How to Make a Terrarium

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 27, 2013.

If you’re eager to plant some greenery, but you’re still waiting for the threat of frost to pass, you might enjoy making a terrarium for inside the house. My plant-loving six-year-old found instructions in First Nature Activity Book by DK Publishing, and he asked if we could make one. I didn’t see why not.

Luckily for me, it’s fairly simple to make.  Here’s what you need: a clear container with a wide neck and an air-tight cover, small pebbles, charcoal, peat-based potting soil, small ferns, different types of moss, lichen-covered twigs or bark.

We had the charcoal, and we had plenty of moss, lichen and small ferns growing in shady spots in our yard, but we didn’t have the other ingredients. At the garden store, I bought a bag of pebbles and the peat-based potting soil. At the pet store, I found a medium-sized Kritter Keeper, and I lined the top with cellophane to make it airtight. A decorative glass container would be prettier but more expensive, or you could easily use an old aquarium.

When you let the kids do the work, they have fun cleaning up after themselves. (Sometimes.)

First, line the bottom of the container with enough pebbles to cover it evenly.  The pebbles are there for drainage. Next, add a layer of charcoal. We put in a fairly thin layer, but we covered the pebbles completely and evenly.

This is not the way I recommend you put in the charcoal. By pouring it in, it covered the walls with black soot and we had to clean them. Just be more careful.

My six-year-old had fun when I put some pieces of charcoal in a baggie and let him pound them on the sidewalk with a hammer to break them into tiny pieces.  The charcoal is supposed to act as a filter, keeping the terrarium smelling good. I have read different opinions online about whether it’s needed or not, but for a closed terrarium, it’s probably a good idea.

Next, add a thick layer of the peat-based potting soil, but leave plenty of space for the plants. Now the terrarium is ready for the plants.

We had to do some trimming.

We found all our plants in our yard. There was a small, pretty wild plant growing next to our house under the monkey grass, and I never had the heart to pull it out. I thought we’d give it a chance in the terrarium even though I have no idea what it is.

I also found an offshoot of some Japanese painted fern, which I had planted years ago near our front porch.  My six-year-old and three-year-old had a great time going around the yard collecting moss – much more than we needed.  We also found a small piece of bark with lichen growing on it.

As we arranged the plants inside the terrarium, I decided my son needed a lesson in garden design so that he wouldn’t crowd everything together. Later, I also read that we shouldn’t put too much moss into the terrarium so that the moss doesn’t overpower the small plants.

Once the terrarium is finished, you need to water it well, but after that, you only need to use a spray bottle once in a while to mist the plants and soil. Keep the lid open until the sides of the container have no more water droplets on them, and then shut it tight.

The terrarium needs to sit in a well-lit area, but no direct sunlight should fall on it.  Remember, these are shade plants.  Fertilizer isn’t needed either.  You don’t want the plants to grow too big, and when they start to get too big or the leaves touch the sides of the container, you’ll need to trim them.

After a few days, I noticed our plants looked a little brown and yellow, so I snipped off those leaves and hoped for the best.  Now, it’s looking good, and I’ve noticed some new growth on the wild, unidentified plant and the moss!

This was a fun, easy project, and it’s a perfect for children who enjoy planting or who are learning about plants.

Have you ever made a terrarium? 

What Is Project-Based Homeschooling?

Chicago Botanical Garden

{Project-based Learning} {Reggio-Inspired}

Over a year ago, I found Lori Pickert’s blog and the terms “project-based homeschooling,” “project-based learning” and “reggio-inspired” started to dance in my head. What I read on her site echoed my own thoughts on how I wanted to homeschool, but she defined the terms better for me. I think many homeschoolers can relate to this method of homeschooling, and you may find you’re already doing part of this in your homeschool like I did. What I find helpful in Lori’s advice is how she spells out exactly how to “mentor” my child. 

After reading her book, interviewing her, and especially after trying to implement the strategies she has outlined with my own child, I’m starting to “get it.”

When I was going through some rough spots during my son’s Titanic project, it was hard to foresee the value of letting a child direct the course of a project. Sure, I’m all about doing a child-led approach in our homeschool, but letting him make all those mistakes in a small building project and then endure the temper tantrums when it didn’t work? Shouldn’t I direct him more? But as Lori has said, it’s a process, and we have to learn how to become mentors just as our children are learning to direct their learning.

This process is about learning how to step back and see the value in letting your children take the lead. It’s also about learning how to “step in” to support their interests by helping them learn how to find answers to their questions, solve their own problems, achieve their own goals, and watch them become deeply engrossed in their work. 

Children don’t get personal mentors in traditional school, but every child – homeschooled or not – has the opportunity to be mentored by a conscientious parent who knows him/her best, who is with him through it all, and who can guide him to the resources he needs to become more than passive learners.

Lori has been busy making additions to her site so that those new to Project-based Homeschooling can have help getting started.  She is my mentor in this process, so if you want to go to the source, go to her website, and be sure to check out 10 Steps to Getting Started with Project-based Homeschooling and her FAQ.

But here’s a bullet list of what I have learned…at least, this is how I view project-based homeschooling for my family thus far.

I’m not numbering them because all these elements work together to create this lifestyle of learning. Project-based homeschooling is like putting together a puzzle. It doesn’t matter which piece you start with, but as you lay them all on the table, you’ll start to see how they fit together to make the whole picture.

  • Create an environment where all questions and interests are honored. All projects should stem from your child’s true interests – not yours or a prescribed list of what a child should learn.
  • Create an environment where your children can freely access a variety of materials to create and learn with. As long as it’s safe, let them make a mess! Also, don’t plan so many crafts. Show them how to use the materials and let them experiment and get to know them. Sometimes a planned craft may be helpful for this, but you should allow your child to experiment and create according to his whims. (See The Power of Time and Materials.)
  • PBH is not “arts and crafts.” By making representations of the Titanic and the Apollo Saturn V, my son had to inquire, study and really ingest those structures. He learned a lot of problem solving skills in the process of making the models, and I’m hoping the stories of the Titanic and Saturn V will stay in his memory much longer!
  • Also part of this “environment” is giving them rich experiences: field trips, meeting and speaking to experts, showing them how to use the library, exploring the computer. Teach them how to use the resources that are available to them to answer their questions.
  • Think out loud as you go through the process to find answers to their or your questions. This is part of modeling the behavior you want them to use later when they are more capable of working independently. (This is something I need to work on.)
  • In the beginning, you may need to “silently feed” their interests.  If you know your child loves tigers, lay out a book about tigers. Take them to the zoo. Find a show for them to watch about tigers.  Suggest they make a tiger out of clay or paint one for the wall.  Or fill a notebook with tiger facts.
  • Observe what they do, how they play, and note what their questions are. Keeping a journal is helpful.  If you can’t answer a question, try to go back to it. Show him you’re writing it down, and schedule a time to work on answering his questions.
  • When you think they’re ready, ask, “Do you want to make a project out of this?”
  • Start asking them, “Where do you think we could find the answer to that question?” Or as Lori suggested in my interview with her, write down a list of several places you could look and ask the child where he wants to start first.
  • When assisting them with their creations, always go with their ideas first. Let them make mistakes. Let them make a mess! Only make suggestions when they get stumped or ask you for help.
  • Sometimes a well-placed suggestion works wonders. Don’t get hung-up like I did thinking you can never make a suggestion. As Lori said, “It just means waiting to see if he will have his own ideas and supporting those first.” (Our Titanic project was jump-started by my suggestion to make the Titanic out of clay, and when that failed, my husband suggested he make it out of cardboard.)
  • To help him work through his frustrations, start looking for real-world examples of artists, makers, builders, and entrepreneurs who have failed and had to start over again.  Talk about the process of goal-setting, rough drafts, trial and error. (If your child is old enough, the NASA Missions are a perfect example of this.)
  • Start sharing your work/hobbies/goals with your children. Think aloud when you’re working.  Share with them your frustrations and how you’re working through them. If you need help working on your own projects, see Lori’s PBH for adults.
  • Schedule project time.  There’s no right or wrong to how much time or when – The important thing is making time for it, and making it a regular part of your routine. Schedule time to show your child fun building or art materials and follow their direction. Schedule time to go through your journal and answer their questions.  Schedule time to work on their ideas.
  • Get in the habit of asking, “Do you want to do more with this? Do you want to learn more about this?”
  • If they don’t want to do more, be okay with that. Later you will ask them again as you continue to refer to your journal.  Some interests may peter out quickly. Others may become deep interests.
  • You don’t have to make a project out of every interest your child has. Pick and choose according to your thoughtful knowledge and observations about your child. Of course, older children will tell you what they want to work on.
  • Your homeschool can be all project-based, or project-based learning could be part of it. For example, currently I’ve also created a reading and math program for my son. Follow your instincts. Whatever you do, it shouldn’t cause you a lot of stress. Although PBH is a lot of work for the parent, it should be rewarding and fun too.
  • Remember this is a slow process.  Build it up over time. Create the environment over time. Learn how to mentor over time. Let your children take control slowly as they grow.

If you haven’t already, be sure to read the interview with Lori Pickert on Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children. The last post is open for your questions about PBH. Be sure to read the great questions and answers that commenters have left already!

Okay, so what do you think? Would you add something to this list? Or eliminate something?

Inspire Kids: Take advice from an astronaut…

This video is very short (2:23 minutes), and it’s probably more appropriate to show to middle schoolers or high schoolers…kids who are starting to seriously think about their futures. (But I did show it to my six-year-old, and he said he liked it.) I want to post it here because you may have older children who could benefit from his advice, and I want to have it available for the future when my boys are trying to decide what they want to do with their lives.

It’s also very inspiring for adults. I hope you enjoy it.

But this video made me think of something I’ve often thought of – how we hear these inspiring words from “successful” people who have “made it.” But what about all the people who have worked their butts off to achieve a dream, and they never made it? And what if they are still inspiring because they have found peace and happiness in their lives? I wish I could read books by and listen to videos by those people. If you know of any, please pass them along…

(If you subscribe to my blog by e-mail, you may have to view this post on the Internet to see the video.)

pink columbines This is a new series I’ve started under the tag “Inspire Kids.”  If my six-year-old likes it, then maybe your children will too!

Amicalola Falls State Park

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 20, 2013.

Earlier this year on one of those warm winter days, we made the spontaneous decision to take the boys to Amicalola Falls State Park, which is less than a two-hour drive northwest from Winder. When we got there, we weren’t quite sure where to go, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves starting our hike at the base of the falls, going up.

If you’ve never been there before, you may not know that Amicalola Falls is the highest waterfall in the southeast. True to its name, which means “tumbling waters” in the Cherokee Indian language, it’s a beautiful series of falls tumbling down 729 feet of rock.

There’s a footpath and stairs that take you to the top of the falls, and a bridge crosses right in front of the falls about mid-way. The views are amazing.

A few years ago I wouldn’t have hesitated to climb the 600 steps to the top of the falls, but now I was with my family, which included a six-year-old and three-year-old. I was remembering the last time we were out for an easy hike at Hard Labor Creek and how the three-year-old graced us with a temper tantrum at the beginning of that excursion because I didn’t pack the right snack.

At Amicalola, we were not the only ones who took advantage of the weather that day, so there were quite a few people taking the trek alongside us. I didn’t want a temper tantrum, and I didn’t want either my husband or me to have to carry a 37-pound three-year-old up those steps.

In the back of my mind, I wondered if I could make it up those steps too. During these past few years of child rearing, I have not been the healthiest eater, and I have little time for exercise that doesn’t include my little tag-alongs.

We easily hiked up the 175 steps to the bridge in front of the falls. The boys were on their best behavior, and they enjoyed the views. But my husband and I planned to go back down at that point.

The kids had a different opinion. They were determined to go to the top, and we couldn’t persuade them otherwise. After a few threats such as “if I have to carry you, I’m going to get really, really mad,” etc., we conceded and happily undertook the challenge. Secretly, I didn’t want to stop either.

We all felt like we accomplished something when we finished those last 425 steps without a problem. On the way down, we took another route through the woods, and we must have spent over 2~3 hours hiking that day. I was especially proud of the three-year-old who had no problem keeping up.

Our hike that day could be a metaphor for parenting. Though it’s a non-stop, daily challenge to raise small children, just when you think you can’t go anymore, your children surprise you. They show you just how far you can go, how fun life is and how resilient a family can be when working together to accomplish something.

If you’re interested in seeing Amicalola Falls, but you aren’t interested in climbing 600 steps, you’ll be happy to know that you can drive and take a short walk to where the platform is mid-way up, or you can drive to the top of the falls.  The top is where the Amicalola Falls Lodge is located, and it has a nice restaurant and beautiful views.

Also nearby is the access trail to the Appalachian Trail, and you can also hike up to the Len Foote Hike Inn, which is a wonderful overnight experience that I did many years ago, though you need to make reservations well in advance for that. You can learn about all of this and more at

What are your favorite family excursion memories?

Thank You, My Apology, and What can I do for you?


Recently this blog has acquired over 150 followers, and while I know that’s peanuts in the blogging world, and the blogging experts say that only about 5-10% of my following actually read my posts regularly anyway, I am still tickled pink that 150+ people have found Mama of Letters worthy enough to click “follow.”  Even a few true followers makes me happy, and you know who you are.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You encourage me and keep me going.

Many years ago I started Mama of Letters, but it was only more recently when I switched to WordPress and decided to focus on homeschooling and daily life with children. I don’t make money with this blog, and I try to be as honest and straightforward as I can (while still protecting my family’s privacy).  I also try to give information that will be helpful to you.  I think about what I might like to know, if I were in your shoes. For me that has a lot to do with learning how to relax and do it our way… I hope I inspire you to do it your way.

I have met some wonderful people by writing this blog, and I want to thank those of you who have left comments and/or e-mailed me with your comments and questions. I love connecting with you. I really do.


I apologize for something though. I have always felt that it’s nice for a blogger to try to reciprocate the online relationships by reading and leaving comments on others’ blogs.  However, since I’ve started this homeschooling blog I find it impossible to do that while maintaining the lifestyle I purport to have on this blog — simple, creative, mindful, with time spent outdoors and ample time focused on my children — so I don’t do it.  If you come here looking for another follower for your blog, you’ll probably be disappointed, but that’s all the more reason I want to thank you, if you read my blog anyway.

I am also not so active on social media. I spend a little time on Facebook, and no time on Google+. Pinterest not so much. I use Twitter more, but there are days that I’m silent there too.  I know you can understand why I have to limit myself in these venues.

Having said that, this past year I discovered that Flipboard on my iPad makes reading blogs super easy for me, so I try to at least “flip” through some of my favorite blogs once a week or so. I rarely leave comments. Mostly because it’s hard to do on my iPad, and I usually can’t get passed those darn captcha phrases! (“I really am a REAL person!”) So I apologize for that too, but I do enjoy reading your inspiring blogs, and I wish I had more time for it.

If you have a blog that you’d like for me to read, please leave me a link my comments. I can’t promise anything, but I will add it to my feed!


How is your homeschooling going? Please leave me a comment. I love to chat.

Do you have concerns or questions about homeschooling you haven’t talked to anyone about yet?   Please e-mail me.

Or is there another topic you’re interested in? Motherhood… writing… storytelling… photography… blogging… gardening…. those are all my favorite topics!

Part of the reason I write is because it’s who I am…it’s good for my mental health to write out my thoughts and organize my life this way.  (I tried not writing once and it didn’t last very long.)

But I write for an audience because I want to connect with others who share similar interests, and I want to help others attain their goals just as I work toward mine.  I really do, and I’m not just saying that. (If I didn’t want to I’d just keep a journal.) It’s more fun doing it together.

So, I would love to get to know you. Please leave me a comment. Tell me how I could help you. Or just say hello and tell me what your plans are for this weekend.

I will continue to respond directly to your comments, and if you don’t want to leave a comment, please e-mail me directly at shelli (at) gmail (dot) com. Of course, if you feel more comfortable lurking, I understand, and I appreciate your readership too.


How can I encourage you and keep you going?

Inspire Kids: Sleepy Man Banjo Boys

I love bluegrass. (Not country music….bluegrass!)  I’ve had the pleasure of hearing a lot of live bluegrass music in this region I live in, and it just makes me happy. It’s upbeat, and the musicians are always happy to play it. Their talent is always amazing to me. (I have no musical talent.) So, finding this video of these kids…well, they amaze me too.  And the six-year-old loved listening too.


(If you subscribe to my blog by e-mail, you may have to view this post on the Internet to see the video.)

pink columbines This is a new series I’ve started under the tag “Inspire Kids.”  If my six-year-old likes it, then maybe your children will too!