Cheltenham Science Festival

It would be fair to say that over the last few days we have fully embraced Cheltenham Science Week! It all started yesterday. It took some persuading to pull Jenson away from his LEGO but I eventually succeeded and we arrived at Imperial Gardens at 9.30am sharp. After picking up our tickets from the box office, we had half an hour to kill before our Gone With The Wind workshop so the children had a go on a few of the stands. 

As well as having a go on the classic game in the photo above, also on the British Heart Foundation stand was a lovely little test that Jenson seemed to enjoy doing too. He was given a selection of picture cards with various different animals on. They ranged from a blue whale to a tiny hamster. Using a heart rate scale he had to guess which animals had the fastest and slowest heart beats. He did super well. He correctly placed the blue whale card at the slowest end and the hamster card at the fastest end. He got a little muddled with all the medium sized animals in between but he got the broadest spectrums bang on. When quizzed why the blue whale had the slowest heart rate he answered because it is the biggest. 10 out of 10 Jenson!

Here he is having a go at being a race jockey!

We lost track of time a bit but when we did arrive at the workshop we were pleased to see Arabella and her Mum Ally there. What a nice surprise. There are many perks to home schooling and the fact that there were only two home ed families there meant we got front row seats as we watched the large groups of school children fill up the rows behind. 

Another perk of home schooling emerged when it came to volunteers. There were four or five different school groups in the room and to keep it fair, the performers on stage would ask a teacher to select a pupil, from the ones with their hands up, to come on stage. Thirty little hands all shot up and there were lots of disappointed faces when they didn't get picked. When it came to selecting volunteers from the home ed lot, well, needless to say both Jenson and Arabella got to have a go! They actually needed three volunteers so another little school boy stepped up.

It was a lovely demonstration about how a kite might fair in different wind strengths. At the beginning, the performers arranged the three of them into a particular order with Jenson being at the end. It quickly became apparent why. Arabella took on the role of the gentle wind, the school boy was the strong wind and Jenson was cast as the hurricane. How apt! The best part was when he punched his fist through the kite so violently that none of us were quite sure whether he was supposed to have done it or not! It gave everyone in the room a good giggle.

By the end of the session Jenson was restless, agitated and desperate to get out of the room to the point that he walked out. He struggled to sit still throughout the entire performance. Had Jenson attended this workshop as a school pupil in a class of thirty children he would most certainly not have been selected to go up on stage, (because he wouldn't have been brave enough to stick his hand up) and would have likely spent the whole sixty minutes messing around with his friends being told off by the teacher for misbehaving. The playing up wouldn't have been deliberate, instead it would have been fuelled by boredom. I know this because he told me repeatedly that he was bored. Even I had become bored. There was lengthy talking in between some funny demonstrations, and had it not been for the bit where Jenson got to go on stage, the whole thing would have been a total waste of time for us. Jenson doesn't want to be made to sit in a room and be spoon fed information, he wants to charge around finding stuff out for himself. He is no light wind, he's not even a strong wind, he's a force to be reckoned with. He's head strong, determined and likes to do things on his own terms and yet, despite that, despite the storm that seems to rage inside him, there does eventually come a calm.

After a break for lunch, where the children played in the park picking up sticks and throwing grass cuttings over my head, we met up with Simon in the Maker Shack. He was on home ed duties for the afternoon as I had photo shoots to go to.

We got to spend twenty minutes together before I left and I enjoyed watching Simon help Jenson work a robot...

...and make LED circuit boards.

Arabella's Mum kindly took a few photos of the pair of them up to their eyeballs in goo, clay and cardboard! Apparently they spent hours creating together. She told me they got themselves a comfy spot and spent ages threading beads for their willow swords. They also made clay pots, drew and played with a non-newtonian fluid and popped balloons with a  remote controlled car. Having spent another five hours with Jenson and Wren at the science fair again today I now understand what she meant by some of those things she mentioned!

Simon also took some snaps for me.

So that brings us to today. After the struggles at yesterday's workshop, which I had paid for, we had another one this morning called My Place In Space. I was amazed that Jenson went in without protest but not surprised at how quickly he became fractious. Apparently it takes eight minutes for the sun's light to reach earth which was about the same amount of time it took Jenson to get bored. We managed to hold out another twenty minutes but that was mainly due to the large demonstration happening right in front of us, (we were on the front row again). Eight children were acting out the roles of the planets and a giant meteorite smashing his way out to the nearest exit wasn't part of the show.

Despite only being in the room for a short time, Wren still managed to get involved. The speaker began the workshop talking about scales and used young/old and short/tall as easy examples. Fair to say Wren was the youngest and the shortest so she got a mention and it was worth enduring Jenson's wrath just for that.

We headed straight to the Maker Shack. As much as Jenson loathed being stuck inside the workshop he absolutely loved spending time in this tent. He was engaged and thinking creatively. Applied, hands on learning is much more his style. That's why I dislike using the word bored because what six year old child would actually enjoy sitting on a chair for an hour? It's not natural and yet the school children all seemed to manage it without too much trouble. Thinking about it though, I remember Jenson used to come out of school like a coiled spring. Perhaps that's why. They might be able to sit trouble free for an hour but the trouble for us always began when he got home from school. 

As it was, Jenson was able to learn about all sorts of weird and wonderful things. Again, and I don't want to bang on about this, but had he been part of a school party he wouldn't have got a chance to really explore anything he might actually be interested in. He would have been pulled around the room trying to keep up with the schedule of the teachers and thirty other children. This is what I must remember about home schooling - is the indulgence it can give him to explore his own interests or a simple activity without being rushed or hurried.

He got stuck into 3-D sand...

...and learned about osmosis.

Both Jenson and Wren loved playing with the non-newtonian fluid. Hit it quickly and it feels like a solid; move your hands through it slowly and it's runny like a liquid. They must have spent a good twenty minutes squelching around with it.

Next Jenson tried his hand at screen printing. He was given the option of stencil or block and he chose block. 

He made this lovely sea horse. 

The clay table was next, which again, Jenson loved. Both him and Wren spent a long time working on their creations, although by the end Jenson became quite frustrated. The clay would dry, become brittle and therefore fragile. The more annoyed he got with it, the heavier handed he became and the more it broke. The lady felt quite sorry for us as he struggled with his clay, I struggled with him and Wren struggled to avoid being the target of Jenson's frusatration. 

Jenson managed to move past his frustrations and spent an enjoyable amount of time on the computer with his robot friend from yesterday. I managed to work out how to type in some personalised phrases for her to say such as, "Hello Jenson" and, "How old are you Jenson?" This made him smile, which made me smile. 

She clearly left an impression - here he is giving her a kiss! A hurricane he might be, but when the storm subsides there is a real calm about him. He's the gentlest of giants with a good heart and a soft soul. 

Jenson had a brilliant time playing with this cardboard box. I particularly like the photograph below as it captures the real sense of fun he was having while the school children can be seen behind lined up with uniforms and backpacks on. It's a great contrast between school life and home ed life. 

Seeing the contrast between Jenson in the workshop and in the Maker Shack made me realise that it's not a dislike of learning he has, but boredom from the way the information is given. He's not bored he's just creative and wants to learn about things in a way that his mind can process it.

We were in the Maker Shack for well over two hours so it was no surprise that Jenson was growing quite agitated. We stepped outside for some fresh air and a bite to eat before making our way to the Discovery Zone in the town hall.

This was a whole new adventure for us with heaps to explore and lots to learn about. The children got stuck into many different activities and it was pretty busy. It was impossible to take it all in. They were doing some things that clearly had no meaning to them other than they were fun and there was nothing wrong with that.

This experiment is one we will all remember. You had to eat a sweet while holding your nose and then release your fingers near the end. The sudden release gave a real pop to the flavour and demonstrated how much you rely on your nose for taste. Jenson enjoyed it because it involved eating sweets but I loved the simplicity of it. 

Here they are looking for land mines...

...and designing their own immune cells.

The clever people at Dean Close were on this stand, which basically showed how our eyes receive information upside down and our brain perceives it correctly. The goggles Jenson is wearing here replicates this. He had to find his way through a maze but of course it was all upside down!  He did well and interestingly, when he started, he turned the map upside down so as to counter the effect of the goggles. The chap on the stand was impressed. He's a smart cookie!

By this point there was a lot of argy bargy between the pair of them. Jenson was becoming increasingly aggressive and Wren responded in the only way she knows - screaming. A lady on one of the stands helped to distract Jenson with this brilliant building kit. It was fairly tricky to assemble, but with some help from her and referring to what others had done, he did it.

I included this photo because it reminds me of the confidence and maturity Jenson displayed. The chap did a little magic number trick that Jenson didn't really understand but the fact he stood there and answered the questions was a big deal.

This was Jenson's first time using a microscope and it's possibly worth investing in one for him as he was clearly fascinated by the creepy crawlies devouring the mouldy piece of cheese!

And finally, our last activity of the day, was a very simple experiment using a cardboard frame, sellotape and polarised filter. Wren was in her element as she reeled off metres of tape to strap across her frame. Under normal daylight conditions it looked just like a sticky mass of tape, but held in front of a bright screen and viewed from behind a filter or polarised sunglasses, it turned into the most beautiful stained glass. This picture below shows the magic.

After five fabulous hours of fun and discovery we made our way home. We stopped off at the Maker Shack to pick up our creations from earlier, which caused some drama. Tiredness had clearly got the better of Jenson who was in the middle of a melt down over his clay figure that just kept on breaking. Wren meanwhile was wrapping her slinky around the legs of the pottery table and everybody else. The lady clearly felt sorry for us and was ever so kind helping Jenson. We finally made it outside only for Jenson to then drop his precious figure!!! We returned to the pottery table for what felt like the 100th time and the lady by this point simply handed me a large piece of clay and told me it was in case we had any more accidents on the way home! She said she was going to have dreams about his little figure! I thought I was going to have nightmares. A play in the park and an ice cream sorted everyone out though. 

The last 48 hours have been a scientific explosion! I'm certainly feeling inspired and I hope the children are too. Jenson in particular has been fascinating to watch. Despite everything he says and does, he has a real love of learning. We just need to go about it in a way that works for him. I don't know why I resist so hard. I guess when I see other children filling out worksheets, able to engage and sit for long periods I think Jenson is failing by not being able to do the same. That's just not the case and I'm just starting to realise this. If home schooling is going to work, and despite my grave doubts these last few weeks, I think it could, then I need to start being more confident in our own approach to learning. I need to worry less about what he isn't able to do and celebrate what he's good at. That's going to be the way forward for us.