It’s summer holidays. Why am I so exhausted?

You would think that Summer holidays would be a time for resting and regrouping, a time when we don’t have to be here or there, no preschool drop offs and pick ups, no appointments, no enrichment sessions, no meetings, a time to wake up in the morning and decide what the summer day might bring.

Instead we are all exhausted. There is no balance. There are too many surprises. There is too much excitement. There is too much expectation. There is too much free time. There is too much stimulation. There is too much heat. In a house where there is often “too much” at the best of times, we really don’t need any extra around here. 

Every year it comes around and every year I look forward to the things that one expects to enjoy at Christmas time like spending time with family and relaxing. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy spending time with family, on both sides, and I’m lucky to have strong relationships with my family but “relaxing” Christmas is not. It is not relaxing for my family to share a space with lots of other people for a prolonged period of time regardless of who they are. 

Being an extremely social child Little5 LOVES connecting, playing, conversing, sharing experiences, celebrating with family and friends and would quite happily do so with any other enthusiastic friendly human who wanted to join in regardless of age. She is super friendly and does not discriminate. She is disappointed often when others are not as forthcoming with their enthusiasm, so to be around family at Christmas time is magical for her. As someone who has always felt lacking in appropriate enthusiasm I am thankful that she has this quality and know it will bring her great joy in her life. But she has a little trouble regulating and modulating that excitement and often on holidays it all becomes “too much”. 

The build up to holidays and celebrations sometimes starts months in advance for her. She asks how many days to go and wants to mark them off each day closer. When the day before the day finally comes she runs around saying we must get ready, we must prepare, we must have everything perfect. I’m already exhausted at this point.

So apart from emotional intensity what gets in the way of the perfect long awaited day? Well when you wait that long for something you want to have some control over it’s execution and 5 year olds do not control Christmas, particularly when it’s not held in their home but at another relatives house. 

On the day Little5 cries dramatically during present giving because she wants to play her new keyboard but she can’t hear it and her cousin keeps pressing the buttons. She appears to be possessive with no ability to share. Little 5 becomes very emotionally overwhelmed during present giving and has to be taken away. She appears emotionally immature and overly sensitive. Little5 gives in to temptation and makes small changes to the lunch table decorations after being told not to do so. She appears disrespectful and disobedient. Little5 cries dramatically when her cousin mixes two of her playdough colours after the two of them had already mixed her cousin’s colours. She appears selfish and emotionally immature. Little5 comments that there is nothing on the Christmas lunch table that she likes to eat. She appears rude and ungrateful. 

In fact large numbers of people shoving presents at one another, one after the other, whilst tearing at paper, and gushing their thanks, and pressing and twirling and fiddeling with their gadgets, and piling them up, and tearing and chattering and piling and shoving some more leaves no room at all for Little5 to identify, examine, experience, appreciate, be grateful for, or play with her new keyboard. She can’t do the things she is naturally driven to do. She can’t share the experience because there is too much noise and nobody is listening. The emotions fly around her body – anticipation, excitement, thanks, and then frustration. The noise, the emotions, the movement of bodies and presents and paper and piles and the loose drifting words whirl around her and she becomes flooded with it all. Her sensory system is picking up everything in that room.

Little5 loves celebrations, preparations, and being a helper. She has waited months for the day when she can hang decorations and invite family to see what she has done. She is desperate to be a part of it all but the adults keep telling her not to touch and giving her meaningless jobs aimed to distract her. She knows she is careful and detail oriented. She knows the adults want a beautiful Christmas table that is matching and patterned and admired and she knows she can help make it so but her desires are frustrated. 

Little5 cries about her playdough being mixed because it is brand new and she knows that mixing colours makes playdough brown. Nevertheless she likes to mix colours so is very pleased when she asks her little cousin if she minds having her colours mixed and her cousin answers “no” so they proceed to mix and play together. Later when her cousin does the same to Little5’s playdough without first seeking permission, Little5 reacts like something very unjust has occurred because in her minds eye it has.

When Little5 comments that she doesn’t like the Christmas food, the expectations inside her about the greatest food of the year, the big lunch that’s been prepared for days, the banquets she’s seen gobbled up on tv, the anticipated sweets that come with a celebration, come crashing down as she gazes at numerous plates of food she is entirely unfamiliar with. Even the foods she knows are different. The carrots are cooked not raw, the potatoes are seasoned not plain, the ham is thick and salty not fine and mild. For a child who notices the slightest differences in say, the brand of rice cake, or the thickness of cheese, or the freshness of bread; eats very few foods; and will choose to go hungry rather than try something different, the long anticipated Christmas lunch holds only disappointment.

SO when Little5 is sobbing at bed time because “Christmas wasn’t Christmassy at all, it was just for the grown ups, it didn’t feel right” she doesn’t appear ungrateful and bratty. She appears to us like our sweet, sensitive, gifted, perfectionist with exceptional enthusiasm and energy and an enormous appetite for celebration, for sharing life with others, for feeling joy. In bed we feel relieved that we made it through the day. We feel relieved that we have left the world outside our door. It is just us and our little girl and she is just right.

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Exploring Nature With Children

I heard about the Exploring nature with children year long curriculum on the homeschool sisters podcast and Caitlin describes it here. Since Little5 is not in school yet and our approach is very much dabbling in homeschooling/unschooling/justkeepingagiftedkidhappy I am dipping into the book when it suits us rather than following it in any structured way. 

We have picked a tree to study year round and we will watch how it changes over the four seasons and record it in Little5’s nature journal. Today it was alive with King Parrots that have made their home in a hole in the trunk. It’s Summer so the leaves are sparse, light green and brown. The tree is by the Yarra river so it is a lovely place to visit.

Other activities we have taken from the book include a Senses Walk in our garden during which Little5 collected something for every colour of the rainbow, and we explored textures, sounds, smells and tastes. We documented what we found with watercolour paintings.

There is a pond study which we might convert to a river study which we will do soon because it fits with Little5’s interest in little creatures and using her microscope. We will collect river water and see what animals and plants we can study under the microscope. 

I like the activities because I can use them either to feed Little5’s scientific curiosity with in depth exploration of animals, habitats, biology and the natural world OR we can do them in a more relaxed way when she really needs some time out from the world. They are also good for getting my toddler out of the house early in the morning so we have all had an outing for the day.

Exploring Nature with Children 

Pros: 

It is perfect for all ages because you can apply the ideas to any level and there are extra suggested activities for more depth or to stretch out each week longer. 

With the exception of visiting large bodies of water, the activities are family friendly so you can take along two or three kids and toddlers can play in the outdoors or get involved.

It’s all about nature! Exploring nature is rejuvenating for gifted kids who may often feel overwhelmed. 

The weekly activities are simple but really well organised around the seasons so your activities fit with the seasonal feel and weather. 

The materials required you will very likely have in your house already.

Cons:

If you are in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons and months are not right which is a bit unfortunate but can easily be overcome by simply following seasons not months. 

Some of the activities might not fit with where you are based. For example, it doesn’t snow in Melbourne so the winter snow activities must be skipped unless we travel. 

Space Unit Study Part 1

Most small children develop a fascination with space at some point. Little 4 was drawn to the subject because of her interest in the very beginning of everything. She wanted to know how the first animal developed if there were no parent animals? How the first person got sick if there was nobody else to catch it from? How the first person read if there were no other people to teach her. So it makes sense that she would wonder about space and the place of the earth in the universe. She talked about space a lot and was given a book on space for her 4th birthday. I realised I remembered very little about space and was quite keen to learn along side her. 

First we read the book and got a few more from the library. Then she and her mumma completed a 300 piece solar system puzzle. They sorted the pieces into planets so they could work on small sections at a time. Little4 could not wait to get back to it at each opportunity. Unless you have a spare table or space on the floor where pets and little siblings can’t interfere you will need a puzzle mat for this so you can roll up the work in progress and get it out when you are working on it. 


Next we decided to build a solar system model. 

Solar system model

You will need: balloons, plastic stick balloon holders (like the ones they have on celebration balloons), sticky tape, black card, newspaper, craft glue, a large plastic container, kids paints and a place to get messy.

We laid out a poster page of the solar system so Little4 could refer to it as we created each planet to scale and in correct colour. We blew up balloons to size and then paper mached then. Once dry we painted the planets the correct colours. The whole process reinforced Little4s knowledge of the solar system and the place of the earth in it but most of this she already knew and what she really enjoyed was doing something so hands on to express her knowledge. She loved the wet newspaper slapping and mixing the colours to get the right shades. Once painted and dry we used a skewer to put a small hole in each planet, popping the balloon inside, which is no longer needed, and providing a hole in which to stick the mounting stick. We found the black card a bit flimsy to hold the planets up so we needed something quite thick. You can also use a piece of wood to mount them on if you have it. We used tape to hold down the balloon stands but super glue would be affective on a harder surface. Little4 loves arranging things in the way they should be so she really enjoyed setting up the system with the sun in the middle and the planets the correct distance from the sun. There wasn’t quite enough space to spread them out far enough so a very large mounting card/board would be better. Little4 finished off by writing the planet labels and sticking them on. She was very proud of her work.

Solar System Model

Unit Studies

For the first few years Montessori was very useful for keeping Little 4’s insatiable appetite for learning in check. However there came a point when she became interested in so many things outside the ambit of the 3-6 Montessori curriculum and her approach to learning has become very creative and holistic in a way that doesn’t quite fit with the Montessori prepared environment approach in which materials are used in a three step process. She is never satisfied with a simple or surface answer to a question and very often one question leads to another and another.

Over the past two years she has led me into what I have now discovered are unit studies. It begins with a simple question with a complex answer I cannot provide on the spot. To give you a feel for the kind of questions I am talking about, at age 2 years 9 months in the space of one short car ride Little 4 asked “how did you and mumma make me in your tummy?” “how did the egg and sperm get in your tummy if there is no hole?”, “how did the dinosaurs become extinct and will that happen to us?” and “how are my arms, hands and fingers joined together, how did my muscles and bones get on me, sticky tape inside wouldn’t be strong enough?” As the days trundled on the questions kept coming every single day. Clearly these questions require some thought to deliver age appropriate answers so we started doing art, craft, story-telling, reading, games and outdoor activities that answered the questions in a hands on way. I have now learnt these are called Unit Studies and we have many to share. In my next posts I will share some of our ideas.

DIY Montessori 1-2yrs

Here are a few activities created using things around the house.

The potato scrub is a practical life activity in that it is a useful kitchen task that is part of everyday life. Montessori is all about involving children in the everyday activities of a household, emphasising that children are players in their world rather than observers of an adult world they cannot take part in. For example, instead of having a child size play kitchen in your house, you can fill one accessible cupboard in your kitchen with real tupperware, saucepans and cutlery, making sure to choose safe items. Rather than giving your child toy fruits and vegetables, fill a small bowl with real fruit and veg so she can explore the smell and texture of the real thing. She may take a bite here or there but if you choose safe items this will only enhance her learning experience and it can be chopped up later for a snack. Practical life skills enable a child to do things for herself from the start, growing in confidence and independence. Potato washing is great for strengthening a toddler’s hands in preparation for tasks later in life like drawing and writing. Scrubbing the dirt off a potato is great fun for a toddler and seeing the water become dirty and the potato clean is very fulfilling. A baby doll bath is another washing activity where a child can make soapy bubbly water and carry out an everyday task (if you don’t have a baby sibling they can help wash!).

Most people with children have some coloured blocks in their house that often get poured out of a huge container by toddlers, spread across the house briefly, and left for you to pick up minutes later. Most toddlers are also fascinated by colours. The coloured envelope sorting will grab a child’s attention and an older toddler will instinctively start sorting, matching up the blocks with the correct envelope. This can also be done with matching coloured tupperware or whatever you have lying around. The colour box is a Montessori activity you can create yourself by collecting two blocks that match in each colour, putting them in a neat fitting box, and showing your toddler how to match up the colours in pairs.

Babies mimic us all day long so if you show your child how the activity is to be used she will automatically copy the sequence. It must be simple for little ones, always making sure you are observing your child, so you know where her interests and capabilities lie at any given time in her development.

Above is a tongs and seed tray where the seeds can be picked up and placed in a bowl. It looks simple and perhaps boring to us but toddlers will jump at the chance to use tongs, to explore seeds, to count them etc. The water play tray with various tools for transferring water into the ice tray holes is great fun for babies and toddlers. It is a sensory experience as well as fine motor practice and it teaches little ones about the properties of water, that it is wet, it runs free, it is cold, it overflows etc The third image is some empty bottles and tubes from the kitchen and bathroom cupboards for taking lids on and off. All babies will become fascinated by “on” and “off” at some point and may become frustrated wondering around the house trying to put lids on things that don’t fit. It is important to put out containers with lids that your toddler can get on and off without help. If your baby is less than 18months you might need to search for larger more appropriate containers that are easier to master, such as a hair spray can with a lid that pops on and off, or a laundry detergent container with a lid that doesn’t require complex movements like turning and twisting which are too difficult for tiny hands.

Curious Babies

There is only one word to describe both of our children as babies. BUSY. From the moment Little 10 months was born she has been busily absorbing her world. At three months she was studying faces and spaces with a permanent questioning expression as if awaiting an explanation. She looked deep into your eyes as if she knew you had a whole lot of knowledge to share.  She sped through rolling, sitting, crawling and walking in her eagerness to reach things, venture further, find out more, and participate like the rest of us. On the day she turned 10 months she woke at 2am and walked across the room

Baby toys held very little interest for my babies. I have noticed this often. It is as if babies know someone made them just to distract them and prevent them from truly participating in the world. Their interest in them is fleeting but I noticed my babies were drawn to everyday things around the house; the spatula I was using in the kitchen, the hairbrush in the bathroom, the keys and their intriguing relationship with doors. That is when I found Maria Montessori’s educational theory.  Montessori kept my curious kids content  – at least for a few years.

Maria Montessori was a doctor, psychologist and humanitarian in nineteenth century Italy who studied children for many decades, observing their natural behaviour, and developed a set of pedagogical principles based on the natural desire of the child to learn about her world. The best part about the Montessori method is that it is based on children’s natural development so all you have to do is prepare the environment and your children take it from there. If you want to learn more about the Montessori method some good books to start with are Montessori from the Start, Teaching Montessori in the Home, and The Absorbent Mind.

With babies you can simply put away all the pieces of plastic that have become separated from their original toy, the singing bear with no batteries, and the leggo which is far to old for tiny hands, get a few trays, baskets or even cake tins and lay out some Montessori goodies for your baby to investigate. It is a good idea to take your baby to each activity and show it to them a few times before just leaving it out for them to try. Sensory baskets are particularly good for small babies who are just discovering the textures of different materials. This might be a basket with metal things from the kitchen draw, or a basket of balls of wool, for instance. As your baby gets up to ten months or so themed baskets can be used, such as a basket of vehicle toys, a basket of balls, or a basket of small musical instruments like shakers. It is important not to overload the baby with too much so less is always more with your sensory and themed baskets, 3-5 items is plenty in one basket. As your baby gets older the materials become more complex but this depends on what your child is interested in at the time.

A key part of preparing the environment is observing your child. This week I have put down a number of small containers with easy lids for little 11 months because I have noticed that much of her pottering time involves checking if one thing can fit into or onto another. Her brain is working on spatial awareness and her body on fine motor skills. She has no say in the matter, and whether I put materials out for her or not, she will continue to work on these skills with whatever she can find. Preparing appropriate activities is quick and easy for a baby and significantly reduces frustration for them.

In my next post I will put a number of photos of DIY activities for 12-24 months.

 

 

Different and Invisible

We are no strangers to ‘difference’ in our family. This week our ‘difference’ seems to be our defining feature in more ways than one. All in one week we visit Little 4s new gifted/twice exceptional counsellor, I made appointments with Vision Australia for her vision, spoke to a rep from the National Disability Insurance Scheme about Little 10 months’ hearing, and received the same-sex marriage postal vote in the mail. I can’t imagine our family any other way but sometimes it is a LOT. Sometimes it feels like someone has dabbed our family all over with difference but we don’t quite fit any of the different boxes.

Little 4 inherited Familial Exudative Vitreoretinopathy (FEVR), a one in a million deteriorating retinal disease, from her mumma and just a little bit of something else that may or may not be causative (a story for another day) from her donor. In the space of 12 months she went from having normal vision to being virtually blind in one eye. She is visually impaired but not legally blind and since she doesn’t carry a cane or read braille her disability is pretty much invisible. She also has a brain that works harder and faster than 99% of other children her age, a sensory system that picks up every single minute detail of every single minute feeling, sound, sight, tactile sensation, emotion, and internal sensation every second of every single day. And she is so emotionally sensitive that she is deeply hurt by typical preschool friendship politics. ALL differences that are pretty much invisible to the wider public and all differences that require recognition and validation in order for her to develop a confident sense of self.

Little 10 months has a unilateral hearing loss. Again she is not deaf, she is not learning sign language, and her hearing loss is invisible to the wider public unless she is wearing her hearing aid which many people don’t even recognise as such because it is mounted on a baby head band.

If I am alone with the kids I am just another straight mum. Nobody has any reason to recognise me as a lesbian or my kids as members of a rainbow family. When we are together as a family in the haven of our diverse rainbow flag flying inner city hub we are recognised as a family but elsewhere hotel reception ask if we accidently booked a double bed and the cashiers in cafes ask if we are paying separately. We could be friends, sisters or cousins but are not assumed to be the parents of our children.

Invisible difference is not validating. I would rather be a flag flying, rainbow t-shirt wearing, short-haired dyke and my children have their disabilities and high abilities written on their t-shirts so we can all be recognised for who we are, and not go around fitting in whilst suffering the consequences. The systems, rules, laws, customs, social and physical structures of the world are not set up for us. They are established for the majority, the norm, the average, so the fact that we are different is pointed out for us constantly. Yet if nobody sees and recognises your visual impairment, your hearing loss, your high sensitivity, your giftedness, your sexuality, or whatever it may be, the significance of that difference is simultaneously denied. In other words the world tells you time and again that you do not fit here but that you should just get over it.

This is happening more in Australia now with the marriage equality postal vote than at any other time in recent history. The very existence of the public discussion over whether we should be “allowed” to get married highlights our difference. The branding of the ‘yes campaign’s’ response as pushy, left-wing bullying reminds us that we are not entitled to feel sad and angry about our exclusion from a socio-legal institution that’s current function is to socially and legally validate the kinds of relationships and families that are acceptable.  Our butcher, baker, teacher, co-worker, neighbour, chemist, doctor, friend, enemy, ex-lovers, parents, siblings, distant cousins, and every other man and his dog are discussing how much our difference matters and we are not supposed to care, at least not too much. We are different but we are still invisible.