Saturday, December 21, 2013

Addicted to Speed Cubes

I should have saved my Rubik's cube from my childhood; the quality of the product then was probably more remarkable than the quality now.  How quickly the teenager picked up on the poor quality of the current Rubik's offering is something to be noted.  On a whim several weeks ago I grabbed a Rubik's cube at Target and brought it home, knowing that he likes to futz with objects in his hands (see the post on Fidgets if you have a similar kid lurking about your house.)

He took to it immediately and then.....his interest morphed to obsession levels, which is so often the case with this one.  Youtube video after video was perused and studied in an effort to master the 3x3x3 cube.  The cube was always in his hands; it's possible he slept with it.  I can't be sure.  With mastering it behind him, he moved on to such nomenclature as learning how to 'cut corners' and 'trim his time'.  I had no idea about the far-reaching underworld of speed cubing!  Apparently the world record for solving a cube is something inconceivable like just over 7 seconds.  Read that again.  Seven. Whole. Seconds.  Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.  DONE.  I can't do anything worthwhile in 7 seconds. Maybe get out of a chair or think a thought?

Here's a clip from the 2013 Rubik's Cube World Record Championship held in Las Vegas (of course) in July of 2013.  This is showing Feliks Zemdegs from Australia knocking it out in 7.36 seconds.

A chart showcasing the winning times in various categories of the 2013 championship can be found HERE in case you are curious.

Speed cubing has developed quite a following and manufacturers are paying attention.  There are some pretty neat products out there designed to 'fly' in your fingers, the clever things that they are.  Once you figure out how to solve the puzzle, you can continue to entertain your brain by learning different methods for reaching the solution.  It's crazy fun for someone who likes a challenge and is intrigued by the possibilities.

It also fits into the kinesthetic scheme of learning.  For those types of learners, having an object in hand to manipulate provides a conduit for the brain to absorb new information, or so it would seem.  Thinking back to Max's toddler years, he almost always grabbed a lock of hair at his forehead to rub between his fingers when he was concentrating on something.  Even then signs of his preferred style of learning were making themselves known.

The Dayan 5 ZhanChi 3x3x3 Stickerless Speed Cube is all the rage over here.  It's on the Christmas wishlist and at this writing, is tucked away in one of the closets, waiting for a slick application of wrapping paper.  The Teenager is rather adamant about cubes being stickerless for better play.

3x3x3 Dayan 5 ZhanChi Speed Cube

Ten bucks is not a lot to spend for hours of concentration, skill improvement and good times (pun!) sitting around the fireplace with cube in hand.  There are many different manufacturers and models, some of which get pretty crazy!  I think the 2x2x2's are kind of cute:

And if you really want to push the envelope:

Cubes even come with 'some assembly required' and look like this.  One of these is under the Christmas tree this year, too:

If your child is so inclined, you can locate resources for puzzle solving on blogs, in forums, in Youtube videos or books.  

Here's a picture from yesterday, playing with his friends while waiting for a meal to arrive.  We moms rather like not seeing the phones/ipods/ipads/gaming systems make an appearance!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

United States History Over Time Puzzle

On a recent trip to Barnes and Noble to scout books we saw this puzzle.  And then brought it home.  I do the same thing with lost puppies!

4D Cityscape's USA History Over Time Puzzle

The puzzle certainly required some feeding and care over the next four days.  We are now adding the 3D elements to the finished layers; up until this point it's been an enjoyable experience.

Overall the concept is good.  Assembling the first layer is helpful in visualizing how the US grew westward from 1783 to the 1900's.  You can start by separating the puzzle pieces by color and then build each section (the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Gadsen Purchase, the Texas Annexation in 1845, the Alaska Purchase, etc.)  It's interesting to build those sections in relation to one another and imagine our growing pains over time.

In the second layer you add the states according to historical order of statehood.  On top of some of the western states goes a little dollop of foam Rocky Mountains to add some dimension.  Finally, you get to place the tiny 3D plastic historical buildings and monuments all over the map.  The Empire State Building is pretty easy to spot, as is the Statue of Liberty.  However, the Thomas A. Greene Memorial Museum is not that easy to distinguish without following the numbering system; I'm not even sure that landmark actually has a representative tiny plastic building that we are supposed to ferret out.  These historical buildings and monuments are placed according to their dates of birth, too.

You can visit to learn more about each building or monument.  There are many puzzles to pick from.  Putting together the New York City puzzle would be a great activity before a trip to NYC!  We picked this up because it seemed interesting and fun to build.  It has been a satisfying family activity over the week.  There is something very pleasing about snapping a puzzle piece into its spot, do you agree?  It is addicting.  My husband is a whiz at recognizing shapes (he generally doesn't look at the box cover); I glance at the box cover every five seconds to try and find those pieces.  The teenager has paid quite a bit of attention to the puzzle because he's a puzzle person and enjoys all types of them.  Please excuse me - I have an urge to go put 3D plastic pieces into their spots.  Because I am addicted!

I also find it interesting that near the end of puzzle completion, you are absolutely certain there aren't enough pieces to finish the darn thing.  Maybe it's an optical allusion, but I always feel it and I'm almost always wrong.

Isn't the mini arch in St. Louis cute?  And there's the Willis Tower, too.

The easiest piece to recognize!

Makes climbing them seem easy :)

Thursday, November 21, 2013


It's a multi-billion dollar industry!  And my kid has a foot firmly planted in it.  He's definitely a gamer and a fan of game development; he spends quite a bit of time at this point in his life playing, researching, reading about, and marveling at games and their developers.

Instead of resisting his interest, I've decided to embrace it and encourage him to explore.  Granted, I still harbor some hesitancy about all of it (which is probably some sort of protective instinct or is weirdly fear based), but I try to keep that tucked in the back corner under a bunch of upside down boxes that are taped to the floor.......with duct tape and covered with an old blanket.  I think the point of my job here is to be encouraging, to get behind him and cheer him on.  That's much more important than any preconceived stereotypes about how gamers conduct their lives; besides, it makes me sound like a big old prude and that's no fun.  Gamers are people, too!  An incredibly creative and talented bunch, in fact.  I think some gamers might get into trouble when they sit in front of the screen all day at the expense of other life-sustaining activities, drink umpteen sodas, eat junk food and don't move their bodies, but the same could be said for TV watching or any other passive activity like blogging(!)  Yep, I just downed a handful of chocolate chips and have yet to exercise today.

Here's an interesting Ted Talk by cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier, Ph.D. discussing the brain benefits of playing video games.  She heads a brain and learning lab at the University of Geneva:

She has demonstrated that video games help the brain become more adept at important tasks like visual acuity, tracking, quicker decision making, etc.  All important elements we invoke when, say, driving a 3,000 pound vehicle down the road.

I'm making a point to seek out video game information that might interest him.  A few years ago I would have searched for some 'educational' video games that satisfied a misguided desire to have him learn something while he tapped away at the controls, but now I'm trying hard to pay attention to the cues he's sending and let him lead the way.

Last week we watched this movie about game development and I wrote about it in the last post:

And this movie about Steve Jobs on Netflix:

The teenager is also a huge fan of Minecraft, so this book seemed like a good fit:

And another Steve Jobs book written especially for young adults:

You can find a slew of art and development books focused on individual video games, too, such as:

Not to mention omniscient Youtube.  Oodles and oodles of gamer-related reviews, some of which I've taken a look at along with the teenager, exist to entice the curious learner. 

He's interested in the art within the games, the design concepts, the story lines, coding, computer systems and their componentry, building a computer that supports games, etc.  He also likes the coordination and training involved in getting more proficient at various levels, that whole manual dexterity thing. 

Gaming can be a door to many different areas of knowledge.  Now if I could just find some game developers to invite over for dinner........and I'll feed them nutritious foods.  No soda, but we might have something sprinkled with chocolate chips for dessert!  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


This week is off to a good start.  Three weeks back in to learning at home and we're establishing a pleasant rhythm.  The first two weeks felt like we were groping in the dark for the light switch, tentatively adjusting to the big idea that we didn't need to get up, make breakfast, get dressed and drive to another building across town, all before 8 a.m.  So not morning people we are.......not.  Right now it's 9:40 p.m. and I feel like I'm revving up for the day!  The teenager is also bouncing around (he's cleaning out cat boxes).  A nice soothing activity before one retires for the evening, yes?

Here are the two main reasons for the increased demand in cat box reconnaissance:

Squidge and Tova

Squidge and Tova are foster kittens from the city shelter.  They've been the teenager's charges for just over a week, living in his room, keeping him up at night.  These two are teaching him tremendous concepts like what's required to take responsibility for other living things, by paying a little more for nice-smelling litter, your room stays fresher longer, and, of course, how to stay up all night.  Six weeks old.  Total cuteness, sharp claws and stealth stalking topped off with tiny vampire bite marks all over your ankles (when they aren't biting each other, they are biting us).  It's really fun to hang out in his room!  S & T will be here for another week and then will be off to new life adventures.  We are doing our best to give them a safe place to test out their teeth and learn to appreciate humans.  Sweet babies, both of them.

After bandaging our bite marks yesterday, we watched this movie on Netflix:

It's an inside look at three game developers and the victories and trials they experienced bringing three independent video games from concept through design/programming to market.  Incredibly stressful (in a first-world sense) about sums it up.  The teenager was familiar with two of the three games and the developers and was thus enthralled with the movie.  He wore a permagrin the entire hour and forty four minutes.  I enjoyed watching him grin out of the corner of my eye knowing he was sparking on something, that we were hitting closer to home.  In the twenty-four hours since viewing this movie, he has researched all sorts of related topics from graphic design to gaming conventions to computer components.  I was inwardly horrified by the lack of daylight/exercise/any-activity-other-than-sitting-in-front-of-the-computer the developers exhibited.  All three pasty-faced guys had a penchant for fast food and other video games, too.  One of them had a cat, at least.  Listen to me.  I spend an awful lot of time in front of the screen.  The guys were incredibly talented and skilled.  It was fun watching them bring their dreams to fruition.    

What's interesting about this is that two years ago when we were homeschooling, I wouldn't have chosen this movie to watch with him.  He would have watched it in his free time when we weren't working on 'school' stuff.  A documentary on slavery or a movie based on a book we read would have felt like a better fit then, because I wanted him to learn about slavery, etc.  I doubt he even remembers the documentaries I steered him  toward.  He won't soon forget the Indie Game:  The Movie, though, because it connected with something he's already jazzed about.  That makes for a good fit and I'm starting to understand now.

Today was even cooler because he went to work with his dad and hung out with the computer guys all day.  They taught him how to build a computer and how to write a little code for Linux.  He came home, ate dinner and bolted for his room so he could continue more research on computer componentry and operating systems and pet the kittens.

Flow happens when you lose track of time and lose yourself in an activity.  That's what best describes the heart of unschooling.  I witnessed it yesterday and today.  Flow certainly won't happen everyday; when it does, step aside and GET OUT OF THE WAY.  Best advice I could ever give you.  Best lesson I am learning as a homeschooling parent.

*Although a good movie, it may not be appropriate for kids younger than 13 or so, or whatever age you deem best for your kids.  The developers, one in particular, are fond of colorful expletives and they are sprinkled liberally throughout the dialogue.  Know this before pressing play!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Books on Unschooling Moving Through My Hands Lately

Unschooling.  It's on my mind.  It's on the tablet reader.  It's on our bookshelves.  It's on our tongues.  The more you read the more you open yourself up; the more you open yourself up, the more likely you will experience paradigm shifts that rock your world.  I find this whole process to be terribly exciting! I've experienced three major shifts in the past few years, mainly due to reading, thoughtful contemplation and a strong desire to be true to the best parts of myself.

As a homeschooling parent I really want to be true to the best parts of my son, too!  Unschooling serves that endeavor well.  Here are the books that have passed through my hands lately about schooling/unschooling:

By far the book that left the biggest impression on me with respect to unschooling.  

The Reader's Odyssey by Dena M. Luchsinger
It's been fun assessing the teenager's favorite genres and interests and then hunting for books that might intrigue him.  I've filled a big shelf with fiction, mysteries, how-to books, science fiction, classics, comics, adventure stories, etc.  If he doesn't end up reading them, his dad and I are certainly set for awhile!  Today at a used book store I picked up an Isaac Asimov and a Frank Herbert - both science fiction giants.  The goal is to read widely and WILDLY.  And the hunt is kind of fun, too!

Free to Learn by Pam Laricchia

Free to Live by Pam Laricchia

Guerrilla Learning by Grace Llewellyn and Amy Silver

101 Reasons by Ps Pirro
It quickly becomes clear that the author does NOT like traditional schooling and she doesn't separate that distaste from her writing; some of her 101 reasons are snarky because she's trying to drive the point home.  You can read around the edges without getting hurt and take out of the book what means the most to you.

 Viral Learning by Mary Griffith

And I haven't even gotten to John Holt yet!  I much prefer when the author rises above bashing traditional schooling and focuses on the possibilities and positives that result from unschooling.  So many people don't know what unschooling really is and looks like, thus they may react viscerally to hearing that a child is being unschooled; they may equate it with neglect or extremism.  Saying the word, "vegan", can generate much the same response sometimes....... a horrified look, a wan smile and then a cloud of dust as the person scurries off in the other direction!

Unschooling is a joyful, stimulating, interesting, refreshing, soul-saving way of looking at and living life.  Go ahead!  Read more about it :).

Here are a few more books about homeschooling/unschooling on a Pinterest board of mine.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Picking Up Where We Left Off

It's Halloween, 2013.  My kiddo is fourteen and almost able to look me eye-to-eye.  Teenagers grow in odd and scary ways!  Kind of like our Great Dane puppy who is now two years old.  His growth could be measured daily, something to be seen to be believed.  He just recently seems to be able to exert control over his body; his brain understands now how to move appendages in synchrony with one another.  When in a narrow hallway with a Great Dane, move deftly to one side and hug the wall, especially if you suspect he is cavorting behind you.  DANGER.  We have survived twenty four months with this dog without any head injuries, thank goodness.  He's pretty awesome.

Cobus grew up!
I stopped blogging about being high on homeschooling because Max spent his seventh grade year with his best friend at a charter school.  It was a genuinely good year for all parties involved.  The teachers were outdoor enthusiasts and got the kids out a lot, into nature.  For one whole week in May they toured through the southern part of our state while tent camping.  He endured playing a stringed instrument, tolerated math homework and thoroughly enjoyed his friendships.  During the summer he took juggling lessons, an improv class, read book after book and lost himself in Minecraft.  Hours were dedicated to tackling its intricacies.  Did you know that Sweden uses Minecraft as part of its national curriculum?  You can learn more at

I used the time while he was at school to work on my photography business, raise a baby parrot and scoop Great Dane poo.  Household materials got pared down, closets got cleaned out and a kitchen got remodeled. I also became a fan of following a plant-based diet and discovered an underlying desire to spend time in the kitchen chopping vegetables.  All the while, though, I wondered what we would do for eighth grade.  The benefits and beauty of homeschooling become rather glaring when one isn't partaking of them.

Ziggy, the female Green Cheek Conure
A few weeks into this 2013-2014 school year Max began to petition to stay home.  He wrote a persuasive essay.  He began to research curriculum that he could do at his own pace.  He growled at his cello and plastered sad on his face.  The hours between homework and bed every day felt like fleeting wisps of light, like he had best get what was required of him out of the way so he could move on to the things he wanted to learn about if there was any energy left to be had.  There wasn't much time to hunker down into a good book of his choosing or research how to build a computer.  Go to sleep, get up, repeat process and sink deeper into a funk.  Two weeks ago, with my husband's support, I filled out the paperwork and pulled him from school.

We are learning at home again.

It's likely he won't set foot in another school building long term until such time he deems college a path to step out on.

I prefer to say that he is on an independent learning adventure of a sort to be determined (that's the line held in reserve for the occasional person at the grocery store who wonders aloud why that young man isn't in school where he should be; I will leave the "to be determined" part out of those interactions.  Heck, maybe I'll choose not to interact at all.)  It will take awhile to figure out where he wants to go, what he wants to do.  We are wandering into UNSCHOOLING territory with its heavily prescribed doses of freedom to breathe and be; my job is to remain calm and keep feeding everyone kale.

It feels like good timing to begin blogging again.  I hope you will have us back as we pick up where we left off.

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