Friday, January 7, 2011

Your Frequently Asked Questions & My Answers

I get asked a lot of questions on a daily basis, and oftentimes the questions are the same. As a result, I find myself repeating the same explanations. The truth is, while I do my very best to answer each question I receive, it does take time away from my family for me to do it. I'm more than happy to help - that's why I continue to share my ideas on this blog - but I am just one person. I am NOT a website with a staff! :) Well meaning friends have suggested I just ignore all the questions, but honestly I'd feel really rude not answering you. So, I thought I'd create this Q&A post where I can answer your questions "out loud" once and for all and hopefully reduce the amount of precious time you spend emailing me and vice versa. I'd also like to suggest you take advantage of the search widget I've installed on the left sidebar of my blog - you may find many of your questions have already been answered. :)

I'll keep this post on my sidebar and I'll add to it as I get asked questions. In the end it'll be one BIG post (you know how wordy I can get), but hopefully it'll be considered helpful. Please feel free to ask further questions in the comment section of this post and, when I have a "free" moment, I'll do my best to answer them in the main post.

Lastly, a few disclaimers: In no way shape or form do I consider myself an expert in any subject in life. Truthfully, I'm often shocked that some of you reach out to me for advice and I'm flattered you value my opinion! Please know, though, that these are just my opinions and how I do things with my family and that I do not speak on behalf of anyone else. And please keep in mind this is not a forum for debate. :)

These are the most commonly asked questions I've received since starting this blog:

Q 1: Where do you find the time to do all of this?
A 1: Wherever I can. Like all of you, I have a very busy life full of demands and obligations. Finding time to do what I need/want to do is not easy, but it's not impossible either. It's all about prioritizing, time management and organization, three things that I enjoy doing.

~wise words! the above is available for print here~

Q 2: Can you teach me to be more organized?

A 2: I know there are people out there who make a profession out of teaching others to be organized, but I am not one of them. For some reason, time management and organization just come sort of natural to me - I can't imagine not being this way. That said, outside of a few basics, I wouldn't have the first idea of how to teach someone else to be. Sorry!

Q 3: How often do you change out the activities on your shelves?
A 3: It's taken me a bit to find a routine that works for me, so it's possible you'll see conflicting answers elsewhere on my blog, but as of right now I change out the activities on our shelves monthly and weekly. I create all of my new trays once a month, but I rotate them in a little at a time over the course of that month. I do NOT put all of our trays out all at once for two reasons: I simply do not have the space for it and also I feel it would be far too overwhelming for James. So, I prepare the trays, set some out for each area, and then store the other prepared trays in my closet. Before the beginning of the next school week I pull some work off the shelves (assuming they've been worked with) and replace it with something new. Yes, I do know and I do believe that repetition is important and so I often will return an "old" tray to our shelves later in the rotation. I am careful to make just enough trays that each activity gets a good amount of time on our shelves.

Q 4:Where do you get your ideas?
A 4: Mostly I get my ideas from all of you! There's such a wealth of information out here in the blogworld and it's so easy to become inspired! As I wrote here, I always make a point of linking back to where I find my ideas and, whenever possible, I do my best to put my own twist on the idea. Other ideas come straight out of my head, which is odd to me since I'm definitely not the most creative person in the world!

Q 5: How do you stay so organized?
A 5: One word: lists. I looooove lists. My best friend of 18 years knows my mania and, bless her heart, actually gave me a book of lists once as a gift. I have TONS of lists regarding any number of things and they really help me to keep my thoughts and ideas in order. Only a few of my lists are floating around on paper (groceries, and immediate "to do" lists), but I prefer to keep the rest stored in Excel spreadsheets, clearly labeled and easy to find. Heaven help me if my computer files were ever lost! I'm also fairly neat, and that helps with keeping things organized. I'm a big proponent of the phrase, "A place for everything and everything in its place".

Q 6: When do you find time to clean your house or does someone do it for you?
A 6: Surprisingly, I get asked this question a lot. Not sure why. But, yes, I do clean my own house. I do not have the luxury of having a housekeeper. Although my floors and windows could be cleaned more often, I'm sorry to irritate anyone when I say my house is not a mess. I have no secret "messy pictures" I'm withholding. :) I tidy my house each morning before school and in that way it never gets unmanageable. "Major" cleaning happens on Saturdays, but even then the tasks are split up (e.g., bathrooms one week, floors the next). Sadly, laundry is an ongoing evil, so that fun event takes place on Sundays. I must point out that my husband absolutely and totally does half of the work. I cannot do it all and I wouldn't want to try! More than that, my hubs is so not one of those guys who thinks I should. We've always had very much a 50/50 partnership on everything.

Q 7: Do you have a set time each week that you spend planning and preparing for the next week?
A 7: Making one of my beloved lists, I plan my themes out -in some general form- months in advance. About a week before it's time to work with that theme I use a very basic planning sheet I created to determine what exactly will go on my shelves - I usually spend a few hours one evening during that week to do this. As for actually preparing the shelves, yes, I do have a set time in which I do this and that is the weekend leading up to the new month. All told it take me about 8 hours (4 on Sat., 4 on Sun.) to take down the old work, put it all away and, with my completed planning sheet in hand, I create new the new work, photograph it (for you!) and put some of it on the shelves. Yes, 8 hours sounds like a lot of time to some, but the way I look at it is a) this is for the ENTIRE month and b) I have a job - I'm a teacher- and I have to spend time working, just like anyone else. In my case, I LOVE my job and "working" is actually a lot of fun for me. I love nothing more than spending time in our classroom!

Q 8: Are your evenings completely filled up with making crafts, reading other people's blogs for ideas, etc.? If so, when do you ever get any "down time"?
A 8: It's all about balance. No, my evenings are not completely filled with those things. James goes to bed fairly early (about 7pm) and after that is MY time. :) I spend lots of time cuddling with my hubs while we watch our favorite shows (he got the entire LOST series for Christmas and so we've been happily preoccupied with watching that in the evenings!). And, because I enjoy blogging, I do spend one or two nights a week (approx. 2 hours each) writing posts. I also love crafting, so when the mood strikes me, I'll take out my knitting needles or I'll sew a bit. I'm an avid reader, too, and I rarely go to bed without reading for at least one hour. I go to bed at about 10:30/11pm. I despise coffee, but my morning vice is my computer. I wake early and for 30 minutes each morning - and I DO time myself - I read my emails and a few new posts in my Reader. I don't read as many blogs as I'd like to, but that's how it goes. Just not enough time for everything and that's one thing I'm fine with letting go of. I also have another round of computer time during James' daily "quiet time", which lasts for one hour. I make a point of not blogging while James is awake, but the situation is a bit different on the weekends when/if James is playing elsewhere with daddy. My hubs is amazing about making sure I have "me time" on the weekends. It's during those times that I'll do a bit more blogging and reading.

Q 9: How to you incorporate all the hours of preparation that go into raising a child and homeschooling?
A 9: Again, it's about balance. James gets a lot of fun 1 on 1 time with me, with his father and with both of us together. As I mentioned above, my hubs and I take equal shares in the work of raising a child, so unless he's out of town (or ill, as was the case when he broke his arm in the fall), I never feel over-burdened by the weight of demands. When we made the decision to homeschool, my husband understood that this meant I'd need plenty of uninterrupted time to plan and prepare for our schooltime. He's been excellent about giving me that time and so I've found it surprisingly easy to factor those hours into my schedule.

Q 10: Does James ever watch TV?
A 10: Ha! Yes, James watches TV. I know many people think TV and kids should not mix, but I'm not of that opinion. I absolutely think what they watch and how much they watch should be strictly evaluated and so I am very cautious about both of those things. James' favorite shows are Sid the Science Kid and Super Why (both are educational) and he watches them once a day, usually in the late afternoon while I'm preparing dinner (we DVR the programs so he can watch them later). On occasion he'll watch a movie but in that case we all watch it together along with some popcorn. :)

Q 11: I'm new to homeschooling and Montessori, where do I start?
A 11: I can't speak a whole lot on homeschooling since I'm very much a newbie myself, but with regard to Montessori I'd suggest you start with reading a few Montessori books (see my sidebar for recommendations). I know it all seems very overwhelming at first. And with Montessori there is a lot to take in and it seems there's a very strict order to follow. The truth is, though, while there is a general order to things in a Montessori curriculum, the only thing to really follow is the child. Begin by putting out some activities you think your child would enjoy, while keeping in mind certain skill sets, and then simply watch them. Observe how they work with the material and go from there.

Q 12: What materials should I put out and focus on first?
A 12: I addressed a similar question in this note on my Counting Coconuts Facebook page.

Q 13: I have a small space, how can I make homeschooling work?
A 13: The previous link may assist in answering this question, but I'll also add that you need not an entire room to devote to your schooltime in order for homeschooling to work. True, having a large space is nice, but a corner of a room with a table and some chairs and floor space for a mat is all you really need. A short bookcase or a side table can be used to display a few trays. Alternatively, you could purchase 2-3 stackable bins and use them not just for material storage, but when you're ready for schooltime you could lay them out one next to the other and use them as a low shelf. I know of a lot of homeschoolers whose kitchens or dining rooms double as schoolrooms. The materials are in sight, stored in bins alongside the other furniture and that works perfectly fine! It's not where you teach that matters, it's what your children get out of it all.

Q 14: What was your experience with NAMC and would you recommend their courses?
A 14: As I mentioned here, I most definitely enjoyed my experience with NAMC and I would absolutely recommend their 3-6 course. It took me 6 months to complete the course, I didn't find it to be arduous or a conflict with my day to day life schedule (note: I only had one child at the time and I did my coursework in the evenings when my son was asleep).

Q 15: Do you let your son have free reign in the classroom?
A 15: For the most part, yes, James does have free reign in the classroom. That's typical of Montessori. It's very interesting to me to see what James chooses to work with and which things he works with more than once or twice. Sometimes, though, he seems "lost" and just wanders around the classroom. From what I've read, this is very common. Others would probably have another solution, but what works for us is for me to gently suggest a tray. A little nudge is all it takes and James is happily occupied.

Q 16: What do you do if you see an activity hasn't been worked with? Do you make your son work on it before you move on to a new theme?

A 16: I prefer to avoid interfering, but there are occasionally some works that do not get touched and in other cases there are skill sets I need to make sure James understands, whether or not he opts to do them on his own. In those cases, as I mentioned above, I gently suggest he do this or that work. I do my best to make the trays look inviting and interesting and so, in truth, it's a rarity that James doesn't chose to work with everything at least once.

Q 17: How do you color your rice and pasta? Does the color stain your son's hands?
A 17: I use food coloring, either the basic McCormick kind or the gel kind - I find the latter the most colorful. You can find the gels at a chef shop or baking store. I simply put how ever much rice or pasta I need into a Ziploc baggie, add a few drops of food coloring, and then gently shake the bag to mix it all together. Once mixed I lay it all out in a thin layer on paper towels. I allow it to dry overnight. I've heard of some people baking it, though I've not tried it myself. The trouble with colored food stuff is that is does temporarily stain the hands. On a tip, I've tried adding rubbing alcohol in the mix, but it didn't alter anything for me. Someone suggested rinsing it all to drain the color, but I would not recommend this as it would change the consistency of the rice/pasta, making it sticky and quick to decay. I simply deal with the colored hands and don't worry about it. In the case of our December sensory tub, I would ask James to wash his hands after playing with it. The coloring washes right off of hands and clothing.

Q 18: What did you think of the Your Baby Can Read program?
A 18: I didn't like it. Long before I discovered Montessori, I saw an infomercial on TV about this program and I thought it sounded interesting. Soon after seeing the ad, coincidentally, someone was selling the complete program here via our local classifieds for very, very cheap. I bought it and thought we'd just try it out. I think the books that come with it are okay and can be useful, but I can't say the same for the DVDs. I think my biggest problem with the program is just how much time is spent putting your child in front of the TV. I'm recalling just from memory here, but I think the program suggests you play the DVDs as many as a few times a day. It made me uncomfortable to see James "zoning out" in front of the TV, and moreover, he got very little out of it. He was able to read a few of the words purely based off of memorization and so no real reading skills were learned. And, as soon as we stopped watching the DVDs, he forgot all the words.

Q 19: How do you store your items?
A 19: With regard to the sensory bin items, I address that question here. As for everything else, I keep everything organized in drawers and bins with like items kept together (e.g. alphabet things go in one bin, crayons go in one drawer, bowls and containers go in another bin). I'm sorry, but I will not be posting any photos of this. One thing I started doing a few months ago that has been extremely helpful to me is to organize my seasonal/monthly items into four bins, one for each of the seasons. So December, January and February items all go together in the winter bin. Anything at all pertaining to the holidays within those months all stay together.

Q 20: What activities do you recommend for (fill in the blank) age?
A 20: Although my husband and I had been teaching James various things (like ABC's/123's, colors, shapes, etc.) from the time he was about 1 year old, I didn't start doing organized activities, like Tot School, until James was about 2 1/2 years old (30 months). I didn't find out about Montessori until a few months after that. I share with all of you any ideas and activities we do, so if you're looking for something that's age appropriate for your child, please just look to my old posts and find ones that matches up with your child's age. Most of the Tot School posts indicate James' age in them, but you'll have to do the math for other posts. :) James was born in April 2007.

Q 21: Does James get to use the classroom any time he likes?
A 21: No, James is not allowed in the classroom outside of schooltime. I want the classroom to be a place that's special and something he anticipates going into. This simple "rule" has made such a difference in the quality of our schooltime. Previously, our old classroom was also James' playroom and it didn't have a door so it was open and available at all times. I noticed James became complacent with the activities since he saw them and could use them whenever he wished. Now he's so eager for our school day to start that he'll dance in front of the classroom door while he waits!

Q 22: What do you do while James is doing the activities?
A 22: I'm always in the classroom with him, but what I'm doing in the classroom depends on the activity James is working with. If it's one that's new to him or that he needs assistance with, I sit (quietly) nearby to help. If it's one that he's really comfortable with (like the open and close basket), I'll sit at the small table and do some record keeping (i.e. making notes on his progress in school). If it's one that's interactive (like a game or art project), then we'll work together.

Q 23: How do you decide which concepts to introduce? Do you follow a set curriculum or have you developed your own?
A 23: I would say our curriculum is mixed. I definitely follow the Montessori method, but I tend to alter and add things as I think they may suit us. Certain things we do (e.g. worksheets, sensory tubs) are not Montessori, but they work for us so I'm more than willing to shift away from Montessori in those instances. David Gettman's book, Basic Montessori, is a great tool for determining which concepts to introduce in which order and at which age. Mostly though, I look to my training manuals and my son for that guidance. The checklists/manuals can really only give you a general idea of order but it's really the child one needs to look to. Montessori is all about "following the child" and I have found that to be the most useful piece of advice I've used while teaching my son. I take his cues to see not only what interests, but where he is at academically. It's with those observations that I can determine what to put on our shelves.

Q 24: Which Montessori materials do you recommend buying?
A 24: Visit this post to see my answers.

Q 25: I'm new to homeschooling and wonder about the laws - can you help?
A 25: I'm afraid I know very little about homeschooling laws outside of Bermuda. I recommend doing a search online for "homeschooling laws". I know in the US they vary by state.

Q 26: Do make money with your blog?
A 26: No. While I have nothing against anyone who does use their blog for profit, I personally do not feel right about doing that and I do not like how ads look on blogs. I have turned down many sponsers and offers for money (in exchange for reviews/advertising). I do, however, partake in reviews and giveaways whereby I am given a product to review (for free) and one to offer to you, my readers. I do this because I believe in spreading the word about the many wonderful learning products and resources out there and because I love giving gifts.

Q 27: Would you consider being a guest writer on my blog or join my online group?
A 27: I am always very, very flattered (and shocked and amazed!) when I receive a request to guest post or join a group. Unfortunately, I am unable to devote time to these kinds of opportunities. The truth is, I need to draw the line somewhere with regard to the time I spend blogging/social networking. My family is the most important thing to me and it's a sad truth that any time I spend blogging takes me away from them. While I enjoy blogging, interacting with all of you, and sharing my passion for education, my blog is just that - a blog. It's not my livelihood, it's not my life.

Q 28: Are there toys in your classroom?
A 28: No, our classroom is just for school. James' toys are kept in his room or in various baskets around the house.

Q 29: How do you deal with the social aspect of James' education?
A 29: Please see this post for my thoughts on "socializing".

Q 30: How old is James?
A 30: James was born on April 11, 2007.

Q 31: What made you decide to homeschool?
A 31: It's funny, at least once a month you'll hear me say aloud, "Why we're homeschooling, reason 1,001...." - I keep running across reasons why our decision to homeschool is just SO right for us. It wasn't always our plan to homeschool, however. In fact, the idea never occurred to us until we were confronted with a few issues. One was that the private schools here on the island cost nearly $20,000 per year, per student. Way too much $ for us. The public schools are free, but the quality of education and the social environment within these schools is not something we approved of. Another reason was that we soon realized James really enjoyed learning and caught on to things quickly - we feared he'd be bored in a typical school and not challenged enough. Since then, as I mentioned above, we've come across so, so many reasons why we should homeschool our children indefinitely. Even when we move back to the US, we have no plans to ever send them to school.

For questions about our calendar and circle time please see this post.

For questions regarding sensory tubs (and how I store those items) please read this post.

You can read a bit more about our daily rhythm here, but I should note it has changed a bit now that we have school each morning.

For questions about my homemade playdough, please read this post.

You can read more about our school routine here.

~Thank you for your comments!~


Sippy Cup Central said...

Great post Mari-Ann! Karen

Anonymous said...

Nifty :) I love seeing/reading/hearing how other homeschooling moms organize their things and prioritize their time. My schedule and interest seem fairly aligned with yours, so it's very cool to see that I'm not the only mom who does things this way. Thanks for writing this!

Mommy Moment said...


This was a wonderful post. Thanks for taking the time to reply in great detail. I will be sure to forward people to this post in the future!

Have a wonderful day.


Jen said...

Great post! You're really sweet to take the time to answer everyone's questions... I have to admit I'd be one of those that would recommend you ignore them. Just goes to show you're just a better person than I am though... lol!

Did someone actually ask to see messy pictures of your house?!!

Your husband sounds like a saint... can he come and teach my husband some lessons?? lol

Counting Coconuts said...

@Jen: don't sell yourself short! You're one of the nicest, most thoughtful people I know! You're always leaving lovely comments on here and make me smile on a regular basis!

Hehe... yes, I've had a few people ask to see my messy pictures. I'm sure they were just kidding. :)

And yes, my husband is a saint! God truly blessed me with him.

The girl who painted trees said...

Thanks, Mari-Ann. Always helps to know how others do it. I found a few drops of hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol did help with the drying of the color in the solored rice.

Stephanie said...

Mari-Ann thank you so much for taking the time to really answer all of those questions! It is so helpful to hear how others do it! You really are such an inspiration and I use so many of you ideas! Thank you Thank you Thank you!

Jessie, The Education Of Ours said...

My multiple birth coach once said that God never gives too much work to a woman without a capable husband. Cracked me up.

I live your answer about starting up Montessori (just need to follow the child) so much I could have drawn little hearts around the words.


Montessori Beginnings said...

Love you rockin' mama our should I call you the Guru!!LOL

What a great post. Now hopefully you can just refer people back to this post and save yourself time : )
I always get emails asking how to get started with Montessori. Usually I just say start at the beginning of my blog LOL

The Mom I Want To Be said...

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions! I love your blog, and your obvious appreciation for your well balanced life :)

Leptir (NataĊĦa) said...

This is a useful post for many bloggers. Although for some time working in the Montessori classroom, it was nice and fun to read your post.
Thanks for sharing!


Andrea said...

Thank you for such a helpful post. I especially liked your suggestions about setting up activities on your facebook page.

Here's another question I'm sure many people would love to know your answer to - What Montessori materials have you so far found the most worthwhile and beneficial?

Anonymous said...

You are amazing.. I love that all of the answers will be in once place! I find it hilarious that someone asked to see messy pictures! Next time just send them my way ;-). We would however be the best of buddies in real life.. so many of your answers and activities sound like they could have come from my mouth.. well except for the neat part.. some day we will meet IRL.. :-)

Elle Belles Bows said...

We have been sick at our house this week(ugh) but hoping to try to dye some pasta or rice next week. Thanks for all the great tips in this post! Kerri

The Jordans said...

Mari-Ann, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to answer all these questions in such detail. You're an angel! (By the way, I am so grateful for all the "linking" that bloggers do, because that's how I found your site...thanks to a link from Deb Chitwood of


Kylie said...

Great post, thanks for taking the time to compile it.

One more question hehehe have you sahred your planning forms anywhere before?

Counting Coconuts said...

@The Jordans: I completely agree! Linking back is one of the best ways to spread the love and Deb Chitwood is particularly wonderful at doing this!

@Kylie: No, I haven't shared my planning sheet and I don't know that I will. It's so very basic it would be laughable, I'm sure! :)

tracey (aka rainbowmummy) said...

Ok, I have a couple of questions. Does James get to use the school room whenever he likes or just within the times you set?

What do you do whilst James is doing the activities?


tracey (aka rainbowmummy) said...

Thanks Mari-Ann :)

Does James keep his toys in his room? (sorry, another question!)


Andrea said...

Morning Mari-Ann,

I'm new to your blog and i am finding it very interesting indeed. Plenty of new ideas for me to use out here in Africa! I am a qualified 3-6 directress and am nearly qualified for 6-12 too!

I just wanted to ask you though what you do about the social aspect of James' education? I see it is nearly his birthday so Happy Birthday you lucky boy x


Mrs. B said...

Love your blog - so many wonderful deas. I "liked" you on facebook.

tracey (aka rainbowmummy) said...

Does James keep his toys in his bedroom?

Any chance you can share some ideas for children's bedrooms?

Counting Coconuts said...

rainbowmummy: Hi! Lovely to "see" you again. :) Yes, James keeps all of his toys in either his room or the play area we've set up in the family room. The classroom is for school only.

If you saw the condition of James' room at this moment you'd re-think your suggestion about me giving advice on children's bedrooms!! But, when it's clean it's really clean thanks to lots of organization - I'm a big fan of bins and containers! I'm not sure that I'll ever share photos of his room... seems a bit (too) personal. :)

tracey (aka rainbowmummy) said...

Hi Mari-Ann, I'm sorry I've been so bad a comenting, never missed a post!

Yeah, I was thinking it might be a bit personal (for some, not judging those who do post pics!!), I hope you're not offended I asked! Just looking for ideas for Egg's new room :)

glads said...

Hi Mari-Ann,

I find your blog very helpful as I am currently searching for a more organized way to teach my 2 year old son (he turned 2 on June 15, 2012). I was afraid that I am a bit too late in starting to teach him in an organized way until I read that you started your son on Montessori when he was 30 months old.

I discovered your blog via Circle of Moms where they provided Tip for Indoor Activities. They included your "Frozen Toy" idea which I introduced to my son this morning. I think he did not really get the idea yet (that I wanted him to try to melt the ice to "free" his toys) but he certainly enjoyed the activity.

Your blog will be one that I will visit most frequently in the future as I am also planning to teach my son using the Montessori method.

It is sad that we do not have many Montessori pre-school here (in Malaysia) and I have to find my way to teach him on my own.

Thanks for your wonderful blog and by the way, my son's favourite TV show is also Sid the Science Kid.


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