when we left earth

Homeschool Unit Study: Teaching the Solar System

Fun resources and ideas for an elementary solar system unit. #homeschool

Sometimes with young scientists, a simple introduction can open up a galaxy of learning.

When I began homeschooling, I didn’t want to buy a curriculum or do anything too time-consuming for my preschool-age child. I wanted learning to be fun, and I planned to mostly follow my son’s interests as well as take frequent trips to the library. But I also felt it would be prudent to be aware of what children typically learn at each age, and if there was a lesson I could easily incorporate into our routine, I would do it.

It’s because of this that I decided to introduce the solar system to my four-year-old. At that time, my son had no idea that we lived on a planet that orbited the sun along with several other barren and lifeless planets. How do you begin to tell a young person about such an incredible concept? I started to wonder if I could do it, but then I reminded myself that all children learn about the solar system at a young age, and surely there must be a way.

My initial lesson was rudimentary but fun. I had some flash cards with all the planets and other celestial bodies on them. (I found these when my son was just a tot in the dollar bin at Target, and impulsively bought them and several other decks of cards, thinking I could surely use them someday. For a dollar each, why not? As a matter of fact, all the cards have been used at some point.)

I put a small lamp in the middle of our living room floor, and then I laid all the planet cards around the lamp as they appear in our solar system. All the while I spoke to my son and told him to pretend the lamp was the sun. I explained we lived on planet Earth, but Mercury was the closest planet to the sun, and then Venus, and so forth. We walked around the lamp pretending we were an orbiting planet, and I showed him simple charts I had printed off from the Internet. We had a lot of fun.

That’s the last time I ever went to any effort to teach my son about the solar system, and at nine years old, I doubt he remembers that afternoon, but he does remember the names of all the planets in order. This isn’t because I taught him, however. All I did that afternoon was set in motion a reaction on his part… a desire to learn more about an interesting topic.

This might have happened even if I had not prepared my little lesson. After all, he encountered introductions to the solar system in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Little Einsteins and his Knee-high Naturalists class at the local nature center. Later still, he got more information at museums we visited, planetarium shows, Space Racers, Cosmos, and our Homeschool Science class too.

This convinced me, however, that children need someone to introduce the varied, wonderful things of this world to them. This person should use whatever is available for the child—whether it be museums, classes, the right kinds of toys, or simply the library and lots of conversation. They need someone to help them find reliable sources and encourage their inquiries. They need someone to say, “Oh, look at that!”

Right after I did the activity with the lamp and cards, my son began choosing library books about the planets, and we learned about all of them. The following year, at six, my son decided to make all the planets out of paper, and he wanted to hang them up over an entrance to our dining room, which he did. Later still, he added a few moons to the collection. Then at eight-years-old, he told me he wanted to make models of the planets with Styrofoam balls to replace the paper planets. These went unfinished for a while, but just the other day, at nine-years-old, my son finished them.

Over the years, he has built on his knowledge of the universe and space exploration, too. He was interested in rockets for a while, especially after receiving a small set of U.S. rockets as a Christmas present one year. Together, we built a model of the Saturn V with cardboard, and we watched When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions by the Discovery Channel together, which was great fun.

One year my husband bought him a telescope, which (ahem) rarely gets used, but we had some fun nights looking at the moon and Jupiter’s moons. Both my sons have also loved looking at the apps Solar Walk and The Night Sky. The Night Sky will show you exactly what you’re looking at as you gaze at the stars from wherever you might be standing. Trying to catch a glimpse of meteor showers, a passing comet, or going out to find Venus late at night isn’t out of the question in our house. We are all continuing to learn about the solar system and beyond. It’s always an interesting topic.


Family Time: A Few of Our Favorite Documentaries

Family Time: A Few of Our Favorite Documentaries

Ever since my boys were babies, we have had a lunchtime ritual of watching documentaries with them. Since our boys are still young, they enjoy nature documentaries the most, but we have veered off into some science and cultural documentaries too. As they get older, we will probably add more history and social documentaries to our list.

When they were smaller, I was hesitant to watch T.V. during mealtimes. (Isn’t that some kind of parental sin?) But I don’t believe the hype that T.V. is bad for kids. I believe some kinds of programming and how it is administered is bad for kids, but watching together as a family is different.

I dare say I think my boys learn more from our daily dose of documentaries than from my formal lessons with them. And I think it rivals my son’s projects in educational value. Because when we watch documentaries, we are all engaged and learning together. We comment on it, create more questions to answer, refer to our globe, and delight at what we see and learn. It has fostered a desire to explore, learn and appreciate our world. The programming has informed my son’s projects and given him more ideas to pursue too.

As I said, we do it together. We always look forward to where “we are going” that day. Sri Lanka? The Galapagos Islands? A raccoon’s den? These programs have opened up the world up to my sons. They understand much better than I did at their age that we live in one small place on a very large planet. It may not be the same as actually traveling there, but at this age, it’s just about perfect.

Another important note to share is that, yes, some of the programming is hard to watch. Watching animals eat each other or battle the elements is not always easy. By watching together from the time they were little, my sons have learned, as one documentarian noted, that “Life depends on death.” This hasn’t made them insensitive. I think my sons cherish nature and their own lives more. My eight-year-old has even told me he wants to be a conservationist when he grows up.

We love David Attenborough so much we wrote him a letter—and he wrote back1 Photo by Shelli Bond Pabis

We love David Attenborough so much we wrote him a letter—and he wrote back1 Photo by Shelli Bond Pabis

We have watched countless documentaries, and I can’t list them all. I try to keep a list on Pinterest, but sometimes I forget to post what we watch there. I can give you a list of documentaries that stand out in my mind as some of our favorites. Before I do that, though, I’ll tell you what we don’t like:

Every documentary maker has to somehow weave narrative and cinematography into a form that will hold our (the viewer’s) interest. So all documentaries use suspense or splice different frames together to tell a story. We have had good conversations with our sons about how sometimes that lion isn’t stalking that gazelle. It’s two different moments put together, but certainly lions do stalk gazelles, so it’s depicting something that is real. Or how the music and script make things seem more suspenseful. We explain how the photographers probably spent months tracking animals just to get one shot. Sometimes the script will give animals human-like qualities and emotions, which isn’t always fair. These are all things to be aware of.

There are some documentaries, however, that can get a little annoying when they dramatize things too much or repeat the same sequence over and over again, holding onto the outcome until the end of the show, to add to the suspense. We’ve noticed that the Discovery channel documentaries lean in this direction, so we usually avoid those. (Not to say that we haven’t seen some excellent Discovery documentaries too.) Once in a while, my husband will hear facts that are contrary to some science article he just read. It’s always good to let your children know that we can’t rely on a documentary (especially older ones) just like we can’t rely on everything we read. If you are interested in a subject, you should do more research on it.

That being said, here’s a list of a few favorites that we have watched over the years. It’s really hard to pick just a few. (We watched these on Netflix or PBS. Unfortunately, some of them are no longer available, but some of them you can find online or through Amazon.)

 

The Life of Birds :: Anything by the BBC and narrated by David Attenborough tops our lists of favorites. This series about birds was especially wonderful.

 

PBS Nature :: We have never seen a Nature documentary that we didn’t love, but these stand out in my memory: My Life as a Turkey, Fabulous Frogs (probably because it’s narrated by David Attenborough + I just love frogs), River of No Return, An Original DUCKumentary, Honey Badgers: Master of Mayhem, Birds of the Gods

 

Disneynature Wings Of Life
Starring Meryl Streep
 

Wings of Life by DisneyNature :: This has got to be the most beautiful documentary ever made. If you are studying plants or pollinators, you must watch it.

 

NOVA’s Making Stuff by PBS :: My eight-year-old has watched this series about the science of materials several times. Every time I watch, I learn something new. It really is a favorite of the whole family.

 

Dogs with Jobs Season 1
Starring John Ralston
 

Dogs with Jobs :: This is a series of short episodes we found on Netflix, and this show was excellent on so many levels. If you love dogs, you have to see it. Even if you don’t love dogs, this show will introduce young children to people with disabilities, workers with dangerous jobs, and how we rely on this incredible animal to help us with incredibly important tasks. Dogs are amazing. (Preview first, if you have sensitive viewers.)

 

Saving the Ocean :: This is also a series of short episodes. Incredibly interesting, and I love how Carl Safina focuses not just on the problems hurting our oceans, but on the solutions and good things many people are doing to correct them. You can find several full episodes online.

 

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions by Discovery :: This is one of those exceptions for Discovery documentaries. It was excellent! My kids learned so much about U.S. history as this documentary took us through all the NASA missions. I highly recommend it, especially if you have a kid who loves rockets!

 

What are your family’s favorite documentaries?


At Home with the Editors: Shelli’s Project-based Homeschool

At Home with the Editors: How Project-Based Homeschooling Works for Shelli's Family

When Amy approached me about working on home / school / life, we both agreed that we wanted a magazine and website that would welcome all homeschoolers no matter what their style or reasons for homeschooling. We continue to strive to bring you a variety of resources that will inspire you as you consider what is best for your family. Because we know most homeschoolers enjoy sharing the resources and insights they have learned through homeschooling, we thought we would start a series on our blog about our own homeschools. If nothing else, you will get a behind-the-scenes look in the homes of the editors of home / school / life, but if something here helps you, all the better!

This is my second post about our homeschool. In my first one, I listed all the curriculum and resources I use for the more formal part of my sons’ homeschool. Monday-Thursday we spend about two hours on our “lessons,” and on Fridays, we do an art lesson. But after our formal lessons, or on a day that I dedicate to it, I make myself available for what to me is the most important part of my son’s education – his own projects. These are projects that are completely initiated and controlled by him. I consider them important because it’s through these projects (or interests) that he is learning how to learn, how to do research, how to make decisions, what to spend his time on, learning what he’s really passionate about, and he is developing his imagination and problem-solving skills.

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So what is project-based homeschooling, and how do I do it? I wrote the definition that you will find in home/school/life magazine’s Toolkit, the magazine’s guide for beginning homeschoolers (we define eleven of the most popular methods of homeschooling), so I will include that here:

Project-Based homeschooling (PBH) is inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach, and the term was coined by Lori Pickert. It is a method in which parents become mentors to their children in order to help the child direct and manage his/her own learning. Children may undertake long-term projects and will be given the time and tools that allow them to dig deep into their interests. PBH can be used in conjunction with any curriculum or style of homeschooling, from classical to unschooling.

But it’s much more than that too, and it’s not easy to explain how I do PBH in a blog post, so instead I’ll give you a few snapshots of what my son has accomplished while I have used these techniques. Though, in many ways, I was already following his interests and creating an environment where questions, creating, and discovering were encouraged, I am thankful for the tips I’ve received by following PBH. I’m not sure I would have mentored him as well without them. So I’ll try to explain some of what I’ve learned during this process as well.

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When my eight-year-old was five, I learned to take one of his crazy ideas seriously. That is, an idea that didn’t seem educational at first and an idea that was going to be time-consuming, messy, and wasteful too. Instead of giving a quick, “that won’t work,” or “but you’ll need to do this to get to that work,” or “we don’t have time,” or “that would make too much of a mess,” I just let him do what he wanted and see for himself how it would turn out. This was his attempt to a make a Celery Lettuce Cake. (He learned for himself that it didn’t make a very palatable dish, but oh the fun he had! He took it so seriously, and I was happy with his effort.)

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When my son was interested in the Titanic, I began to understand how to let him lead a project and how letting him make mistakes was important to this process. It also taught me how a well-placed suggestion can be golden. This project even proved to me that enduring temper tantrums was worth it because in the end he had a product that was completely his own, and he was so proud of it! (Yes, I helped him make it, but he was the designer and director, telling me what to do. I only made suggestions when he was completely stumped and looked at me for help.)

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When my son wanted to make a model of the Apollo Saturn V, I learned more how to balance that “let him lead” with “help him when absolutely necessary.” But more importantly, I was able to see how important it is to show my son examples of other people working on projects, failing, and trying again. (This has helped those temper tantrums!) Watching the documentary When We Left Earth, which is about the NASA missions, was perfect for this.

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When my son was very interested in carnivorous plants, I had the opportunity to model to my son how we could seek out other experts to learn from. I also learned how some projects will peak but then stay in the background over years because my son is still interested in the plants, and he still grows them, although he doesn’t actively seek to learn more about them right now. But whenever we see them in a documentary or find a live one, we get very excited!

Some projects are short, others are long, and others meander like winding rivers, popping up here and there. I have learned to connect the dots in my son’s projects (journaling helps with this), and I’ve learned that his deep interests include nature, science, and building things….

Looking back, I also see how important it has been to create an environment where materials for creating and building were readily available to my son. It’s also been important for me to show him how to use these materials, say “yes” a lot, and not worry about the messes. We began making paper animals together when he was four, and slowly, I have seen that my son is a true builder and maker – someone who likes working with his hands.

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Because I’ve let him use a variety of mediums, I have been able to see what he has a true interest in because these are things he continues to go back to and ask for more. One of these has been working with clay—to the point where he has taken pottery classes at a nearby studio. And also building lots of structures with cardboard, including a model of the Mayflower, a big robot, and two Star Wars ships.

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Each of these building projects, such as that awesome Mayflower ship, could have been a different kind of project. We did learn about the Mayflower, read a book about it, but it wasn’t the history my son had a deep interest in. As he continued on to make airplanes, boats and other things, I see he’s a builder and a designer. Even his special interest in Star Wars, I think, is largely due to his deeper interest in the models created in making the special effects and the robots used in those movies.

So it was not surprising that as soon as he learned what robots are, he became interested in that, and now he has a robotics kit. He’s teaching himself computer programming too. (I haven’t written about that yet, but you can see the photo at the top.) I have also noticed how he has watched NOVA’s Making Things Wilder at least four times so far. It, coincidentally, combines all his deep interests. (It’s about bioengineering.) The first time he watched it, he leaned forward in his chair, and said loudly, “I want to do that!”

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My five-year-old also has interests, and I’ve been seeing him work through a few projects of his own, though they meander and they aren’t as likely to produce something solid I can show the world like his older brother’s creations. He has been interested in dinosaurs for a very long time, and we have read countless books, watched many documentaries, visited museums, and he plays with his toy dinosaurs frequently, making a sort of “dinosaur land.” (So don't worry if your child isn't into building, art, or tinkering. Projects are simply a long-term investigation into an interest, and what your child produces could take on many forms.)

I also do a lot of modeling for my younger son because it seems to be the best way to encourage him in his interests right now. For example, he loves to draw, so I started my own sketchbook habit, and whenever I pull out my sketchbook, I usually inspire him to do the same.

I have learned with both my boys that the best way to get them to do something is to just start doing it myself! Having my own interests, learning about things that I’ve always wanted to learn about, and casually sharing my own process of exploration with them, is one of the best ways to mentor without pushing an agenda on them. Even if they don't have the same interests, they are learning my behavior and investigation techniques.

I have also learned that it is okay to require certain work from them that I dictate (whether cleaning the house or doing a math lesson), but when it comes to their own projects, I should let them be in charge, and sometimes that means letting them quit before something is completed. I remind them of their work, encourage them, but if I ultimately want them to be in charge of their education, they have to take ownership. So I have learned to take away my own expectations of my children and let them blossom in their own time and through their own discoveries.

Are you interested in learning more about project-based homeschooling? I am always accessible to anyone who would like to discuss homeschooling or who has any questions. Just email me. If you want to talk on the phone, we can set up an appointment. (FYI: My advice is free! I love chatting!) Also, here are a few links for you:

  • You will want to read the book What Is Project-Based Homeschooling? by Lori Pickert, see her fabulous website, and join one of her forums. She is also very accessible through her social media, forums and even email, and she offers classes too.
  • I have written extensively about this journey with PBH on my blog, and I will continue to do so. See my page Project-based Homeschooling. There is also a very good interview with Lori on my site about beginning PBH with younger children. Click here for part 1 of that.