three kids on a giant seesaw made from a pine log

Forest School, Books and Crafts: Reflections on Our Homeschooling Year (2023-2024)

Learning all the time!

As the seasons change from cold to hot, a big difference appears in our daily activities. Instead of cozy time reading, gathered around a table working on crafts, or baking together in the kitchen, the kids are outside. They're busy climbing trees, cooking in their mud kitchen, digging holes, making up stories, playing in the sunshine. Sure, we still read and do crafts, but the focus of our days has changed, without me saying a word.

How did our homeschooling year go?

Overall, we did less than I had planned. For instance, I had planned on sharing a beautiful thing-a-day with the kids. That fell off the rails in the fall. I don't count any of that as a failure, however. We did different things than planned, and we had several good reasons for the things we dropped or failed to start.

First, we renovated our garage into a living room. This project took longer than anticipated (but what construction project ever fits its expected timescale?). From early fall through late winter, construction was ongoing. Some days were just noisy (hammers, saws, etc); some of our school-related supplies were boxed up for the duration of construction; there was ongoing mess and I didn't always want to clear the kitchen island so we could do activities there. The ongoing construction also impacted our daily rhythms, in that I didn't implement any consistent rhythms, beyond our usual seasonal rhythms and evening routines.

Second, during midwinter, I was super pregnant, and then, dealing with a newborn. We spent a good two months going out less and doing less—though we still managed to play plenty of board games, work on some indoor crafts, and read more books!

Then, once we finally had the floors in and the dust cleaned up, we spent weeks rearranging furniture and reorganizing the entire house. We moved bookcases, tables and desks; added giant cabinets for storing craft supplies; and hung a corkboard and giant whiteboard to make the old living room into a project/homeschooling room. The new living room, complete with bay window and sunlight, is our new favorite spot for family storytime. Having the proper setups for the activities we want to do makes a huge difference. However, about the same time we finished all of that, spring flowers started popping up, and we started spending far more time outside… so, everything in its season.

Here's the newborn! Welcome, sleepy Sylvester!

Read more about our homeschooling journey so far:

Literacy

One of our goals this year was to nudge our 7-year-old toward reading and writing. To that end, we did a variety of literacy-related activities. First, we read aloud every night, and depending on the day, during the day, too. We read lots of picture books and early readers. Some of the longer books we read aloud (aimed at our 7-year-old, though everyone generally listen) included:

  • JRR Tolkien: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • JRR Tolkien: The Two Towers
  • JRR Tolkien: The Return of the King
  • David Macaulay: Castle
  • David Macaulay: Cathedral
  • David Macaulay: Underground
  • David Macaulay: Building Big
  • Ruth Stiles Gannett: My Father's Dragon
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder: Little House In the Big Woods
  • Peter Brown: The Wild Robot
  • William J. Bennett: Children's Book of Heroes
  • William J. Bennett: Children's Book of Home and Family
  • William J. Bennett: Children's Book of Virtues
  • William J. Bennett: Children's Book of America
  • Lawton B. Evans: Worth While Stories For Every Day (1917)

We continued our subscription to Two Acre Books' library boxes—which continue to be great. Each box has a bunch of books that follow a theme (described further here).

I also bought a bunch of used books (because I don't have enough bookcases full of books yet) about virtues, the medieval period, knights, and King Arthur, in hopes of inspiring the kids by their chivalrous practices and nobility. The boys especially love all the tales of adventurous warriors. And, since we have an upcoming family vacation planned to Glacier National Park, I also checked out every book our library system has about Glacier, and a documentary about the history of the park. Pictured below is a subset. It's been fun learning about the park prior to our trip!

Some of the books we read.
Two Acre Books subscription boxes.
Some of the books about Glacier!

We also wrote our own books! I remember making books as a kid—lots of them. Drawing the pictures, writing the stories, binding them. My mom even kept many of them and has passed them back to me! It's so fun showing my kids the books I made when I was their age!

A couple of our books.
For the younger ones, I write the words, and they trace the letters.

The simplest way to make a book is to use the newsprint paper that is half lined, half drawing space. The kids illustrate on the top half of the sheet and write the story below. For handwriting practice, depending on their level, they can dictate, I write in pencil, and they trace the letters. As they get more practice, they can write all the words themselves. For instance, my 7-year-old sometimes writes all the words himself. Sometimes I write his story on our whiteboard for him to copy, to help with spelling.

Then, we pick some other colorful construction paper for a cover, write on the title and byline, and staple everything together along the spine. A strip of duct tape over the staples makes it look professional! The kids love reading their books aloud. They read to each other and they choose their books during our evening storytime.

Making their own books makes handwriting and spelling practice meaningful. We're not currently big on workbooks, though we do have a few available with letter activities. Tracing letters for the sake of tracing doesn't feel important. Tracing letters for a story they told themselves matters. It's a huge difference in motivation.

(Read: Schools Zap Kids' Motivation and Mental Health))

For other writing and reading practice, we took advantage of opportunities as they arose. For instance, our 7-year-old had a short weekly homework sheet for his catechism class at the church. He had to write out the responses to a couple of short answer questions. For birthdays and other events, the kids made cards and wrote on them (e.g., "HAPPY BIRTHDAY DADDY").

We played some literacy-related games. Duolingo has a reading app with useful phonics and letter recognition exercises. We played with Bananagrams tiles. We have letter magnets. When we got our big white board, they all wanted to write and draw on it, too.

I've been thinking I should implement the daily journal that I remember doing as a kid—at least a sentence or two about something that happened that day. (My first such journal was populated with entries like, "I went to the park. It was fun." and "I went on a bike ride. It was fun." and "I went to Sherry's house. It was fun." I guess I had lots of fun as a kid!) Now that we finally have our project room with the giant whiteboard, maybe we'll get around to it.

Math and Science

We have continued playing games to learn math—counting, adding, subtracting, logic, etc. We also worked on reading numbers: house numbers when we go for walks through the neighborhood, page numbers in books, numbers on the clock. Now that we have a whiteboard, I'd like to work more on math notation. Maybe if we get a rainy summer day, we'll be inside long enough for that!

Grandparents gave us science kits: an engineering kit, a crystal growing kit. We spent part of the winter building things and learning about principles of forces and physics. Another

A tightrope walker, balancing.
An elevator, with counterweight
Growing crystals!
Snap circuits with Dad!

Music

We listen to plenty of music, listening to all sorts during the day or in the car. We have the Maestro Classics series that we listen to in the car—Peter and the Wolf is a favorite. We added Wee Sing America to our car CD rotation this year, which I remember listening to (I can sing along with more songs than I realized…). Then there are the geography songs and the science songs.

Another family expressed interest in starting a music co-op. We are investigating whether it will be a good fit for us—and whether it will actually happen. The first meetup was small: two families and eight kids. But mine were youngest, and the class was geared toward the older kids. The information presented was at a reasonable level, but it moved too fast. We'll see whether the group gets going or not.

Religion

Randy does most of the religious education at present. Our 7-year-old attended the parish catechism class this year in preparation for his First Communion. I recently got an Aquinas and Nature book from another mom at the parish, which looks like a fun way to introduce philosophy!

The Aquinas and nature book

We've been trying to use the liturgical seasons to add another set of rhythms to our year. We subscribed to the Sophia Institute Press calenders, so we have a lovely illustrated reminder of the season on our living room wall. I have a feast day cookbook, and we've been trying out recipes for the past year, to see which are fun traditions to add to our family calendar. For example, we've made St Nicholas bread twice now.

We also added a nightly routine: lighting a candle and listening to an appropriate song for the current liturgical season before bed (we started this in Advent, and the kids liked it so much, we kept going).

St. Nicholas doughman.

Arts and crafts

We excelled at crafts! Many we did at home; some, with our forest school group (more on that below). We generally do more arts and crafts in cooler weather. When it's nice out, we want to be outdoors! This year, we did a bunch of stuff in the Christmas season, then took a break for the most part until the renovation was done.

We painted, drew, wove on cardboard looms, finger knitted, started a rag rug, and made stuff with paper and glue (like the aforementioned books). We made salt dough gingerbread houses and Christmas ornaments. We did a little wood carving (mostly spears, what can I say, I have a warrior 7-year-old). We assembled and painted a small picnic table.

We did many cardboard construction projects. A year or two ago, Randy and I gave our oldest son a selection of rolls of colored duct tape for Christmas. And then, anytime we received a package, the cardboard was given over in service of whatever he wanted to build. Mostly, this was cardboard armor and shields, to accompany the plethora of stick weapons scattered around our house.

Personally, I learned to crochet (inspiring the kids to do more yarn crafts), and did some painting (mostly, acrylics—inspiring kids to paint more, too!).

(Read: Tutorial: Super Simple Crochected Water Bottle Holder (Great First Project!))

One of the salt dough gingerbread houses, pre-decoration.
After decoration.
Painting salt dough ornaments
Cardboard looms.

Forest school

Our forest school group meets weekly at local nature parks, beaches, and forests. We've been part of this group for over four years now! This year, our activities included some new Waldorf-inspired activities, such as more seasonal celebrations and crafts. For example, we had a fall celebration with thematic crafts and shared snacks. I brought a pumpkin apple soup, we pressed apple cider, and made apple-print flags. The kids sewed pouches from felt, and finger knitted straps for them. We held a forest tea party to welcome spring (again with snacks). We went berry picking and apple picking together. A few highlights from our year:

We did a lantern walk for Martinmas! All the kids made lanterns at home and brought them along. Here are ours: made with paper, scissors, and glue! I had a string of small LEDs in mine. The kids put their camping lanterns in theirs. We sang a Martinmas song, then shared snacks. I made Martinshörnchen.

Apple print flags to celebrate fall!
Apple picking!
Lanterns!

In the winter, we did fewer activities—when it's cold, it's hard to do anything requiring hands to be nimble and out of mittens! We had a mostly warm winter, though, so there was lots of mud and not as much sledding as usual.

In spring, we returned to projects: collecting nature treasures, planting seeds, identifying wildflowers, wood carving, cooking over fires, and more. One of my new interests has been identifying local wildflowers and plants! It's a combo of botany and foraging—I want to learn which ones I can eat or use, but also, it's gratifying to know what is growing around us here. And there are so many more flowers than I realized! I've collected photos of over 70 flowers so far, just in the spring.

Sledding!
Digging by the river.
My wildflower guide (organized by color)!
Drawing flowers after a wildflower walk.
Roasting bread over our campfire!
My 5-year-old daughter's collection of snails.
Playing by a favorite creek.

Sudbury coop

We attended the Sudbury Co-op approximately once a week throughout the year. Less often in midwinter, given the new baby. One of the big draws of this co-op is the location on a 400+ acre farm, complete with farm animals (cats, turkeys, chickens, ducks, bunnies, goats, sheep, pigs, ponies) and plenty of room to explore and play. We generally spent an hour visiting all the animals before anything else. Other activities are organized by any members who happen to want to organize activities. For instance, one mom led daily hikes around the property. Another lady taught a wet felting workshop in December, showing us how to make Christmas ornaments. Another time, a family brought mini disc golf.

One downside in the fall and winter was the ratio of older to younger kids. There weren't as many younger kids for my kids to play with. Later in spring, attendance picked back up. We will likely continue this co-op in the fall.

Chilling in a tree.
Giant see-saw!
Soft bunny!
Rainy day at the farm means big puddles!
Hugging goats.

Other stuff

As always, daily life is educational! For example, civic arts! With Randy on our City Council, we have occasionally involved the whole family in political activities. The kids are gaining a basic understanding of how elections work, what people in the city do, and why it's important to know about all of it and be involved. We also talk about urban development and city planning a lot.

The kids are involved in gardening and yard work, beekeeping, caring for chickens, arts and crafts, cooking and baking, food preservation, fixing things around the house or building things with Dad, shopping, playing games, attending community events, and so many other things, too. Our 7-year-old sometimes decides to cook dinner (with help), such as baguettes, spaghetti, and tomato sauce.

Another time, we read a book called Stone Soup, in which the characters make a big pot of soup. So, our 7-year-old decided we were going to have Stone Soup for dinner! He correctly deduced that the stones didn't add much to the soup, and did not add them, but added everything else the characters in the book used. He washed and chopped all the vegetables; he added them to the pot; he stirred; he tasted, and adjusted salt and pepper to taste. It turned out great.

We had talked about swim lessons; we didn't get around to it yet. Still on our radar, but this year was just too full of other things. Same for martial arts—something I think the kid might enjoy, but I don't want us to be too busy. And, as I can attest, there's no reason a kid can't pick up and be serious about a sport later! I didn't start fencing until I was 12.

Cooking dinner!
More outside time!
Family lake time!

And next year?

My plan, at present, is to continue all the same things we've been doing. If a music co-op starts up, or we find the right extracurricular sport, maybe we'll add something new. As always, it'll be an adventure.

Need ideas for your own homeschooling?

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

Our goal is to encourage deliberate choices, individual responsibility, and lifelong curiosity by sharing stories about our adventures in living, loving, and learning.

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