Posts tagged ‘my newspaper columns’

April 11, 2014

The Georgia Museum of Art

750 pixels Terry Allen main_8247

Photos courtesy of the Georgia Museum of Art

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on April 9, 2014. Believe it or not, I wasn’t planning this field trip when I started writing my art series. It’s serendipity at its best!

My boys love to produce lots of original artwork. I keep their supplies out where they can reach them, so art happens almost daily. This year I also have done a few formal lessons in art. For example, we’ve looked at some of the artists from the Renaissance, and we’ve talked about color and line. I had them make a color wheel, and we did some fun activities to explore how everything is made up of lines!

I didn’t think my boys were old enough to visit an art museum, though. I imagined my seven-year-old hanging onto my arm and asking, “When are we going home?” and I imagined my four-year-old running up and down quiet hallways and knocking over some precious sculpture.

Then my sister came to visit us for a very short visit on her spring break, and the weather was not ideal for hiking, which is what I was hoping to do while she was here. It also seemed silly to drive into Atlanta when she was here for such a short time, and we were going to have to take her to the airport the next day anyway. And there are not many indoor places around here that’s fun for both kids and adults. But my sister loves art – she even teaches at a special school that emphasizes art, so we decided to take a chance on our boys and visit the Georgia Museum of Art.

The Museum is located on the University of Georgia’s East Campus. It is free for the public, though you will need to park in the Performing Arts Center parking deck and pay for parking when you leave. We were there for about two hours and paid $2 for parking.

The museum is kid-friendly. Upon entering, we were greeted at the visitor’s desk where our children were offered a bag with some activities they could do while they were visiting. They also could have taken a sketchpad and drawn pictures in it while viewing the artwork, though all these items needed to stay at the museum. My seven-year-old was happy to receive a little button he could wear on his shirt that said, “Art for Everyone.”

It had been years since I had visited the museum, and it all looked new to me. This is because in 2011, a 16,000-square-foot expansion was added to the museum. It is beautiful. There is a huge permanent collection with artwork from the Renaissance to Modern times. Some of my favorite discoveries were a portrait painted by Mary Cassatt and a small painting by Renoir.

I was happy that my boys behaved themselves, and for at least the first half the museum, they were engaged and enjoyed looking at the art. I squatted down by my four-year-old and asked him what he saw in the abstract art, so that helped him focus, but eventually, he did try to run around the big, airy rooms and hallways. (It’s tempting even for me to want to run in such lovely hallways!) But we kept him in check, and he was good boy.

GMOA

Eventually my seven-year-old did grow tired, but that probably had more to do with the leisurely pace at which the adults were moving through the museum. He enjoyed a lot of art, especially the Belleek Porcelain collection. He loves working with clay, so the delicate porcelain sculptures with such fine details were impressive. He also was taken with a special, temporary exhibit that the museum staff called “the floating pen,” but according to the museum’s website, it’s called “Machine Drawing.”

Tristan Perich, a contemporary artist and composer based in New York City, is the artist responsible for the “Machine Drawing.” He created the code that operates a machine that controls a pen, held by hooks and wires, and over a six-month installation, this “floating pen” will make a work of art on a 60-foot wall in the museum. It is fun to watch!

There was a good chunk of wall already covered in pen markings, so we thought the “floating pen” had been working for a long time. We were surprised to hear that when we visited the museum, it had only begun three days earlier. My seven-year-old wants to go back and see the wall in a few months to see what it looks like, so we’re planning to do that. (We also asked them how often they have to change the pen – the answer was everyday!)

If you would like to visit the museum, it is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10-5p.m., Thursday from 10-9p.m., and Sunday 1-5p.m. It is closed on Mondays. For parents, you may be interested in looking at their calendar and going on a Family Day, which is once a month on a Saturday and free. We have not tried that yet, but it looks like a great activity for kids.

The museum’s website is georgiamuseum.org. Click here to go directly to their page about upcoming Family Art Days.

April 1, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling Preschool: My four-year-old’s projects

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 26, 2014.

Sometimes I worry that I don’t give my four-year-old enough attention, but then again, sometimes I worry that I don’t give my seven-year-old enough attention. In truth, it’s probably about even.

For three years, my oldest son had all my attention, but his younger brother has had to compete ever since he was born. I have to remind myself that my four-year-old got a lot of things his older brother didn’t get. Since he was a baby, he’s been carried along to play dates whereas I didn’t know many mothers with infants and toddlers when I first had children. He’s also been taken to his older brother’s classes and been around big groups of children of all ages from day one.

He was also born into a home with lots of toys and art supplies, and when he was a baby, we converted our dining room into a school room, so he is very comfortable going in there and pulling down books or puzzles or blocks and other building toys. Now, he sits at the table and listens while his older brother works on his lessons. Sometimes he wants to draw or do something else, but I’m surprised how much he’ll just watch. (Not exactly quietly, but not too distracting either.)

Even though he’s not getting the direct one-on-one attention my oldest son got from age one to three, he is absorbing so much information from his brother and me. (I can’t forget to mention daddy either. He’s always been around for both of them.)

Right now I’m very focused on my “first grader.” Reading lessons, math lessons, book time, computer time, conversations about history and cultural events, and most of all, his projects. We are project-based homeschoolers, which means that I set aside time for my son’s interests and use some “tricks of the trade” to get him to study deeper than the surface of those subjects.

My four-year-old has interests too, and lately I’ve been considering how I can make more time for his projects and lessons. I don’t think that at four-years-old, academics should be a priority, but by letting him explore his interests, he is learning everything a four-year-old would typically learn in preschool anyway.

Right now he loves letters and numbers. He hasn’t mastered the ability to identify all the letters like my oldest son did at an early age, but he’s taking a different approach. He loves to sing the ABC song, and by singing it with him every night, he has mastered it.

He loves to count everything, and we often overhear him counting when he’s playing by himself. He loves to play our math games even though they are too hard for him, and sometimes he’ll play by himself when no one else is available. He uses some tiny little, rubber vehicles (manipulatives) to help him add and subtract.

His favorite subject is dinosaurs, and whenever we go to the library, he asks for dinosaur books. (I’m really tired of reading about dinosaurs!) He watches dinosaur shows on T.V. with his brother, and we’ve taken him to museums to see dinosaur bones. He has asked me to draw him dinosaurs, make a dinosaur out of clay, and his father tells him a story about “Dig Dig the T-Rex” every night before bed. I have never thought about it before, but I guess you could say that he has an ongoing “dinosaur project.”

Whenever he tells me to draw or make him something, I encourage him to try to do it himself first. He never wants to. I guess he knows his own limits. I started to get frustrated about this, but then I remembered all the “art” he makes on his own. You might call it “abstract” art, but it takes some time and thought. He is very calculating about applying different colors of paint all over one piece of paper, drawing line art, or cutting and taping paper together to make interesting shapes. I’m glad he’s felt free to “create” whenever he wants to, and I have a nice collection of his work to save in a memory box.

When you have more than one child, it’s easy to worry about whether or not you’re giving them their fair share of your time, but in many ways, both boys have benefitted from not having my full attention. They occupy themselves. And when I stop to chronicle everything they do, I’m pleasantly surprised that quite a bit gets accomplished without me even trying.

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By having all our materials accessible to both of my children, I’m very happy to see how my youngest son has picked up on the “creating” “building” “art” vibe of his house. I will often find him in the activity room, scribbling away on a piece of paper. Sometimes, he pretends he’s writing. Other times, he wants to paint, and I love how he carefully applies different colors to his work. What I love most is when he’ll gather a bunch of supplies, such as paper, pen, markers, scissors, glue, string, beads, goggly eyes or what not, and then he says, “I’m gonna make somethin!” Here’s a slideshow of some of my four-year-old’s art and “writing.”

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March 20, 2014

Is Happiness a Skill?

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 19, 2014.

I just watched a fascinating documentary titled “happy” and directed by Roko Belic. I would recommend that everyone watch it because who isn’t trying to be happy? The documentary showcases the latest research on what makes humans happy, and it’s full of interviews with researchers in this fairly new field of inquiry.

Twenty years ago psychology was about helping people with their problems, but in the 1990s it finally became more acceptable to study what makes people flourish. This “positive psychology” has produced a slew of books and other media on the subject.

Ed Diener, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, and he started his research in 1981. He said, “The first thing to realize is that happiness can actually help you get your other goals, have better relationships, make more money, do better at the job. People on the job are going to like you better if you are happy.”

So what does it take to be happy? Although I expected the researchers to say that success and money don’t buy happiness, I was still surprised to hear what they have found out.

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, 50% of what determines whether we will be happy or not is genetic. She says that we all have a kind of “set point” or a range of feeling happy that we continue to fall back into after the effects of our good and bad experiences wear off.

This surprised me. Are we doomed to unhappiness because of genetics? As pointed out in the documentary there is still the other half. Lyubomirsky goes on to say that 10% of what makes us happy is our circumstances: our income, social status, where we live, and our age.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that all those things we typically “strive” for do little to make us happy, but Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D. and author of Stumbling on Happiness, says that money can buy happiness when we’re talking about lifting someone out of poverty. Once our needs are met, however, there isn’t much difference in the happiness levels of someone who makes 50K a year and someone that makes 500K a year.

Lyubomirsky says that 40% of what determines how happy we feel is our actions and intentions.  There are things we can do to help ourselves become happier.

One action we can take is to get more aerobic exercise. This is because physical exercise helps to release dopamine in our brains, a chemical necessary for happiness. From our teenage years onward, we start to lose dopamine, but exercise is one of the best ways of producing it.

They also said that getting exercise in fun and novel ways is an even better way of releasing dopamine, and in our everyday lives, we need variety and change.  For some that may be taking a different route to work, but for others, they may need more changes. Having new experiences and keeping up that “spice of life” is another action we can take to help increase our happiness.

Not surprisingly, people who are happier tend to have a strong network of family and friends. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone has to get along all the time though.)

“Social bonding, social interactions is programmed to be intrinsically rewarding to humans,” says P. Read Montague, Ph.D., Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine.

Doing something that we feel is meaningful is an important step in trying to feel happier. When we concentrate on relationships and our community’s overall feeling of well being, we stop thinking so much about ourselves.

The final “building block” in happiness, as the documentary’s narrator calls it, is appreciating what we have. Since I’ve spent a good portion of my life concentrating on what I want instead of appreciating what I have now, I can attest that shifting my focus to others and appreciating every moment has done quite a bit to elevate feelings of satisfaction and contentment in my life.

I appreciate that the film also noted that there is no one formula for happiness that fits every person, but it does a good job of finding people who live in dire circumstances around the world and showing that happiness can be found even in these places. The film doesn’t go into problems such as chronic depression that can affect a person’s brain, but that didn’t seem to be the point of this particular film. The “building blocks” may seem simple and common sense, yet the average person could benefit from learning about them. It’s something many people in our culture could use.

What makes you happy?

March 13, 2014

Winter Siestas

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 12, 2014.

I love Georgia winters because the weather here always offers us a few “siestas” or breaks in the cold weather. This winter has been especially cold, but that hasn’t stopped us from getting a few days of spring-like weather sprinkled here and there. I have even seen some trees blooming.

The blooms I’ve found always give me mixed emotions because I know a freeze may come and mess up the blooming cycle, but every spring Georgia seems to have plenty of beautiful blooms anyway. I can’t wait until the warm weather is here to stay, but I’m glad we’ve been taking advantage of the warm days in winter.

The boys are finally old enough to enjoy longer hikes, at least when the terrain isn’t too rugged. We usually go to Fort Yargo, and recently we were happy to discover that there is a trail that goes all the way around the lake – years ago when my husband and I hiked there while we were dating, the trail didn’t go all the way around.

We haven’t yet hiked the whole trail in one visit, but we’ve done parts of it, and my seven-year-old really wanted to see the dam, so we walked all the way from the parking lot near the beach to the dam and back. Ft. Yargo is a beautiful place, and if you live here in Barrow County, you’ll want to visit as often as you can.

Last week we went to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens, which has several miles of trails too. My boys love to hike on the trail that goes along the Middle Oconee River the best. Sometimes the river is high, but occasionally it’ll be low enough where they can venture down to a large sandbar and play by the water.

As soon as they saw the sandbar last week, there was no keeping them on the trail. My husband and I found a log to sit on, and we watched our boys build a “beaver dam” with driftwood and mud. Two little girls and their mother came out onto the sandy area, and we were delighted to watch our four-year-old chatter away with one of the girls who joined my boys in their pursuit to build a strong dam.

We were too far away to hear what our youngest son was saying, but later my seven-year-old told me that he was telling the girl what his favorite foods were, among other things. I guess for a four-year-old, there are only a few topics of conversation!

As for the cold days, they are perfect days to get more work done. More library books are read, math games are played, and of course, my son continues to work at this Legos and cardboard building projects. I recently introduced him to the game Minecraft, which is an app you can download on the iPad. It’s a popular game with kids, and it’s like building with blocks on the screen. He is hooked on that now too.

But I can’t wait until spring is here to stay. Park play dates, more hiking, and our annual attempts at gardening – while the gardening usually isn’t very fruitful, the attempts make me happy.

These hints of spring are full of promises. The birds are inspecting the birdhouses on our porch, and I’ve heard the frogs begin to sing. The budding plants and occasional warm days are just what I need to get me through the weeks of cold.  May the true spring come quickly this year, and may it fill us all with a fresh, cheerful spirit!

February 27, 2014

Sound Bites

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 27, 2014.

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway

In the mornings I’m lucky if I wake up to a quiet house. Usually it’s the galloping of the dogs’ paws on the floors as the canines leap up at the slightest sound of movement from my husband. They follow him into the kitchen, eagerly waiting their breakfast.

Other mornings I may wake up hearing one of my boys calling me from their bed or the seven-year-old’s footsteps as he runs down the hall and jumps into bed with me. Sometimes I hear a bird singing outside my window. Every once in a while, I wake up and hear nothing, and I savor the quiet.

Today at the park I heard snatches of my children’s conversations with their friends. One boy was explaining to my four-year-old that they would pretend they were dinosaurs and chase each other. They were trying to decide which dinosaur they would be, and my four-year-old wanted to be an Argentinosaurus. “Okay,” said the other boy, “you chase me then.”

“Actually,” my son said in his four-year-old and still sometimes hard to understand speech, “the Argentinosaurus wasn’t very fast.” I smiled at his good attempt at trying to pronounce Argentinosaurus, and I told the other boy’s mother how the word “actually” has become very popular in our house lately. She said it was gaining momentum in her house too.

It’s fun to hear how children will learn a new word and then play with it often as if they are trying to get to know it better.

While we were at the park we walked down to the shoals, and the kids played near the water. Running water in a creek or river is my favorite sound in the world. I could sit beside a river all day and just listen, but kids don’t let me sit for long. We were walking down the trail, and I was too busy keeping an eye on the boys who were running far ahead of us to listen to the wildlife.

I was happy to hear them talking, chattering and laughing as they asserted their independence and tried to get away from their mamas. I did catch the loud sound of a frog croaking from somewhere in the marsh.

On the way home from the park, I wanted to listen to the news on the radio, but my boys kept interrupting the broadcast. Some days I make a point of turning off the radio and just listening to my son chatter about his observations or ask his complicated and often-times unanswerable questions.

“If we walked just one atom at a time, would it take a year for us to walk a foot?” He laughs at himself and I shake my head. I hope he’ll grow up and learn the answer for himself and then tell it to me.

Sometimes in the evenings while my boys are watching T.V. my husband will call me to his office to watch his latest find on YouTube. He listens to music to relax, and he’ll listen to anything from classical to folk to pop music.  One of his favorite things to do is watch YouTube videos of auditions from the British X Factor talent show.

It’s not something you would ever find me doing on my own, but I’ll sit with him and soon be sucked into the inspiring stories of these talented young people who are finally being discovered. We’ll listen to their best songs and then watch whatever other talented musicians he may have found.

If it weren’t for my husband, I would be completely cut off from pop culture and sometimes even the latest news. That’s what happens when you keep turning off the radio to hear your kids chatter. But their young voices are only here for a brief period of time, and as much as I would like to listen to the news or even my own thoughts, I know I won’t regret spending a little time listening to them.

What have you heard lately?

February 17, 2014

What Is Homeschooling?

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 12, 2014.

The other day I was eating with my family at a restaurant in Winder, and we started chatting with our waitress. Like many people do, she asked my boys if they were in school, so we told her we were homeschooling. She was interested. She said she had a two-year-old, and she had considered doing something like that because she is concerned about everything “that is happening at schools.”

What she meant by that, I’m not sure, but I do know many parents have concerns about the state of our public schools whether it be too much pressure to teach to the test, peer pressure, violence or other reasons.

Then she asked, “So what happens when you homeschool? Does a teacher come to your home?”  The waitress seemed like a bright, young woman, but she did not understand what homeschooling is about, and there are probably many people like her.

Once I spoke to a representative at the Georgia Department of Education, and he told me a woman had just called him to say she was fed up with her kids’ school and wanted to homeschool. “So where do I send them?” she asked.

Let me make it clear: If you want to homeschool, you will be completely responsible for your children’s education.  You will be their teacher. You may decide to hire a tutor for a particular subject, or you may find some community classes or a co-op to enroll your child in, but you are completely responsible for making sure your child gets what he or she needs to make it in our society as an adult. Not only that, your child will be at home most of the time. That’s why it’s called “home” school.

There are many different philosophies and approaches to homeschooling. Some parents are strict “school at home” homeschoolers, and they make their children do everything exactly as they would at public school, but they do it at home. There are also online courses that provide a public school education in the comfort of one’s home, and you and your child would be in contact with a public school teacher from time to time.

The opposite extreme is “radical unschooling.” These parents believe that their children will learn everything they will need to know through life experience, and they follow their child’s lead when it comes to what they will teach. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about unschoolers because people think the children aren’t learning anything. This is not true, and I know that to unschool a child, a parent has to be willing to work hard and learn alongside their child.

Most homeschoolers fall somewhere between those two extremes, and most homeschoolers love their lifestyle because it gives them the opportunity to tailor the education to their child’s interests and needs. If their child has a learning disability or needs more time in a particular subject, they can go at the child’s pace. Likewise, gifted children do not have to be held back because a teacher has to make her class accessible to a wide range of children’s abilities.

There are homeschoolers who call themselves “Waldorf-inspired” or “Montessori-inspired,” or a mix of any number of educational philosophies. Most homeschoolers start out doing one thing, and then realize that they can relax because children are amazing, and when given the freedom and offered a range of experiences, they want to learn.

I’m not one to push aside the fact that you can find cases where children have been abused in homeschooling families. But as a friend of mine told me, school children are abused too, as she was. Going to school didn’t stop it.

Without fail, uninformed people always maintain that “socialization” is the big problem with homeschooling. I don’t really understand this when I remember the “misfits” in my high school who were ostracized by their peers.

Education is supposed to prepare our children to be productive, stable adults, and public school just doesn’t work for every child. Homeschooling may not work for everyone either, but at least it’s a viable option.

When considering homeschooling, parents should remember that no one, homeschooling family is a good representative of the homeschooling culture at large. Start doing some research.  Join local, online homeschooling e-mail lists such as those on Yahoo Groups or Facebook, and start asking questions.

It takes time to find a community when you homeschool, so start early. Now that we’ve been homeschooling for a few years, I’m happy that we’ve met some great families who are homeschooling not for extreme reasons but just because it seems like the right choice for their children.

Sometimes we get crazy looks when we tell people we are homeschooling, but I have noticed that more people are interested and supportive. Not long ago we met a woman who is a grandmother, and when we told her that we were homeschooling, she smiled and said emphatically, “Your kids will get to see the world with you.”

Yes, exactly. Homeschooling offers a lot of possibilities. It’s worth thinking about.

February 6, 2014

Magic Tree House Books

Magic Tree House BookNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 5, 2014.

For over a year, my husband has been reading the Magic Tree House Books by Mary Pope Osborne to my seven-year-old every night before bed. There are over fifty titles in the series, and currently they are reading #39, Dark Day in the Deep Sea. My son is thrilled because the two protagonists, Jack and Annie, are going to meet an octopus! Though I haven’t read the series with him, I’m privy to many retellings of the stories.

Jack and Annie are a brother and sister, and in the first book, they find a magic tree house and travel back into prehistoric times. In every book, they are sent on an adventure throughout time to different places and even to mythical places.  Through these books, my son has been introduced to Ancient Egypt, Leonardo da Vinci, the Civil War and the American Revolution, William Shakespeare, gorillas in the Congo rain forest and so much more.

The books are a great introduction to history and mythology, and there are even companion non-fiction books that will teach children more about the people and places Jack and Annie meet in their adventures, though we aren’t using those.

Starting with book #29, the books are referred to as “The Merlin Missions.” They are longer and the reading level is higher, so children can continue to be challenged as they grow with the series.

I have heard some criticism from other parents about the quality of writing in the books, which can make them unappealing for adults to read. But my husband has enjoyed reading the series with my son. He says the writing is simple and appropriate for kids, and he considers them to be fantasies and adventure stories for children. He thinks the author does a good job of getting kids excited about history, and he appreciates the author’s attempts at depicting the daily life of everyday people in the time periods the characters visit. From a history professor, that’s not a bad review.

Though we discovered the books while browsing at the bookstore, we only own two of them. My husband has been able to find all the books at nearby libraries by checking online first to find where the next book in the series is located.  No library seems to own all the books, but he has found them all by searching for them at the Winder, Auburn, Statham and Bogart libraries. Since they are short books, he checks out three or four of them at a time. That way they always have something to read each night.

Since I haven’t read the books myself, I thought I would interview my son about them. This is what he said:

Me: Why do you like Magic Tree House books?

My son: I like it because they do all these adventures, and there’s magic, and they meet all sorts of giant animals like a cloud dragon and an octopus and a sea serpent.

Me: What is your favorite book in the series so far?

My Son: Dragon of the Red Dawn, #37

Me: Is there a subject you wish she would write about?

My Son: She already has lots of cool books, but maybe one about going to a volcano and seeing a fire-breathing dragon.

Me: Are you glad Daddy is reading the series to you?

My Son: Yes.

Me: When you finish the Magic Tree House books, what series will you read with Daddy next?

My Son: I want to read Robin Hood with daddy. It’s not a series though.

Me: Anything you want to add?

My Son: They’re really good.

So there you have it from the seven-year-old himself.

Have you or your child read these books? What did you think?

January 30, 2014

Legos

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, January 29, 2014.

Legos is all the rage in our house right now. My seven-year-old is happiest when he is at his table putting some kind of Lego kit together. He doesn’t have very many of them, but I have a feeling we’ll be collecting more of them. I don’t mind.

The first time he wanted to try building with Legos was after he watched one of his friends do it, so last year we got him a helicopter-airplane-boat kit. He can only make one of those at a time, so it’s a lot of fun for him to make one, keep it a few weeks, and then he can take it apart and build another one.

This Christmas he got two new sets. The first one he had been asking for because his friend has one. It’s called the Warp Stinger, but it looks like some kind of mosquito to me. The second one was a complete surprise and came from grandma. It’s a coast guard ship. He loves both of them.

I don’t know why people say children have short attention spans. My son will sit at the table straining his neck and shoulders to put these kits together, and even when I try to get him stop for a break, he wants to keep going like some workaholic. If only he approached his reading lessons with the same spirit! I’m happy he likes Legos, though, because it is a very educational toy.

Any kind of blocks is educational because it’s an open-ended toy that gets a child’s creative mind going. As small children they build motor skills and begin to realize that they can create things in three dimensions. Blocks can be used to learn how to sort and how to learn about patterns. Legos can be used to teach about engineering and technology, and there are even Lego robotic teams that compete in national competitions.

The educational benefits go on and on. The Lego company has a whole division dedicated to getting Legos into the classroom, and they offer lots of instructional materials on their website too. (See https://education.lego.com)

I like them because they keep my boys busy. My seven-year-old will spend a long time putting one of his kits together, and he rarely needs me to help him. Sometimes I wish he would create something original instead of using the kits, but I find it amazing that he’s able to follow those instructions and put 300 of those tiny pieces together. I would never have the patience to do that.

My four-year-old is not old enough for the kits, but he has a big bin of Legos that he likes to play with. He likes to cover a baseboard with the Legos, or either he’ll build a “city.” He especially likes it when Mama will help him, and I have to say that there’s something relaxing about building with Legos. It’s not one of those toys that are fun for kids but mind numbing for adults. Legos are fun.

Recently I was surprised to find out that you can build almost anything with Legos when I stumbled on the website of an artist named Nathan Sawaya. He has several exhibitions that have toured North America, Asia and Australia. He uses Lego bricks to build sculptures of people, objects and even a red tail hawk. He has turned this simple toy into works of art.  Check out his website at brickartist.com.

Hmmm… Maybe next time I feel the urge to get creative, I’ll go for the Lego bin instead of the paper and paints.

Please share Lego creations from your house!

January 4, 2014

My Menu Planning Resolution

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Tuesday, December 31, 2013.

This New Year is a good a time as any to tell you how I’ve been striving to turn over a new leaf in one area of my life. Anyone who reads my column may recall me mentioning what a poor cook I am…mostly, I don’t cook.  It’s a skill I was never taught, so I didn’t have a good habit established before I had children, and creating new habits with infants and toddlers in the house is next to impossible.

In the last few months, I had an epiphany. I realized that I wanted my children to grow up in a house where food is made lovingly and from scratch. They are picky eaters, so I knew they probably would not eat what I cook, but they love to help me in the kitchen, and I want to foster good memories wherever I can, so I set a goal.

I knew better than to set an unrealistic goal, so I told myself that I would cook something from scratch once or twice a week, and I’d also bake some items from scratch on occasion.  Several recipes are simple foods that my boys already eat, like chicken nuggets. Other foods are for my husband and me, but I encourage my children to try them. (So far, I’ve had little success in getting them to like more foods, but I’m determined not to give up.)

My husband’s idea of cooking is to see what is on sale at the grocery store, buy it and cook it. After talking with some female friends, I was relieved to find our brains are wired differently. I have to plan meals. Or maybe that’s the dilemma of a novice cook – I just can’t look at raw food and figure out what to make of it.

Obviously I’m not alone because there are several websites available that will provide you with a meal plan and grocery list every week. You can also save recipes, search for recipes and request recipes for certain dietary needs.

I found one that allowed potential members to sign up for a free trial, so I tried it. I enjoyed the Six O’clock Scramble (www.thescramble.com) website, and I found some good recipes on it, but after the trial was over, I quit using it. My budget does not allow for luxury items such as this, but using it allowed me to see that I would benefit from planning meals. This is when I came up with my own meal planning system. It takes some work to get going, but it saves time in the future.

I created a new calendar on my computer’s calendar, and I labeled it “menu.” Each time I cook something new, I enter it into that day’s date, add a grocery list under “notes,” and then I use the calendar’s automated “repeat” so that it will repeat every 2-3 months. I can also send myself reminder alerts a day or two in advance.

I don’t always use the recipes that appear on my calendar, but if I’m struggling on what to cook, I can find a recipe and grocery list on my calendar, and I know it’s something I didn’t cook just last week. (Did I mention my husband is as picky as my kids?)

All this does not make for a good cook though. Sometimes I’m successful, and sometimes I’m not. I’m not prepared every night either….homeschooling, writing and other chores take too much time. I find that when I’m cooking, I’m usually getting behind on something else. It’s a constant balancing act.

But I’m enjoying cooking, and I love doing it with my kids who usually want to help, so I’m determined to keep it up in this new year, and I hope by the time it is over, I’ll have a calendar full of menu ideas.

Don’t worry about me ever starting a new food column or blog. I will never be that talented. I can point you in the direction of a couple of recipe sites I have enjoyed. Simply Recipes is full of good eats, and Weelicious is a great site for finding healthy baby and kids’ meals.

How do you handle meal times at your house?

December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on December 24, 2013.

This is a magical time of year for my boys, who are four and seven-years-old. That seems to be the perfect age for all this Christmas stuff, and I’m happy to be a witness to their pure joy. Luckily, their excitement is contagious, although I’ve been feeling the urge to hibernate.

It’s cold outside, and I’d like to huddle under the covers and read a good book. I avoid the malls by doing most of my shopping online. I’d like to turn off the computer, but it seems my life is too intertwined with it to shut it down completely. At least I can curl up in my bed with my laptop and avoid social media.

I get sad doing our annual Christmas cards. It reminds me of all my loved ones who live far away, and my failings in trying to keep in touch with them. Christmas is about connecting with people, yet we live so much these days through Facebook. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t feel real to me.

I am warmed by the thought that I can make connecting with those closest to me meaningful, and I can reach out to those who seem to like reaching back. I’m grateful for the distant friends who return e-mails and write letters. I’m grateful for the new friends I have found recently who are becoming so important to my boys and me.

My boys had their first Christmas surprise when my husband suggested we buy a real tree for the first time this year. At first my seven-year-old was upset because putting together the artificial tree with his mom had become a ritual he looked forward to! I wasn’t looking forward to it, though, so I agreed.

After my son realized a real tree was just as big as our artificial tree, he was happy, and both boys were thrilled to pick their own tree out of the hundreds available at the store. At home, after I put on the lights, they did a great job hanging most of the ornaments. I don’t mind the places where the ornaments are squished together. It adds character to the tree.

The boys made me pull out all of our Christmas decorations this year. They weren’t going to let me skimp, so now our mantel has nothing but Christmas cheer on it. Extra lights are strung around the door of our activity room, which used to be the dining room. Another little tree sits by the window in there.

Cooking has never been my forte, but I was determined to do some baking with the boys. We’ve been making apple pies, apple turnovers and homemade animal crackers, which my boys will actually eat!

We’re also reading books and talking about the meaning of Christmas, and we’ve discussed giving instead of receiving.  This year, my boys bought a gift for each other with their own money, wrapped it and put it under the tree. But I know they are most excited about receiving their own presents, and what’s a Mama to do? I’m excited for them, and I can’t wait to see their faces on Christmas morning when they see their wishes fulfilled.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re warm, healthy and safe. I hope you’re able to connect with those around you in a meaningful way, and I wish you a Merry Christmas.

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