Holiday Prep and Cheer

This is the first year we put our tree in the activity room.

December has been a whirlwind of activity, though I don’t think we experience the busy-ness that many families experience. We don’t spend a lot of time with extended family. Relatives either live too far away; or they have their own lives, commitments and interests; or both. The adults in my family don’t exchange presents either. But we still hustle and bustle to figure out what to buy for our own kids, each other, and a few others. So it’s never completely exempt from stress!

Although doing Christmas cards is not my favorite thing to do, I try to write out a few notes and letters because I much prefer getting real mail than an impersonal card without even a real signature on it. As such, I keep my card recipient list to a minimum, and sometimes I send out e-mails instead. Every year, I tend to do things a little differently, and this includes decorating too. (See below to see how we decorated this year.)

The 10-year-old sewed a Santa's hat for his little brother's favorite toy bird,
The 10-year-old sewed a Santa’s hat for his little brother’s favorite toy bird, “Chick.”

I’m grateful that the holidays for us mostly means the four of us relaxing at home, making ornaments and decorating leisurely. It means watching more documentaries and movies too. It means pulling out the Christmas storybooks, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll bake something too.

Unfortunately, this week brought illness to our house. My husband and 10-year-old are feeling very poorly, but somehow my youngest son and I have stayed healthy. I’m keeping my fingers crossed! I’m sad for them because for my husband, it’s not how he wanted to spend his vacation, and my son was also sick on his birthday this year. I’m hopeful that he’ll be feeling much better on Christmas Day.

black-capped chickadee
black-capped chickadee

At least, we have the next week and a half without any appointments or any commitments, and that feels pretty awesome to me. Our busy time was the first half of this month, and it was pretty special too because the 10-year-old performed in two recitals. The first recital was here at our house — I invited my dad, step-mom, two aunts and uncle to hear him play his latest piano pieces. (He played 13 pieces of classical music.) I made two kinds of soup, three loaves of bread, homemade fudge and a homemade apple pie. It was all delicious, and everyone enjoyed themselves, and I was so very happy to do this. But my son was the star of the show, and he wowed my family with his piano playing. Better yet, we’re going to try to do a family recital twice a year, and this experience reminded me how music can really bring people together, and I’m so grateful to my son for bringing music into the house. It was a day to celebrate for sure.

One week later, my son performed in his new piano teacher’s performance group, which is basically a recital. She does this four times a year, and what a pleasure it was to hear her other students and give our son a chance to perform in a supportive, relaxing atmosphere. And he played his four pieces perfectly! He was so proud of himself, and we were on Cloud 9 all day.

The 10-year-old painted this black-capped chickadee.
The 10-year-old painted this black-capped chickadee.

My youngest son is still fond of birds, so together with his brother and I, we decided to do something different this year. We kept most of Christmas tree ornaments in storage except for the beautiful balls. Then we decided to make the rest of the ornaments — mostly birds! So our tree is full of birds this year, and it’s so pretty and delightful. My eldest son and I did most of the work. He is very good at drawing and painting, so he made some pretty ornaments. My younger son gets frustrated with his handiwork and gives up quickly, but I think he had fun trying.

Birdhouse painted by the 7-year-old.
Birdhouse painted by the 7-year-old.
From left to right: cardinal sewed by 10-year-old, blue jay painted by me, starling painted by 10-year-old, and an American goldfinch I made last year for the 7-year-old.

And how can I forget — before we even came up with the bird ornament idea, the 7-year-old decided we needed more outdoor decorations. (All we have is a wreath on the door, but several of our neighbors have lots of lights and decorations outside.) He didn’t know the name for it, but he described it to me, and I realized he wanted to make an evergreen garland for our porch. He was determined to make it and not buy it, so I said that we could walk around our yard and see what we could find to use. I told him that we might have a problem though — we couldn’t cut too many evergreen branches from the trees or we might hurt the trees. So he was very conservative, and we picked just a few pretty pine needles, sprigs of cedar and a couple sprigs of holly too. This, of course, was not enough material to make a garland that would stretch across our porch.

I tried to work with his ideas as much as I could, but once he “got tired” and said he didn’t want to do it anymore, I made some big suggestions. (I have realized that when he gets “tired” that means he doesn’t know how to proceed and needs help.) My suggestions revived his enthusiasm for the activity, and he finished off the decorations with his very own ideas — to hang an ornament from them and to hang them from the hooks on the front porch. I think they turned out quite pretty, don’t you?


I hope wherever you are and whatever you celebrate (and even if you don’t celebrate this season), you are warm, healthy and at peace. I hope you’re with people you love, and I hope you’re engaged in activities that make your heart sing. I know many people struggle this time of year and throughout the year, but this is my wish for everyone. I would like for us all to live in peace with one another and share our unique gifts with each other. I hope everyone has someone else to support them in this.

Much love and thanks for reading. Happy New Year too!
Shelli

Gift Ideas for Kids

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on December 4, 2013. To find a more comprehensive list of gift ideas and interesting online stores to shop in, see my post Gift Ideas for Home Educators.

Kids love getting toys for Christmas, but after seven years of Christmases and birthdays, I have watched the toys pile up, so I’m not looking forward to adding new toys. This year I’m going to try to convince my boys to donate some of their older toys to charity. (That hasn’t gone so well in the past, so wish me luck.)

All play is good. I’m a huge advocate of giving children plenty of time for free, unstructured play because this is when the learning really happens. The best kind of play is when children have to use their imaginations, so I tend to favor toys that don’t have a lot of bells and whistles.

My seven and four-year-old boys love toy animals and dinosaurs. We have two boxes of those, and they also love blocks, Legos, and pretend food. My four-year-old is a little chef.

Not all of our friends love the toy animals, but Legos seem to be a big hit with all the seven-year-old boys, and our friends, both girls and boys, love to dress up in old costumes for their make-believe, though my boys have never cared for that. You never know what a child is going to get into.

Now that my house is brimming with toy animals, trucks, cars and you-name-it-we-have-it, I would prefer for my boys to receive presents that give them activities to do or add to the projects they are already doing. Last year, my son was interested in rockets, so that’s what he asked for. We gave him a set of small U.S. toy rockets, and it spurred weeks of learning about the U.S. space missions.

With that said, I’ve put together a list of gift ideas that offer alternatives to your throw-in-the-box-after-a-few-days toys.

  • Magazine Subscriptions – Big Backyard (ages 4-7), Ranger Rick (ages 7-14), National Geographic Little Kids and National Geographic Kids are just a few of the awesome kids’ magazines out there.
  • Art Supplies – I’m not talking about Crayola. Quality art supplies are expensive, and they make a great gift. For example, you can find different kinds of paint, brushes, and quality paper at craft and art specialty stores. We especially love our watercolor pencils.
  • Kid’s Space – Children need a good amount of space to play and create. If you’re a grandparent looking for a unique gift, offer to buy your grandchildren a kid’s size table or maybe some new shelves to hold all their artwork.
  • Posters and Maps – My sons love posters. We have everything from snake and dinosaur posters to monster truck posters. Not all of them are on the walls, but the boys will pull them out and study them sometimes.  Check out foldingguides.com for some beautiful, nature posters.
  • Games – Anything goes here. My son’s current favorites are Sum Swamp (great game for math practice) and Busy Town Eye Found It! Trouble Board Game is a family favorite.
  • Equipment – Microscopes, science kits, terrariums, building supplies, magic kits…there are all kinds of things you can buy that will get the children thinking and creating.

Here are some of my favorite websites to peruse on the web:

  • www.bioquip.com – Some grad students at UGA told me they buy their equipment from this site. I checked it out, and there are all kinds of games, puzzles, posters and other things for kids on the site too.
  • www.imaginechildhood.com – Beautiful site with items that provide creative and educational activities for kids.
  • www.discoverthis.com – Educational Science Kits and Toys
  • www.bellalunatoys.com – Waldorf Toys – You can spend lots of time perusing this site.
  • www.unclegoose.com – Some of the coolest blocks I’ve ever seen.

What are some of your kids’ favorite gifts to receive?

Gift Ideas for Home Educators

Someone’s first Christmas

{Gift Ideas for Children} {Gift Ideas for Homeschoolers} {Gift Ideas for Anyone!}

This is a post I wrote two years ago. I thought it might help you (and me) as we get ready for this holiday, gift-giving season! I have added a few resources & checked all the links. Enjoy!

***

Do you have homeschooled children on your gift list this holiday season?  Or some precocious children who love to learn?

Homeschooling can be expensive or inexpensive, depending on how much parents decide to invest in it.  Curriculums can cost a pretty penny, but a lot of homeschoolers do without and use materials that they can find at the library or in thrift stores.

Still, the best way to get a child to learn is to lay some interesting materials around the house – a book on the coffee table, art supplies in an accessible bin, a game on a low shelf.  If they think that they are discovering it themselves, they are more likely to want to know all about it!  So homeschoolers will appreciate any extra help they can get to offer fun, educational tools to their children.

Here are some ideas they might love:

  • Art Supplies – I’m not talking about crayons and markers that you can buy at any grocery store (though kids love and need those too), but real art supplies that you can buy at art stores can make a wonderful gift.
  • Ask what they need – You may just want to ask what they need.  Do you know what kind of teaching method they are using?  You may find a store that specializes in it.  In addition, for homeschooling families who purchase curriculum, they may appreciate it if you could chip in on the cost because some curriculums can be quite expensive.  Or perhaps there are certain books or other resources they want but aren’t able to afford.
  • Let’s not forget books, especially if there’s a subject the children are interested in or studying.  And remember, gift certificates will be appreciated too!

Here are some cool online stores that may help you find that perfect gift. They are in no particular order.

Are you a homeschooler with a wish list?  Please tell me what you would like to receive for gifts this year! Or do you know of another cool place to buy educational items?  Do you make them yourself?  Let me know!

Thanksgiving Wreath

This is a Thanksgiving wreath that my son made last year…. 

We’re having a cozy Thanksgiving at home this year, and the only true activity we are doing besides cooking, eating, and reading our Thanksgiving books is make this autumn wreath out of cotton, natural items from our yard and natural items that my son’s cousin sent him last year from his yard in Colorado (a very cool X-mas present)! My son arranged these on some cardboard I cut in shape of a wreath and glued them down himself with a hot glue gun. 

For more autumn and Thanksgiving activities to do with young children, you can read the post I wrote two years ago: November & Thanksgiving Activities With Small Children.  If you have any activities you want to share, feel free to post a link in the comments section.

Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not, I want you to know how thankful I am that you have taken the time to read my blog. I hope you are warm, safe, loved and happy.

The Gift of Story

storytelling drawingNote: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, December 12, 2012.

If you’re running out of money searching for the perfect holiday gifts, remember that sometimes the best presents for young children are free.  Telling stories to children is a gift they’ll never forget.

When I was young, my grandmother told me stories about her childhood living on a farm. I can still remember the sound of Granny’s voice, her laughter and the way she used her hands when she talked.  The stories have stayed in my memory because they delighted me so much, and now I tell them to my own children.

She told me about the “tricks” she, her brothers and cousins used to pull while growing up on the farm.  She was the youngest of three daughters, so she wasn’t needed in the house.  She became the ringleader.

Once they stripped a pine tree of its needles, and when my great-grandfather drove by it on his tracker in the field, he couldn’t figure out what in the world happened.  He came and got his family to look at the pine tree that shed its needles, and they all wondered what happened.  My grandmother and her brothers didn’t say a word.

Another time they had a water-drinking contest that she said almost drowned her littlest brother, James!  And the best story is how they took a bite out of every peach on the peach tree because they were told not to pick any of the ripe peaches.

She also told me about the time my grandfather wrapped a huge box, labeled it to my grandmother from him and put it under the Christmas tree very early in December.  He wouldn’t tell anyone what it was.  All he said was that it was very practical.  On Christmas morning, everyone wanted Granny to open that box first.  What was in it?  Toilet paper.

So you see, I come from a line of tricksters and practical jokers, and if it weren’t for these stories, I would never know that. True family stories tell children where they come from, and they teach them lessons that their elders learned the hard way.

I believe every parent should tell stories to their children, but they don’t have to be true stories. Children love it when their parents make up stories for them. Trust me – it doesn’t matter how bad you think your story is – you’ll have a captive audience.

Two years ago I started a nightly ritual of making up a story for my six-year-old.  Now he won’t let me go until I tell him a story, but that’s okay.  I know that my stories are a treasure to him, and even though he might not remember all the stories, he’ll always remember me telling them to him.

Most nights my mind is a complete blank.  I have no idea what to tell him. Sometimes he’ll give me an idea, or else some character, usually an animal, will pop into my head. I just have to go with whatever comes to me or else I’ll never get a story told.

It’s amazing that as I start with some kind of character and setting, the storyline will arise from that almost as if by magic.  The more I tell, the easier it is for me to stop worrying about telling a good story and just tell something. No matter how silly I think it is, my son always smiles and wants another one.

So this holiday season, think about starting a storytelling ritual with your children. Start with something from your child’s life – a toy, a favorite animal.  Make it come alive, and you’ll be amazed to see that made up stories can be the best entertainment, the best way to share your values, and the most rewarding gift you can ever give your child.

Do you tell stories to your children? Do you want to, but you’re not sure how?  Please let know. I’d like to offer more resources on storytelling, and I’d like to get a feel for what you would like or need.

Happy Thanksgiving

{Thanksgiving Wreath}

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends!  

We’re having a cozy Thanksgiving at home this year, and the only true activity we did besides cooking, eating, and reading our Thanksgiving books was make this autumn wreath out of cotton, natural items from our yard and natural items that my son’s cousin sent him last year from his yard in Colorado (a very cool X-mas present)! My son arranged these on some cardboard I cut in shape of a wreath and glued them down himself with a hot glue gun. (This idea and the cotton was courtesy of Dotty at the William Harris Homestead – thanks, Dotty!)

For more autumn and Thanksgiving activities to do with young children, you can read the post I wrote last year: November & Thanksgiving Activities With Small Children.  If you have any activities you want to share, feel free to post a link in the comments section.

Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not, I want you to know how thankful I am that you have taken the time to read my blog. I hope you are warm, safe, loved and happy.