The Stuffed Tutor

How would you like to own a tutor? And a free one, at that?

When my youngest son was little he loved his stuffed animals. I made them talk all the time, and each one had a distinct personality and voice.

Sometimes they had conflicts among themselves and Zach had to resolve them. Sometimes they were grouchy (one in particular), sometimes sad, often happy and gleeful, and always curious. They became part of the family in a surprisingly real way (and was it hard to part with their participation as Zach got older? I thought that might be the case, but it wasn't at all -- at least not for Zach).

Zach's animals played the role of tutor in many ways. In play, he used them to reenact history. They played roles in his annual July 4th parade that included little floats depicting historic moments, with stuffed animals dressed up like founding fathers. He would tie his floats into a long line and pull his parade through the house, playing patriotic music in the background.

But our stuffed family members played much more important roles, too. When they fought with one another, Zach learned skills in negotiating peace and dealing with conflict. When their feelings were hurt or they were feeling blue, he learned empathy. When they were in fun-loving moods, he learned the joy of unbridled delight. And when they happened upon his math book and struggled to understand a problem or when out of curiosity they perched on his shoulder and asked questions or begged "Teach me!" as he worked math problems, he was forced to understand his own work better and to become a good communicator.

Better to learn these things from other humans, you think? He learned them there, too. But his stuffed friends and tutors offered special opportunities to learn, especially in the academic realm. They were non-threatening and even at their most demanding, endearing. They were cute and made Zach want to teach them, which made him work harder to understand things himself (by the time he was 16, he was tutoring people students). They weren't authority figures. They had very long attention spans.

And because Mom made them talk, they asked good questions. A stuffed tutor can make learning more fun and more effective. It can diffuse personality conflicts between parent and child and enhance your homeschooling in ways that would truly surprise you.

One important tip: If you already have some conflict with your child, don't use an animal that he or she already loves -- buy a new one and introduce it. If you see that this method is not going to work for your situation, you might want to consider a human tutor.

A Math Lesson with Zach and Piglet

Piglet: Zachawy, can I watch you do your math?

Zach: Mmm hmm.

Piglet watches for a while.

Piglet: Is math fun?

Zach: Sometimes.

Piglet (sitting now on Zach's math book): What's the funnest part?

Zach: Well, I don't know. Maybe adding big numbers.

Piglet: Can I see you add some big numbers?

Zach finds a problem and shows Piglet who expresses his amazement but doesn't understand the concept of carrying.

Piglet: If 8 + 8 is 16, why can't you just put the one and the six at the bottom? Why do you have to take it apart?

Zach thinks about this for a while.

Zach: Because the one would have to go under the next numbers you have to add, then there wouldn't be room for their answer.

Piglet: Why can't you just squeeze the one and the six under the eights?

Zach begins to get a little exasperated.

Zach: Piglet, you're just a little animal. I think this might be too hard for you to understand. Why don't you just watch me and maybe you'll learn something that way.

You can see how this exchange made Zach pay a little closer attention to the processes of math, even if his answer was simplistic. You can also see how he came up with a happy solution for both Piglet and himself and got on with his math in a relaxed and warm atmosphere.

Tammy Drennan homeschooled her own sons from 1985 to 2003. She has worked as a homeschool leader, tutor, workshop leader and writer since 1986. Visit her blog and her web site.

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