Saturday, June 27, 2009

Free (and inexpensive) Camping

If you've followed this blog for long, you know we really enjoy camping. We camp on all our long road trips, camp with friends and family or alone, in sunny weather or rain. I prefer to camp away from city noises, and free or really inexpensive camping is ideal for me, but none of us are afraid of a pit toilet. Thirty bucks a night might not seem like a lot to camp, but when you're camping for an entire month...or more it sure adds up. ($900/month to camp at $30 per's gonna have to be some REALLY nice camping at that rate!)

I'm often asked where I found out about the inexpensive or even free camping spots along our last Big Adventure - the 9,611-mile (but who was counting) trip. I found a lot of them through local folks I talked to (or e-talked to) before we headed out and along our travels. I found some online while researching for the trip. And finally, I carried with us this guide:

When we found ourselves not quite meeting our time lines for the planned camping spot, I'd open the book to the appropriate state's map page, find the camp closest to us, read the description and make decisions from there. We had some GREAT finds thanks to this book, which features campgrounds that charge no more than $12 per night. Most of the free camps are far out off the beaten path. On the Central Coast, the listings are slim. But in Kansas, for instance, we camped at some fantastic lakes that provided free campgrounds complete with restrooms. In South Dakota, we found a city park campground that charged $7/night for a spot with flush toilets and hot-water showers included. Add another buck a night and you've got electrical hookups...such a deal! Note: This is the WESTERN edition, so if you're planning to head EAST of Kansas, it won't be of much use to you. (I was disappointed Missouri wasn't odd division of the country.)

Happy Trails!

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The (Live) Oakies Return

If you received this update via e-mail, please note there are associated photos available only on the actual blog. Visit site to see the latest.

I've been trying to focus my computer efforts on Best Family Adventures: Santa Barbara County. With any luck (and lot of work) this oft-requested companion to Best Family Adventures: San Luis Obispo County will be on bookstore shelves in time for Christmas 2009! Plus, I've been trying to keep up with the Charitable Deeds project. Then there's everyday life. That's just plain busy, and I love it that way.

So, here's a quick scoop on the latest. In addition to trying out new web software (see last post), the kids have been sewing, helping me around the house and garden, and keeping busy with horseback riding lessons, swimming, wrapping up their violin classes for the academic year, and now enjoying free summer movies at the local theater.

When I was a kid, we used to go to kid movies each Wednesday in the summer at the local theater, a classic built on the eve of the United States' entry into World War II. Eating popcorn while sitting in those plush seats, letting my eyes stray from the big screen to the velvet curtains, the muraled walls, the neon tubes inset in curves throughout the ceiling - these are some of my earliest theater memories. Our kids don't have such an artful setting, but their memories of morning popcorn and a big screen movie will certainly be as fond as mine.

The girls are also very helpful researchers, particularly when it comes to field trips. Recently, we visited Quail Springs Permaculture Farm & Learning Oasis just across the Ventura County line. We followed up our peaceful day of learning there with a run through Carrizo Plain National Monument to see family in California Valley, and ended up staying the night so we could better enjoy the company and peace and quiet offered.

This past weekend, we headed to Live Oak Music Festival again, this time with more family and friends than ever on site with us! Grandpa R and his wife came, as did his Baby Sister and HER husband! Another aunt and uncle were also there, as were a dozen or more friends and acquaintances from the old Music-at-the-Meads days. Plus, we managed to camp next to Live Oak friends whose kids are avid fiddlers, so between the company, the music and the birdseed box, the girls were in hog heaven.

I've wrapped up the super long research effort that was Goleta, and have now moved through Lompoc and Guadalupe. Tonight I tackle Los Olivos before venturing into the final work on bigger, more challenging communities and the dreaded "Outlying Areas" bit. EEEEK!

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Online Learning

I was recently asked to review this online education program. Time4Learning is providing my kids free access to the site for a limited time in trade for our opinion of it. It's a nice opportunity to try something new.

When we began homeschooling in 2005, I considered many curricular options, among them an academic program that was heavily computer dependent. It required regular testing online, and hours of keyboard/screen time. Computers are lovely, but I didn't really want my 5 year old attempting to learn what 3D objects were by clicking on images provided by a flat screen. Instead, we went with the old-school, hands-on approach to learning. We built things out of clay and rock and mud and leaves. Learned to sew, cook, read from real books discovered in our local library. (I know...I'm old school. What can I say?)

The girls have learned to use the computer, and have some personal favorite programs, and recently we were asked to review another online learning program. Time4Learning is an online subscription service which provides customers access to The Learning Odyssey, a progressive academic program that directs learners from one concept to the next at grade-appropriate levels. The beauty of working with a program like this is that students cruise ahead at their own rates, so while setup requires selecting a general grade level (lower level or upper level), it doesn't require students to align with a certain grade level across the curricula. V, for example, really enjoys science, so continues forging ahead. E's interests are history and language arts.

Typically the girls don't spend much time on the computer, but they've wrapped up their academic work for the year and are enjoying a summer holiday of sorts. In our house, that really just means OTHER learning focuses since we believe every day poses learning opportunities. Both girls have chosen to spend some time with Time4Learning this past week.

The greatest challenge we've had with the program is finding TIME to use it! In sunny California, I find it challenging to spend daylight hours inside, let alone in front of a glowing screen. Sign up and set up was very simple, and once online, our 6-year-old daughter particularly enjoyed it. She spent 5 hours on it this week. Our 9-year-old daughter is not as enamored by the program. She managed just over half an hour on the program this week.

For the 6 year old, most of the lessons moved along quickly enough to keep her attention and were presented in a manner that piqued her curiosity both visually and contextually. Some, however, could use some serious work. One of the voice actors used for the season lesson droned us all into a daze. The lesson seemed particularly long, but was it a long lesson, or was it the ineffectual reading that drove us away from that lesson? In another reading, the use of "Hans said," "Lyla said" was awkward. It was like watching a movie play out, with a narrator constantly interrupting conversation between characters we're WATCHING speak to tell us, "Bob said," "Nancy said." Simply allow the characters to say their piece and move on.

So far, we've found the characters to be pleasantly benign. For kids in our daughters' age group, we've yet to come across anything particularly offensive or out of line. It was sad some of the characters in one of the science lessons kept talking about things being "boring." That's a personal peeve of mine. I think Grandma Martha put it best, "Only boring people are bored." There's nothing boring about science (OK, some lab techs may disagree at times, but you get the drift), and programs like this should foster excitement rather than a negative outlook on the subject area. Some parents opposed to the military in general may not like the use of a "drill sergeant" and "privates" in the early language lessons, but they're reminiscent of paper-bag puppets and, after explaining their roles to my inquisitive child, served their purpose. (I thought the use of drill sergeant on what traditionally have been called language arts DRILLS was amusing.)

Repetition, however, is one way to breed disinterest, and the program has a bit of that. In some early language arts lessons, for example, the games remained the same visually even when the concepts continued to advance. The 6 year old wanted to move on just to get past those repeated scenes and songs.

Throughout the lessons, the graphics have been visually appealing enough to distract the older child from her own activities and keep the younger child asking for more.

As a parent, I'd like to see some organizational details changed. It's great that we have access to the kids' statistics through the kids' log-ins (portfolio), but as far as I can tell, parents have to log on to each child's account to get these stats. It would be a lot easier on the parents if this could be done from a central account, like the existing parent account. In addition, the stats are presented as a running list of activities (name, type, subject, date, score). I'd also like to see a running total of minutes spent, broken down by subject as well as a running total. How many minutes did my child spend on math? Was that today, or earlier this week? Sure, I can run a stopwatch to keep track, but the program is already marking times and dates and has a built-in timer.

On a technical note, the program locks mid-lesson on the Windows Vista computer with Internet Explorer, but runs without a hitch on Windows Me with Firefox. When the program locks up, all data for the current lesson is lost and the student has to begin at the beginning since there doesn't seem to be a way to forge ahead. This ate up some of each child's time at the computer. It would have been nice if they could have paged ahead if they were forced to stop mid-lesson for any reason (computer glitch, bathroom break, chore, ringing phone, fire...)

We have a couple more weeks to fiddle with the program. We'll let you know how it goes.

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

For the Grandparents - an update

If you received this update via e-mail, please note there are associated photos available only on the actual blog. Visit site to see the latest.

Limiting my computer time largely to book research has put a kink in all blogging and, well, communication ala modern methods. So here's a look at what we've been up to, beside the everyday gardening, math, reading, laundry, book research, bed making and home-grown giggles.

V is taking her first soccer class - just an intro. After her first session, she said, "Mom. This is going to be my THING!"

Meanwhile, both girls enjoy their music. This was their latest meeting of the SMILe Performing Arts Group:

And finally, during a recent math quiz, E found the answers to life's persistent questions are:

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Goleta - Oh, how I loathe thee

OK. Maybe the title for this entry is a tad overstated. I don't really loathe Goleta or its neighbor Isla Vista. In fact, these are fabulous communities on a beautiful coast. But I'm OVERWHELMED by this chapter! The on-the-ground research took days, but the writing, fact checking and details like contact info and driving directions for each and every one of these entries is going to drive me to DRINK, I tell you!

(Just thought I'd share.)

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Monday, June 1, 2009

In Defense of Food - the real deal

Our garden is coming along nicely. This week we enjoyed almost entirely homegrown salad (radishes, sugar snap peas, onions, carrots) with only the lettuce coming from a source outside our own property. (I've let our remaining lettuce go to seed so we can begin anew before we munch our way through the last of the yummy stuff. The potatoes, squashes, watermelon, apples, oranges and tomatoes are verdant. Our grapes are growing like WEEDS and show promise with their tiny baby bunches of grapes dangling hither and yon. Beets are coming up, and the strawberries. OH! The STRAWBERRIES! Delish!

This year marks our first attempt at corn and Mayflower beans, basil from seed, Roselles and kiwi. NOTHING happened with the kiwi we planted out front. Not a thing. Not a sprout or a sprig, but a gopher has moved into the front garden since we replaced ornamental plants with plants humans might actually consume.

If you'd like to be inspired, educated and entertained, consider reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (P.S.). The book discusses issue around and including her family's decision to attempt to feed themselves for a year with (almost) only the food they could raise on their place.

For more incentive, check out In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. As much as I've tended to enjoy Kingsolver in the past, I confess I found Michael Pollan's treatment of the basic issues more readable, concise and inspiring.

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