Today Silas is building a library, stocked completely with homemade books. Children's books go on the top shelf and grown-up books go in the middle. You can tell the difference by how they are bound, he tells me. Kids' books are stapled while adult books are laced with string. I think I may go apply for a library card now.


Well, hello. It's so kind of you to stick around after all this time. The past four months have been a whirlwind. Wonderful, but also so very stressful.

In October we bought a new house. A big, beautiful, old 1906 Craftsman in a sleepy little town. So there was a lot of packing and purging and cleaning going on. And then we had to sell our current house. So, even more cleaning and fixing and then the actual moving. It was quite possibly the most stressful month of my life. Anyone who has moved with young children knows exactly what I'm talking about.

And the continued adjustments of having to schedule our days to accommodate naps and all the other changes that have come since Theda joined our family in March. It's been rough.

But, now we're here and unpacked (mostly) and settled (mostly) and slowly trying to find our new rhythm in this new space with the four of us.

Silas started attending a nature-based preschool a couple mornings a week, which has been such a blessing on all fronts. On those mornings, when Theda naps, I get a blissful hour or two to myself. And Silas is having a blast playing outside with his friends. The rest of the time we're still doing lots of playing and making, and living. I'll be honest, it's been really hard to find our home schooling groove now that there's a baby in the mix. It's better now that she's a little bit older (10 months!), but still such a challenge for me. The new year has me in a positive frame of mind, though, and the time felt right to check in here.

Someone turns five in a few days. Time just keeps rolling forward, doesn't it?

Because it's now fall...

It's that wonderful in-between-seasons time when we need sweaters and slippers in the morning, but strip down to shorts and t-shirts in the afternoon. We've fallen into quite a routine around here. Everyone is up for the day early and I have just enough time to get us all dressed and fed before it's time for nap number one. Lately, Silas has become particularly full of big energy in the mornings, so I send him directly outside on some sort of mission so that Theda and I can get breakfast ready. For awhile, he searched for cicada shells. Sometimes he'll take his clipboard and sharpies and make observational drawings. More recently, I've had him scouting for signs of fall, of which the ripening black walnuts are one of our favorites. He needed something to keep him warm on these morning excursions, so I finally finished up his Christopher Robin Sweater (Ravelry notes here).

I actually cast this on months ago and was knitting it while Theda was very new and I was not able to do much but sit and keep Silas company while he played and I nursed. It's knit in two pieces that need to be seamed all the way round. I generally am not a fan of mixing sewing in with my knitting, so I'm surprised at myself for choosing this pattern, but using a mattress stitch to put it together (instead of the crocheting suggested in the pattern) was actually very soothing. Pulling that string and watching the two halves zip together was almost as satisfying as folding and tearing really thick perforated paper. I really like the ribbing. It makes it interesting without being too fussy. Silas has already requested another sweater, but this time I'm to make it either red or rainbow colored. I love this kid.

Joining Ginny.

Soap Carving with Preschoolers

We are deep in an investigation of rocks and fossils around here. Every day handfuls of both come into the house for cleaning, sorting, categorizing, and creating. You would be amazed at the wonderful variety of topics one can dive into with this area as a starting point; I know I was. Rocks are pretty omnipresent.

We've made a couple trips to the geology section of our Natural History Museum and when we reflected on each of those excursions Silas said that seeing the arrowheads and spear points was his favorite part. This has generated much conversation including the question, "how do you make arrowheads, mom?" 

Not one to turn down a challenge I started mapping chert locations in our county and adding rock picks to my Amazon cart with a grand plan of days spent flint knapping. Resource gathering is my super power, I've discovered. But then I slowed down, took a breath, and reminded myself. Silas is four. Let's start a little smaller, shall we?

So, soap carving it was. And it was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon together. Ivory bar soap comes highly recommended (they do sponsor soap carving competitions, after all) so that's what we used and I have to agree that it was very easy and satisfying to carve. My only complaint was the smell. They claim to be free of "heavy perfumes," but I found the scent to be a little much for us. We're generally a scent-free household, though, so I'm sure we're more sensitive to it than most.

We started by drawing the outline of an arrowhead on the top of our bars of soap. Then we experimented with a variety of carving tools: bamboo knives, regular butter knives, and a toddler-sized butter knife. For Silas, the toddler-sized butter knife was the easiest to maneuver. Initially, he wanted to saw off chunks of the soap, but I demonstrated on my own carving how to chip away bit by bit and he soon got the idea.

Before long, we had carved two arrowheads. Of course, they then had to be tied to some wooden dowels to make spears so that we could hunt for some woolly mammoths in the backyard.

We used the resulting soap chips to make ghost mud, which was a "meh" experience. Silas has never been one for getting elbow-deep in anything that's messy and gooey, so this wasn't an activity that I would seek out to do unless I had soap chips lying around.

When all was said and done, carving soap together was a great hands-on way to answer his question. It also may have inspired me to keep a couple bars of soap stashed away to pull out this winter when we're stuck inside and are all going a little stir crazy.

A Summer Shirt

There hasn't been much knitting going on around here as of late, to be honest. I finished this little summer shirt for Theda about a month ago (Ravelry notes here) after which I tucked it into my knitting basket and promptly forgot about it. I put it on her today and Steve described it as being "one day before she outgrows it." Better than one day after, I guess. I kind-of love it though. It looks way more complicated to knit than it actually was and it's super soft. I dig it.

This little lady is now four and a half months old. How crazy is that? She's rolled from her tummy to her back exactly one time, although she seems very motivated to get moving. She loves to smile and laughs all. the. time. Especially when her big brother is being silly. They have a good time together, those two.

Joining Ginny.

The Human Body: A Child-Led Reggio Project

We took a short break from project learning this spring because, well, Baby. But, in May, Silas was starting to feel a bit restless, so we knew it was time to pick a new topic and forge ahead. I asked him what he was curious about and he said (in classic Silas fashion) that he would "get back to me." The next day, he said that he wanted to learn about ribs. And so, our investigation into ribs, bones, and the human body was begun.

The first thing that I did was to set up a provocation for him to start a conversation about what he already knows about bones and what he was curious to learn.

I opened up The Wall Chart of Human Anatomy to the skeleton page and laid out a black piece of construction paper, glue, cotton swabs and some cotton balls. First, we looked at the book and chatted about bones. This book is really fantastic because it has simple, clear images that are large enough to be detailed and with only one system to a page, it's easy to isolate focus. He said that he was surprised to see that we had more than one rib. When we turned our attention to the art supplies, I asked him if he'd like to make a skeleton. Just to look at the product of his creation, it seems very random and haphazard, but he was incredibly focused and deliberate in his placement of the swabs and cotton balls. When he was finished he said that it was a dinosaur skeleton and asked me to label several of the bones.

We read some more bone books and put together a bone puzzle and then after a trip to the chiropractor where he saw a life-size replica of the human spine, he said that he wanted to make a model spine.

We pulled out The Wall Chart of Human Anatomy again to take a closer look at the page on the spine. I told Silas that he needed to study it and identify what parts of the spine he wanted to represent in his model. Almost immediately he called out to me, “Mommy! I noticed something! There is something in between the bones!” So, we talked about the discs of cartilage. There were several detail drawings of individual vertebrae, which we looked at closely to know how to represent them. 

We listed the three elements of the spine that we wanted to represent: vertebrae, cartilage discs, and the spinal cord. He suggested a pipe cleaner for the spinal cord, but he said that he didn’t have any ideas for the other two. I suggested that we look in the nuts and bolts drawer to see if we could find any inspiration. He found some washers and said that he wanted to use them for the cartilage discs. I pulled some wooden beads out of the craft drawer and asked him if he thought they might work for the vertebrae and he said that, yes, that’s what he wanted to use.

I suggested that he count the number of vertebrae and cartilage discs in the picture so that we would know how many of each we would need, and he did. He counted out the corresponding number of washers and beads. I affixed the first bead and then handed it over him to thread the rest on.

He alternated beads with washers. As a last minute addition, we added a plastic bag tie sacrum.Then we played with the model spine and observed what it could do.

He noticed that it was easy to bend and I asked him why he thought that was. He said he didn’t know. I suggested that we do an experiment. We took another pipe cleaner and threaded on a long piece of penne pasta. I asked him if he could bend it in the middle of the pasta. He tried and said that, no, it didn’t bend. He made the connection that his spine bends because there are many small vertebrae and discs.

The next day I asked Silas if he would like to draw a picture of the spine model that he made. I brought out a sheet of paper, colored pencils, and introduced him to a special writing utensil: a fine tip sharpie. I told him that it was a special tool for drawing. It makes permanent marks and we use it when we want to create images that are very detailed. I asked him to look closely at his model and to try to draw it in such a way that someone could re-build his model just by looking at his drawing.

He used the marker to represent the spine and the cartilage disks and the colored pencils to draw the vertebrae. He was very proud of his drawing and wanted to draw it a second time. He got a fresh sheet of paper and did so.

There were more books, a magnetic body...

Experiments to answer questions, such as, "why is there liquid around the brain?

Play dough skeletons...

A request to learn the names of the bones and some resources (life-size skeleton and nomenclature card print-outs) to help him do so...

Using the light table to get a peek at some real bones and how they fit together, which sparked a conversation about x-rays and how we know what we know about bones...

A trip to the Natural History Museum to draw some real bones...

Building a model skeleton...

After building it, Silas was showing Theda the skeleton model and was telling her about the bones and what they do. He asked me what he could use to make a brain to go inside the skeleton. I told him to think about what a brain is like and to look around the house and find something similar. He found a rock that fit inside. He seemed excited to have found something that worked, but didn’t seem yet satisfied. Without telling me what he was going to do, he asked for some colored paper, which I got for him. He also got out his scissors and glue stick. He used these supplies to make a brain, lungs, and “digestive system,” which he put in their proper places in the skeleton.

There was more drawing, including veins and arteries...

And muscles.

“I want to make a whole muscle man. I’d also like to make a whole vein person.”

As The Human Body project was coming to a natural close, I told Silas that when we’re doing projects, it might be a good idea to think of one big final “last thing” to do at the end to demonstrate what we’ve learned. He decided that he wanted to make a series of models of the different body systems (as expressed in the quote above.)

He began with the skeletal system, which he made with wire. He fashioned each individual part (ribs, knees, skull, etc.) and asked for my help to wire them together.

Next, he wanted to use clay to make his muscle man. This he accomplished completely independently.

He decided to add red paint to simulate muscles...

Finally, he wanted to make a "vein person," which he wanted to be a collage.

This was a really exciting project. Not only did he joyously learn a ton about the human body, but the everyday figure drawing that he does has taken a huge leap.

There are a mountain of books out there to help kids learn about the body. I think I checked every single one of them out from the library. I wanted to share the ones that we liked best. I favored those that had photographs or scientific illustrations rather than cartoons and even though it didn't come up in our investigation this time around, I wanted to make sure that the reproductive system was included (it's left out of most "body" books for kids).

These are the books that we loved and that I would recommend:

The Wall Chart of Human Anatomy by Thomas McCracken
Bones by Steve Jenkins
Skeleton by Parker
Your Brain by DeGezelle
Bodyworks by Graham and Walker
Body Bones by Rotner

At the time of this project Silas was 4 years old.

Review: Stencil Craft by Margaret Peot

Stenciling is something that we've all tried our hand at, probably. I think that my first real stenciling project was a shirt that I made after a trip to Graceland. I liked the logo on the shopping bag I was given with my purchase better than anything that I found in the gift shop and so used it as a stencil to make a one-of-a-kind shirt to commemorate my trip there. It was very much a learn-as-you-go sort of project and I would have benefited greatly if I'd had some sort of instruction along the way. Margaret Peot's Stencil Craft: Techniques for Fashion, Art, & Home would have been quite helpful.

Stenciling seems to be a very simple art, and it is, but a little bit of guidance and technique opens up so many possibilities for wonderfully unique effects and detail. After covering the basics, Peot uses a variety of projects to demonstrate her techniques. These are divided into items for fashion, home, paper, and art. She uses fabric, wood, and paper for mediums and a whole host of materials for stencils and strategies for applying color to the medium. Her advice is like getting a crash course in aspects of printmaking without having to go to art school.

While complete instructions are given for the demonstration projects, I don't think the intent here is for you to duplicate them exactly. There are no patterns provided to facilitate that process. They serve more as inspiration and a way for Peot to communicate technique so that you can apply her processes to your own artistic vision. Her use of bits of nature as stencils with sprayed paint are especially beautiful. I had never thought of using leaves and flowers in such a way and look forward to giving it a try.

I will definitely be exploring this title more with Silas, especially as we dive more into clothes sewing. What better way to add a personal touch to what we make than by adding a little of our art to it? Especially now that Silas is making some pretty rockin' drawings. I'm definitely grateful to have this guide to help us along the way.

And what would a review be without a giveaway?

One winner from this book tour will receive a Stencil Craft Tote Stenciling Kit. This includes:
17" x 15" canvas tote hand printed with a stencil interpretation Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring
A signed copy of Stencil Craft: Techniques for Fashion, Art, & Home
1 blank 12" x 12" canvas tote
1 10" x 14" piece of stencil Mylar
1 sponge
2 stencil brushes
1 craft knife set 
2 Metallic Lumiere Acrylic Paints, Indigo and Metallic Copper

Enter via Raffelcopter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

You can visit the other stops on the tour for additional chances to win.

Also, there is an additional giveaway for a copy of the book, just for the readers of A Life Sustained. Enter via Raffelcopter below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

My review copy was provided courtesy of the publisher. All opinions expressed are my own.

The Arctic: A Child-Led Reggio Project

I've mentioned a couple times this past winter that Silas was working on his first real Reggio-inspired project. When he was very little we did explorations of garbage trucks and faces, but his ability to communicate and the sophistication of the questions that he asks has grown by such leaps and bounds since then, it has made this most recent investigation really, really exciting.

So much came out of the time that we spent on this project. He learned a lot of new vocabulary (animals, geographical features, plants, etc.) and he discovered the relationships between different animals as well as between animals and their environment. And beyond what he learned about the arctic itself, he learned so much about his own process of learning. The observational drawings that he's made since completing this project are so much detailed than they were before and he is more verbal about making his interests known and expressing his desire to follow up and find answers to his questions. 

I'm still learning too...while reflecting on this project I've internalized a lot about how to really listen, about how to hear the overt questions as well as those bubbling under the surface that he hasn't quite accessed yet. I've learned what, for us, are fruitful (and less fruitful) ways of exploring an interest. I've learned how to phrase questions to encourage him to come up with his own answers. I've learned to bite my tongue when I want to give answers so that he can find them for himself. I've learned to embrace the twisting road that this type of learning takes and to abandon any notions of planning.

I thought I'd share some of what I journaled during this time. I know that I am intensely curious about how other parents document their children's learning and find much community and inspiration in what I've read. So, I thought I would put a little of what we have done out there in the world as well.

*   *   *   *   *

After reading several books about animal migration, including stories about godwits and caribou, Silas began to show an intense interest in the Arctic Circle. It became a regular theme in his creative play and worked its way into his block constructions and artwork. 

I wanted to pursue it as a formal project, but didn't really know how to proceed. So one morning when we were talking about the arctic (as we always were) I asked him if he wanted to write down what he knew about the arctic. He responded with a list: 
Arctic Foxes
It blows hard
It snows hard
There’s a lot of snow
It rains hard
I then asked him if there was anything that he was curious about. To which he responded:
How much rain?
How many polar bears?
How many arctic foxes?
How many caribou?
How many godwits?How many birds?
How strong is the weather?
How fast can it rain?
And then I got stuck. All of those things were pretty straightforward fact-type questions. I wondered how to find a way to jump start at least one of them into a more in-depth investigation. I think that directly asking Silas what he was interested in put him on the spot a bit. So, I decided to try another tack. I set up an invitation for him to explore to see where it would lead.

I opened up the large format photography book World of the Polar Bear by Rosing to an intriguing image and set in front of it a pan of cloud dough with a toy polar bear in it. When he saw it, Silas was immediately drawn in and spent 45 minutes burying the polar bear, squishing the dough between his hands, and quietly talking to himself.

Later, we sat down and looked through the photographs in the book together. I encouraged Silas to take charge of turning the pages so that he could set the pace. I tried to encourage a moment of quiet with each picture to give him an opportunity to share his thoughts and observations first. When he did so, I asked follow-up questions and/or pointed out details. This was a much more effective way to find a window to where his interests lay.

We spent a great deal of time talking about a series of photos of the bears’ den – how it was constructed, where it was located, how they got in and out, etc. I asked him if he would like to build a polar bear den and he enthusiastically said, “yes.” I asked what he might need to build it. “White paper,” he answered.

Other than building with blocks and toys, we had not yet done any 3-D creative projects, so I guessed that he might not be thinking of anything other than drawing as a possibility. I got out our toy polar bear and suggested that we build a den that this polar bear could actually crawl into and that we should check out the recycling bin for possible materials.

He selected a few pieces of cardboard, several plastic containers, and white tissue paper. I suggested that we might need a scissors and some tape.

I set up the photo of the polar bear den for inspiration and then asked him how he thought we should proceed. My only contribution was to cut the plastic where he told me to cut and to assist in taping the pieces down to the cardboard. The design and process was his own.

He ended up using a square of cardboard as the land and a series of plastic tubs with the bottoms cut out (except for the last one) taped together to make a tunnel. The whole thing was then covered in white tissue paper to simulate snow.

One of the key components of Reggio is representing and then re-representing ideas to see what new things that we can learn. I wanted to give Silas the opportunity to translate his three-dimensional den into a two-dimensional image, so the next day I set out an invitation for him to draw.

And this is what he drew...

He spent all of two minutes on it. I asked him if he would like to add more detail to his drawing or if he would like another sheet of paper. He said “no” to both suggestions and said that he was done. I asked him to tell me about his picture. He pointed to the circle and said, “that’s where the bear goes in.” He then asked me to write on his picture that this was a “Bear Home.” He then clarified that it was a “den” and wanted me to note that it was a “huge, long, big den.” 

On another day we talked more about polar bear dens. I invited Silas to consider the idea of digging a den in the snow outside. He was very enthusiastic about the thought. We looked at the photos in World of the Polar Bear again as well as his model and drawing of a den. We talked about how the bear makes the den – by digging with his paws. This led to a discussion of the similarities and differences between bear paws and human hands. We used an ink pad and a sheet of paper to make a handprint of Silas’ hand so that he could look at his handprint right next to a bear’s paw print.

He noted that the bear had longer and sharper claws/nails and that both bears and humans have five “fingers.” We got ready to head outside to start digging. He asked to take his handprint with us, so we slipped it into a plastic page protector and I printed out an image of a bear paw that we could do the same with and he consulted both of the images with a great deal of focus before beginning to dig outside, counting the claws repeatedly.

Once he was ready, we started trying to dig with our hands.

He noted that it was really difficult to break through the crusty snow with just our hands. He also noticed that his hands (even with mittens on) became cold and wet almost immediately and so we pondered what about the bears’ paws would let them dig in the snow without getting cold. Returning to our challenges in breaking through the snow crust with just our hands, I suggested that we look in the garage for possible tools that we might use to make our hands more like bear paws.

He experimented with both a long-handled rake as well as two small hand cultivators. He preferred the small hand tools and proceeded to excavate his den. When he started to show waning interest, I asked him if he thought he could dig a hole big enough to fit his entire body inside. He laughed and said that would take all day! Then we talked about how the polar bear, who is much bigger than us, digs a den big enough for mama and her babies to all share. At this point I brought out our small polar bear miniature and suggested that we might not be able to dig a den big enough for us to fit into, but that it was plenty big for the toy polar bear. He played briefly with the polar bear, having it climb in and out of the den that he had dug. He took a break to do some shoveling elsewhere in the yard, but returned to the den at least twice to do more digging.

On another day I introduced the book Polar Bears by Gail Gibbons. While looking at it with him I asked if he had a favorite picture in the book. He turned to an illustration of a polar bear waiting patiently at a seal’s breathing hole, ready to pounce. I asked him what drew him to that picture and if he was wondering anything about it. He answered that he wondered about how the polar bear caught the seal and pulled him out of the hole. I suggested a trip to the Natural History Museum to look at a polar bear up close to give him a chance to come up with some ideas about how to answer his question. I told him we would be bringing clipboards, paper, and pencils so that he could draw anything that caught his eye about the polar bear.

While drawing he commented, “He has teeth…maybe that’s how he catches the seals.” He spent a brief time drawing and then asked me to label his drawing. The vertical lines he described as “teeth,” the circle amongst them is the “tongue,” and the two concentric circles above he described as the “head.” I asked if there was anything that he would like me to draw for him so that he could remember it. He asked me to draw the nose, which he said was “big and black.”

Polar bear "teeth, tongue, and head" - Silas (age 3.75)
Later, he used play dough to translate his drawing of "teeth, a tongue, and head" into a three-dimensional representation.

It seemed like we were branching off into a new area of interest in regards to polar they hunt seals at their breathing holes. To help Silas explore this, I set up a small world play invitation for him to discover. I filled a 9x13 pan with water and froze it. But, before doing so, I put in a jar so that there would be a hole in the ice that I could fill with water (to serve as the breathing hole). Once frozen, I added some fake snow, plastic chunks of “ice” and a miniature polar bear, walrus, and seal and I opened up World of the Polar Bear to a page featuring a harp seal lying on the ice and a ring seal popping up out of its breathing hole.

He played with this, despite freezing cold hands, for about an hour. I tried to keep my distance so that he would feel comfortable enough to become lost in his play but I kept my ears open and heard some of his play themes, which included the polar bear catching and eating both the seal and the walrus as well as putting the fake snow on top of the polar bear as “camouflage.” 

In a later conversation I asked him what he knew and what questions he had about the arctic and polar bears. He talked about polar bears catching seals from their breathing holes, but wondered what it is that seals eat.

To find an answer, we read the picture book See What a Seal Can Do by Butterworth and the nonfiction book Who Eats What? by Lauber, which prompted an exploration of the concept of food chains and food webs. There was a bit more discussion and exploration about food chains and the conversation about all things arctic continued (even now), but the project, as a focused study, was coming to a close.

I had hoped to end with some sort of culminating activity or creation, but the end of the project coincided with the birth of his baby sister, so it never came to fruition. I was able, however, to bind a book for him that contained all the photographs that I'd taken, his art work, and my narration of our activities. He loves to page through it and I hope that it will inspire a return to this topic for even more in-depth learning.

There was a several month lapse in our project learning, but I'm very happy to say that we are now elbow deep in our second project: Bones. Who knows where it will lead.