Learning Resources We’re Loving Right Now: Math, Shakespeare, Mythology and More for an 8-year-old

It’s been a fun unschooling year for us so far, and I thought I’d do a round-up of some of our favourite resources of the last season.

DragonBox Math Apps

It’s no secret that I hate math. I had some terrible early experiences with math in school, and I now believe that the way schools teach it is completely wrong and awful. I have been very cautious with how I’ve approached math with my own kid — playfully, and with no expectations.

One of my favourite resources so far have been the DragonBox games. They’re available for purchase for $5-8 each. We’ve bought them and played them on our Kindle Fire.

I find them very intuitive and they just make math come alive. Each game starts off incredibly simple, and slowly gets more challenging and complex. Interestingly, they are designed without verbal prompts — it’s all just the language of math, with some cute character symbols thrown in. Before you know it, your child is playing with advanced math concepts without even knowing it (including algebra)!

As their website explains: “The DragonBox Method . . . uses motivation-based learning techniques to give children a deeper understanding of how and why things work.”

Lydia tends to turn her nose up at any games that smell remotely educational, but she asks to play these games and can spend hours at a time at them, and I find myself magnetically drawn to them when she plays.

So far we’ve tried Numbers, Big Numbers, and Algebra5. Next up: Magnus Kingdom of Chess!

Narwhal and Jelly Books

I want to back up by saying that I am becoming increasingly convinced that graphic novels are the best tool for learning how to read. Even better than traditional picture books, good graphic novels are more distilled: they don’t waste space on distracting “he said/she said;” they break up text into manageable voice bubbles; and they give more visual clues about what the words say, granting the young reader more independence. (I don’t have to sit next to her and verify that she’s sounding out the words correctly; she can look at the graphics to self-correct.)

But I’ve had a bit of a hard time finding super-simple beginner books in this format that are interesting enough to keep my brand-new reader interested. She started with Elephant and Piggie, which are PERFECT, but I was looking for the next step. Enter Narwhal and Jelly.

The graphics are cute and the stories are short and silly. It doesn’t feel like these books are trying to teach you how to read, because they’re not. They’re just fun. Lydia has been delighted every time I’ve taken out a new book from the library, and immediately sat down to read them through on the spot.

(Do you have any suggestions for the next step? Graphic novel-ish books that are just a touch more challenging?)

Manga Shakespeare series

On the subject of graphic novels: we found some really exciting ones!

For some background: I enrolled Lydia in a once-a-week Charlotte Mason enrichment class, where she was introduced to Shakespeare via Twelfth Night. I could tell she was getting really into it, so I began to seek out materials to build on that interest.

In my search for accessible Shakespeare retellings, I came across the Manga Shakespeare series. Lydia loves the aesthetic of manga/anime, so I gave Twelfth Night a try. It has the full/original Shakespearean text, adapted to the graphic novel format.

Friends: she LOVED it. She spent hours and hours looking at the pictures and reading as much of the text as she could. (Remember: she’s eight, and currently at Narwhal-and-Jelly reading level.)

The wonder of graphic novels is that even if you don’t completely understand the text, the images help you get the gist of the story. I am now convinced that if you can’t watch actual performances of Shakespeare’s plays–which is obviously the ideal introduction to the Bard–the second best way to experience them is in the form of a graphic novel.

So I searched out Shakespeare’s other comedies in the series, and found A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then Much Ado About Nothing. Same result: she begged me to read them aloud to her, and then spent hours upon hours going over them herself, over and over again. She even had her Barbies act out the plays!

(We also watched the 1993 Kenneth Brannah movie adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing and she adored it, and has been asking to watch it again. Guys, this is a word-for-word adaptation of the original play. WHAT.)

Thanks to this series my eight-year-old can now quote her favourite lines of Shakespeare and I am HERE for it.

Olympians graphic novels

I forget how or why I introduced Greek mythology, but Lydia was enthralled with it from the start. She really liked the illustrated D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and I would read the stories to her before bed.

But then I happened to come upon the Olympians graphic novel series by George O’Connor and she was ENAMOURED.

The illustrations are captivating and full of detail, with a classic superhero/comic book aesthetic, and the text is snappy and smart. They’re bursting with energy.

Just like with the Shakespeare books, she proceeded to spend hours inside these books. I took them out of the library one by one, starting with the most appealing goddesses (Athena, Aphrodite and Artemis) and then moving on to the gods, and she ate up every single one (even notoriously boring Hephaistos!) (My personal favourite was Hermes, who is hilarious and charismatic).

(Be warned that these books were created for an older audience. There is partial nudity, graphic violence, and lots of vague references to sex that went over her head. But, I mean, that’s Greek mythology for you.)

Crash Course World Mythology

While on her mythology kick, we tried a few relevant Crash Course videos on Youtube. She loved them so much we went through the whole World Mythology series, and she’s been rewatching her favourites.

I find Mike a charming and hilarious* host, and Lydia loves the Thought Bubble animations. I love that she’s being introduced to a wide array of mythologies, from Indigenous to Hindu to Norse.

*I am a huge dork and was the kind of student who always genuinely laughed at the teacher’s jokes, if that helps you discern whether you’ll like them

The Toys That Made Us

Netflix has a documentary series on the most explosively popular toys from the 70’s-90’s called The Toys That Made Us, and we’re obsessed.

My favourites so far have been on Barbie, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, LEGO, and Transformers.

I go back and forth between awe of these creators’ genius, and disgust at the blatant commodification and commercialization of childhood. The series does not shy away from the baldly capitalist motivations of the toy corporations, and isn’t interested in nostalgia. It’s super fascinating. And for some reason Lydia loves it, too. (Yay history!)

(Again, it’s made for adult viewers, and can occasionally have some crude language. Sorry, that’s how we roll around here. My kid just isn’t generally as interested in media geared specifically to children, which can often be patronizing; and I’m comfortable with her being exposed to some more mature content, as long as I’m nearby to discuss it.)

That’s it for now! Have any suggestions for similar materials we might love?

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  1. We just read kitten construction company, which was a much easier reading level than most graphic novels. I asked my daughter what she thought, and she recommends Babymouse, although it’s a step up from Narwhal and Jelly books. But I totally agree with you, graphic novels are amazing, and my 8yo early reader adores them also. Please keep your book recommendations coming! :)

  2. I love this post. From the school time I hate mathematics.

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