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About Anthony Barr

Anthony works as a Content Strategist at Demme Learning, which basically means he spends his days reading and writing. A homeschool graduate, Anthony is passionate about education, and currently studies history, literature, and philosophy at Eastern University.

Blocks and the Design of Childhood


In "The Design of Childhood", Alexandra Lange details an illuminating exploration of the material world that children inhabit.

The Design of Childhood is the kind of book that brings sunshine to your heart on rainy day. The author, Alexandra Lange, is an architecture and design critic, a historian, and a mother. In her book, she draws from each of these core aspects of herself in an illuminating exploration of the material world that children inhabit.

As she writes in the first few pages of the book, “to have a child is to be thrown suddenly, and I found rather miraculously, back into the world of stuff. Dirty stuff, clean stuff, sleepy stuff, heavy stuff.” Lange is the kind of adult who pays close attention to children and who takes children seriously as persons and citizens. You can see this attentiveness present even in Lange’s description of how the book developed: “I studied the landmarks of my son’s territory as it grew from rug to house, school to playground to the whole city (under my supervision).”

The Opportunity of Play

Loving attention toward a child engaged with the material world is the origin and bedrock of education, according to Lange. (Here I am reminded of that stunning line from the philosopher Simone Weil that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”) Lange writes that “Progressive education in the United States and Europe – education not based on the primer and the lash – begins when a teacher places a block before a child and watches what happens.”

Lange explains the significance of the child playing with blocks, calling this play an opportunity to learn the “elements in the grammar of nature,” elements that need to be “touched, stacked, dangled, and rearranged in order to learn about geometry, gravity, time, and symmetry.” Lange quotes Ann Hulbert, literary editor, who describes the child as “an independent experimenter investigating a world of objects, solving the epistemological problems of space, time, causality, and categorizing,” which is as great a description of the child as budding philosopher as I’ve encountered.

Imagination & Creativity

One of the reasons that Lange is such a fan of kids playing with blocks is that this kind of play provides opportunity for imagination and creativity. In lovely prose, she explains that “many of our longest-serving toys have no baked-in narrative. Simple shapes and sturdy materials encourage free play and meet the child at her level. She may get in the box, color the box, cut the box, stack her box with a friend’s.” I really like this language of toys that do not stifle the imagination with baked-in narratives. I get the sense that when parents bemoan “electronics” what they are really rebelling against is the (very wrong) idea that kids can only entertain themselves when the toys they are playing with give them explicit parameters for that play.

Treat Children as Citizens

Likewise, Lange warns that “our built environment is making kids less healthy, less independent, and less imaginative. Instead of toys that tell kids what to do with them, Lange says that “what those hungry brains require is freedom,” and that requires the rest of us to treat children “as citizens, rather than as consumers.” To treat children as citizens means to make available to them “elements children can pick up and transform into environments themselves” with the understanding that “children are the designers here.”

As a brief aside, it’s worth mentioning that the critique of electronic toys and overly built play environments also has implications for social class structures. Throughout Lange’s book, she sneaks in commentary on how parenting fads, which often involve increased expenditure on kids, tend to originate in upper classes before becoming normative for everyone else. The downside to this, of course, is that families which can’t afford to ‘keep up with the Jones’ can feel guilty, as though they are failing their kids. Lange’s book should help to assuage that unnecessary guilt. And if her book isn’t enough, consider this statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ report “The Power of Play” “children’s creativity and play is enhanced by many inexpensive toys (eg, wooden spoons, blocks, balls, puzzles, crayons, boxes, and simple available household objects) and by parents who engage with their children by reading, watching, playing alongside their children, and talking with and listening to their children. It is parents’ and caregivers’ presence and attention that enrich children, not elaborate electronic gadgets.”

Is There Worth in Video Games?

Nevertheless, while the above paragraphs might suggest that Lange is opposed to digital games, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Lange sees games like Minecraft, which is literally a block-building game, as being analogous to physical block play. For example, she writes:

Today the sandbox is as likely to be the rectangular space of the computer screen, where digital sand, in the form of Minecraft cubes or Scratch block commands, are used to explore building, civilizations, and geography. [. . .] video games played in sandbox mode, or purpose-built sandbox games, allow the player access to the whole world (the box) at once, and allow her to change that world at will (the sand). There is no preset narrative to force the player to run, hide, or shoot, and no marauders to destroy what she has built. Time is her own. The pleasure is in the creation. [. . .] just as you shouldn’t assume all blocks are the same, you can’t assume all digital games are the same. [. . .] the material is only one aspect of a larger play experience, which may or may not be moderated, scaffolded, or undermined by adults.

Here’s the advice Lange gives on evaluating all play, digital or physical: “To understand the roots of a toy – wood, plastic, pixels, or a hybrid thereof – you have to see its potential in a child’s hands. To understand what children can do, you need to give them tools and experiences that are open-ended, fungible: worlds of their own making.” In addition to Minecraft, another series of digital games that arguably fit Lange’s description are the SimCity games which allow players to design and build cities from scratch. (Here’s a really cool article on what happens when a real city planner plays the game and innovates using his math skills.)

Building Toy Recommendations

At the end of her chapter on blocks, Lange mentions that when she was researching for the book, people often asked her recommendations for building toys. She writes:

“my short list includes Duplo, LEGO’s younger sibling…Tubation, a set of straight, L-, T-, and X-shaped tubes that can be connected into marble runs, musical instruments, and animal skeletons; Magna-Tiles; and Zoob.”

Further Reading

Risky Play: A Need of The Soul

Playing With Blocks, Language Development

In "The Design of Childhood", Alexandra Lange details an illuminating exploration of the material world that children inhabit.

Math-U-See is Too Repetitive!


"My student is telling me that Math-U-See is too repetitive; I'm not sure what to do."

My student is telling me that the Math-U-See curriculum is too repetitive; I’m not sure what to do.

A key component to mastering any new skill or concept is sufficient amounts of practice. But often practice can feel dull and unexciting when there are all sorts of new things out there waiting to be learned. Fortunately, even small tweaks to a routine can help make math feel fresh and exciting again.

Here are three quick tips to keep math engaging.

1) Skip Lesson Practice Sheets

The goal of using Math-U-See is mastery not drudgery. If your student can demonstrate mastery of a new concept, you can adjust the number of problems you assign or skip any or even all of the Lesson Practice worksheets for that lesson. We do still highly recommend doing at least one Systematic Review sheet in order to apply new concepts in the context of previously learned material and to keep skills sharp.

2) Let an Older Sibling Tutor

In addition to this being a fun opportunity for sibling interaction, research suggests it can also be a great way for your students to sharpen their math skills! When students engage in peer tutoring they organize their knowledge improving their own understanding of the material. As a result, they recall it more accurately and apply it more effectively.

3) Supplement with Activities

Instead of doing a worksheet on a particular day, have your student help you bake a cake and have them double a recipe to sneak the math skills in.

Further Reading

How Do You Use Math-U-See? [Lesson Plan]

Schedule a Math-U-See Consultation

Intrigued? We’re not going to be falsely modest – Math-U-See is a great program and we’d love to see what you think. Let us talk to you about your unique situation and learn for yourself what Math-U-See can do for you.

Sign up for a free consultation today.

Get a free consultation from a Math-U-See expert.

"My student is telling me that Math-U-See is too repetitive; I'm not sure what to do."

Math-U-See’s Sequence is Confusing!


"I don’t understand why Math-U-See teaches concepts in the sequence that it does. Can you explain the value of your approach?"

I’m considering switching to the Math-U-See program, but I’m worried that your curriculum’s unique sequence will prevent student from having a smooth transition. Can you help?

Depending on what skills your student has developed, this may or may not be a concern. As a first step, we have a free placement tool that will help you determine the most appropriate level for your student.

If there are a few gaps (missing skills or concepts) prohibiting a seamless transition into that level, our customer service team would love to help you figure out how to address that obstacle. They are trained to provide resources and strategies for helping your student get ready for the level that best fits their need.

You can contact them here via email, phone, or live chat.

I don’t understand why the Math-U-See curriculum teaches concepts in the sequence that it does. Can you explain the value of your approach?

The short answer to this is that we want your student to develop a robust foundation of conceptual understanding of basic skills and problem solving first in order to prepare them for the challenges of higher-level math like Algebra 1 and Algebra 2.

For example, we’ve heard countless stories from parents who say that when their student revisited conceptual skills, they were able to master the algebra that had been so difficult for them before.

Further Reading

The Importance of Sequence and an Individualized Pace in Teaching Math

Schedule a Math-U-See Consultation

Intrigued? We’re not going to be falsely modest – Math-U-See is a great program and we’d love to see what you think. Let us talk to you about your unique situation and learn for yourself what Math-U-See can do for you.

Sign up for a free consultation today.

Get a free consultation from a Math-U-See expert.

"I don’t understand why Math-U-See teaches concepts in the sequence that it does. Can you explain the value of your approach?"

Math-U-See is Boring!


"My student is telling me that Math-U-See is boring! I’m not sure what to do! Can you help?"

My student is telling me that Math-U-See is boring! I’m not sure what to do! Can you help?

There are a number of reasons your student might be feeling bored. As a first step, try and see if you and your student can pinpoint what is causing that boredom. Is the work too easy? Does your student feel that there is no clear purpose or application to the math being studied? Identifying what the problem is will help you find a solution.

3 Tips for Removing Boredom

1) Show the Importance of Math

Let your student work at the pace that’s best for them. We’ve heard many stories of students going through a level and a half or even two levels in one year! Of course, it’s perfectly fine to spend multiple years on one level, and we’ve known many successful students who have benefited from doing so. If the problem seems to be more that the math seems disconnected from real world application, highlight how you use math in your daily life.

For example, when eating at a restaurant, have your student calculate the tip: “what if we wanted to tip 15%? What about 20%?”

2) Play a Math Game

Homeschool mom Janelle Knutson notes that, “Sometimes playing with the blocks and working along side the parent on a white board reaps more rewards than trudging through one worksheet after another.”

Instead of doing a worksheet, you could always play a math game or do a math activity.

3) Add Color or Music

To add color to the page, Janelle Knutson recommends using erasable pens. You can also let your student doodle on the page or decorate it with stickers as a reward for finishing the worksheet. In addition, consider letting your student choose instrumental music to play quietly in the background as they work. While some students might find music distracting, other students may find that it helps them stay engaged with their work.

Further Reading

7 Ways to Bring Joy to Learning Math

Schedule a Math-U-See Consultation

Intrigued? We’re not going to be falsely modest – Math-U-See is a great program and we’d love to see what you think. Let us talk to you about your unique situation and learn for yourself what Math-U-See can do for you.

Sign up for a free consultation today.

Get a free consultation from a Math-U-See expert.

"My student is telling me that Math-U-See is boring! I’m not sure what to do! Can you help?"

Risky Play: A Need of The Soul


Learn how "risky play" can be beneficial to your soul and mental development.

When my brother and I were kids, we invented a variety of playground games which involved using equipment in ways they weren’t exactly intended for. These games included:

1. Swing-jumping: we would push an empty swing, then sprint toward it and attempt to jump over the seat and through the metal chains.
2. Monkey bar leg wrestling: we would each swing out to the middle of the jungle gym, and then attempt to pull the other down using only our legs.
3. King of the Hill on metal bars protruding from the ground: this game was promptly ended (by us) after one of our friends slipped and landed with the bar straddled between his legs.

As I think about the number of stupid things we did as kids as part of our play – including swinging wooden swords at each others’ head, sticking paper clips in electric outlets, and spraying fire with a can of spray deodorant and a lighter – I am amazed that we grew up with no serious injuries to speak of. I’m sure we are the direct cause of several of my mother’s gray hairs! Looking back on my childhood, I am grateful that despite the dangers of our imaginative play, our parents allowed us the opportunities needed to learn to navigate risk. Their willingness to step back, watch with worry (or not watch at all), and choose not to always intervene, was essential part of my development into a healthy adult.

How Risk Can Be Beneficial to the Soul

The 20th century French philosopher Simone Weil describes risk as a need of the soul. In her book The Need for Roots, which explores counter-balancing needs of the soul, she writes:

The human soul has need of security and also of risk. The fear of violence or of hunger or of any other extreme evil is a sickness of the soul. The boredom produced by a complete absence of risk is also a sickness of the soul.

While it might seem counter-intuitive that risk is necessary for our flourishing, Weil strengthens her argument by noting that “the absence of risk weakens courage to the point of leaving the soul.” Too much risk and too little security renders us fearful and anxious and leaves us disempowered. But a moderate amount of risk is a healthy component of life, and it lets us develop fortitude, courage, and an awareness that we can tackle challenges.

Risky Play

I was reminded of Weil’s insight recently when I read an article in CityLab about the return of risky playgrounds. The article laments how, in the last decade or so, our playgrounds have “become mind-numbingly standard-issue—with the same type of plastic swing sets and slides—designed to minimize harm, rather than maximize enjoyment.”

The article then highlights adventure playgrounds, spaces that “look like scrap yards, with loose tires, blocks of wood, rope, and tools like hammers and nails, where children are free to build and destroy their surroundings as they choose. They can even set fires.”

This description of the playground had me grinning: the inner child is still inside me!

I’m not a parent, and I can’t imagine the amount of anxiety that is created by parenthood. Being responsible for reckless boys and girls with a surplus of energy sounds terrifying! Now that I’m older, I can really appreciate the times, for example, my parents forced me to wear a helmet when skateboarding (but I wanna look cool, Mom!). But I worry about current trends in parenting that attempt to remove all risk from kids’ lives and that don’t give them space for unstructured play.

I can’t help but wonder if there is more than just a correlation between the helicopter parent phenomenon and the rise of anxiety in today’s kids whose heavily structured and monitored lives don’t allow them opportunities to fail, to get injured, to make mistakes, and to develop grit.

I’m not alone in these concerns: the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report entitled “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.” In the report, the Academy recommends that pediatricians “write a prescription for play,” and specifically of unstructured and perhaps slightly risky play.

The Academy writes: “Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (ie, the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.”

In addition the Academy warns that without play, “toxic stress can disrupt the development of executive function and the learning of prosocial behavior.” On the other hand, play can help kids regulate their stress:

Play, especially when accompanied by nurturing caregiving, may indirectly affect brain functioning by modulating or buffering adversity and by reducing toxic stress to levels that are more compatible with coping and resilience.

I think the key is found somewhere in the balance of unstructured play and attentive caregiving.

Anyone who has read the classic novel The Lord of The Flies knows that leaving kids to their own devices for prolonged periods of time results in anarchy and destructiveness. But anyone who has read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer knows that kids thrive when they can pursue adventures! Ultimately, I think what my parents did so well was to let me as a kid learn to assess risk, while they themselves assessed my ability to do that, and intervened in situations where serious danger was imminent and I was oblivious. There’s no scientific formula for all of this but speaking as someone who has spent more years so far as a kid than as an adult, I am confident that kids are resilient.

After all, there are worse things in life than face-planting in the dirt when your foot gets caught on the seat as you attempt to jump through that swing!


The Read-Aloud Family [Book Review]


Sarah Mackenzie mixes personal anecdotes with relevant research on why reading aloud is so beneficial in her new book, "The Read-Aloud Family".

Sarah Mackenzie is the beloved host of the Read-Aloud Revival podcast. Her new book, The Read-Aloud Family, is a great resource for every family. Mackenzie mixes personal anecdotes with relevant research on why reading aloud is so beneficial. There’s practical advice on how to grow as a read-aloud family, and common myths like “my kids should be sitting still while I read to them” are debunked. At the end of the book, recommended booklists are featured for every age group from 0-3 all the way through the teenage years.

Early in the book, Mackenzie writes that “the stories we read together act as a bridge when we can’t seem to find another way to connect.” She calls these stories “our currency, our language, our family culture” and notes that they “become a part of our family identity.” As an example, she writes that in her house “whenever anyone says the word fascinating, someone else will interject (in the nerdiest voice they can muster), ‘Fascinating! Simply fascinating!”” Mackenzie explains that this inside joke comes from Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series. Mackenzie writes, “I hope when my kids are grown, they’ll hear the word fascinating and that fond memory will rise to the surface to warm them, wherever they may be.”

In addition to helping bring the family closer together, reading aloud also helps prepare kids for real life. It is well-known that fiction helps build empathy, because it lets us enter into the thoughts and experiences of characters, who are different than us. A less noticeable, but still important benefit, is that fiction gives us the opportunity to deal with conflict vicariously, which helps us feel more equipped to deal with difficulties in our own life. Mackenzie writes:

By reading aloud with them, we help our kids understand that life will be difficult, perhaps more difficult than they can yet imagine, but that they – just like the heroes in the tales from their childhood – are capable of facing unimaginable hardship with heroic virtue.

Mackenzie also highlights the academic benefits to reading aloud, which include helping kids develop an “excellent vocabulary and highly sophisticated language patterns,” as well as giving them “practice at making connections and thinking well.” But Mackenzie cautions us, lest we drive away the intrinsic joy of reading. She warns that we often “school the love of reading right out of our kids, and then we worry because they aren’t taken up with a voracious love of literature and a burning desire to enjoy reading for pleasure.” Mackenzie points out that “the adults I know who read for pleasure do not make dioramas, take comprehension quizzes, or write five-paragraph essays on a story’s main conflict or theme” and suggests that what is true of adults is likely true for children as well. Knowing how to diagram a sentence can help strengthen grammar skills, but the heart of the reading experience is the joy found in, well, reading! She notes that “we want our homes to be more like a cozy book club environment and less like a formal classroom experience.” One practical way to help keep the delight in read-aloud time is to include yummy snacks: “food is comfort, and comfort is a wonderful thing to associate with read-aloud time.”

My favorite insight in this book is that we don’t need to stress out when kids “gravitate toward the lighter, fluffier books” because these books “have their own special part to play in the growth and development of young readers.” Mackenzie states this point emphatically: “Light books count. Hard books count. Current bestsellers count. Classics count. They all have their place in the tapestry of a child’s reading life.” What matters most is how we engage kids in conversation about the books they are reading or that we are reading to them. Mackenzie recommends asking open-ended questions with no specific answers. Questions like “how is X like Y?” and “what does this story remind you of?” can lead to a organic conversation that gets to the heart of the text. She explains that “the art of conversation within relationships means circling ‘round ideas – considering, weighing, and comparing one idea with another.”

In the end, Mackenzie says her goal in reading aloud is to cultivate a sense of wonder in her children. She writes:

I hope that some of the best memories will be the times we were astonished at what we saw, what we read, and who we met. Astonished at the magic we experienced. Astonished at the big, beautiful world and the amazing people we share it with. Astonished.

You can learn more about The Read-Aloud Family here.

Related Blog Post:
5 Library Tips From Sarah Mackenzie

Demme Learning was not paid to review this book; we just like to read.


Pixar’s Incredibles 2 Shows The Beauty of Trusting Parents


In Pixar’s long-awaited movie, Incredibles 2, Mr. Incredible finds himself navigating the challenges of being a stay-at-home dad. One of those challenges is helping his son Dash with his math homework.

In this hilarious scene, Dash says:

“That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it, Dad. They want us to do it this way.”

Mr. Incredible, speaking for every parent ever, responds:

“I don’t know that way. Why would they change math? Math is math. Math is math!”

At Demme Learning, we trust parents to teach math to their children. We know that math education can be intimidating but we also believe that equipping parents with video and textual resources can turn even the most math-shy parent into an “incredible” instructor. (See what we did there?)

The Math-U-See approach asks the parent/instructor to watch the video for each lesson and read the accompanying chapter in the Instruction Manual; this allows the parent to see each concept demonstrated and shows how to use the math manipulatives to aid in the learning process. Not only does this approach bolster parental confidence, but we often hear from parents that Math-U-See has aided their own understanding of math.

As our marketing coordinator Dani explains in this blog post:

Many parents find this approach beneficial for themselves. They get to relearn a concept, or see a problem solved through a new lens. Some even learn concepts for the first time, or finally have that lightbulb moment in their own mind.

In an blog entitled Family Engagement Matters in Early Math Learning, our CEO Ethan Demme highlights an e-newsletter from the Harvard Family Research Project which has insights, tips, and resources for parental engagement in teaching math. The e-newsletter reminds us that “math education, like all education, develops anywhere, anytime, starting at birth.”

If you’re looking for more resources, check out this curated list of blog posts on math activities that are fun for the whole family.


Scholastic Highlights the Importance of Reading Aloud


Scholastic released a report that highlights the importance of reading aloud.

Scholastic has released its latest Kids and Family Reading Report. Scholastic is dedicated to increasing literacy and publishes classic children’s books, such as Clifford the Big Red Dog. Their new report, which you can read here, shares some key data on families and reading.

What Makes Frequent Readers?

Scholastic defines frequent readers as children who read books for fun 5–7 days a week. Scholastic lists this data:

There are several predictors that children ages 6–17 will be frequent readers. Three dynamics among the most powerful predictors are:
 
● being more likely to rate themselves as “really enjoying reading”;
● a strong belief that reading for fun is important; and
● having parents who are frequent readers.

Scholastic’s report also shows the importance of reading aloud early and often, as well as factors such as “reading a book of choice independently in school, ereading experiences, a large home library, having been told their reading level and having parents involved in their reading habits.”

Reading aloud is about communal relationship, bonding, and expressing love. Read to your children, let them read to you, and have your children read to each other. Remember, years and years from now, your children may forget the specific plot details of the books you read to them, but they’ll never forget that you read to them.

How Can I Learn More?

Download infographics from Scholastic’s report showing information about reading aloud.

Read Ethan Demme’s series on parental engagement and reading.