Monday, May 30, 2011

Divide and Cookie

One of the nice things about teaching my own little kids at home, as opposed to teaching a classroom full of kids in a public school, is that the standards can be totally loosey-goosey. There is no one checking my lesson plans making sure I'm covering certain material. I can do whatever the heck I want. And, what's more, as a school teacher, I was required to make sure my students were actually learning the very specific things I was teaching. But as a pretend teacher at home, if I'm simply exposing my kids to certain topics, by many standards, I'm doing a pretty good job.

I love the idea of exposing my kids to things. Like division, as we did the other day. As a school teacher, I needed my students to learn how to divide and to be able to show that they could do that. As a teacher of my own toddler/pre-school offspring, I can simply introduce the concept of division to my charges and pat myself on the back for completing a worthwhile mathematics lesson. This job is the best.

We read "The Doorbell Rang" by Pat Hutchins. If you don't already know this story, it involves a dozen cookies that need to be divided between two kids, and then among four kids, and then six kids and then twelve kids. Division was our underlying theme, but we cultivated other skills as well. First, we talked about the word "dozen" and how we usually hear that in reference to a batch of cookies or a carton of eggs. Then we made a dozen cookies out of construction paper, glue, sequins and stickers. We set up a picnic blanket and counted out twelve friends from our stuffed animal collection.

I put out the tray of cookies and then read the story. The kids went about dividing on their own. It was a clothing-optional feast of fun for our furry friends, and a torturous trick of getting my kids totally craving a cookie before lunch. Oops. But at least they were exposed to something mathy.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Nuts and Bolts of Learning

I solidly believe the best toys for kids are the simplest ones. And I really love it when they happen to be free, or really cheap, or recycled, or in some other way inherently better than the battery-operated hunks of plastic I can't stand.

That's why my kids play with toys from the hardware store. Or, stuff we find in the basement. Either way, toys like nuts and bolts are awesome. They're Montessori-approved, teach practical skills, give practice with fine-motor skills and lend themselves to categorizing, comparing and matching activities. We use really big ones for a couple of important reasons: they're easier for the kids to work with, and they're big enough that even a hungry Vance can't swallow them.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ya Feel Me?

After my husband and I watched all five seasons of The Wire in a back-to-back frenzy some time ago, the term "Ya feel me?" entered our lexicon irreversibly. What can I say? It was a great show. And our lives were lacking a certain B'Mo drug dealer sort of culture. That has little to do with anything, except that I can rarely talk about feeling things without thinking of Stringer Bell. (Not necessarily a bad thing.)

Back from my regression, I'll now tell you about a perfectly kid-friendly way in which my children and I explored feeling. We started by reading "My Five Senses" by Aliki. We talked a bit about how we explore our world through all of our senses, but then we honed in on the sense of touch. I put out a few paper bags filled with mystery items. My kids closed their eyes and reached inside. While I was hoping to hear words like "smooth" or "heavy," I mostly heard "rock!" Either way, they were investigating and isolating their sense of touch.

Taking the exploration of feeling one step further, I had the kids make tactile boards. I divided a piece of cardboard into quadrants and let the children select from a mass of tactile objects like various fabrics, sandpaper, bubble wrap, etc. They glued swatches onto their boards and enjoyed closing their eyes and stroking their creations. These learning boards proved rather popular with the under 12-month crowd as we invited young visitors to play with them.

When we were done with our learning, the kids found the paper bags to be quite entertaining beyond their intended purpose. The kids filled them up with their own mystery items to stump one another. And then they just filled them up with random things to transport those random things from one part of the house to another. They were cheap, recyclable playthings. Mos def.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Birds and the Bees for Pee-Wees

How young is too young to start talking to our kids about sex? Is it two? Is two the right age? Because if it's two, then I'm doing all right.

Fifi and Vance had been at the park with their dad, where they ran into their friend and his pregnant mother. I'm assuming that is the reason that the first words out of Fifi's mouth when she saw me next were, "Mom, will you ever be pregnant again?" After retrieving my tonsils from my lungs, where they had become embedded due to the size and strength of my gasp, I said sweetly, "No, honey, I'm not going to be pregnant again."

Next thing I know I'm playing twenty questions. But instead of being confined to the answers "yes" or "no," I've suddenly got words like "insemination" on the table. In my humble opinion, I think I handled it pretty darn well. It's one of those things we might try to prepare for (or not, as the case may be), but we can't ever really see this conversation coming.

In response to Fifi's numerous and probing questions, I clued her in to the fact that Mommies and Daddies make babies together when they want to (and when they're ready and in their thirties and living on their own and have financial stability and therefore entirely responsible for themselves, do you hear what I'm saying little girl?!). I was forced to go so far as to use the terms "egg" and "seed." (I briefly contemplated whether or not the seed route was the best choice. But a quick flash forward to Fifi skipping around the playground singing a song about "sperm" told me it was a wise choice.)

During this whole conversation, Vance sat right next to me and hung on my every word just as Fifi did. And my husband just made a sandwich in the kitchen and did not offer even the tiniest shred of assistance. Though, honestly, it was awkward enough as it was. I cannot even imagine how painful it might have been had he and I tried to tackle this one together.

Our conversation began to wrap up when Fifi asked if all boys had seeds and whether or not she had eggs already. I answered affirmatively and assured her that neither the seeds nor eggs would come into play until she was a grown up. (Which wasn't necessarily a stretch since Fifi thinks she'll be able to drive a car at age 8. It's all relative.) Vance didn't like my answer, though, and started chanting, "No seeds in me! No seeds in me!" vehemently pointing at his belly.

Have I corrupted my children or confused them more? It's hard to say. I'm banking on the theory that the more naturally parents discuss sex with their kids, the more comfortable and informed the kids will be when it really matters. Be sure to check back in twenty-eight or so years to find out just how well this theory of mine worked.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Butterflies (But, like REAL ones this time!)

If you receive even half the number of brainy toy catalogs I get each week, you have surely seen the Butterfly Garden. It's a mesh-and-zipper contraption in which you can house a few butterflies after sending away to receive caterpillar larvae by mail. It looked pretty cool to me, and seemed like something I couldn't quite replicate on my own (the caterpillar larvae, that is; surely I could make a mesh-and-zipper contraption if I felt like it and could squeeze a few hours of sewing in between my morning shower and breakfast). So, a few weeks ago I went ahead and ordered it and then the caterpillar larvae. And for the past month I have felt like as close to a real science teacher as I ever hope to be.

The little baby caterpillars came in a plastic cup with half an inch of some food-like substance at the bottom. I decided not to force the learniness at my kids this time, but just left the cup in a conspicuous place and let them approach it and explore it as they desired.

A week or so later, the cute little baby caterpillars had turned into big, furry, creepy crawly creatures with messes of silk webs and errant body parts littering their domicile. I know I seem all tough and un-squeamish but seriously, these things got kind of gross. Luckily, we didn't have to do anything but watch and wait.

Several days later, they started to form into crysalids, which was the term the paperwork used, even though every Eric Carle-lovin' American (or Ron Howard fan, for that matter) alive in the past 40 years calls them cocoons. I thought I was in the clear once the crysalids formed, in terms of grossness. All I had to do was carefully remove the paper top of the cup and pin it inside the butterfly garden. I was mistaken on two counts. First, one of the cocoons didn't hang from the ceiling, and so I had to scoop it up with a spoon and gently transfer it to the floor of the butterfly garden (blech!). And secondly, cocoons, apparently, are not necessarily still. Imagine my bleeping shock when I began to pry off the paper lid and discovered one crysalid begin spinning around like a propeller. Ewwwwww! It turns out that's a defense mechanism. And I'll tell you what: it works. I didn't want anything to do with that freaky thing from that point forward!

For about a week or so after that, everything was quiet and still amongst the chrysalids in the butterfly garden. I checked on them a few times a day, fearing they were never going to complete their metamorphoses and I would have to break my children's hearts with the news that these scab-like dangling caterpillar remnants was all they were getting. But then one day Fifi announced, "There's a butterfly!" And by golly, the miracle of life made me giddy. I dropped what I was doing (which, luckily, was not carrying Vance) and rushed over to see our newest friend.

I then carefully followed the directions and put some sugar water on a flower inside the cage for the butterfly to feed upon. The kids were entranced by the winged creature and I finally felt like the yuckiness I endured was totally worth it. Now we just sit and wait and hope there will be four more beautiful creatures in our living room in a few days. And then I will grit my teeth and suppress my gags as I go about the business of discarding the empty cocoons.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bath Time!

 I'm pretty sure if the only toy my kids were allowed to play with for the rest of their childhood was a garden hose, they'd be okay with that. It is unbelievable how much fun little people have with water.

Recently we took water play to a rather sweet level. The kids gave their dolls (and a couple of toy animals) a bath. We fostered life skills through meaningful pretend play and made their playthings a little less gross to behold.

I just filled one basin with water in order to conserve, and finally found a worthwhile use for those Phillies "rally towels" we have somehow come to possess.

The kids (and the baby dolls) thought it was a fine way to spend an afternoon.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The #1 Best Activity to Do With Your Kids


Yes, this weekend, my kids and I did one of our favorite things: we got away from each other for a little while. It's a win-win-win. They love spending time at their grandparents' house; their grandparents love spending time with them; and I love getting a little bit of space from them. For the few days we're away from each other, we all feel good and love life. And then, what makes it even winnier is that when we reunite, we're all refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to reconvene.

During this mini-sabbatical, I met my husband on a quiet deck and enjoyed take-out Indian and a bottle of wine. Before long, we'll back to Mac 'n' Cheese and spilled milk. But for now, I am going to enjoy the peace and quiet and the delightful, but rare, feeling of missing my children.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Free Education

Whenever I check out at my local grocery store (the cheap one, not Whole Foods), the cashier usually hands me the receipt and tells me how much I saved. "You saved 28 dollars. Good for you!" I often respond with a quick reality check, "Yes, but I spent 150."

A couple of weeks ago, for reasons I cannot explain (except that Google is in fact taking over the planet), along with my regular receipt, the cashier handed me a coupon--for a free book at Shutterfly. Let me repeat that for emphasis: I was given a coupon for a free hardcover book of my own making, presumably just for buying the groceries my family relies on to stay alive. While I assumed this gift was some sort of monkey's paw which I would later be required to repay in unnameable ways, I was kind of tickled by the offer and went ahead and made the free book.

I have created a couple of similar books over the years to commemorate birthdays or to remember a family vacation. At this time, I didn't feel we had anything that needed memorializing, so instead, I invited the kids to make a book of numbers with me. We then spent a few days exploring our house and neighborhood with the camera looking for large numerals and counting flowers and steps and wrought-iron window bars.

The kids gave input on what should be photographed, they also counted, posed, helped write copy ("Ten toes," or "Two doors") and waited patiently while the book traveled through the mail to us. All in all, a pretty good project education-wise. And totally free* to boot!

*Except for shipping and handling, of course.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I'll Stop the World and Melt Plastic With You

Fifi made some fuse bead projects recently for friends' birthdays. She wanted to make her friends' initials somehow. It was pretty easy to craft an I in the middle of a pegboard, but a D required some help. Once the letters were done, I figured she was good to go with filling in the rest of the forms. But as I watched her work, placing color wheel neighbors adjacent to one another, letting the bold monograms blend indecipherably within a sea of similar colors, I realized a little coaching might be helpful.

As I told her about contrast and showed her colors that played well together, I was reminded of a great color theory activity we had done once over at the Click Magazine website. I'm a huge fan of the Cricket Magazine family and have often used the supplementary activities they include on their website. I thought it was pretty awesome they had written an article about Josef Albers for kids. We then spent some time on the website pairing up different colored squares to see how a color such as red can look completely different when it's within a field of bold green versus a soft gray.

Fifi then aimed to have the monograms stand out, but she faced some challenges from the limited fuse bead palette and her four year-old desire to simply use a color because she liked it. But in the end, she came up with a couple of personalized gifts that reflect her eccentricities and the chemistry of melted plastic.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Happy Mother's Day!

We like to celebrate the mothers and the motherly, the grandmothers and the aunts on Mother's Day. And so, that often means an art or craft project repeated five times. That can be a bit daunting. But this year, I got wise.

I made a stencil by printing out the words (so cleverly in Stencil font) on card stock and then painstakingly cutting them out with an X-acto. That part wasn't fun, but I only had to do it once. And I did it outside while the kids entertained themselves with dirt, and so it wasn't so bad.

I then figured we'd paint individual cards using a brayer roller. Anyone who has ever used a brayer and also has a single shred of intelligence (I'll let you guess which qualifier excluded me), would realize instantly that it would never work. A brayer is made to cover the topmost layer only. Amazingly, however, brawn could beat brain in this instance and for one of the cards I was able to exert incredible force to get the brayer to paint the stencil as well as the card underneath.

For subsequent cards, I got out the sponges which were not only easier, but were small enough that they allowed for optimal color play. I always heard the best art came from experimentation, and now I can vouch for it.

I hope the cards were well received by the mother figures my children love. And I hope all you other moms out there enjoyed your well deserved holiday!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Running Away From Home

This weekend I ran the Broad Street Run, an animated ten-mile race down the center of Philadelphia. I was one of 30,000 people out bright and early on a Sunday morning, pushing myself to my limit, high-fiving total strangers lining the course, and trying to keep Gatorade from spraying out my nose as I attempted to drink while running (by far, one of the hardest components of racing).

I started the race with two running companions. I've been regularly running with a team for about a year and a half now and never once in all that time have I ever run alone. A big draw to the activity for me is the companionship--that, and the freedom of being away from my kids for a little while, the thrill of doing something just because I want to do it, the satisfaction of setting goals and meeting them and not having to answer to anybody.... But somewhere around mile 6, I lost one and then the other companion. Everyone was fine, but we realized we no longer wanted to keep the same pace as each other, and so each of us ran on to finish the race in our own time.

Luckily, this unplanned split occurred just shortly after I got an energy boost from seeing my husband and children cheering me on from the sideline. For the next mile or so, I was powered by the love of my family.

Running blind with my Secret Service escort
But somewhere around mile 8, the euphoria their smiling faces supplied me with started to fade and I, running at the fastest pace I ever have in my life, had to draw on something else. Something within. On a normal day, the voices inside my head are usually sarcastic. They provide a humorous perspective, but often not very much productive. I knew that if I was going to maintain my pace and finish the race, I would need to talk to myself more the way I talk to my children. And so began the voices of encouragement.

It's pretty funny the things we think to ourselves when we struggle. Too strained to conjure deep thoughts, I mostly kept it simple and light. ("You're almost there, just keep on doing what you're doing," or "You've been through labor. This is a cakewalk compared to that!") But then I started looking for a deeper meaning. Why on earth was I out there sweating like all get-out, pounding my feet against the asphalt, weaving through a sea of runners, pushing and pushing, trying to sustain this breakneck pace?

I went back to the image of my enthusiastic children cheering for me. I was running this race to lose the pregnancy weight they saddled me with. Oh wait, no, there was more. I was running this race to prove that I can. To show my kids how to set goals and achieve them. To remind them that a person has more than one dimension. While I am their mother, their home-maker and teacher, I am also a pretty strong woman capable of some amazing things. We are all that way. And they are, too.

I'm glad they got to see me sweat (and subsequently spend the better part of the afternoon laying down). I'm glad they got to hold the medal every one of us 30,000 participants received at the finish line. I want to set the example that motherhood is not the end of the line and that as adults, we continue to learn and grow and push ourselves to new limits. And, frankly, I want them to know it's not always about them. Sometimes they have to be the cheerleaders, the enablers. They, too, have to give of themselves to help others be the best they can be. I was truly grateful for my children as I ran that race. And I am hopeful they were having some equally positive thoughts about me.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The House that Mom Built...With Her Kids' Toys

There are some toys I buy for my kids because I want them. For me. Straws and Connectors is one such toy. I actually had these when I was a kid, and fond memories have remained to this day. They are a very simple, easy-to-use building toy. But what's awesome, is that you can make really big things out of them. Like a house.

After I finished building the house with the assistance of my able-bodied offspring, Fifi requested a chimney, which I added at no extra cost. She now likes to stick her head up in it. She also added a "Happy Birthday" banner and calls the abode her Birthday House. With the addition of some beanbag chairs, pillows and blankets, the kids have got themselves a pretty sweet reading spot. And I get to relive a part of my childhood.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Garden Update

Stuff is happening in our garden plot! We planted some seeds and seedlings and are now fostering arugula, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes and peas. We've also been weeding our fingernails black.

Vance has been making friends with worms. He loves to unearth them and play with them, carry them around, offer them to people. I'm trying to mask my disdain, but really: gross! I want my kids to enjoy nature and not be squeamish, so I try to go along with it and come up with encouraging alternatives to receiving his worm friends. The fact that the worms do actually prefer being in the ground to being in human hands (as far as I know, anyway), helps bolster my case a bit.

We've all been making friends with the compost pile. Before dandelions turn to seed, I've been told, they make welcome additions to compost. There are no shortage of dandelions. The grown-ups dug them up and the kids carted them off to the enormous pile of decomposition. (Vance is actually much happier about that job than the picture would suggest.)

 But by far, the best part of our garden work is enjoying the fresh air and green space. The kids are quite content to do that.