgitated ideas and dogma!

Others insist that learning done organically in the interest of the child, regardless of the method, is the goal. Using workbooks, curriculum, or whatever is at hand is legit.

I think the most important consideration, if one is exploring the possibility of unschooling, is the child’s personality and temperament. With my boys, I was hard-core unschooling. With my girls, I use workbooks, printouts, and software.

Here’s what I’ve come to believe. I don’t think I’ve said this before, but if I have it bears repeating.

Children are always learning. They learn most when you’re not teaching. Or not on purpose anyway. They watch how you talk about others at church or in the store. They watch how you drive and the monologue you have with the other drivers (tough lesson learned as my 17-year-old is now mouthy and critical…oy).

From observing your behavior patterns and priorities, they learn that one’s house must be clean at all times even if it involved stress and crushed feelings. Or, they learn that hugs, dancing, and fun help tidy the clutter if not completely overcome it!

They learn that starting the morning in prayer and study helps moderate one’s mood throughout the day, versus chaos and tears They put in place similar systems, especially as they experience life and realize they need it too — perhaps not as young adults once out of the home, but certainly as newlyweds or, even more so, new parents!

Here’s what was critical to me in the manner and method of teaching, especially with my second son who struggled with reading; he didn’t read until he was 13+ years old.

By my attempts to teach something that he wasn’t emotionally or mentally prepared to do, I risked teaching him that learning was “hard.” That he didn’t like it. That he couldn’t do it. Regardless of my patience and gentle correction (anyone who knows my personality is smirking), he would learn that he was “doing it wrong” — OR at the very least that he “wasn’t doing it right.”

I have a girlfriend who is legally blind in one eye. There’s nothing wrong physically with her eye, no physiological reason why she can’t see out of it. While I don’t know the medical details, she had something that should have been corrected when she was young, but because it wasn’t, her brain just clicked off. It no longer even tries. And so, she’s blind in that eye.

My concern when working with Lowell was that while teaching him to read — and struggling — what I would successfully teach him is that he’s incapable. That he can’t. That he “struggles.” That learning isn’t fun.

With my oldest, I knew that he could do most anything. I could set him to any task and he could do it quite successfully. That kid could learn faster than I could come up with stuff to teach him! What we inevitably ran into was the fact that our dynamic, still to this day somewhat, was that whatever I wanted him to do, he resisted. The power struggles I found myself in! I really had to pick my battles.

Now, I just want to be clear. A parent must be the authority and willing to take on their kid when they refuse to submit to it. I understood this and tend toward being very much a disciplinarian (to a fault, some days). However, the whole realm of learning was not a mountain I was willing to die on!

I would go toe to toe with him when it came to respect. When it came to cleaning and chores. When it came to a lot of things. But, in my world, learning should be fun! And so, it was the one area that I pretty much gave to him to learn how and when he would.

The best analogy to demonstrate my point is Walters-style camping.

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When we’re home, I expect a level of participation and cooperation from my kids. They’re pretty autonomous when it comes to eating. They take on the bulk of cleaning especially in the kitchen. I keep a pretty close eye on things, but as I told Ethan a long time ago: I have worked my way into management! I started at an entry-level position when he and his subsequent siblings were born, but now all I do is supervise the work and do budgeting!

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When we’re camping? All bets are off! They can pretty much do what they want. I do the cooking, I do the cleaning, and they are pretty much free to run wild! I’ve taught them what they need to watch out for (running water especially), and they’re not stupid. But in their worlds, camping is FUN! It represents the freedom to do things they normally can’t!

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For example, when we’re living our normal lives, they know that seatbelts and helmets are the law of the land, literally and figuratively. I’m a maniac about it. When we’re out camping and on dirt roads, they know they get to throw off the fetters of seat belts and hang their heads out the windows. In fact, we go camping in the local Adventist summer camp out in one of the back areas. There are very few others who venture out so far. I’ll even allow them to ride on the back bumper holding onto the back of the van.

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At home, they wouldn’t think of playing with fire or anything along those lines. When we’re out camping, I let them start the main fire and even “play” — in a safe arena — with it. On one camping trip, we found cut stumps, dragged them back to the main area, and I let the kids build fires on them to try and “burn them out” down through the middle. THAT was fun! The younger ones were quickly bored because I had to help, but especially Ethan, my oldest, got a huge charge out of it.

And so, in our home I was very strict about certain things. Certain things there was no budging me. There are mountains I am happily willing to die on. But, learning wasn’t something that would go anywhere near the realm of forced or miserable.

So for us, unschooling looks very different. My expectations are very different. My boys and girls are very different…in personality and interests. I love being able to homeschool and give them each exactly what they need, when they need it, using whatever tools and media fit that need.

That is what unschooling is for us!

Mentoring Our Children

Mentoring our children is an important part of our homeschool experience. While all parents mentor to some degree, homeschool families have a unique opportunity to mentor each child.

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I recently saw a book that promised to help parents bond with their children while learning to cook with them. While at first thought this might seem like an admirable idea, it left me wondering at what age we should teach our children to cook and thereby bond with them. Mentoring kids is a catch phrase.

I was raised in a traditional family where my dad worked from home to support our family, and my mom was a stay-at-home mom, although she did help Dad with the family business. We also had a small farm, so life was usually busy. I doubt any parent actually thought of mentoring kids; they just lived life with their kids.

I don’t remember learning to cook with Mom; I was always with her as she prepared meals and baked our favorite treats. At some point, I baked my first loaf of bread, made fudge on the stove, and cooked the family dinner. I’m not sure when I did each. They were not stellar events that were photographed and bragged about; they were just what we did.

My three siblings and I each learned life’s basic skills on a daily basis. We also helped change the oil in the family cars, and learned to maintain the lawn mower and repair screens. Everything was fair game for children helping with, and thereby learning to do.

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When our children were born, I never thought about when to teach cooking, cleaning, and laundry skills. With children at my side the entire way, I prepared meals, washed dishes, and kept up with the lawn maintenance, too. Very young children helped fold clothes and put them away, and often opened cans, stirred batter, and helped set the table.

At some point, each prepared entire meals, managed the laundry, and tackled home maintenance projects. These milestones were not featured on Facebook and we didn’t celebrate; it just happened as we lived life together and they grew into successful adults, capable of managing their adult lives.

Some events were of course promoted. Baking a special birthday cake or rebuilding an engine was more than routine. But, basic skills were expected and, although appreciated, were not a huge deal.

Mentoring kids, mentoring our children, is a daily process if we live with them and allow them to experience routine skills. As babies, they see Mom and Dad cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the home. When will they learn each skill? Over time and when they are ready. It will happen, not in a major celebratory fashion, but rather as a process, over time. And, when they in turn are self-sufficient adults, they will know those essential life skills and be ready to teach their own children. An added bonus: Mentoring creates a very special bond between you and your children, a bond that will adhere throughout life.

What a great legacy to leave your children!

Nature-based Service

One thing we are working on as a family is having a servant’s spirit. Service projects are a good way to keep that thought in the forefront of our minds. I really wanted to stick with our outdoor nature theme even in the service opportunities. These are a few things we have done or plan to do in the future.

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Visit an animal shelter to pet cats or walk dogs: Don’t you just feel so sorry for the poor little animals that don’t have homes? My heart aches thinking about the homeless creatures biding their time at shelters. Not long ago, we went to Safe Place for Animals in Gallatin, TN. My kids were too young to walk dogs, but we were able to give some love to the many cats who craved attention. We pet, cuddled, scratched, and played with them for quite a long time and still couldn’t satisfy their need for affection. We had cats jumping on us, climbing us, and following us around from room to room. It was a great adventure and simple outreach that was therapeutic for us too! In my opinion, there’s nothing better than running your hands through soft and fluffy fur. Purring never hurts either.

Set up habitats for the wild things: Put out a salt lick. Create shelters. Feed the birds. Even leaving shrubs and grasses untrimmed for the winter can provide shelter for God’s creatures in the cold winter months. There are many do-it-yourself recipes for feeding birds and other animals to be found on Pinterest. Also, we got a great little book from the library that had some simple but excellent ideas of things to do for animals in the winter (click).

Gardening… with the purpose of sharing in mind: What if we grew a sharing garden, planting an abundance to be shared with neighbors or whomever God leads us to? Or better yet, invite friends who don’t have space for a garden to come help and learn to grow food, giving them some of what they’ve grown as a reward. Either way, it’s sure to be a blessing.

Animal therapy: Another opportunity to bring sunshine to someone’s life is through the power of pets. There is training and certification necessary to be able to take your pet to visit someone, but what a fun project and accomplishment that would be for a homeschooler. For more information about requirements to become a therapy animal handler, check out Pet Partners (click).

Pick up litter: This can be at a park or just along your street. Though not glamorous, this is one that can be easily done with all ages. It’s simple, doable, and we have even found a few treasures along the way.

Volunteer in nature: For older kids, nature-based places to volunteer could be a zoo, nature center, a ranch or stables, a farm, or a place that provides equine assisted therapy. Paradise Ranch is one such place that provides therapeutic riding for people with disabilities, and accepts volunteers ages nine and up (no experience necessary) for various jobs. Check out more about Paradise Ranch here (click).

Lead a nature walk: My daughter came up with the idea to give woods tours at our home. While we still haven’t worked out all the logistics, I think it’s a great idea! Wouldn’t it be fun to invite families who don’t have the opportunity to live in the country or get out in nature often to come on a woodland exploration, and to share fun facts about what they see? Having this goal in mind has also encouraged research, observation, and working on presentation skills in my own children. Win-win.

Give a virtual nature walk: If people can’t come to you, why not bring nature to them via video chat? This could be an amazing opportunity to reach out to someone who is in the hospital, in a skilled nursing facility, or homebound, so can’t get out in nature to enjoy it’s benefits. What joy can be brought simply by sharing the nature God has given us — even over the internet. For inspiration, check out Virtual Photo Walks, a unique nonprofit.

While nature itself is inherently giving, we can do our part of showing love for our Creator by being of service to others through nature. I’m sure there are many more ideas I haven’t thought of and would love to hear from you. What are some nature-based service projects you have tried?