September 13, 2015

Chicken School

Back in July, I put on  "Chicken School" for the kids. It was partly a warm-up to our homeschooling Colin for first grade this year. But also the kids had so much fun doing our "summer schools" last summer ("Bird School" and "Fish School") that they had been asking me to do one again. Since our baby chicks were set to arrive the week of July 27th, I figured it was time we learned about chickens!

Our "summer schools" are pretty loose. We spend a week or two learning about a topic through books, games, storytelling, circle time, arts and crafts, and a "field trip" of some sort, if we can manage it. If this already sounds like a ridiculous amount of work, I promise you I mostly put these summer schools together on the fly, starting my preparations—at most—the night before, but usually the day of, and with lots of quick searches for inspiration on Google and Pinterest. We almost always start a themed week with a trip to the library to pick up some books on the topic we are studying. For Chicken School our favorite library picks were:

The Little Red Hen by Paul Galdone
The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County by Janice Harrington
Extraordinary Chickens by Stephen Green-Armytage

The Extraordinary Chickens book was a big hit, and we spent one morning copying our favorite pictures of chickens with colored pencils. Here are two drawings by Archer, age four, titled "Fluffy" (left) and "My beautiful chicken" (right):

During our summer schools, our day usually starts off with a walk around the neighborhood. Then, after we get home, we transition right into "circle time.," which usually consists of a few songs or verses, and some finger play or other short game.

For Chicken School, we did the finger play "Ten Fluffly Chickens," which is an old favorite from our parent-tot classes as the Waldorf Independent School of Edmonton. We also sang the nursery rhymes "I had a little hen," and "Cock-a-doodle doo, my dame has lost her shoe," which are both found on the album Lavender's Blue Dilly Dilly CD from Mary Thienes Shunemann. This is a great album of about 70 traditional nursery rhymes from the 17th century onward, all set to a cappella singing. If you are looking for a good album of children's music, I highly recommend this one. We have listened to this album for years and know most of the songs by heart. And I credit this album alone for getting me to exercise my sorry voice in service of my kids.

Anyway, by 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, our six baby chicks had arrived: two Buff Orpingtons, two Australorps, and two Golden-laced Wynadottes—all hens (we hope!). So Tuesday was mostly taken up with picking up our chicks from the post office, where our peeping package was met with some pretty curious stares, then getting their temporary home ready in our garage. We logged many "educational" hours observing our baby chicks that day. Chickens are fascinating! 

The one thing we made sure to do every day of Chicken School was tell the story of "The Little Red Hen" using our wooden barn toys. One day we even made the Little Red Hen's "special" banana bread for snack time and incorporated it into our storytelling. 

The kids love it when I tell stories using our wooden toys. My method is to tell the same story the same way every day, then after a few days, when they've learned the story by heart, I let them tell the story to me. However, this week they surprised me by wanting to tell the story back to me, not with wooden toys but with costumes! They dressed up as the lazy dog (Archer), the lazy cat (Virginia), and the lazy mouse (Colin, dressed in the Easter Bunny's costume), and then they cast me as the Little Red Hen. It's a role I was made for, if I do say so myself.

Throughout the week or so we did Chicken School, we played games like "Count Your Chickens" (a simple cooperative board game for the 3-to-5-year-old set), and another game called the "Water Bird Game," which I found on Pinterest and embellished. It's tricky to explain. I should have made a video, but basically you dump a couple dozen marbles on a hardwood floor. The kids pretend to be waterbirds, racing to pick up the "clams" (in this case, the marbles) one at a time with their toes and drop them into a large mixing bowl. Meanwhile, an adult pretends to be the ocean and waves a large blue silk scarf at the waterbirds. The waterbirds (the kids) can't let themselves get touched by the waves (the silk scarf). 

We did this all while singing the song, "The Sandpipers," which is also on the Lavender's Blue album. It's a really beautiful song about how sandpipers run toward the waves trying to catch their breakfast, and the melody imitates the rhythm of ocean waves very nicely. The game itself was a surprising hit. I hadn't expected the kids to have the "toe-dexterity" to pull it off, but even Virginia could do it. And they asked to do it almost every day. I discovered missing marbles around the living room for weeks after!

Finally, I introduced "wet-on-wet" watercolor painting with the kids this week. Colin was already familiar with this technique from his year in a Waldorf kindergarden, but it was new to Archer, and I had never tried it with the kids at home, as it's a bit more involved than regular painting. (There's a great tutorial for how to do it here.) It's also quite a bit messier than regular water color painting, and the paints stain terribly. So, as you can see, I didn't let Virginia near the liquid watercolors. She has her regular old pan watercolor set.

It was a nice experiment, though. I particularly like how the medium forces you to let go of your preconceived notions about what the painting should look like. This is particularly good practice for Colin, because he tends to be really up-tight in his art and is easily frustrated if a piece isn't how he imagines it should look. It was good practice for me, too, for the same reasons. The method also forces you to fill the entire page with color, which little children tend not to do. It will be a big part of our first grade homeschool curriculum, so I thought we had better get some practice at it.

Now, lest you think our week or two of Chicken School was a little over-planned and pre-scripted, I assure you there was lot of downtime—such as the afternoon (or two) when we watched Chicken Run and Fly Away Home. We might have watched these movies more than once...

And there were quite a few times the kids rewrote the agenda. I recall one afternoon in particular, when I was getting ready to set up the watercolor supplies, Colin asking if he could use our acrylic craft paints instead. Then he asked if he could paint outside. Then he said as I started to follow him out the door, "No, Mama, you can't come." I figured I'd let him run with it and see where this took him. An hour later, I found this lovely little scene in my front yard:

But I also found this lovely work, which we later made into a banner for the dining room. So, the mess was worth it: for the experience, for the hour of work it gifted me, and for the, um ... artistic output.

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