Our Homeschooling Goals for Grade Five

Well, it’s mid-September, which means we unschooly types are starting to trickle back into what we think of as our school/unschool year. Of course I’m not technically unschooling as Neko is in a blended program, and also given that we do some schooly stuff most days, but we still fit the personality profile (you know — sleeping in, avoiding bookwork, having not the most academic goals in general).

Neko started back to her blended program last week and we had our facilitator meeting last Monday, so it seemed like a good week for us to start back at our homeschooling as well. We’ve been doing a tiny bit of review since late August but we have mostly been lazy and sleepy.

I have, however, been thinking a lot about what I’d like to focus on this year. The major factors in this planning have been the fact that we are putting Neko into a public arts school next year, so I need to make sure she is up to speed on her core subjects; and also that I want to make sure I’ve done as much as I can during my intensive time with her to instill the core values that matter to us as a family: gratitude, service, self-sufficiency, appreciation of art and connection to nature, specifically. Continue reading


Handwriting Without Tears… Wait, For Real?

I’ve been on the fence about cursive for years. Well, you know, since she started “grade one” (quotes to accommodate unschooling). Do kids need cursive? I’ve read lots of conflicting views (yes, this is what homeschooling parents do – read conflicting views on the merits of cursive writing). It seems that it boils down to, on one side: why bother; why fight kids to make them learn something tedious when it’s not necessary; it’s outdated and who cares anyway? vs. Scientific studies whose findings suggest that learning and writing in cursive is good for fine motor skills and can help a child to have better reading and spelling skills (this article sums up the arguments, both scientific and otherwise). Continue reading

What We Did This Summer

Let’s give this (“this” being using this blog as a record of our learning activities in order to easily be able to write my end-of-year report) another try! I thought I’d start off our school/not-school year by recapping a few neat things we did over the summer.

We started off in June by taking a little day trip from Calgary to Blackfoot Crossing. It’s about an hour’s drive from Calgary, east on the Trans-Canada. I have wanted to go for a couple of years now, but we made more of an effort this time and actually set a date, as I had already started our learning plan for fall (in June?! What has gotten into me?) and it included learning about the First Nations of Canada and especially our region. I wish we had gone sooner, and we will definitely go again! It’s an absolutely beautiful site, and readily apparent why it has been a sacred site for centuries. You’re driving through dry prairie, nothing too exciting, and suddenly the prairie gives way to a lush valley and the scenery is gorgeous. Above it sits the interpretative centre (top righthand corner of the photo).

The view of the river valley at Blackfoot Crossing.

The view of the river valley at Blackfoot Crossing.

In the interpretative centre, we learned about different aspects of the Blackfoot culture, such as dances, migration, dwellings and traditions. We learned about residential schools (I added a bit of my own information to the write-up, which was very diplomatic) as well.

Our favourite part was strolling around outside, checking out the stone mounds, noteworthy sites and the traditional dance competition area. There is a walkway up to a lookout point (the vantage point of the photo above), and from here we could see pelicans circling, deciding where to land on the river below.

Blackfoot Crossing 2

In July, Neko spent a week in Edmonton with friends of ours. She was lucky enough to attend Odysseo, the Edmonton Science Centre, and the Alberta Legislature. She took the full legislature tour, which, happily, is in the Grade Four curriculum.

August was a blur of day camps and swimming. She can now jump off the diving board and swim to the edge, and dive all the way to the bottom of the pool, both of which are huge for her.

And the day before school started (September 15), we attended Homeschool Day at the Telus Spark. Neko attended the Junior Architects class and the tour of the building which covered all the aspects of their LEED certification. Great options for a little girl who dreams of being an architect or designer!

Junior architects building a wobbly tipi from PVC pipe at Telus Spark.

Junior architects building a wobbly tipi from PVC pipe at Telus Spark.

She also experimented with gears on the gear wall in the Creative Kids Museum (and later in the week went over gears and pulleys in her workbook), and of course the crowd favourite was the new Brainasium outdoor playground! The 63-foot slide was a blast.

63-foot slide in the Brainasium park

63-foot slide in the Brainasium park


On the climb up.

Next up! Back to school! It’s been a hectic week!

On Never Being Taught to Read

Once upon a time, I was the mother of a four-year-old child who showed pretty much zero interest in learning to read. My brain, as it is wont to do, split into two opposing camps. Camp one was freaking out perpetually that I ought to be doing more, that this was my first big chance to FAIL as a homeschooler, that this crazy experiment called unschooling wouldn’t work at all. Camp two, meanwhile, was resting easy in countless studies and articles that reassured me of the importance of pre-literacy skills and the benefit of letting kids learn to read on their own time and those Scandinavians who don’t teach academics until age seven. Camp two was also trying to believe the librarians who assured me that Neko was right on track with her pre-literacy to be a strong reader, and believing whole-heartedly my unschooly friends who related that their child had not read until 6, 7, 8, even 9 and within a year was reading at or above grade level.

This is my brain on a daily basis, with all things. Yeah, I’m used to it, but it doesn’t stop the camps from debating.

So then, time passed. My mom, a kindergarten teacher, supportively lent us tons of little phonics readers, and I tried to get Neko to try them out. She staunchly resisted. I decided it wasn’t worth a fight.

When she was about five and a half, we signed up for Reading Eggs online. She used this sometimes, and it was a bit helpful.

Neko looking at a book on the hammock.

Neko looking at a book on the hammock.

But when it came down to it, she learned to read when she was ready, which turned out to be around six and a half to seven. What did we do? We provided her with tools and resources – Reading Eggs, lots of books, reading aloud to her daily, several trips to the library each week, watching Electric Company, and letting her see us read. We never did sit down and “teach” her, and I did my best to quiet the voice in my head that was freaking out about her learning to read later than some other kids. I also did my best to reassure my mother and father, who would sometimes comment that children younger than Neko, in my mom’s kindergarten class, were further ahead in their reading.

Of course, it helped to read on Facebook about the kindergarten and grade one homework my friends’ kids were being sent home with. I never wanted reading to be a chore, so it was reassuring to know that we were avoiding setting up that dynamic.

If you’ve read this far and you happen to be able to closely identify with the me-of-the-past I’m describing, specifically because you have a preschooler or primary kid who is “late” learning to read – here’s the whole point. Let me tell you about where we are today, at 8.

Though she couldn't read, she loved looking at books.

Though she couldn’t read, she loved looking at books.

Neko ended up really taking an interest in reading when she was almost 7. At that point we started to do a bit of work at home, such as BrainQuest workbook activities, more Reading Eggs, and writing projects – journals, stories, letters (though not much. Really – not much at all.).  She was interested in learning to read, so we didn’t find working on it to be a chore. Still, we spent very little time working on reading with her. We mostly answered questions as she posed them and continued to make resources and tools available.

When she started at the blended homeschool program in the fall of 2013, a young member of the grade three class, she was reading at grade level. That’s nine months of reading to catch up on two school years of instruction. Now, halfway through grade three? She’s been named one of the more advanced readers in her class and given a part in the radio play that has tons of lines. She’s also reading Wildwood, which is labelled as an age 8-12 reading level but is, I have to agree with this writer, far above that. At any rate, I’m proud of my kid who has the perseverance to keep picking up this 541-page hardcover and getting through it two pages at a time. And then coming to tell us about plot developments – yay reading comprehension!

So take heart. Try not to worry. And keep the end goal in sight. Do you want to boast that your pre-schooler can read*? Or is it more important to you to raise an adult who loves reading and does it well?

Neko learning about feminism early thanks to Bust.

Neko learning about feminism early thanks to Bust.

(*Please note: yes, I know there are plenty of pre-schoolers who learn how to read of their own accord, and love it. Just don’t sweat it if your kid is not one of them.)

So This One Time, We Went to Cabo…

… and I wrote about it! And then I let the post sit for ummm… eight months. Yep. I really did. But it was already written and the whole point was that although I really dislike Cabo San Lucas (boo, hiss, throw the rotten tomatoes), we managed to somehow make our trip affordable, fun and educational. Now, how was that?! Let me tell you…

Our Trip to Cabo and How We Made it a Homeschooling Win

When Justan told me last fall that we’d be going to Cabo for a destination wedding, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Cabo San Lucas isn’t exactly the type of destination we would choose for a family vacation – or a trip at all.

I had been there 13 years ago when I was 18 years old, right in the middle of spring break. Now, I was 18 and reasonably happy to just spend my two weeks in Cabo taking advantage of cheap and free drinks, but even at that point I found the pursuits of choice in Cabo a bit a) vapid or b) expensive. Justan first told me that he felt confident in my researching skills to find us more authentic attractions and a richer cultural experience. I was sorry to break it to him that these things are extremely hard to come by in Los Cabos.

But, he was asked to be the best man in the wedding, and it was important to us to be there for these friends, so we started planning. Here is how we made the best of it and had a great (and even educational!) family vacation in Cabo San Lucas.


We started by searching out an apartment. Resorts are really not our thing, especially resorts that are located along a tourist strip outside of town, like many of those in Los Cabos are. On the recommendations of friends, we first tried Air B’n’B, a website that matches up travellers with locals who have a room, bed or flat to rent out. We quickly found a one-bedroom apartment along the main roadway in Cabo, for $50 CAD per night. For one week, this little suite with a kitchenette and room to sleep four would cost us $400. Sign us up!

When we arrived, we were pleased to find that our flat was on the ground floor of the complex and opened directly onto the courtyard and pool deck. We discovered that the complex used to be a suite hotel, but in the economic downturn it had been sold off as condo apartments – there was a clover-shaped swimming pool with a defunct swim-up bar to prove it.

The pool outside our room with the swim-up bar.

The pool outside our room with the swim-up bar. (We really should have bought some drinks and taken turns serving them to each other, haha.)

This suite turned out to be really great, as we could buy our own food at the local market and eat a lot of our meals at home, and Neko could play around the pool in the morning and at other times when we were busy, because it was right outside our door. There were also a couple of families with children living in the complex, and Neko spent some time playing with the kids, who didn’t speak much (if any) English.


To save money, we booked flights on the way down and back with one stopover each. This was a bummer, but not so bad. Neko is seven now so the wait times weren’t awful. She even did well getting up at 4 am for our trip down.

Waiting at the Calgary Airport, 5 am.

Waiting at the Calgary Airport, 5 am.

For amusement on the flights (and for downtime in our flat while we were there), we had a colour-by-numbers book from Melissa and Doug; a word search book and a book of mazes; several comics and thin chapter books; blank notebook paper and pens; and her LeapPad with a couple of new games (the Eye Spy game went over well, as did Finneus and Pherb). I also packed lots of snacks – Goldfish crackers, beef jerky, fruit bars, Larabars, and Emergen-C, powdered coconut water mix and tea bags to liven up some water along the way. We were very thankful to have all these snacks along the way.

While in Los Cabos, we traveled mainly by bus. Don’t be afraid to try the local transit – we actually found it nicer than the public transit back home (we mainly took the Subur Cabos buses and avoided the old school bus-style buses), and it was affordable and very convenient. The buses will stop if you flag them down, even anywhere along the highway, and they will let you off anywhere you want. This made it easy to hit out-of-the-way beaches along the InterPeninsular highway. We did have to take cabs a few times, such as home after the wedding, but it was a much nicer experience to be on a bus with locals and have to figure things out for ourselves.

Day One: The Improbable Sunset Dinner Cruise, Humpback Whales and Flying Manta Rays

Mostly a travel day, we were scheduled to land at the Los Cabos airport outside San Jose del Cabo at about 2:30 in the afternoon. We found out after we booked our flights that the bride and groom had booked a sunset dinner cruise for all their guests as a part of their wedding package – at 4 pm. We didn’t hold out hope that we would make it in time, but when everything went according to schedule, we decided to try. We dropped our luggage in our room and took off on foot for the marina, flagging down a bike taxi before long so we might just make it in time.

We did end up getting there just in time, and it was a good thing. This cruise would have cost us almost $200 for the three of us, though even at that price it might have been worth it. Mid-December to mid-March is whale calving and mating season in the Sea of Cortez, and it’s easy to spot humpback and grey whales breaching, even from many of the resorts along the coast. We followed one family of humpbacks (cow, bull and new calf) for about an hour, and they breached countless times – though we didn’t get to see them jump, nor see their tails. This was really neat, especially considering that we had only been in the country for a couple of hours and this was basically the first thing Neko saw.

She relished riding on the small boat on rough seas, although she made me nervous getting so close to the rails. This was her first real ocean experience.

Neko enjoying the choppy seas on the dinner cruise.

Neko enjoying the choppy seas on the dinner cruise.

Near the end of our cruise, someone mentioned that there were fish jumping. I looked just in time to see a couple of manta rays sail through the air, flapping, then splash back into the sea. This was something I had read about while researching our trip (have a look at my Pinterest board of pre-trip research if you’d like), but I hadn’t been able to find more information on how or when to view this show for ourselves. Scientists say they can find no reason for the rays to display this behaviour – not mating, nor evading predators – and have surmised that it’s purely for fun. We discovered on this trip that the reason you can’t find more information on how or when to see the rays “flying” is that it’s so common and easy to see. It might only be during a certain time, but when we were there in early March, they were visible from some beaches (we saw quite a few off Hotel Beach in San Jose) and in the sea near the shore (if you take a cruise, whale watching tour or fishing trip, for instance). This was definitely the highlight of my trip – so cool to see!

A manta ray jumping at sunset.

A manta ray jumping at sunset.

Day 2: Day at the Beach and a Sunset Wedding

Neko was itching to get to the beach, so after an unsuccessful attempt to get to a restaurant called Campestre Restaurante (18 blocks from the marina on Hidalgo – through some fairly “authentic” Mexican streetscapes) and a much more successful trip to Cabo Coffee (sorry, but we don’t travel outside of the country just to hit up a Starbucks), we headed for Robin and Jenni’s (the groom and bride) resort to check out their beach. Justan needed to be there early to prepare for his best man duties, so Neko and I dropped him off at Robin’s room and we went down to the small beach below the hotel. We took the bus to get to the resort and walked about half a kilometre past vacation villas and desert scrub to the entrance.

The beach was fairly nice (below the Sirena del Mar by Welk Resorts), and here we saw crabs scuttling over the rocks at each end. The water is quite rough (and not safe for swimming) at most beaches in Los Cabos, because of the merging of the Sea of Cortez with the Pacific Ocean, so I mostly asked Neko to stay back from the water. In my opinion, this is a major strike against Cabo as a family beach holiday destination, though there are beaches you can visit that boast calm, shallow waters. There are also not many shells here, because the Sea of Cortez doesn’t send much up onto the shore. There are lots of small pieces of white coral to be found though, thanks to the nearby coral reef. Neko didn’t mind too much, though she did hope to find more, and bigger shells.

Neko after just being hit by a wave on the beach.

Neko after just being hit by a wave on the beach.

We didn’t ever have a problem walking through resorts, so if you need to cut through one to get to a beach, don’t worry about it. No one ever questioned us.

We had fun at the wedding, and Neko had a ton of fun at the party, dancing with the other guests. Being one of two kids (the other was Robin and Jenni’s son, who is almost three) didn’t bother her as long as she had adults to talk to, joke around with, and dance with.

Neko dancing with the bride.

Neko dancing with the bride.

Day 3: Chileno Bay and Authentic Tacos

The two beaches I had seen recommended for families were Playa Santa Maria and Chileno Bay. The former supposedly has pink sand beaches, and calm waters perfect for snorkeling (we didn’t plan on snorkeling as Neko is afraid of swimming and of sticking her face in the water), while the latter is great for calm waters and tide pools. We took the Subur Cabo bus to Chileno Bay with no issues and walked down the road to the parking area. This beach is fairly nice, and at low tide I think the tidepools would be great. We were there halfway between low and high tide and saw lots of spiny sea urchins and crabs, as well as some other small creatures we couldn’t identify. There are beach umbrellas here for shade, as well as a bathroom. We brought our own snacks and drinks, though.

Looking for crabs at Chileno Bay.

Looking for crabs at Chileno Bay.

The gulls and pelicans were also amusing here, and we spent about half an hour watching children feed them before we left. It was pretty easy to get to Chileno Bay, so even though it’s not all that spectacular, it was still worth going. Neko had a good time while we were there and it was nicer than some of the main beaches.

That night we trekked across town to Gordo Lele’s for some authentic tacos, a recommendation I found on Trapper’s List. Trapper’s List is a list of eateries in Cabo, created and maintained by a longtime gringo resident. The tacos were very good, and the whole experience was worth it even just to see the proprietor serenade some other customers via karaoke. The prices were also much more reasonable than the tourist joints in town!

Neko enjoying a taco while the proprietor sings to other patrons in the background.

Neko enjoying a taco while the proprietor sings to other patrons in the background.

Day 4: Crashing the Resort

If you’re looking for a resort experience but don’t want to stay in (or pay for) a resort, I recommend crashing one for a day. We were there legitimately (to visit our friends), but no one blinked an eye at us walking in and using the pool. I was thinking that you could probably look up resorts online to find the one with the most spectacular pool, then just walk in like you’re staying there. Keep a friendly look on your face and act like you belong and chances are, no one will care. Oh, and remember that the resort supplies towels, so don’t bother stuffing your own in the backpack!

Crashing the infinity pool.

Crashing the infinity pool.

In the evening, we paid about $100 for an “all-you-can-eat” buffet and “authentic Mexican culture” entertainment. I recommend this less highly – the idea is to feel like you’re getting the resort experience without having to stay in one, not to feel like you’re paying out the butt for nacho chips.

Day 5: San Jose del Cabo

Word on the street was that nearby San Jose del Cabo was much more authentic and quiet than Cabo San Lucas. I had never visited, even on my previous trip, and a day in a different town (perhaps with less pushy/overpriced vendors) sounded like a nice change of pace.

We took the Subur Cabo again, which only cost us a few dollars even though it’s a 40 minute drive. Once in town we made our way toward historic town centre. It’s not the most spectacular historic town centre as far as such things go, but it was definitely a nice place to spend the afternoon. There were plenty of shops to check out, and the quality of the goods was better than in Cabo, and the vendors were less pushy (most things were still just as overpriced though). Even though online sources had suggested there might be a festival happening, they were only just setting up a stage in the town square. There is also supposed to be a good farmers market in San Jose but judging from the map, it looked like we would have to walk quite a ways to get to it and then we would be even further from the bus, so we decided not to attempt it.

We did, though, make our way from the town centre toward the estuary park. It’s a bird sanctuary, and we weren’t disappointed. The estuary itself was quite pretty, and there was an egret and tons of ducks and other birds hanging out. The estuary is right next to Hotel Beach, the main beach in San Jose (yep, you read that correctly – Hotel Beach). This beach is very long and not all that interesting, and the water is very rough. The one great thing about this beach was that we saw more Manta rays jumping – lots of them! They were very close to the shore and easy to see.

Neko playing near the estuary.

Neko playing near the estuary.

Day 6: A Tour of Land’s End and a Night Out

We started the day by walking down toward the marina with the goal of catching a water taxi to Lover’s Beach and Land’s End. We had aimed for low tide so that we could walk under the arch (El Arco). We had a price in mind – 30 pesos or $24, in a glass-bottomed boat, both ways for all three of us, including a tour before they dropped us off. Right away, someone stopped us, and Justan immediately said “No,” but I asked how much… and he was offering exactly what we wanted, at the price we wanted! This may be a sign that we should have haggled. It probably is. We don’t like to haggle much (though it is the way in Cabo, as in many other tourist locales).

This tour was definitely worth the money for all the things we got to see, more for Neko’s sake than ours. Before we had even left the marina, we saw funny pelicans hanging out on moored boats, a “pirate ship,” and sea lions following tour boats as their passengers threw fish. As we passed Pelican Beach, we moved in close to the shore and could see all sorts of colourful fish through the glass bottom of the boat. Neko loved this! Further out past the arch, we saw the colonies of sea lions basking in the sun both on the rocks and in the water, which was also neat. We toured around on the rough water on the Pacific side, and our captain pointed out different caves and beaches of note. After about half an hour or a bit longer, he dropped us off at Pelican Beach. We spent about two hours walking around between Pelican, Lovers’ Beach and Divorce Beach. In my opinion these weren’t the best beaches, unless you plan to snorkel (in which case Pelican is great), though Divorce Beach is worth seeing for the wild surf – just don’t get anywhere close! People are snatched by rogue waves and killed by the ocean here every year.

The family on the glass-bottomed boat the The Arch.

The family on the glass-bottomed boat the The Arch.

Also worth noting – you normally cannot walk under the Arch. In fact, the tide only goes low enough to allow access every four years. So don’t get your hopes up like I did.

This was the night that my best friend’s mom had offered to take Neko for a sleepover so that Justan and I could go out and do some adult things. We had a nice seafood dinner and then went out to a couple of dance clubs and were reminded of just how extremely disturbing spring break is.

Day 7: Swimming With the Dolphins

Finally, the day came that we could take Neko for our big surprise. She didn’t even know there was a surprise coming, and we walked to the marina without telling her that anything was up. We actually made it right inside the dolphin swim centre before she realized that we would be swimming with the dolphins ourselves.

The dolphin swim was pretty great, though very pricey. I would advise against booking the swim from home, and instead book at one of the tourist booths in town and haggle the price down. We paid nearly $500 for the three of us, which is way more than some other people in our group had paid. And then afterward, they want you to pay $25 per photo to get prints of your swim, which also sucked. It was still worth going, and we’re glad we did. Neko got over much of her fear of water after swimming with the dolphin in the deep tank.

Neko gets a kiss from Andie the dolphin.

Neko gets a kiss from Andie the dolphin.

Also, I feel that as an animal activist, I need to say that I feel really guilty about going. I don’t even have a good excuse. Between the price and the fact that they are captive dolphins, I personally wouldn’t have chosen to go. But, my husband was so excited to do it, and I didn’t really fight it.


Accommodations: I definitely recommend Air B’nB, and finding a place where you can cook some of your own meals. The eggs are great here, and so are the avocados – what more does one need, really?

Food: Look no further than Trapper’s List! I wish I had known about it sooner! I spent literally hours trying to find restaurant recommendations that went beyond overpriced American chains – and Costco.

Transportation: if you plan to tour around a lot (like, say, to check out Todos Santos), I’m sure a rental car would be worth it. But frankly, roads there terrify me. The public transportation was great, and super cheap! Just don’t expect them to speak a lick of English nor understand your attempts at flailing sign language.

Attractions: Honestly – there is just not a whole lot to do here besides sit on beaches where you can’t swim; shop at expensive stores you could find anywhere in the US; haggle over overpriced souvenir tchotchkes; or drink till you can’t see straight. My best advice is to not make the mistake of planning your trip to be too long. If you can be amused by simply wandering and exploring, or if you like water sports (or any of those things I just listed), you’ll be fine. Otherwise, at least you can look forward to napping!


When I wrote “Alphabetization” on Neko’s Learning Plan, I found myself amiss under the heading of “Resources.” Ummmm… I don’t know. How does one teach alphabetization? She’s not a Virgo, like me, compelled to organize all her books by either alphabetization or colour. And I’m not about to have her sit down and do worksheets on alphabetization.

But only a week later, Neko has announced that she’d like to do a research project. She didn’t use those words, of course, but there it was. She wanted to learn all about the rainforest, and write about it. Great!

So, we pulled out some reference books from her shelves, and she asked how she was going to find rainforests in any of them. “Well,” I responded, “You use the index.”

Bingo! As if sent by the Universe, here was my first lesson in alphabetization! I showed her how to use the index and explained how the entries are alphabetized. For the rest of this research project she has embarked on, she’ll have to practice this new skill.

I love how sometimes, the answers just come to you.

(For the record, I mostly just left that part of the learning plan blank… trusting that we’d figure it out. 😉 )

What This Blog Is Now

I wish this were an update, fully documenting what we’ve been up to, or how awesome homeschooling has been going (for the record – it has!). However, I’m just writing a quick post for now to update and say that this will be one of my primary forms of record-keeping for Neko’s Grade Three homeschooling year.

She has begun a blended program that is half public school, half unschooling – she will be in a school setting one day a week, with a second day every other week, and some Friday sport days and field trips as well. The rest of the time, she is unschooling as she has been so far.

Neko's first day of Grade Three. So thrilled!

Neko’s first day of Grade Three. So thrilled!

While not a full update, I’m happy to report that her reading and writing are up to grade level, and I would say that her math is close (more importantly to me, she finds it fun and we don’t fight about it. She has no context for math as punishment nor difficulty. And that is my longterm goal.). Science and social studies are not a concern, as they never have been. Phys ed, music, art and all the rest are going great (how could they not be? So fun!!).

Our learning plan for the year is complete, though I freely admit that I’m not beholden to even my own plans, and these are nothing but loose goals. That said, we’re aiming for the following this year:

Math: units of measure, charts and graphs, describing quantities to 1000 using different methods, multiply to 5×5, beginning division concepts

Language arts: proper spelling (moving away from just phonics), learning to access reference materials (dictionaries, encyclopedias), punctuation, capitalization, alphabetical order, story-telling (describing characters and setting), using electronic library catalog, typing skills

Science: build and test structures, describe and classify rocks and minerals, explore the nature of sound, plant growth and changes, waste and our world, magnets

Social studies: nothing specific aside from Hawaiian culture (we’re going to Maui this winter) – we generally wing it with social studies.

Physical education: improving swimming skills, winter sports – downhill skiing or snowboarding, gymnastics, hiking

Fine arts: guitar basics, appreciate different styles and media in visual art, experience the performing arts, create art using different media and techniques, understand and appreciate rhythm, explore a variety of folk dances

We’ll be tracking Neko’s progress through this blog, her personal student journal, a portfolio, and of course parental observation and even the odd worksheet.

The Unschooling, Unjobbing Life: Making it Work

If there is one thing our life is not, it’s predictable. Acknowledging that each of us leads a very different life with very different challenges thrown in, let’s just assume that if you’re reading this, your life involves some level of unpredictability. Maybe you’re a doula, or you or your partner are on-call, or you only have one car, or you are a contract worker who doesn’t receive paychecks on a reliable schedule. Well, pretty much anything that could be unpredictable in our lives (aside from the roof over our heads and the number of people in our family), is. I’d like to share with you some of the strategies that we’ve found to help us, to the point where things in our life generally run smoothly.

First, there are a few variables that will generally play into how unpredictable life can be. I would identify these as follows:

a) work (fixed schedule, on-call, contract/freelance, travel)

b) children (illness, etc)

c) childcare (especially if it needs to accomodate an unpredictable work schedule)

d) transportation (unreliable vehicles, public transit, carpooling, one car family, cycling)

e) money (unreliable/unpredictable paychecks, self-employment/contract work, chronic shortfall)

f) health (dealing with chronic illness or that of a loved one, or just health in general or low immunity)

These are all points that need to be considered when putting plans into place. The first thing you need to do is think about your own worst-case scenario (no… not death. But a pretty bad day.). For us, that is both parents at work, no pre-arranged childcare or our pre-arranged childcare falls through, low on cash, short notice, and Justan needs the car very early in the morning so I have to get Neko to childcare and back to the store in time to open up in the morning, without a car. Have plans A, B, C and at least D in place for each factor so that you are never left hanging.

Our situation is that thanks to Justan’s career in the film industry, we sometimes have as little as an hour’s notice that he’ll be headed to work. He may be working in town or out of town, for anywhere from an hour to two weeks. We only have one car, and our budget and scheduling constraints make part-time or full-time childcare less than ideal, not to mention the unschooling which requires that Neko is hopefully somewhere where she’ll get similar stimulation and socialization as she would at home. If both of our jobs also paid very little, the entire balance would be off and the situation would not work; however Justan’s work pays very well which makes the volatility worth it. That said, it has taken a LOT of getting used to, and I have never been able to find any articles or guidebooks out there to help me through it, so I’ve had to figure it out mostly on my own. I would love to see a book on managing finances when both partners are self-employed, but all the financial advice books I’ve read seem to assume a reasonably consistent wage.


Try to match one parent’s work schedule to your childcare schedule. That parent also needs to think about transportation to childcare, and from childcare to their job. For us, I have matched my work schedule to my childcare schedule (after lots of tweaking, and seeking out the right situation). Justan’s work is the more unpredictable between the two of us, so I’ve set my store schedule to match the one that works for my childcare swap. If one or both of you is doing freelance or contract work such as writing, design work, or something else that you can do on your own schedule, this is a lot easier to do, as you can schedule client meetings, interviews and work time for whenever your childcare happens to take place. If both parents are freelance with flexible schedules, and can get your work done in 30-40 hours per week, building your schedule around one another, and tag-teaming on chores around the house might be a great option.

Neko and me in one of many family photo shoots that Justan was out of town for. Photo Credit: EpicDanger Photography


As for the unpredictable nature of children, mainly meaning getting sick or hurt, this is where you’ll need to have some sort of emergency contingency plan built-in. For us, this doesn’t come up much as we have a very healthy and generally cautious child. However, when she does get sick, we assess the situation and talk to Nicole (our childcare swapper) and decide whether she wants to expose her kids to whatever it is; and we decide whether we have the heart to send Neko to someone else when she is sick. The nice thing about the childcare swap is that both families feel more like a big, extended family than childcare. When Mairead and Finn get sick I generally just tell Nicole to send them anyway – chances are we’ve already been exposed to the bug. We have chosen a few times to avoid the bad, puking bugs, largely because Justan happened to be off those days, and we had the option. We also have other friends that we can check with if needed – we would pay them to take Neko, but it’s an option when we don’t have anywhere else to send her. Our worst case scenario in this case (and my business partner, Jaime, has had to do this once if I remember correctly) is that one or more kids is sick and we simply can’t work that day, and our partner is either away or can’t get the day off work. This is when we have to scramble to make it work at the store. It’s very stressful, but we’ve always managed, even if it’s by the skin of our teeth. I once received a customer complaint after I took 4-year-old Neko to work with me after an employee flaked out on us and Jaime couldn’t come in because her oldest daughter was throwing up – I wish that customer could have known how close we were to having the doors closed that day! Some days, this is just the life of a small business owner.


Which brings us, of course, to childcare. To me, this is the number one key. I need to know that I have Neko somewhere where she is happy and enriched. I like consistency for her in this aspect, because so much of our life is ever-changing. She handles it well (thankfully she is not a kid who requires a strict routine, or we’d have to make drastic changes), but I feel a lot better knowing that she is going to the same place on a regular basis and that she is happy to go there. This has been a long time coming! Up until last fall, we had cobbled together childcare at a dayhome (this also worked well, largely because my dayhome provider is amazing, and would let me know when she had extra space available and was open to drop-ins – she also lives five blocks from my house so was very convenient), through another swap (which was also great), and by paying friends to take Neko on the days that we needed it. Paying friends worked all right as well, except that I always felt like I was bothering people.

If you do only need care once in awhile, paying random friends can work well. There are a few keys, though, to success (success being defined as actually finding care for your child, and also not losing friends). First, it doesn’t hurt to have a large network of friends. If they have kids, even better. No friend network? Or all your friends are without children? If you can find a local parenting group, that’s a good place to start. I belong to the Calgary Attachment Parenting Group and have since I was pregnant, and thank heavens I do. Let me be clear, here – do NOT join a group just so you can find people to provide childcare, or to help you move. Gross. I shouldn’t have to state this, but I’ve seen it happen – joining a group, or making friends, just so you have people to help you out, is gross. People will pick up on your ulterior motives, and you’ll be right back at square one. No, only do this if you actually want to make good friends, and if you expect to ever get help from anyone, understand that you need to be happy to help others and expect nothing in return. This also means that even if you help people all the time, you can’t get all passive aggressive and up in arms if people are unable to help you when you need it. But a lecture on appropriate actions within a friendship is better left for another day, so I’ll continue on trusting that you know how these things (these things being mature friendships) work.

Okay, so let’s say you have friends now, and that you are generally liked and trusted and that you help people out when they need it. Now to find childcare, possibly on short notice, possibly in a pinch. Here, social media is your friend. I’m going to assume you’re on Facebook or Twitter or maybe even some sort of forum. If you’re not I’ll let you adapt this to your more Luddite lifestyle. Here is where we post with hope but without expectation. If you have a partner (or several?) and they can post as well, fantastic! I usually say something along the lines of, “Would anyone like a Neko to join them, 9-6 on Wednesday?” Simple as that. I may, though, sweeten the deal with whatever I can. “Will pay,” with or without the amount, doesn’t hurt. Or maybe, “I’ll take your kid(s) for a day in exchange!” This is usually appreciated. Or maybe you’ll provide dinner afterward, or you have something else to offer. Barter. Whatever you can give.

The next step is really, really important. If no one responds, leave it at that. Please, for the love of cats, do not post a passive aggressive response along the lines of, “Well fine then, I guess I can’t work on Saturday.” It is not your friends’, nor anyone else’s responsibility to sort out your life for you. (Sorry about the lectures… I may have seen this happen before. It’s painful to watch. Don’t be that person.) This is your puzzle to solve and this is why you have Plan B (or C or wherever you are along the spectrum at this point in your day). Our next Plan when no one responds is to lay out our next options, depending on the situation. Can we reschedule some aspect of our work? Is there someone whom we think might be happy to take Neko who might not be on Facebook, or may have just missed the post? This is where we make a couple of phone calls just to check. I would also check with our dayhome if I needed to. And get creative! There is always shuffling you can do. Maybe someone can only take the kid(s) for part of the day, or it’s dependent on something. Think outside the box – what can be shuffled or adapted to make it work? There have been lots of days where Neko has been in the store with her LeapPad or a DVD for the first or last hour of the work day.

My personal favourite set-up for childcare, not in any small way because it accommodates our unpredictability, is the childcare swap. I’ve already written an entire post on this so, rather than reinvent the wheel, how about you go read that here.

Mairead, Neko and Finn spend a lot of time together, and it shows in their closeness and their bickering.

Of course, a more traditional route such as a dayhome or daycare may work well for you, if you have a younger child. For the older, homeschooled child, things like classes, a blended program (where they go to school one or two days a week and school at home the rest of the time), or working on projects while you work are all options. This summer, Neko will be attending a couple of daycamps and sleepaway camps, and come fall she’ll be in classes through the Calgary Homeschoolers Association ever Tuesday.

You can also look at the options for taking your child(ren) to work, depending on what you do. If you choose and design your own space, take this into account when you do so. Developing a child-friendly space can be worth it!

I should also add that if you find yourself the sole parent much of the time, either because you’re a single parent or your partner is out of town often, it is really worth it to hire a babysitter to come one night each week. Even 2-3 hours gives you enough time to go unwind with friends or alone, and take a deep breath. Work out, grab a coffee, see a movie, or just wander through the grocery store without the incessant whining. It’s also a good idea to have at least one (ideally three) babysitters whom you can call when you’re in a pinch for a nighttime event or job.


The underlying context to transportation is proximity. This is the first thing you should always look at when making fundamental changes (moving, choosing a job, and so on). We live five minutes from my store, so taking a bus or cab isn’t out of the question for me. The location of our childcare swap partner is another five minutes along the same road. It’s all workable. Don’t pick childcare or work or a house that is way out of the way unless you have two reliable cars, a lot of money, or just plain aren’t living this lifestyle.

We have one car. Usually we can make this work by having one of us drop off the other, or one of us use public transit. One really helpful development has been that now when Justan gets a job out of town, he either carpools or requests a rental car. If you are a one-car family and one of you periodically or regularly works out of town, this could be worth a try. This has been life-changing for us – in the past, when Justan would go out of town and take the car, I would be without a husband and without transportation, but would still need to get to work, take care of the house, and do all the other things I am committed to normally. Let’s just say I drank a lot of wine then.

Now the one-car issue is more of a problem when Justan is in town, and working. For days that we can’t shuffle things to make them work, I again have a number of contingency plans in place. First is the bus. I know my transit schedules and I know them well. I know the exact times I need to be at the stops to make things work the most efficiently, and which stops and routes work best depending on the situation (do I have Neko with me or not? Are we going in in the morning or afternoon?) and weather. I got the free Calgary Transit app for my iPhone (a smartphone also makes our life a lot easier, as we can locate each other at any time, and change plans on the fly) and use it often. I also always carry a pair of headphones in my bag so I can listen to music or play games on my phone on long bus rides, in case I get bored.

Bus Bingo!!

Finn, Mairead and Neko on one of our epic bus journeys. Bus bingo helps!

When I’m completely stuck, we cab. The downside to this, at least with younger kids, is that you may not have a carseat available. I didn’t cab much when Neko was under booster seat height/weight, but I may have once or twice when I absolutely had to. This is our we-missed-the-bus-and-if-we-wait-for-the-next-one-I’ll-be-45-minutes-late-for-work option. It’s expensive, and you may lack a child seat, but when worse comes to worse, it’s good to have cash or a credit card (with available space) in your wallet so you can call a taxi. Another reason I need my cell phone! And did you know that by dialling #TAXI (anywhere in the USA and Canada) on your cell phone, you’ll be connected to the first available taxi company? So handy.

Another tool I have worked into our transportation options is foot power. When Neko was younger, I had a child seat on the back of my bike and would ride the approximately 15-20 blocks to the friend’s house where Neko was going for childcare at the time, when we didn’t have the car. From there I knew which bus to take to get to the store on time. Now, when I bus to Nicole’s, I find it just as fast, or faster, to run the 4K from her house to the store as it is to wait for the next bus and catch that. If I commute on foot to and from her house in the morning and afternoon, I also get in an 8K workout that day! (Not recommended unless the distance is comparable to something you would normally do.) To make all of this more possible, it pays to be prepared. On the bike you want a small backpack packed, and while running I find it ideal to have nothing on me in the way of a bag. Keep supplies for your child (clothes, diapers, bottles, etc) at their childcare, and keep extra clothes and some food at your place of work. When we had a freezer at work I would keep one dozen Amy’s frozen burritos in there and a jar of salsa in the fridge, so I always had lunch on hand.

If you see this girl running along Glenmore Trail in the morning, I’m on my way to work.


Tricky one! What a loaded factor. Obviously I can’t speak to your money issues, but I can offer a couple of tips.

First, plan for the worst case scenario. Have I drilled that into you yet? When choosing a place to live, assume you’ll be making the smallest amount you could make in a year, just shy of forcing you to change careers. I won’t go into safety nets like insurance and such here, but basically build in as many safety nets as you can. You have a kid(s) relying on you now. While you may be able to survive with rotten teeth, freezing to death on a bare mattress, I doubt you want that for your offspring. When we applied for a mortgage in 2005, they approved us for $200,000. We scoffed. We couldn’t afford to pay that much in mortgage payments each month! In the good times, sure, no problem! But it’s not always good times. And we knew that as soon as things dried up for a period of time, we’d be behind on mortgage payments. We chose a house for $145,000 in an area of town with more… er… “character” (we love it, by the way), with just 650 teeny tiny sq-ft of space and a nice, spacious yard, and we have thanked our lucky stars ever since that we bought the house we did. There was one year (I think it was 2009) where even this felt like too much. Justan was out of work for six months and to say we barely scraped by would be the understatement to end all understatements. If we’d had a 30% larger mortgage we wouldn’t own a home now. Make do, make it work, and make the best of it. Same goes for cars, using savings to go on vacation, and so on. There is a reason we don’t have a second car!

This quote is on the wall as you enter the Africa exhibit at the Glenbow Museum. I love it.

Second, stock up on food. We belong to a food co-op, and I also freeze a ton of produce in the summer. We have a few months’ worth of food in our basement (this works well both for disaster/zombie prepping as well as a freelancer’s lifestyle!), including dried beans and legumes; flours; dried and canned and frozen fruit; tea and coffee and juice and almond milk; pasta and rice; canned beans and sauces and coconut milk; frozen meat; frozen broth; tortilla chips and crackers and rice cakes; popcorn; oils; sweeteners; and so on. This winter, Justan was pretty much completely without work for three full months and we survived off savings, credit, my small wage, and our food stores. We could have survived on the food stores a lot longer – we just ran out of money to pay bills and the mortgage. But we never went hungry! What a huge load of stress off our backs.

Third, yes, put aside savings. Whenever you can, either pay down debt (highest interest rate first!) or squirrel away money in savings. You’ll never regret putting money in savings or another form (again, making space on that credit card) that you can access when the going gets rough.

Fourth, if possible, find one steady source of income. Having even a bit of money that is guaranteed at the same time every month or couple of weeks makes a big difference. If you can’t find this, then look at how much you have coming in most months, and tweak the budget until you can live off as little of that as possible. Then stick to that budget and put the rest aside, so that on the months you make less, you can still have that steady income. We’ve determined the amount of money it takes us to live comfortable and without worry (this includes some new things – clothes, etc – and going out to movies, dinner, and so on as well) and we make sure that is what we get each month. That way, more money stays in Justan’s business’s account for the hard times, or for a bonus, or for taxes…

Fifth, say it with me now, contingency plans! Here is where unjobbing shines. Know your options! Networking is great. Talk to people and over time, collect ideas for places where you could do temporary or seasonal work when you’re in a pinch. Always have job options on hand. During that six months that we came close to selling our house, part of our survival depended on being paid cash under the table (shh) for landscaping work I did to help a friend out with her landscaping business, and Justan working with a neighbour with his playground building business. I also babysat for friends whenever possible. These little skills and services can float you through the hard times. If you have to, make a list of skills you’ve got, and people you know, and take note of any opportunities that might exist. If those people can’t give you work, they might know people who can.

And sixth, barter. Have skills and items available to give or lend that will get you services and items in return.


I won’t actually speak to health, because it’s so varied and you know your own situation. I will say, though, that you must allow for proper sleep, and nutrition. Being busy is no reason to cheat yourself on sleep or food. Make plans in advance, have nutritious, frozen or takeout meal options in mind, and be sure to get the sleep you need, or you’ll pay the price, and it will make things so much worse in the end.

In closing, I’ll say that tonight, we had a worst case scenario night, and it all worked out just fine. Are we tired? Absolutely. But it worked out, we got where we needed to be, we did what we needed to do and no one was especially stressed out (except Justan, but that was because a key piece of equipment broke down, which made his life a lot more complicated). If you’re currently struggling to make a complicated situation work, I hope that some of my suggestions have got your wheels turning. Often, things can work out, it’s just a matter of a little creative thinking. Planning and a long list of back-up plans are crucial, and you may find yourself sitting on a bus with your child patting yourself on the back for having so many effective back-up plans. I’d love to hear about strategies any of you have put into play to make your unpredictable life more manageable!

Neko’s First Cosplay at the Calgary Comic Convention

(This title is funny because two years ago I didn’t even know what cosplay was. In case you’re also in that boat, it’s a contraction of costume play, and it means, as far as I can tell, dressing up as favourite characters, usually from comic books or science fiction.)

Neko had been counting down the days to this weekend for over a month. Each day she would ask us, “How many more days till the comic book thingy?” She and Justan had attended “Comicon” together before, but had to miss it last year. He told her that on the Sunday of the convention, there would be a family costume contest, and that she could wear her Totoro Halloween costume for it. He also looked at the class options for the Sunday and she decided she’d like to take one called “Drawing With Katie Cook,” led by an illustrator who also works on the Clone Wars series.

Here she is in her Totoro costume, Halloween 2011.

It was a good thing all the excitement was on Sunday (well, for them – for the rest of Calgary, a lot of the excitement was on Saturday, when the entire cast of Star Trek – The Next Generation was in attendance). They headed down to the exhibition grounds right after lunch on Saturday, to find huge line-ups. After waiting in line for a substantial amount of time, they learned that the fire marshall had shown up and declared the venue too full. No one was to be let in for the remainder of the day. The people who were already inside could stay; however if they came out, they wouldn’t be readmitted. Neko was pretty heartbroken but Justan promised her they would try again the next day.

So, on Sunday, Neko got into her Totoro costume and they headed out early.

Wait. I just realized some of you might be saying, “Hey hold on, who is this Totoro you speak of?” Well, he’s a fuzzy, adorable monster type character from our favourite animated kids’ movie, My Neighbour Totoro, from our favourite studio, Studio Ghibli in Japan (Disney owns the North American rights).

On the bus on the way to Comicon – if only it were a cat bus!

Justan tells me that lots of people were asking to take Neko’s picture, and that she did great on stage when she presented her costume to the audience. She had to go up on the stage for about 20 seconds to show everyone her costume, and I think she did a great job (I saw the video footage) – she even made sure to throw in a big high jump just like Totoro.

She brought her cat bus along for good measure. Justan tells me he forgot to bring out the umbrella though. And she’s not wearing her paws in this shot.

She received a participation prize, but it was a Baby Alive type doll, with which she was thoroughly unimpressed (grateful to receive it, but not interested in opening it); she’s decided that she’ll give it as a gift or we’ll donate it at Christmas time, so another child who likes baby dolls can enjoy it.

Neko and Justan thoroughly enjoyed their weekend together, and got to see all sorts of interesting characters and booths.

Two Days in the Life

What might a day in the life of an unschooled only child look like, on a day when her mother is working? Well, like one of these, perhaps.

Currently, on Mondays I need to be at my store at least 3-5 hours. Ideally this will be 12-3, but it’s flexible. Yesterday I had a chiropractor’s appointment in the morning in the same building as my store, and we had the opportunity to join some friends on a nature walk in the afternoon, so our day looked like this:

7:45 am Mom gets up, meditates, does yoga, makes tea, eats breakfast.

8:30 am Neko wakes up, eats breakfast.

9:30 am Mom leaves for the chiropractor and to work at the store for a bit. Neko and dad stay home, Neko watches a bit of TV.

10:45 am Mom comes home, picks up Neko and dad, and we all go to the Weaselhead, a beautiful park here in Calgary that follows the Elbow River into the Glenmore Resevoir and is made up of some really nice woods.

11:00 am – 2 pm We spend a couple of hours roaming the woods in the Weaselhead. We look for deer prints, point out chickadees, see ducks in the river and check out the field where the wild strawberries will grow in the summer. Neko hides in the bushes and we find her every time, which makes her mad. An old friend of Neko’s comes along and the two of them spend the walk beside each other talking quietly – later she tells me they mostly talked about Narnia.

The kids playing on a log down by the river. Sorry about the creepy ghost faces on the kids besides mine.

2:15 pm Dad and Neko drop mom off at the store to work some more. Then they go to the library to pick up some books we had on hold; to Toys R Us so Neko can spend her $20 gift certificate from Nana (she chooses a stuffed cat that meows, purrs and walks); and home for some crackers and cheese.

4:00 pm Neko and dad pick up mom from the store. We get home and Neko runs off to play with the twins from down the street, who are nine (and frankly, not very nice to the six-year-old – cue conversation about how we let others treat us, and how to stand up for ourselves). She plays in the park with them for about an hour. Then we eat delicious Pumpkin Dal over brown rice. She then plays with them for about another hour.

7:00 pm Neko watches a bit more TV.

8:00 pm Neko has a bath, then dad reads a chapter of Prince Caspian to her while mom goes for a run. At 9:00 her eyes are closed before her head hits the pillow.

Today, Tuesday, I had to work all day, so it went more like this:

8:45 am We all wake up. Justan and I didn’t sleep at ALL (weird mutual insomnia) so we are beat. We all stay in bed until 9:15 and snuggle.

9:30 am They drop me off at the store for the day. They come home and eat breakfast. Neko watches The Cat Returns (a Studio Ghibli movie).

12:30 After lunch, they pay a visit to a cool playground near my store. Next, they have to meet up with someone Justan works with.

2:30 A visit to the Glenbow Museum in downtown Calgary, taking in the exhibits and making masterpieces in the art room with watercolour pencils.

4:30 pm Home again. Neko plays with the girls down the street again for about an hour.

5:45 They pick me up from the store. We come home and eat pizza (bought frozen from our favourite local pizzeria). While the pizza cooks, Neko practices typing words in Pages on my laptop.

6:45 pm We go to the park down the street with Neko because she wants to show us the big pine tree she can climb. She can climb really high! We play in the playground for a bit.

7:30 pm We come home and practice writing. I say word combos out loud and Neko writes them, then makes them out of pipecleaners. She gets bored with this and plays on Reading Eggs for a bit.

8:15 pm I read a chapter of Prince Caspian to Neko, she eats some almonds as a bedtime snack, we snuggle and she’s off to sleep.

So there it is. A bit too much TV sometimes (though she watches more on days Justan mainly has her), usually lots of time outside, plenty of socialization, no worksheets, no real structure (she’s a kid who does fine without a routine), and I spend my days wavering between feeling guilty for not giving her more math and literacy work, and confident knowing that she’ll pick it all up when she is ready – maybe in the fall. Maybe when she turns seven. Right now we have lots of time. And she’ll have these sunny days with her friends, and her mom, and her dad, to look back on, always.