When I think back over my years in school, especially early elementary school, there are a few memories that stick out in my mind.
I remember building a replica of the Great Wall of China out of sugar cubes. I remember recreating Cleopatra’s headdress and jeweled collar on an old department store mannequin as part of a unit on ancient Egypt. I remember drawing a diagram of a ziggurat. I remember drawing a bust of Aristotle as part of a paper. I remember making little clay soldiers just like the ones found buried in China. I remember dressing up as James Madison as part of the Continental Congress, complete with a wig made from a white bathing cap, an entire bag of cotton balls, and an impressive amount of Elmer's glue. I remember stretching a Slinky the length of the school hallway, and calculating the number of bricks in a wall. I remember singing the preamble to the Constitution. I remember licking a very bitter piece of paper and declaring myself a “supertaster.”
I don’t remember much about taking tests, or memorizing stuff by rote (other than a few poems), or learning much about wars or dates or mathematical formulas. But I do remember the “projects.” I remember making stuff. I remember pretending to be a real person. I remember experimenting, and trying, and doing.
I remember doing things that felt REAL. Not just something I read about in a book and accepted as fact, because the book said so, but something that I tried, and saw, and felt, and tasted, and PROVED.
I didn’t appreciate how much work went into building the Great Wall of China until I built a miniature version of it myself. I didn’t appreciate the discomfort and weight of Cleopatra’s jewels until I tried on a copy of them. I didn’t think much about the design of a ziggurat until I tried to draw one. I didn’t think about what was going on in the heads of the men attending the Continental Congress until I “became” one of them. I didn’t understand about tensile strength until I got whacked in the arm with a Slinky. Algebra was just abstract numbers until I had to use it to figure out how many bricks I would need to build that wall. Genetics didn’t mean much until I saw how they worked in my own family.
As a homeschool teacher, I sometimes feel guilty that I do a lot of fun stuff, stuff that some might even call “fluff”. In the first three weeks of school, we’ve already built a working volcano, made rock candy, flown paper airplanes, visited the zoo, made corncakes, taken a nature walk, and made paint from berries and spices. At first glance, they may seem like “fluff” projects, but upon closer examination, they all have value that will hopefully stick with my son in a way that just reading the information in a book would not.
The volcano taught us about geology, and vapor pressure, and chemical reactions. The rock candy taught us how crystals form. The paper airplanes taught us about lift and gravity and friction and air pressure and statistics. The zoo taught us about habitats, and continents, and herbivores, and carnivores, and camouflage, and spelling. The corncakes taught us how to measure and follow directions, fractions, chemistry, and technology. The nature walk taught us how to observe what’s around us, how to write and self-publish a book, how to frame a photograph, and how to identify a feather and a plant. The paint project taught us about experimentation, colors, and creative problem-solving.
I could have simply told my son that some animals are herbivores and some are carnivores. I could have shown him some YouTube videos of volcanos erupting. I could have given him a recipe for homemade paint. But I don’t think he would have remembered any of the information nearly as well without getting his hands dirty, without having tried and failed and tried again, without having had to predict and experiment and describe and THINK.
And that’s really what it comes down to: THINKING. Any time you have to use your hands, and your eyes, and your concentration to do something, it will stick in your head. Having to think about HOW to do something naturally leads to wondering WHY it works that way, and WHAT will happen if you do it differently. The more senses that are involved in learning, the better you understand what it is you’re learning about.
So I’m not going to apologize for the days we spent writing on the driveway with chalk, or smelling fruit at the grocery store, or building a paper mache solar system. I’m not going to feel guilty that I’m offering my kid a fluff lesson – because I’m not. I’m offering him full-body immersion in life. And what better way to learn than that?