Backyard Science!

I just received a reminder in my newsfeed about an awesome annual event. The Great Backyard Bird Count from the National Audubon Society! This is a great way to do real science at home with your kids and another great thing about technology in our age. We are all contributing to large-scale data collection that is helping real scientists. In fact, we ARE scientists! And best of all, it’s completely free!

My sons and I participated in this event several years in a row, both in the city and at our new desert home. Oh, who am I kidding? I did this several years in a row and told the boys all about it! They weren’t interested in sitting in the yard with a cup of tea for an hour, noting which birds and how many came by. I was very interested though! I printed off the data collection sheet from the website, grabbed a cup of hot tea and parked myself on the back porch for an hour, several days in a row. The boys would come out and ask me what I was doing, and I proudly told them, showing them the list of birds I had already seen. Sometimes they would sit for a minute and watch with me. They’d point out a bird or two, grow weary and head into the house for video games. Sometimes, I’d have to cut my session short over a battle between them or a request for lunch. If they were interested, I’m sure they would have been right there with me, asking me what bird it was or helping me look them up online. This kind of stuff just wasn’t their thing at the time. Fast forward years into the future, they now take pictures of birds they find where they are and message them to me, so they did get something out of it!

What did they get? Lot’s of things! They saw a small way an individual can participate in a large science endeavor. They learned that bird watching was a sport AND science and that there are people all over the world who are passionate about it. Best of all, they were witness to my real, honest love of learning in action every day.

That’s the best part about home education! It isn’t about following a set curriculum, having a long reading list, perfect penmanship, or great SAT scores. It’s not about keeping “at grade level” in school subjects. It’s about kids living and learning right alongside adults in ways that encourage them to explore the world around them and stay excited about learning new things their whole lives.

Before my sons were around twelve years old, most of the homeschooling at our house was me finding awesome stuff to do around our area and signing up for tours, field trips, and excursions of all kinds. I read up about each event before we went, sharing what I learned and how. I was the one asking questions. My boys were along for the ride. We kept it down to one organized event per week when they were little because it was generally something they weren’t interested in, but I thought they might be. If we got there and they just couldn’t sit still or hang through the whole thing, we’d leave early. That was hard for me sometimes, especially when it was something I really wanted to see or with friends I really liked. I had to remember that we were there for their sake, not mine. As they got older, they were more apt to sit through an art museum tour because I really wanted to see it with the offer of a kind reward for their efforts. As teens, they don’t need that reward anymore.

We also visited a lot of museums, parks, and zoos on our own schedule. We didn’t get the group discount or docent-led tour, but it was usually better for them because they could take their time exploring what they wanted and skip past things that didn’t excite them. It wasn’t the last time we’d be at any of these places, so I didn’t mind if they spent all their time at the playground at the local zoo instead of seeing all the animals. We bought annual passes and memberships to places they expressed real interest in.

Education in the elementary years was always fun, short and sweet. Sometimes it was directed by me and my interests and hopes of expanding their horizons. And sometimes it was directed by them and what they were interested in pursuing. It always focused on them and how they were responding. Getting antsy and a bit loud? They weren’t interested, we needed to leave. Quietly watching, having a great time? We’d stay. One interested, the other distracting people? I’d ask a friend to keep an eye on one, while I let the other find something else to do. It was all about watching them and knowing their limits.

Now that they are in their late teens, I can see the reflection of those early days in the way they pursue their passions and share them with me through texts and social media posts.