Book Review: My Big Tree by Maria Ashworth

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on a link and make a purchase, I will receive a small percentage of that purchase at no additional cost to you. 

Recently, I received a copy of  My Big Tree by Maria Ashworth to post an unpaid review on this blog. This book is a fun counting story featuring various animals who can be found in a tree. In addition to providing children with a charming story of a bluebird in a tree, the story allows preschoolers the opportunity to practice counting with 1-to-1 correspondence. The picture book also has an authors note that describes some of the characteristics of the animals depicted.


The illustrations in this picture book are simple, but that’s not a bad thing. My four-year-old enjoyed the images as well as the story. I think it’s an important thing for using the book as a preschool math enrichment resource that the animals are all uniform. This makes it easier for children to make the 1-to-1 connections necessary for developing number sense. The illustrations are also colorful, with each of the animal species having its own vivid color distinct from the others.

Enrichment ideas

In addition to asking the child to count along while you read the book, here are some fun ideas to stretch the book into learning and play:

  • Collect some animal figures such as these by Safari, Ltd. and identify a squirrel, bear, owl, bat, mouse, opossum, frog, snake, bee and bird. My local zoo gift shop has a bin where you can select your animals to fill a Toob for a discounted price. Have your child match up the animal figure to the animal in the book.
  • Ask your child to count how many animals all together are on each page. Once you have the two black bears join the blue bird, you could phrase it like this: “There was one bird in the tree, now there are two bears in the tree also. How many animals all together are in the tree?”
  • See if your child can recall the different animal sounds from the animals who join in the tree. Play “who said it?” Make a noise and see if your child can remember who made the noise – or try the reverse – name an animal and ask if your child remembers what sound that animal makes.

What activities would you come up with to have your children do alongside reading this book?

Downtime Is Just As Important as Time Spent Learning

Parents, especially those who homeschool, can get really caught up in ensuring their kids are always learning. Whether this is through ensuring that every toy is “educational” and every television program consumed teaches something or it’s through carting children from one enrichment activity to another, it’s a mistake.

“What?” you may say, “but I thought that we’re supposed to teach our kids!”

Yes, we are, but part of teaching and guiding children includes teaching kids how to just be. College Boy spends some of his time at home laying on the bed and staring at the ceiling. Princess Boogie plays with her Ponies and flits about running in what seems to me to be pointless circles. Sometimes we all just zone out on the couch to some silly kids’ movie or TV show.

Kids can suffer from burnout

According to the article, “The Downside of No Downtime for Kids” from PBS News Hour, we should not  be packing every free moment of our kids’ lives. The article quotes Alvin Rosenfeld (author of The Over-Scheduled Child) as saying:

“First, I’d ask myself what kind of adult you want your kid to grow up to be,” Rosenfeld said. “And then I’d ask how you get there. How do you balance academics, athletics and character?”

Most parents Rosenfeld encounters say developing a strong character is most important. “Unfortunately, actions don’t always follow aspirations in terms of saying character is most important,” he said.

When you don’t allow children to have unstructured time, they never have the opportunity to test out their character – or even really get to know who they are when they’re not playing soccer, practicing violin, and working on the next awesome robot club creation.

Instead, a child may be left feeling lost when he or she can’t be constantly busy.

How much downtime is enough?

Every family will be different. While the author of the PBS New Hour article believes that for every week of structure a child needs three weeks of unstructured time, not everyone agrees. Susan Bartell, in “Is Your Child Getting Enough Real Downtime?” points out that screen-time, can be problematic:

Video games and all other screen-related activities require a child to be fully engaged in problem-solving, competition or socializing – and sometimes all three. A primary reason why kids have trouble falling asleep is that they’re staring at screens too close to bedtime. The activity is overstimulating, rather than calming, and the light from the screen tricks the brain into staying awake, rather than preparing the child for sleep.

If video games aren’t “real” downtime, then what is? For Bartell, true downtime is time spent doing not much at all – daydreaming, creative play, creating art, or even playing in the bath – for at least 20 minutes a day.

Dr. Claire McCarthy, author of “Does Your Child Get Enough Downtime?” believes that the answer to this question is more nuanced. She recommends that instead of a set time that parents watch their children for signs of distress:

Since every child’s different when it comes to what will upset her, it’s important to be watchful. An overscheduled child may be moody, or clingier than usual. She may have trouble sleeping, or experience a dip  — or an increase  — in her appetite. She may also lose interest in the activities she usually enjoys, or start to struggle in school.

If you see any of these changes in your child, talk to her right away. Let her know that the most important thing to you is that she’s happy. Spend some time trying to figure out with her what exactly is upsetting her, and change it.

How do you find balance?

Finding balance can be as simple as being strict about the total number of activities that each child is allowed to participate in as well as watching how many hours you’re spending in “on-task” learning activities. One of the great things about homeschooling is that we are able to adapt our programs of learning to each child’s needs. This allows us to be more efficient in our time as well. That also allows us to take a much-needed day off when it’s warranted.

So, how do you handle downtime in your homeschool? Do you have set hours? Do you have a cap on the number of activities you allow your child(ren) to participate in? Share your thoughts below.

Recommended resource:

The Over-Scheduled Child by Alvin Rosenfeld, M. D. and Nicole Wise.

(This is an Amazon Associate link. Should you choose to click on this link and make a purchase, I will receive a small fee at no additional cost to you. Providing such links helps me to support my family.)

Music: Violin Practice

Miss 4 loves music, and she’d been begging us since forever for a “pretty little violin.” I did a lot of research, and last year, she started taking violin lessons. While I know that she enjoys her violin, sometimes lessons are a struggle (as anything at 4 could be expected to be).

Do your children take music lessons?

What do you do to get them to practice?

(I’ll write more about the Suzuki method of learning music soon. For now, happy Friday!)

Throwback Thursday: The Cat in the Castle

In 2012, my oldest built this castle from a kit as we studied the Middle Ages. Our family cat (well one of our cats) decided that it was the perfect spot for her to lounge, so lounge she did. This castle found a home in my husband’s work office for a long while.

One of the awesome things about homeschooling is how fun the projects are for the whole family. This is still one of Mr. College’s favorite projects he put together.

What projects have you done that have been a lot of fun? 

How to Start Homeschooling

I’ve had a number of friends ask, “If I wanted to homeschool my child, how do I get started?”

I’ve also had a number of friends say, “There’s so much information, where do I start? What do I need to know? What do I need to teach in my homeschool?”

I’ve answered these questions so many times, in fact, that I thought I’d put together a quick and dirty guide on how to start homeschooling your children.

1. Learn your state’s homeschooling laws

Some states are really lax in what they require for homeschooling. Other states require things like testing, portfolios, and careful record-keeping. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education is a good resource for finding information about homeschooling including whether you need to notify officials or not, whether you need to keep records and what records you need to keep, whether an outside evaluation is necessary, etc.

It’s important to understand the laws for homeschooling in your state so that you can maintain compliance and so that you can avoid truancy and educational neglect cases stemming from not following the steps that are necessary to legally homeschool in your state.

2. Are you able to commit to homeschooling?

While homeschooling a child is really exciting at first, and there are a lot of positives to it, I won’t lie! It can be rough-going sometimes. Kids won’t want to work, you won’t want to make them work. After the honeymoon period wears off, can you ensure that you will be responsible for your child’s education even on the days when you don’t want to be?

When I started homeschooling, I was a single parent and a graduate student in a demanding program. As I’d mentioned in my introductory post, I was a reluctant homeschooling parent. I had really wanted to make public school work for my boy, but it just didn’t. When I pulled him out, I was very committed to ensuring he received the education he deserved. That meant that I had to become a master at scheduling when I’d teach him and when I’d work on my own educational and career projects. Ultimately, I left graduate school (for a myriad of reasons) and started my own home-based business so that I could dedicate the time needed to ensure that he had the best education possible.

3. Do some research on homeschooling styles

There are as many homeschooling styles as there are homeschoolers! Over the years, I’ve become more of an eclectic homeschooler, still focused on using the classical model as an outline for what to teach and when, but when I started out, I was very much a rigid classical homeschooler. Here’s a basic (very basic) rundown of the different styles of homeschooling. Remember that just because you start out one way doesn’t mean you have to stay that way for the entire homeschool journey. Once you’re actually homeschooling, you’ll find what works best for your children and youself.

  • School-at-home: This approach generally involves the purchase of boxed curriculum and a parent trying to replicate the school experience at home. There’s usually a schedule involved, and schooling happens during traditional hours, most, if not all, days of the school/work week. Many umbrella charter and private schools and online schools provide this sort of education. This can be convenient for those who are unsure what to teach and/or like to feel confident that they are covering everything a traditional school would cover. It lends itself fairly well to secular homeschoolers, as many using this method will be working through a K-12 online program.
  • Unschooling: Student-led learning based on a child’s interests happening wherever the child happens to be. While unschooling is contrasted to school-at-home as an absolute opposite, children may still have some structure to their day. A lot of unschooling is done based on experiential and service learning. It lends itself well to secular homeschoolers. It also has developed a bit of a “reputation” both in homeschooling communities and communities at large for being too loose with education.
  • Classical: Based on the five tools of learning – reason, record, research, relate, rhetoric – schooling years are divided into the grammar stage, logic stage, and rhetoric stage, where children get a foundation of knowledge, learn how to organize knowledge, and then learn how to relate and analyze what they have learned. Think of this as your “traditional private Catholic school” method. The classical method can work well for secular homeschoolers.
  • Charlotte Mason: Charlotte Mason homeschooling methods are based on the principal idea that children are not receptacles for knowledge, but rather that childhood ought to be play-based and learning happens through play, creating, and real-life situations. There’s a lot of emphasis on nature studies in Charlotte Mason. This is also one of the harder methods to find secular curriculum for.
  • Waldorf: This is another educational style that is based on nature. Waldorf homeschoolers focus on educating the whole child – body, mind, spirit. Creativity, music, nature, movement, are all emphasized. Screens are discouraged in this method (so educational videos are out). Rather than using textbooks children learning in this style create their own books.
  • Montessori: Montessori education focuses on child-led exploration within a framework of experiences provided by adults. Practical life, cultural, and sensorial skills are emphasized along with language, math, art, and music. Montessori methods are best-suited for early childhood education and also discourage screen use. Children are encouraged to learn at their own pace. This method lends itself well to secular homeschooling.
  • Unit Studies: All studies are built around a particular theme – for instance, weather. Students will learn about the theme, and engage in language arts and mathematics activities based on the theme. Again, this is a method that works well for early childhood education and is easily used by those wanting to use secular curriculum.
  • Eclectic: Eclectic homeschoolers use a combination of the various methods and educational philosophies. They may use workbooks for some subjects while taking an unschooling approach for others.

4. Determine what you will teach

At a minimum, you’ll want to teach:

  • Language Arts
    • Reading
    • Writing
    • Spelling
    • Grammar
    • Handwriting/penmanship
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • History

It’s also a good idea to teach the arts – both art and music history and art techniques and some music theory. Doing so helps children with many other skills.

You’ll want to incorporate some sort of physical activity – either organized or informal into your routine.

You may want to teach a foreign language.

You may also want to do nature studies, practical life/life skills exercises, logic, rhetoric, or any number of electives based upon your child’s interest.

To get an idea of what to teach, you may find benefit in looking at your state’s standards or the Core Knowledge Sequence. Here are a few book resources that also list suggestions for what to teach (these are Amazon associate links, so should you purchase one of these books, I will receive a small percentage of that sale at no extra cost to you.)

5. Find a good support system

Even if you don’t have a homeschooling group in your city that is secular, you can find other secular homeschoolers online. There are many great Facebook groups for secular homeschooling families. You’ll want a support system for when things get tough, and so you can ask questions about curriculum choices before making purchases. Other families can be great resources when it comes to homeschooling.

6. Plan time for socializing

We’re lucky that here in Wichita most of the museums have homeschooling classes. There’s a rec department with lots of different classes and sports. There’s even a group of secular homeschoolers that gets together. It’s important to account for opportunities for your child to be around other children on a regular basis.

7. Choose your resources

Whether you’re using a curriculum or pulling together a variety of resources, you’ll want to get that together so that you’re ready to go.

8. Determine what method you’ll use for record-keeping

Even if your state doesn’t require record-keeping, you’ll want to keep a record of some sort of what your child(ren) has/have read. You can keep records in a binder, you can use a planner of some sort or other. You can use online planners like Homeschool Tracker, or you could use a program like SeeSaw or Evernote. It may take you some time to figure out what works best for you.

9. Get started!

Once you’ve done all of the foundation-building, it’s time to do the fun stuff. If you’re pulling your child out of a public, charter, or private school, you might want to allow for a period of “deschooling,” especially if your child did not have a good experience with learning. This time could be a week, or it could be a month or two – especially if the child is dealing with burnout. This will help ensure a healthy and welcome transition to learning at home.

Veteran homeschoolers, do you have anything to add? Comment or tweet me at @justasechs!



TinkerSketch May Art Challenge Courtesy of TinkerLab

I’ve been a fan of TinkerLab’s art, science and STEM projects for some time, but for some reason, I didn’t realize they had this monthly challenge. I think it will be a lot of fun to undertake this challenge with the kids! Head on over to TinkerLab to learn more about the May TinkerSketch art challenge – and follow me on Instagram to see what we come up with over the course of the month. 

It’s going to be fun to dig out the sketchbook and create art with the kids. Will you be participating in the challenge?