“Mom, come on, worksheets are boring”.

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Yes they are but sometimes they get the job done. Not being a fan of the worksheet or workbook of style learning either I have tried many, many, different tools to get the job done. Mostly I border on neglect to be honest but there have been a few genuine successes along the way. There are three tactics we include in our homeschooling – in our lives – all year long.  They never fail to spark excitement and learning in all of our children regardless of their learning styles. Just to clarify – these are “sparks” not “outcomes”.

Games, games and more games!

Out of every approach to learning I have tried, fallen upon or purchased, nothing comes close to the benefit of game play. Whether the game is out-of-the-box, home created or digital, the engagement and learning I witness is second to none. It is difficult to produce physical artifacts to present at your facilitation meeting, but I have definitely used video to capture reading and mental math skills in the moment. However not all learning needs to be accounted for or captured. Here are some of our perennial favourites:

  • Chess – yep that’s a no brainer.
  • Apples to Apples. Great for reading practice and hilarious.
  • Peggy Kaye’s Games for Learning, Games for Reading and Games for Math
  • Family Math I and II  from Lawrence Hall of Science
  • 9 Apples card game
  • Bananagrams
  • Board games – Battleship, Monopoly, Stratego, Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Qwirkle, Dvonn, Bears vs Babies, Cardline/Timeline, Risk, Spot It, Wildcraft. Actually we have a closet full. I’ll stop there.
  • Minecraft, any online arcade style game, MMOs and MMORPGS ( eg World of Warcraft, Stars Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Guild Wars, The Elder Scrolls)*
  • Race for the Loonie. This is a shout out to Risa Kawchuk who posted this years ago. I have no idea where she got it from but it’s hands down one of the best math/money/dice games we have ever played. And still play! Maybe she’ll post the rules in the comments ;).
  • Crazy Eights – I even grew up playing this game! A time tested classic.
  • Anything at all from Dragon Box – great algebra prep.
  • Dungeons and Dragons, Magic the Gathering and Pokemon. Find a play group. I’ll add a plug here for Sentry Box Games. We live at that place and it’s time and money well spent.

* Warning: for playing online or video games please check out www.commonsensemedia.org to read reviews and recommendations. Safety first.

Travel and Field Trips

These are our most memorable homeschool moments. Nothing compares to it. I understand completely that not everyone can afford to travel or has access to transportation that makes field trips out of town possible. However the best experiences we have had around onsite learning has been very local and very accessible. These are our favourites locally that had the biggest impact on their learning. And by learning I mean they remembered the content well past the moment.

  • Museums. I know, I’m overstating the obvious. But it’s how you approach the visit that we have found changes the learning experience. You shouldn’t be surprised when I tell you we make it a game. This could be a treasure hunt or memory game. I have one child that literally RUNS through a museum declaring it “all done” and then asks to leave. For this one I add a prize to the objective whatever it may be. Reading placards is boring so if they have an audio tour we always grab at least one. And lastly, if like true homeschoolers you go during the more quiet weekday hours I suggest you march right up to someone and ask for a guided tour. The Reader Garden is outstanding for this tactic. Same goes for the military museums. Veterans have great stories so I gently guide them to the part of the museum they have personal experience with. This has worked out so well for us we have even been given access to archival material and artifacts not on display. The museums we have used here in Calgary are:
    • The Glenbow Museum
    • The Military Museum
    • The Aerospace Museum
    • The Chinese Cultural Centre Museum (in the basement with real Terra Cotta Soldiers from China)
    • Reader Rock Garden
    • Heritage Park
    • Fort Calgary
    • Space Port at the Calgary International Airport
    • Fish Creek Ranch (not sure on transit access)
  • Festivals. We have been to so many but a few really stand out. The festivals we found to be child friendly and were great for learning about different cultures, lifestyles and passions are:
    • International Film Festival (look for child friendly content – there’s usually at least one!)
    • Calgary Animation Festival (again – read the film’s content rating first)
    • Calgary International Children’s Festival
    • The Calgary Folk Festival
    • Calgary Pride
    • Beakerhead
    • Aggie Days
    • The Calgary Stampede
    • Attend a traditional Pow Wow. Aboriginal Awareness week was in June, so if you miss that there is a competition at the Stampede.
    • The Lilac Festival
    • GlobalFest
    • Canada Day celebrations
    • The Maker Faire
    • Calgary Comic Expo
    • The Train Expo
    • Cultural Festivals: Chinese New Year, Expo Latino, Sikh Parade, Calgary Japanese Festival, MexiFest, Carifest…there are so many!!
    • Doors Open YYC – OUTSTANDING!!
  • Cultural Celebrations. Watch for them in community newsletters or ask friends in the know and go to them! Approach a family that celebrates different holidays and offer to participate. Or if that feels too bold ask them to help you replicate it at your own home. We had Bulgarian neighbours for 15 years and we learned an incredible amount from being included in their celebrations.
  • Religious Celebrations. Many places of worship in this city have a party on some date of significance. If it’s open to the public we make a point of going. Our local Islamic centre had an outdoor “fun day” with food and games – not related to any form of worship. They invited the community to come and join them. I’m not exaggerating when I say we were very much the minority. Firstly it was a lot of fun. Second it was well worth the effort simply by the people we had the honour of meeting and general conversations here and there. My children learned some very valuable insights without effort on my part around community, kindness and inclusion. But the most significant moment was a man who took the time to explain the prayer they recited from loud speakers at one point in the day. My boys have not forgot that lesson.

Volunteer somewhere.

I’m not going to list options here because it changes year after year. Places we volunteered with last year aren’t allowing children to volunteer this year. However it doesn’t have to be a notable organization to be of value. Your community is the best place to start. Simply by including them in your own volunteerism might be the access you need to finding a job well suited to their age. To come up with some ideas start by asking your children what it means to volunteer and let the conversation blossom from there. If a regular volunteer gig is too much to take on then one big helpful moment is just as powerful. Local clean-up efforts, events in your community or even asking an elderly neighbour how your family can offer a hand begins the notion of service and why it’s important. We volunteered as a family with Beakerhead one year. They attended all the events and classes geared to children and I blogged about their experience. Where’s the ‘service’ you ask? They were to provide genuine feedback for other families daily through Twitter, Facebook and in their blog, but also gave the organizers insight on what Beakerhead was like from a child’s point of view. This sparked changes in their programming with the family in mind.

Workbooks or not, learning is a journey with many paths. If you have an approach that never fails to inspire your children’s learning tell us about it! What’s your family’s spark?