Advent Idea: A Book a Day

Growing up, I remember our advent calendar held a small candy cane  for each day until Christmas. My brother, sister and I would eagerly take turns removing the candies (even though peppermint isn’t my favorite). We have a traditional advent calendar in our house now; each day the boys remove a different figure from a numbered pocket and velcro it onto the manger scene. Since Thanksgiving, my older son has been asking me if it’s December 1st yet, so he can start creating the scene.

Because this is such a special time of year, I’m always interested in new ways to count down to Christmas. My friend Nancy recently shared a good one: a Christmas book a day. Here’s how it works. Scour your children’s book collection for 25 books about Christmas. Don’t have 25 books about Christmas? Neither do I, so I also included books about winter and snow. For example, I include The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats and Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. You can also visit your local library to supplement your collection. Just make sure to keep those at the front of the pile so they don’t become overdue! Also consider that booksellers may have Christmas books on sale during the holiday season.

Once you’ve amassed your pile, find a nice basket to hold all your books, and put it in a special spot, for example under your tree, by your fireplace or on a side table in the family room. Then it’s time to start wrapping! Pull out the wrapping paper, ribbon and bows, wrap each book and place it in the basket. (Note: You could use your recycled Christmas cards in lieu of bows here.) There’s nothing children love more during the holidays than unwrapping a present. Designate a special time each day (first thing in the morning or bedtime, for example), and let each child take turns unwrapping a “present.” Then you can all enjoy reading the book together. What a nice holiday tradition!


Recycled Christmas Card Projects

Recycled Christmas card place mat

One of my favorite parts of the holiday season is sending and receiving Christmas cards. A former military family, we have friends all over the world, and keeping up via Christmas cards, letters and pictures are an annual tradition. Each year, we receive more than 50 Christmas cards. We display the cards in our breakfast nook during the holiday season, and I normally file them until the following year. Then, at the beginning of each December, I’m confronted with the question of what to do with the prior year’s Christmas cards. I hate to just through them out, so I’ve hit on a few ideas for repurposing the cards.

Project 1: Recycled Christmas Card Place Mat

You’ll need: Christmas cards, scissors, construction paper, glue, clear contact paper (or a laminator) and your choice of embellishments like stickers, stamps and ink pads, crayons and markers

What you do: Cut the pictures and/or words out of your Christmas cards. Let your child choose his favorites and glue them onto a piece of construction paper. Let him embellish the place mat with stickers, stamps or coloring. Once the design is complete, cover the place mat with clear contact paper or laminate it. If you’d like a larger place mat, you could glue the construction paper onto a piece of poster board measuring 2 inches wider and 2 inches longer than the construction paper, before covering in contact paper.

Here’s a finished product:

So far my boys have been fighting over the place mat above, since it features pictures of their new baby cousin and one of their best friends. They get a big smile every time they sit down to a meal.

Project 2: Christmas Tags/Ornaments

Using a die cut machine or a large punch, cut out circles, squares or other shapes from the fronts of your Christmas cards. Voila! You’ve got tags for Christmas gifts. Or, if you punch a small hole near the top of each shape, and thread a piece of string through it, you can make Christmas ornaments. This is an especially great idea if you’ve got pictures from family you’d like to keep.

Gift tag made from a recycled Christmas card

Project 3: Christmas Wreath

If you would rather make a wreath, use your die cut machine or punch to cut out a consistent shape and size; I’ve cut out circles in the past, but who am I to stifle creativity. Lay out your shapes in a circle to make a wreath pattern, and glue them together. You may find that you need some reinforcement from wooden chopsticks glued to the back side of the wreath; the cards do get heavy. Then embellish the front with a festive bow, and hang your wreath indoors.

Happy recycling!

Nonfiction Friday: Moonshot by Brian Floca

Brian Floca’s “Moonshot” (Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books 2009) is hands-down the best recounting of the historic Apollo 11 mission that landed the first men on the moon. Floca’s poetry, coupled with his stunning images, truly captures the majesty of the historic feat. Here is one of my favorite stanzas:

“They go rushing into darkness,/flying toward the Moon,/far away,/cold and quiet,/no air, no life,/but glowing in the sky.”

Floca periodically repeats his description of the Moon, giving children a touchpoint as the Moon goes from lifeless to full of life as Armstrong and Aldrin land. Once the men are on the Moon, Floca contrast’s the Moon’s cold lifelessness with the Earth, which is covered with air, water….and life.

My husband picked up this book at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum several years ago, and we’ve been reading it to our older son since he was four. It’s a little bit long for a bedtime story at this age (48 pages), however, we’ve read this book countless times, poring over the oversized pages (they measure almost 12 x 11 inches). For parents and older children, there is detailed front and back matter showing the various stages of the Apollo spacecraft, how the stages separated after launch, as well as providing a brief overview of the Apollo program and its historical origins.

“Moonshot” is truly a masterpiece for any child interested in space, the planets or explanation.

Great Gift Ideas 2011 – Part 2

With Black Friday rapidly approaching, I figured it was time for a second installment of toddler and preschool gift ideas that stimulate the imagination. These toys have all been “tested” by my boys, ages 5 and 3. I’ve only selected the toys they go back to time and time again to ensure maximum play value.

Lillabo Basic Train Set

Lillabo Train Sets from Ikea: Shhhh, don’t tell the folks from Thomas the Tank Engine that I told you about this one.  Ikea offers its own wooden train sets of 3 to 20 pieces ranging in price from $3.99 to $9.99, far less expensive than branded wooden sets. However, the best part is that these trains work with wooden Thomas the Tank Engine and Imaginarium sets, both of which we have and use interchangeably with the Ikea track. Now you can save money on your wooden track and invest in fun engines, cars and add-ons.

Fisher Price Play My Way Doctor Kit: We received this gift when our youngest was two, and he and his five-year-old brother still play with this doctor’s kit. The pieces come in their own plastic storage tub, which is perfect for keeping the playroom clean. This set is much more durable than some other doctor’s kits we’ve had. After a full year of play, everything is still intact. This retails for $21 on the Fisher Price Web site, however you can also find these at other retailers for a few dollars less. We bought ours at Target, and I’ve seen this advertised at Kohl’s. Fisher Price also offers a Workshop and Kitchen in this same line. I’m sure they’d be equally as big a hit.

Magneatos: We first stumbled upon Magneatos at a children’s museum. Grandparents and children alike enjoyed building with these cool magnetic tubes, so, when birthday time rolled around, guess what we bought? We have two different sets: a curved set and a straight set, both of which come with the balls. I think the allure is that these are easy enough for toddlers to build with, since they don’t have to snap any pieces into place, yet building a 3-D construction is fun and challenging even for grown ups. Depending upon the size you purchase, these can range in price from approximately $30 to over $50.

Field Trip Ideas: Scavenger Hunt

My friend Nanda recently reminded me of a fun way to make field trips more entertaining — scavenger hunts! For our trip to a local air park last week, Nanda had pulled together descriptions of several airplanes we would see at the park. The children had to find the planes described, for example a silver plane with red seats or a plane with a star. Once they checked all the boxes, they turned their paper into Nanda, who had brought little gliders as prizes. Brilliant!

The next day, I took my boys to a local zoo. I decided to try another scavenger hunt. Because my three-year-old doesn’t read yet, I decided to use pictures of the various animals we would see for the scavenger hunt. I found these easily on the internet and pasted them into a Word document.  I also left space for us to write down the animals’ names and where they could be found, so we could use our globe when we got home to find their habitats.

The boys definitely paid more attention to the animals when we were forced to read the information and look carefully for the various animals. Hooray for scavenger hunts!

Thanksgiving Table Manners

For parents of young children, holiday meals can be a challenge. I don’t know about you, but I often cook for hours, only to have my littler one turn up his nose at everything, and tell me he’s all done. He’s also recently taken to declaring, “That’s disgusting,” whenever he’s confronted with an unfamiliar food. Wow, I can’t wait for my in-laws to join us for the holidays!

Manners are something we work on all year long. I’m constantly reminding my older one to sit up at the table, rather than practically lying down. We have worked on using our utensils rather than our fingers (except when eating pizza, of course). We have talked about how to use a napkin rather than our shirtsleeves. And we try to stay at the table until everyone is done. Finally, when the meal is over, our preschooler helps by clearing his own place. These, I think are age-appropriate skills to teach a toddler and a preschooler.

Still, the holidays provide an opportunity to step things up a little bit. We always read The Mini Page, which comes in our local Sunday paper. Last week’s installment  focused on holiday manners. While I couldn’t find that edition online, I was able to find a very similar edition from 2006,  The Mini Page – 2006 Thanksgiving Manners, which is available….here. It contains a little manners quiz where children can say whether each child pictured is using good manners. It also contains an illustration for how to properly set a table — very useful for adults as well as children.

Here are a couple of other sources for manners help:

Allrecipes “Kids’ Guide to Table Manners”….here

A Good Apple’s “Be a Manners Detective” downloadable lesson and worksheets ….. here.


Nonfiction Friday: Thanksgiving Picture Books

Ok, I’m cheating a little bit. The following books aren’t nonfiction, but with Thanksgiving around the corner, I wanted to share two favorite Thanksgiving-themed picture books.

1) “The Night Before Thanksgiving,” by Natasha Wing (Grosset & Dunlap, 2001). “‘Twas the night before Thanksgiving, and all through the nation families got ready for the big celebration.” This clever tale transforms Clement C. Moore’s familiar “Twas the Night Before Christmas” into a story of one family’s Thanksgiving fiesta. Will Uncle Norm, who is stuck in a snowstorm, make it in time? Will the bird make it safely to the table? Wing’s clever poetry encourages children to read on and find out.

2) “Thanksgiving Day,” by Anne Rockwell (HarperCollins, 2002). Mrs. Madoff’s class puts on a play about the first Thanksgiving. Each child has a role, from the Mayflower to Chief Massasoit. Preschoolers learn the historical story of the pilgrims and the Wampanoag people and why we celebrate Thanksgiving each year. They learn the symbolism of traditional thanksgiving foods from turkey to cornbread and cranberry sauce. Yum!

Do you have other favorite Thanksgiving tales? Let me know.

Road Trip Games

Road trip

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we live in the middle of nowhere, but within an hour and a half of everything. Thus, every trip to the zoo, aquarium or museum starts with a healthy dose of “car time.” Though we have a DVD player in the car, I try to reserve it for long road tips of three hours or more. I prefer the kids look at their surroundings and engage with what they see.

We’ve become experts at “I Spy,” which we even play on short trips to school. Here’s how you play: One player picks an object outside the car and says “I spy something…” and fills in the color of the object they’ve selected. For example, “I spy something red,” a player might say. Then everyone guesses until they guess the correct answer: a fire truck, for example. A fun variant includes using shapes instead of colors. For example, a player might say, “I spy something rectangular.” Everyone guesses until they guess the one-way sign, which was the right answer.

Grandmommy, a frequent visitor, taught us the “Alphabet Game.” Starting with the letter A, players have to find each letter of the alphabet, in order, on signs, license plates etc. outside the car. The first player to get all the way to Z wins. This game is perfect for reinforcing letter recognition for preschoolers, though they will likely need some help at first.

The “License Plate Game” is another classic that works well for long trips on the interstate. Players have to find a license plate with the name of each state. The first player to spot all 50 (or the continental 48) wins. You can also have the whole car work together as a team. You need to create list of the states for players to check off. I found a downloadable sheet on Mom’s Minivan…….here.

Finally, growing up I always enjoyed following our route on the AAA Triptik during our many cross country trips. The Triptik was a booklet of maps showing the route. I always wanted to be the designated Triptik holder; I felt great satisfaction each time I could turn the page, knowing we were making good progress. You can now create and print out your own Triptik online by clicking……here. Assemble your Triptik, staple it, and hand it to your elementary schooler. It might be a solution to the “Are we there yet?” problem. If you don’t have a Triptik, you could also highlight your route on a map. Show your children how to look for towns and other landmarks to mark your progress.

Happy traveling this holiday season.

Great Gift Ideas 2011 – part 1

Growing up, I used to joke that my future children would only  play with wooden blocks. I’ve evolved a little bit since then, but not much. I still favor toys that stimulate imagination, curiosity and creativity. So, with that in mind, here are a few of my current favorites.

1) Anything Lego. Have I mentioned how much I adore this company? It’s pretty easy to find a good, mid-priced set for about $25. Every brick set works with every other brick set; I can tell you my mother-in-law still has my husband’s Legos from 30+ years ago, and they work with today’s sets. Plus, if you lose the directions, Lego has instructions available online for every kit it’s made in the last 10 years. This is a great toy for stimulating creativity and building fine motor skills.

Primary Science Set

2) Learning Resources’ Primary Science Set. I bought this preschool science kit for Christmas last year, and it’s a hit. Everything is made of sturdy plastic. It includes 10 large, water-resistant cards with experiments like making volcanoes or dancing raisins. The kit includes goggles, magnifying glass, eye dropper, test tubes, beaker, funnel, tweezers and more. This kit has helped us learn about science in a hands-on way.

Gears! Gears! Gears!

3) Gears! Gears! Gears! We got our first set of gears last year after playing with them at “Grandmommy’s” house. This year we added the Gears Lights and Action Building Set. The set has glow-in-the-dark and LED pieces, as well as a remote control, so children can make their constructions come to life. I think it’s a great way to learn about cause and effect. We found our set at Costco for about $25, but Amazon sells it online as well.

I’ll have more ideas as Christmas approaches. Happy shopping!

Celebrating Science Centers

How does wind work?

We have a running joke in our town: while we live in the middle of nowhere, we can be anywhere in an hour and a half — the beach, the mountains and a major city. That certainly holds true for museums and cultural institutions, including one of our favorites: the California Science Center. Since the science center is far from next door, we only make it there every few months, but each trip is a special treat.

Science centers make science fun through hands-on activities and exhibits. This is the type of science I remember from elementary school. While we’ve done our fair share of science experiments at home, there’s nothing like science kids can touch done on a large-scale (and backed by big bucks). Want to learn which materials are good insulators? Check out the giant ice wall in the polar ecosystem exhibit, where you can cover your hands in different materials and judge for yourself. Do you want to learn about solar power? Use a joystick to control a light that mimics the sun; when you shine it on a small car’s solar panels, the car races around the track!

I’m always heartened by the number of school groups and families we see at the science center. Here are kids learning that being a scientist can be fun. To find a science center near you, click……here.