Adventures with Montessori and Autism: Counting

Beth gets distracted while counting and has trouble coordinating counting during hands-on activities or while pointing due to motor planning issues. The simple, distraction-free classic Montessori toys (and some modern off-shoots) were great to build up her skills and fill in gaps. Many of the products are errorless or have easy, obvious placement for the manipulatives. This post highlights products we used to improved her counting (some of these fall under period 4 or higher in the book I am following, 1):

Tumble Down Box

Available From:

Purpose and advantages:

-Errorless counting: placement obvious and exact number of openings in each wood plate (1-10)

-Has a recessed number that child can trace with fingers as a pre-writing activity

-Good for working on coordinating expressive language counting with moving manipulatives (note I wrote previously about a unique problem my child had with emphasis…it is important to teach a child with prosody problems to emphasize

-Some children will love pulling the lever out and watching the pegs disappear, hearing them tumble down (although the noise was too much for Beth, I had to put a piece of foam in the lower portion to dampen the sound)

Tumble Down Box

Tumble Down Box

Spindle Boxes

Available from: Montessori suppliers, eBay, Amazon

Purposes and advantages:

-Although not errorless, the spindle boxes are a great simple beginning counting activity

-Gives a sense of number based on volume, which is rather unique for counting toys; includes a zero box for teaching none

-You just throw the rods into the box and they fall into place easily…reduces distraction caused by manipulating and perfecting placement of counters

-The numbers are very obvious and upright-good for kids who forget what they are counting up to or who have trouble with visual attention

-For kids who like to throw things, it can be motivating because you literally throw them into the wells

-For kids who like sounds, it has a pleasant sound when you throw the rods in the wells (although for a super sound stimmer, it may be distracting…they may not want to stop throwing them in and hyper-focus on the sound instead of the number they are counting to…yes, we struggled with that a bit)


Spindle Box Set-Up

Spindle Box Set-Up

Spindle Box - Completed Acitivity

Spindle Box – Completed Acitivity

Number and Counter Match-Up Puzzle

Available from: Montessori suppliers, Ebay, Amazon

Purposes and advantages:


-To teach kids to match number to number of counters (number sense)

-Distraction free red dots that are big enough to easily motor plan


-Hyper-focus on just matching the squiggled cuts can distract from the counting activity. We definitely had that problem and I had to encourage her to focus on the numbers and counters instead. Worksheets actually worked better for what this toy was trying to accomplish.

-Most K kids are only required to match 1-5 to groups of 1-5 in random format. Beyond 5, 10 frames or similar structured formats are used. I even had trouble matching the 6, 7, 8, 9 because of inconsistent formatting in this toy.

Because of the drawbacks above, I ended up laying out 1-5 and 10 for the counter portion, and encouraged her to guess the match:

Number Match-Up

Number Match-Up Puzzle

Number Match-Up, 1-5 and 10

Number Match-Up, 1-5 and 10

Montessori Cards and Counters

Available from: Montessori suppliers, eBay, Amazon

Purposes and advantages:

-Great beginning counting toy (but I suggest doing the errorless toys mentioned above first)

-Distraction free counters (same on front and back). Beth really has trouble with all the “cute” counters sets out there (apples, penguins, etc), because she obsessively orients them. So this simple counter set really worked to help her focus on the task of counting.

Montessori Wood Cards and Counters (With mats made from scrap material to help Beth know where to place the counters)

Montessori Wood Cards and Counters (With mats made from scrap material to help Beth know where to place the counters)

Montessori Hundred Board

Available from: Montessori suppliers, other versions from Amazon

Purposes and advantages:

-Great for working on expressive language while counting and number recognition. It can also be used to teach skip counting.

-Low distraction, grid helps guide placement


Don’t forget to also work on numbers in isolation.  Just because a child can create this whole board does not mean that he/she can read numbers in isolation. I was given that false sense of security until I realized I also had to work on scanning and reading individual numbers with Beth (discussed in this post  One activity that addresses this issue is to randomly remove some numbers from a completed hundred board and have the child work on scanning and replacing the missing tiles while speaking the numbers.

Montessori Hundred Board: We use little containers of 10 and take lots of breaks. It is a demanding activity!  Teaching her to point to the next square and predict rather than scan the available tiles was the turning point.

Montessori Hundred Board: We use little containers of 10 and take lots of breaks. It is a demanding activity! Teaching her to point to the next square and predict rather than scan the available tiles was the turning point.

Picture/ Number Sequencing Puzzles

Available from: Lakeshore Learning

Purposes and advantages:

-Like 1-10 or 1-20 on Montessori Hundred Board, but you create a picture, which is more engaging for some children (Beth did not seem to care for creating the picture though)




1-20 Monkey Puzzle (I put the 2 next to 12, 3 next to 13, and so on to help with scanning and impulsivity issues)

1-20 Monkey Puzzle (I put the 2 next to 12, 3 next to 13, and so on to help with scanning and impulsivity issues)

Next up for us will be place value. That will be a topic of another post!


(1) This will be a quick and poorly edited series because things are happening fast and I just want to write it all down. My daughter is almost 7 years old and we are starting the Montessori program from the beginning using this book, you tube videos, and common sense alterations. We homeschool and do other standard K activities. Montessori is an attempt to fill in developmental gaps and increase independence. See this fellow blogger’s post on the division of the work into periods as outlined in David Gettman’s book: We are starting with period 1 activities (taken from the book), with adjustments of course:

montessori book

Period Two

  1. Practical- pouring water from a jug, medium difficulty dressing frames, simple braiding, setting table, polishing surfaces, washing hands, washing cloths, scrubbing a table top, sweeping sawdust, brushing clothes, folding clothes, hanging clothes on a hanger, handling a book, scissors exchange, greeting people, kindness to visitors, being silent
  2. Sensorial- advanced cylinder blocks exercises, brown stair, red rods, boxes 2 and 3 of color tablets, geometric cabinet exercises 1-4, binomial cube, blindfold, tactile tablets, stereognostic bags exercises, sorting grains, sound boxes, preliminary presentation of bells, three stage lessons and the names of Sensorial qualities
  3. Language- classified picture exercises 3 and 4, stage 4 of I Spy, exercise 1 of single letter sandpaper letters, metal insets, frequent speech questioning
  4. Math- none
  5. Culture- Land and water exercises, first maps, places classified pictures, preliminary work for classification by leaf.

Period Three

  1. Practical- pouring water from a jug and funnel, difficult dressing (bows and laces), advanced braiding, tying a tie, simple cooking chores, ironing, making beds
  2. Sensorial- Geometric Cabinet exercises, constructive triangles, square of pythagoras, trinomial cube, fabrics, thermic bottles, baric tablets, presentation of bells
  3. Language- double letter sandpaper letters, advanced I spy, exercise 2 with all sandpaper letters
  4. Math- Number rod exercise 1
  5. Culture- all maps, places picture folders, past and present, stories about the past, air, water, magnetism, classifying animals, classification by leaf, parts of animals, parts of plants

Period Four

  1. Practical- responsibility for certain daily care of environment, helping and advising younger ones in a group
  2. Sensorial- Geometric cabinet exercises 9 and 10, thermic tablets, mystery bag, visual work with blindfolds, bell exercises 1-3, tasting cups, smelling boxes
  3. Language- movable alphabet, writing individual letters, writing families of letters, positioning letters on lines, sandpaper Capitals, box 1 and 2 of object boxes, action cards, reading folders exercise 1
  4. Math- number rods exercise 2, sandpaper numbers, number tablets, spindles, numbers and counters, memory play, limited bead material, number cards, function of the decimal system, fractions
  5. Culture- gravity, sound, optics, places artifacts



What We Have Here is a Charlie Foxtrot

I have been sitting here staring at my computer screen, trying to think of what to say about our public school experience and why we are returning to homeschooling. Do I go off on how, as in my child’s early and intermediate intervention experiences, we once again had the problem of various team members thinking in silos when managing my daughter’s case? Maybe I should be kinder and say, she does have many co-morbid conditions and it is complex, so she is a challenging case and it is just easier for her to learn at home from one person who knows her whole history? But every time I sit down at the computer, one word pops into my head and will not leave, so I just looked up the exact definition for creative inspiration:

Clusterfuck (urban dictionary definition): Military term for an operation in which multiple things have gone wrong. Related to “SNAFU” (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up”) and “FUBAR” (Fucked Up Beyond All Repair).

In radio communication or polite conversation (i.e. with a very senior officer with whom you have no prior experience) the term “clusterfuck” will often be replaced by the NATO phonetic acronym “Charlie Foxtrot.”
Example: By the time the artillery came in the enemy was already on top of us. It was a total clusterfuck.
Okay, to be polite, I will say we had a Charlie Foxtrot. I tried my best to help guide them, but there was no leadership for my daughter’s case – no one person at the school that could understand all my kid’s challenges, problem solve to work around her issues, and simultaneously figure out her strengths. Thinking and working in silos led to an unsolvable mess, or at least a mess that could not be solved for a very long time (and not without expensive advocates and/or lawyers, with uncertain outcomes and a lot of unnecessary stress). Meanwhile my daughter’s development kept sliding downward and the clock was ticking.
In short, these are the negatives of the experience:
  1. I learned that our team thought they knew how to engage autism, but they are totally untrained for the “difficult to engage” child. I know they are not qualified because we have hired high-priced consultants and therapists who are masters at Floortime (no dear person at our first IEP meeting who thought she was a Floortime expert, it is not working on the floor, it is a method for engaging a child that requires you put your adult agenda aside [sort of, because you still have to have a firm grasp of development and keep goals in the back of your mind to gently expand the child] and it does require formal training). Orienting my child and helping her tune into her surroundings and other children was missing when I observed. There seemed to be the underlying assumption that she was very difficult to engage and there was nothing to be done about it. During 4 hours of observation during education week, I saw many missed “communication bids” from staff that could have led to an engagement. My offers to make custom visuals of favorite stories and send in motivating materials were brushed aside.
  2. My kid was getting less socialization in school than out of school. When I observed Beth at school she seemed disconnected. She was not being helped to tune into others and engage and “social group” is once a week. Need I say more? She got more out of going on play dates, to play centers, and going on community outings when we homeschooled.
  3. I now get why the “presume competence” crowd is totally pissed off. It is because the assumption in our school is that the goal is to catch up to peers in totality, and when you have a child with extreme uneven development in motor planning, fine motor, expressive language, play, physical capabilities and academics, he/she is basically written off as incapable. For example, staff simply cannot wrap their head around a child who can do academics, but only if given the right motor planning and expressive language supports. I am aware that my child cannot motor plan for shit, but we are working on it and she is making slow progress. So I begged the school in the beginning, please don’t let her die of boredom working on the same concepts over and over…fix the motor plan and expressive language used for academics so she can progress and work on different motor plans in occupational therapy and language issues in speech therapy. It seems simple, but I couldn’t get anyone to consistently fix the motor plans and language constructs due to the number of people involved.
  4. If you have a child with co-morbid issues like dyspraxia, visuomotor problems, low tone, and anxiety, it is hard for staff to remember how to support him/her. I would look up after trying to explain my child for the 50th time and see the familiar stare of deer in headlights. So the need for accommodations like elevating work, right table height, simplified layout, using her finger to guide her reading, working on the lower part of an easel, special prompting to help her move her body, etc. was lost on most staff.  Also, My child could not sit at school, but she can sit at home, so how can she reach her academic potential? Part of it was the totally unsupported seating at school, which was only resolved when I brought in our own chair from home because the mammoth system moved so slow. But also I think she was overstimulated and stressed. So while Beth was not totally flipping out in school now (yeah! progress from the old days!) she was still anxious. Which brings me to my next point.
  5. The final nail in the coffin was the behavioral report. I love that these reports like to “note” possible sources of “behavior” from parents, suggest OT assessments, admit history of anxiety, but in the end, our children are treated not as human beings with feelings, but children to be controlled by static “if child does this, then do that” formulas that a behaviorist can hand over to staff. I cannot live with that. I agree that Beth’s stimming can get in the way of learning and engagement is a problem, but I want to work with Beth to help her help herself. I want staff to own up to their end of the engagement problem and be trained to better engage her. I want staff to try to understand what she is thinking and why she is doing what she is doing when she is stimming. Otherwise, stopping “stimming behaviors” in a blind fashion will lead to worse behaviors and a child who feels powerless and misunderstood. When “behaviors” occur, I want all staff trained to see my child as a whole, and combine child psychology, behavioral strategies, OT techniques, and sensory strategies to help her. But that is just not the way the system works and I am not sure if it is a training issue as much as it is a mindset.

And these are the positives of the experience:

  1. I had an awesome home behaviorist and she had some good ideas. I will miss her. She encouraged me to weave intraverbal goals into play and throughout the day and that will be a big effort going forward.
  2. I learned we need to work harder on engagement and we need to work through some of the stim issues.
  3. Let’s just say my confidence in my homeschooling abilities is up. Way up.

What’s Going On?

My friends have been asking “What’s going on” so often I feel like Marvin Gaye has been following me around serenading me.

It is no wonder. First I was homeschooling Kindergarten with a Waldorf approach, then this winter I proclaimed we are getting ready for evaluations for Kindergarten at our local public school. So I am writing a long overdue “update post” to get everyone up to speed.

What Happened to Waldorf?

We started out doing mostly Waldof-style (Oak Meadow, see and quickly learned it was not the best curriculum for Beth. I made a valiant effort at engaging her in the fairy tales (minimized language, highlighted the exciting parts, etc.), which are a huge part of the curriculum, but Beth wanted nothing to do with them. I still learned a great deal, because the fairy tales had rather small illustrations, which led me down a path to understanding the visual scanning and attention issues that impact Beth’s ability to attend to books. I came to the conclusion that while there are some worthwhile concepts in the Oak Meadow curriculum, Beth did best with more traditional techniques (like flashcards, Oh the horror!) and workbooks with minimal clutter. Also, Oak Meadow seemed below Beth in some ways and above in others. At some point I just started skimming the books for ideas and then supplementing with standard Pre-K and K workbooks and special education materials (file folder games, pocket charts, etc.), and going at Beth’s pace.

Why Kindergarten Next Year?

A funny thing happened as we were homeschooling. Beth started showing typical signs of “school readiness” other than academics:

  • Let’s hear it for self-regulation! In the late summer and fall, Beth had a series of doctor’s appointments which sent her into a freak out at the beginning of each appointment, which was typical. Then something very new happened…she calmed herself down and coped. It took me a about 4 doctors visits to wrap my head around what was going on, but finally I was like, “Oh! THIS is self-regulation!”  Ever since then she has become more able to calm her self down. She is sleeping better, and putting herself back to sleep when she wakes up, and she is usually able to get enough words out to get her needs met before the freak-out ensues.
  • Interest in other children. Beth started smiling and following kids on the playground a little. Then she started bouncing on the trampolines next to kids at Sky Zone, as if she was trying to get their attention. And finally, she made it clear that I didn’t need to go with her on the trampolines or inflatable at jump places. She wanted to be on her own, and if a kid bumped her she didn’t freak out like she used to. I wouldn’t say she is totally ready to play with other kids or that she is always tuned into them, but she is generally more content around them now and showing interest.
  • Willingness to sit in a chair and on the floor. Beth isn’t thrilled about sitting in a chair to work, but she will do it if the reward is high enough (see token board article, and we keep sessions short. The newest development is she will sit on the floor this way, which is a fine way the sit (criss cross is hard for kids with low tone):


  • Beth’s receptive language and ability to follow directions went way up, her motor planning and sensory integration took a huge upswing, and her expressive language started moving.

After noting these changes, I felt we should hold steady on K level academic work and do more language work. Her speech therapist led the way and we doubled up on speech therapy sessions with me doing more work at home with her. Also, I went back to the VB-Mapp and evaluated her and tried the ABA method again (now that I understood her visual scanning issues made flashcards a very good method for learning language after all, see Now she can answer Yes/No to questions, request the potty, ask for or indicate she needs help, ask for food/drink, and much more.

With all the focus on language and all the positive changes in Beth, I decided it was time to call the school district and talk about placement. She has a lot of K skills, but probably not enough to make her ready for 1st grade. But that is fine with us, because lots of kids delay K for a year for a variety of reasons. The way I see it she will be going into the classroom with pretty good academic skills and can focus more energy on adjusting to the class and on social goals.

Evaluation #1 of Many

Today was the first evaluation, which was with a school psychologist who will compile her thoughts and recommendations from 4 other evaluators for placement (special ed, typical classroom with support, or combination). The psychologist came to Beth’s music therapy session at Ambler Music Academy. As soon as we pulled up to the building, Beth started freaking out saying, “potty, potty, potty!!!!” I drug her to the potty inside the building and she was crying inconsolably. The psychologist was running late so she missed this display of misery. As Beth was crying on the toilet I took some deep breaths and just thought to myself, if she is a mess so be it. It is what it is. The kid has been sick for over a week and is just pulling out of it. Somehow we talked through it and Beth didn’t really need to go potty, so I assumed she just wasn’t feeling well and was hoping we would drive home and go there.

After awhile, Beth calmed herself down and I asked her if she was ready to see her music therapist and she said yes. Then she went on to have a nice session where she showed natural imitation with her therapist, song fill-in skills, and her ability to show her happiness to be with her therapist through smiles and eye contact. She sat on the floor with her little legs tucked under her for longer than ever. I just focused on Beth and tried to forget the evaluation lady was there. Beth will place where she places and I have accepted that. I held onto gratefulness for all the skills she has gained: self-regulation, interest in others, sitting on chairs and the floor, integration, and expressive language.  She is dong the best she can and I am proud of her.

Homeschooling on the Spectrum, Post #5: Ladybugs and Bees

“1, 2, 3…4, 5, 6…7, 8, 9….10, 11, 12 Ladybugs came, to the ladybug picnic!” I introduced Beth to Ladybugs’ Picnic one day while reliving my 70s TV childhood via classic Sesame Street videos on YouTube. It was love at first viewing for Beth.

Since Beth has trouble slowing down to count while pointing or placing items, I thought an activity based on the Ladybugs’ Picnic video would be a fun way to work on counting. One idea lead to another and eventually we had a whole ladybugs and bees (with some other bugs thrown in) lesson.

Ladybug (and Bee) Math

Ladybugs’ Picnic Activities

I turned the 12 ladybugs in Ladybugs’ Picnic into a hands-on math activity. We made egg carton ladybugs, which was a fun and easy craft project ( and Then we used our bugs for sequencing and counting. If she lost interest during the math activity, I just sang the Ladybugs’ Picnic song and she regained her focus immediately.

Egg Carton Painted Red for 12 Ladybugs

Egg Carton Painted Red for 12 Ladybugs


Self-Stick Foam Spots and Self-Stick Wiggle Eyes (This one had an eye issue)

12 Ladybugs Made From an Egg Carton

12 Ladybugs Made From an Egg Carton

Ladybug Sequencing Activity

Ladybug Sequencing Activity

Ladybug Symmetry and Counting Activities

Google “ladybug math” and prepare to find tons of activities.  I chose the symmetry and leaf counting ideas from I found the black stones for the symmetry activity and painted wooden ladybugs for the counting activity at A.C. Moore craft store (you can check Etsy and Amazon for similar items). Note that putting wooden ladybugs in a bowl as shown in the picture below didn’t work out.  I had to hand Beth individual wooden ladybugs during the counting process (otherwise she just threw a bunch on the leaves and counted fast to a favorite number, which is usually 5 or 10).

Lady Bug Symmetry

Ladybug Symmetry Activity

Wooden Ladybug Counting

Wooden Ladybug Counting Activity

Bee Counting Activity

At this point, I decided to that we should study bees with our ladybugs.  Beth sometimes confuses where they live (hive), what they eat (flowers), and what they make (honey). Also, it is important to vary activities as much as possible, because Beth tends to get stuck on doing things one way.  So, I printed some hives off of Google Image (type in “bee hive printable” in Google Images) and bought some wooden bees at a local A.C. Moore craft store (you can check Etsy and Amazon for similar bees), and we did bee counting.

Bee and Hive Counting

Bee Counting Activity

An Introduction to Bees with Videos and a Collage

I backed up a bit after the bee counting and gave her a bee overview, starting with videos of bees. There are many videos about bees on Youtube. For example, this is a wonderful video showing bees making a hive:

Next I printed off several bee-related images from Google Images and we cut/paste a collage as an overall introduction to bees.


Bee Collage

Side-by-Side Ladybug and Bee Drawings

The Oak Meadow program showed me the value of drawing with Beth. We did simple ladybug and bee drawings together, where I drew on the right-hand side of a spiral sketch book and she drew on the left-hand side. Despite Beth’s attention and fine motor challenges, she was able to pay attention to this task because she is attracted to the movement of my hand as I draw. We first practiced on a roll of paper on our work table, and you can see the practice drawings in our ladybug sequence picture above (  I used no hand-over-hand, just demonstration, simple instructions, and pointing (draw a big circle, draw little circles inside, color in circles, draw a head, draw legs, draw wings like this (I demonstrate, then point on her drawing), draw an oval, etc).  The results are astonishing.  And it makes me think, why do we skip the step of drawing before writing with many special needs kids? Kids normally draw before writing, so in my mind it makes sense to do guided drawing before writing. Therefore, we will be doing mostly drawing, and some beginning letter writing, as we start this Kindergarten year.

Side-by-Side Ladybug Drawing

Side-by-Side Ladybug Drawing

Side-by-Side Bee Drawing

Side-by-Side Bee Drawing

Ladybug and Bee River Rock Painting

Beth is obsessed with walking on river rocks lately. It may be the sound the rocks make as she walks on them and they move against each other. It may also be an emotional connection to a past experience with river rocks, although I am unable to figure out the connection. Whatever the reason, they are a passion of hers and I decided that a popular kids craft, river rock painting, would be a nice addition to our ladybugs and bees lesson.

Walking on River Rocks

Beth Walking on River Rocks

To paint river rocks, I used river rocks form a craft store (I didn’t have ready access to some when I needed them), acrylic paint, and a clear acrylic sealer. Note that the craft store rocks seemed shined and we had problems with pealing after we were done.  Therefore I suggest using natural clean, dry, and rough river rocks, or you will need to do a surface priming on the craft store river rocks.

The trick was to help Beth slow down and create the likeness of the ladybugs and bees, since her tendency is to paint the entire surface. I used a few masking techniques  (with my hand or painter’s tape) and for the spots and wings a trimmed sponge brush and sponge worked best.  We practiced dabbing spots, making stripes, and sponging wings on paper before we dabbed on the rocks, and during the paper practice I taught her the language (dab, go down, one time, make spots, etc.).


Ladybug Rocks (first coat red already dry, ready to paint black head and dots)

Beth Paints Ladybug Heads (my hand is used as a mask for the rest of the rock)

Beth Paints Ladybug Heads (my hand is used as a mask for the rest of the rock)


Sponge Brushes (trim to a nub to use for ladybug spots and eyes)

Bee Rocks (painters tape used to mask when black is painted...let dry and pull off tape before making yellow stripes)

Bee Rocks (painters tape used to mask when black is painted…let dry and pull off tape before making yellow stripes)

Sponging Wings on Bee Rocks

Sponging Wings on Bee Rocks

Final Painted Ladybug and Bee River Rocks

Final Painted Ladybug and Bee River Rocks

Adventures with Ladybug Land

There were plenty of bees on flowers that I could show Beth this summer, but I tried in vain to find ladybugs. My solution was Ladybug Land. I dumped the larvae into their new home when they arrived.  As soon as I walked away, Beth had disassembled Ladybug Land and was washing it out in the sink. Most of them drowned, but I was able to rescue 4 from the bathroom floor and they made it from larvae, to yellow bugs, to mature red ladybugs. She was mildly amused as I let them crawl on her.  We will try it again next Spring, in addition to painting non-peeling river rocks for our garden!


Big Bugs at Morris Arboretum

As luck would have it, our local arboretum was having a giant bug sculpture display throughout their gardens.  One of the bugs was a ladybug, and the other sculptures were a great way to teach Beth about the overall bug category. The bug exhibit made me realize the value of incorporating the temporary exhibits at local gardens and museums into our lessons. She learns best by total immersion in a topic, and by syncing the exhibit content with our lessons it would prepare her for coping and understanding her environment better during the outing.

Ladybug Sculpture, Morris Arboretum

Ladybug Sculpture, Morris Arboretum

Grasshopper Sculpture, Morris Arboretum

Grasshopper Sculpture, Morris Arboretum

Spider Sculpture, Morris Arboretum

Spider Sculpture, Morris Arboretum

Other Ladybug and Bee Activities

Throughout the 1.5 weeks we studied ladybugs and bees (and other bugs), I wove in other books and activities, such as these.

Favorite Books:

Ten Little Ladybugs (

Ladybug, First Discovery (

Ladybug Girl (

The Honey Makers (

Bee and Me (

Itsy Bitsy Spider (

Honey Bee Tree Game:

Honey Bee Tree Game

Honey Bee Tree Game

Bug Magnet Scene and Puzzle:



Homeschooling on the Spectrum, Post #4: The Sunflower Lesson

Beth hates libraries. It could be the lighting, the rows of books that aren’t perfectly placed, the large windows that show her the outside world she would rather be in, past negative experiences with story times, or many other things.  Unfortunately, her hatred of libraries is a bit of an issue since we homeschool and need a lot of books. To combat her library opposition, I launched “Operation Library.” Our mission was to get in, look at books very quickly, pick up a book or two, get out, and, over repeated visits, figure out strategies to help Beth tolerate library visits. During one library tolerance mission, Beth was not doing well, so I grabbed a couple of random books off shelves and escaped the situation as quickly as possible. And in a wonderful stroke of luck, one book I grabbed led to this lesson on sunflowers.

Camille and the Sunflowers

Camille and the Sunflowers ( is one of a series of art-inspired children’s books by author Laurence Anholt ( .  In Camille and the Sunflowers, the author weaved together a story based on Van Gogh’s paintings of The Roulin Family (, one of which was a painting of a little boy Camille, and Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers ( I had to boil the story down a bit for Beth because the book was meant for a higher grade level, but it kept her attention because she was attracted to the colorful illustrations and beautiful copies of Van Gogh’s paintings. By chance we have one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings near us at the Philadelphia Art Museum.  It was the same museum where I attended a fabulous temporary exhibit in 2001 called Van Gogh: Face to Face (, where I was lucky enough to see all the paintings mentioned in the book first hand. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to teach Beth about about art in a hands on way as preparation for an eventual museum visit? And that thought lead to our first experience in art appreciation (and much more) through a study of sunflowers.

Camille and the Sunflowers

Camille and the Sunflowers

The Hunt for Sunflowers

In an attempt to find sunflowers to study, we visited our local organic farm, Longview Farm and Market (  It is a wonderful organic farm with pick your own flowers, herbs, and fruit.  There is a store full of healthy foods and goods, animals to visit, and a variety of community activities that are offered on the farm throughout the year.

With Beth’s scissors in hand so she could practice her cutting skills on flowers, we made our way to the pick-your-own flower and herb garden.  The sunflowers were mostly dead because we visited so late in the season, but it gave me the opportunity to show Beth the seeds of the sunflower and have her a remove a few. Removing sunflower seeds was a great pincer grasp activity and seeing the seeds triggered another idea for the lesson, growing sunflowers from seeds (more on that later in the post).



Although the sunflowers were dead, there were plenty of other beautiful flowers.  Beth loved to smell and cut the flowers, and liked looking at the bees in the garden.

In the flower and herb garden area, there was a nice sized chicken coup with chickens of all shapes, sizes, and colors.  Beth learned that chickens scratch and peck to find food.  She also learned that their “cluck” or “bok bok” is too loud and sudden for her taste.  Moving on…

Longview Market and Farm has a wonderful natural-looking sand “box” with long-handled rakes, shovels, and hoes. What a fantastic idea! Since Beth hates sitting on the ground to play with sand, this was the perfect set up for her. She liked raking to make lines and pressing lines in the sand with the back of the rake.


We made our way to the market. Beth is enamored with our bathroom scale.  She loves to “look at the O” as she calls it. Which means she hops on our scale repeatedly and watches the dial move and eventually land back on zero. So she was definitely happy to find this large scale outside the farm store.


And inside the store we found sunflowers!  So we picked up a bundle for a gift and for our studies and stood in line to check out, which is generally a challenge for Beth.  But not to worry….


The store has apple cider slushies and cookies (including gluten-free and organic varieties) to help Beth wait in line.


We arranged the flowers in a vase to give to a friend as a housewarming gift, and we kept one sunflower so we could study it.


Sunflower Art

We first made drawings of sunflowers. For some reason, although it is well-known that drawing precedes writing letters (, most milestones charts I have seen for young children with developmental delays only lists drawing circles and lines as goals. Beth has been stuck drawing lines and circles for years and I did not know how to help her move on. The answer for us was to do side-by-side drawings, where I draw my representation of an object (in this case the sunflower) on one side and she draws hers on the other. I do some guiding by demonstrating while I draw my picture, pointing to areas on her page, moving my finger above her page to demonstrate strokes while I use language I know she understands (go around the circle, color the circle, go down, etc.). But Beth’s drawing involved no hand-over-hand and often she was making her own decisions and making purposeful strokes of her own creation. I plan to back off more and more in the guiding over time.


Next we made sunflower paintings like Van Gogh’s in the Camille and the Sunflowers book.  I wanted Beth to control the brush on her own, but without some guidance she would just paint the entire canvas one color.  I decided to use a two-step process, using a template for the circles and then filling in the other details after the circles dried.  We used cans to makes the circles, and I cut both ends of the cans with a can opener (I used this one which does not leave sharp edges  For each circle she made, I asked Beth if she wanted a small, medium, or large can.  When she answered, I gave her the can and she placed the can on the canvas.  I held it in place as she painted the canvas inside the can. This was a great hands-on way to work on the concept of small, medium, and large.




After the circles dried, I had Beth add yellow and orange petals around the circles.  It quickly became clear that dabbing paint or making small brush strokes around the circles was something new and challenging to her, so we practiced dabbing on a separate piece of paper and then returned to finish the paintings. Then I directed her to add the green stems by pointing where to start and instructing her to go “down” with her stroke. The paintings came out remarkably well!



Planting Sunflowers

It was late in the season to plant sunflowers, so I went to a high-end nursery and they had some seeds left (Lowes and many other stores were out of seeds). If you want to plant in a container, make sure to get the smaller sized sunflowers (there are several kinds, we planted the Teddy Bear variety).  My goal was to get something to sprout to show Beth the seed to sprout process.  If we get a sunflower eventually it will be an added bonus!

I had an unused plastic container, so we made holes in the bottom with a drill so that water could drain from the bottom. Beth is usually terrified of drills, so it was a big surprise that she came over to me while I was drilling and wanted to try it.


Next we added the soil and Beth liked ripping the tops off of the bags and scooping the dirt into the container.



But soon she realized it would take a long time to transfer all the dirt, so she started lifting the bag. It was not easy, but she persisted and was able to manipulate the heavy bag and dump its contents, as shown in the picture and video below.


Next we planted the seeds per the directions on the packet. We counted the seeds as we planted.  We covered the seeds, she watered them, then she helped me sweep some. I was shocked at how much she participated and how much she enjoyed it. We had tried gardening the last 2 seasons and we made little progress, but this year it was a success.  Then we watered and waited for a sprout.




From Seed to Sprout Activities

Four days later we saw a sunflower sprout! I remembered a poem from the book Read Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young (, and I read it to her as we looked at her new little sprout.IMG_4982


To reinforce the idea of growing a flower, we read From Seed to Plant by Gail Gibbons ( and did a sequencing cut-paste-color activity (

Sequencing Activity

A Nice Beginning

The sunflower lesson, which I consider our first lesson plan for Kindergarten, really resonated with Beth and it felt effortless and fun. Somehow it just all fell into place and we were able to incorporate nearly all subjects during the process. The successful lesson gives me confidence that we are heading in the right direction in our approach to homeschooling. And what is that approach? I basically teach Beth like I would any other kid, with some minor tweaks to help guide and hold her attention.

Homeschooling on the Spectrum, Post #3: The Cooking Lesson

In a previous post (, I wrote about the book Language Lessons for Little Ones, Volume 1 by Sandi Queen ( In the book, we were instructed to do a picture study and discuss this copy of a painting:

William Bouguereau, Le Gouter

William Bouguereau, “Le Gouter”

Here is an excerpt of our discussion of the above picture (we also discussed what she was wearing, if the girl had long or short hair, boy vs. girl, what she saw behind the girl, pulled out a globe and found France, etc.):

Me: “What is the little girl holding?”

Beth: “A Bowl”

Me: I decided to roll with it, since she was having trouble getting the words out at the time, and I didn’t want to discourage her. A bowl it was. “What is in the bowl?”

Beth: Silence

Me: “Well, she has a spoon in the bowl.  Hmmm…What do you think she poured into the bowl?”

Beth: “Flour!”

Me: “What will the girl cook? Vegetables?”

Beth: Silence

Me: “What do you think she will cook in the oven?”

Beth: “Cookies!”

Beth’s answers are consistent with her experiences. Starting from when Beth was around 2.5 years old, she would insist “Want Flour! Want Flour!” and we would give her a bowl of flour to play with on the floor of the kitchen.  It was a freaking mess, but it was like an edible sand to her.  And since she ate sand, it was a good alternative for that type of sensory play. Now, at 5 years old, Beth has progressed to only using flour during cooking, but she still takes swipes and eats some. When we cook with flour, the thing we bake most often is cookies.

Maisy Makes Gingerbread

Cooking is wonderful natural occupational therapy, and we have been doing it for years. I want to expand off the picture study with a cooking experience, so I go to the pantry and find some Betty Crocker Gingerbread Cake and Cookie Mix. Then I remember one of Beth’s favorite Maisy the mouse books, Maisy Makes Gingerbread ( And soon we are on our way to a whole day lesson in baking and working together in the kitchen.

Maisy Makes Gingerbread

Maisy Makes Gingerbread

Maisy Makes Gingerbread is a great process-oriented book for young children.  Maisy is shown in her kitchen getting ready to cook, getting out the ingredients, mixing, cutting the cookies out, putting them in the oven, cleaning up, and, finally, eating them with friends. We read the book together and start to make the gingerbread cookies.

First Beth cuts open the bag of mix (I hold it for her), helps me measure and add the ingredients (just the mix, water, and butter), and she helps me stir it all up to make the dough.

Mixing the Gingerbread Dough

Mixing the Gingerbread Dough, Contemplating When to Stuff the Dough in Her Mouth

Next, we coat the dough with flour (Beth takes a few swipes) and roll it out.  This was the first time Beth did a majority of the rolling on her own. We just roll directly on a clean counter and we usually make a hug mess that I ignore until the end. What is important is to keep the process flow going so that Beth can connect the pieces of the process together.

Rolling the Gingerbread Dough

Rolling With It

Now it is time for cutting little gingerbread men. It is at this point that Beth can’t help herself, and eats some of the dough. The good thing about the Betty Crocker Cake and Cookie Mix recipe is it has no eggs, so sampling is not a worry. It has taken her years, but now Beth can push the cookie cutter in the dough, wiggle to loosen the dough from the surface, pull the cutter up, and poke the dough out of the cookie cutter. Transferring the cookies onto the cookie sheet is still a big challenge, but we will get there.

Cookie Cutter Pressing

Push, Wiggle, Up, Poke

The finished product (frost if desired):

Some Heads and Limbs Were Lost Due to Beth's Sampling of the Dough

A Lot of Missing Heads and Limbs, But That’s Okay!

Although Beth likes the dough, the cookies are not as appealing. So, she just has frosting instead, which is a favorite treat of hers (we call it a cupcake without the frosting):

Forget the Cookies, I Just Want Frosting!

Forget the Cookies, I Just Want Frosting!

Maisy Makes Lemonade

As Beth is downing her frosting, I start thinking about other Maisy books that are processed-oriented, such as Maisy Makes Lemonade (  I thought it would be a great drink to make on the hot summer day, and a good way to wash down the cookies (or frosting).

Maisy Makes Lemonade

Maisy Makes Lemonade

Like Maisy Makes Gingerbread, Maisy Makes Lemonade is a great process-oriented book. Maisy is shown being hot in summer, drinking all her lemonade and needed more, getting lemons from a tree, squeezing them with a friend, adding the other ingredients, and then drinking it with a friend.

I grab a recipe off the web ( and we head to the store to pick up organic lemons and a cheap hand juicer ( Shopping is a lesson in and of itself, and we have had a long history with it (  I am happy to report she is now doing outstanding in stores and no longer needs the vest, lots of edibles, or an electronic grocery list.  She seems to love shopping now!

We read Maisy Makes Lemonade and set up to make our own:

On No, What are We Doing Now?

On No, What are We Doing Now?

Beth helps with the measuring and pouring, and samples the sugar and lemons.

Beth Eats Many Unusual Things, Including Lemons

Licking Lemons (Yes, the Inside of the Lemon)

The juicer is hard for her to use on her own, but we will work up to that.

Time to clean up the huge mess in the kitchen. I would have read Maisy Cleans Up ( before we clean together, but it didn’t quite fit our kind of cleaning since it mentions using a vacuum (which terrifies Beth), mopping the floor (which I try to avoid whenever possible), and washing windows (which would be pointless, since all the double pane windows in our condo have broken seals and an opaque film between them, plus we have Beth’s bedroom window covered with foam insulation to block out street noise and light).

Homeschooling on the Spectrum Series, Post #1: The Torturous Path to a Kindergarten Curriculum

I wrote about our decision to homeschool Beth for kindergarten in this post (, where I mentioned I was in the process of developing a kindergarten curriculum. I was determined to not get stressed over choosing a curriculum and, as someone once said to me, “It is just kindergarten, how hard could it be?” Well, when you have a child on the spectrum who has significant attention, communication, and self-regulation issues, choosing the right curriculum weighs heavy on your mind. I spent countless late nights reading about various homeschool approaches and their pros and cons, chatting with fellow homeschoolers online about their experiences, and researching the state and local standards.  In the last month, I tried a few old, but new to me, teaching methods and pulled together all that I have learned about Beth while trying to teach her preschool concepts this past year.  And in the end, the curriculum decision almost made itself after considering Beth’s interests and special needs. This post is about how I came to settle on a mashing of approaches, which is largely based on two turn-of-the century educators, as a plan for our kindergarten curriculum.

Experimenting with Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason was a British educator at the turn-of-the twentieth century ( I was intrigued by what I read about the “Charlotte Mason method” (, and while I wasn’t interested in large amounts of “copy work” and “habit training” and avoiding books almost altogether for young children (, I wanted to try “narration” with Beth and I loved the emphasis on outdoor learning, music, and the arts.  My friend and fellow homeschooler recommended the book Language Lessons for Little Ones, Volume 1 by Sandi Queen (, which is a book of language lessons that are “Charlotte Mason inspired.”

language lessons for little ones

We fumbled our way through the Language Lessons book, and a few of the strategies really worked well with some tweaking. So, I decided the following “Charlotte Mason inspired” methods will be incorporated into our kindergarten curriculum:

1. Picture Study and Narration

For picture study and narration, the Language Lessons book used pictures of classic paintings for study. I asked Beth what she saw and asked open-ended and direct questions about the painting. For example, I said, “What do you see?” or “Which one is your favorite? Why?” for open-ended questions, and asked about colors, how many animals, and what is happening in the picture for direct questions.  I came back to the same picture a day later, asked her to remember that we looked at the picture the day before, and related the contents of the picture to Beth’s own experiences through open-ended and direct questions. The picture study and narration process worked remarkably well, and what Beth had to say often surprised me.  Picture study is not only a practice of expressive language. Based on what I have read in a fascinating visualization and reading comprehension book for educators (, children on the spectrum often have reading comprehension problems due to a hyper focus on certain parts of a story to the exclusion of other parts. Therefore, I believe it is very important to show Beth how to focus on all the parts of a picture during picture study, and I see it as a reading readiness activity.  

2. Drawing to Learn

The Language Lessons book included parts where I instructed Beth to draw a picture on a blank piece of paper.  With Beth’s attention issues, her stimming while making circles and scribbling layers of crayon on the page, and all the prompting that I have been instructed by experts to do with her, free drawing with her seemed daunting and I wasn’t even sure how to approach it. But I took it step by step by pointing out exactly what we were drawing (the parts of the object, person, or animal), relating it to shapes and language she already knew, and used a lot of demonstration as an imitation example. Drawing helped us slow down and talk about each part of an item, and sometimes lead to more detailed discussion.  It also helped her with attention. When I wrote, because of her attraction to movement, she attended longer. And when she drew something herself, she was more likely to absorb the information.

3. Poetry

When I saw the poetry in the Language Lessons book I was hesitant. Poetry for a child with significant language delays? But the poetry was relevant to the lessons with topics that young children understand (trees, wind, farm animals, swings, etc.). The poems were a hit with Beth, especially if I repeated the poems over several days and reinforced the topic of the poem with other activities.  I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that she liked them, because she has recently started singing every song she ever learned in its entirety.  Clearly songs and writings with rhyme are motivating and source of joy for her.

4. Topical Learning

The Language Lessons book was roughly topical, which I noticed resonated with Beth. So I started supplementing the Language Lessons book with other activities to reinforce an idea over a period of 2 or more days.  For example, for a section of the book on caterpillars, I added art and sequencing activities, in addition to viewing the life cycle of a butterfly on Youtube and observing butterflies outside. Here are some examples from our caterpillar lessons:

Drawing Caterpillars on a White Board (Mine on Top, Beth's on Bottom)

Drawing Caterpillars on a White Board (Mine on Top, Beth’s on Bottom)

Beth is starting to notice more things in the world, but she still struggles with attention, organization and connection of ideas, and integrating concepts into new situations. I believe that setting up Beth’s educational concepts in a topical, processed-oriented, hands-on, experienced based approach will be an essential part of the kindergarten curriculum, because it fits where she is developmentally and it is the best way to help her understand the world.  Also, when we cover a topic and make it part of our days, opportunities to ask her what she is observing and what she thinks comes naturally, which makes it a low-stress way to work on language development.

Oak Meadow (Waldorf Inspired) Curriculum

The Language Lessons book mentioned in the previous section made me realize that there is a great benefit to having an official lesson plan.  It keeps me organized, gives me new ideas, and basically keeps me on track with goals. Therefore, I went on the hunt for a formal kindergarten curriculum.

I wanted a curriculum that was in line with Beth’s interests and was process-oriented, and included nature, arts, crafts, music, cooking, drawing, songs, poems, and a focus on play. Also, in general, I wanted a total hands-on, integrated into home life, approach.  Oak Meadow , which is a Waldorf-inspired curriculum, seemed to fit most of my criteria.  Briefly, Waldorf education is based on the ideas of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who developed the method in the early 1900s. Waldorf tries to consider the whole child and is based on a theory of child development that reminds me of a form of religious humanism (for more on Waldorf, see here

Oak Meadow is a secular curriculum, and the website describes it as having a “strong Waldorf influence” with a “standards-based curriculum that will satisfy homeschooling regulations across the country” ( I compared Oak Meadow to our state and local core standards, and it was clear that the math and science were not totally in line with the core standards.  Since math and science are two of Beth’s strengths,  I decided that may need to be supplemented if we used Oak Meadow.  In addition, due to Beth’s speech and language therapy needs and her strengths in letter, number, and word recognition, I anticipated that I would need to tweak and supplement that as well. Also, I wasn’t sure if all the great “Charlotte Mason inspired” ideas were part of the Oak Meadow curriculum, but I was comfortable tweaking and adding those elements as well.  So, that is how I settled on our complicated kindergarten curriculum. To put it as succinctly as I can, it is a Waldorf-inspired curriculum, with Charlotte Mason elements, and a touch of core-aligned language, math, and science. It is the plan for now, and is likely to change.

I purchased Oak Meadow’s pricey kindergarten package and eagerly awaited its arrival.  And that is where things started to get funny, and enlightening, which will be the topic of my next post.