following the kid

This happens often. I’ll be chatting with a new homeschooler, and this person will ask what we do each day. I’ll explain that we aren’t unschoolers, that we have a habit of doing something together most days, but that I try to follow my kids and their interests.

At this point the fellow chatter usually nods, but often I can see little question marks scroll over his or her eyes. You follow your kids? What does that mean, exactly?

This is the point in the conversation when I try to give examples. Just the other day, in fact, Mr. T had me chasing him down one of his never-ending trails. I thought I’d share it here, so the next time I talk to a new homeschooler and the question marks scroll, I’ll know just the specific story to tell.

Anyway, T was doing a logic puzzle in National Geographic Kids. (My kids have all loved the magazine when they were young, although I hate the ads and the movie and video game tie-ins. If you must know.) He asked for my help. It was a full-page, detailed drawing of a couple dozen kids eating ice cream in a parlor. There were several clues for finding a specific kid, such as the person is not wearing plaid. By process of elimination, you find the sought-after kid and solve the puzzle. I told Mr. T that this sort of puzzle is called a logic puzzle.

“I love logic puzzles! What’s someone who does logic for a job called?”

Here we go, folks. Did you catch that? He’s waiting there at the metaphorical trailhead, excited. Luckily I was listening, and not distracted by the tink of a new email or some enticing just-arrived sale catalogue, as I’m sure I am plenty often when T is ready to take off. But if you want to follow your kids, you have to be there for the start of the hike.

“I think they’re called logicians.” I said, and then–this is key–I tried to say the next line as casually as possible, “You know, you can make up logic puzzles. We could make them for each other.”

If I’d said that last line too enthusiastically, Mr. T might have shut down the whole trek right then and there. A bit of wisdom, learned from my kids: There’s nothing more dampening to a new idea than to have your mother jump in and run off with it.

Now, as we had this conversation, I was putting dinner on the table, so we didn’t have time to pursue the idea further right then. But since he’d seemed so interested, the next morning I brought it up again. I told him that I remembered some logic activities in a book–Family Mathin which kids write “bean recipes,” using real beans to work out problems that are solvable.

“Beans! Why would I want to do logic problems with beans?”

I was about to tell him that we could just use the book for ideas, when he busted out with this: “We could use my guys!”

His guys. Some of you may remember Mr. T’s guys from a post long back called When Your Kid Wants Almost Nothing For Christmas. His guys are a motley collection of small plastic creatures. Many are Digimon figures, although T knows little about Digimon. Some are Gormiti figures, which we discovered in Europe, and seem to be an Italian version of Pokemon. T doesn’t care much for the backstory of these creatures; he invents his own names and his own stories. And he adores his guys: they’re one of the few toys he plays with, almost every day.

If a project revolves around his guys, I know Mr. T will be interested. So when he says something like, “We could use my guys!” I pay attention.

We decided to each take a bunch of guys, and to secretly select a target guy to write clues about. We would each read each other’s clues, and try to find the secret creature.

Mr. T’s first set of rules was a bit vague.

His first clue was If it’s holding something. I asked whether a guy was holding something meant that it was the mystery creature, or wasn’t. T had meant that if it were holding something, it could be the creature. I asked how he could write the clues so they’d be easier to understand. He remembered how they were written in National Geographic Kids. “I’ll write them like that next time.” (Who knew that these logic puzzles would be a little lesson in writing clearly? Most excellent.)

Then he tried out my clues.

We had fun solving each other’s puzzles, so we each wrote another set of clues. “Let’s use more guys this time!” T enthused. Okay!

Note that his clues are more straightforward this time. He was especially excited about this clue: It does not have wings on it. He stumped me with that one. One of his guys–a wingless one–had a tiny bird emblem on his chest. With wings.

I was also charmed by this clue: It does not have any fire, or lightning, on it. Don’t you love the commas? You could argue that they aren’t necessary, but he’s playing with comma usage, and that excites me–language geek that I am.

We had a fine time writing clues for each other, and solving them. Much more fun than if I’d been suckered into playing Monopoly, and a thousand times more fun than him doing a math workbook page. Mr. T got some logic practice, some writing practice, some playing-with-guys time, and some playing-with-Mama time. And he was entirely engaged. All because I followed his lead.

That’s the kind of learning I love.

Have your kids led you down any trails lately?

17 comments… add one
  • Jody Aug 16, 2010 @ 15:51

    Hi Tricia!
    This is such a great post…I love your sneaky, but inspired way to get Mr. T engaged. You are such an inspiration…I wish I had a teacher like you when I was a kid!!!

    • patricia Aug 17, 2010 @ 7:32

      Hey you! Thanks so much for saying hello! Yes, I’m a sneak. Next thing you know, I’ll be lurking around your yard, stealing your chickens’ eggs…

  • Susan Paulukonis Aug 18, 2010 @ 9:40

    Ah, yes, the fine art of maternal casualness.

    While never as good at this as you, I will say that letting the kiddies follow their own interests has led to my having teenagers I’m very proud of. I love watching them take on new, self-chosen challenges, set goals, find mentors, and come to have pride in what they’ve done.

    (PS: I’m already working on another friend’s child…epidemiology is a fantastic career for people who like logic and solving problems. Just sayin’.)

    • patricia Aug 18, 2010 @ 22:46

      This is such a crazy coincidence that you left this comment today. Just last night I was talking to a friend about her teenage daughter, who is beginning to consider college options and career choices and still trying to find her direction. She enjoys science. I asked my friend what else her daughter likes to do, what she really gets lost in. She said that her daughter loves crime shows, loves trying to figure them out. And when I asked if she ever sees her daughter in that completely immersed “flow” state, she said that she gets like that when she’s doing puzzles.

      An epidemiologist in the making, don’t you think?!

      I forwarded your comment to my friend and told her that her daughter might want to look into epidemiology. And I told her that if she ever wants to talk to a practicing epidemiologist, I know just the chatty, enthusiastic one to hook her up with. 😉

  • Debbie Aug 18, 2010 @ 16:16

    Great post, Patricia. I particularly liked how you shared the experience at the beginning of the “trail.” Picking up on these little bits of “who they are” is precisely the thing I’m afraid of missing (due to being on the computer or making lunch…or something.) But the way you shared the experience…broke it down…gives me the “language” to look for – what they might say that I have to be there to pick up on. Thank you for this. How old is Mr. T, out of curiousity? xo Debbie

    • patricia Aug 18, 2010 @ 23:14

      Thanks, Debbie. It really is all about discovering “who they are”, isn’t it? It’s a matter of paying attention and noticing what makes them light up–or what makes them focus to the point of losing track of all else. It takes effort to pay attention and to follow, but the payback is that when they’re leading, the learning tends to be smooth and easy.

      I think it’s not so hard to notice when something captures them; it’s just that what captures them isn’t always what we’re expecting. Logic puzzles? I had no idea!

      Mr. T will be nine in October.

  • Carrie Pomeroy Aug 18, 2010 @ 22:40

    What a sweet post–lots to learn from here, including your saying “We could make logic puzzles for each other” in an off-handed, caaaaaasual way. I think my Mr. B. would enjoy this kind of thing, too.

    • patricia Aug 18, 2010 @ 23:22

      Sounds like you recognize that off-handed, caaaaaasual way!

      It really was fun. But I never would have come up with the idea of writing the puzzles, especially about his “guys”. Kids know just how to think up precisely what they’d like to do. Imagine that!

  • susan Aug 20, 2010 @ 6:13

    I love the photos. Mr. T’s guys are photogenic. I really like the Level 1 card with just the one guy (blue, holding something) in focus.

    • patricia Aug 20, 2010 @ 6:34

      And I like that weird pink half-brains/half-squid guy. And even better, that white one next to him, that looks like a short, manic polar bear with a horn. Something about his stance cracks me up, so I let him be in focus in a photo.

      Just another way to have fun while following your kids: have fun playing with your camera.

  • maya Aug 22, 2010 @ 16:34

    tricia! yes. i can’t wait to catch you up on it all. the trail of the First Nations, their crafts, their homes, their sites, their medicine, all kinds of stuff. All the way to Plymouth Rock & the Mayflower. But really I’m here to say that Pat Benatar & REO Speddwagon are having a concert across the lake & it’s all coming at us is a weird, exciting wavery rift across the water. And we are singing along to every word. xoxo, Mai

    • patricia Aug 23, 2010 @ 22:25

      Hi Maya!

      Such intriguing stuff happening on the other coast! You and Tara have me itching to visit. I’ll be there briefly this weekend, moving my “baby” into college at NYU. One of these summers while he’s there, we hope to spend more time exploring the eastern coastline.

      So that Pat Benatar mention is because of my comment on Molly’s blog, right? Funny thing is, I think I left a comment there a few months back regarding REO Speedwagon! How do you and Molly even know these bands? You were both practically babies when those songs first came out. Me, I was a teenager. Those songs are drilled deep into my brain–to the exclusion of who knows what important data. If they were playing across the water from me, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from standing on a table and singing.

      Hope you continue to have a fabulous visit!

  • maya Aug 24, 2010 @ 4:47

    oh, bring your baby out to the lake – it’s crazy to fit in, but so worth it, i promise!! i actually was thinking of inviting the “tribe” to take a cross-country drive next summer & then to spend a week out. regardless, your crew is always invited. thanks for your always-support, tricia. just my oldest. i don’t know that we’ll be starting his brothers there, at least not for quite some time. yes, it’s an amazing revelation, even if a lot of it is rather obvious. the boys cut my hair- we all had a tick scare when one of them was exhausted & we discovered that the cape is the limes capital of the world. scary. i’ll let them know you like it! how about we were singing to pat benatar, but it was maroon 5! how bad is that. yes, we were 2 when she started, but i am an 80’s girl, i wash the dishes to “candy,” “just can’t get enough,” & “mesh & lace” & it makes me want to cry & make a pink prom dress every time. so anyways, we’re going to see PB & REO in concert!! friday, the 5 of us. the boys were playing monopoly last night & saying, “we belong…” over & over again. kinda crazy making, but they couldn’t believe their ears once d put her on. worth it.

  • maya Aug 24, 2010 @ 4:56

    oh- sorry to just keep on with this thread – but she is playing on FRIDAY. you guys could go!

    • patricia Aug 24, 2010 @ 22:40

      Well, we’ll still be on the plane on Friday. But anyway, my hubby and my oldest are music snobs. They would not be caught dead at a Pat Benatar concert. They’d be more into seeing The Clash…

      And I did make a pink prom dress! For my senior ball. Pink taffeta covered in pink tulle.

      Have a great time at the concert. Sing the “before you put another notch in your lipstick case” line good and loud for me!

  • Abi Aug 31, 2010 @ 9:36

    Tricia, I wish my big guy could meet your little guy — I think Mr. T would be an inspiration to Ethan (who would probably covet all of Mr. T’s “guys”). We’re going the traditional school route — he just started Kindergarten… I think the last time you saw him he was still a baby!

    Between my work, his… energy, and my lack of the right kind of… patience, homeschooling isn’t the right path for us, I think, but we do try to encourage and foster Ethan’s interests outside of school. The kid notices so many things ( I’ve tried to find affordable, acceptable-to-me programs for after school I could take him to that help foster a burgeoning scientific mind, but his brain is way too fast and advanced for anything developed for five-year-olds. We’re going to have to come up with interesting and inspiring weekend projects. Any advice on where to find ideas?

    Hope you and T are adjusting to Lulu’s move to HS!

    • patricia Sep 3, 2010 @ 8:03

      Hi Abi! I’m always tickled when you comment here…

      Homeschooling isn’t for everyone, and I would never try to convince someone to do it. It’s just an option, and I think we’re all pretty good at choosing the best options for families.

      I loved your post about Ethan and the carrots! His relationship with your dad sounds awesome. And you’re dad is an all-around awesome guy…

      Your post made the book Teaching Physics with Toys pop into my mind:

      The book might give you ideas for activities you can do with Ethan. But even better, it might just give you ideas for providing the right kinds of toys that would allow Ethan to explore these ideas on his own, through play. Because really, most homeschoolers would point out that kids learn the most when they play on their own, with the “stuff” that matters to them. Their own free play is what really helps them learn, and make connections–much more than any one-hour class for kids, or any “program” out there. (Which, if aimed at five-year-olds, is likely to be too simplistic for Ethan anyway, as you’ve noted.)

      I think most innovative thinkers out there–scientists, mathematicians, artists, etc.–would tell you that they came up with their ideas through messing around and “playing”.

      I also like this resource for science supplies, Home Science Supplies:
      Great supplies, but they also list projects on the website. Some of the physical science projects might be fun for Ethan.

      And just remembering his questions, and giving him the opportunity to talk about them with your dad–well, that mentoring relationship might be the best learning of all. Don’t waste your time schlepping him (and his siblings!) to some watered-down enrichment class. He already has a fabulous teacher!

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