Our best-loved toys: Ideas for holiday gift-giving
December 13, 2011 at 6:00 am
A couple of years ago, a friend brought her children over for a visit.
As she peeked into our living room, she asked me, “where are your toys?”
And to be honest, if you looked in there today, you might ask the same thing. We don’t have a designated playroom full of small bins. Our toys tend to blend in with the wood panelling a bit.
That’s because we tend to favor toys made of natural materials — wood, cotton, wool, etc.
And, we rotate toys. Usually just a few things are out on our shelves. Everything else we store, and we change out the big toys (like the stable, or the fairy house, or the car garage) every week or two.
But my kids dearly love their toys. They play with them for hours, and often find creative ways to mix and match items, like using a basket of blocks and a basket of small animals to create a zoo.
There are a few toys that we own that are very well loved. Every time we bring them out, there is excitement and new discovery. These are our “top” toys, and many of them I have purchased again for family members or friends with smaller children:
- Musical instruments. Family members were a little surprised when these made the holiday wish list several years in a row. But my kids love music. They put on CDs and play the instruments and dance. They bang away frustrations on drums, the shake away extra energy with a maraca. We have had a basket of musical instruments available to kids since they were babies, and they are always a hit!
- Puzzles. We often pull out wooden puzzles (and now larger puzzles with more pieces) on long afternoons. I still envision my kids as babies sitting at the table with an afternoon snack putting puzzles together with their free hand. Puzzles help with dexterity and problem solving, sure — but they are also a nice, calm, indoor activity when the weather gets cold.
- Blocks. Simple right? But I can’t tell you the number of hours we have spent here playing with blocks. Blocks can build so many things. We have made zoos and towers, cities and villages … blocks are useful for finger puppet play scenery and can be combined with other toys for endless fun.
- Play silks. We always have a basket of play silks handy to be used in play. From dress-up to creating “lakes” in a block village, playsilks can become just about anything — baby blankets, placemats, wings, hats … they are such a versatile toy!
- Dress-up clothes. My children love dressing up. They don capes to go to the grocery store, and dog ears to visit restaurants. We have a huge bin filled with hats, vests, glasses, ties, scarves … mostly old and thrifted. The kids loved getting dressed up and I am all for driving a princess and an adventurer to the library.
- Art stuff. Seriously, this isn’t a toy, but we spend HOURS creating with paper, yarn markers, crayons, beeswax, clay, beads … the list goes on and on.
- A play kitchen. Our play kitchen is always cooking! We have lots of pretend wooden and felt food, and the kids spend many hours cooking up recipes. Sometimes the kitchen is a restaurant. Sometimes it is a zoo kitchen making food for the animals, but it is always, always in use.
- A vet kit. This is one of only a handful of plastic toys in our house that gets regular use. But as a family of animal lovers, we are often caring for fluffy friends.
What do your kids play with most?
Easy Peasy Rice Box Fun
December 9, 2011 at 6:00 am
Oh, the rice box! How many busy days has it saved me? How many times have I pulled it out when the kids needed a calming activity and I needed a few minutes to accomplish a task?
I first heard about creating rice boxes a few years ago from a fellow homeschooling mom. She had several sensory boxes for her little ones — a rice box, a bean box, and even a cotton ball box.
Her children loved them, and I figured mine would too.
Little ones, especially, benefit so much from sensory activities. The ages of 18 months to 3 are the times I have used sensory boxes most, but my children still love them. Actually, I do too. It is really soothing to sit down and run your hands through rice, water, sand, or other materials.
The question I get most often, though, is about the mess. Because a sensory activity will really only work if you don’t dread the clean-up right?
What has worked in our home is to fill a long sweater box with rice, beans, etc. and lots of little tools like spoons, pitchers, different shaped bowls, cups, etc., little cars or boats and funnels — ALWAYS FUNNELS!
We then put the box on top of an old sheet spread out over the floor. (We have hard wood floors.)
We have ground rules: the rice or other material should stay in the box, everyone should be sitting or kneeling (no walking around with handfuls of rice, for instance). It needs to be said, once in a while, that throwing the rice is not allowed. Usually one reminder of that is enough, and older kids usually remember from last time!
We keep a little hand-broom and dustpan near-by for spills (and that kind of becomes part of the play), and when we are done, we bring out the big broom (if doing this on carpet, a vacuum would do the trick, of course!).
We also fold up the sheet as best we can and put “clean” rice back into the box to use again. If we have any “dirty rice” from the floor (we have pets and pet hair), we head for the garbage can. It’s important not to just scatter rice in your yard — for the same reason that people started throwing birdseed and blowing bubbles after weddings.
Really, there isn’t a lot of mess as long as rice doesn’t get thrown, and as long as the activity is sort of a “the rice box is open!” and then “the rice box is closing” kind of activity. I learned that from a Waldorf teacher — the open and closed thing — and it just helps to set some limits, which keeps the mess down.
The biggest thing, really, is to know that there will be a bit of mess, but that it is a nice, calming sensory mess, so in the end, it is probably worth it. My kids will play with this for at least an hour once a week, and if we add different materials (try snow in the winter!), the rice box gets used even more!
MYO: Creative Writing Journals
December 1, 2011 at 6:00 am
Sometimes, an idea comes along just when you need it.
That’s how I felt when I saw a creative writing journal made by a woman in my writing group who is also a Montessori teacher.
She made journals with her class, but get this — she made one for herself too. Because she is a writer. And she models that for her students by sharing her own work. Brilliant!
I was so inspired that I picked up three blank notebooks that night.
That week, we each made our own Creative Writing Notebooks.
I borrowed the idea of including a Table of Contents page inside the cover. I also loved that she had inspiring words written on the cover of her notebook – words like publish and author.
When the kids and I made our notebooks, we brainstormed a list of “writer” words: creative, original, my ideas, thoughts, feelings, observations, expression, writer, write it down, revise and imagine.
We found some greater “writer quotes” like this one from one of our favorite children’s authors, Jane Yolen: “Love the writing, love the writing, love the writing … the rest will follow” and from Will Shetterly: “It is better to write a bad first draft than to write no first draft at all.”
Finally, we talked about some writing prompts, like describing a drawing, or writing about something that makes you laugh, or something that is special to you.
The kids and I spend some time each week writing. I get a chance to work on my assignments for my writer’s group, and they get a chance to practice putting their creativity on paper. Even my youngest, at 4, draws pictures and asks us to write words to go with.
I LOVE these journals, and the chance it gives us all to “write it down.” And I love sharing my love of writing with my kids.
Kids, Books and Food: Chicken Soup with Rice
November 30, 2011 at 6:00 am
I love cooking with my kids. It is one of my favorite activities.
But I really, really love combining cooking with our favorite books.
During the next few months, I am looking to share some of our favorite books and corresponding recipes here. These are simple ideas for helping favorite books come to life, and sharing healthy food with kids. I’d love it if you shared some of your favorite books and the recipes that go with as well!
This first book is a long-time favorite around here. We love Maurice Sendak, and for years we have read Chicken Soup with Rice, a book about the months and how chicken soup is always appropriate.
From the book: “I’ve told you once, I’ve told you twice, All seasons of the year are nice, For eating chicken soup with rice.”
We read this book when we make our favorite chicken stock. As we read, the kids chop onions, celery, carrots and parsley. Rice boils on the stove.
When we finish the book, the vegetables go into the pot with a little oil to soften. We add the stock, one cracked clove of garlic, salt, pepper, and the cooked rice, bring it all to a boil and then lower the heat, cooking until everything is tender and the flavors have combined.
Although “all seasons of the year are nice, for eating chicken soup with rice,” we especially like it this time of year.
Do you have a favorite recipe for sharing with kids?
November 29, 2011 at 6:00 am
So I have a few people in my life who occasionally tease me about my organic ways.
They are just joking, of course, and I don’t really take it seriously.
But recently, someone made a joke about me making my own butter.
I hadn’t ever tried it, but you know how these things work — it wasn’t long until I found an opportunity. (Coincidentally we made it in a pre-school co-op class I am co-teaching. It. Was. AWESOME.)
So now, it’s sort of a new obsession around here. Not only is homemade butter very easy (you don’t have to buy a churn, I don’t care what the Internet says), the kids love making it, and we are finding all kinds of different versions and uses for the stuff.
This past weekend we made garlic-herb butter for homemade garlic bread.
We also love to make cinnamon-butter to go with homemade bread. I know. I am getting a little Little House on the Prairie with all this. But I promise, try it once, and if you don’t find yourself making batches and batches of butter, you are a stronger pioneer than I am.
This is more of a process than a recipe. Homemade butter only contains only two ingredients: heavy cream and a bit of salt. We favor Organic Valley’s heavy cream if you can find it. The salt really makes a difference, but we literally add just a pinch.
We make butter by putting about a half-cup of cream into a small jar. We add just a few grains of sea salt.
Then the fun begins. We shake, rattle and roll that little jar until the magic happens. Shaking is great, but when little arms get tired, it sure is fun to roll it back and forth across the floor.
In just a few minutes, the cream starts to thicken, and eventually achieves a whipped consistency. This is perfect for bread and a great way to covert margarine-lovers who think that the spreadability of that stuff negates the uckiness of the ingredients.
If you shake a little more, the butter will thicken and the solids will seperate from the whey or butter-milk. (Buttermilk is great stuff and has lots of uses!)
We keep our butter in the fridge for a few days. We usually make pretty small batches, and make it often.
To make cinnamon-butter, add a just a shake of ground cinnamon to the cream before shaking.
To make garlic-herb butter, mix in minced garlic and finely chopped herbs when the butter reaches the whipped stage and stir carefully.
To make honey butter, add about a tablespoon of honey to the cream and shake like crazy.
To make citrus-butter, add minced orange or lemon zest to the cream before shaking.
Go ahead and give butter-making a try. And if anyone teases you about your efforts, offer them a bite. They will pretty quickly declare a take-back.
It’s Bee Time
November 3, 2011 at 6:00 am
We got a couple of special deliveries this past week. Our farmer friend Jan harvested honey and beeswax from her hives recently and was kind enough to share some of what she got with us.
This big jar of delicious local honey is a little like liquid gold to us. The honey helps keep us healthy during cold and flu season, and it tastes great on our toast and tea.
I was also thrilled that she gifted us with some wax from her hives this year, which we used to make some homemade beeswax polishfor our toys and also for blocks we colored, sanded and polished last week as part of our wood-themed homeschool pre-school class.
I’ve got some other big plans for these great local gifts, but I also thought it might be a good time to look back on last year’s “Honey Week,” when I spent several days talking about our farmer friend Jan and all things honey:
Hope you are enjoying a little of the sweet stuff where you are!
Bob, the Tree Made out of Bread
November 2, 2011 at 6:00 am
I’d like to introduce you to our friend Bob, the Tree Made Out of Bread.
I mean, I’d like to introduce you, but I kind of can’t anymore, because we ate him.
He was part of our wood-themed class last week at our homeschool co-op. We made some blocks, we read some stories, and then we ate the heck out of Bob.
Bob was very fun to make, even if he did involve transporting my whole oven rack across town. It was worth it. I mean, look at that face. Clearly, he was excited to meet everyone.
If you’d like to make your own Bob (or frankly, about anything else out of dough) I have found this recipe to work really well. It is actually the dough we use for pizza and calzones, so if you want to get really fancy, you can add some herbs like oregano and rosemary. Or, you can just eat Bob with homemade butter — that’s what we did.
Easy Sculpting Dough
We doubled this recipe to make an extra large size Bob
1 cup warm water
2 1/4 tsp yeast
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp salt
about 3 cups flour
(we generally use half unbleached white and half whole wheat; I add in 2 1/2 cups and see how the dough looks and then add more until the dough loses most of its stickiness)
In a large bowl, add water, yeast and honey and let the yeast activate for about 5 minutes until it is nice and frothy. Add in flour and salt and mix well. Knead until the dough is soft and smooth, about 5 minutes. Put in a bowl greased with olive oil and let rise for one hour. Punch down, and use the dough for your sculpture. Build on a greased cookie sheet, or a cookie sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. Brush sculpture with olive oil.
Cook at 425 degrees until golden brown and cooked through.
Mix it Up: Pumpkin Pie Play Dough
October 27, 2011 at 6:00 am
Pumpkin Pie Play Dough
Mix 2 cups flour, 1 tablespoon cream of tartar, a half a cup of salt, 2 teaspoons of oil, a 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon and a 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg (or 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice).
Add two cups warm water and heat on the stove over medium heat, stirring constantly. (Add red and and yellow food coloring at this point to make it orange, but this is an optional step. Natural food coloring also works well here.)
Remove from heat, and knead carefully.
Store in a covered container for up to one week.
October 20, 2011 at 6:00 am
Something about fall always makes me want to gather everyone closer together and get cozy.
So last week we created a few new quiet spaces in our home — we moved a little rug, and created a little learning corner.
In our office, we carved out a little space for quiet and reading and relaxing.
The changes didn’t cost anything, but they’ve added a lot of coziness and calm to our days.
Do you have a favorite quiet corner in your home?
Do It Yourself Muffins for Kids
October 19, 2011 at 6:00 am
I am lucky to have two kiddos who love cooking and baking.
And they really love cooking and doing kitchen projects on their own.
So this week I set up a little morning surprise. I pre-measured the ingredients for these Cinnamon Pecan Muffins the night before. I also set out the pans and other required tools and the recipe.
You can see below what happened next!
A couple of things that made independent muffin-ing a little easier: muffin cups (we often skip these, but they are really nice for making sure the muffins come of cleanly), an ice cream scoop (for making nice, even muffins), lots of work space, and lots of towels for clean-up!
What is your kids’ favorite cooking project?