Category Archives: Homeschooling

Five Winnie-the-Pooh Moments that I Refer to in Real Life

A special edition of My Life in Picture Books to celebrate (admittedly a few months late) the 90th anniversary of Winnie-the-Pooh’s introduction*!

Some classic children’s books aren’t necessarily uplifting to read, like Mary Poppins (spoiler alert: in case you don’t know, the Disney version of the character is sugary-sweet by comparison to the real MP).  Some classic children’s books are problematic due to racism or sexism or imperialism, like…well, anything written by Rudyard Kipling.  Some classic children’s books are difficult to read aloud because of language or dialect issues, like The Wind in the Willows.  Some require a LOT of background information, so much so that to read them to a modern child is to give line-by-line commentary, such as the Little House series or the All of a Kind Family series.

And some classic children’s books are every bit as sweet and charming and relate-able as you remembered from your own childhood, like Winnie-the-Pooh.

Christopher Robin Milne and Edward Bear (aka Winnie-the-Pooh) c.1927

Here are a handful of vignettes from the classic books about the stuffed animals that live in a fictionalized version of Ashdown Forest that have become part of our personal Darmok in the Surton household:

1.  “Really as blue and as bracing.”  We use this phrase to mean “it was all it was cracked up to be” or “it was even more wonderful than I expected/remembered”.

Piglet wasn’t listening, he was so agog at the thought of seeing Christopher Robin’s blue braces again.  He had only seen them once before, when he was much younger, and, being a little over-excited by them, had had to go to bed half an hour earlier than usual; and he had always wondered since if they were really as blue and as bracing as he had thought them.

2.  “French word meaning bonhommy.”  An exclamatory phrase used to explain that a word or phrase is difficult to define or untranslatable, or is so obvious a cognate or etymology that it stands for itself.  Eeyore is perhaps the oldest inhabitant in the forest; he has the sarcastic and cynical attitude of a teenager at least, whereas the other characters behave like little kids.  When the other animals forget Eeyore’s birthday and he is trying to get Pooh to ask why he’s upset, he is in rare form.

“Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing.  We can’t all, and some of us don’t.  That’s all there is to it.”

“Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.

“Gaiety.  Song-and-dance.  Here we go round the mulberry bush.”

“Oh!” said Pooh.  He thought for a long time, and then asked, “What mulberry bush is that?”

“Bon-hommy,” went on Eeyore gloomily.  “French word meaning bonhommy,” he explained.  “I’m not complaining, but There It Is.”

3.  “Aha!”  The other animals kidnap baby Roo and leave Piglet in his place.  Piglet tries desperately to carry out Rabbit’s plan (everyone would say aha! to Kanga so she understands that Roo has been kidnapped and will only be given back once she agrees to leave the forest forever).  We use this phrase, and its repetition, to indicate that a Cunning Plan has come to fruition and we want other people to notice.

“Aha!” said Piglet, as well as he could after his Terrifying Journey.  But it wasn’t a very good “Aha!” and Kanga didn’t seem to understand what it meant.

“Bath first,” said Kanga in a cheerful voice.

“Aha!” said Piglet again, looking round anxiously for the others.  But the others weren’t there.

4.  “I think the bees suspect something.”  From one of Pooh’s most famous escapades, in which he dresses up as a cloud and rides a balloon up into the sky next to a beehive in an attempt to steal some honey.  We use this phrase pretty much exactly as Pooh did– for indicating that someone has caught on.

After a little while, [Pooh] called down…

“I think the bees suspect something!”

“What sort of thing?”

“I don’t know.  But something tells me that they’re suspicious!”

“Perhaps they think that you’re after their honey.”

“It may be that.  You never can tell with bees.”

5.  “Spotted or Herbaceous Backson.”  A phrase used to stand in place of bullshitting.  Poor Owl, who can’t really read or write but is far too proud to admit it, is presented with a note from Christopher Robin, who is just learning to write (“Gon out, backson.  Bisy, backson.  C.R.”), and tries to pretend he can both read and understand it.

“It is quite clear what has happened, my dear Rabbit,” he said.  “Christopher Robin has gone out somewhere with Backson.  He and Backson are busy together.  Have you seen a Backson anywhere about in the Forest lately?”

“I don’t know,” said Rabbit.  “That’s what I came to ask you.  What are they like?”

“Well,” said Owl, “the Spotted or Herbaceous Backson is just a–”

“At least,” he said, “it’s really more of a–”

“Of course,”  he said, “it depends on the–”

“Well,” said Owl, “the fact is,” he said, “I don’t know what they’re like,” said Owl frankly.

Many happy returns, silly old bear!


*While A A Milne wrote several stories and poems about childhood and his young son and even Edward Bear in the late 1910s and early 1920s, the first story about Winnie-the-Pooh was published in the Christmas Eve edition of a newspaper in 1925.

Find the Magic

We spent our weekend (our WHOLE weekend, friends!) cleaning and reorganizing the house.

Yep.

That means there was plenty of dust and laughter and reminiscing, and lots of frustration and more than a little yelling, lots of going up and down stairs and hefting and hauling, some sadness and some serendipity, and the smell of vinegar and the sound of the Pandora station I created to bridge the gap between Robert’s taste in work music and mine.

It also means that the smalls spent the weekend Being Tested: listening, following directions, performing difficult tasks, staying focused, managing their compulsions to derange sorting piles and run around unaccustomed places, being responsible for their choices, and proactively communicating their own needs.

Unsurprisingly, then, today everyone woke up feeling pretty grumpy and low-energy.

On grumpy, low-energy days, even ones that you have earned by dint of hard work and awesomeness, it can be difficult to find the magic in your life.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

So this afternoon, while I was feeling like ugh and yuck and blerg and blah, I walked around my home and captured these little bits of magic:

artwallAn updated art wall (now with figural art, perspective cues, symbols, and some child-written labels!).

knitting in progressA big project edging toward completion.

soft toys in a rowRe-discovered pretend friends.

new saltNew salt, white and pure and beautiful.

lettuceLate-planted seeds racing toward the sun.

garlic harvestThe first garlic harvest of the year, laid out to dry.

toys put awayCreative tools ready for new inspiration.

took and henhouseA laying flock.

reading nookA quiet, comfortable hideaway for book lovers.

spring raindrop baby dollSweet reminders of a spring well-spent.

blackberry blossoms and ripening fruitAnd the promise of blackberries to come.

Happy summer to you and yours!  May you find the magic wherever you look!

 


Stay tuned for more on the knitting!

Soft toys from L to R: homemade rocket ship (following this tutorial), sea turtle, warty pig, trilobite from PRI, and manatee from Sea World (from a trip I took in my childhood; I would NEVER go there by choice).

Toys from top L, clockwise: train, dragon, bushel basket, American maple hardwood school blocks, rocket ship, homemade storage cubbies.

Reading nook: The Hare and the Tortoise, Goodnight Oregon, C is for Cthulhu, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  Basket is an old one from Ten Thousand Villages, shark bean bags are homemade based on this photo.

Spring raindrop baby was homemade, inspired by the work of a now-retired Etsy seller.

 

Where We’ve Been

We traveled the state, learning to spell all the important words and breathing the sea air and feeling the cool dappled forest shade and biking unsteadily along the rivers.

We played in the rain.

Ithilien plays in the rain

We got haircuts.

We spoke the most important words in the world daily, hourly, sometimes more than once a minute: love, you, have, eat, hold, go, kind, wash, sweet, listen, look, yes, gentle.

We learned about cell division, human reproduction, essential vitamins and minerals, volcanoes, colonial encounters, death, weather, sharks, sea lions, shipwrecks, and salmon.

Númenor and Ithilien looking up at an exhibit at the aquarium

We sat in the sun and laughed with friends.

We celebrated the end of a teaching year, and witnessed the beginning of a marriage.

We played music with our speakers and made music with our voices, our hands, our hearts.

We ate strawberries and asparagus, brie and mustard, chocolate and almonds.  We drank hibiscus tea and lemonade and milkshakes and mead and plenty of cold water.

We heard the cicadas.

We told stories late into the night.

We went to the drive-in.

We danced in the car, and on the deck, and in the kitchen, and at the beach, and while pulling weeds, and to music we were hearing for the first time, and to songs we know by heart.

Númenor sifting sand at the beach

We boiled salt.

We scrubbed socks.

We compared tan lines.

sparse clouds in a blue sky with some fir tree branches

We read books and magazines and blogs and Wikipedia, and we read aloud and read along and laughed and cried and were transported.

We saw a coyote, and a falcon, and a snake, and dozens of butterflies.

We baked bread and we bought bread and we ate bread and we fed bread to the chickens.

We treated our wounds and checked on their progress in healing.

We made popsicles and transplanted seedlings, we smeared ourselves with lemon balm and watched spiders, we fixed things long-broken and made new starts.

In short, we made, we learned, and we lived.


Where have you been these past few weeks?

Toys with SOUL

Lately I’ve seen several blog posts about taking away your children’s toys, and how much they benefit from the freedom and lack of distraction and clutter.

But I’ve noticed that nobody actually takes away ALL their children’s toys.  And for good reason!  Play is the work of childhood, for one thing, but more importantly, where would you stop?  Cardboard boxes are toys.  Craft supplies, board games, playing cards, books, sticks, rocks, recycling materials, pillows, and furniture can all be part of a game, too.

Obviously there is wisdom in limiting the playthings available to a child to what they can reasonably use and enjoy– too many toys cause chaos and clutter instead of fostering learning– but I don’t think it’s really necessary (or desirable!) to take ALL, or even most, of a child’s toys away.

Instead of taking things away, I focus on having the best things in the first place.  But that presents a problem of definition: how do you tell if a toy is really the best it could be?  Is it about carbon footprint?  Price?  Ethical manufacture?  Subject?  Do you follow Montessori guidelines?  Waldorf?  Froebel?  What about that pesky cardboard box?

Robert talks about measuring the usefulness of toys in milisticks (one-thousandth the usefulness of a stick), as if you could calculate such a number.

I once tried to make a list of Platonic ideal toys, not unlike Friedrich Froebel’s list of gifts:

  • The stick about as long as your arm and two fingers thick (toy swords, magic wands, hobby horses, and fishing poles also fall into this category).
  • The collection of smooth pebbles that each fit nicely in the palm of your hand (marbles, small beanbags, little wooden figures).
  • The piece of string about as long as your armspan (dress-up belt, horse reigns, garland, necklace, clothesline).
  • The bit of wood about the size of your hand (the toy car, the bathtub boat, building blocks, play food, small board books).
  • The scarf big enough to wear as a cape (dress-up cape, doll blanket, fort-building sheet, bag).
  • The box just big enough to sit inside (rocket ship, car, cave, fort).
  • The avatar (doll, action figure).

But then how many of each is appropriate?  And is that really an exhaustive list?  And is there an advantage to differentiation– is it better to have a wheeled car AND a bathtub boat rather than just a block of wood that you could pretend is either a car or boat?

After a few years of trying to verbalize what the difference was between toys that were “good”(perennial favorites with the smalls, pleasing to me) and those that were gimmicky or just not well-designed, I finally came up with a satisfactory method for screening our collection.  All our toys have to have SOUL.

Playthings should be:

Simple:  A minimum of fuss, function, and automation.  Ease of production, repair, and disposal should also be considered.

handmade soft mouse toys and sleeping bag

Operational: No missing parts, not broken, not too complicated for the children to use at their current stage of development, not too dangerous/limited for use in the area where it is found.

wooden train built from colorful blocks

Useful: Strengthens a necessary skill through play (e.g., lacing cards, button snake), or provides an outlet to explore something of unlimited interest (e.g., dolls), or can be used in infinite ways (e.g., blocks, marbles).

Númenor assembling a tinkertoy creation

Loved: If your child wouldn’t miss it, your child doesn’t need it.

Ithilien with his favorite toy, "Bitey" the plastic shark

Simple.  Operational.  Useful.  Loved.  SOUL.

Full disclosure:

  • Yes, sometimes they talk about wanting a specific toy.  They aren’t often exposed to ads and we don’t go to toy stores or toy departments (talk about a mecca of the pink/blue dichotomy), so this usually takes the form of Númenor rattling off a list of specifications for a hypothetical toy he would like to have.  My answer is always the same: How can you make a toy like that for yourself?  Sometimes I offer suggestions for materials or offer to help him design or build.  Sometimes it’s as simple as pretending one of the simpler toys we have already has those advanced features (lights up, fires lasers, etc.) with the help of sound effects.
  • Yes, we do limit toys coming into the house.  We ask for very specific things for the children for gift-giving occasions, only about half of which are toys, and we intercept and donate or return unacceptable things before they are added to our collection.
  • Yes, I do sometimes pick up the toys for my children.  But more than 90% of the time, we work together to do it or I supervise while they do it.  We have built the habit of helping to put their own things away correctly and cheerfully since they were babies, and now it is second nature and I only have to step in when a tantrum or an unexpectedly early bedtime interrupts the usual night routine.
  • Yes, sometimes my children do squabble over turn-taking related to toys– but sometimes they squabble over turn-taking for sticks, rocks, or bits of recycling they have made into playthings.  Anyone who tells you that their kids never fight about turn-taking now that they don’t have storebought toys is being less than truthful or has alien podlings instead of human children.
  • Yes, every few months we rotate the toys that we have out, and as part of that rotation, we pull out toys that are outgrown, broken, or don’t adhere to the SOUL criteria.  But I don’t feel burdened by using half an hour of my time every three months and couple of 18-gallon storage containers in our garage to make our toy collection manageable.
  • Obviously, as with all parenting advice, this is simply what works for us, and it might not work as well (or at all!) for other families.

 

 


 

 

The soft mice and their sleeping bag were handmade by a member of my extended family, the train is from Melissa & Doug, the rods and connectors are Tinkertoys, and Bitey the plastic shark (currently Ithilien’s favorite toy) was a gift.

 

Yes

Sometimes, as parents, we get swept up in the day-to-day struggle of life with bills, and work, and rainstorms, and living with small humans both unpredictable and strange.  We get overwhelmed.  We put all our spoons into just getting through the day without major incident, and are glad when it’s over.

Sometimes, you start the same simple project over and over again– you mistake navy thread for black and don’t catch it until the seam is nearly finished, you try to sew a French seam with the right sides facing out of habit, you make a measuring error– and suddenly, what was supposed to be so easy is impossible.

And invariably, while you are in the depths of this everyday depression, your irrepressible little children will ask to do something outrageous.  Something involving paint, and limited supplies, and relying on the inconstant spring weather to stay clear for a few more hours.

And, for reasons you don’t totally understand, you might say yes.

wooden dragon toys painted by my children

Yes to the mess.

Yes to the chaos.

Yes to the inevitable bath that will have to follow.

Yes to the memories that you are making.

Yes to the mini-lesson on secondary colors, and the demonstration of printing with the cardboard palettes you improvised.

cardboard with pools of paint after being used as a palette side-by-side with the print made from the palette at the end of the session

Yes to the seemingly thousands of trips to the bathroom sink to wash a brush so you can use another color.

Yes to scrubbing paint off the deck afterward, and leaving a weird clean spot in years of dust because seriously, who washes their deck?

my toes on an awkwardly clean section of deck after I scrubbed it

Yes to the children, who are so much work and so very worth it.

Yes to being the kind of parent who is okay with supervising painting projects, even on a difficult Tuesday you wish was going better.

And then, against all the odds and absolutely all reason, you find your kairos moment for the day.  In the paint.  And the mess.  And the nuturing of small souls.

And you decide to say yes more often.

Ithilien hacking at a piece of ice with a garden trowel

Even on hard days.

Head Full of Bees

I was helping Númenor with some phonics work today and realized that he didn’t know the word “spell” in the context of orthography.

So, like good unschoolers, we made a guess, and then we looked it up, first in a regular dictionary, then in an etymology dictionary.

“Spell” is a fairly interesting entry, and I recommend it if you’re into that kind of thing, but as Númenor went back to the normal 4-year-old puttering that is his main learning activity, I wandered off along a tangent from “spelling” to “spelling bee” and finally ended up reading about idiomatic uses of the word “bee“:

To have a bee in (one’s) bonnet (1825), said of one who is harebrained or has an intense new notion or fancy, is said in Jamieson to be Scottish, perhaps from earlier expressions such as head full of bees (1510s), denoting mad mental activity.
— Etymonline

HEAD FULL OF BEES!

Headfullofbees!

Head.  Full.  Of.  Bees.

How did this phrase EVER go out of vogue?  Google Ngram has it appearing in about three hundred MILLIONTH percent of books at its most popular.  WHY?  Why would anyone not want to use this phrase?

HEAD full of BEES.

As in, “I was up until 3am with my head full of bees, but I finally cleared my thoughts and fell asleep.”

As in, “He doesn’t say much, but you can see he has a head full of bees.”

As in, “She came in here with a head full of bees and we couldn’t get one coherent word out of her until she’d had two pints, but it’s a brilliant idea.”

It’s evocative, it’s suitably agrarian, it sounds a little anachronistic and a little rustic, maybe even agrestic, and it describes something that happens to me all the time– my head is always full of bees!

Head.  Full.  Of.  Bees.

This is my new thing.  I’m going to say this all the time!  I might get it tattooed on my arm, I love it so much.

My head is full of bees. Perfect.