How Do You Create an Educational Home Environment?

Dear Mrs. Botkin,

In some of your talks you talk about turning your home into an environment that stimulates creativity, curiosity, and learning instead of leisure and entertainment. Can you give me some ideas for how to do that? How did you do that in your home, particularly when your children were under 15?

Thank you so much!


Dear L.,

First off, you might consider getting rid of things in your home that aren’t helping educate your children – things that are a waste of time. These may be computer games or electronic devices that you have to monitor carefully to control when and how they are used,  so getting rid of them may actually make your life easier in addition to freeing up your children’s minds for better things.

I would replace passive-use devices with tools for creative play: building blocks, Duplos or Legos, art supplies of all kinds, blankets for building indoor forts, fabric for making costumes, wood and hand tools to build outdoor forts or birdhouses or whatever, art supplies, a camera, if possible a video camera, a sewing machine, musical instruments …

Providing the tools your children need, to do the creative things they want to do (or things you want them to do,) is only the first step, though.  You (or your husband or any cooperative adult) will need to teach them how to use those tools and give them some ideas for projects.  They’ll have to start out working with someone who can show them how to use the tools and what they can do with them.  And then, when they are ready, you can turn them loose and see where their creative urges take them!

This approach to life may require that you develop a new style of home décor; a home with a sofa strewn with books in the living room, a sewing machine set up in the dining room, and Fort Apache in the backyard won’t be a minimalist home or a Martha Stewart-Perfect-Showplace-home. But it will be a stimulating home where things are being created, and where children are learning that it’s more fun to make things than to sit, slack-jawed, and watch something.

In Christ,



Book Review: The Swiss Family Robinson

The Swiss Family Robinson – Johann David Wyss, first published in 1812

Written in 1812 by a Swiss pastor for the purpose of teaching appreciation of natural and physical science to his sons, Swiss Family Robinson is in a genre of its own that I would call scientific fiction.  I don’t mean science fiction; this book is to science what historical fiction is to history – a story based on real science. But the characters in the story demonstrate and teach Christian values and lessons like treating others with kindness and consideration, good stewardship of resources, respect for others, and selflessness and courage in the face of danger.

Critics will point out that the setting of this book, an uninhabited island in the Pacific upon which the family has been marooned, could not possibly exist. No single island could supply the diversity of flora and fauna in the story, they say. And even I, a lifelong fan, must admit that elephants, tigers, huge bears, ostriches and boa constrictors probably can’t be found together on a single Pacific island. Another of their complaints is that this book has been added to so many times in the 200+ years since its publication that the original story has been lost.

Well, it’s a critic’s job to point out flaws and there is only one Book without any. But growing up, I read and reread this book (the Kingston Edition, which is the best-known) dozens of times and none of these flaws kept me from appreciating it. But it would be more accurate to say loving it.

Swiss Family Robinson is a gold mine of information on almost every branch of science and I soaked it all in; how to tap rubber trees, the natural history of the agouti, the use of levers and pulleys. It’s also a great vocabulary-building book. You may find a number of unfamiliar words: verdure, anomaly, dulcet – but it’s a relatively painless way to learn what these words mean and how to use them, and that’s something you want for your child.

But best of all, the parents, and as they grow up, the children, display reverence for God throughout this book. They remember to thank God for their deliverance from the ship wreck, they pray for the crew of the ship, they pray before meals and for God’s blessing on their various projects, they quote Scripture. They think and act like Christians, something not always found in the offerings at the local Christian bookstore.


Coloring Pages

When our kids were young my husband and I made a conscious effort to keep passive-entertainment games and devices out of our house, encouraging active play instead. They learned to love creating and making things. We encouraged a lot of drawing because, as this was before the internet, there wasn’t much available for them to color besides the usual clownish cartoon coloring books.

So, it’s thirty years later and the internet has arrived, offering almost every kind of image, instantly. Coloring pages abound. Sadly, the banal princess-themed images and every other variety of infantile cartoon images abound too.

But hark, what light from yonder website breaks! Today there are other choices, many of them wonderful and educational at the same time. Using public domain images we’ve made some coloring pages of our own, using images from stained-glass windows, medieval tapestries, and old woodcuts or etchings. But there are many others of like mind who spend, seemingly, their whole lives finding wonderful images for children to color. This site, for instance, has some wonderful images (as well as some that are not my favorite). Artist and Art Educator Donna Grimm offers coloring pages on every subject from the alphabet, running through Art History, Architecture to bird pages, Bible pages, etc. clear down to Winter Fun.

Here are a few images that Anna Sofia found online and cleaned up to be easily printable and color-able for our little ones. You can click on each one to enlarge it enough to print it full-size.

Historic maps, so full of ships and sea monsters (like this one below of the Mediterranean), can be wonderfully fun coloring for children.

Anna’s not even entirely sure what this one below is, but it’s an old woodcut depicting sea monsters, always something worth coloring.

Albrecht Dürer‘s almost-photo-realistic “Young Hare” was an artistic sensation in the religious-iconography-dominated art world in 1502, but his “Rhinoceros” is what our children love coloring. He did this drawing in 1515, two years before Luther nailed up his 95 theses, entirely from a brief account and sketch of what rhinoceroses looked like, since of course he had never seen one in person.


The Bayeux Tapestry was practically made for coloring. This scene depicts (ostensibly) the legendary death of Harold by way of arrow in the eye, though some now wonder if Harold is actually the figure being hacked down by a sword.

The boys will love the fighting, and the girls will love it when you tell them it’s from a giant embroidery project done by nuns.

Medieval woodcuts are also practically made for coloring, being naturally black and white and with clean lines, and knights and dragons are always a hit with our little ones. The “Sergiant at Lawe” image below is from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

My son David adds another idea:

I’m always on the lookout for good coloring pages for my kids. Well, yesterday I hit a homerun. PATENTS. Black lines on white backgrounds, often high resolution, TONS available on loads of subjects. And they are high-quality technical drawings. I want to instill in my children an appreciation for excellence, so I hope this will do it. And it turns out LucasArts patented lots of toys. :)


Show Your Children How the Gospel Spread

One of the most wonderful educational uses of the internet is Google maps.   And since geography is so closely linked with history, this tool would be an invaluable addition to your history studies.  As you study the life of King Alfred (and you should) follow the River Thames as it wends its leisurely way though England.  Fly over the Himalayas when you study Hillary’s ascent of Everest.  You can even visit the moon.

Maps are essential to the understanding of history, and as children, all my kids loved creating them.

And they are still at it.  Recently my son Isaac made this animation to show how the gospel has spread over the last two thousand years.

He also did a whole one-hour lecture explaining the history of this spread in more detail. This is a fascinating multimedia presentation, as he describes the impact and spread of the gospel over the entire globe in the past 2000 years of history. Explore the journeys of the apostles, the outposts of the early church, the hotbeds of persecution, and the staging grounds of the major theological battles of the Church. Be reminded of the power of the Gospel to transform “every nation and tribe and language and people,” and be inspired by the legacies of the brave brothers and sisters who faithfully carried the Gospel of Christ to the farthest ends of the earth. You can see a preview of this video here:

This one hour video download (which you can buy for $5 here) contains hundreds of pictures, maps, video clips and animations that helps illustrate the course of Christian history from 33AD until today, in a sweeping overview that provides context for our modern times and a good basis for further study.

He and his wife Heidi also made a full-color map which I sell in my store here:


Book Review: The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers: Pioneers of American Aviation, by Quentin Reynolds, 1950, Random House

I’ve loved almost all the Random House Landmark books I’ve read but this is one of my favorites. What sets this book apart from the dozens of books about these brothers and their amazing invention? This one begins with their mother, and how she influenced their appetite for learning, their work and their lives.

Susan Wright was the daughter of a carriage maker. Growing up in her father’s workshop she had learned to design and build things. It was she who taught the boys to notice how things worked, how to draw out plans for things before building them, and how to use tools. She taught them about wind resistance when they were designing and building a sled together.

As Orville tells it: “We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity. In a different kind of environment, our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit.” – Orville Wright

That’s the kind of mother she was, and though she died when they were teenagers, the foundation of their lives was laid.

“In a different kind of environment, our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit.” – Orville Wright

Another thing that makes this book interesting is the way it illustrates how one project or invention led to another. First it was building a sled. Then they built a rudder to steer it. When the snow melted they built a wagon using wheels from discarded tricycles. Next they built and flew kites. Next, a chair for their mother.

When it became Will’s job to fold copies of the newspaper their father edited and their church published, they invented a machine to fold the newspapers. Next was a toy helicopter, then a printing press. Since a printing press is useless without something to print they began a newspaper, The West Side Tatler.  They sold advertising and saved all their profits. Then they needed bicycles to deliver the papers, so they built them out of discarded bicycle parts. They became more interested in building bicycles than writing and selling newspapers so they opened a bicycle shop.

You can see where this is going. It’s a good lesson for us mothers on how children’s interests, when nurtured in the right kind of environment and with the guidance and encouragement of an understanding parent, can lead those children into successful careers.

I love the way this book shows that this invention of theirs, which changed the world and the future of everyone in it, was something that grew out of the skills and interests and habits learned within the context of their family.


Book Review: Charlie Needs a Cloak

Charlie Needs a Cloak – Tomie dePaola, Simon and Schuster, 1973

You don’t really expect a book explaining how we get clothing from the wool of sheep to be utterly charming. And the text of this book itself is very spare.

So what is it that performs the miracle of turning this basically non-fiction book into a rollickingly fun read for little people?

It’s Tomie dePaola’s illustrations–through humorously expressive characters and clever storyboarding. Adding to the fun are a sub-plot involving a jealous sheep and a sub- sub-plot of an acquisitive mouse.

The playfully masterful artwork tells a story (sometimes several stories) on every page. This book manages to be informative as well as entertaining – no mean feat for a picture book for very young readers.



Book Review: Each Peach Pear Plum

Each Peach Pear Plum, by Janet and Allen Ahlberg, Viking Kestrel

As parents who try to get their offspring to sit and listen to a story learn early on, rhymes catch and hold the attention of small children. And some of them are even fun to read; like this one, one of my favorite rhyming storybooks. A lyrical, rhyming tag-you’re-it plot device introduces characters drawn from traditional children’s rhymes: Jack and Jill, Old Mother Hubbard, Tom Thumb, Robin Hood, and so on.

But as delightful as the text is, the illustrations are even better: cute, but not cloying, charmingly-rendered characters and picturesque landscapes of the English Countryside at its storybook best.

One caveat: there is a wicked witch in one bit. But Robin Hood brings her to justice, and, as on the last page she is shown smiling and eating plumb pie with the rest of the cast as an obviously accepted member of society, my 3-year-old grandson points out that “she repented.” (My 4-year-old grandson replied, “I think the plum pie made her repent.”)

This book has no moral, no message. It’s just a delightful, beautifully-done book for the youngest readers. But here’s what makes it valuable – it’s a book which just might keep a toddler’s attention long enough for him to be infected with the love of books. And very importantly – since when children of this age fall in love with a book, they want to hear it over and over – it’s a book neither of you will get tired of quickly.


Book Review: Anatole

Anatole – by Eve Titus, pictures by Paul Galdone, McGraw-Hill, 1956

Nominated for the 1957 Caldecott Medal, and subsequently named a Caldecott Honor book, Anatole is a good example of the sort of children’s fiction that tends to be overlooked today, perhaps because the illustrations are simpler and printed in only three colors. Perhaps more off-putting for today’s children, Anatole is someone they have never heard of – not a character in a movie, or TV show, not tied in with Disney or any other mega-giant purveyer of children’s media, though Anatole and the Cat was made into a successful musical in 2014.

Anatole is simply an original and satisfying story, with well-executed illustrations, which, without any outward manifestation of Christianity, reflects an important part of a Biblical worldview.

The main character is a mouse. But the thing that makes this book important is that he’s a mouse of honor, a mouse deeply offended by the idea of stealing for a living, choosing rather to work for his food. A responsible husband and father of six charming children, Anatole comes up with an ingenious plan for anonymously earning a living as a cheese taster at the Duvall cheese factory.

In the sequel, Anatole and the Cat, another a Caldecott Honor Book, Anatole and his partner Gaston encounter a deadly enemy. Anatole, with his usual ingenuity and courage, meets the threat to their livelihood – and lives – with a very satisfying solution.