Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lazy Crazy Days of Winter

Fifi: I want those dolls that go inside of each other and each doll has a face on it and it's inside another doll and when you take that one out it has a face on it, too.

Me (lazily): Nesting dolls.We don't have nesting dolls....We do have nesting cups.

Fifi: Maybe we could draw faces on the cups and then they could be like nesting dolls but they'll be cups with faces on them.

I could not possibly have spent any less time preparing this activity. It entertained my kids for at least 30 minutes. I swear, these kids are going to be raising themselves within the year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

For the Book Lover on Your List

I happen to own a laminator. It's random, I know. But several years ago, when I was still teaching, I saw one in the bargain bin at Rite Aid. It's a small little thing that uses adhesive rather than heat to stick the two sheets of plastic together. I think it was 75% off. And it just seemed like something I should own. And so I do.

I used it with the kids recently to make bookmarks. Given how gosh-darn expensive bookmarks seem to be these days, it seemed like a worthwhile investment. Or, really, I was just looking for something else to laminate.

I cut some card stock. The kids wrote people's names or scribbled, or haphazardly threw some stamps on the papers and I preserved them for all eternity. Making the tassels was simple enough and gave the bookmarks their signature "I'm not just using an old receipt to mark my page" kind of finished quality.

We made a bunch to give as Christmas gifts. And, based on the old and torn post card still shoved inside my book, we clearly did not save an extra for me.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The House that Gingerbread Built

When I began the process of making my very first gingerbread house a few nights ago, I felt a little bit more like Lucy Ricardo than Julia Child. When my molasses mixture began the expansion the recipe cautioned me about, it was like lava slowly warning me that danger was imminent and all I could try to do was save myself. I held the pot in one hand and pivoted back and forth in the middle of my kitchen trying to quickly decide where I should put it. I thought, "It's too hot to put on the counter...but if I put it back on the stove, it'll take me days to clean the burners...maybe I can put something on the counter to protect it...but AGH! I need to act fast, it's still rising..." Finally I set it on a cutting board on the counter. It took me a solid ten minutes of scrubbing to clean the molasses-ridden blob that landed on the floor during my indecision.

From there, fortunately, things improved. Over the course of two evenings, I was able to shape the dough (using a hastily scotch-taped cardboard model as a guide), bake it and glue it together with frosting made of confectioners sugar, meringue powder and water.

I decided to eschew my health-consciousness for a day of delightful sensory overload. The scents alone were enough to make the project worthwhile: cinnamon, cloves, chocolate...mmmmmm. The kids loved mashing the candies into the icing and made individual piles of candies they would eat when they were done decorating. Spicy gum drops were a new flavor for them, but one that was wholeheartedly welcomed. Since most of the candies wound up on the masterpiece, their binge of leftovers wasn't even that bad.

Now we have a centerpiece for our Christmas Day dessert table! (And a few torturous days ahead of resisting temptation....)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Little Felt Family

I now present to you the
Do as I Say and as I Do
blog lady's
Christmastime pièce de résistance.

In lieu of an Advent calendar, my husband and I created a felt board medley of Christmas-themed wonderment.

The kids started the month with the blank board and little felt Vance and Fifi avatars. Each day, a new felt piece is hidden somewhere in our house. The kids alternate days to find the pieces and manipulate the board. On Fifi days, the pieces tend to be placed in realistic, meaningful places; stockings by the fireplace, moon in the sky. Vance is much more free-spirited. His little felt person has been known to stand atop the Christmas tree and his snowman comes inside from time to time. Lately, they've been manipulating the board together, which adds bonus points in the sharing category.

Early in the month, the board looked like this:

But with each day, the scene is broadened, sometimes with a simple piece such as a present or a silver bell. Other times, with something more intricate, like a nutcracker or snow globe.

This is, without question, a gift that keeps on giving. I thoroughly enjoyed making it (though, some fabric glue has not been holding up its end of the bargain and that has been frustrating). The fact that my husband made lots of it with me made it extra special. (I'm not usually able to rope him into my elaborate theme-based craft activities.) And the joy the kids share each day finding a new piece, adding it to the board, playing make-believe within the scene, anticipating future pieces, oh, it just fills our mornings with Christmas spirit.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wrap It Up

I didn't have to dig too deep into the creativity well for this project. I'm pretty sure just about everyone I know is having their kids make wrapping paper this holiday season. But it's so easy and so pretty and so recycled...why wouldn't you?

I cut some sponges into shapes of a candy cane, a Christmas tree and a star. I cut out the bottoms of paper bags to get them to lay flat. Then I put out dishes of red and green paint, plus white paint and a round sponge brush for snowflakes.

First you stamp.
 Then you add a few snowflakes.

Or a million.

After the paintings dry, wrap presents!
On the easy meter, this ranks 9 out of 10 (allowing that paint is messy and you have to set up and clean up). On the delightful meter, a perfect score.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Shrinky Dinks and Shrinky Don'ts

Recently, when a friend was visiting, I started talking about Shrinky Dinks because--well, does a person really need an excuse to talk about one of the greatest arts and crafts materials ever? When she looked at me questioningly, I actually felt my heart sink. She may as well have said she had never tasted ice cream or never seen snow fall. Immediately, I got out the Shrinky Dinks (which, copyrights be damned, are actually not official Shrinky Dinks, but are the Rose Art knock-off version--good enough for me) and put our kids to work Shrinky Dinking.

The conversation actually came about because I had been showing off this year's Christmas tree ornaments.

Using a fine-tipped Sharpie, I had traced the shapes from a line-art book I have of Christmas ornaments. I cut out the center circle to make picture frames and then shrunk them in the oven. Perhaps because these were not official Shrinky Dink shapes, they came out slightly wonky. I actually had to use the spatula to flatten them after they got stuck mid-curl in the shrinking process. But save them I did, and after they cooled I hot glued photos on the back and gleefully added them to my tree.

Meanwhile, Fifi and her friend meticulously colored their full-size ornaments while Vance scribbled a few lines on his. They all huddled around the oven window, anxiously awaiting the shrinking and hardening of their precious renderings.

And then tragedy struck. "Get away from the oven!" I shouted, spatula in hand. "I'll save them!" 

Years of parenting, decades of crafting, a handful of Shrinky Dink experiences don't quite prepare a person for that desperate moment of realizing she is powerless.

I haven't yet found the courage to throw away these hardened relics, these artifacts that once held such promise, such artistic vision, such unencumbered possibility. Amazingly, my kids got over it within seconds. They have never referenced the Shrinky Dinks since. It could be they don't care as much as I do. But I think it has more to do with their inability to come to terms with their grief.

Farewell potential Shrinky Dinks. You died before we even had a chance to know you. May you rest in peace.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Christmastime Philly Style

If the blog thus far has given the impression that we're a family that just sits home and does crafts, allow me to paint a fuller picture. We get out. A lot.

And Christmastime is a wonderful time to get out and about around Philadelphia. There is so much to do...for free!

This morning our destination was the second annual Constructing Play exhibit at the Center for Architecture. That space is a great place to visit anyway (mostly because you have to walk through the treasure trove that is the AIA Bookstore to get there). But right now it's a nice family place as well.

After eying the long display of building toys, the kids got to work building their own structures at the hands-on exhibits while I more thoughtfully perused the hodgepodge of  both timeless and outdated toys. Some of my favorites included the bricks toy set that included a trowel and real mortar (fun!) and the toy worthy of quote-of-the-day distinction: "Dowels can be more darn fun!"

A trip to 13th & Arch is incomplete without a jaunt into Reading Terminal Market. And again, Christmas is a great time to be there. After the kids devoured fresh pretzel sticks they spent a long while admiring the Christmas Train. In addition to the picturesque array of landscapes, train cars, buildings and carnival rides, the 12-train display included various buttons for pushing which brought to motion entrancing features inside.
Beyond being free and just a short bus ride away, this morning's activities held another noteworthy bonus: they completely tuckered out the kids. The hearty naps that followed were one of the best Christmas presents ever.

Fifi most enjoyed bringing the tug-of-war
to life with a push of a button.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Two of the Other Reindeer

Our Christmas tree is quite an archive of annual sentimentality. Starting with our first Christmas together, my husband and I have given each other a thoughtfully chosen ornament each year. We have ornaments to commemorate our wedding, pregnancy, hobbies, silly habits of our children, and the tradition of pickle-finding, which is not necessarily sentimental, but which adds its own dimension of fun and mystery.

Once our kids were born, the tree became another place to chart their growth and adorableness and to keep their mother's hands from growing idle.

This year's ornaments are not yet done, so they will be fodder for a future post. But last year's ornaments survived a year in storage and came out looking the same as when they went away. And oddly, they don't seem as small as I would think they ought after a year of children growing.

To make these hand-print reindeer, I traced my children's hands onto felt (pasted on cardboard) and then shaped the palm to better resemble a reindeer's back. A mini punched hole made way for pipe-cleaner antlers, and glued-on googly-eyes and pom-pom tails finished the animals. I added a ribbon for hanging, and a name and year on the back so that when one day we compare the same hands in woman and man form, we'll be sure to know which one once belonged to whom.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


 There is not much I have to say.
A picture of a cute kid's smiling face. Glue. Poly fill. Red felt. 
Let the giggles ensue!
(Don't you think Vance's could double as a garden gnome?)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Paint Me a Picture...But use different paint, please.

We used to use finger paint. When Vance was a baby, Fifi loved to mush it between her fingers and coat full sheets of paper with it. But then the finger paint turned. And by turned, I mean the rancid odor paralleled only by forgotten eggs rediscovered months later. We said our heartfelt goodbyes to the finger paint and moved on to other washable paints that used brushes or sponges instead.

Ever since then, however, my daughter has often asked about finger painting. I've heard her regale her little brother with wondrous stories of this magical paint she once had and when she used it, Mommy actually let her touch it with her hands and relish in its squishy colorfulness. The far-away look in her eyes caught hold of Vance's imagination and as I rubbed him down with a baby wipe he looked at me as if to say, "You've been holding out on me!"

And so I decided if I were to indulge my kids, I would go whole hog. Not only would we paint with finger paint, we would make finger paint.

I wisely chose a day when Daddy was home--and then made him find the few surfaces around our house upon which the finished products could dry. I really hate that part.

I followed a recipe from The Please Touch Museum that calls for 1/4 cup of cornstarch mixed with 2 cups of water, boiled until thick. After the white viscosity cooled, we poured it into jars and added food coloring. The kids probably enjoyed mixing the paint more than actually painting with it. And once I added glitter, the children explored the paint more like scientists than artists.

I give the project big points in the sensory department. The kids loved mixing the colors and slathering the paint, and given the "with calcium" corn starch I used, I would have been okay with them eating the stuff. But as an art project, it was less successful.  The paint was clumpy and fairly thin and when it dried it left the paintings looking more like sculptures than two-dimensional works on paper.

Will we finger-paint again? Oh, I don't know. But I will let my kids have other opportunities to get messy, don't you worry.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A...B...See the Book we Made!

This is such a simple idea, I'm sure a million people have done it before me. But it had all the attributes of a project I like to undertake: it's fun, it's easy, it allows for creativity and it, to be sure, can bump the kid up a couple notches in the smarts department.

We had an extra report cover lying around and I siphoned 27 sheets of paper from the printer. It could certainly be made fancier and prettier, but we went for bare bones.

It started as a project for Fifi, Vance and me, but before long I realized the difference between the four year-old and two year-old. We let Vance do some sticking, but mostly it was a project just for those of us who know our letters.

We used rubber stamps to mark each page with a corresponding capital and lowercase. Then we went through our sticker and stamp collections to see what objects would go with each letter. At the end of the hour or so, we had the beginnings of an alphabet catalog. Fifi cranked out a cover and we called it a night.

The next day I took Fifi grocery shopping with me (a habit I try otherwise to avoid). I let her have free range with the digital camera. We hit the produce aisle first and got shots of lemons, mangoes, zucchinis, scallions, olives and so much more. The momentum died down a little bit after the first 15 or so pictures. But the novelty of having a fun grocery shopping experience with a kid stayed with me for about a week.

I printed all of Fifi's photos at home wallet-sized and she and Vance smeared them with glue stick and planted them onto their appropriate pages. The book now resides on the book shelf with scores of others. But it, like little children's brains, remains a work in progress which will get fuller and fatter as time goes by.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Stockings Were Hung By the Crafters With Care

If I were grading this craft project, it would be akin to the grade Ralphie receives on his BB gun theme in his A Christmas Story fantasy: A + + + + + + +.

Long story short, we will have a number of Christmas Day guests at our house who will likely not be receiving many gifts. We wanted to do a little something for them to let them know they matter. Additionally, felt is one of mankind's greatest inventions.

I just needed to be about ten minutes ahead of my kids. I set up the sewing machine and cut out pairs of stocking shapes from felt I had scored at an A.C. Moore sale a few weeks back. The machine was already loaded with green thread, so I went with it. I zoomed two stocking shapes through the machine, set out two glue bottles and a smattering of craft items such as buttons, sequins and sparkly Christmas stickers I had found in a dollar-bin at CVS last year. The kids came to the table and the rest was pure delight.

Vance needed a little help squeezing the glue bottle some of the time, but he had no problem carefully selecting each sparkling sequin and brightly-colored button. Fifi went straight for the glittery stickers.

As they decorated their stockings, I cut out more stocking shapes and threw them through the machine in pairs. I finished sewing eight stockings right around the time the kids finished the joyous decorating of their first ones. They voraciously picked their next stockings, and as I watched them work I busied my own hands cutting felt stars and tying red ribbon bows.

We stopped after finishing eight stockings, but I swear we could have made eighty. It was fun, it was festive, it was in the spirit of giving. Win. Win. Win.

Now we just have to fill 'em up!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Taking the Aching out of Baking

Raise your hand if you like baking with your kids. If your hand shot up in the air and then very slowly retracted while your eyes darted about to see if you'd been witnessed, you're a lot like me. In theory, yes! So much fun, right? You can get all mathematical with measuring cups and spoons. They can lick the beaters and watch the cookies melt through the oven window. And then you can all sit down and enjoy the fruits of your labor with a wholesome glass of milk.

But in reality? Puffs of flour everywhere, more batter in children's little mouths than in the bowl, slight mis-measurements that probably won't ruin the cookies, but still make them not-quite-right. And it just seems to take forever.

Before today's cookie project, I took a deep breath and repeated the mantra: They're not going to be perfect, but they'll be all right.

I also picked a very easy recipe which I had made before and which had built-in kid-friendly jobs. Thumbprint cookies actually invite kids to fondle the dough.

We laid a table cloth on the dining room table and did all of our work where the kids could sit.

I give the project an overall B+. For Fifi, it would be an A. I measured most of the ingredients and she poured them in. She was pretty good at rolling the dough into balls. And she excelled at plopping her thumb into the balls to make the craters into which she expertly dumped a wad of jam.

My Vance is a thumb-sucker. So we generally eat any food prepared by him at our own risk. (Lucky for me, I'm not a huge fan of apricot jam, the flavor he was assigned.) He, like my daughter, was fine with the pouring. But he couldn't quite roll the balls and was only partially satisfied using one ball of dough as play-dough while my daughter and I really prepared the other 47.

In the end, I'm confident the oven baked away any sucked-thumb germs. (Right?) My kids each had a chance to crack an egg and were delighted to say they had baked with Mommy. The cookies were satisfactory in the taste department, pretty good in the aesthetic department and no problem in the project survival department. Next up: creme brulee.