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.

 

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 last year, and I’m referring to it as I try to decide what to buy for the children on my list. I thought it might help you too as you get ready for this holiday, gift-giving season! 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:

  • Family Memberships– What venues do they like to go to?  Most museums, zoos, aquariums and other centers have family or individual memberships that will allow a family/person to have free admission and/or discounts at the facility for a full year.  If you know that the family lives close enough to such a place, it might be perfect for them!
  • 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.  If you don’t think it’s worth buying children good quality art supplies, I suggest you read this post at Camp Creek Blog, “In Praise of High Quality Art Materials.”
  • 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:

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!

Creating New Family Traditions

Note: This column first appeared in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, November 23, 2011 (you can view it online here), and shortly after, appeared on my blog. I’m re-posting it now because we’re entering the holiday season again, which can be stressful for many, including me. It’s important to think about what you want for your family at this season, and I hope this inspires you. Please leave me a comment and tell me about your favorite family traditions. (Psst…This also happens to be one chapter in my e-book, Then There Were Two: Essays on Motherhood.)

There’s a time when old traditions need to die, a time for new traditions, and a time when old traditions can be reborn with new meaning.

In years past, I have always felt a little lonely during the holidays.  I wished I had a big, happy family that didn’t live so far apart, so we could all come together and eat a lot of food, play games, and exchange stories.

My husband and I are usually invited to a relative’s home each Thanksgiving, and we’ve always gone, but this year I did an uncomfortable thing and turned down the invitation.  It’s because I began to think about what kind of memories I want to create for my two boys.

Except for my dad and step-mom, we rarely see our Georgia relatives during the year, so for my boys, it would almost be like visiting a stranger’s house on the holiday.  What do I really want for them?  I want them to remember the holidays in their childhood home with their loved ones.

So this year we’re going to have a cozy Thanksgiving at home, and we’ll make a big meal (big to us, that is), and we’ll start the tradition of stating what we’re thankful for at the dinner table.

This time of year has got me thinking about family traditions in general too.  A few years ago, I had a conversation with my brother (who is also starting his family) about how we need to create our own family traditions, especially since so many of our traditions were blurred by divorce and moving from state to state.

Shortly after having that conversation, my brother and sister-in-law sent me some books about creating family traditions as a Christmas gift.  The Book of New Family Traditions by Meg Cox and Together Creating Family Traditions by Rondi Hillstrom Davis and Janell Sewall Oakes are beautiful books that have given me many good ideas.

Yet I’m aware that the best traditions spring forth spontaneously.  I have to be careful about stating, “Here is a new tradition we are going to start…” What if I’m the only one on board that boat?  Traditions need to be something the whole family enjoys.

We all have traditions whether we realize it or not.  Religions give us many of our traditions.  My family follows the Christian traditions of observing Christmas and Easter, and we’ll continue to do so.  Traditions can also be unique to each family.

In The New Book of Family Traditions, I read about a family that every month during the full moon, they go outside and roast marshmallows in the moonlight.  By coincidence, my family took a moonlit walk the other night.  We showed our son where Jupiter was and looked for constellations.  It was so much fun, I’m wondering if I could make that happen every month.  (Or almost every month?)

Traditions can be simple daily exercises.  Some people say grace before mealtimes; others enjoy a slow cup of coffee in the mornings (that’s me).  Come to think of it, I have already started the ritual of telling my five-year-old a story every night. Even if I feel uninspired and tell him a boring tale, he seems to love it, and I know that somehow this is imparting my love and beliefs to him.

And this is what traditions do at their best: They give a family or community a reason to come together and share their love and commonality with each other. This in turn gives an individual a sense of belonging.  I want my boys to feel that being part of this family is important. When life gets tough I want them to have a place to come to and feel loved.

This is why we’ll have Thanksgiving and Christmas at home from now on, and I’ll be looking for ways to expand our old traditions, making them more meaningful to us.  I’ll also be thinking about new traditions I can add throughout the year.

What are your traditions?  Old or new?  I would love to hear what your family does because it may give me ideas for my own.  Please leave me a comment.  And in the future, I’ll write about what kinds of traditions we have started or renewed.

You can view all my posts regarding seasonal traditions (which I’m still working on) here: Traditions / Rituals / Holidays

Happy Halloween

Pumpkin with a Brain. For instructions, click here.

Note: This column is printed in the October 31, 2012 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Once a couple creates a family, they realize that family life is full of harrowing moments and howls in the dark. Little monsters — ahem — Lovable little monsters invade their lives…

This will be my sixth Halloween with children, and in that time it’s become my favorite holiday.  The fact that it’s also my birthday might play a part in that too, but really, it doesn’t have the stress that comes with Christmas or Thanksgiving.  Stress shouldn’t come with any holiday, but unfortunately it does.  Halloween…it’s just fun.

The weather is beautiful. I love autumn temperatures, changing leaves and the opportunity to make soup. We can get outside frequently, do some gardening and pull out the hiking boots.

Costumes are fun, though sometimes a challenge.  At one-year-old, my sons were both too young to protest the pumpkin costume I made them wear.  As they get older, they are more opinionated.  At two, my eldest liked the Peter Pan costume I picked for him, but I knew better than to try to put anything over his head.

At three, he had his “not interested in Halloween” year.  The decorations in the stores scared him, and my husband ended up treating him to McDonalds on the night of Halloween while I stayed home to greet the trick or treaters.

Last year my three-year-old also went through that phase, and he wanted nothing to do with trick or treating or a costume. I don’t know which way he’ll go this year, but I haven’t bothered to buy him a costume. I can’t get him to wear long sleeves let alone a costume (and coincidently his brother dislikes short sleeves – go figure.)

My six-year-old is all into Halloween costumes now, and this year he made it easy on us by not having any pre-conceived idea of what he wanted to be. He just wanted to go to the store and look.  We were there quite a while and almost came home empty-handed. Why do costume makers think all little boys want to be super heroes?  My son is not into super heroes at all.

Finally I spotted something we had overlooked, and my son grabbed it right away – an extraterrestrial!  It’s a green costume with three-fingered gloves and a mask with big, black eyes. The torso has a faint outline of the internal organs of this alien. Simple, yet very cool looking.

All children should be encouraged to play make-believe, and I consider Halloween a celebration of that.  As with any holiday or ritual, each new family has to create their own traditions and meanings.  Sometimes we keep old traditions, tweak them, or change them altogether.  For me, Halloween is for the children.  It’s a chance for them to be whatever they want and continue the play as they step out into the community.

It’s also fun for me because I get to watch how excited they are, and I get to accompany them on their journey around the neighborhood – a good excuse to get out and say hello to the neighbors too.  The candy is another story, especially since I end up eating so much of it, but that’s a small price to pay for a day of play.

Here’s wishing you a safe and happy Halloween.