Sorting Toys Is Algebra

Do you realize that the mental skill used in sorting army men from building blocks is the same mental skill used in sorting variables in algebra problems? Makes higher math a little less scary, doesn’t it?

When a child can recognize and organize a playroom floor full of toys, he is honing the same skill he will use years later in recognizing and organizing an equation full of x’s, y’s, and xy’s. Whether the army men are green or tan, they are all considered army men, and building blocks are building blocks, regardless of their color. Whether the math variable is 2x or 3x, it is still considered an x-quantity. Army men do not get stored with building blocks, and x’s do not get combined with y’s.

If children are old enough to play with toys, they are old enough to put those toys away again. We used shoeboxes and plastic ice cream buckets large enough to hold all the army men or all the building blocks. Long before reading skills were acquired, I drew picture labels on index cards and taped them to each container (nothing fancy, just rough, cartoon-style illustrations — no words). Each child also had a picture chart for how to clean his room: a drawing of a messy bed and an arrow pointing to a drawing of a made-up bed; a drawing of books on the floor and an arrow pointing to a drawing of books on the shelf; a drawing of clothes in a pile on the floor and an arrow pointing to a drawing of the hamper. You get the idea. So will your kids. The artistically-challenged can adapt the idea with photos or pictures cut from magazines or catalogs.

The skill of tidying up the play area is extremely valuable, both to children and to parents. The children will grow in confidence and courage as they realize they have a new skill. Obviously, the parents will appreciate any amount of help in clearing a path through the house. However, do not expect your tiny tykes to understand this endeavor the first time you spring it on them, and do not expect them to do a first-class, absolutely perfect job… ever (hence the need for containers roomy enough to easily fit the contents). To begin with, sit on the floor with your little darlings and challenge them to pick out all of one specific type of toy from the jumble on the floor and put them into their container while you dispatch all of the other toys to their assigned spots. Point out to them how it is simpler to pick out the largest pieces first, before trying to select the tiniest pieces. Eventually, your little helper will be able to tackle two or three types of toys, one after the other. After they have mastered their sorting skills, you will notice them sorting out several different types of toys at the same time, as you would. Be sure to point out their progress and praise them for it.

Make your pick-up time fun by challenging each other to races or by sliding the Matchbox cars down a strip of racetrack into their storage box. Always allow for clean-up time as a part of playtime, so that no one is caught by surprise, and you are not left to clean up the mess after everyone else is tucked into bed. I did not want to make pick-up time feel like a punishment to be dreaded, so I helped my children as they learned the task and praised them for the good jobs they were doing. I have always enjoyed having someone to talk to while I clean up my kitchen, so I could easily understand why my children wanted my company while picking up their toys. “Together-time” with your children is never wasted time.

Another reward for a job well done was permission to play with more than one board game at a time. When I was a child, my mother had a strict rule that one game or puzzle had to be completely picked up and put away before a second one could be brought out. My children’s success at efficiently sorting and storing won them the privilege of playing with more than one thing at a time — which their creative minds took to new heights as they invented ways of combining games. They found it as much fun to sort out the pieces from multiple games, as it had been to play with the games themselves. Plus, you can only have enough letter tiles to solve some word puzzles when you combine the tiles from Scrabble, Scrabble Junior, and Upwords along with the anagram tiles!

I began teaching this sorting task to my children when they were very small — toddlers, in fact — years before we began homeschooling. I did not actually see the connection to higher math until years later. My children had no difficulty with understanding the concepts of polynomials (xy-type variables, for those of you who have forgotten or not reached that point yet in your homeschool), due in great part, I feel, to the sorting skills they possessed.

We held a birthday party for my daughter at age 15 and invited a handful of her homeschool peers. One of the games we had prepared was a jigsaw puzzle challenge. Each team of 2 girls was given a bag of jigsaw puzzle pieces: 3 puzzles combined — all simple, elementary level puzzles of varying size and complexity, but with all their pieces combined. The challenge was to separate the puzzles and reassemble all 3 puzzles before the other teams completed theirs. I was amazed at how difficult this was for some of the girls. Even though the puzzles were easily separated by the size of their pieces, some of the players had extreme difficulty in recognizing that. None of the puzzles contained more than 100 pieces, and each one was very simple to distinguish from the others and put together. As I later analyzed this situation in regard to the families involved, I concluded that the players who had the most difficulty came from families where Overworked Mom did all the picking up.

We should never feel that teaching our children to do household cleaning tasks is a punishment for them — it is giving them a future, valuable, life skill. In this particular case, they will learn recognition, sorting, and organization — skills valuable for their further education, as well as being beneficial for personal and professional choices they will make later in their lives. Learning to sort toys is learning to prioritize.

[See also The Importance of Play in Education]

People LIVE in this House

I went to a party once in a furniture store. Actually, it was held in the brand-new home of a young couple who had just recently married. I was visiting a friend of theirs and attended as her guest, so I do not know much about the hosts themselves, except that they were obviously not hurting financially. The one thing I do remember clearly from this evening was the extremely sterile feeling of the house. I would call it a “home,” but that implies an entirely different feeling from calling it a “house,” which is what it was. It was a house where this couple lived, but it did not feel like a home. It looked as though someone had walked into a very large furniture store and said, “I’ll take one of each, all in the same style, please.”

The living room furniture matched the dining room furniture, which matched the family room furniture, which matched the kitchen furniture. You can use your imagination to figure out what the rest of the place looked like. Every piece in every room was an exact complement to every other piece in every other room. Although it looked nice, it did not have a feeling of “family.” There were no hand-me-downs, no family treasures, no heritage. No doilies crocheted by Great Aunt What’s-her-name, no sepia-tinted photos of ancient, unnamed ancestors, no chipped fruit bowl.

At first glance, I was envious, dreaming what it must be like to have everything new, not handed down family cast-offs. However, the longer I remained in the house, the closer I was able to see everything. There were no scratches, no water-rings, no dents or marks on anything. It began to feel alien. The realization of “family” came over me as I thought about my own home with Grandma’s rocking chair, Grandpa’s nightstand, and the mirror Mom was tricked into buying at a farm auction. I have hand-me-downs galore. I have family. Grandpa helped my son build the birdhouse in the backyard. Grandma gave us the dishes in the cupboard; the cupboard was given to us by my brother-in-law. Almost everything in my house bears a scratch, a dent, or some other mark giving a hint to its life story.

The furniture in my house is not always easy to see. It is often at least partially hidden under books, papers, an occasional article of clothing, or a bowl holding a half-dozen popcorn kernels. The dog feels much more secure knowing that a chew toy is within easy reach at any point in his realm, so my efforts to corral them into a basket behind the end table are usually thwarted by his scampering/scattering ritual. In other words, people live in this house.

We do not go out the door promptly at 7:30am each day, abandoning our home to remain lonely, but in perfect order, for the greater part of the day. A family lives here. A homeschooling family lives here — a family that reads books and occasionally eats in front of the television set in the living room. We often leave video tapes piled near the TV — with their cases strewn about elsewhere. At the moment, a throw pillow has been thrown onto the floor and remains there. The dining room table is barely recognizable under a recent art project, a three-ring binder, assorted papers, index cards, and pizza coupons. The dog is lying serenely beside me with his squeaky bunny and teddy bear close enough for a quick game of shake and growl. A family lives here.

It is not at all unusual to find dishes in my sink — dirty ones. The dish drainer is frequently found sitting full of clean, but unshelved, dishes. Laundry can sit undone, bathrooms can remain uncleaned, and the whole place is often cluttered. Do not mistake my meaning: I do not think of myself as a poor housekeeper, but people live in this house. I could (try to) keep my house as clean and uncluttered as a magazine layout, but no one would enjoy spending time here. I could grab the dishes out from under you as soon as a meal was finished and whisk them back into the cupboards in sparkling condition, but it would remove a great deal of the peace from dinnertime. Speaking of magazine layouts, have you ever looked closely at some of those photo-spreads? No world exists outside their windows — most likely because the fake window is set up as part of a fake room inside a photo studio full of other fake things (fake plants, fake food, fake world).

I accept the fact that people live here. I do not chase them around with the vacuum cleaner, and I do not make them wait to use the bathroom until I have re-cleaned it following its use by a guest. (Someone actually did that to me once — I was pregnant at the time, and I nearly caused there to be more to clean than just the stool and sink.) My home is clean, though often cluttered. My home is clean, but never sterile. People live in this house, and I want them to know that they are infinitely more important to me than my house is.

Consider the wisdom in Proverbs 14:4, shown here in several translations for clarity.
“Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much increase comes by the strength of the ox.” (New American Standard Bible)
“Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox comes an abundant harvest.” (New International Version)
“An empty stable stays clean, but no income comes from an empty stable.” (New Living Translation)
A house without a family may stay cleaner than a home full of children, family, and friends, but where is the fun in that? — Guilt-Free Homeschooling paraphrase of Proverbs 14:4

Using Your Household Staff

“She gets up before dawn to prepare breakfast for her household and plan the day’s work for her servant girls.” (Proverbs 31:15) I do not have a staff of servant girls (and I am rarely up before dawn!), but I do have household servants. So do you, although yours may differ slightly from mine. I have a crock-pot, a bread machine, a clothes washer and dryer, a dishwasher, etc. These make up my household staff. If I have a load of laundry in the washing machine, another load in the dryer (or on the clothesline), the dishwasher is running, and the crock-pot is crocking away, I know I can sit down for a few minutes Guilt-Free, because tasks are being taken care of for me! Clothing and dishes are being cleaned and food is being cooked, enabling “me” to be in several places at once.

I try to get “my staff” working as soon as possible each day, because then I can feel quite productive — even if I am having a rather “slow” day personally. I can sit down with my students to practice their reading or play a game, knowing that chores are getting done.

Back when my children were small, I used a cassette tape recorder to capture my voice as I read favorite storybooks to my toddler. Later, when Mommy just could not be there, that tape could be replayed — allowing Little One to spend time with Mommy, hearing those favorites over and over again, making the tape player another valued member of my helpful staff. Incidentally, my daughter got as much enjoyment from hearing her own reactions on the tape as from hearing me. I had also tried just reading stories into the tape recorder — without the child on my lap — but the result was undesirably flat and just no fun to listen to.

My children are also valuable members of my staff — Mom should never be working alone when all others are recreating! I enjoy free time as much as the next person does; I just seem to get less of it. Kids can fold towels, sort underwear, scrub potatoes, and do plenty of other simple jobs so that Mom can be freed up for higher-skill jobs. Many times I have agreed to make a costume or other special request for one of my children only after they agreed to take over specific Mommy-tasks in order to give me the time required. Barter is a great tool — use it to your advantage!

Many years have passed, but I still remember the shock on my friend’s face when her daughter wrote a paper for school about the hobbies her family members pursued. The daughter had listed Mom’s hobbies as cooking and cleaning. I knew that woman as being a very artsy person who loved craft projects, decorating, sewing, and scrounging through garage sales. We had great fun together going to those garage sales and parks with our children or at couples’ parties with our spouses. I knew she had many interests — why did her own daughter only see the cooking-and-cleaning side? Perhaps it was because Mom had never pointed out what leisure time activities she did enjoy. Perhaps a little job-trading activity would have helped to clarify the fact that some chores benefit the entire family and can therefore be accomplished by anyone in the family with the required skill. More than once I have accepted the offer of kid-prepared scrambled eggs for supper in return for mending something that child wanted to wear the next day.

We all need to re-examine how and why we do the things we do. Are perfectly folded towels really all that important once we close the linen closet door? Will my family notice (or even care) if the cake they eat after supper has been imperfectly frosted by the Junior Chef or will they just be grateful for the rare treat of dessert? How much better will I feel at the end of the day knowing we have clean underwear for tomorrow AND Little One got to snuggle on my lap through several storybooks? Making use of timesaving appliances and a little work-together time can also save me some sanity and let me get on to enjoying some Guilt-Free activities that I have previously only dreamed about.

Biblical Model of Discipleship

It worked for Jesus, and it has worked for me. Whether you are folding laundry, making bread, or shingling a roof, this method works:
You do it with them watching you.
You do it with them helping you.
They do it with you helping them.
They do it with you watching them.
You leave with them doing it alone.

Jesus modeled this method for His disciples by teaching and healing the multitudes. As the disciples watched Jesus, they learned. As Jesus had Peter, James, and John step aside with Him to heal, they learned. Jesus had the disciples try it on their own, while He stayed nearby to assist when needed. Finally, He was able to send them out with confidence.

Now we can apply this same method to teaching many new tasks, from long division to changing a tire. First, you let your students watch to get a good idea of how the job is supposed to go when it is done correctly. For many jobs, your children have already watched you do it over and over, informally — they did not realize they were learning something, they thought they were just watching Mom do her jobs.

Second, allow the students to help with the easier portions of the job and work their way up to trying the more complicated parts. Again, you may have already accomplished this stage, simply taking advantage of the extra pairs of hands.

Third, trade places with your students and take over the role of helper, doing the easy tasks for them, but remaining close by in case the students need assistance with the trickier operations. This can be a scary step — actually turning over the outcome of the task to someone else. But if we think about what really matters, teaching the skill itself is much more important than having the towels folded perfectly straight.

Fourth, step back a little and observe your new trainees as they perform the entire task by themselves. It is often a good idea at this stage to “act busy,” involving yourself in another nearby task so that your apprentices do not get nervous from being watched. Keep watching until they are confident in their newfound ability, then walk away to your next job — or maybe free time!

Remember, practice makes perfect: your new worker will probably not do the job exactly the same way you do it, but they will get better with time, and it is important also to emphasize that to the child. “I don’t expect you to do it the same way Mommy does it because you just started, and I’ve got 20 years of practice ahead of you. But I know you will get better and faster the more you do it.” Then be sure to praise their progress!

Family Is Spelled T-E-A-M

Alexandre Dumas said it best in The Three Musketeers: “All for one, and one for all.” My family is a singular unit, even though it appears to be made up of individuals. We work together to accomplish our common goals, with unity of purpose as a wonderful side benefit.

For example, each one of us has learned how to operate the washer and dryer for doing laundry, a common practice in many families. However, in this family, if one individual needs a specific load of laundry done, he/she does not simply do his/her own laundry. Instead all family members are questioned to find out if anyone else also has items to be added to that load — a practice that promotes teamwork and unity, rather than selfishness and isolation.

Other household chores are also done with a teamwork principle, rather than being assigned in turns. Each chore is usually done by only one person at a time (or with Mom’s discipleship), but we do not always schedule who is going to do it next. Our goal is “getting the job done for the good of the family.” “Taking turns” is a valuable skill, most often used in playing games and other recreational pursuits. Taking turns does teach patience and sharing. However, in a home environment where all members benefit from the performance of a specific duty, all members should be ready and willing to perform that duty whenever it needs doing. Emptying or loading the dishwasher; taking out the trash; washing, drying, and folding laundry; sweeping, vacuuming, and dusting; lawn-mowing, leaf-raking, and snow-shoveling — these are regular household chores that benefit all members of the family and therefore get done by all members of the family. Ever-present Mom usually acts as superintendent, assigning chores as needed to whomever is available, but we all understand that if one person is not available to do it this time, chances are good that he will be expected to do it another time when he is available. Substituting for each other ensures that each person knows how to do each job and also builds the family-as-team concept.

A sidebar issue to “This Family Is a Team” is “Siblings as Best Friends.” You may be in disbelief at this concept depending on the ages of your children, but give me a chance and I will explain.