reflective learning

Instilling Wonder in Children

Long drive, late at night. It was after bedtime when we left Tecumseh and I’m hoping to get to the hotel by one. Mild bickering.

“He’s touching me.”

“She won’t put her seat up.”


“Why do we have to go to this dumb Cosmosphere anyway?”

And I’m wondering if someone reset the GPS to Most Confusing Route Possible. Or if this really is the only way to get through central Kansas without driving all the way to the Interstate in Missouri.

instilling wonder

So I bite my tongue and drive, hoping they’ll start to fall asleep, that my patience will hold out and that this really will be worth the drive and the expense and the whining of overtired children who really just need to fall asleep already.

In the distance, I see red flashing lights. They take up most of the horizon, blinking in perfect unison. It’s the synchronized blinking of the lights that catches and holds my attention. It seems so out of place, yet in this computerized world, asynchrony should be the anomaly.

“Hey, look!” I call to the children.

It buys me a moment of silence as they all stare into the darkness. It seems to take forever for the lights to blink again. But just as their attention drifts back to who is touching whom, the lights flash against the horizon again.

“What is it?” They are intrigued.

Now, I do have a clue. I saw something similar driving across Iowa on my way home from my uncle’s funeral. As the sun set, we drove into an enormous windmill farm. And what caught my attention then was how all the lights blinked on in unison, flashing together for some time until they slowly fell out of synch. But the sun set hours ago and these lights were still flashing in unison.

But this is the thing with children. You can answer their questions and increase their knowledge. Or you can withhold just enough information to maintain a sense of mystery. Wonder stands at the base of the things we see and do not understand, not in the flood of information that answers every question we can think to ask. So I decide not to answer.

“I’m not sure. What do you think it is?”

“CHRISTMAS LIGHTS!” Nisa calls out. “They say Merry Christmas!”

“It’s a bit early for that. But maybe?”

They all lean forward, staring out the windshield as best they can, waiting for the next flash to confirm this first hypothesis.

Another flash. There is no discernible pattern and I hear a disappointed sigh from the entire back of the car.

“What could they be?”

“I don’t know, but I think we’ll see them. We turn in 13 miles. It’s hard to judge distance at night, especially when it’s just lights flashing against a black sky. But I think they are closer than that.”

I continue to drive, watching the miles pass beneath us while the children all strain against their seatbelts, trying to be the first to catch a glimpse of what is producing these strange lights. They are silent, watchful, expectant.

I turn and the lights seem to disappear. I’m disoriented for a moment. We’ve watched these lights flash for over 13 miles and they suddenly disappear when I turn? I realize we must have turned in between the windmills between flashes. I crouch down to look up as far as I can. Sure enough, the next flash is over my head. Then a great, gray monolith materializes out of the darkness. I have seen hundreds of windmills in my life, but never like this, gray against a black sky and just barely outside my window. They are impressive.

“Look closely, guys. They are all around us.”

They all shift to look out their own windows and one by one I hear the small, hushed sounds of discovery.

“Wow . . ”

“They’re so big . . .”

“How many are there?”

And the car falls silent.

Because late one night, I decided not to answer a question and to simply let them wonder. And as it is with so many things, when they finally happened across the answer on their own, that moment of discovery led to more questions and just a little more wonder.

I Homeschool So They Can Daydream

Not that you can’t daydream anywhere.

importance of daydreaming

It’s one of those easy-to-pack, take anywhere hobbies.

But it isn’t always the most respected. Take a few moments to gaze out a window, allowing yourself to be transported to another world, and someone will snap you back to the present.  With a

“Get your head out of the clouds,”

or a gentler

“Would you care to join us?”

or my favorite,

“Earth to Dana. Come in Dana.”

you are called back. And it’s always with a little jab, suggesting that this here is what is important and the flights of fancy off to “la la land” need to be controlled. For all our talk of embracing our inner muse, finding our creativity, thinking outside the box, reaching for our dreams and finding our inspiration, we really don’t respect the source of all this creative energy. Because we don’t respect daydreaming.

But this is where creativity is born. Where problems are worked through. Where self awareness is discovered. Where the brain finds rest.

When I see my children lying on the hill, staring at the clouds as they pass overhead, I have been known to set aside my plans at least for a little while. History can be taught any time during the day, but these moments come when they come. Since I first began homeschooling, I have sought to build a reflective homeschool, a place built on reflective learning. It only makes sense that I would encourage my children to reflect. And not interrupt when those reflections . . . those daydreams . . . come.

Daydreaming has been found to be anything but counter-productive. It may just be the hidden wellspring of creativity and learning in the guise of idleness.

~Jessica Lahey, The Atlantic

Perhaps being a bit of a dreamer myself, I knew the value of these flighs of fancy intuitively. Perhaps I just empathized with my children and wished to allow them a bit of freedom that was all too often interrupted for me. But science, also, has discovered the value of the daydream. It promotes creativity, improves memory, alleviates stress, and improves mental health.

And the more we fill our days with structured learning and structured downtime through television and other media, I worry about the effects of not allowing the mind to simply wander from thought to thought and world to world.

Children are trained to think linearly instead of imaginatively; they are taught to read slowly and carefully, and are discouraged from daydreaming. They are trained to reduce the use and capacity of their brain.

~Tony Buzan
So I let them daydream. And encourage it, even.


This is part of the Blogging Through the Alphabet Challenge, where I am sharing some homeschool encouragement, from A to Z! Check out what I’ve written so far!

A is for Adventure
B is for Boredom
C is for Christ
D is for Daydreaming
E is for Every day
F is for Failure

Learning is the Adventure

Homeschooling can be rough at times. Sometimes, I have to look for the successes to remember that they are there. That’s why I’ve decided to take the Blogging through the Alphabet challenge. 26 Things I love about homeschooling. Starting with A. For the adventure.

Learning is the adventure

Our strong suits have always been history and literature. I’m not saying that my kids will beat your kids in a head to head history bowl, or anything. I’m not that kind of teacher. Those aren’t my goals for homeschooling. It’s our strong suit because somehow, somewhere, my kids have caught “the spark.

When we go to the library, they are drawn to the history books.

At home, that’s where I get the least resistance. Unless it is a really nice day. Then they might ask for me to take our reading outdoors. And to skip the timeline. Actually, they’ll ask me to skip the timeline any day, but the actual learning they enjoy.

But literature and history are like these little windows into another world. Both represent our struggles with what it means to be human. Both tell us a little about who we are and how we got here. Both can warn us of the folly of a course of action or inspire us to be a little more than we are.

It is here that my children have learned that learning can be an adventure. Every time they open a book, there is a new place to discover, new people to meet, new ideas to unpack.

And it’s not because I have this awesome curriculum I picked up somewhere. I think’s it’s because I don’t have a “curriculum” at all. At least not a curriculum centered on a textbook. We have a library card and an allowance for purchasing really good books.

We delve deeply into the topics we choose to study. Right now it’s Jamestown. We’ve been learning about the Jamestown settlement since we went there back in September. We are exploring facets of the settlement I never learned and my children are enjoying watching the story unfold.

In this one area, at least, I have succeeded at favoring vertical learning over horizontal learning. Of exploring one thing deeply rather than many things shallowly.

On the superficies, horizontally, we’ve been everywhere and done everything, we know all about it. Yet the more we know, superficially, the less we penetrate, vertically. It’s all very well skimming across the surface of the ocean, and saying you know all about the sea. There still remain the terrifying underdeeps, of which we have utterly no experience.

~D.H. Lawrence, The Spell of New Mexico

We are penetrating the surface, trying to learn something of the deeps. Because that is where the adventure lies.

This is part of the Blogging Through the Alphabet Challenge, where I am sharing some homeschool encouragement, from A to Z! Check out what I’ve written so far!

A is for Adventure
B is for Boredom
C is for Christ
D is for Daydreaming
E is for Every day
F is for Failure

Building a reflective homeschool, Tools not Toys

Last fall, we attended a wonderful program at the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center where the children got to spend a day on the prairie with entymologists, herpetologists, and a woman from Raptor Recovery. By the end of the day, the children were enchanted, I was exhausted and I knew what I wanted to purchase for the spring: butterfly nets, aquatic nets and a few field guides.

Children are born with an innate desire to explore the world around them, to know what everything is and to figure out how it works. I see it in my five month old as her tentative hand reaches for my face while I hold her; I see it in my two year old as she unrolls a roll of toilet paper; I see it in my four year old as he watches his roly polies; and I see it in my eight year old as she draws in her journal. I want to give them the tools to explore their world, on their own and unhindered. I imagined my children exploring the field behind our house and assisting them in identifying the many insects they collected. I looked forward to sweeping the aquatic net through the water in the pond to collect tadpoles, dragonfly nymphs and whatever else we could dredge up.

But nice nets are expensive. I was glad to have a few months before making the purchase. Still, the price tag kept drawing me to other, more affordable nets. Nets made for children. Like those “cute” butterfly nets above. At $4.95 a piece, I could get one for each of the children and not worry too much if one got damaged. Never mind the fact that most things made for kids are not actually constructed to withstand the kind of abuse children put things through, the nets just looked like toys. I imagined university professors taking their students out in the field with a batch of these nets and wondered what kind of work would get done. Was that what I wanted to inspire in my children?

So I opted for the professional nets with the telescoping handles. One for insects, one for aquatic invertebrates and one for aquatic vertebrates. When they arrived, we established rules for use and practiced. We found a special storage place for them. And when the children use them, there is a seriousness and purposefulness about their explorations of the backyard that really was never there before. They collect, identify and add notes to their journals. Even the two year old does her best to emulate her older siblings even though she is not quite strong enough to sweep the net. They look like scientists collecting specimens rather than children pretending.

At one time, children were raised to become adults. They had very little in the way of toys, but instead were introduced to the work of the home and farm as soon as they were capable. Not everything about that life was good, and I have no desire to go back to such a time. But sometimes I notice how much my children want to be like their parents. They do not want toy dishes to play with, they want to bake things in my kitchen. They do not want cartoon underwear, they want “real” underwear like their parents wear. Am I holding them back when I get them toys to play pretend rather than tools to do real work?

Other posts in this series:

Horizontal learning vs. vertical learning
The treasure of experience
Sharing the wonder
Unanswered questions
The grace of a hippo
Tools Not Toys



Building a Reflective Homeschool, The Grace of a Hippo

During our yearly trip to the Omaha Zoo, I stood captivated at the rain forest floor exhibit. The typically sedentary pygmy hippo was walking along the river bed and as we watched, an adjective came to mind I do not normally associate with the hippopotamus: graceful. It literally danced along the rocks at the bottom of his tank, as light footed as a ballerina. Smooth, fluid and beautiful, it was in its element, doing what it was created to do.

The characteristics which make the hippo perfectly adapted to its underwater home have made it awkward and slow on land. Prior to my first encounter with the pygmy hippo at the zoo, however, I had only seen hippos lazily floating at the surface or lumbering on shore. Since only their weaknesses were visible to me, I have always characterized them by these same weaknesses.

Since I tend to view my children’s weaknesses as that which will hold them back in life, I tend to focus on them. I look at my daughter’s school work and know she is weak in spelling and strong in math. I could simply say, “Well, you just are not that good at spelling so we don’t need to waste more time on it. Spell check will help.” But I do not think we should back away from challenges so easily. She can learn to spell, it may just be more difficult for her than it was for me. I could also overwhelm her with practice, taking time from the studies she enjoys to make sure that she meets some sort of arbitrary standard. And I think I am guilty of that a little. At least at times. I do not want her to have weaknesses.

But that is because I focus on them too much. She is weak in spelling, Why? Given the fact that she still flips her letters around, I am beginning to suspect the possibility of a learning disability, but there is more to it than that. She has a strong bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. She excels in karate, loves art, science, math…essentially everything in which she is doing something. She has strengths which help her to excel in many things.

To support her education, I need to more effectively recognize the relationship between her strengths and weaknesses. I also need to give her full opportunity to explore her strengths and challenge herself. As she tests her own limits and learns more about herself and how she thinks and learns, she may begin to be able to use her strengths to overcome some of her weaknesses. Some things she will glide through, but with practice she will also be able to move serviceably through those things which are more challenging. And she will have the grace of a hippo.

Other posts in this series:

Horizontal learning vs. vertical learning
The treasure of experience
Sharing the wonder
Unanswered questions
The grace of a hippo
Tools Not Toys

Photo credits: The video is not by me, but it is of the pygmy hippo at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. The photo is from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.