A picture is worth a thousand words, but unfortunately I can't upload photos on my husband's laptop. So I'll just have to try to paint a picture of our learning room in language, as inadequate as that may be.
Before we moved into this house -- lo, a little over a year ago -- I would entertain myself into sleep contemplating how I would set up the shelves in the living room. (Follow the link and scroll down to see them.) At that point the house was a blank slate, and I had many happy fantasies of making the living room into a schoolroom. In these fantasies, I knew where everything was in every box, and I unwrapped it calmly and surely and put it in its place.
And then reality hit. The boxes just sort of exploded on their own, spewing out toys, books, art supplies, and various math manipulatives like chunks of volcanic rock. The living room ended up dedicated to toys, many of which were merely clutter, or broken, or missing a couple of necessary pieces. I attempted to set up a Montessori-ish environment in the dining room, where the kids could do seat work and art at the table, but they continually migrated into the family room, where our old, familiar couch and coffee table are located. So I cleared out the shelves in the entertainment center and put some Montessori materials there. The kids proceeded to ignore them.
It was therefore after much thought, discussion, and frustrating trial and error that we decided to pursue my original idea: why not make the living room our "school"room?
The Loveliness of Learning Spaces fair, and an impending visit from my mother and father-inlaw, got me motivated. Toys, for the most part, have been relocated to the other side of our shelf-sculpture-thing, housed in blue plastic bins on the entertainment center shelves or placed directly on the shelves, neatly. Montessori materials that remain on that side of our long front room are the Pink Tower and Brown Stair, which fit nicely on the shelf underneath the coffee table, and are often taken out by Farmerboy and the babies, who like to pick up the medium-sized blocks and move them onto the floor. Katydid often builds and unbuilds towers for them, which they enjoy.
While we've made a lot of progress, the living room proper is still being transformed. I ran into a setback when I moved the loveseat into the family room area in order to make room for a table for the older kids. In the basement there's a table that is probably original to the house; it's one of those fifties formica tables with the metal legs. The former owner used it as an art table, and I was going to cover it with a nice vinyl table cloth and set it up next to our weird shelf-thing. Alas, all the little rubber feet had been plundered from the table, making it a hazard to wood floors. When I mentioned it to Andy, he said he'd rather have a nice wooden table in that room anyway, since it is our living room and practically the first thing you see when you walk in the door.
So I made a trip to the furniture store today and bought a small, relatively inexpensive kitchen table set, which will be delivered in few weeks. The table is a simple style and the chairs that came with it go with our larger dining room table. It also came with a bench that matches a bench we already own. I'll probably switch the chairs for the bench that's already at the dining room table, and use the two benches with our new learning room table. It looks pretty durable, and there's room for a lot of kids and art projects. It should serve us for years. Still, making such a largish purchase leaves me somewhat giddy.
What's actually in the learning room now? Well...
- One red couch. Not tomato red, or fire engine red, but a nice, warm apple red. (You can see the bottom of the couch and the rug in a picture from this post.) It faces out the long fifties ranch window onto the road and the field across the street. You can also see our big spruce tree in the front yard, which is nice in the winter. The couch is set a couple of feet in front of our wall of bookcases (bought unfinished a long time ago, and stained a honey maple, which goes nicely with our floors in this house), so that it makes a little hideaway behind it where a kid can sit with a book (or two or three) and hardly be noticed.
- Two bookcases, not quite floor to ceiling. Organizationally, these were in horrible shape. We had our books arranged so that each subject had its own shelf, or shelves, but certain people (ahem) had begun sticking books in any which way when they got them out. So the bookcases were a mess. I took out every single book (that's a lot), weeded out five diaper boxes of books to donate to the library, and bought Wal-Mart out of red, white, and turquoise canvas bins (they didn't have any other colors.) These bins are just the right size for picture books. Preschool books got coded to the turquoise bins and moved elsewhere (I'll come to that in a minute), science got white (Katydid's pick); history and geography red; and literature of a paperback size got woven baskets. I pulled out all the short chapter books and the harder readers and separated them into baskets for Katydid, too. (I can't claim originality on this idea, though; it was Dawn and her coffee boxes that inspired me. Unfortunately, I don't drink coffee and couldn't find any cardboard boxes that would work. They had all been recycled, or they were the wrong sizes. So off to Wal-mart it was.)
In each subject, I sorted the books by topic and dedicated a bin to each topic. It was interesting to see what we had. For instance, our science books fell into several categories: animals, birds (in Katydid's room), horses (Katydid again), dinosaurs (oh, do we have a lot of dinosaur books); plants, including trees; insects and spiders; general earth science (weather, volcanoes, earthquakes, rocks); space; oceans (we did an oceans unit last summer); general nature (including books about nature journaling); and a sort of catch-all how things work, physical science category, which includes books about magnets, electricity, recycling, and construction. I broke our history books down into time periods instead of by theme. There wasn't enough room to do theme baskets there, but I can easily make baskets by pulling out the appropriate books from the bins in which they're stored. Geography got its own basket and its own shelf below the history books.
(Before I start in on listing our materials, you should probably note that many of these are the results of birthdays and Christmases.)
- Preschool and "Geometry/Spatial" Corner. This is the right-hand corner of the room. (Here's that link again for reference.) The preschool table and chairs are here. One side of the built-in cabinet holds the blue bins of preschool picture books, and the other side holds farm blocks, wooden color/pattern blocks, Interstar blocks, geometric solids, and a wooden train set. (Because the shelves are very deep, I am using shelf extenders.) Against the wall are Rubbermaid containers of Duplos and wooden blocks. On top of the cabinets are activities that contain small pieces unsuitable for babies: a smaller pattern block activity; Cuisenaire rods; some puzzle blocks; and unit cubes. On the shelf above are the small Legos. (I plan to add more spatial/geometry activities for the older kids -- hopefully including some paper-folding -- but I haven't yet.) The two shelves above this hold some of my homeschooling books. In one of the decorative nooks, I've set a sandalwood scented yellow candle.
- Math and Science Cabinet. This is the left-hand cabinet , which has fewer shelves above it. It is still very much in progress. Right now the math side holds a bin of math picture books; a couple of number puzzles, fraction circles and squares; Base 10 blocks; a Flashmaster; and a plastic learning clock. It also holds a copy of How Math Works. My plan is to set out a tray with projects from this book weekly, but we will see how that goes. I haven't put out any of the Montessori activities either, which I'll be using with Katydid and Farmerboy. The science side is a little sketchier. It holds copies of How Nature Works and How the Universe Works, some science readers for Katydid, and a solar system floor puzzle. The kids have recently become interested in magnets, so I'll probably put out some magnet experiments. Eventually I hope to acquire a microscope, which we'll store here, too. And I need to collect all our magnifying glasses, binoculars, and other field equipment in one place.
- Computer desk. Our computer desk is old and battered and has always been missing a pencil drawer. I could not make it simply elegant if I tried. I did clean it off, however, and I cleaned out my file drawer, too. In this file drawer I keep files of Gareth and Katydid's work, the paperwork I file with the state, homeschooling regulations, and Farmerboy's artwork and narrated stories. The Lego Mindstorms robotics kit is on the top shelf.
- Art Appreciation Shelf. This is an old printer stand and holds a bin full of art appreciation books along the lines of A Child's Book of Art,Come Look With Me, and Katie and the Sunflowers. I hope to display some postcards on top.
- Language Arts Shelf. This is a small bookshelf of the Target variety. It fits underneath the big window, so it's not very big. This presents a bit of a problem, as I try to figure out how to include activities for the older kids while still putting out things like letter puzzles for my three year old. The puzzle cabinet is on the bottom shelf here, and the babies make a beeline for it every morning. This means that the floor is almost always covered with big wooden puzzle pieces. Other items in this bookcase include: a small box of cardboard tactile letters, modeled on the Montessori sandpaper letters; a tray of Magnetic Kidwords, which has different parts of speech in different colors; a rolodex I'm going to make into a spelling dictionary; and a basket of short chapter books for Katydid. I'll add a basket for Gareth as well, since one of our rules is that during "school" time he has to read something that doesn't involve Star Wars, Bionicles, or Captain Underpants.
- Culture Shelf. Another small (old) Target-variety bookcase underneath the window. There are readers for Katydid, a basket of farming books (the kids want to do a unit on farming); a farm floor puzzle, and a Leap Frog globe, one of the best birthday presents Gareth has ever received. (He practically wore it out in the first year listening to all the national anthems.) The bottom shelf is dedicated to the babies and has nothing to do with "culture": instead, it holds some gears, an activity pyramid, and a basket that is currently full of textured balls.
- Religion Shelf. The third Target bookcase and the end of the window. There are baskets of pictures books on saints and faith, and a personal bin for each child containing a story Bible, a rosary, and prayer cards. This is where we keep the Bible we read from and The Catechism of the Catholic Church. I hope to add Catholic Mosaic books, notebooking supplies, and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd materials.
- Music Shelf. The babies' favorite right now. This is an old TV cart on the opposite wall, next to the bookcases. On the bottom is a basket full of baby-safe musical instruments, a Mozart Music Cube(the babies love this), and a drum. On top is our collection of rhythm instruments (tone blocks, rhythm sticks, finger cymbals, castenets, shakers) and recorders; a bin of music books (a book of Recorder music; Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (And What the Neighbors Thought),Composers Fandex, Bravo! Brava! A Night at the Opera; and a Fisher-Price tape recorder and tapes.
- Basket of baby board books
- Basket of school totes. This is another idea I borrowed from Dawn. Last year we had bins for school books and things got piled up and it was hard for the kids to dig out the books on the bottom. I always enjoy pulling the books out of a tote when we travel, so I thought we would give it a shot this year at home. The kids won't have many workbooks/textbooks this year, but they'll need a place to keep the few we do use.
- The Reference Shelf. This is technically out in the entryway, but we didn't have room for it in the living room proper. It holds our dictionaries, our science and history encyclopedias, and other reference books. A painting by Andy's grandfather hangs above this shelf. His grandfather attended art school in Paris in the thirties, and we have a number of his Paris paintings hanging around the house.
And that's about it. Our art cabinet is out in the dining room, and our stack of current read-alouds is always on the coffee table in the family room area. The kids also do a fair amount of work in their rooms, but I think that's the subject for another post.