In this middle grades novel, a diverse family finds its values shaken when their traditional grandfather moves into their home.
So you want to make storytelling part of your homeschool life, but you’re not sure where to start? No worries: These five story-generating ideas will give you the inspiration you need to be spinning stories in no time.
Folk and Fairy Tales
Remember, these stories you know by heart are fresh and new to your child. If you feel blocked by the prospect of coming up with an original idea, retell classic stories in your own words. You’ll find the narratives quickly take on a life of their own.
Your family history may prove fertile ground for storytelling, whether you’re rattling off tales you remember about your mischievous grandmother, sharing what life was like for your family during the Great Depression, or telling stories about life on the old family farm.
Things you remember from your own youth — the day you learned to ride a bike, what it was like selling Girl Scout cookies in the neighborhood, when you lost your first tooth — can provide surprisingly rich fodder for storytelling sessions.
You may not think there’s much material in everyday activities, but stories about making a loaf of bread, tending the kitchen garden, or taking the dog for a walk can make ideal tales, whether you keep it simple or add your own embellishments.
What plans are those squirrels lurking around the birdfeeder making? How does the moon spend the night when everyone else is asleep? How does a caterpillar become a butterfly? Nature has plenty of stories to inspire your tales.
This excerpt is reprinted from Shelli’s “What’s in a story?” feature in the spring 2014 issue of home/school/life. To read the full story, check out the issue.
Like most homeschooling moms, I had a lot of fears when we first started homeschooling. My four-year-old was cautious. He was quiet in big groups, and he didn’t want to participate in group games. He preferred to explore a pile of woodchips by himself on park day. He hated story hour at the library. Now I laugh at myself. He was only four.
Luckily we live within a reasonable driving distance to a nature center, where they were offering a class for 3- to 5-year-olds that would introduce them to nature. My family loves nature, so it seemed like a good class to try.
At first my son was very timid in the class, but soon I started to witness something remarkable. He blossomed. And it wasn’t just a little kid coming out of his shell. It was a little kid finding a passion.
My son leapt out of his skin every time the facilitator brought out live animals. Snakes were his favorite, and three years later, he still says he wants to be a scientist who studies snakes when he grows up.
At first I thought to myself that every kid likes nature, right? Maybe my child would have blossomed in any class I had taken him to at that age. But then the facilitator told me one day that she could tell my son had a true passion for nature. She said other kids might say, “That’s cool,” but then they would walk away. My son stayed by her side, wanting to see more. He loved helping her turn over logs on the trails.
Ever since that first class, I have continued to foster his love of nature and science. As a family, we love hiking, so that’s not hard to do. But my husband and I have also done a few other things to support him:
- We continue to go to classes at the nature center. I call it our second home.
- We bought our son a small camera so that he can record the natural discoveries he makes.
- I bought my son a big notebook, and we call it his nature journal. He likes to paste his photos in there, and I label them for him. I’ve encouraged him to draw what he sees, but he prefers photography. That’s okay with me.
- I have supported his desire to collect items from nature: We bought a medium-sized wooden box at a craft supply store, and we call it my son’s “treasure box.” He has a bird’s nest, nuts, rocks, and even a squashed baby snake in it. (We seal items like that in plastic bags!)
- His nature collection is too big for the box, so we’ve dedicated some shelves in his room for other items. He has shells, shark teeth, ammonite fossils, small dinosaur bones, a beaver chew, a bison bone, a geode, and lots of rocks on his shelves.
- We consider our yard a laboratory, and we continuously observe the wildlife in it. We have containers on our front porch containing pupas and cocoons, and we are eagerly waiting for them to emerge.
- My son is participating in our state parks’ Junior Ranger program.
- Together our whole family watches nature documentaries daily.
- We visit natural history and science museums, attend rock and gem shows, and take advantage of any other opportunity to explore nature and science.
- As project-based homeschoolers, we make time for our son’s own interests and projects, many of which have to do with science.
Oceanographer Sylvia Earle said in an interview: “A critter person. Children generally start out that way, given a chance to explore even in their own back yard. So often, the adults around them will say, oh, don’t touch that beetle or, ugh, an earthworm, or caterpillars, yuck. My parents were different….”
All children are born scientists. They explore their world, ask questions, and test their limits. I have rid myself of the “ick reaction” to the slimy and oozy parts of nature because I see something in my child that I don’t want to lose. I know from listening to other interviews with scientists that their love of exploration, nature and inquiry started at a very young age.
Ultimately, I do not know if he will chose to become a naturalist or a scientist as a career, but I do know that a love of nature can sustain him through many of life’s obstacles, and an appreciation for the Earth is something everyone should maintain. My job as his parent is to observe, listen, and foster this inquisitive mind. So here I am, exploring the world with my son.
This column from our very first issue launched Shelli's Hands-On Science series. We're reprinting it here as part of our big web relaunch. To get Shelli's thoughtful, practical resources for everyday nature and science study in every issue of home/school/life, subscribe.
Recently I read the book, Living on Wilderness Time, by Melissa Walker. It is a memoir of a woman in her early fifties who was seeking a change in her life after years of working in a busy academic career and raising her children. Remembering her youthful days spent roaming the countryside at her parent’s home in south Georgia, she decided to be intentional about getting back into nature, and not only that, she wanted to learn about America’s designated wilderness areas.
Over the course of two years, she took a series of trips, driving through natural areas and camping in several different national parks—by herself. A couple of times during her travels, her husband joined her, and once a good friend, and she met all kinds of interesting people. There were occasions when she needed to spend the night in a hotel or at least in the back of her van, but usually she camped in a tent by herself.
I know I wouldn’t want to do that. Not only would I not feel safe, I’m simply not interested in camping alone. I do, however, understand the longing to be alone in nature. I totally get that. So I didn’t mind living vicariously through her as I read about her crash course in how to survive alone in the wild, and I also enjoyed learning about our designated wilderness areas and the challenges and controversies there are surrounding keeping a place “wild.”
But what I most enjoyed about the book was how she often described herself as entering “wilderness time” when she left home and got on the road. In other words, she didn’t have any deadlines. Though she occasionally made meetings with park rangers and other wilderness experts, she didn’t give herself much of an agenda. A wilderness ranger she volunteered with said, “Our work in there will take as long as it takes.”
Walker explains how her goal was to take this lesson learned in the wild and apply it to her life when she returned home. I couldn’t help but nod and think, “I want to live on wilderness time too.” Like Walker, I would like to spend my time wisely, working toward what is important and doing it well without worrying about how long it will take.
I realize I’m a very lucky person. I get to stay home with my kids, homeschool them, and pursue things that I am passionate about. Not everyone has that luxury. Despite this, I can get caught up in a race where I’m the only one racing-racing to finish whatever is on my to do list or whatever is foremost in my mind. Why in the world would I do that when there’s no one holding me accountable?
Yes, of course, I have obligations to my family and even myself. But not getting things done is not my problem. I can afford to stop racing. I can live on wilderness time right here in my own house.
And what a gift it will be to my children when I repeat that little mantra in my head—“wilderness time, wilderness time” – and say, “Our work will take as long as it takes.” If my son needs extra time in math, we’ll take the extra time. If he wants to build a complicated structure, we’ll work on it until it’s finished. If he’s undecided about how to complete it, I’ll let him take the time he needs to figure it out. And, of course, taking the time to stop what we’re doing and getting into nature is a big part of that.
I’m not worried about my kids trying to keep up with the “rat race” when they become adults. Everybody has a knack for falling into the rat race. What I want to accomplish right now is letting them practice working in wilderness time. Letting them know that there are actually very few things that need to be rushed. Letting them know that whether they hit the trails or stay at home, they can usually choose how to spend their time and using it wisely might make all the difference.
“Nooooooo!” he shouted, a fearful tone in his squeaky voice.
If you read my last installment, you will know that when my five-year-old son and I discuss what we’re doing each day, he sometimes sees the glass as half empty. But this wasn’t one of those times. Today we would be seeing friends he’d been asking to see for weeks. Today we would be going to a place he loves: a skate park and playground halfway along a bridge that crosses the bay. Until recently, he’d ask me every day whether we could go to that skate park. We go there a lot!
I was surprised at his reaction. This wasn’t a complaint. He explained, “I’m frightened of going there!” You see, partway along the bridge, the road lifts up to allow boats to pass through. A loud siren sounds, barriers come down, red flashing lights warn everyone that the bridge is about to open…. In the many years since it was built, it has never once swallowed anyone up. But still, it is a little disconcerting to have the ground that was, only moments ago, beneath your feet form a great chasm and lift into the air.
I remembered that the last few times we’d visited the bridge park, my little boy expressed worries about falling through into the fathomless sea below. The last time we went, he crossed over with his eyes closed, while I led the way. Today his fears peaked, and he asked plaintively, “Please can we not go there?”
Children are frightened of all sorts of things. It’s understandable. The world is large and they are only small. If you can’t swim, the prospect of falling into a grey, churning sea is terrifying. Come to think of it, even if you can swim it’s pretty scary.
When my eldest was very young, mannequins were high on her list of fears. Spiders; the wind; sudden, loud noises; sleeping alone; the creaking of the radiators as the heating kicks on; the dark—all of these have been my children’s fears at one time or another. With my first child I didn’t know that I couldn’t logic her out of her fears. I didn’t know that I couldn’t convince her to let go of fear and be brave. I didn’t know that I couldn’t just explain that the mannequins wouldn’t move and haunt her with their empty eyes (even though I wasn’t really sure of that myself, you know). I tried all of those things, and still she cried. Still she clung to me.
Today my son’s older sister felt frustrated with him. She’s grown out of many of her fears, and the prospect of missing out on seeing friends was too much for her. “Oh, stop being silly! It’ll be fine.” Her reaction was all too familiar. From the experience of saying similar things in the past, I knew it wouldn’t work. “Ugh. You always ruin everything!” she raged. And although I’ve never said those words to my son, I have certainly experienced the exasperation of having to go to considerable lengths to work around the fears of a small child.
Fortunately, we can be completely flexible in our plans. So, sure, let’s go somewhere else. Fortunately, our friends are flexible too, and they were happy to change the location of our meet-up. Everyone was happy.
Two summers ago my family went for a camping holiday on a remote and beautiful Scottish island. We did a lot of hiking, and on one such hike, the steady wind picked up to be gale force strength. We walked along a hillside, the land sloping steeply and dramatically down into the dangerous blue and white swells of the angry Atlantic Ocean. It’s not only children who have fears. I, too, have fears. I am frightened of cliffs, of falling into the sea, of my children being dragged off a hillside by a strong wind. Normally I am able to use coping mechanisms to get through my fear and enjoy a hike. That day, the wind was too strong, the ocean too threatening, my children too small and vulnerable… and I… I realized I was impotent in the face of such forces of nature. As the wind picked up speed, tears wicked from my cheeks. I knelt with shaking legs, and pressed my body to the hillside. Beneath my tear-stained cheek, tiny blades of grass and resilient flowers shook as my body spasmed in fear. “Just get them to lower ground,” I shouted. Paralysed with fear, ashamed of what my children were witnessing, my dry mouth clamped shut and I cried.
Minutes passed slowly as the wind whistled and gusted around my bare head. After taking the children to safety, my sure-footed husband returned to me, knelt beside me and uttered soothing words. So close I could feel the warmth of his humid breath on my ear, he told me everything would be fine, to just crawl down the hillside toward the valley. I could take my time. The children were fine. Gradually, I moved. I crawled down the hill, shielding my peripheral vision from the sea’s threatening breakers and made it to the valley. My children hugged me. They offered me chocolate. They told me they were fine and I would be too.
Nothing they could have said would have stopped me from feeling afraid. They didn’t tell me I was being silly. They didn’t explain why my fears were irrational. They accepted me and respected me and reassured me. They knew that, just like my son and his fear of the bridge that opens, I might get over my fear one day, or I might not.
Because, as with so many things, the antidote to fear is love.
So far 2015 has been challenging for my husband and me. We have had, shall we say, a series of bad luck that began just before the New Year. Thankfully, nothing has turned out to be life threatening, but dealing with it all at once has been stressful. Without going into too much detail, I can tell you that in less than two months we have been to the ER twice, have had numerous doctor appointments, switched health insurance, are dealing with major workplace changes, and had an ac/heating unit break. That costs a mint to replace! Other smaller-but-still-stressful things happened too, so we have been in a constant state of problem solving.
Whenever bad things happen, my motto has been, “This too shall pass.” With so much happening at once, that started to change to, “What’s gonna be next?!” Seriously, I’m still a little paranoid. I cannot help thinking that all of this is preparing us for some major trauma.
But that hasn’t happened, and most likely, it won’t.
It has also reminded me of some lessons I have learned through the ritual of storytelling. Our bad luck is exactly why, Chase Collins said, we should tell our children stories that have likeable characters who overcome threats and have a happy ending. By doing this, we are telling them that life is full of struggles, but we know that they have the ability to face them and overcome them. Furthermore, she says, by giving them happy endings, we are telling them that life is worth living.
Before now I never had so many random things happen at once, but I have dealt with life’s ups and downs. There has almost always been a problem I’m working through. Some were long-term and some were short-term. Some seemed more insurmountable than others, but I always had a sense that I would get through it. Having problems pile up on us so quickly started to feel overwhelming, but when I stepped back to look at the bigger picture, I could see that these are still just episodes—bumps in life—that we have to overcome. Perhaps all those stories I’ve been telling my son have actually been teaching me something too.
I have been able to work out my “psychic muscle,” as Emily Dickinson said. I have been taking the time to recognize the positive things that have happened so that I’m not so focused on the negative. Here’s a few good things that has happened since the New Year, and much of it has to do with our homeschooling lifestyle.
- Because we homeschool and work at home, it has been easier to take care of our emergencies. There is no added stress about having to take time off from work or worry about the boys missing school.
- Though sometimes I wish we had someone nearby who could help us out in a pinch, we don’t have that. Our boys have accompanied us to doctor appointments and to the emergency room twice—once we had to wake them up well before daylight. They are the best boys in the world during these emergencies. (We do let them play games on a tablet during long waits.) They transition well, do what we say and are quiet. It’s not lost on me that they are learning about the wider world through our ordeals. They are learning how to navigate life’s bumps too.
- During an ice storm, we were one of the few homes in Georgia who didn’t lose electricity. But I feel extra lucky that my husband makes sure we are well prepared for those kinds of emergencies.
- I have seen my boys progressing in academics and self-directed learning, and this has made me joyful. The cold winter days have been perfect for doing creative projects.
- I have been grateful for good friends who care about my well-being and that of my family.
Navigating life’s bumps can be challenging, but doing it together with a loving family makes it bearable. Someday we’ll look back and say, “Remember 2015? That year started off terrible! But we got through it.”
How do you navigate life's bumps?