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There are some educators, parents, and bloggers who feel technology is harmful for our kids and they should only have access to open-ended toys. I, however, believe that our children need a realistic harmony of both technology and open-ended play.

Technology and play balance is beneficial

Here’s why….

Today’s economy is much different than it was 20 years ago and it will be drastically different 20 years from now. Technology is changing almost every aspect of our lives and it will continue to do so. In fact, 65% of our children will land jobs that have yet to be created (success performance resolutions).

While open-ended play is amazing and I’m a huge advocate for free play and kid-powered toys, I think we are doing a disservice to our children if we don’t teach them how to use technology. Technology will ultimately be apart of their life forever.

Technology as a Tool

I’m not advocating for screens to be used simply as a means of distraction, escapism, or as a “babysitter”. What I am advocating for is a healthy balance of technology as a tool. Technology is a great way to help them create, locate information, think critically about information, learn to do something new, solve a problem, and/or find their voice.

Don’t Forget The Play

I am a strong advocate for children to have time to be children and just play. There are so many benefits of children playing freely especially when that time occurs outside in nature. Children learn to create, use their imaginations, develop crucial skills like fine motor, problem solving, and collaboration skills just from unstructured, free play.

It’s worth mentioning that I’m not talking about adult-led play or play opportunities that have to meet certain objectives. Adults can invite children to join them in what I call explorations like Play Dough, painting, or other similar explorations. The key is keeping it child-led and allowing them to create their own play within the exploration. The main thing is keeping the play unstructured. This will help encourage kids to use their own imaginations.

When Technology and Play Come Together

When both play and technology come to together in harmony for a well-rounded balance, it can really boost children’s skills and passions. It gives them even more opportunities with different mediums to create, helps them develop problem solving skills, collaborate with other children both in person and from around the world which means even more access to children who are different from them, and boosts communication skills along with language/vocabulary. Children are also preparing themselves for a successful career. They are also learning how to be a contributing citizen.

When technology and open-ended play are in balance with one another, children benefit greatly. We as parents need to lead by example by finding a healthy balance between technology and play. We also may need to assist them to create a harmony in the beginning. This will keep from one out weighing the other. However, if I had to choose between the two of them, I would lean with more play.

Technology and play is beneficial for kids
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Is it about true student engagement or compliance?

I know I’m going to catch some flack here from fellow teachers, but I’m going to be brutally honest with you anyways about what’s truly being measured in today’s classrooms. Is it student engagement or is it compliance? This is solely my opinion on how things are operating in the public schools and by no means am I undermining our fabulous teachers in the classrooms. This is more about the system and what they are told they have to do by administrators, superintendents, publishing companies, and government mandates.

Today, many school districts use set curriculums with many of them being scripted. In other words, everyone on the same page at the same time. Each child no matter their reading level or interest is reading the same exact story and the teacher  reads from the script in the teacher’s manual which also provides the day’s lesson plans. Heck it even lays out the entire unit and tells the teacher exactly what and how to teach.  How exciting right?

Did I mention these programs come equipped with worksheets too?

As a teacher this drove me batty and I HATED it, but I began to notice things happening in the classroom and in our trainings for the new “amazing” curriculum that was going to boost our lagging M-STEP scores. Well this was the line given by the publishing company that our district bought hook, line, and sinker.

In my short 7 year career as a teacher, all I heard about was student engagement. Mainly how to improve student engagement in the classroom. However, I began to notice we were actually doing the complete opposite in the classroom.

We weren’t actually looking for our students to be engaged, but rather looking for compliance from our students. We weren’t suppose to care whether or not they are ready for the lesson developmentally or even whether or not they found the lesson to be of interest to them. I was giving “Blue” or Responsible Thinking sheets out to students who weren’t completing their work during classtime. Students were choosing to not do their packets of worksheets which created a large number of students with missing assignments and failing grades. Heck we even tried to bribe, oops I mean reward, students with field trips and fun days for both No Failing grades and No Missing Assignments. Even this didn’t help to improve our student engagement.

What? Wait a minute here. How can “Blue” sheets and fancy rewards increase student engagement? Isn’t this actually used to get kiddos to comply with doing their work instead of them using their internal desire to learn aka be engaged with the lesson?

See to me, it’s more like we were measuring student compliance rather than truly finding ways to engage our students. Shouldn’t we be helping our students discover their passions, discover their purposes, uncover problems they want to solve and help guide them to finding answers, enrich their lives with truly meaningful information and not just basic info they can Google on their phone in seconds then expect them to memorize and regurgitate for the upcoming multiple choice test?

What’s really expected of teachers? 

But we’re not…. we are expected to do the dog and pony show, create a stellar attention getter for each of our lessons, create behavior plans for those who don’t comply repeatedly, use fear of getting into trouble, grades- both rewarded for A’s and fear of failing grades, fun days and field trips for rewards, question if a child has ADHD or needs medication simply because they are off task during the lesson, or have a child looked at for special education if a child isn’t engaged with lessons.

*Yes, some children do have ADHD, some need meds, and some need special ed services. I’m not going to debate any of these issues. My problem lies with using these as an excuse for noncompliance without first looking at the curriculum and whether or not the child finds it important to them. Is it of interest to them? If not, then the lack of engagement might be the curriculums fault. *Insert Gasp

How is it we don’t look at this first? Rather we blame the child like it’s their fault. I challenge you to find a topic you find boring and then be “engaged” with it 100% while someone lectures you on it. No day dreaming, no doodling, absolutely 100% engaged with the lesson the entire time. Never mind the fact that you maybe hungry, got into a fight with your best friend or any other experience that might interfere with your engagement.

Again, I’m not here to slam teachers. I worked with some pretty fabulous teachers in my career. It IS the system that I don’t agree with, not them. The education of our children is the most important thing in the world, but our current system is failing many of our precious children. I couldn’t change the system from inside. It is just too big and way too messy. So now I want to educate parents on other, more supportive ways they can guide their children to be life long learners beyond the preschool- 12th grade system.

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Natural Learning to me is simply when children, or adults even, use their interests to learn. Our little Scout loves toy trucks. She loves to push them across the floor while saying vroom vroom. She also loves sitting or attempting to sit in her large Mega Block CAT dump truck.

*This post contains affiliate links. Affiliate links mean I may earn a small commission which helps support my blog when you purchase from my link. There is no added cost to you.

Scout is naturally drawn to her trucks, so this makes natural learning opportunities widely available.

A girl playing with her toy trucks in the window
We love our set of 5 Plan trucks that include a mni garbage truck, mini roller, bulldozer, mini excavator and mini fire engine. These mini trucks are made out of wood and offer many different learning opportunities. Not to mention are non-toxic and the company cares about the environment by using environmentally friendly practices according to their Amazon description.

These trucks offer hours of play and really keep her attention because she loves trucks. When she’s busy playing with her toy trucks, mommy and daddy can sneak in some learning opportunities. Get your own Plan mini trucks here.

Plan Toy Trucks being used for play
Here’s some ways we use the trucks to develop skills with her toy trucks….

1. When she pushes them around the house, she’s building her gross motor skills or developing her large muscles. She really cruises around the house with these.

2. When she pushes them side to side, picks them up, or pushes the buttons to make them work, she’s developing her fine motor skills. Fine motor skills are the development of small muscles. This development will help her with her writing skills later on.

A girl playing with her toy trucks
3. They offer language building opportunities when we sit and play with her. When we call the trucks by the name, she’s hearing new vocabulary words. We can describe the trucks while playing which helps build her color identification skills and other descriptive language skills.

4. The toy trucks offer plenty of imagination play. Scout can use them any way she wants too. Pretending to be on a construction site, building a house with her blocks, racing them around the track, or digging in the dirt.

A girl playing with her toy trucks and Mega Block farmer
5. One of the most important skills for her and all toddlers to work on is problem solving. Scout can work her problem skills through using the toy trucks and learning what each button or feature does. For example, the bulldozer has a button that lifts the “blade”. She also builds her problem solving skills by simple playing with them. Some times she gets them stuck on something, “debris” has fallen into her road (aka toys that have been left on the floor), or any other situation her toy trucks put her in.

A girl playing with her toy trucks
How does your child use toy trucks for play?


5 Ways Natural Learning Can Be Supported by Toy Trucks


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Other Plan Toys

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Are you looking for some ways to assess natural learners?

3 Ways to Assess Natural Learners
When most people hear the word assessment, they automatically think of testing. Whether that’s the standardized state testing or those lovely multiple choice tests that most of us who are products of the public school system so fondly remember.
But we don’t have to use a test to assess our natural learners…

In fact, the teacher in me HIGHLY recommends avoiding a multiple choice or any test of any kind to assess natural learners.

So what does the word assessment mean? 

“Educational assessment, the process of documenting knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs” -Wikipedia

Testing is one of the ways to assess natural learners. It is a way of documenting your child’s knowledge.

However, there are far better ways to assess natural learners.

So what are the “Best Practice” assessment approaches? 

*Best Practice is a term that is constantly used in the public education world. Googles definition says:

best prac·tice
noun

commercial or professional procedures that are accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective

1. Projects!

     Yes, simple projects are a great way for children to show you what the know. Naturally, the children should be able to decide what kind of project to do and how they want to create it. This will take some openness or trust on your part as their parent.

Many teachers use projects in their classrooms, but MOST (notice I said most, not all teachers) tell the children what they must create and what topic they must create it on. They have rubrics designed to grade the project which tend to dictate how the project should be done in the eyes of the teacher. Occasionally, you will come across teachers who truly embrace differentiated instruction and will allow children to take total control of their project, but again the topic is usually dictated. Schools that really embrace individualized learning will encourage students to relate projects after researching topics of their own choice.

Here are some project ideas….

  • models
  • Paintings/drawing
  • Write songs
  • Create a video
  • Write a blog post/article
  • Create a podcast on the subject
  • Create a skit/play

-The list is truly endless when children use their passions and imaginations. This is just a few ideas to give children if they aren’t sure where to begin.

Basically anything your natural learner completes from an art piece to videos can be used as an assessment. Be sure to hang up examples of your children’s work in your learning environment.

2. Notes

Anecdotal notes are perfect for assessing your natural learners. Anecdotal notes are…

“Anecdotal notes are used to record specific observations of individual student behaviours, skills and attitudes as they relate to the outcomes in the program of studies. Such notes provide cumulative information on student learning and direction for further instruction.” – Learn Alberta

Anecdotal notes are simply notes you take about your natural learner. Things to include are things you noticed about their behaviors toward their chosen subject or exploration invitation*, their attitudes towards learning about the topic, or their skills they are learning or have mastered. These will help you track what to continue in their learning journey, what to stop learning about, and where they are with skill development. It’s also a great way to keep documentation of learning if you need it for homeschooling state requirements or for your own records.

Notes can simply be recorded into a journal if you prefer paper/pencil or you can use technology like tablets, laptops, or even your smart phone.

*Exploration Invitations are simply things I do to expose my children to new topics, play, or interests. For example, planning a trip to a new museum or setting up a play dough, paint, or life skill “center”. I dislike the word center because it reminds me of centers that I used in teaching which often were adult-led/worksheet centers. My explorations now are so much more child-led and designed to expose the kids to new possible interests. If it’s something they enjoy, we will do it again and if it’s not, we simple move on to the next thing.

3. Pictures

Pictures are an amazing way to showcase and document their learning. I use this one a lot with my kids. Whenever we are doing something, I snap a picture or two. These can be put into a portfolio* or displayed around your learning environment. It’s an easy way to document the whole learning process of your child. Plus they usually love having their picture taken.

*Portfolios are simply a way to collect your pictures to document growth of skills and learning. They don’t have to be fancy unless you want them to be. A simple hanging folder system , binder or even a scrap book can work wonderfully. It’s all about what works best for you and your child.

Pictures can be used as ways to assess natural learners.
Scout has mastered building a 4 piece tower.

 

Assessing your natural learner doesn’t have to be done by testing them. There are several other options that can give you even more knowledge of their skills and provide documentation.

What ways do you assess your natural learner?

3 Ways to Assess Natural Learners

 

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This is our last post in this series about natural learning, but don’t worry I will continue to share more places as we explore them. There are so many places yet for us to discover.

*I am posting early because Christmas is this Sunday and I want you to be unplugged and spending time with family instead of connecting with us. However, I don’t want you missing our latest blog.

Now let’s get to it…

Today’s post is all about the Grand Rapids Public Museum. The GRPM is also located in Grand Rapids near the Fredrick Meijer Garden and Sculpture Parks. (Check out our last post on Fredrick Meijer Gardens here).

Scout at the GRPM

 

There are SO many reasons why we love this museum. The museum not only contains historical information through their exhibits, but it also has a planetarium AND a Merry-Go-Round. Honestly, the Merry-Go-Round is the kids favorite part everytime we go they have to ride it.

Scout and I enjoying her first merry-go-round ride

The GRPM really begins learning to life through their exhibits. They have a nature room, a historical replica of old Grand Rapids, wood working area that you can watch furniture actually being made, and so many more.

How did people ride these things?
How does this work?
Scout with grandma enjoying the traveling exhibit.
One of the many exhibits.
Scout enjoying the view of the Grand River.
The boys listening to one of the many volunteers taking about the printing press.

The Grand Rapids Public Museum is a wonderful place to support your child’s natural learning. There’s a wide range of exhibits, so there is bound to be one that everyone finds interesting.

Live in the GR area and plan on making multiple visits, then consider getting a membership. We are currently members to the GRPM and there are many perks to our membership. We truly love the GRPM.

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Today is all about my favorite place, nature. We spend as much time as possible outside exploring and playing. There are SO many benefits of spending time in nature. Check out my previous blog on how spending time in nature makes me a better mom here

Let me introduce you to one of our favorite places to explore, Fredrick Meijer Gardens. Fredrick Meijer is located in the beautiful city of Grand Rapids.

Fredrick Meijer has both inside and outside areas. They have an outdoor sculpture park, indoor and outdoor gardens, exhibits, and a children’s garden area. There’s something for everyone to explore.

Our favorite area to explore is the Children’s Garden area. There are 10 different garden areas for the kiddos. We can explore the Great Lakes at the Great Lakes Garden, visit a one of a kind Treehouse at the Treehouse Village, dig for fossils in the Rock Quarry, look for critters in the Wooded Wetlands, or experience our senses in the Kid-Sense Garden. There are a few other areas as well, but I wanted to leave a couple for you to discover on your own. 

Digging for fossils at the Rock Quarry
Exploring the different types of trees at the Treehouse Village
Young Scout and daddy exploring the Treehouse
 

We also love looking at the beautiful sculptures and water areas that are outside. Not only do we get to be outside in nature, but we also get to be active by walking the many different trails that wonder through the different outside areas. 

Observing the letter sculpture

Another area the kids really enjoyed was the Tranquility area. This area included foam blocks to build our own sculptures, an insect hunt, sand to rake, a bridge to cross and several others. According to their website, this exhibit was closed on Dec 18th, 2016. We will miss this exhibit, but we are excited to see what the new exhibit will include. 

Building his own sculpture
Scout exploring the Zen area
 

The last area I want to talk about is the Michigan’s Farm Garden. This is definitely not the last area of the Gardens as there are many, many more areas, but this one is another of the kids favorites. Here we can explore life on a farm including a barn, sculptures of barn animals, a farmhouse and gardens. It’s a way for us to step back into time to the 1930’s. 

Getting water the old fashion way

Fredrick Meijer is a must see if you are in Michigan, but be sure to plan for a couple visits to truly explore everything. There is so much to see and do. We’ve made two visits this year and still haven’t explored it all. 

Fredrick Meijer also offers a membership which is the best investment if you plan to make several trips in a year. We are members and plan on making several more visits before the end of our membership. 

So next time you find yourself around Grand Rapids, be sure to check our Fredrick Meijer’s Garden and Sculpture park. You won’t be disappointed and there is so much there to support your child’s natural learning. It’s one of our favorite places. 

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It’s time to introduce our 3rd place in Michigan that supports natural learning. Natural learning in my opinion is simply learning about things that interest you. 

Meet the  Impression Five Science Center.

Scout practicing her piano skills

Science centers are great places to learn about science through discovery. This makes them perfect for any science lover and even not so science lovers. Children are able to explore the exhibits and learn through hands on fun. The Impression Five has a little something for everyone. 

The Impression 5 is located in Lansing. Check out my Part 2 blog on Potters Park Zoo which is also located in Lansing if you are looking for things to do in the Lansing area. 

This is also a kid friendly hands on museum. They have a ton of cool exhibits that our kiddos just love. Just like the Flint Children’s Museum I wrote about in part 1, they have a rotating exhibit along with their regular exhibits. 

At our last visit, the rotating exhibit was all about prehistoric and fossils.
 
The regular exhibits are unbelievably fun. At the time of our last visit, they had a piano for music exploration, a tennis ball launcher, a nature exhibit, a light room, building zone, and lots more. They also have a infant/toddler area which our little Scout loved exploring.

Scout exploring the infant toddler room
G exploring the launcher.

Overall, The Impression Five is a great place for kiddos to learn all about science while exploring new passions. It’s hands on and exciting. They offer a wide range of activities for infants and up. 

Next time, you find yourself in the Lansing area be sure to make a stop at Impression Five.

At the time of this writing, we have decided to purchase a membership to Impression Five because it was so much fun. We plan on making lots of visits this year. 

*Just a reminder that memberships are a great way to save money if you plan on attending a certain museum multiple times. It can also help you explore new museums for free or at discounted costs if your museum participates in a traveling program. 

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Welcome to part 2 of my blog series on places in Michigan that support natural learning.  Today, I’m talking Potter Park Zoo in Lansing. 

Little Scout checking out a peacock
Is your little an animal lover? Zoos are a good resource to learn about animals. Potter Park Zoo in Lansing is one of our favorite places to visit. We made several trips this year. 

The zoo is open year around, so you can experience it any time of the year. The animals are well taken care of and the staff is very friendly. It’s a smaller zoo compared to others in Michigan which makes it perfect for even the littlest animal lover. 

Little Scout on the Hayride during Boo at the Zoo

Potter Park offers lots of fun events through out the year. This year we attended the Boo at the Zoo and the kiddos had a blast. We explored the zoo in our costumes, trick or treated at booths from local area businesses and non-profits, and even took a hayride around the zoo. They also had other fun Halloween themed activities, but we chose to just do the hayride. 

What does the zoo teach us?

Not only can the kiddos learn about animals, but they can also learn many other things. They learn that we need to take responsibility for protecting those without voices. They learn about how crucial it is for us to make good choices when it comes to making eco-friendly choices. The zoo also raises new questions that can be researched and answered at home. 

There usually is an entrance fee for visiting zoos, but many also have memberships just like the children’s museum I mentioned in part 1. The memberships not only saves you money if you plan on visiting multiple times, memberships sometimes also allow you free or discounted fees on other zoos in the network. This includes nationwide access. 

Feeling a goat at the petting zoo


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This post contains affiliate links. Please see our disclosure page for more information. 

It only took me 7 years to realize I don’t agree with the public school system and to know I want a different and better education for my own kiddos. Check out my blog on the reasons I left teaching for more insight into why I left. 
Now, I am a firm believer in natural learning and homeschooling is a great avenue for me to  support natural learning with my children. This is why we have chosen to homeschool our kiddos and a big reason why I left the public school system. 

Here are 6 ways we support natural learning at home…

1. We play

Singing into her pretend microphone

  

 We make sure to provide the kiddos with open ended toys that allows them to use their imaginations during lots of unstructured play time. Our “toys” tend to fit in well with a Montessori/Reggio/Waldorf inspired approaches. Some of our favorites are PVC pipes, wooden blocks, Green Toys, and Legos. 
Playtime is child led and completely unstructured. We as parents play with the kiddos by following their lead and ask thought provoking open-ended questions. 

2. We allow boredom.

     We have a routine to our day, but we don’t have a set schedule. We have lots of free time available in our day. This allows for some boredom to creep up which encourages them to find something to do. In other words, it builds their problem solving. 

3. We encourage risk taking.

   We want the children to explore and try new things, so we encourage them to do just that. Many kids I worked with in the public schools were afraid to try new concepts for fear of getting it wrong. Here, we encourage the kiddos to try it and support them through both the failure and successes. Exposing children to failure in a safe place like home will prepare them for when they face a failure on their own and encourages perseverance. 

4. We read!

Exploring at the local library
 
This is probably the most important one in my opinion. The little one and I read several books of all different kinds everyday and we visit the library often. Our oldest reads when he is with us on his own along with a bedtime story that is read to him. We encourage him to read all different kinds of print. Notice, I said print and not just books. Print is every where and it helps him to grow his interests and reading ability.

5. We travel and visit new places.

Scouts first time on a boat and first trip to Mackinac Island

    

We travel as often as we can to new places. This includes trips to museums, zoos, conservation areas, etc. We even hold memberships to several places. This gives our kiddos more opportunities to explore and seek out interests. Be sure to check out my latest blog series here on places in Michigan that support natural learning. 

6. We spend time in nature.

Scout checking out the garden

Spending time in nature is equally as important as the reading. We spend a lot of time in our backyard playing, gardening, etc. We try to get out everyday as long as it is safe to do so. We also visit our local nature area for hiking and exploring their nature playground. Outdoor time is another great opportunity for us to give the kids unstructured playtime. 

These are the 6 ways we encourage natural learning with our kiddos. 

What ways do you encourage natural learning with your children?

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Have you heard about natural Learning? Natural Learning to me is nothing more than learning about your interests, asking questions and finding their answers, learning through play or following your passions. Over the next several Sundays, I’m going to share several amazing places here in Michigan that we use to support natural learning for our children. 

*Side note… we have one who is homeschooled and one in the public school system. Natural learning can be supported at home no matter your schooling choice. 

Flint Children’s Museum 

Our first place in our series is the Flint Children’s Museum. We love visiting children’s museums for many reasons and this one is one of the kiddos favorites. 

Music Exploration
 

The #1 reason is….. 

We get to play! Everything is hands on, so the kiddos can touch, manipulate, and play with the exhibits. Don’t get me wrong, we visit other not-so-hands on museums as well, but it’s nice that the kids can be free to play as long as they follow our rules. The rules are simple clean up when they are done exploring an exhibit, use their walking feet/be safe,  no eating or drinking outside the eating area, and being kind to the other kids, parents, and staff. 

Reason #2…. 

Our littlest really enjoys it because she doesn’t have to be confined to a carrier or stroller. She can walk, crawl, and climb (when it’s safe to do so). If you have a busy toddler like we do, this makes for a happy toddler and happy, but exhausted parents. 

Climbing on the rock wall was simply divine for our little climber.

The last time we visited our 16 month old wore herself out from playing and exploring so much she took a 2 hour nap and was out as soon as we left the parking lot. 

Reason #3…. 

They have several different types of exhibits with one that rotates every few months. The kids are always discovering something new. They can explore different stem topics, experience music, dress up for some dramatic play on the big stage, act out a creation with the hand puppets, play store or pizza parlor, climb a rock wall, and lots of other exciting adventures. 

The kiddos are able to freely explore different aspects while playing which exposes them to new interests and raises new questions for them to answer. The kiddos are learning naturally without having an adult telling them how to think or what to learn about.

We especially love the toddler exhibit area. Our little one crawled through a tunnel, put together puzzles and could freely explore with developmentally appropriate items. 

Exploration in the toddler area

What the children learn?

Beyond what the exhibits are teaching the children through their explorations, the kiddos also learn many other things as well. The children learn they can learn through play. They develop new interests that can be explored in other ways at home. New questions are asked which can be further explored with more research on YouTube, webinars, books, etc. They work on problem solving skills, collaboration if they are playing with other children, and are given opportunities to practice kindness. These opportunities can also increase a child’s background knowledge and increase their vocabulary.

The little ones develop more language experiences. They increase their fine motor and gross motor skills. They develop a further love of playing and explorations.

All of these skills help the kiddos develop a life long love of learning. This to me is exactly what natural learning is all about. Letting the children explore and learn on their own and while enjoying it. 

I encourage you to find a children’s museum near you to explore. I know most museums trips can be costly, so be sure to check out the membership opportunities that are available at most museums. The memberships some times come with free or discounted fees to visit other museums in their network. For example, we are members at the Grand Rapids Public Museum which allows us free entrance at the Flint Children’s Museum and many others in Michigan and across the nation. Yes, these benefits sometimes are available for museums in other states.

Also, check out your local library. Our library here offers a Michigan Activity Pass which can get you free or discounted admission to participating places if you have a library card. I’m not sure if this is available in other states, but it is available here in Michigan. 

*Just a reminder, the activity pass and membership visiting passes are good for participating museums only. Be sure to check the website of the MAP or the museum to see which ones participate before visiting a new museum.

And if you are in the Flint area, I recommend you check out the Flint Children’s Museum. The staff is super helpful and friendly, it has just the right amount of exhibits and the exhibits are fun and developmentally appropriate. 

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