Monday, July 19, 2010

Where Do You Find The Room?

Like all good superheroes, I have my headquarters, and I’m ready and willing to conquer the world. But it wasn’t always that way…

When I was younger, I imagined raising my kids in the city that I grew up in, utilizing the local co-ops, and teaching my kids in a room set-up for that purpose, with Pottery Barn furniture, murals on the walls, and wonderfully organized shelves. I was faintly scornful of the idea of poring over heavy textbooks at the dining room table, or in the living room, or anywhere else. No, no, my kids were going to be educated in style.

Then real life happened, and I actually had children, and a job, so into the public school system they went, with all that that entails. When I finally disenrolled them, I didn't have a spare room or a Pottery Barn budget, so we made do with the dining room table, and the living room couch, and the backyard, and found... that we liked it. :)

Still, despite the flexibility of our home, we spent way too much time looking for materials that we had just sat down somewhere, at some point during the day. We may not have needed a dedicated classroom, but we had a serious need for a center of operations.

We tackled our home office, which had previously been an adult refuge where children feared to tread. We lowered the whiteboard, cleared out the bookshelves, and attempted to organize the mess that we called art and science supplies.

There was quite a bit of trial and error before we got our organization down. We learned that putting items directly on our shelves doesn't work for art and science supplies. I had to purchase canvas bins, and stack them on the shelves. Each bin has a certain category of item, like manipulatives in one bin, and markers, crayons, pastels, and colored pencils in another. Yet another bin holds sticky stuff, including paste, stick glue, hot glue, tape, and glue dots, and one more holds three or four kinds of paints, each kind in a rainbow of colors. I have a five-shelf bookshelf smothered in canvas bins, with supplies that look organized from the outside. Heaven!

Every few months we have to dump them out and reorganize, but that's just an opportunity to get rid of used-up supplies, which is an activity I love. (Really, I'm the opposite of a hoarder. For better or worse, you're never going to catch me making anything out of a year's worth of bent metal hangers and toilet paper rolls.)

I learned that kids will play with what's at hand, so have good stuff at hand! To be fair, I already had some first-hand experience with that, having begun my life as an enthusiastic reader with my mom's reference books. With that in mind, I took our small collection of children's reference books (DINOSAURS!, 101 Weird Science Facts, and all) out of our kid’s rooms and put them on one big shelf in the living room. After that, I periodically took myself to Borders and applied my small budget to their bargain section, which boasts the world’s greatest and most interesting reference books for super-cheap.

Now on an average evening, I’ll find my kids and my friends’ kids sitting with reference books, looking at everything from How The Body Works to History of Flight. These forays into the great wide world almost always end with my children, my wonderful, brilliant children, excitedly telling me what they learned. (If that’s not happiness, I don’t know what is.) When they’re not exploring the world through books, they’re at the dining room table, playing with blocks, Play-Doh, or even the Mini Baby Bel wax from snack time. :)

When we finally came to math, the dreaded math, I found that working in the backyard, the living room, or even the dining room was not going to work. Every room held distractions galore, from the allure of the reference shelf to the smell of a snack in the dining room. With a sigh, we found two student desks, the kind with attached chairs, on the Internet (for free!) and moved them into the office, under the whiteboard. At the same time, we tossed out our dream of a small comfy love seat, to read on during rainy evenings. :P

Despite the crushing blow of losing a future reading nook, the office transition worked out well. It’s a closed room so it’s much easier for us to concentrate, especially on things that Angel and Micheal aren’t as excited about. The first obstacle to utilizing our new office space was learning how to handle my youngest son, who wanted to replace the distractions that we’d gotten rid of, all by himself.

I found that if I spent an hour with him, exclusively, and then gave him an activity before heading into the office, he was much less inclined to come in and bug his siblings. I can sit him down with a movie, if it’s quiet time, or at the dining room table with crayons and a pile of paper, and then give my older children their lessons. By the time that they’re seated at their desks working independently, I’m ready to go work on numbers or letters with my youngest, who is way too jealous to allow me to teach the older two and not him, no matter what the normal age for beginning pre-K is. :)

In addition, I purchased pencil cups and plastic pencil boxes for each of them. The pencil cups hold two or three dozen sharpened pencils, and the pencil boxes hold markers, crayons, a glue stick, and little bits of stuff that my kids like to keep in there. Angel keeps a few books on the corner of her desk, stacked in the order that she’s planning on reading them. Micheal keeps a sketchpad in the bin under his seat, and has blanket permission to draw whimsical scenes and sketch new toy designs when he’s finished an assignment. They both hang their newest favorite drawings and completed works on the wall in front of their desks, to make the space into their own comfortable zones.

The next obstacle to office bliss was me. Yes, me. I’ve always been sort of an organization freak. Not the kind that always puts things away before getting the next thing out, like our parents told us to. No, I’m the kind that ends up with a stack of paperwork on my desk and then can’t bring myself to sit at my desk until the pile goes away. My husband is in favor of just sweeping it into a bag and tossing it, but I can’t do that, either. I’ve got to go through it and it’s a good thing, too, or we wouldn’t have a single bank statement or utility bill to refer to. When the office was just for us, I would go through it every few days, and my organization bug never bit me too hard. When my children started using the office, it all went awry.

We solved it with labels. Yes, labels. Everything is labeled, from the bins to the shelves that the bins are on. Just for fun, I even stuck labels in odd places, like the back of my monitor. (It says, ‘What the hell are you looking back here for?) Labels don’t mean that my kids never put things in the wrong place, or always remember to put things away, but it makes enough of a difference to keep me from fire-bombing my own office and starting over. (You know, the scorched earth method of organization.)

So after a year of trial and error, we have a quiet place to work, with a shelf for messy stuff, and a shelf for books and curriculum. We each have our own desks and our own space to work. We still read together while snuggling on the couch, discuss history in the car, and write book reports in the tree house, but having an organized place to go has made a huge difference in our lives, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Not even the world’s most comfortable love seat.

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