Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Australian Backyard Explorer

When I spied this new book at the library recently I was drawn to its beautiful cover and initially thought it was a nature study book for children. I opened it up and flicked through and knew instantly that this was going to be the most amazing resource for our latest unit study. Australian Backyard Explorer by Peter Macinnis published by the National Library of Australia takes you on a journey of discovery of one very big backyard - the great south land that is Australia by introducing children to the explorers and their incredible journeys.

It is a beautiful book packed with information, exquisite drawings, photographs and illustrations - the layout is exceptional. The author asks the question 'Who were the Explorers?' in the opening chapter and reminds the reader of the forgotten heroes of exploration - those who have no statues erected in their honour or highways named for them but were members of the team with essential skills and the toughness of character necessary for survival in inhospitable terrain and conditions.

I knew this book would be perfect for a unit study for it contains backyard projects with clear directions that use everyday materials found around the home. Each project relates to a topic that is relevant to exploration such as keeping a journal. The explorers kept journals! They recorded their observations, their findings, their frustrations. A whole chapter is devoted to the subject of journals - we haven't reached that chapter yet but have created a journal style folder to hold the work undertaken as part of this unit based on this book.

The front cover of my son's journal inspired by the book. Travel themed scrapbook paper and stickers of Australian flora and fauna decorate the cover. He was quick to spot a postage stamp featuring Burke and Wills on a letter that arrived in the mail. What excellent timing!

This was the first project - learning about the sand dune angle. It just so happened that we had taken delivery of a huge pile of sand for a landscaping project. My son was sent out with a board and a bucket to the sand dune in our backyard, issued with instructions and told to return to report and record his observations. I love topics that combine science and history - sand dunes were a major challenge for some of the explorers and having completed this hands on project my son now understands why! He was soon recalling the desert episodes from his favourite television programme 'Man versus Wild'.

Tracing the map of Australia and the routes of the explorers

How do you get a son interested in the history of exploration? You take his interest in survival and tell him about the original 'men versus wild' who used the same skills that Bear Gryllis demonstrates on his show - hunting and fishing, tracking and navigating, finding edible plants and berries. All of these topics are covered in the book. His interest is sparked and he is soon drawn into an enthusiastic discussion when I ask him to tell me the reasons for the tragic outcome of the Burke and Wills expedition. They reached Northern Australia but died on the return journey and never made it back to Melbourne. If you want to know why you need to read some history books! One contributing factor was their failure to prepare the water plant nardoo prior to eating by soaking and cooking it as the Aboriginal people did. Nardoo contains an enzyme thiaminase which breaks down thiamine (vitamin B1) in the body. Deficiency of this vitamin leads to the disease beri beri and Burke and Wills both developed symptoms prior to their death. You learn something new every day! Actually I already knew this but only because Clarence the bush tucker expert on Gardening Australia shared this fact in a recent episode. I'm making all these learning connections in the same way my children are - it's why I love the unit study approach and this book is the perfect resource for unit learning.

We've just finished the chapter on food and my daughter has suggested a damper making contest. Damper is an Australian bush tradition. It's a simple bread made from flour and salt often cooked on camp fires. The explorers made it from the flour that they carried with them but the Aboriginal people used flour made from grass or wattle seeds and nardoo - which of course they prepared first by soaking. Today my son is putting together a mini field guide of native Australian edible plants. He's not the most enthusiastic gardener but he enjoys sketching. His task is to select five different plants draw them and write out a description for each. We have some wonderful rainforest plant guide books which he has to browse - he spotted the native raspberry first. In one activity we are covering art, writing and botany. See how it all works and brings subjects together?

Earlier sketches from our nature journal

And some other resources from a previous unit study that we will also use in this study

He's going to love the next chapter which is on Australian animals. One of the activities is sketching birds, already a favourite hobby (see above) and he's going to very motivated to make an insect light trap - the fireflies are out! Yet to come are the chapters on finding water, survival and mapping. So many topics that can be covered under the umbrella of exploration. The author Peter Macinnis is a science writer who obviously understands what motivates children to learn. I have a few other textbooks on Australian explorers but they are just textbooks with fairly dull text, black and white photos, maps and line drawings. No hands on backyard science projects to bring history alive and facilitate understanding.

I've just renewed the book at my library but I'm purchasing my own copy this week for our home library - there is one copy left at the educational bookshop. It is a resource I will use time and time again. It costs $29.95 and I have found it available online at Fishpond. I'm sure this is going to be a favourite resource for teachers, homeschool parents and anyone interested in Australian history, it is a fascinating read. Deserves to be in every school library!

Just one gripe and that is with Dymocks. It was out of stock at my local store and had to be ordered in. Then they rang me to let me know they didn't have a big enough order yet with the supplier but could still order the book in but it would cost me an extra $8. I find this really frustrating as a homeschool parent - I encounter the same problem when buying maths textbooks there. I wish they would address this issue and start ordering in more of the quality educational books for children such as 'Australian Backyard Explorer'. In the hope that someone from Dymocks might read this post I'm sharing this frustration! Never mind, the other bookshop had just one copy left and it is set aside for me.

I must let you know that this is my own personal review. I'm not being compensated in any way. Just once in a while I discover a resource that reflects one of the themes of my blog and assists me in my everyday homeschool life - no need to spend hours searching for resources and ideas when they are all presented in one beautiful volume. I believe this book will delight those who prefer not to teach subjects in isolation and want to see children enjoying learning about the history of the country in which they live. This book was short-listed by the Children's Book Council of Australia for the Eve Pownall award (for books designed for birth - 18 years) and it has been announced as the winner for 2010. I'm not surprised - absolutely deserving of its success.

I'm off to help my son paste the botanical drawings he has just presented to me into his journal.

With Love and Joy,

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Dove's Rest said...

Fantastic review. I love the idea of paralelling the interests of survival skills and Man vs Wild wih the early explorers. This would work well for our ds. Beautiful book. I'm off to find it on the web!

Jen said...

I just borrowed this book last week but hadn't gotten around to it in my pile. So glad to see you liked it. I had thought it was going to be a great read aloud with my boys but it looks like it may be worth much more than just a read aloud.

Thanks for reviewing it. I think from what I saw and you describe that it could be become a strong core for studying Australian history.

Best wishes
Jen in NSW

Camille said...

It looks like a wonderful resource Ann! I am sure it will provide hours and hours of learning fun! AND...I think you do a fabulous job of teaching your children at home...what a blessing to them you are! :)

Have a lovely weekend!
In Him,

Anonymous said...

Great to read your review of this book. I now have ordered a copy as I love great books for our family and love Australian history.You have some great ideas for unit studies. It's great seeing children learn new things and I also love learning along side my children.
Warm Regards, Angela.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the review, I got onto spydus and immediately reserved the book, thankfully they have lots of copies at all the branches in the region and I don't have to wait for you to return yours!

Renata said...

Thanks so much for the review - I've written down the title & author & will check to see if our library has a copy (or can order one in). What a fantastic resource & I love the unit study ideas from it!
Please compliment your son on his wonderful drawings as well - I am very impressed!
Have a lovely week - enjoy the holidays!

Joyful Mama said...

I just read your comment about your teen dd over at Blueberry Cottage and I just wanted to say to your sweet dd that that is a very sweet and noble thing to do with her elderly greatgrandma. Keep up the caring and encouragement to her. God bless you.

In our family we try to go to a nursing home to minister at least once a month. My children love going and loving on the older generation and it creates a love in their hearts for all aged people.

Elinor said...

thanks so much Ann for letting us know about this book. I am currently trying to organise our curriculum for next year and have decided on Australian history and this book looks perfect.


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