Summary: These books are fabulous at what they do, and with the new series, make a solid two year curriculum for the families they are aimed towards. However, their goals for these early years are quite different to ours, and this curriculum did not, at all, suit our family’s personal styles and aims. A great series, but one which proves the point that each family is different and you must figure out your ideas and goals before you can select the right programs for your children.
The Rod and Staff ABC series was one of the first curricula I purchased. You would think, being a second-gen homeschooler and all, I’d know about different goals and aims and how what works for one family may not work for another right? And yet, my primary reason for buying this program is that everyone else was doing it. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.What I failed to take into account was, while this was one of the more popular choices, I did not have popular goals.
Let me just preface this by saying when I use the word Kindergarten, I refer to the american word for Prep, i.e. the year before 1st grade, generally age 5. I’m not referring to Kindy, which is part time education for ages 3 and 4 in Australia, referred to as Pre-K in America.
Among home-schooling circles right now, the ‘better late than early’ philosophy has gained a lot of momentum. Any sit-down work before Kindergarten/Prep is discouraged, and K/Prep is often kept as low-key as possible, or even skipped. Instead, these families focus heavily on play-based learning and read-alouds, and it is thought that time spent in workbooks detracts from time that could be spent playing and learning through those means. The reason for schooling at this age is often that older siblings are doing it and the child wants to have ‘real school’ with them, and, aside from reading, which is a minefield in itself even among these families, topics covered are generally limited to counting, general knowledge, and motor skill development.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with those goals. They fit some families, some worldviews, some goals, perfectly. There is definitely a point to be made about the huge importance of play in early development.
My goals? Well, I agree with play based learning, and I agree that at this age they do not need their heads buried in books for hours. I’m certainly not pulling out the reading flash cards with my babies! But I suppose you could consider our family very STEM focused, I do believe an early start on academics is a good thing on many levels, and I don’t believe that half an hour or so spent in workbooks prevents them from learning through play the rest of the day. You can read more about our educational philosophies here (when I write it, oops!) but, in short, what we sought from a Kindergarten curriculum was a solid foundation of mathematical and logical thinking, an introduction to the concepts of ‘doing school’ formally, the same way they would be in a couple of years, and small but real achievements that my kids could accomplish with work and a little bit of persistence. We also wanted to avoid any busywork, any work which wasn’t actively moving towards a goal. We don’t have time for time fillers, and easy activities meant as ego boosters are not a good thing, in my personal opinion.
So with that background, lets take a look at the Rod and Staff ABC (and GHI) series
The original series is books A-F, which is a years course when doing around 3 pages per day. They have recently finished the final two books of the second series, G-L, which takes it up a notch in difficulty and also brings geographical awareness and some early science into the mix. At the time I used the books, only the first 4 of the second series were available, but I did get a look at them. These books have lovely, bold pictures, Simple, without too much distraction. They’re very attractive in my opinion.
The books are written by, and for, the Mennonite community. This is important to remember, as it does influence the way the books are written. After looking through these books and beginning work on them, their goals seem to be, primarily
- Giving little ones their own ‘school’ while the big kids work on theirs
- Following instructions
- Carefully doing things the ‘correct’ way (or acceptable way, more on this in a moment)
- Introducing a taste of many concepts
- Motor skill development and muscle strength
- Independent work
One of the biggest things to note about these books is, if done to instructions, they involve a LOT of colouring. A fair bit of tracing too. They have reasons for this, teaching neat work and following instructions as well as motor skill development. But there is a lot of it. And this is one of the first areas that rubbed me the wrong way. There is a heavy emphasis on colouring ‘correctly’. Using the right colours for the right objects. This seems cultural, the Mennonites aren’t exactly known for their abstract thinking and creativity. But, both Ladybug and Buttons know the sky is blue, they is well aware of it. It’s purple in the picture because they wanted it to be, and they’re using their imaginations. The animals are multicoloured because that makes them pretty in their opinion. Colouring a picture ‘correctly’ is a very boring, uncreative activity for a child of that age. Of course, you can simply ignore this instruction, no one is forcing you to make your child colour that apple red (our kids prefer green apples anyway!) but it is an insight into the larger picture of the perspective this was written from.
A lot of topics are covered lightly in these books. But they are not covered well. The numbers 1-10 are done in the course of about a week or two, much too quick for retention. Either the child already knows the numbers, making the pages busywork revision, or they don’t know the numbers, and aren’t about to learn them all in one week. At one point there is a page or two on the concept of ‘halves’, and then it isn’t revisited, at least not in that book. Either the child already knows it, so the activity is, to me, pointless, or the child doesn’t know it and wont learn it from a single lesson. Some people are ok with this, they just want some hooks, some ideas, some exposure, and they will work on actually learning things properly later, and that’s fine. But that doesn’t fit MY family’s goals, it feels like pointless busywork to me. In science and history hooks and brief introductions make a lot of sense. But in math? I’m not so sure. In the later books they cover science and geography so this introductory style will work well there, and I have actually considered using only the second series for just that reason. But the first book is math, logic and life skills.
And that’s what it came down to for me. There are many topics covered, but none really explored in any depth. The books don’t really TEACH much of anything. I’m fairly sure the intention is that the children already have a fair concept, if not perfect, of everything covered before they begin (It is all fairly basic stuff that a developmentally normal child will pick up on by themselves most of the time) and the books are only cementing that knowledge more formally. And that isn’t a bad idea to form an early curriculum off of. While this is an extremely popular series, the original intended audience here are memmomite homeschoolers, often with large families, looking for something to keep the bright little ones occupied and accustomed to sitting at the table working. It’s busy work that they should already know, which is fine, because the goal is not teaching at this time, it is following instructions, working independently, doing things correctly and carefully, ‘achieve’ something by proving they know the concepts, and allow mother to focus on the older children. The lack of new, or in depth, material is intentional because it’s not the purpose here.
I wanted to love this curriculum, so I thought about just starting a dedicated math curriculum alongside it. And then I knew Ladybug was showing some signs of reading early, so I began looking into that. And I knew I wanted to cover logic much more formally in these early years than is generally done. And by the end of it I realized I was covering everything but motor skill development with other programs, and still doing Rod and Staff was redundant. So I found some motor skill developing activities and put Rod and Staff away. Ladybug was happy, she loves colouring but she hated colouring THAT book. She didn’t miss it one bit, and adores our math and logic work.
They have set out to achieve something with this series, and they have hit their mark perfectly. This is an absolutely fabulous series that does exactly what it was written to do. But, what it was written to do isn’t the right fit for every family or every child, and that’s why it’s so important to figure out your personal goals and educational philosophies before trying to select programs, and trusting your goals above what is ‘popular’.