Saturday, August 09, 2008

The River on the Porch

Jeanette White is a freelance writer and editor living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. She and her husband are home-schooling two daughters who are adopted from China.

My 5 year old was chattering about the Nile River when her uncle tossed a pop quiz her way: “Where is the Nile River?”

Mei-Mei didn’t hesitate. “On the porch.”

And she was right. You can’t get to our front door without passing the foil-lined river carved through potting soil in the kids’ old sand table. We’ve been having fun with it for a couple of weeks. We planted grass seed, flooded the river and watched the “crops” grow. We floated boats made from dried weeds, added toy pyramids, and read books with names like Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile and Croco’Nile.

The river model and a few other optional activities in our history book prompted me to start history lessons in July instead of September. Autumn always zips by too fast, and I didn’t want to end up skipping the best outdoor projects to save time or meet a work deadline.

Some home-school parents admit an aversion to crafts and hands-on projects. I totally understand. By nature, I’m much more inclined to read about a river than recreate one. But the things I remember best from my own elementary years didn’t happen at a desk. So, we kicked off The Story of the World: Ancient Times with something I knew my daughters would love—an archaeological dig. In the vegetable garden.

Where I once planted spaghetti squash, I buried “artifacts” from the kitchen, toy box and garage. Using small spades, a scoop cut from a milk jug, and sifting screens, the girls excavated a couple dozen items. They cleaned their finds with old toothbrushes and shouted “Eureka!” with each discovery. (They borrowed that word from a character in Archaeologists Dig for Clues.)

When we studied nomads, the girls used thick brushes to paint simple animal designs on cave walls that strangely resembled crumpled, inside-out grocery bags taped to the door. Soon they’ll try their hand at stenciled hieroglyphs on homemade scrolls. And when we study ancient China, we can make poster-paint pictograms and clay Ming bowls. Wondering where we'll put all this stuff? That’s what cameras are for.

I found a welcome time-saver in The Story of the World’s companion activity guide, packed with coloring pages, maps, projects, review questions and lists of good books to round out each chapter. The guide quickly became the main source for the colorful history binders my daughters are creating. I’ll tell you more about those educational keepsakes later.

Looking ahead, I know I want to delve deeper into ancient China than this particular book will take us. Please post any ideas you want to share! (The history lessons were originally meant for my daughter starting first grade, but her 5-year-old sister is intent on playing along.)

So, along with a little reading, writing and music lessons, that’s our summer school. The vast majority of their time is spent playing pretend, riding bikes and catching bugs. In the end, Mei-Mei and Jie-Jie may not remember which Egyptian god had a hawk’s head or who cracked the hieroglyphic code. That’s all right. They’ll cycle through ancient history twice more before finishing high school. For now, we’re laying a foundation and learning that ancient civilizations are absolutely fascinating.

Still, I do think there’s a good chance they’ll remember digging up coins in the garden and dodging the world's longest river to get to the front door.

This Week’s Favorite Read: Casting the Gods Adrift by Geraldine McCaughrean

Favorite quote: “Mommy, should Jie-Jie be playing in the Nile?” – Mei-Mei, 5