Antimony in the Sandbox, Stars on the Ceiling


“I’m making antimony in the sandbox.”


“I’m making antimony. It’s is a nitrogen element.  A metalloid.”‘

Despite Pip’s infectious enthusiasm, the three-year old sharing the sandpit with him gathered his excavator and pail, and at his mother’s prompting, retreated to another corner of the playground.

Later, Pip pointed to the light over our bathroom mirror, and asked, “Mum, does that light have neon in it?”

“What do you think?”

“I think it doesn’t, because neon glows red, and this light is yellow.”

Then, when we fired up the grill for an evening of summertime revelry: “Mum, what gas is in that smoke? Is it one of the noble gases?”

Our son loves chemistry. He studies the periodic table for fun. He assembles puzzles on the floor in columns and rows according to atomic number and mass. He brainstorms jokes with elements as the punchline, replacing the word “think” with “zinc.”

He is also four.

A month ago when I asked him what he wanted to learn about, he declared, “Atoms!” with a jump and a flourish of his arms.

Atoms?? Really? Dude, you’re a preschooler. . . “Where did you even learn about atoms?”

“In my solar system book, it says that the sun turns hydrogen atoms into hell-ium atoms.”

“Oh.” I tried to wrap my mind around the words issuing from his mouth. Half a minute passed before I pulled myself together. “Um, it’s ‘helium,'” I muttered. “Not ‘hell-ium.'”

At Pip’s bidding, every morning for the past month we have read from our storybook Bible, practiced a little handwriting, played some math games. . . and studied the periodic table. We’ve played a “build-the-atom” game I slapped together using pom poms and velcro. We’ve read Basher’s Periodic Table book — twice — and are delving into the Chemistry book in the series. We’ve flipped through beautiful photographic essays on elements and molecules, have tackled chemistry games and puzzles, and have watched — mesmerized — as scientists experiment with liquid nitrogen or hydrogen gas on YouTube.

I’d planned the endeavor for only one week, but every Friday he begs to continue. This week, he announced his intent to study the periodic table until September.

We receive a lot of stares. Moms at the playground or in stores raise their eyebrows when he talks about his imaginary friends “Cousin Tungsten” and, especially, “Cousin Arsenic.” (I can’t blame the looks on that one). Friends from church couldn’t help but snicker when, during a recent service, he held his book up during the sermon and blurted, “Look at this fish made of cadmium!”

Many assume that I’m pushing him. “He can’t possibly understand this,” some have said. Yet what they don’t see is, far from me pushing him, he is pulling me. Moments after a skeptic asked me why I wasn’t focusing on crafts and scissor skills, Pip pointed to a medallion on my shoes and exclaimed, “Mum, you’re wearing atom shoes today! It looks like there are eight electrons. . . you have OXYGEN SHOES!”  A week ago, I walked into his room to find him clad in his fleece penguin pajamas, with his bunny — whom he had dressed in his own Thomas the Train underpants — tucked under his arm, and with a ski hat yanked onto his head. . . narrating from the period table poster he’d taped to his wall. “These are the actinoids, and the lanthanoids. And here are the superheavies, which are radioactive. And here are the noble gases!”

Meanwhile, he panics when the television set is on, insists on wearing snow boots in summer, refuses to touch cheese, has a meltdown commensurate with nuclear failure when he loses a rubber ball in a parking garage, cries when water drips on his face, and struggles to scribble his letters. He is four. And yet, he is incredibly passionate about non-four stuff.

It makes my head spin. On bad days, when tantrums outnumber musings over tantalum, I wonder if the naysayers are right, and if I’m doing it all wrong. Maybe I should hide all the books and wait a decade. Maybe I should point him back toward the Play-Doh and Curious George more common to preschool classrooms.

The insecurity arises during dark moments because homeschooling was never the plan. Both my husband and I are products of public schools. My parents were both educators, and in my youth my mother worked as an administrator for our school district. For most of my life, homeschooling was completely off my radar.

Then, as an academic surgeon in Boston, I studied medical education and entered the world of cognitive learning science and theory. As I devoured literature on how we learn, dove into discussions about partnering individualized learning with curriculum, and brainstormed ways to better inspire learners in their development, I considered the education plan for my own kids. . . and public school didn’t seem like the right fit for my family.

I knew that the best learning often happened in an apprenticeship model.  I knew that struggle and depth and inspiration mattered. I knew that massed practice — the “cramming” method so fundamental to the college experience — doesn’t instill the richness of knowledge that comes from inquiry, investigation, and experience.

I had learned all this. And I knew that according to the Book of Deuteronomy, God calls me to know his commandments and to “teach them diligently to your children” when we rise, and walk in the way.  Add my son’s asynchrony into the mix, and homeschooling was the best option.

Yet in our family it remains uncharted territory, and in our community often an isolating endeavor. The raised eyebrows and comments unnerve me. Perhaps I am wrong, I wonder. Perhaps I’m going to damage him somehow. Maybe it’s inappropriate to encourage such idiosyncrasies. Maybe I need to drag out the more typical preschool stuff.

Then, when the doubts bear down upon me, I remember second grade.

When I was seven, the heavens captivated me. I projected the stars upon my ceiling with a plastic planetarium each night and memorized each pinpoint. I researched the constellations, pored over the mythology backing them, and committed to memory the tales that inspired sailors searching for home upon the ink-dark water. I made flash cards of the planets, and coupled each gas giant with its Greek and Roman symbols.

That year, I also earned an “S” in division. S stood for “satisfactory,” but for the elementary school student, that was paltry compared to the “excellent” and “good” labels. My parents, in fact, thought the grade quite UN-satisfactory. They grounded me.

After remediation supplanted my pursuits in astronomy, I eventually learned division. I learned it well enough to earn honors in advanced calculus and quantum chemistry, and even to tackle graduate-level biophysics in college. But I wonder — was it really so necessary for me to learn it right then? Was it really so crucial for me to master division to a degree beyond “satisfactory” at the age of seven, to the detriment of a thirst for the heavens? When my imagination drove me toward constellations and solar flares, was it best to shove aside that passion for starshine and make room for dividends?

When I try to untangle stargazing from divisors, the philosophizing brings me to education as a concept. Amusingly, if you Google “education,” two definitions result: 1) the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university, and 2)  an enlightening experience. The separation of these definitions into discrete entities suggest one does not necessarily follow the other.

When we pursue “education,” what is our aim? Do we seek to “give and receive instruction,” or is the goal to enlighten, to inspire? To illuminate? Do we teach so our dear ones can pass a test? Or do we mentor them, so that they can know the light of God’s love, and His truth? Do we instruct them to make the right grades and get into college, or instead to chase after starlight and cataclysms, to set afire the passions God has kindled within them?

Do we teach our kids to please the world. . . or to equip them to be the people God intends for them to be?

I still grapple with these things. Yet when I hear Pip talking to himself about alkali metals, with his voice rising and falling in a melody only he can compose, I feel closer to the answer.

And on clear summer nights, when I stretch my arm to point out Polaris to my husband, I thank God for the moments when, despite the doubts, the fear, and the raised eyebrows, I can still find North.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Kate Hamilton says:

    Sounds to me like your son has the best set-up possible to learn more fascinating things! And like you alluded to, it doesn’t matter what material is learned when so much as that the fire for learning stays ignited and he learns the basis of healthy relationships (with God, family, and all others).
    Cheering you on! Praying you meet the friends you need for this journey.
    Your children will rise and call you blessed!


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Thanks so much for the encouragement, Kate!


  2. Jeanne Dedman says:

    Hi again Katie,
    You are doing fine! When we homeschooled, people thought we used the unit study approach, planning to explore a topic from all angles. They gave me too much credit, I just went along for the ride with whatever my son was interested in, as far as our reading was concerned. I learned about trucks, heavy equipment, cars, planes, and trains. Now my son is a volunteer at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, working on locomotives and driving a forklift once in a while. My son had learning disabilities, difficulties with reading, handwriting, and math. We soldiered on.


    1. Katie Butler says:

      You’re an inspiration to me, Jeanne! Thank you for the encouragement!


  3. I have this term called a “silent genius.” It captures for me the idea that you’re onto something, but others think you’re crazy and out there. You know you’re right, or mostly so anyhow, but you also know that it is not yet time to argue, debate, talk loudly to prove yourself. It is time to be assured that you know something inside that others don’t know yet (and won’t let themselves see) for the time being and to love them and not let them back you down from what you know inside. Just be a “silent genius” and carry on. I’m so happy for your little boy and you, especially since I just read about the unhappy life of Sir Isaac Newton in one of my children’s library books. Your boy sounds so “smart,” and I know with your well-roundedness you’ll help him envelop his “smartness” into a wonderful man.—–Terri Fites (MD)


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Terri, I love it. I’m going to keep the term “silent genius” in my arsenal. Blessings to you and your own awesome family.


      1. Oh, yes! And the arsenic line from your son had me giggling. That would be enough to scare me off the playground too. 😉 Blessings and God’s continued peace to you.


  4. shauna says:

    Oh bless your heart! But really , with the state of education these days, I think you are on the right path. I cannot imagine what kind of torment your precious boy would go through in a public school setting, especially given the emphasis on learning things according to testing results. Oh my word. An out of the box approach for your wonderful son is much more appropriate . I am no Expert on education or children, just a mom and former pediatric nurse, but what I perceive here is an awesome mom doing the best she knows how with God’s guidance.


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Thanks so much Shauna!


  5. amy dodd says:

    I love this post. It takes me down memory lane with my first born. He fascinated me by what fascinated him! I always believed the quote by Wm Butler Yeats that “education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” Keep stoking that fire 🙂


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Amy, I love that quote! Thank you so much. 🙂


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