Tag Archives: grade 3

Atomic Pancakes and the History of Oxygen


oxygen atoms kids

Did you know that scientists didn’t used to believe in oxygen? Oxygen in the air helps things to burn. But chemists used to think that anything that could be burned contained a mysterious element called phlogiston.

The element that weighed less than zero

Scientists thought that the red hot glow of a burning metal was evidence of phlogiston escaping. They even decided that, because metal weighs more after burning, phlogiston must weigh less than zero! (We now know that the extra weight comes from oxide that forms on metal when it’s heated.)

More phlogiston nonsense

Oxygen atom kidsJoseph Priestly (1733-1804) was the first scientist to trap oxygen – but he didn’t realise what he’d done. The phlogisticians thought that when they placed a burning candle under a glass, it gave off phlogiston until the air in the glass was completely saturated with phlogiston.

So when a candle burned even more brightly in the “air” Priestly collected, he reasoned that the air must not contain any phlogiston at all. He  called his oxygen sample “dephlogisticated air”!

Of course, this was exactly backwards. From The Mystery of the Periodic Table:

“The air Priestly thought was full of phlogiston was actually emptied of oxygen. The air he thought was entirely emptied of phlogiston, was actually full of oxygen.”

Goodbye phlogiston, hello oxygen

It was French scientist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) who finally sorted things out and put phlogiston in its rightful place (the history books). How did he do it?

Lavoisier wanted to find out what really happened when a metal was heated. Was something removed from the metal and released into the air (as the phlogisticians believed), or was the reverse true – was something removed from the air and drawn into the metal?

He had the genius idea of measuring the volume of gas in his apparatus before and after the metal was heated.  The result? Lavoisier found that when he heated metal, the volume of air around it decreased. Some of the air had combined with the metal!

Next, Lavoisier heated the specks that had formed on the metal and measured how much gas they gave off. Of course, it was the exact same amount as had left the air and gone into the metal previously.

Lavoisier had proved that neither phlogiston nor dephlogisticated air were real. He renamed dephlogisticated air, “oxygen”.

(Water + phlogiston) + (Water − phlogiston) = Water?

Even before Lavoisier’s breakthrough, scientists had begun to figure out that water was a combination of two separate things.

Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) had found that two parts of what he called”inflammable air” [hydrogen] combined with one part of “dephlogisticated air” [oxygen] made water.

But Cavendish’s inability to see beyond phlogiston got him in a bit of a pickle.

“He thought that inflammable air (hydrogen) was actually water plus phlogiston, and that dephlogisticated air (oxygen) was actually water minus phlogiston. What happens when you add water-plus-phlogiston to water-minus-phlogiston? The plus and minus phlogistons ‘cancel’ each other out, and you are left with only water!”

 The Mystery of the Periodic Table

Thankfully Lavoisier – debunker of phlogiston – was able to put things in order. He made water by sparking oxygen with some of Cavendish’s “inflammable air”.

Now that he had proved that phlogiston didn’t exist, Lavoisier realised that inflammable air must also be an element itself. He named this gas, “hydrogen” (Greek, for water-generator).

Atomic Pancakes

The French rewarded Lavoisier for his services to science by chopping off his head. (They were a bit guillotine-crazy back then.) We decided to honour the great scientist by making atomic pancakes.

You need

  • Pancake batter
  • White chocolate chip “protons”
  • Dark chocolate chips “neutrons”
  • Small sweets e.g. M&Ms (all the same colour) – “electrons”
  • Chocolate sauce (and a toothpick for spreading it into “orbits”)

(We actually used red and green grapes as protons and neutrons, but we struggled to fit them all into the nucleus of our oxygen atom.)

Oxygen atoms kids
Proton and neutron grapes, and white chocolate chip electrons

{See full instructions here.}

First, we made two small hydrogen pancakes.

Oxygen atoms kids
Hydrogen atom

Each hydrogen atom has one proton at its centre, and one electron orbiting the nucleus.

Then we made one big pancake for our oxygen atom.

Oxygen atoms kids
Oxygen atom

Oxygen has 8 protons and 8 neutrons in its nucleus.

Oxygen also has 8 electrons – one pair in its first orbit, and 2 more pairs in its second orbit. The second orbit also contains 2 single electrons.

To make our water molecule, we put the 2 small pancakes beside the large pancake, lining up the 2 sets of unpaired electrons.

Oxygen atoms kids
Water molecule

In reality, electrons are really far away from the protons and neutrons. If a proton were as big as a grape, you would need to walk an hour before you set down your electron!

Oxygen atoms kids
Putting electrons into orbit

After eating up our atomic pancakes, we moved onto making the real thing. Come back soon to find out how we made oxygen and hydrogen out of water!


The Mystery of the Periodic Table – A wonderful living book about the history of chemistry – a great read aloud for all ages.

CSIRO – Australia’s national science agency’s website. I came across atomic pancakes via their (free) Science by Email program.

Chemistry, a Volatile History – Fascinating BBC documentary series with a whole episode on the phlogiston blind-alley. We saw it a few years ago and would love to see it again. YouTube has clips. Please let me know if you find the whole thing available somewhere!


I’m appreciatively linking up here:

Science Sunday at Adventures in Mommydom

After School Link Up at Planet Smartypants

Weekly Wrap-Up at Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers

The Hip Homeschool Hop

The HomeEd Linkup Week 7 at Adventures in Home Schooling

Science Saturday at Suzy Homeschooler


{This post contains Amazon affiliate links.}

Why we love Edward Zaccaro more than Khan Academy


Favourite maths books jpg

If your kids want to use the same maths book every day for months, is it their curriculum? If so, I might have to stop writing about how we don’t use one. Because lately, both C(10) and J(9) have been reaching for Becoming a Problem Solving Genius every time I suggest maths.

Why my kids weren’t ready for these books 2 years ago

We used another of Ed Zaccaro’s books for a short while when C and J were 7 and 8. Why did we stop? I think it was a problem of timing, and attitude – my own and theirs. We’d spent two years lurching from one maths curriculum to another in search of something that could sustain their interest. We probably approached Primary Grade Challenge Math with a weary ennui not very conducive to success.

What’s changed

So what’s different now? Partly my kids are older, which means they can focus on trickier (more interesting) problems for longer. But I think it also has something to do with the maths playtime we’ve been enjoying for the last 14 months.

During that time we’ve approached maths from many different directions. We’ve used stories, videos, number talks, games, puzzles, and many, many hands-on activities. (Sue Elvis wrote a great post about approaching maths “backwards” in this way.) As a result, my kids no longer think maths is about procedures and drills. For them, it’s about solving puzzles. And they know that maths is everywhere, not just on the pages of an arithmetic workbook.

Problem Solving Genius

Why we love Becoming a Problem Solving Genius

The main reason Becoming a Problem Solving Genius is such a hit with my kids is simply that the problems are so interesting and varied.  On any single page there’s a delightfully wide range of different maths topics.

Yesterday, for example, J(9) worked through level 3 of the chapter on Venn Diagrams. The first three questions alone relate to (1) quadrilaterals, (2) triangles, and (3) prime numbers, none of which we’ve worked on recently.

Knowing how J(9) likes to find things out for himself, I showed him our Maths Dictionary, where he looked up rectangles, squares and rhombuses. He then grabbed the Geomag and created quadrilaterals according to the definitions he’d read.

For the triangles question, he decided to draw as many different types of triangles as he could think of and then try to categorise them, before he looked up the definitions of scalene, isosceles and equilateral.

When we got to the question on prime numbers, I showed J(9) the Sieve of Eratosthenes, after which he easily allocated the primes to their appropriate sets in the Venn Diagram.

Venn diagrams in Becoming a Problem solving genius

Most of the problems in Ed Zaccaro’s books involve arithmetic calculations, so I don’t worry about my children not practising the basic mathematical operations. Rather, they’re being used in a meaningful context. (C(10) uses Math Mammoth now and again to practise her long division, and when J(9) feels the need to practise specific skills I’ll offer him appropriate materials, too.)

C(10) loved the chapter in Becoming a Problem Solving Genius on logic. (So did J(9), but after enjoying his delightfully “creative” answers I made a mental note to return to the chapter in a year or so!) And they both loved “Don’t be fooled (Counterintuitive thinking)”.

Challenge Math

Our success with Becoming a Problem Solving Genius inspired me to pull our other Ed Zaccaro books off the shelf. J(9) was beginning to struggle with the higher levels of some topics, so we switched to Primary Grade Challenge Math to consolidate and fill gaps in topics like decimals, square roots and percentages.

Primary Grade Challenge Math

Then there is Challenge Math for the Elementary and Middle School Student, which is aimed at slightly older children. It, too, covers a huge variety of maths topics. I haven’t used Challenge Math with either of my kids yet, but I’m going to show it to C(10) soon. I think she’ll like it. The contents range from decimals, fractions, percents and area to acceleration, simultaneous equations and astronomy!

Challenge Math

From the back of the book:

“Difficult concepts in areas such as statistics, probability, trigonometry and calculus are explained in an easy to understand format using cartoons and drawings. This makes self-learning easy for both the child and any teacher whose math skills are a little rusty.”

Challenge Math for the Elementary and Middle School Student

(That’ll be me with the rusty maths skills and – despite A grades – total ignorance of what calculus, for example, is actually for. At school I learned to follow the procedure and move on. Understanding was, as far as I could tell, irrelevant.)

Khan Academy

In my last post I also promised to share our thoughts on Khan Academy maths.

What I like about Khan Academy

Khan Academy represents a massive step forward in open source learning. It makes maths education available to a many, many people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it. And I’m sure it compares favourably to curricula people pay hundreds of pounds for.

It’s is a very flexible resource. You can choose to learn recreational math, or math by grade level, or a variety of skills at once, in World of Math. Or you can focus on higher level skills like trigonometry or geometry. It’s possible to switch between options at any time.

I like that you can level up multiple skills with Mastery Challenges. And the coach dashboard, which allows you to see what your students have been doing, is very sophisticated. You can see what lessons your student has completed, how long they took, what clues they had, whether they watched any videos, and how many attempts it took to get the right answer. (Although personally I feel a bit Big Brotherish when I do that. I prefer to just ask my kids what they’ve been doing. We can look at the “dashboard” together if it helps.)

Earlier this year I wondered if Khan Academy might be the ideal way for my autodidactic 9-year-old to learn maths. He agreed to give it a go, and at the same time I decided to use Khan myself to review what he’d be covering. I also thought it would be useful to look at what C(10) “ought” to be able to do (since we weren’t using a curriculum) and to brush up on my own maths skills.

Why Khan Academy didn’t work for my 9 year old

I used Khan Academy every evening for several weeks, and by the end I was in complete sympathy with J(9), who was grumbling about how boring it was. The material is dry, lacks context, and the problems involve the same sort of abstract, unlikely scenarios that have blighted maths textbooks for decades. This is not a living maths curriculum!

How I use Khan Academy

Having said that, I’m not completely discounting Khan Academy as a resource.

Firstly, I’m using it to review topics my children are learning. By working through their respective grade levels I can remind myself of what they “should” know and make a note to fill any gaps (including in my own skills!).

Secondly, the videos are useful when you want to quickly learn or review a specific concept.  For example, when C(10) was working out the area of rectangle recently, she wondered, “So how do we calculate the area of a triangle?” I remembered the formula half × base × height, but C(10) always wants to know “why?” and I wasn’t sure I could answer her. A short Khan Academy video gave me of the mathematical proof I was looking for and I was able to explain it to C(10).

C(10), by the way, didn’t try Khan Academy. She was enjoying our buddy maths too much to contemplate giving it up.

Perhaps we’ll come back to Khan Academy when the children are older, but for now it’s not for us.

How about you? Have you tried Khan Academy or Mr Zaccaro’s books? What works best for your family? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Read more about how we do living maths here.

This post contains affiliate links. I purchased my own copies of all the books.


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How my autodidactic 9 year old is learning maths without a curriculum

Maths with an autodidactic 9 year old

In my last post I described J(9) as fiercely autodidactic, which makes me giggle because it’s so literally true. J(9) is bright, funny, creative – and very independent. When you add in the emotional regulation challenges that come with Sensory Processing Disorder, you have a child who keeps homeschooling life very interesting.

Like his sister, J(9) didn’t get on with any maths curriculum. We stopped looking for one that worked a long time ago. He happily joins C(10) and me for maths stories and hands-on activities, but until recently it was impossible to do one-to-one maths with J(9).

I’ve heard enough stories about unschooled kids and maths to know that he’ll get there in the end. J(9) has a natural aptitude for numbers – he knows most of the multiplication tables without ever having consciously learned them, for example. So I didn’t worry about his long-term future. But maths is fun, and I didn’t want him to miss out.

An obvious solution for someone who doesn’t like to be taught is to use a self-teaching curriculum. Unfortunately, J(9) finds these boring. I sympathise. It’s difficult to bring out the joy of real-world maths in a self-teaching curriculum aimed at 9-year-olds.

I thought, briefly, that Khan Academy might be an exception. I liked how its maths curriculum is laid out, and  the sophisticated way coaches can monitor pupils’  work. Unfortunately, Khan Academy didn’t work out for J(9). I’ll share more about that in my next post.

What to try next?

One of my favourite homeschool mum roles is detective. I love quietly observing my children, gathering clues about how I can support their learning.

I considered what I knew about J(9) and maths. He has strong spatial skills and likes playing with numbers. He’s easily bored, and to focus his mind he often needs to move his body. He loves puzzles and games – but if there’s one thing even more likely to trigger a meltdown than making a mistake, it’s losing at a game. We’re working on these challenges. I know about the importance of a growth mindset, and one day I hope that J(9) will see the value of mistakes, too.

In the meantime, I relied on my own growth mindset. I took everything I’d learned from each of our maths “failures” and just kept on trying new ways to work with J(9). It only occurred to me recently, looking back over the last few months, that we seem finally to have found our groove.

maths with an autodidact

The solution (for now)

What has evolved for us is an extremely relaxed version of the buddy maths I do with C(10). Maybe “relaxed” isn’t right word. “Mindful” might be a better description of my role in the process. Here’s how it looks in detail.

The book we use – J(9) chooses a book to work from (e.g. a maths story, or a source of problems). Every day for the last month he’s chosen Becoming a Problem Solving Genius: A Handbook of Math Strategies. (I’ll say more about why we love this book in my next post.)

Where we do maths – We take our book, together with whiteboards and markers, to the sofa.

Topic of the day – J(9) picks a chapter. We rarely follow books sequentially, though we often continue with the next level of problems in a topic we left off last time.

Time of think – One of us reads out a problem. Then I stay quiet and give J(9) time to think. I only offer hints  when he asks for them (I’ve learned this the hard way). Instead, I take deep breaths and remind myself that crawling under the sofa being a snake, or jumping on top of it like a monkey, helps him concentrate.

Writing things down – If I don’t instantly know the answer to a problem, I use a whiteboard to figure it out. J(9), ever independent, doesn’t look at my workings. His brain works differently from mine and he often mentally calculates things I can’t.

I don’t force him to write anything down, but he sees me doing so, and recently he’s started to make his own notes and diagrams when he solves more complex problems. I do my secret happy-dance when he does this, because representing problems in different ways is an important mathematical strategy. It also allows him to retrace his steps when he goes wrong. (And – less importantly – one day he’ll need to show his workings in exams.)

Dealing with mistakes – J(9) tells me his answer when he’s done. Whether I agree or disagree, I set my voice to neutral and ask, “How did you get that?” If he’s made an error, he often spots it as he explains his process. He can then change his answer, so he doesn’t feel like he’s got it “wrong”.

Occasionally, when we get different answers, I realise I’ve made a mistake. J(9) likes it when that happens.

If I’ve got the same answer via a different process, I ask J(9) if he’d like to hear how I did it. Then  I try to respect his answer! He’s gradually learning that one tends to make fewer mistakes using simpler processes, but if I’ve learned not try to foist a method on him.

And, I admit, there are still times when J(9) can’t see where he went wrong, doesn’t want to talk about it, and he ends the session early, frustrated. I’m learning not to get upset when that happens – it doesn’t negate the learning that’s gone before. We’ll come back to the topic another time, when he’s ready.

When are we done? – There’s no minimum time for our sessions or number of problems we do. We might do one question or thirty. J(9) is in control of his learning.

maths with my autodidact

The results (so far)

One-to-one maths with J(9) has transformed from something we both dreaded into an absolute pleasure (mostly).

I’m hopeful that our buddy maths routine will continue after we’ve exhausted the questions in Becoming a Problem-Solving Genius. Perhaps we’ll move on to Murderous Maths or try out one of the many great sources of maths videos.  I’ll let you know.

Perhaps the best outcome of our new way of doing maths is that J(9) is beginning to trust me as his learning mentor. I know he will always want to learn as independently as possible. As he gets older that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I want him to know he can always come to me for help and support.


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The science of how candles burn

Science how candles burn

If you blow out a candle and then put a lighted match close to the wick (but not touching it), the wick will re-light. Most of us intuitively know this, but have you ever wondered why?

This week we did two simple experiments investigating the science of how candles burn. Both come from a free online Kitchen Chemistry course we’re enjoying.

Experiment 1 – Lighting gaseous wax

What you need

  • Candle
  • Match or lighter

What you do

Light the candle. Notice how you have to hold the match very close to the wick for a second or two before it ignites. Allow the candle to burn for a few minutes. As it burns, observe what happens to the wax.

Now blow out the candle and quickly hold a lighted match near the wick. This time the wick should easily ignite, even without the flame actually touching it.

Repeat the process a few times, experimenting with how far away from the wick you hold the match.

Science how candles burn
Lighting a candle by holding a flame near the wick

What’s happening?

When you light the candle, the solid wax melts and liquid wax is drawn up the wick. As the candle gets hotter, the liquid wax evaporates into a gas. This gaseous wax burns in the oxygen of the air.

The gaseous wax remains in the air after you blow out the candle. If you hold a lighted match near the hot wick, the wax ignites and the flame spreads to the wick. If you allow the candle to burn for long enough that it produces a visible white vapour when you blow it out, you can light the vapour from above.

Experiment 2 – Soot on a spoon

What you need

  • Lighted candle
  • Metal spoon

What you do

Briefly hold the spoon in the candle flame. Remove it and observe what you see on the spoon.

You should see black soot. You may also see a tiny bit of wax. (Don’t worry, it all washes off.)

science how candles burn
Holding a metal spoon in a candle flame

What’s happening?

As the candle burns, solid wax becomes liquid and then evaporates to become a gas. The gaseous wax burns in oxygen to produce water, carbon dioxide, heat and light.

The burning candle also produces carbon, in the form of the black soot we see on the spoon.  It is glowing soot that causes the candle give out light.

If there were enough oxygen to burn all the wax, only carbon dioxide and water would be produced and the flame would be blue, like in a gas burner.

The small amount of wax on the spoon is the unburnt gaseous wax which has condensed on the cold spoon and turned back into solid wax.

Golden gas and solid methane

These experiments are an interesting way to explore states of matter. My kids were surprised to discover that every element can exist as a solid, liquid and a gas.

C(10) wondered if gold can be a gas. The answer is yes – gold boils and evaporates at 2,800°C.  And solid gold becomes a liquid at just over 1000°C.

Meanwhile J(9) wanted to know if gaseous bodily emissions can take solid form (and if so could we google photos). He phrased it differently, as you can imagine. This led us to the fascinating topic of solid methane, a source of fuel which exists in very cold conditions at the bottom of the ocean and at the poles.

science how candles burn
Frozen methane bubbles: U.S. Geological Survey

Trick re-lighting candles

We also wondered how trick birthday candles work –  the ones that re-light by themselves after you blow them out.

The “magic” ingredient is usually magnesium in the candle’s wick. When the candle is burning, the magnesium is shielded by the liquid wax being drawn up the wick. But after the candle has been extinguished, the wick is no longer hot enough to draw up the liquid wax. The magnesium is exposed to the wick, which is hot enough to ignite the magnesium The burning magnesium in turn ignites the gaseous wax.  This article explains the process very clearly.

Apparently you can see tiny flecks of magnesium going off around the glowing ember of re-lighting candles.  I’ve ordered some so we can observe this for ourselves.

Further Resources

Scientist Michael Faraday gave a series of children’s lectures about the chemistry of candles at the Royal Science how candles burnInstitution, London in 1860. You can read an abridged version here.

How does a candle work?  (How Stuff Works)

The Mystery of the Periodic Table is a wonderful living book about the history of chemistry. This week we read about the discovery of oxygen, which was the perfect background to our experiments.

Kitchen Chemistry  Free online course from the University of East Anglia. (Runs until 26 May 2014.)

Main photo credit: Windliest


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Science for Kids at Adventures in Mommydom

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How to make a Multiplication Tower

Multiplication tower

Do you have projects pinned that you’ve been meaning to do for years? Multiplication towers was one of mine. When I first saw them on The Map is Not the Territory I knew we’d all learn something from playing with this 3D multiplication model.

The catalyst for getting around to it was a Christmas gift. My lovely parents-in-law sent us some fine meat which arrived from Scotland packaged in polystyrene and dry ice. The steaks were delicious – but you know you’re a homeschooler (or a toddler) when you get even more excited about the packaging than the gift itself. Yes, that giant slab of polystyrene was the perfect base for our multiplication tower.

What you need

Here’s where my learning curve began. (Skip this bit if you are an instructions-reader, you won’t get it.) You know how you sometimes start gathering materials for a project without consciously thinking it through?

So I had my polystyrene base, a pack of beads, and now I needed some skewers. How many? I thought of the multiplication grids we’ve been working on recently. Should our multiplication tower go up to 10 x 10, or all the way to 12 x 12? “Oh, why not go for it?” I thought, throwing caution to the wind and putting two 100 packs of bamboo skewers in my basket.

Back home, I used a sharpie to mark out a grid of 144 dots on the polystyrene. It wasn’t until I began inserting the skewers that I saw the flaw in my plan, and realised that (a) no skewer would be tall enough to hold 144 beads, (b) the 12 times table alone would use up almost all our 1000 beads and (c) as enthusiastic as my kids are about hands-on maths, I may not be able to persuade them to spend a week threading beads.

At this point it occurred to me to refer back to the project, where I discovered that Malke made a 5×5 multiplication tower, requiring 225 beads. Good idea.

Bead multiplication tower

Bead multiplication tower

I thought about making the model myself first, to make sure I understood how it worked. But after a few beads I remembered that sometimes a student learns more if the teacher doesn’t know all the answers.

So I called C(10) and we figured it out as we went along. (See the labelled photo of our Lego multiplication tower below if you’re not sure of the reasoning behind the colour-coding.)

Multiplication tower

Of course this isn’t difficult maths – many people make multiplication towers with slightly younger kids as an introduction to the concept – but it does get you thinking logically about number patterns and the commutative property.

Multiplication tower
Different views. Front left: 1 one, 1 two, 1 three, 1 four and 1 five. Front right: 4 ones, 3 ones, 2 ones (1 is offscreen)

Lego multiplication tower

I showed J(8) the Lego multiplication tower Frugal Fun for Boys made.  He enthusiastically set about gathering 2×2 Lego bricks to make his own. He only had enough bricks to make up to 4×4, but it was enough to get the idea.

Lego multiplication tower
J(8) making his Lego multiplication tower

When we compared C(10)’s bead tower with J(8)’s Lego one, we noticed they were different.  In our bead tower we had used the same colour beads for the “ones” on both the x and y axes, as they did at The Map is not the Territory. In the Lego tower, we had used different colours for each “one” on the y axis (as Frugal Fun for Boys did).

Labelled lego multiplication tower

So in the photo above, on the x axis we have a blue Lego for “1 one”, two blues for “1 two”, three blues for “1 three” and four blues for “1 four”.

Meanwhile, on the y axis, we have one blue and one white Lego representing “2 ones”, a blue, a white and a red for “3 ones” and a blue, a white, a red and an orange for “4 ones”.

The children and I discussed the two models, and decided the Lego model made more sense to us. C(10) changed her bead tower.  More great learning.

Minecraft multiplication tower

Next, C(10) decided to make a multiplication tower on Minecraft. You can’t write numbers on Minecraft so she decided to use colours to represent the numbers (the small dark blue blocks along the axes in the picture below).

Minecraft multiplication tower
Minecraft multiplication tower

She spent some time viewing the tower from different angles in a way that made me slightly dizzy. At one point she exclaimed, “Hey, look at this pattern here, on the diagonal – 1, 4, 16, 25!” She’d discovered the squares.

C(10)’s Minecraft tower reminded me to show her the computer-generated multiplication towers at Moebius Noodles. Click over to see quite how high 12×12 multiplication towers get.

C(10) decided to save her Minecraft multiplication tower in a new “Maths World” and went on to demonstrate some maths puzzles she could play with there. {I see more fun ahead.}

If you didn’t get polystyrene for Christmas

If you don’t have a polystyrene or foam block, you could perhaps use sand to support the skewers, or follow the example of Highhill Homeschool and use cotton. Or make a Lego tower.

Have you ever made a multiplication tower? Did you learn anything surprising?


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A Day in the Life of our Homeschool – With an 8 year old and a 10 year old


Each day of the week is very different for us. Some days we’re with friends all day, or we might spend a whole day immersed in a hands-on science project.

But the day I’m sharing here – Thursday – follows a similar pattern each week. Because we’re out over lunch, there’s no time for big projects. Instead, we fit in lots of shorter activities and reading aloud. It might be my favourite day of the week!

7 – 8 AM

I wake up and meditate, then come downstairs to let the dogs out.

After I’ve unloaded my part of the dishwasher, I savour the day’s first cup of tea and a bowl of porridge in my study.

P1270007  Version 2
Greeting the day. Blue(ish) sky!

8 – 9 AM

I do my daily German Duolingo lesson.

Usually I catch up on emails and blogs at this time, but today C(10) gets upset while practising her guitar and needs a pep talk. She’s having difficulty adjusting to her new teacher, and is being a bit tough on herself. I give her a cuddle and remind her that she can’t solve anything when she’s feeling down. She agrees we’ll talk about it again later when she’s feeling better.

9 – 10 AM

J(8) asked to learn about quantum physics this term. The Uncle Albert books are a wonderful introduction to the subject. Last week we heard about special relativity in The Time and Space of Uncle Albert.

Today I read aloud from Black Holes and Uncle Albert, a story about “the exploding universe …  black holes that swallow up everything, speeded-up time, light that is yellow but also red and blue … and how it is that you are made of stardust.”

Lots of big ideas to talk about as we read!

Day in the Life of a Homeschool  Read Aloud time
J(8) asks to try tea, so I make him a cup of lemon and ginger with a dash of agave. He’s not impressed!

10 – 11 AM

C(10) and I do Latin and then maths together. Right now we’re working through Math Mammoth’s Division 2. Although we don’t follow a curriculum, individual books from the Math Mammoth Blue Series are great value when a child needs extra practice on a particular topic.

C(10) fills in the answers on her iPad using Notability  “This is fun and kind of relaxing,” she casually comments as she works. {I mentally punch the air.}

A Day in the Life of a Homeschool  Latin  Maths

J(8) plays with Lego in his room. He tells me about the RPG game he’s invented with them.

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11 AM – 12 PM

We leave for French class at 11:40 and we’re not back until 1:40, so we eat pancakes before we leave. I read aloud from Puddles in the Lane, a lovely story about a family of children evacuated from the London Blitz during World War II.

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Pancakes and reading aloud

12 – 2 PM

C(10) has 15 minutes one-to-one with the French teacher before J(8) join them for an hour. I walk the dogs in beautiful nearby woods. The children emerge from their class with Valentines “coeur” cookies.

Day in the life of our homeschool  French  woods
French Valentine cookies and dog walking

2 -3 PM

After lunch (soup and sandwiches), I practise guitar while the children play Minecraft together.  J(8) is paying her Minecraft gold to build houses for him in a world he’s created.

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Playing Minecraft together

3 – 4 PM

I do maths with J(8).  I suggest that he tries the division pages C(10) enjoyed earlier.  As soon as I read out the first question, J(8) starts to roll around the floor on a space hopper.

I have an epiphany. It occurs to me that J(8) has as much difficulty concentrating on maths while he’s sitting still, as I do when he’s leaping around the room. (Sometimes I need to be reminded of something a thousand or so times before the penny finally drops.) I decide that as the grown-up, I need to to overcome my difficulty focusing, and find a way to accommodate J(8)’s wiggles.

It works! We actually manage to maintain enough momentum for him to learn some new maths.

Day in the Life  J doing maths
This much movement in 30 seconds of maths!

Meanwhile, C(10) mixes up a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough. We bake six cookies and freeze the rest.

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C(10) making cookies

4 – 5 PM

We enjoy C(10)’s cookies at Poetry Tea. She reads an extract from The Pied Piper, from our new poetry book, A Child’s Introduction to Poetry (thanks, Lisa), and “Double, double, toil and trouble” from Macbeth.

J(8) chooses poems from A Children’s Treasury of Milligan, which he received for Christmas. J(8)’s comic narration and Spike Milligan’s poetry are a match made in heaven; C(10) and I are very grateful to Santa!

Day on the Life of our Homeschool  Poetry Tea
Poetry teatime

After poetry tea, C(10) asks me to join her while she practises guitar. She plays beautifully, this morning’s upset long forgotten.

Thank you, Hwee, for the inspiration to join Simple Homeschool’s Day in the Life series!


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Unschooling Plans – Science and History

Unschooling science and history

Here’s what we have planned for science and history this term. My children intend to keep me very busy!

See this post for our unschooling plans for maths and English.



C(10) wants to “explore the laws of physics. Like, what makes vacuum cleaners work? How do aeroplanes and helicopters fly? What charges up batteries?”

I’ll be learning this alongside the kids here. I enjoyed physics it at school but didn’t study it for long. When I was 13 I missed a term of school because of a road accident and had to drop a subject (physics). The time has come to catch up on what I missed!

J(8) threw in, “And I want to learn about quantum physics.”

“Sure!” I replied brightly, wondering where on Earth I’d find resources to teach quantum physics to an 8-year-old (or a 43-year-old).

I needn’t have worried – the scientists have it covered. Just look at this Minecraft Mod, designed to teach kids about quantum physics. And YouTube has dozens of videos on the subject. (The kids may be teaching me some science this term.)


J(8), meanwhile, wants to “make more potions,” so we’ll do more activities like Midsummer Potions, Alien Soup and Fizzy Fountains.

unschooling science
“Potions class”

Science investigations that all students should do before high school

In our spare moments I’ll use Phyllis’s wonderful collections of science investigations that all students should do before high school and concoctions for play. We’ve done many of these already but I’m eagerly following Phyllis’s blog so we don’t miss any fun.

unschooling science and history
Diet coke geyser fun

History (with a bit of English and science overlap)

C(10) and I will continue with our chronological study of world history (we’re two-thirds through The Story of the World volume 2). We’re especially looking forward to learning about the Elizabethan period and Shakespeare.


Shakespeare’s Globe in London is showing Much Ado About Nothing in April so we’re going to study the play and then see it performed. This week we laughed out loud at the Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross retelling.  Next we’re going to read the No Fear Shakespeare (Sparknotes) version, and watch the Kenneth Brannagh movie. And finally – the live performance!

Unschooling science and history

Explorers and navigation

We’ll visit the Royal Museums Greenwich to complement our SOTW study of the early explorers. The children are looking forward to standing astride the Prime Meridian, with one foot in the Earth’s Western Hemisphere and one in the Eastern Hemisphere.

World Wars

J(8) received an illustrated book on the World Wars for Christmas, which prompted him to ask to learn about the World Wars.

He’s more interested in machines and methods of warfare than people and motives so he loves these First World War Fact Cards I recently strewed.

unschooling science and history

There’s plenty of good quality historical fiction about World War I and II. Right now we’re enjoying The Silver Sword in the car, and Puddles in the Lane is our family read-aloud.

I’d like to use videos, too – does anyone know of any good videos about the world wars that are suitable for children?

Our local kids’ history club is running a workshop on the First World War this afternoon, which will get us off to a great start.

Do you have any suggestions for resources we might like? I’d love to hear from you!

Next time, in the last post in this unschooling plans series, I’ll share my children’s project plans for this term.


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Unschooling Plans for English and Maths

Unschooling Plans for English and Math

Unschooling plans? Is that an oxymoron? I was going to say “unschooling ideas” but that sounded too vague. Call them what you will – over the last few weeks I’ve been chatting with the children about what they want to learn this term and jotting down ideas in Evernote, and that’s what this post and the next are about.

Today, I’ll share our plans for maths and English. Next time I’ll talk about history, science, projects and extras.


Fourth grade maths

Without a maths curriculum, how do I know what to cover with C(10)?

One place I look for ideas is past SATs papers taken by 11 year-old English schoolchildren. (These are actually quite fun, would you believe.)

When I come across a topic I think C(10) will enjoy learning about (or revisiting) I look it up in our collection of maths books. We especially like the Murderous Maths series at the moment. I usually read aloud, pausing while C(10) – beside me on the sofa –  works through problems on a mini-whiteboard.

I also scan our favourite maths websites for games and hands-on activities relating to the topic. Two new (to me) resources I’m looking forward to exploring this term are Mathtrain.TV (loads of short maths videos, mostly made by children) and MathForum (hundreds of links to maths websites and activities).

Third grade maths

For the moment J(8) wants to continue working through Life of Fred. As we progress with the elementary series I’m inclined to agree with Hwee that this series has a few flaws. This has particularly struck me in our current book, Life of Fred: Ice Cream, which focuses heavily on learning the times tables by rote and introduces concepts like perimeter and graphing in a dry and confusing way.

However J(8) loves the Fred story and as it doesn’t form our entire un-curriculum, I’m happy to stick with it for now.  He prefers his maths a bit less seat-of-your-pants than C(10), so it works for me to try out new things with her, knowing I can do them with J(8) later when I’ve ironed out the wrinkles. In the meantime we include J(8) in any games, stories and fun hands-on activities we do.

unschooling maths and english


English (language arts and literature) is the subject I feel most relaxed about leaving to the children. Over the years I’ve become convinced that the single thing that makes the most difference to their proficiency in the English language is books. Not spelling and grammar workbooks, or learning how to construct a paragraph, but books with stories they love.

Books improve my children’s vocabulary, spelling, grammar and writing voice and style, not to mention their debating skills, critical thinking and general knowledge. There’s plenty of time for them to learn to write essays; for now I want to give them time to develop their own voices, inspired by the books they read and listen to. As a former lawyer I’m also a stickler for accurate punctuation; however I believe this, too, will come easily and naturally when the time is right.

What we’re reading/listening to

Audiobooks  unschooling english

As usual we have many audiobooks on the go. Together we’ve just started the fourth book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series,  So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (warning: contains some scenes between a man and woman you may not want your kids hearing. J(8) drifts off during the “sappy bits” which in any case are general enough to go over his head, and C(10) is mature enough to handle them, so this doesn’t bother me personally).  J(8) has asked to learn about the world wars this term, so I’ve got The Silver Sword lined up for us to listen to together next.

C(10) and I are listening to I, Coriander (historical fiction/fantasy set in the days of Oliver Cromwell).  J(8) and I are listening to The Once and Future King (a charming classic re-telling of the King Arthur legend). I love finding myself in the car with just one child and being able to flick on our special audiobook (on the Audible app on my phone). (We do talk sometimes too, honest.)

Meanwhile, on their own, J(8) is re-listening to the Kane Chronicles and C(10) has just started reading The Underland Chronicles series (by Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins) while she waits for the fourth Heroes of Olympus book to arrive at the library.

Over the Christmas break we finished an excellent trilogy which prompted some very stimulating discussions about human nature, war and politics. I’m not going to mention the title (it’s not The Hunger Games) because I don’t want you to think I’m recommending it for eight-year-olds, but once I’ve formulated my thoughts I might be brave and write a post about it. Both my kids loved the books, and the listening experience really brought home to me how valuable fiction can be for deepening children’s (and adults’) understanding of complex real-world issues.

Brave Writer Lifestyle

I’m intending to use Brave Writer’s Daily Writing Tips: Volume 1 for inspiration, especially as a springboard to write alongside J(8) who has suddenly taught himself to spell (two years after we gave up spelling lessons and six months after we stopped his phonics programme. There’s a lesson for me there).

It’s a joy witnessing J(8)’s emerging written self-expression, not just for its own sake but because his writing is just so funny. Last week I was sitting alongside C(10) as she wrote Christmas thank-you emails. Her messages were polite, well-spelt and punctuated, and followed all the usual thank-you note conventions. Then J(8) joined us. I started out typing for him but he soon seized the computer to stop me editing what he wanted to say. We were soon all snorting with laughter at J(8)’s idea of appropriate greetings and thank-you sentiments. I’m not sure what J(8)’s kind relations and godparents will make of his thank-you notes, but I can be sure they won’t be receiving many others like his!

It won’t take long for J(8) to learn how to formulate his written thoughts into exam-ready paragraphs when he needs to do so. J(8)’s written voice is just beginning to emerge as the perfect expression of his exuberant, off-the-wall personality. To attempt to squash it into a rubric-constrained framework, before it’s had time to fully develop, would be a tragedy.

C(10) will continue her writing sessions with her tutor, the homeschooling mum friend who first introduced me to Brave Writer. C(10)  thoroughly enjoys these sessions and I’ve seen wonderful developments in her writing style since she began them.  I’ve also noticed that she’s been writing more often spontaneously recently – stories, notes and a very detailed dream journal.

Unschooling English and maths

We’ll also continue daily(ish) copywork, poetry teatimes, word and writing games and our read-aloud chapter book. We might read Puddles in the Lane next. I remember loving this story of evacuated children when I was ten, and it will fit well with J(8)’s request to learn about the World Wars.

More on that, and our project plans, next time!


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Hands-On Ottoman History – Design Your Own Turkish Rug

design your own turkish rug

The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 marked the end of the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern part of the old Roman Empire).

The Ottoman Turks, who ruled over the largest empire in the world for over three hundred years, renamed Constantinople “Istanbul”, and turned its great church, Hagia Sophia, into a mosque.

Design your own Turkish rug

Handwoven rugs are a Turkish art form dating as far back as 7000 BCE.  Rugs were used as blankets, and to cover walls, doorways and floors. They have also always been used as prayer mats.

Turkish rugs are usually made up of geometric patterns surrounded by a border. The patterns are symbols, and each colour that is used has a special significance.

We looked at photos of Turkish rugs and used the information in this Time Warp Trio guide to design our own rugs.

I printed us each a piece of isometric graph paper to help us with the geometric aspect.

design your own Turkish rug

design your own turkish rug
J(8) looked at photos of rugs that incorporated the dragon symbol he wanted to include in his design
design your own turkish rug
After creating his beautifully geometric centre design and border, J(8) decided to extend the theme with a swirling, dragon-like red and silver colour scheme – resulting in a slightly less authentic Turkish rug, but I can’t fault his creativity!
design your own Turkish rug
C(9) used a star symbol in her design (then decided to make it into a shooting star!)
design your own turkish rug
She coloured her rug blue (symbolising strength and power) with smaller amounts of orange (humility) and red (fire, joy, enthusiasm, faith), and dots of yellow (like the sun – symbolising the joy of life) in her rug’s border.
design your own Turkish rug
My rug is by far the least creative! In the centre are fertility symbols. The blue borders signify strength and power, and the green corners symbolise hope, renewal and life. Green is used only sparingly in Turkish rugs because it is the holy colour of the Prophet, Muhammad.

Field trip to Turkey

A few days after we designed our rugs we were lucky enough to visit Turkey on holiday.  We went to the city of Antalya, which was once a major Byzantine city on the south coast of Turkey.

It was fun being able to pick out the symbolism in the rugs we saw.

design your own Turkish rug
Turkish rug with “eye” symbols
design your own Turkish rug
Turkish rugs for sale in Antalya, Turkey
design your own turkish rug
Mini-Turkish rugs decorated these tubs of richly-coloured spices

Hadrian’s Gate

This magnificent gate was constructed in 130 AD in honour of the Roman Emperor, Hadrian.

design your own turkish rug
Hadrian’s Gate, Antalya

C(9) and J(8) remembered learning about Hadrian’s Wall when we studied Roman Britain, so seeing Hadrian’s Gate – nearly 2,500 miles away –  gave them a real appreciation of the size of the Roman Empire!

Antalya was conquered by the Turks in the 13th Century. The right hand tower of Hadrian’s Gate was added by a Turkish Sultan around that time.

design your own Turkish rug

We are visiting Istanbul next year, so we’re looking forward to learning more about this fascinating part of the world and its history!


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Hands-On Russian History

hands on russian history

We took a couple of fun rabbit trails – one artistic, one linguistic – when we learned about early Russian history.


How Russia got its name

Russia (the land of the Rus) derives its name from Rurik, a Viking explorer.  Rurik and his warrior tribe settled to rule over the native Slavs in an area north of the Black Sea which became known as the Kievan Rus.

Ivan the Great

The various Rus tribes were ruled separately by different warrior princes – and latterly, the Mongols – for about six hundred years, until they were brought together by a prince named Ivan.

This prince – a descendant of Rurik –  also freed Russia from Mongol rule. Ivan ruled Russia for many years, and is remembered as Ivan the Great.

Ivan the Terrible

By the time Ivan the Great’s grandson – remembered as Ivan the Terrible – came to power, the Russians had begun referring to their city “the Third Rome” (after Constantinople).

Ivan the Terrible called himself “Tsar”/”Czar”, meaning “Caesar”. After the death of his wife, Ivan the Terrible suffered bouts of paranoid madness, terrorising his people with a vast and vicious network of secret police. Ivan the Terrible even killed his own son – terrible, indeed!

The death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584 marked the end of Rurik’s dynasty.


Ivan the Great ruled the newly unified Russia from Moscow. There he built beautiful cathedrals inside the ancient fortress known as the Kremlin.

St Basils’s Cathedral, with its colourful onion-shaped domes, is so much fun to draw. We worked from one of the many beautiful photographs of St Basil’s.

hands on russian history
We coloured in our pictures of St Basil’s Cathedral with watercolour crayons

Russian Writing

How the Cyrillic alphabet was created

Back in the 9th century, the Byzantine Emperor commissioned two monks to bring Christianity to Eastern Europe. To do this, the monks had to transcribe the Bible into Slavic – a daunting task since the Slavs had no written language, and their spoken tongue contained many sounds not found in other languages.

One of the monks, Cyril, came up with the idea of creating a Slavic alphabet from a hotchpotch of Hebrew, Greek and Latin. In this clever way, St Cyril’s alphabet – the “Cyrillic alphabet” – was able to represent every Russian sound.

The Cyrillic script is now used by more than 70 languages.

Writing in Russian

We used this fabulous free booklet You Already Know a Little Russian to familiarise ourselves with Cyrillic letters.

hands on russian history

I also printed out the Greek alphabet (which we’ve looked at before) so we could compare the Greek and Russian letters. If you have older kids, you might also look at the Hebrew alphabet.

hands on russian history

We used an online transliteration tool to convert our names into Russian, then wrote them out.

And I transliterated a short “secret message” to each of the kids which they enjoyed decoding. (I can’t remember what I used to convert the script, but you can use the transliteration tool then cut and paste into a document.)

hands on russian history

I know I have at least one lovely Russian reader so I apologise for any inaccuracies I’ve made in my attempts to summarise. {Please feel free to correct any glaring mistakes!}

In my next history and geography post I’ll share the fun project we did when we studied medieval Turkey. It even overlapped with maths!


The Story of the World Volume 2: The Middle Ages

Russia, the Kievan Rus, and the Mongols: Crash Course World History #20

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