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Kids Gardening, Character Training, Autism/Writing

By Heather Idoni

Added Monday, April 18, 2011
Vol. 12 No. 21, April 18, 2011, ISSN: 1536-2035
(c) 2011, Heather Idoni - www.FamilyClassroom.net

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Notes from Heather
-- Gardening with Children
Helpful Tip
-- Christian Character Training
Winning Website
-- National Geographic Kids
Reader Question
-- Getting My Son to Write
Additional Notes
-- Newsletter Archives
-- Sponsorship Information
-- Reprint Information
-- Subscriber Information

Notes from Heather

How Does Your Garden Grow?

As Spring s-l-o-w-l-y makes its entrance into Michigan (we just got 2 inches of snow so far this morning!), I start to daydream about how wonderful those home grown tomatoes of late summer are going to taste. For years, my husband has grown delicious tomatoes from store-bought plants -- and we so enjoy the bounty! But since Jim has been in school for several years -- studying for a masters degree first and now nursing school -- it has been a long time since he has cultivated a large garden plot. I miss all the delicious vegetables... but I've also really missed how a family garden kept our kids outdoors in the sunshine so much more.

When the boys were younger, they would follow Jim like a parade of baby ducks out to the garden. Every day they would tend it together, running excitedly into the house to proudly show Mom any new produce discoveries. They loved getting into the dirt with Dad -- everything from mixing compost into the soil (we used to have goats -- so it was our own domestic version!) to planting seeds, weeding and harvesting the crop. We would grow the standard Michigan garden fare -- cucumbers, summer squash, zucchini, green beans, a small amount of corn and carrots, potatos, radishes, etc. (Jim tried sugar snap peas a few times, but the bunnies would always eat them no matter how good the fence. He also tried a grape arbor, but our soil just wasn't right for a vineyard.)

Gardening with children is a wonderful adventure -- and you don't have to live in the country. Children get excited about tending the smallest of gardens!

If you are thinking about gardening for the first time, a good resource for asking questions is our own Homeschool Country Living group. We have over 1,700 members -- all homeschooling families! All we talk about are country living topics. :-) The link is: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/HSCountry/

Does the idea of tending a vegetable garden seems too overwhelming? Think about planning a wildflower/perennial garden instead. You won't need to put all that time into weeding and you'll have more time to enjoy other summertime activities!

Here are some tips to consider when planning to garden with your children:

1. Visit places where plants thrive, such as nurseries, arboretums or your neighbor's flower patch. As your children explore, talk with them about the different sun, soil and water requirements for growing healthy plants.

2. Survey the natural treasures in your own backyard -- birds, bees, blossoms. Children are notably wide-eyed and open to new discoveries. Cultivate their curiosity.

3. Identify a spot on your property for a children's garden, inviting your kids to take part in its selection. A small plot no wider than a yardstick (that can be easily managed) is ideal. Other good options include window boxes or container gardens.

4. Have your soil tested for lead as children are highly susceptible to poisoning. If its presence is confirmed, focus on container gardening or consider building a raised bed and filling it with loam that you purchase.

5. Sow fast-germinating seeds or introduce transplants that are quick to flower or fruit. (Children are typically eager to see the results of their labor.) Be sure to include your kids in the plant selection process.

6. Choose plants that will excite the senses! Examples include eye-catching sunflowers, fragrant herbs and fuzzy ornamental grasses such as big and little bluestem.

7. Woo wildlife, which will wow your kids, by focusing on perennials that are native to your region. Native plants provide the best overall food sources for backyard birds and other animals, and because they are adapted to your area's weather, soils and pests, they generally require less maintenance. For information about plants native to your area, contact your local native plant society (or county 4-H extension office) or check out the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's native plant database.

8. Add other wildlife-attracting elements to your habitat: water, shelter and places to raise young. Your children will have a blast helping to build habitats for animals -- toad homes, brush piles, small ponds, bat houses, etc.

9. Provide kid-sized tools and teach your young gardeners how to use them safely. Equipment can be found in most garden stores, but don't overlook at-home options such as spoons and measuring cups.

10. Eliminate use of toxic chemical fertilizers, weed killers and pesticides. When necessary, use natural alternatives instead.

11. Practice good hygiene. When it comes to gardening, getting dirty is half the fun for children. Make sure they wash up well after working in the soil, as it can contain a variety of contaminants, including chemicals and harmful bacteria.

12. Encourage children to do a share of all the garden chores but be mindful of their limits. Give help as needed, but remember that the more that kids do, the more they will feel that the garden is truly theirs.

13. Visit the garden with your kids every day to make sure you don't miss its rewards: flowers opening, butterflies sipping nectar, ladybugs eating aphids.

14. Take advantage of teaching moments. If you uncover a pill bug on the ground, for instance, explain that its roly-poly posture is a means of defense. If your children pose questions you can't address, seek out the answers together. A visit to the library or looking something up on the Internet might be part of the journey to discovery.

15. Encourage your children to share their garden with friends and extended family. Giving tours reinforces their ownership of it and helps instill a sense of pride.

16. Invite reflections of each day's gardening experiences: Talk about what went on, what was seen and so on. If time permits, have kids draft notes in a journal, draw a picture or take photographs. All of these actions serve to reinforce what was learned and enjoyed.

[Tips adapted from "Plant a Garden, Help a Child Grow" by Kelly L. Senser in the August/September 2004 issue of National Wildlife.]

Hope you enjoy today's newsletter -- I had fun putting it together for you! :-)

-- Heather


Your feedback is always welcome! -- mailto:heather@familyclassroom.net

Helpful Tip

Building Character and a Strong Work Ethic in your Children

Shirley Solis of Lifetime Books and Gifts has a free introductory audio workshop available online! Here is the link to listen online or to download the MP3 file to your computer:


The audio cuts off at about 20 minutes, but it is WELL worth it. After listening, you can follow this link to watch an 11 minute YouTube video with more info:


PS... If you've ever encountered the Solis children at a homeschool convention, you will have a lot of respect for what Shirley has to say! They are amazing kids! :-)

Winning Website

National Geographic Kids

Fun science experiments and activities from National Geographic Kids!


Reader Question

Getting a Ten Year Old Boy to Write

"Hello -- I am in my second year of homeschooling my 10 year old son. He has autism -- and language in general is his area of biggest challenge. Although he is 10, he is working at about a 2nd grade level (higher in math, that's his strength). We have worked really hard on reading, and reading comprehension this year, and he is now reading on about a 2nd grade level! Yay! But now we need to work on writing. He can't write. I don't mean the physical aspect; his handwriting is fine. It's the composing and then putting it down on paper part that he can't do. Not even a sentence, let alone a story or a paragraph. I know I can teach him to write (or I'm certainly going to try my best), but it would need to be a concerted effort working for a short time everyday on a fun, progressive curriculum. Does anyone have any suggestions? How do you start to teach writing when your child has trouble even SAYING a sentence? I know he can learn, it just seems to take a lot more time and effort than 'typical' children. Do I just need to wait until he's developmentally more ready, or is there something I can try to start now with him? I'd appreciate any help or advice readers have, and please don't feel that you need experience in autism to answer this question. Thanks so much!" -- Pam in Utah

Our Readers' Responses

"Pam -- It does not sound to me like your son is anywhere near ready to write. What I would start him doing is narrations. Have him tell back in his own words what you have read to him, or he has read to himself, so that he gets more comfortable using language. Charlotte Mason writes extensively on how to use narration, and many Charlotte Mason websites will give you good information on how to get started.

Also get him started on copy work. At first he can copy things from books he has read; he can also copy out things he has dictated to you. Both of these will get him used to thinking of language from the point of view of a writer.

I would recommend doing these for a couple years to get him comfortable with expressing himself before you look at any formal program." -- El in Canada


"I have a 9 year old with high functioning autism and we have also struggled in the writing area. Here are some of the things we did:

1) Word magnets. We found tiny ones that had the ability to make complete sentences. We had fun finding all the places and things magnets would stick to and making up fun sentences.

2) Word games. Have your son work on funny rhyming sentences or you read a sentence but change the noun or verb to something outlandish and have him say what word may be more appropriate. You start a sentence and have him complete it in any way he wants. Use Scrabble tiles and have him spell his vocabulary words with them. Also, cut out all kinds of words from newspapers and magazines and have him arrange them into complete sentences.

3) Grammar and other language art workbooks where he has to find the missing word either from a word bank or a multiple choice of 3 or 4 options.

4) Find whatever subject he is passionate about and get books that you can read to him and that are at a level he can read to you. The more reading he does the more improved his language/writing skills can potentially become.

5) Copy work. Have your son start off copying a four to ten word sentence and each week progressively increase the length of the sentence he has to write.

6) Teach him to type on a keyboard. Let him start to learn how to use a computer keyboard if one is available. There are some fun typing tutorials out there. SpellingCity.com is a great place to have him do his spelling practice and tests as he will learn to type as well.

If your son does better spelling words verbally than he does writing them, it's okay to let him do more verbal work for now. Also, some kids with sensory issues detest writing with a pencil due to the friction they sense, so try erasable ink pens for a smoother sensation.

Best wishes and God bless!" -- Jamie in North Dakota


"Dear Pam -- Some of it will happen on its own -- in time -- coaxed out by some activities. Here are a few suggestions from our home, where we share a similar challenge:

-- Use 'old technology' -- tee hee! A tape recorder. We have a regular size tape recorder I bought at Radio Shack a few years ago. We have some cheap cassette tapes from Dollar Tree and I've used it to record any kind of talking -- my son reading a fun book out loud (like Dr. Seuss) -- we've even added the 'page turn signals'. We've recorded him sneezing, laughing, whispering, answering easy questions, reciting a times table. What fun to hear your own voice! Talking leads to composing.

-- 'Tell me three things about...' (his favorite toy/food/place). Now, type it up (or write it down for him) as he talks. Ta-da! He just 'wrote' a paragraph. This may spur an interest in him typing his thoughts. If you print it out, he could illustrate what he just 'wrote'.

-- Copywork works. We've used two or three sentences from books we're reading for years. It's just another little thing we do to help those words come out.

-- Have him make a list of some kind. My son often makes 'wish lists' of kits he wants from Lego.com. Or, have him write down a few questions. Mail it. To a grandparent; to a friend; to a company that makes something he's interested in. Maybe he'll get a response.

-- Use window markers and write a few words (eventually sentences) on the windows or mirror in a favorite room. 'Happy birthday, Dad' (if it's his day), or what the weather will be that day, or where you are going that day. Anything goes!!

-- Comic books and graphic novels. My son reads these (Marvel heroes are a current favorite) and just recently, I found him drawing his own comic, and lo and behold, the characters even spoke -- complete with words in the balloon above their heads!

Starting late last summer, I've used All About Spelling (recommended by folks in this same question/answer column. Once my son started spelling, more words came out connected on paper, and more often they are spelled correctly. I'm encouraged!" -- Christine in Virginia

Note: Here is the link to the spelling discussion that Christine referred to:



"I was in the same boat and pulled my son when he was seven and struggling in public school. He is now thirteen. We started with Institute for Excellence in Writing two years ago and LOVE it for many reasons. It uses guided participation (meaning modeling as much as is needed and gradually fading); its in a DVD lesson format with an engaging teacher; it has structure but allows a child to play with written expression -- and my son is excited while writing. I would recommend purchasing the TWSS for yourself and watch it over the summer. My second purchase would be Student Writing Intensive, Level A, and lastly -- an electronic thesaurus.

My son had reading comprehension issues, autism (looking fairly typical now) and sounds similar to your son. I wish you well on your journey." -- Andra


"Hi Pam -- Here are links to two curriculum sites that you might want to investigate. I have used materials from each of these companies at different times over the nine years I worked with my son at home. I heartily recommend them both.

The first is The Shurley Method -- English Made Easy:


It's my understanding that routine is very important and comforting for children with autism. You will find that with the Shurley Method. The online catalog will give you a very good overview of what the program offers:


Another excellent writing program is from IEW (Institute for Excellence in Writing). They have recently added a reading/writing program for the lower primary grades:


Enjoy the journey with your son!" -- Lisa in Wisconsin


"I have found that the key to developing language is to model it -- read aloud as often as you can from the best written books with topics that interest your son. I have two boys who, although not autistic, read and wrote proficiently very late in their elementary years. I was always confident that they would understand when they were developmentally ready and I read out loud to them almost every day. I believe that the better the language that goes in, the better the language that comes out -- even if it takes a long time. One boy was in 6th grade before he could write a cohesive paragraph; the other was in 5th. Both didn't read until the end of 2nd grade. The first is now doing well in college and the second writes adventure stories for fun as a middle schooler. Be patient and have confidence." -- Jan


"I had a son with Aspberger's who is now healed (through prayer at church), but it was always difficult for him as well before. It seemed as if we just had him write a sentence at a time on his own -- and this was all he could handle for creative writing for a while. We worked up to two sentences a day and a paragraph a week, but it wasn't always successful. I had to lower my expectations to a reasonable level. I looked on the web and there are ideas at www.AutismInspiration.com and other sites to get you started. I also tried Writing Strands, but it was too much for him, even with it broken down. He could do the first few lessons, but got frustrated. Thinking creatively was difficult for him and he tended to write everthing without adjectives, as a small child would (Dick and Jane style). He has significantly improved in his writing skills since his healing this year. I will be praying for your family." -- Mandi


"I too am homeschooling a son with autism and one thing I do know is the sooner you start a writing program with him the more he will learn. Early intervention or teaching is a must with autistic children and the earlier the better. Some children will always struggle with writing while others will excel at it. Whichever your son is, don't be discouraged because with an autistic (or any) child, slow and steady wins the race. Eventually he will have what I call the 'light bulb moment' and he'll get it. My son is 17 and just this year he 'got it' and is now amazing me with his writing. Let him write about things he enjoys and he will eventually catch on. My thoughts and prayers are with you during your journey." -- Mary S.


"Since you mentioned that your son also has difficulty speaking in sentences, I'd recommend beginning with copy work. Provide him with the sentences to write, modeling the language you want him to learn. After a time, involve him in the process -- write part of the sentence, but have him fill in a word (at first, provide a list for him to choose from). Later, you can ask him to compose a sentence independently. Think of it like learning to play an instrument. You don't hand a child a violin and tell them to compose and play a song; they begin with small steps -- learning scales, playing very simple tunes -- until over time they can apply the building blocks they have learned to play more complicated music, or even composing original works.

When he is ready for an actual writing curriculum, I'd recommend you look at the Institute for Excellent in Writing. Their programs are structured, building skills in increments, with very helpful, objective ways to evaluate your student's writing. (The checklists are very helpful for reluctant writers.) Also, the program teaches various stylistic techniques to improve the quality of written work. It can be pricey, but has a high resale value, and is truly an excellent curriculum." -- Laurie


"I don't have any practical experience, but one thing we use for children who are just emerging readers is a bunch of words on magnets that can be arranged on the refrigerator -- or on a cookie sheet for transportable fun. The words are color-coded by parts of speech, ie. nouns are orange, verbs another color, etc. I don't know where you find them, but we got our set through our charter school. You can make complete sentences or even short paragraphs. They are fun to play with and we often left silly sentences for each other to find on the 'fridge. God bless you in your efforts to teach your wonderful and unique child." -- Melody B.


"I'm anxious to read the responses to this. I too have two boys -- not with autism, but that are in 7th grade and are not writing very well -- and I need tips to help them get to where they need to be. Thanks for such a good question. Looking forward to the responses." -- Renee

Answer Our New Question

A Baby at 40 -- How Will I Do It?

"This is somewhat a life question and somewhat a homeschool question. I have always homeschooled our children, now ages 9, 11, and 13. I just found out that we are unexpectedly pregnant! I know I still want to homeschool next year, but I feel that it is going to be very stressful. Has anyone done this before (with such a large age gap?). What are some tips for homeschooling with a new baby? Anyone had a baby at age 40 (and had no complications)? Anyone had a baby and homeschooled through high school? I think I just need to know that I'm not alone and that it can be done. :-) Thanks!" -- Jill T.


Would you like to share some personal experience to encourage and support Jill?
Please send your email to: hn-answers@familyclassroom.net

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