Experiential Science: Flight, Part 1

The kids unanimously agreed that they wanted one of their next unit studies to be about flying.  As I began typing up all of the activities we’ve been doing, I realized that my post was getting super long, so I’ve once again separated our study into parts.  This first part will encompass our study of the four forces of flight and kites.  Our projects with hot air balloons, gliders, airplanes, and more will be coming soon.

I thought it would make the most sense to talk about the history of flight in chronological order.  Thankfully, I stumbled on Explore Flight! by Anita Yasuda.  The book starts with flight in nature–the inspiration for humans who wanted to fly–and ends with rockets.  Included are “25 great projects”–though I had issue with a few, particularly the ornithopter project, which was really just a glider with some added feathers.

Of course, I can’t just use one book and leave well enough alone, so I did quite a bit of supplementing and elaborating by using additional materials. Continue reading

Experiential Science: Earthquakes and Volcanoes (Earth, Part 3)

This is the third part of our unit on plate tectonics, the rock cycle, earthquakes, and volcanoes.  If you want to look at what we studied prior to this, here’s Earth: Part 1 (earth’s layers and plate tectonics) and Earth: Part 2 (the rock cycle).


So now we were nearly up to the part the kids really wanted in the first place, but thankfully they were having so much fun that they sorta forgot that they’d never asked to learn all this other stuff.  (Besides, it’s foundational to their understanding the topic at hand!)  Since they now knew that earthquakes and volcanoes happen (mostly) at plate boundaries, it was time to study these phenomena in more detail. Continue reading

Experiential Science: Rock Cycle (Earth, Part 2)

This is the second part of a unit on plate tectonics, the rock cycle, earthquakes, and volcanoes.  In case you missed it, here’s my first post, covering the earth’s layers and plate tectonics (Earth, Part 1).

The Rock Cycle (and a quick study of rocks)

Since we were talking about moving plates, this seemed like a good time to add in a brief bit about moving rocks.  To make the rock cycle come alive, I once again pulled out some sweets!  Continue reading

Experiential Science: Earth’s Layers and Plate Tectonics (Earth, Part 1)

My kids all decided that they wanted to learn about volcanoes.  For whatever reason, this choice did not inspire me–perhaps because it left me thinking, “How on earth am I going to take six weeks to talk about volcanoes?!”  But the more I thought about it, the more interesting stuff there was that connected to the topic of volcanoes.  In fact, as I began writing about this unit study, I discovered that we hit so many topics and used so many resources that this post was becoming impossibly long, so I am breaking this into several smaller posts for sanity.  Stay tuned for more as I get it written!

I started by making a list of topics I wanted to hit, as well as the order I thought most logical, and then I went hunting for resources.  I hit the jackpot when I stumbled on the American Red Cross Masters of Disaster materials.  For our purposes, I settled on the Level Two earthquake-themed materials, but the site was so cool that I linked you to the main page (apparently hosted by PBS, despite the differing address listed on the materials) so you could admire all of the topic options.

Earth’s Layers and Plate Tectonics


This was the only aspect of our study I actually remembered to photograph.  It was also delicious.

Using the Masters of Disaster downloadable packet (link in above paragraph), we started by studying the makeup of the earth, reading about its layers and graphing the depth of each.  The packet suggested an Earth’s Layers cake, but I couldn’t settle for their simple setup; I had to go all-out with a DIY Earth’s Layers Cake that I crafted. Continue reading

Hands-On History: Knights and Castles

We just finished an awesome six weeks of studying some really cool topics that my kids wanted to learn more about.  Today I thought I’d share the fun we had studying knights and castles.

Books were a big part of our study, though I tried to include as much hands-on as I possibly could.  (I’ll include a description of how we used the different books below for your perusal, along with a quick-reference list of all our resources at the end.  Our read-aloud stories–featuring King Arthur and Robin Hood–are listed and described at the very bottom of the post, below the reference list.) Continue reading

turning back time (in a way)

Somehow, I find that I’m often restless.  Perhaps I can blame it on my mom–she was constantly rearranging the furniture of one room or another as I was growing up, so life seemed full of excitement and change.  At any rate, I feel like I have reinvented our homeschooling life in one way or another countless times in the last two school years.

I’ve gone the furniture angle.  We started with one small work table and switched to using individual desks.  I rearranged our work space in the front room two or three times to increase efficiency.  This past winter I even switched our work space to the family room at the back of the house by the kitchen, combining play space with work space and moving our living room furniture to the front room where (ideally) it makes for a more formal, cleaner-looking entry (except when the kids colonize it as their fort-building space).

I’ve gone the curriculum angle.  We’ve switched writing curricula, math curricula, history plans, spelling materials, Spanish tactics…  Frankly, I’ve discovered that I’m a bit of a rebel when it comes to curriculum, and I can’t seem to use anything as-is; I find myself always adjusting techniques or cobbling a few resources together into something that better suits us.  Perhaps I should bill it myself as “confident and adaptive” rather than “unwilling or unable to follow established plans.”

I’ve gone the scheduling angle.  We used to start promptly at 9:30 with a snack and read-aloud.  That time has gradually moved later (and later), since I hate to interrupt productive, happy playtime.  I’ve also adjusted the content of our days, spending a full week on science followed by a full week on social studies, testing out alternating subjects on various days, lengthening or shortening our lessons and work time.


The older they get, the more I find myself prioritizing moments like this, thankful that we have the time to enjoy a gentle rain and to let imaginations run wild.  Perhaps it’s because the older they get, the more I realize that simple things like this won’t always bring them such raw joy, and we’d best make the most of the present moments and the joys they offer.

Last fall I felt like I was simply trying to crowd too much content into our lives.  I was burnt out from trying to plan math and history and writing and grammar and science and Spanish and art and…  You get the idea.  Even with many of those subjects being only once or twice a week, it was a lot of juggling–particularly since for most of it I’m either creating my own curriculum or heavily modifying existing materials (and, like a perpetual first-year teacher, I’m always preparing new material).  I felt like I wasn’t really doing any subject especially well, and worse yet, the kids had lost some of their joy for learning.  There was no way I wanted to quench that spark so early in their educational careers!

After pondering what had made learning together so magical when the kids were younger, I decided that it was mostly because it was instigated by their interest and thus had their complete buy-in.  I realized a few other things as well: first, I tended to get restless and need change every month or two; secondly, if I changed our subjects of study every couple months, we could cover fewer subjects at a time and still rotate through a full complement over the course of a year.

Thus, my six-week block scheduling began in January.  In a way, this is like turning back time, reverting to the priorities I had when they were preschoolers: following their lead and being willing to shift focus as their personal goals shifted.  (It sounds odd to think of preschoolers as having personal goals, but if you watch carefully, they’re always working on some skill–even if they themselves don’t realize it.)

I started by soliciting ideas from the kids of things they’d like to study; near the end of each block, this process is repeated.  If they run stuck on ideas, I make suggestions–which they often tweak.  Sometimes the kids choose separate topics–Liddy wanted to draw and learn about animals while Asher was interested in math and the geography of South America and Australia–but in general, I try to limit us to about four topics and combine as many as we can.

It’s working.  Both the kids and I are still facing each day with excitement over what we’re going to do, even though we’re nearing the end of a semester (or trimester, since I tend to think of summer as its own academic time), when we’d usually be rather blah.  In fact, each evening the kids are eagerly asking what our work will be for the next day!

While I do keep a review rotation going so we don’t completely forget our parts of speech or basic math, most of what we do is kid-driven.  And as soon as we so much as start tiring of what we’re studying, we discover that it’s already time to think about what we want to learn next.  Hooray for excitement and motivation and learning and joy!

the science of sound

My kids adore science.  I don’t think I ever had the love for it that they have, but perhaps it helped that their initial exposure to science was very hands-on–mixing colored water, making vinegar-and-baking-soda volcanoes, and the like.  When determining our path of scientific learning, I chose Bernard Nebel’s Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding to be my spine.  It was highly reviewed by folks with a scientific background and lauded for digging deeply into concepts, laying logical foundations, interweaving scientific topics rather than keeping them separated into categories, and not underestimating the intelligence of kids.  Having received the book and read through it, I do appreciate all those things about it.

Nebel’s one lack is in activities.  His book is excellent for laying out explanations and discussions to lead kids to solid scientific understanding, but while he includes lots of observation and discussion elements, he doesn’t suggest many demonstrations or experiments.  While plotting out our studies, I found myself unenthusiastic and uncertain.  I finally realized the problem: my science plans were missing the key element my kids love about science–hands-on discovery.

Thus, I started over again.  Using Nebel’s book as a topical guide, I looked for additional resources from our library (Nebel does include resource lists for each topic, but our library didn’t have many of the suggested books) and hunted online for activities to flesh out the concepts I wanted to teach.  I specifically searched for activities that were easy to orchestrate with inexpensive materials, and preferably without even a trip to the store.  I decided that instead of leading with discussion, I would lead with the activities and let those spark the discussions naturally.  Thus, all of these are simple, inexpensive activities designed to go along with Nebel’s discussions, but they are intended to generate those discussions organically rather than making them parent-driven.

(You may notice that this first science unit of the year is appearing mid-April.  That, dear readers, is a tale for an entirely different post.  For now, suffice to say that I’m sure glad this is only kindergarten.)

And now, without further ado, the science of sound, taught in activities.

Discovering Sound
Demonstration 1:
Plastic wrap
A large bowl
A rubber band or tape
Uncooked rice
Drum (or large pot lid and spoon)

Stretch your plastic wrap across the top of the large bowl and secure it with the tape or rubber band.  Be sure it is taut.  Sprinkle a handful of uncooked rice on the top of the plastic wrap.  Hold your drum or pot lid nearby and hit it.  Can you see the rice dance?  You’ll have to get pretty close to make it work.

Demonstration 2:
Put your fingers on your voice box.  Make high and low sounds.  Discuss what’s happening in your throat.

Demonstration 3:
Hold a blown-up balloon against your cheek.  Have someone else press their mouth against the balloon and hum.  Can you feel the vibrations?

Demonstration 4:
Using a slinky, demonstrate longitudinal or compression waves.

NPR’s “What Does Sound Look Like?” on YouTube  (We only watched the first 30 seconds–the actual sound wave.)

Understanding Sound
Activity 1:
Have a child knock on wood.  Then have them press their ear to the wood as they knock.  What do they notice about the sound?  Repeat this experiment using your voice and water.  Put some water in the tub.  Try talking/listening above the water and under the water.

Activity 2:
2 tin cans, yogurt containers, disposable cups, or similar
Several yards of string, preferably a compact string like dental floss
Something to poke a hole in the bottom or each container

Make a good ol’ fashioned tin can telephone.  The longer your string, the more impressive the demonstration seems to the kids.  Make sure it’s pulled nice and tight and that you use good string, though.  As a kid I tried this once with yarn and was sorely disappointed by the result.

Activity 3:
Play with rubber bands of different lengths and thicknesses.  How do they compare?  What can you learn about the vibration of long things vs. short, thick things vs. thin?

Activity 4:
Play with a funnel.  What happens when you speak into it?  When you put it up to your ear?  (Refer back to the old ear trumpets of yore.)

Activity 5: 
Stand a few feet behind the child and whisper something to them.  Why is it hard to hear?  Have the child cup their hand in front of their ear while you whisper again.  What is the difference?

After taking a few lessons to work through all these activities, I asked my kids to create a page of a book to show some of what they learned about sound.  Each of them plotted what they wanted to say, labored to write neatly, and drew elaborate illustrations.  We’ll continue to create pages for all the topics we study so that they have something they can proudly look back on to remember what they’ve learned.  (They love writing books!)  They can’t wait for our next topic–electrical energy!