by Steph W.
As a fledgling home schooler, I was intrigued by descriptions of well planned unit studies. I read about mothers who helped their kids with elaborate crafts, built models, and designed costumes. I imagined carefully designed interest-led studies. The kids would gather library books and plan projects based on their passions.
Sometimes we do planned units and interesting projects. More often, though, my vision has led to conversations along the lines of "what do you want to learn about? ... I don't know. Whatever. Can I play my video game now?"
I've found that most of our formal interest-led learning richochets off things I would never have tagged as "educational." We've followed rabbit trails from interests like trading card games and ended up in new and sometimes unexpected places.
My nine-year-old son, James, merits that well-worn phrase "All Boy." He is all noise, motion, imagination, and glorious -- and frequently irritating -- goofy energy. Like many of his friends, he loves video games and Yu-Gi-Oh cards. "School" is a thing you get over with so you're free to play video games and swap trading cards with your buddies.
Being thoroughly eclectic, but not an unschooler, I find myself capitalizing on these things when opportunities seem to strike. This erratic - err -- I mean eclectic way of learning starts with the fundamentals, like reading.
I have been an avid reader all my life, and, as a kid, I was nourished on childhood classics. From the moment of each child's conception, I had big plans of sharing my love of literature with the little ones. Imagine my shock when none of my kids were turned on by the Chronicles of Narnia or the adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder. How is this possible? :)
One of the first of many challenges to my assumptions about learning was the way James learned to read. In my conscientious, motherly way I tried Phonics Pathways, How to Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, and Teach a Child to Read With Children's Books. James tolerated all my well-intentioned efforts to a point, but nothing lasted long. Finally, I made sure he had a few very basic phonics skills and left him to his own devices.
He discovered our prized collection of Calvin and Hobbes books. Soon he was flipping the pages, studying the pictures, and laughing. Through applying what he knew about decoding, by looking at the context, and with a fair amount of guessing, he began to work out the dialogue. He read our collections until they were falling apart, then I bought him his own. Soon he was reading fluently. Go figure. :)
Now he's a skilled reader, but he has minimal patience for sitting down with a book. As a bright eyed novice home schooler, I had imagined nourishing the kids, Charlotte Mason style, with great books. Well, to heck with that. I bought James some Yu-Gi-Oh graphic novels. Now he's reading.
Then rabbit trails began to happen. His love of all things Yu-Gi-Oh inspired James to learn a bit about Japan. Then I discovered Mythmatical Battles, a game similar to Yu-Gi-Oh in concept. This game "drills" multiplication facts; it also uses characters and stories from Greek, Egyptian, Norse, and Celtic Mythology. James read the information on each card, giving background information on each mythological character, with great interest. Of course he did. You have to read it to get the scoop on each card's "effects;" how else will you be prepared for battle?
James' favorite deck was the Egyptians. This dovetailed with the elements of Egyptian mythology strewn throughout the Yu-Gi-Oh stories. Soon we were checking out books on Ancient Egyptian myths and legends. This led to an actual unit on Ancient Egypt; I got to indulge my raging desire to raid the library and plan activities for an interest-led unit. These are the moments a slightly anal-retentive, book lovin,' eclectic home schooling mom lives for.
In the near future, I can see a segue between James' learning about Ancient Egypt and other studies of Africa. Yes, I have plans. For me, the challenge is not letting my plans be the driving force behind it all. That leads to those moments of "I don't know. Whatever. Can I play my video game now?" I also have to remind myself not to snuff out a spark of interest, as soon as it appears, by inundating it with plans and books. Just because James is "into" Ancient Egypt -- take a deep breath -- I do not have to check out every relevant book from the library.
Here's the thing we all know intuitively about learning. Real learning happens when an idea connects with something a person already knows and cares about. The mind tends to hold on to things that relate to what it knows and loves and discard the rest. There has to be a "hook." Yu-Gi-Oh and Mythmatical Battles can be a hook for learning about Egyptian mythology. Other information about Ancient Egypt can connect with that. That can be a hook for other learning about history and geography. This might work for my son in a way that years of listening to The Story of the World never did.
And while we're on the subject of trading card games, let's not forget all the natural opportunities to learn math. In addition to all the math involved in battles -- the kids have to compare numbers, subtract, and so forth -- there is the joy of budgeting one's meager allowance to buy Yu-Gi-Oh cards through E-bay. What once seemed an annoying boyish pasttime is becoming, for a home educating mom, an embarrassment of riches.
Stephanie W. lives with her family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has been learning at home full time with her three wonderfully creative, feisty and quirky children -- Sarah (13), James (9) & Patricia Elizabeth (4) since 2003. Her other interests include literature, writing, editing, and the internet.