The Long Haul. With Kids.

This past weekend, while on a hike, Ali and I were talking about our Hiking Club Summer Bucket List. I told her I’d asked the other moms what they’d wanted to do this summer, and asked her what she wanted to do.

She lit up.

“I want to hike farther than I’ve ever hiked. I want to hike ten miles.”

“Okay! We can do that sometime this summer.”

“Actually I want to do it as soon as possible.”

It was supposed to be a pretty week and I’m a total enabler when it comes to a gorgeous hike, so I checked with our hiking club, warned that this was going to be the most we’d ever done and please only consider your oldest children for the hike, and began gathering supplies.

(A ten mile hike is no joke – especially when you’re going somewhat slow. You’re talking hours on the trail, and it requires water and snacks and provisions and probably a few band-aids.)

But somehow we got it all together AND convinced a few friends that this was a good idea in less than 48 hours, and on Monday morning, we met at Oak Mountain ready for the hike.

Five Moms. Four walking kids. Two riding babies.

We can do this.

I mean, maybe. Who knows.

No, we can do this.

We started out from the top of the ridge so that we didn’t have to climb any serious mountains, and gazed down from the cliffs at Peavine Falls, the bottom of which would be our glorious ending point.

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The first few miles were lovely and uneventful – the white trail at Oak Mountain is one of my favorites, as it is full of wildflowers and also runs by a stream. The peacefulness is on point.

When we got to our first trail crossing at 3ish miles, we decided it was time for snack. And also there was a good rock and fence post for a group photo – I could put my camera on the post, control it with my phone, and actually be in a photo. I didn’t know Noah dabbed right out the top of the photo, and I also wasn’t doing a good job hiding my phone. But it’s as good as a trail group photo gets.

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We took five photos.

This is the last photo.

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Notice Noah’s dab has morphed into a point-and-scream. But the rest of us haven’t changed a bit. Because his screams of “SNAKE!!!!” and pointing at our feet hasn’t made it to any of our brains yet.

(I don’t know how dabbing helped Noah see this unbelievably camouflage snake, but I will never complain about dabbing my pictures up ever again.)

A baby timber rattlesnake was somewhat perturbed at our rowdying up its rock, and had crawled out in a huff, then a minute later curled up in a ball and had his head up showing his decisively bad mood.

(I took pictures, of course, but as many people do not appreciate my snake photography, if you specifically want to see our one-rattle baby friend, you can click here.)

(You’re welcome, rest of y’all.)

We moved on quickly. We weren’t sure where his family lived, and since he was already so extremely irritable at such a young age, we could only imagine how special his mother’s moods must be.

Our next finds were much more amenable to our attention and presence. Or at least they didn’t have man-killing venom waiting to share, so we enjoyed their company a little bit more.

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In total, we found six toads (and only two peed on us), and this lovely dragon-esque Fence Lizard – note how his belly glows blue.

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He definitely had some leftover prehistoric fire and scales.

We kept moving, through the reeds, enjoying all of the vastly differing views of Oak Mountain. We took a couple wrong turns – one that was clearly the map’s fault, and the rest were most likely my fault.

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…And I did a hiking club first and fed a baby a bottle while walking through the woods.

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(For the record I was never a chill enough baby mama to hike with a baby. I am constantly amazed that Sarah is totally that person.)

We finally got back around to the Peavine Falls area. The original plan was to hike an extra half mile to come into the gorge from the side we were familiar with, and that was slightly less steep. But everyone was tired, we were already at 10 miles, and a shortcut is a shortcut is a shortcut even if it leads out with a sign like this.

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We followed the path down, but it looked just a bit off from what I thought should be there. We reached what should have been Peavine Falls, but instead it was a chute – a gorgeous, flowery, chute of water that was dying to be intertubed down, if we were slightly more daring than we actually are, and also had an intertube.

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I made the executive decision that the kids should play in the water while I tried to figure out where the crap we were. I didn’t know if we were upstream, downstream, around a bend, or exactly what from Peavine Falls, and I needed a minute.

The kids were happy to oblige.

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With some frantic texts to Chris and the studying of my exercise map on MapMyRun, I finally reached the conclusion that we were just *barely* downstream of Peavine Falls, and clearly I’d singlehandedly discovered Peavine Chute, which wasn’t so bad.

We slowly made our way up the trail to the falls, at which point all of us mothers were thrown back at once by a smell.

An overpowering, thick, we’re-about-to-step-in-something smell.

“Is that a skunk??”

“That sure smells like a skunk!!”

I looked around frantically. And then I saw it.

A group of hammocks, some wandering-slowly people…a zombie-ish look to the place.

“That’s not skunk. That’s weed.”

I scouted ahead to check it out.

It was, it seemed, a portable artist enclave. There were painters. There were aerial ropes with people hanging upside down. There were emotionless men with Hawaiian shirts hanging open. And there was a LOT of smoke.

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We wandered carefully into the falls area, completely killing their buzz, while they did likewise for us.

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That Peavine Chute had been a gift of quiet serenity just for us. But we managed to get in the falls and stake our claim, having a little fun before we hiked up and out.

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Our last find of the day happened nearly at the parking lot, and Noah was the spotter once more.

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A massively huge Luna Moth, who was more than happy to let us observe her from all of her magnificent angles.

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Our final mileage was 11.2 miles. It took 6 hours. And these four kids never once whined. They even THANKED me for the hike.

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It was all a true hiking miracle.

Ali logged our hike as she went along in her Trail Notes book, and this was her summary page of the day. IMG_1481

Yup, I think she covered everything.

Orr Park Scavenger Hunt.

You may have noticed I’ve been on a bit of an outdoors binge for a half a decade or so.

(Which, by the way, is the most insulting word in the English language. “Outdoors.” AS IF doors had been there first, then nature cropped up all around them and so we had to call it OUTdoors. No. Doors don’t deserve a tenth of that honor.)

Anyway. I like running and hiking, and my kids do too, but they tire quicker than I do, or sometimes even think they’d rather do something else. But if I can turn it into a social occasion, they are ALL IN.

So to get what I wanted, I created The Last Minute Network O’ Adventure*, which is a pair of constantly-growing text groups where I send out our hiking plans to other homeschool moms, etc. who are available to hike on weekdays, and whoever can join us joins us.

(The other reason we have this group is simple: I need something to say when people find out I homeschool, then gasp in a horrified fashion, and say, “But HOW will the children be socialized?!” …I answer “Well, we hiked 18 times last month with 65 different friends, therefore spending approximately 30 hours engaged in quality time and conversation…so there’s that.”)

Every now and then I’ll create other outings for this group as well, as was the case with this Scavenger Hunt at Orr Park in Montevallo. There are over 40 intricate tree carvings within a large area of the park, and it was just begging to have a scavenger hunt made of it. The kids and I had only been there once, and it’d been over a year, but we remembered it fondly.

So I decided that two Scavenger Hunts were needed: a photo scavenger hunt for smaller kids, and a clue scavenger hunt for big kids. The photo one was easy. I had pictures from our last visit of almost all of the carvings, so I selected a group of very distinct characters, slapped them onto a page together, gave them checkboxes, and declared it done.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.21.32 PMClick here to download the Photo Scavenger Hunt sheet for yourself.

But when I went to make the advanced scavenger hunt, I learned quickly that I’m not very good at clues. I toiled through the sludge of my brain, trying to come up with witty ideas, with no luck. So I recruited Chris, whose skill with the quill is undeniable, and he had me a perfect, mostly rhyming clue sheet in less than an hour.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.22.03 PMClick here to download this sheet.

The kids and I arrived early to make sure none of the carvings had changed or been damaged, and thankfully all were still in tact – and with a number of new carvings as well. Of all the parks in Alabama, this one is one of the most fascinating.

Our attendees arrived, and we explained our instructions and set them off to hunt.

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We had a total of 32 kids join our hunt – a few of which were strangers who just happened to be at the park on the extremely lovely day, saw me handing out clue sheets, and asked if they could play along. My kids, having helped with the clue checking, decided to be floating scavenging aids to kids who got stuck.

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The part of the park with the carvings is a well-contained area, but it is very long. There was much running back and forth and back and forth again. Much exercise was achieved without any of them ever realizing it.

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When they finished, they had to find me and turn in their clue sheets.

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Then they received their prize, modeling clay to make their own sculpture – so that the day could totally count as an art appreciation field trip.

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The kids took the assignment much more seriously than I assumed they would, all modeling one of the carvings that they had seen in the park.

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The Scavenger Hunt was a success, and I hope to do it again for anyone who missed the inaugural session. But you don’t need me to make it happen – just download and print out the photo and clue sheets and give it a try.**

* If you’re not in my Network O’ Last Minute Adventure and want more information, comment on this post and I’ll email you.

** Scavenger Hunts are not just for kids – they’re totally for adults. Chris and I spent many dates doing the Itty Bitty Magic City Scavenger Hunts that used to be printed in the newspaper. Scavenging is a proven bonding strategy.

Note – If you want another Scavenger Hunt, we made this micro photo scavenger hunt years ago for Avondale Park. Not all the items will still be findable, but most should be.

For the Mamas Thinking About Homeschooling.

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Every year about this time, I have a fresh crop of preschool moms who ask me about homeschooling. I’ve never considered myself an expert at homeschooling – I don’t read all the books, attend all the conferences, or lobby for laws. But having homeschooled as a child for 12 years, and now having made it nearly through the fifth grade in homeschooling my own kids, I do think I have a unique perspective on it, both coming and going.

I’m not the person you want to talk to for a list of all the great homeschooling resources (I tend to be a renegade and do my own thing), nor am I a curriculum expert (I make quick decisions and don’t research every curriculum out there.) But if you want to know what it looks like, how it works, how it’s not nearly as overwhelming as it seems, and are looking for a few practical tips along the way, I’m your girl.

First, a couple ground rules:
1. Homeschooling is not the right answer for every family. It is not the more holy, more dedicated, or a more better Momming decision. It is just an option. An option that works great for some families and is a nightmare for others.

2. Don’t let me stress you out. If my way doesn’t work for you, do it your way. That’s the loveliness of homeschooling: You get to tailor it to fit perfectly into your family’s personalities, schedules, and learning styles. Don’t ever feel like you have to do it someone else’s way or you’re wrong.

Okay?

Okay.

Here are my collection of tips and insights.

…Homeschooling seems overwhelming. It seems harder and more work. But I personally find it to be the most efficient, most laid back, least time-squandering form of education for my particular family. We finish our school around 12 or 1 every day, do not have homework, and spend our afternoons exploring, hiking, and being outdoors, which is also totally education. My kids have an appreciation for the woods, for nature, and for the universe that I believe they would not have as much time for if they were in a classroom setting.

…However, if you homeschool, that means you’re pretty much committing yourself to being with your kids all. the. time. And that’s okay. But remember that you’re doing double duty – you’re now mom and teacher. Which means you deserve – no require – twice the number of breaks away from your children. Never feel guilty for taking time and money to pursue your hobbies, your introvert coffee shop visits,  dates with your husband, your retreat weekends away. The better your mental state, the better teacher you’ll be.

…On that note, don’t feel guilty about paying babysitters. Think of it as using a little bit of the money you’re saving on that private school tuition (if your second option would be private school.) It’s just a part of the expense of homeschooling: teacher sanity breaks.

…While we’re on the subject of spending money, also don’t feel guilty about spending money to buy supplemental books or experiments, going on road trips with your kids, and multi-colored pens. Because you cannot homeschool without a proper set of multi-colored pens.

…If you like being outdoors, or if you have wanderlust, or both, you can totally implement these things into your curriculum. I don’t remember much about the things I learned in either elementary school or college, but I remember the nature walks my mom took me on. I remember the flower pressings we did, and the leaf drawings. I hope my kids, also, remember the time we spend outdoors, and learn to love this planet and all her beauty. Our year-long Alabama History project is an example of how I snaked my love of Alabama, exploring outdoors, and photography into what turned out to be a pretty fantastic educational year.

…If you’re starting out in Kindergarten, make it fun. Your job for the first year is to help them associate learning with enjoyment, not with toiling and dread. Don’t get bogged down in health and spelling and a twenty-subject curriculum kit. The time will come for that. If they like workbooks, get some cheap workbooks (For Noah, he was interested in Star Wars. So I found Star Wars workbooks.) If they don’t like workbooks, learn counting and letters in a non-workbook way. For examples of what I mean: use gummies to teach math, play store with your kids, and make them secret codes to encourage reading and writing.

…iPads are not your enemy, when set up as an educational device and with rules about when they may be used. iPad learning games can teach so much so quickly – because it’s using fun games to do so, and they want to keep progressing in those games. I haven’t updated these posts since Ali was little, but here and here are some of the games Ali and Noah used when they were in Kindergarten and First Grade.

…As soon as they can read, teach them as quickly as possible how to be independent learners with some of their subjects. The way to do this is to have a routine, so they know what is expected of them each day. At this point, Ali (fifth grade) is 90% independent: She knows what she needs to accomplish in Math, English, Reading, Bible, History, and Writing. As I type this, Noah (first grade) is eating breakfast and reading a book. After he finishes, he knows that he needs to write in his diary. After that, it’s time for math, at which point he will come get me to join him.

…The reason to teach them independence in studies is two-fold: it enables you to focus on one child at a time, because the other children are involved in their own school. Secondly, it prepares them for college from a young age with good study skills and self-motivation. College was so much easier to grasp for me than my friends because I knew how to read the textbook, take notes, study, and take a test, without relying completely on someone walking me through the material.

…Routines are great for every day, but don’t forget that you have all the freedom in the world to mix it up. Take a trip. Go outside. Learn something hands-on.

…Your children will one day praise your name if you make them keep a daily diary. Ali has kept one since she was 4 – they’re all lined up on a shelf, and she loves reading them. Noah started one this school year (he writes two sentences a day), and it’s already his prized possession. Ali always liked drawing a picture to illustrate her entries, so I tried to get Noah to do that too. However, he doesn’t like drawing, so he asks me every day if I took any pictures the day before and asks me to print one out for him. This has made his diary a lovely daily scrapbook.

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…Make your life as streamlined as possible with technology. My favorite school purchase was this printer. Because a) it has a separate tray for 4×6 photo paper, so it’s always loaded and ready to go to print a picture for a kid’s school report or diary. And b) it’s Wi-Fi and simple to set up, so I can print easily from my phone with one click and without even having to walk in the same room as the printer. In the old days, I would have had to send the picture to my computer, load photo paper into the printer, make sure the printer was connected to my laptop, and then print. Nobody’s got time for that.

…Create systems of motivation and reward for your children. They’ll fade over time as you forget to do them and they don’t need the motivation as much, but they make all the difference in times of I’m-losing-my-sanity-and-I-need-my-children-to-clean-up-their-freaking-messes-and-do-their-flipping-school. My most thorough/successful motivation tool is in this post, an earlier version can be found here, and yet another system can be found here.

…Find a digital or paper planner school recordkeeping system that works for you. I couldn’t find a school recordkeeping system that worked for me, so I made my own – you can see and download it here. On this same note, keep up with your summer educational pursuits. That includes book reading (like summer reading programs), trips, hikes, sports, and anything educational you do. It’s totally worth the paperwork to count some days during the summer and have less in May when you’re SO DONE. The template I use for that is included in the above link.

…Get in the habit of tracking your school days from the beginning. You’ll thank yourself later. I prefer to track as we complete subjects, rather than plan my week in advance. It’s significantly less stressful, keeps us flexible, and saves on pre-planning.

…For the first three grades, I think it’s awesome to center science around nature walks. Nature learning. Nature journaling. Observation and appreciation for the world around you. You can get a book about the flora and fauna in your area and use those as your guide. My favorite science book we’ve ever used is a great companion for nature schooling – you can find it here (be sure to get the notebooking journal or junior notebooking journal to go with it.)

…When homeschooling multiple children, buy each child a set of noise reducing earmuffs. That way, when one child is doing reading and you’re explaining long division to the other child, they’re not distracted. We started using these last year and they’re a fantastic upgrade.

…Do not miss the benefit of the laid back homeschool life. Don’t overbook yourself. Co-ops are great when the kids are older and you can’t teach their subjects with proficiency anymore, but when they’re young, enjoy doing what you want when you want to do it. (Or at least think seriously about the commitment level required by your co-op before taking it on. Don’t let their schedule rule your life.)

…Read good literature to your kids. It doesn’t have to be much – perhaps a chapter a day. But it’s a very beautiful thing to bond over great books together. All the better if you’ve never read them and are just as excited about the kids to find out what happens next. Here’s a list of great read-alouds I made a LONG time ago. Since then, we’ve discovered and loved The Wingfeather Saga and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series.

…If a curriculum isn’t working for you, don’t angst about trashing it and starting with a new one. Your investment is for a non-miserable life for you and your student.

…Analyze yourself, your patterns, and what works for you. For instance: I do not go to homeschool conferences because I’ve learned that hearing all about the amazing ways other people are teaching their kids just blisters my perfectionist spirit and makes me feel like a failure. Some people can attend homeschool conferences and feel lifted up – I cannot. So I don’t go. Another example: I know that to be most efficient, I need to create my own frameworks, such as my planner pages and field trips, so I do. If you are the type that is encouraged my homeschool conferences, go to homeschool conferences, If you are the type that loves to have someone else’s framework as a guideline, use someone else’s framework. Don’t just assume that because someone else does something a certain way that you should too. (This applies to everything I’ve said in this post.)

…Don’t go into homeschooling telling yourself that you’re going to do it forever. You are not a failure if you homeschool for a year or two and then determine that another option is what your family needs. It just means it doesn’t work for that particular child, or for that particular year, so that particular period in your life. Doing something different if being wise and flexible for your family‘s needs at that time. Also, committing to homeschooling for forever can feel extraordinarily daunting – tell yourself that you’ll take it one year at a time – you’ll be much less likely to experience emotional breakdown.

After I wrote my tips, I asked my vault of Facebook friends for their advice. I picked out a few of the tips to share below. You can find everyone else’s advice on this thread.

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To sum it all up, it’s not nearly as overwhelming as it may feel like it is. Just take it one day at a time, one week at a time, one year at a time.

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Feel free to ask any follow-up questions in the comments! I’m always open to answering questions about homeschooling – whether you’re interested in pursuing it or just curious.