Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My (No Longer Messy) Crafts Closet

It sure took me a bit longer than I expected, but my crafts closet in the family room is finally nicely organized. And it was done on a very strict budget (although unlike the bookcases, I did spend a few dollars on this project).

Some history first... Originally this was supposed to be my "office" (when I still had my telecommuting 9-to-5 job). Unfortunately, the door into the family room, when open, blocks half of the closet. Then I thought it'd be my scrapbooking station. Unfortunately, I was getting less and less free time, especially after Mr. M turned 1.

Next, I thought this closet could become a bill-paying station plus overflow toy storage plus "one day I will get back to scrapbooking" storage. Oh, and it was also supposed to store the few DVDs and CDs (mostly Mr. M's) that we had.

That's when things started getting really ugly and stuff was piling up everywhere. I even called in a favor and had a professional organizer work her miracles on this closet. This worked for a little bit, until I corralled extra toys into Mr. M's room, gave up on scrapbooking (for now), and the hubby got into the habit of paying bills in the living room. Left unused, the closet somehow managed to accumulate lots and lots of clutter and I could no longer find anything in it.

Then I had this big "AHA" moment and realized that what I really needed was a crafts and homeschool supplies closet for the stuff we use almost daily.

And this was exactly what I did. I kept the shelving and the desktop and the pegboard (love it). Took out the trash and moved everything that was not crafts-related into the secret-squirrel stashing location (don't worry, it will be reveled at a later date). I then walked around the house collecting all the crayons, stickers, glue sticks, scissors, activities and crafts books, etc and arranging them nicely.

Ta-da! This is the moment of the big reveal...
I think I spent a total of about $15 on this organizing project:

$5 - 5 cute white buckets to store markers, scissors, paint brushes and unexpected little things
$1.50 - 3 white Chinese take-out containers that now store stickers (2 of them) and some mystery items
$5 - 2 clip boards that I spray-painted and decorated - to hold our curriculum notes, etc.

The rest I had on hand already, including various plastic containers, scrap paper, spray paint for the old file cabinet, pictures and frames and even Deka wire and 2 curtains (it's amazing what can be found in dusty boxes in the deep dark closets).

Saturday, November 28, 2009

My Search for Preschool Curriculum

I have a problem with the teacher supply stores, you know the type that sell everything from huge bundles of #2 pencils to classroom furniture and charts. We have a store like that not far from the house. It's an "education super-store" for sure. And I get totally overwhelmed every time I go there.

I can browse this store for hours and end up buying nothing or, worse, things I don't need. So to save time, I now put together a list first, which I (mostly) follow.

Today I got my list and with Mr. M and the hubby in tow drove to the teacher supply store. I really meant to strictly follow my list, but got a bit side-tracked by curriculum books. This place has dozens of preschool curriculum books - general, arts, science, math, nature, multiple intelligences, literacy, seasons, you name it.

I really tried to stay cool, but couldn't help but think that Mr. M, being homeschooled, is missing out on much of the education he's supposed to be getting. Panicking, I grabbed a couple of the thickest books, but willed myself to put them down once I saw their price tags. Instead, I got back to my list - letter stamps, red poster paint, blunt-end scissors - alternating between anxiety and sticker shock.

This is not the first time I ask myself this question - is Mr. M learning what he's supposed to learn age-wise? I tried searching for homeschooling curriculums for 2-3 year-olds and found quite a few, but none fit our needs. Turns out, secular bilingual preschool homeschooling curriculum is a sort of white unicorn (if you sight it, let me know).

Fortunately, some time ago I bought a wonderful book by Rebecca Rupp, Home Learning Year by Year: How to Design a Homeschool Curriculum from Preschool Through High School.

Here's what Rebecca has to say on the subject of preschool curriculum:

... preschoolers should be given the freedom to explore. Chances are, they'll learn more in an afternoon spent making mud in the sandbox than they will from even the best-designed curriculum.

Ahh, I'm breathing the sigh of relief every time I re-read these words. I think I might make a wallet-size copy of the above paragraph and carry it with me.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I Am Thankful for Shaving Cream

Once again, my sensory little Mr. M surprised me. At first he didn't want to even touch the shaving cream foam.

So we played a little "it's snowing in the kitchen" game...

and 20 minutes later I had to get Mr. M into the tub for some much-needed washing up.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Am Thankful for Corn Cobs

Last week we ate corn on the cob. Nothing remarkable about it. Except that I washed and saved one of the cobs. You're thinking it's not remarkable, just weird. Well, I was going to use it for one of the art projects (cover the cob with paint and let the little one stamp the designs or roll it on paper).

Yesterday I asked Mr. M if he wanted to paint with a corn cob. He was excited (has to do with a particular episode of Word World where Chef Pig gets stuck in a pot). And so he painted and stamped a bit with the cob and, of course, got some paint on his fingers.

And that's when things started getting remarkable. He didn't insist on washing the paint off right away. Instead, I showed him how to do hand prints and he loved it! He got so into the project that next thing I knew he was covering his hands with thick layers of red paint and requesting more paper.

Yes, my little sensory Mr. M was finger-painting and LOVING it for the first time in his life! Nor did he mind some paint getting on his clothes. I have some more corn in the fridge and you bet I'm saving the cobs!

My Giant Book Tower

I love library book sales! Ever since moving to Raleigh, we've gone to the annual Wake County Public Libraries Booksale. It's a giant thing - this year there was 300,000 books for sale (some were brand new, from public donations).

But you know what is the best day for a library book sale? It's the last day, the $5 per box or $2 per bag all-you-can-carry day. It's so awesome!

This year I went twice - on the opening day (stood in line for over an hour) and on the closing day (stood in line for about 20 mins). And it was a blast. On the last day, hubby and I filled a giant box full of books (including a brand-new non-library copy of the Da Vinci Code), paid our $5, and got out with enough reading material for the entire 2010 (plus some gifts).

That evening I couldn't wait for Mr. M to go to bed since I wanted to build a tower of all the books we bought. Call me a dork, I dare you.

What do we do when we finish reading these books? Well, we'll keep some. We'll put others on, my hubby leans towards releasing a few into the wild via, and the rest will be donated back to the library so that they can be sold in 2010.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Homeschooling Day by Day - Week 4

Last week I made a mistake of planning too many activities that required advanced preparation, such as a geoboard (which, by the way, we haven't yet made). I really don't have much time in the evenings to make toys/games/activities for the next day. And it doesn't always work out to prepare those during the day, when I'm busy with Mr. M.


Art - making greeting cards for grandparents
Math - counting dishes and silverware
Writing - yes, I know, it's really too early to teach writing, but we can practice building words like mama, papa, grandma, grandpa, etc out of magnetic letters


Fine motor - I have a few pictures of family members that would be great for making puppets with
Language - if the above goes well, we might even put on a little puppet show
Math - we'll make award buttons for each puppet in the show


Art - I'm thinking about something like making a family tree
Cooking - time to make cookies
Language - we'll look at family photographs (something Mr. M really loves) and make up little stories


Thanksgiving - lots of cooking, setting up the table, reading Thanksgiving books
Table game - The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Art - we haven't practiced drawing faces for quite some time


Fine motor - folding laundry, pretend ironing
Language - we might try family puppets again
Math - matching socks

All Is Sort Of Well - Week 3 Wrap-Up

It's been a roller-coaster week, including the weekend. Mr. M must be going through some kind of phase that's especially trying. I have some ideas, but I'll save those for later. I'm not too worried since I've heard many times that terrible 2's are nothing compared to the horrible 3's.

The great thing was that Mr. M had terrific sessions with both his occupational therapist and physical therapist. He was such a joy, doing pretty much everything he was told to do and loving it. And the big news here, of course, is that he now jumps. Ok, he's been jumping straight up for some time. But now he does the broad jump, even without holding my hand. Hooray!
Monday and Tuesday weren't so bad. We did pretty much all activities, except for the leaf rubbing mural. Mr. M tried it, but didn't care much for it. What he did love was to play with birdseed. The weather was great and I took the birdseed container, plastic critters, and all sorts of measuring spoons and funnels out on the deck - fun, fun, fun!

Then again, we had some pretty bad moments. The worst was probably on Wednesday when I tried to make the turkey wreath with Mr. M. Not only Mr. M didn't want to join in, but he hated that I continued on with the project without him. Things got so bad with all the crying and whining, that I had to cancel all other plans for the day and instead get us both out of the house for the rest of the day.
As a matter of fact, the only art project we did this week was the pumpkin boat. And it came out splendidly! First, I had Mr. M make the sail - sprinkling cut-up bits of magazine pages on Contact paper. Next, I attached this sail to a wedge of pumpkin (good ol' Jack-o-Lantern got recycled). And we both decorated the sides with some stickers.
On Thursday I tried doing some math with Mr. M - sorting building blocks by color and size. That didn't work out well. He doesn't really care much for sorting. It's not like he doesn't know colors, shapes and sizes. So I modified the game into building a block tower with different-colored levels. It's kind of like sorting, right? And then we spent the rest of the day at the Kids' Museum.
And Friday was split between making a cookbook-tionary, pretend cooking and reading about and listening to classical music.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Change of Tunes

Hooray, we're switching our musical gears away from the Putumayo Presents: Gypsy Groove and toward some classical music. Don't get me wrong, Gypsy Groove is a wonderful CD (as all the other Putumayo CDs we've bought so far). But when your little one listens ONLY to this one CD over and over and over and over and... well, you get the picture.

And so, I'm very happy to present Mr. M's new favorite CD (and book) - My First Classical Music Book. It was love at first sight for both of us. The illustrations are awesome and the text is easy for the little one to understand and for me to translate. And then there were all those musical instruments! Oh, and of course, an hour-long CD (69 minutes, to be exact) was an instant hit with both of us.
Here's how it's going so far:
  • Day 1 - read the book 3 times at the store and 4 times after returning home. Listened to the CD in the car and at home.
  • Day 2 - looking at pictures of and naming all the instruments. This led to an impromptu parade around the family room with Mr. M alternating between his toy drum and a pretend trombone.
  • Day 3 - have you ever heard Offenbach's Can-Can? Of course you did. But what about Can-Can accompanied by a not-quite-3-year-old on toy drums? Well, I did and it wasn't nearly as bad as my dancing to it.
  • Day 4 - after reading about Bach and listening to the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Mr. M asked for paper and pencil. When I asked what for, I was informed that it was needed to "write down music". Ok, makes sense. After much scribbling, Mr. M told me that he wrote "loud organ music" which I thought was pretty cool.
Now I'm looking for more activities to add to the mix (other than dancing and drumming). It'd be cool to do some kind of "meet the orchestra" or "instruments zoo", where kids can see each instrument up close (and even try them). Will look for local events!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Choosing Books for Mr. M

I'm very proud to report that we've just finished the first book in the Tales from Moominvalley series by Tove Jansson! Moominvalley is one of my absolutely most favorite books and fortunately I have a Russian version of it. Still, I'm very surprised that Mr. M liked it - the story is pretty complicated (more of a 8-10 year old set) and there are only a few black-and-white sketches in the book.

We've been on a book-reading spree since summer. By now I know exactly what Mr. M will and will not enjoy. But the problem is, I also have to find books that are easy to sight-translate into Russian (remember, we're doing the whole bilingual one-parent one-language thing and for some reason finding a good Russian language preschool-level book is so very hard).

So here's our joint checklist for choosing books (whether at a bookstore or at a library):
  • Must have trains or musical instruments (drums or brass) or food (think pies, cakes, doughnuts) or ALL of the above.
  • Must be in prose (sight-translating poems is a bit much for me)
  • Must not be about alphabet or use alphabet as the basis for a story (again, has to do with translations)
  • Must be short
  • Must have high illustrations-to-text ratio.
Now, this last one is actually for me, not for Mr. M. Of course, he loves lots of great pictures. But he will listen to a very good story even if it has almost no pictures or just a few black-and-white ones.

But if I have to translate, having lots of images really helps me tell the story the same way each time we read it. Plus it gives me a bit of a break before we move to the next page. Plus this way Mr. M can flip through the book and "read" the story on his own.

With all this in mind, I'm now looking through the New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2009. And I have my Amazon account open and Mr. M's wishlist ready to be updated.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Homeschooling Day by Day - Week 3

I guess the main thing I learned from last week's lessons is to be very flexible and not to worry if on some days NONE of the planned stuff gets done. And I decided to temporarily put our town-building game on hold.

Every time I attempt to continue, Mr. M gets absorbed with his train set. Or, if I move the activity to the family room downstairs, he brings some trains alone and demands to draw train tracks for them.

This week we're going to get ready for Thanksgiving (had to double-check the calendar today. I ran into a Santa's elf today at one of the department stores and thought maybe I missed something). So all the art work will be Thanksgiving-y.

So here it goes:


Art - fall leaves banner (if you read Filth Wizardry, you know exactly what I'm talking about. (And if you don't, hurry up and subscribe today - that blog is AWESOME!)
Fine motor - more play with birdseed. We might even make a bird feeder out of spare toilet paper tubes covered in peanut butter and rolled in birdseed.
Language - we'll take about what we do with our hands, feet, eyes, etc.
Science - mystery object match (I'm going to use this Guidecraft Feel & Find game for this activity)


Gross motor - I'm thinking about playing a wind-chime piano game where I hang windchimes up high so that they can only be reached on tippy-toes or with a stick. So either that or an obstacle course.
Listening - do you know the sound canister matching game? Well, we'll do that, sans the writing part. I don't have the canisters ready yet, so it'll be on my to-do list for tomorrow.
Science - sound glasses (ok, it's a Listening Tuesday) - if this sounds confusing, think back to Ms. Congeniality (the movie) and Sandra Bullock's character's performance in the talent portion of the beauty contest. I do have nice glasses, but before I risk those, I'm going to try some canning jars.
Art - we'll make some boats out of our old Jack-o-Lantern.


Art - Thanksgiving wreath (nothing fancy, just a themed collage)
Math - geoboard (another task for my to-do list)

I'm counting on having at least one "great weather" day this week so we can spend time outside. That's why I'm not planning much for Wednesday. Of course, if it happens to be a nice Monday, I'll just shift Monday activities to Wednesday. And if Wednesday turns out not so great, I'll do Thursday activities instead and will plan on being outdoors most of the day on Thursday. All about being flexible.


Art - we'll be ambitious and try to make a turkey centerpiece
Game - pin the tail on a donkey sounds good (I have some leftover felt)
Fine motor - finger play with rhymes
Math - sort blocks by color and size and then build a tower
Science - learn about different wild animals


Art - I thought about making a favorite foods collage, but given Mr. M's love affair with all things Word World and cooking, we'll make a cookbooktionary.
Language - read, write, talk about recipes - nice tie-in with the Art activity
Math - I think we'll classify pictures of food stuff (i.e. veggies, fruits, cakes, yummy and yukkie)
Science - continuing with the food theme, we'll do some tasting and sorting - salt/sugar, flour/baking soda, watered-down lemon juice/water, etc.

Homeschooling Week 2 - Wrap-Up

Seems like we're getting into the rythm of our homeschooling. As I look through my notes, I see much more successes and only a few activities that Mr. M didn't like or didn't care for. Then again, we only did 3 full days of homeschooling this week, not the usual four and a half (more on this later).

Monday was a warm-up. First, we made a little "scarecrow" out of a brown paper bag. To be perfectly honest, Mr. M didn't really care about it all that much. Since I had to pretty much take care of the whole project, we were done very quickly. And then went to the Kids Together playground for a couple of hours.

Then we had a great session with our occupational therapist and I felt that Mr. M got plenty of fine motor work done. So instead of playing the stickers game, we made painting dough. That was a huge hit! Gotta do it again soon.

As much as I tried, Mr. M simply refused to participate in the body trace game on Tuesday. Nor did he want me to trace his favorite teddy bear. He just wasn't in the mood for anything that morning. Anything but the Marbles (our awesome kids' museum). It's always a huge hit with him. Except that the place is usually packed in the mornings and I try not to take him there until about noon time. Nevertheless, we had great time there for a couple of hours and Mr. M even built (and instantly demolished) several of tall towers out of foam blocks.

Wednesday was our best day EVER. Every single thing that we did, he LOVED. Early in the morning we played with bubbles and that got me thinking about trying some bubble art. Simple really - just mix some paint into the bubble soap and put a big sheet of paper on the floor. We both had great time.

And then I showed Mr. M paper clips and how they can be picked up with his magnet. I've never seen anyone so excited about paper clips before. His eyes went big as he saw the clips practically jump to the magnet and he said "WOW!!! LOOOK!!" (accidentally, that was his reaction to a trailer for the 2012 movie).

The "what's missing" game (I dubbed it the line-up game) right before lunch was a success. I chose 5 small toys - a toy train, a dinosaur, a small nesting doll from his set, a wooden block and a red marker - lined them up and named each object. I then directed Mr. M to close his eyes and "no peeking" and hid one of the objects. Then I asked him to tell me which of the toys was playing hide-and-seek. We repeated the game about 10 times before Mr. M started getting distracted and a bit bored.

The only activity that we didn't do from Wednesday was water play. But that's ok since Mr. M got to bake pie crust (from scratch) with Papa. Needless to say, he loved that (he loves all kinds of cooking and baking).

Then came Thursday and Friday when we didn't do anything of what we planned because Mr. M got sick again. Yes, this is the third time in less than 2 months - a new record for us (and not the one we're happy about). Understandable, he didn't care to do any of the activities.

Today, Saturday, he's feeling a bit better though. So I asked him if he'd like to have a birthday party for one of his toys. I thought he'd love the idea. He absolutely hated it though and kept saying "No, Mama, I don't want teddy bear to have birthday; I don't want Thomas have birthday; I don't want..."
Later in the day, as he was playing with Play Doh, we did have a tiny birthday party for Monster, complete with Play Doh cake, cupcakes, candy, Play Doh towers, a candy train and a birthday song. Which reminds me that I better put the Play Doh back into the container before it dries up and I have to buy more of it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Preschool Toys List

When Mr. M was very little, we had lots and lots of toys for him that were mostly plastic, very bright and very loud, and all required batteries (I remember one toy that needed 4 fresh AAs and 2 D-cells every day).

I bought quite a few of those toys myself. Then one day someone gave Mr. M a Wiggles Car toy that made the most annoying noise every time someone walked by. Well, that was an eye-opener!

Immediately I hid the Wiggles Car and let everyone know that Wiggles "music" and merchandise are NOT welcome in our house (maybe it's just me, but I really think there are better examples of children's music than Wiggles).

A few days later I collected all of Mr. M's toys from all the rooms in the house and sorted them into two piles. One of the piles was sold to a second-hand store. The other, much smaller one, became the basis of our new "quality over quantity" toy collection.

Here's what we have so far:

Freestyle play
  • Balls of different sizes, textures and bounce-ability
  • Blocks - intelocking plastic blocks, jumbo cardboard blocks and small painted wooden blocks
  • Play groceries - an ever expanding mix of Melissa&Doug stuff, plastic foods and empty boxes and plastic bottles
  • Pretend play kitchen - we've got a tiny table-top one, but it's no longer sufficent (Mr. M is REALLY into pretend cooking). So we're looking into something more realistic, probably a DIY version
  • Train set - in addition to our big Imaginarium set with 2 bridges, a loading crane and DIY tunnels, we regularly draw new train tracks and put together tunnels out of whatever's at hand
  • Play vehicles - a small collection of wooden trains, toy cars and an Air Force 1 plane
  • Finger puppets - Mr. M is starting to enjoy little puppet plays and even tries to join in
  • Puzzles - mostly jigsaw-style simple puzzles
  • Play animals - a mix of wild and domesticated ones plus some dinosaurs and bugs thrown in for good measure
  • Lacing beads
Table games
  • Fishing game - actually, we have two, the quite one (no batteries, just magnetic fishing poles) and the loud one (grrrhh, no volume control). Guess which one sees more action.
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar game - very sweet and simple, although we have to simplify the rules even more to the point that I simply tell the story and the caterpillar asks for particular foods
  • Elefun - ok, it's actually a floor game and it does require lots of batteries, sigh

Math and science toys

  • Sorting toys - the sorting cube (getting to be too easy) and the shape and color sorter. Also, one of the puzzles is a shape and color sorter.
  • Pyramid - a simple pyramid (from IKEA) that I thought Mr. M would get over pretty quickly. But he still likes playing with it, assembling it in different order and pretending that the rings are cakes and muffins.
  • Magnifier and magnet - new additions, so far so good
  • Blocks - see Freestyle Play above
  • Scale - it comes with a big set of counting/sorting bears (ok, in our household they are primarily train-riding bears)

Arts and crafts
  • Melissa&Doug easel - a gift from grandparents served us very well so far. My only complaint is that the chalkboard is way too smooth and provides very little sensory feedback to the little ones. Oh, and the entire thing is huge, taking up the entire corner of the room.
  • Paints, brushes and other painting implements - Mr. M never liked finger paining (getting even a drop of paint on his fingers is still a major upset for him). But he loves painting with brushes, especially with one in each hand.
  • Crayons, markers and chalk
  • Play Doh and implements
  • Random bits of paper, stickers, etc for collages
Other toys

  • Candles of all shapes and sizes - not for lighting, but for sorting and pretend play
  • Buttons - theoretically, for sorting; practically - for throwing around jubilantly as well as for sweeping with a brush
  • Kitchen utensils - and pots and pans - used for pretend cooking as well as for drumming
  • Photo albums (including digital) with pictures of family and friends - Mr. M loves going through them and finding grandparents and himself. Now we frequently discuss what's going on on each picture.
  • Containers of all shapes and sizes, paper towel and toilet paper tubes
  • Plastic jars
  • Rocks, shells, uncooked rice, dry beans
  • Cans of food - for building towers and rolling

Musical toys
  • Anything suitable for making into a drum or using as drum sticks
  • Bee Bop Band set - Mr. M mostly uses the drum and the tambourine. I'm very impressed with the strudiness of the drum - it withstood a whole year of daily very intense drumming (including with real drum sticks)!
  • Kazoo
  • Keyboard - it's an adult keyboard, but a low-end one
  • Toy guitar - thanks to the generousity of Mr. M's second cousin, Alisa who found it in her heart to part with it
  • Jar lid - yes, that's the latest addition to the musical toys - a lid from an apple sauce jar (if you press it in the center, it makes a "pop" sound, cool!)
Wow, that is a long list! But if you look at it, most toys are used for at least 2 different kinds of play. Most are very open-ended. Many are not even toys at all (in a sense that they are just everyday items).

My (No Longer) Messy Built-Ins


Ok, a couple of days ago I said I would really-really get organized really-really soon. I figure, if I make a promise to myself and let others know of it, I'll be much more likely to get it done. Of course, feel free to cheer me on and otherwise support my committment (not-so-subtle hint - please leave a comment).

My first organizing task was to take care of the very messy built-ins in the family room. BTW, here's a little-known fact - I designed these built-ins myself (I wish I could take credit for building them, alas, 'twas done by an awesome carpenter).

Anyway, the challenge was to create a more organized and more functional space to store books, magazines, clippings, pictures, games, and toys and do it on for under $20.

Well, as far as the budget part goes, I outperformed the goal by 100%. I spent $0.00 on this project! Hooray to me! I might even make a few bucks if I sell some of the nicknacks that used to clutter the shelves.

Of course, I was lucky in that I had plenty of matching baskets (bought them a while ago from Target). I used the baskets for storing some of the books (mostly paperbacks) and for the overflow toys.

I also had some white storage boxes and magazine holders that I bought years ago from IKEA. These are great and very versatile. Easy to label too. I store various clippings (vacation ideas, cartoons and articles I particularly liked) and little mementos in these. Will pick up some more next time I drive by an IKEA.

I kept 2 shelves for Mr. M's stuff, like play doh and books. No doubt these shelves will continue to get messy, but that's ok. Also, notice that one of the shelves is absolutely empty. I keep it reserved for great games for family game nights (and maybe even some jigsaw puzzles).
The hubby is loving it (or so he says) and Mr. M doesn't seem to care at all. Tell me something nice before I dislocate my shoulder from patting myself on the back for the second day in a row.

Simple Placemat

I'm all about teaching Mr. M some self-sufficiency skills. I know a little girl his age who uses a potty all by herself, properly washes (with soap!) and dries her own hands, dresses/undresses by herself, and stays busy with puzzles and little self-directed QUIET games for hours on end. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not comparing Mr. M to her (or to any other kids). I'm just being very envious of the little girl's mom, that's it!
And so, the little thing that I'm trying to teach Mr. M now is to set his table for each meal. To help him out, I wanted to get some kind of placemat with simple graphics showing what goes where - plate, cup, utensils.

I looked for it at a couple of local toystores and at Toys'R'Us, but couldn't find anything (although there are wonderful placemats with shapes, colors, dinosaurs, cars, maps, etc). I would've searched online, but I kept forgetting.

To make the long story short, I simply traced Mr. M's plates, utensils and cups on sheets of construction paper and glued them (the cut-outs, of course) onto a large sheet of white paper. I then drove over to the nearest Kinko's and got the whole thing laminated. Took a total of 30 mins and cost me about $4 for a two-sided placemat.

Mr. M absolutely loved the idea. He not only put the plate, the cup and the fork in the proper places, but asked for a knife and a spoon to "complete the picture". The unexpected benefit was that Mr. M ate at his table (instead of while running around the kitchen) and was much neater than usually - almost no mess. Hooray! Now let's see how long this novelty will last.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Case for Organizing Everything

A couple of years ago I added Peter Walsh's How to Organize (Just About) Everything to my Amazon Wish List. And sure thing, someone (I think it was my brother) got it for me as a birthday gift.

Now, two years later, I still have the book and a very disorganized house. Now, I'm not a hoarder, except when it comes to books, of course. Nor do we buy much stuff (thanks in part to never being a truly dual-earner household).

But now, sitting in my toys-strewn family room, I'm ready to change things around BIG TIME. The problem so far has been not so much lack of time, as lack of constant effort. There are lots of unfinished and even un-started projects laying around cluttering the space. There's also stuff that we bought or made and ended up not using.

There's also lots of information clutter - books, magazines, bookmarks, starred items in my Google Reader, etc. So I'll be dealing with those as well.

And speaking of Google Reader. Today I went in, unsubscribed from some feeds and re-organized and re-tagged others. And I added my favorite and most inspiring family and arts/crafts blogs to the blogroll (in case you want to check them out).

Monday, November 9, 2009

Homeschooling Day by Day - Week 2

Last week's main lesson was not to stress if some of the activities don't happen as planned or don't happen at all. The beautiful part is just about any experience can be turned into an educational one.

Plus that's the beauty of homeschool - I can go with the flow. In my planning I try for at least 1 hour of playground time each day (or going to a park or a greenway). On a rainy day we can stay home or go to a toy store or a Barnes&Noble (mostly to play with trains and look through the latest issue of Drumhead, no kidding!). But on a sunny day, we're going to be out for way more than an hour without worrying about sorting bears, lacing beads or putting together puzzles.

With this in mind, here's my very tentative schedule for Week 2:

Ok, I just realized that I it's already Monday evening and I haven't posted it yet. So we did make a scarecrow, but out of a brown bag (see picture above). Mr. M wasn't too much into it, but compensated by doing not 1 but 2 other art projects later in the day - playdoh drawing and drawing a rail road (with help of his trains).


  • Art - making a scarecrow; it was a huge hit the first time we did it and Mr. M keeps asking about it now and then. We might also make another scarecrow out of a brown bag. This one will include mostly painting, drawing and gluing.

  • Fine motor - we're back to the stickers are fun phase and I'm going to use this to learn body parts (I'm thinking heel, toes, individual fingers, elbows since Mr. M already knows most body parts)

  • Science - making thumbprints and examining them through magnifier

  • Blocks - we haven't made much progress with building a town, so we'll pick up where we left in Week 1 - buildings, signs and hopefully a railroad signal.


  • Art - body tracing (or at least teddy bear tracing) would be fun

  • Blocks - building the tallest tower we can build

  • Game - I'm dying to try Twister with Mr. M

  • Math - making a face out of felt to learn different shapes (ok, so Mr. M already knows most basic shapes, but never hurts to review)

  • Practical life - pouring rice (can you tell I'm reviewing my Montessori books?)


  • Art - doodle art

  • Fine motor - paper-clip pick-up (with a small brush, a magnet and a pair of strawberry hullers)

  • Language and memory - a game of "what's missing" with 3-5 objects

  • Game - water table (ok, so it's actually a sink, but it's a ton of fun nevertheless)

  • Practical life - I'm gonna get ambitious here and try to teach Mr. M to set his table for each meal


  • Art - paint to music

  • Cooking - making little pizza faces out of pita bread, cheese, raisings, carrots, etc.

  • Taste - tropical fruits tasting

Friday - Bear's Birthday Party

  • Art - make party invitations (and deliver them to Chef Pig, teddy bears and other guests)

  • Cooking - bake and decorate cupcakes

  • Math - sort birthday candles by color

  • Fine motor - gift wrapping (and unwrapping)

  • Game - Bear's birthday party

An Hour of Paint Dough

I love MaryAnn Kohl's art books! I love that there are no fancy photographs of carefully assembled end products (ours NEVER end up looking like the pictures, not even close). I love how simple most of the projects are - no fancy supplies or involved prep-work. And I absolutely love the sheer number of ideas in each of her books.
(Here's a great interview with MaryAnn where she mentions her upcoming book)

Having lots of easy-to-prepare art projects is very important to me since I never know what Mr. M will like on any given day. Yesterday he asked if we could make a scarecrow and today he couldn't care less about it.
So while he was playing with his trains, I picked up MaryAnn's Preschool Art book. I randomly opened it on the page with the Paint Dough project.

It sounded very simple. We had all the ingredients and supplies - flour, salt, water, paint. Ok, I didn't have poster board or matte board, but I used a roasting pan with some wax paper over it.
Mr. M got totally into it - mixing salt and flour. Then I distracted him with some 'toons, added water and paint to the mix, poured into a squeeze bottle and it was ready! Mr. M absolutely loved it! First he drew by squeezing the dough, but then got a bit tired and used the brush to make some cool designs. And if you're wondering what he drew - apples.
And now I'm off to update my Amazon Wish List - to add MaryAnn's latest book.


It was brought to my attention that I never posted Halloween pictures. That's because we didn't have Halloween this year. We were out of town (I guess the two giant bags of candy will have to wait until next year unless we use them in some cool projects).

But that doesn't mean we didn't do any Halloween-y stuff. First, we shopped for little pumpkins at a farmer's market. Then we went to an actual pumpkin patch for the big pumpkin. Then we drew lots of pumpkins and apples and put them all over the family room.

Then, of course, we read some Halloween books, including Margery Cuyler's The Bumpy Little Pumpkin and Erica Silverman's The Big Pumpkin - these two we read over and over and over and finally learned them by heart (as usual, I translated both into Russian for Mr. M).

Then we baked cookies. Actually, my hubby, being the family baker, baked them with Mr. M while I took some pictures. Unfortunately, we didn't decorate the cookies this year all because I didn't realize that for sprinkles to stay on the cookies, we had to frost them first. Shows how much I know about baking.

As for the costume, our idea was to dress Mr. M as the train engineer (his last year's costume). He didn't mind it at first, but then, on Oct. 30 he told us that he wanted to be a witch. Off we ran to Target, grabbed a plain black witch's costume - a dress and a hat (of course it was a girl's costume, have you seen witch's costumes for boys?!). Back home I cut the dress to make it into a short tunic and decorated the hat with some Halloween stickers and creepy crawlers.

Finally, we did carve a big pumpkin. It was given a nice toothy smile and set outside in the dark with a candle in its head.
So yes, we did all the Halloween stuff, except for trick-o-treating, but over the span of 2 or 3 weeks. It was kind of nice though, kind of like having Halloween over and over. And hey, we did keep all the candy!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

All Play and No Work

makes for one happy little boy! Ok, so we did do some work today, but it was well-camouflaged as a fun game.

A few months ago the hubby cut down some bushes to clear up some much needed space (what for - don't ask; the site is still empty, except for a pile of dry twigs). These bushes provided habitat for some of the birds. So naturally I felt very bad (although, we've got enough bushes and trees left on the property to house most of North American birds).

Anyway, I felt bad and, with winter fast approaching, I finally made my way to a home improvement store and bought a bird feeder and a big package of bird seed. Ok, to be honest, I wanted to buy the seeds for both the birds and Mr. M.

Don't call the authorities yet! Of course, Mr. M doesn't eat the seeds. Instead, I pour them in a big plastic tub, hide some small toys and let Mr. M dig for them. It's a great sensory game plus it's quick to set up and is practically free (if you plan on eventually using the seeds to feed the birds).
Well, back to the birds. After I explained to Mr. M about the bird feeder - what it's for and how the birds eat out of it, he wanted to help. So I let him pour seeds from the bag into the feeder with a little scoop. He absolutely loved the activity. Besides, he was totally fascinated with the sound the falling seeds were making on the sides of the feeder.

Once we were done, we went outside on the deck. I decided that it was about time to sweep all the leaves and pine needles off the deck and got to work. What d'ya know! Mr. M immediately started running around and stomping on the leaves, essentially negating my hard work (the push broom IS heavy).

Fortunately, I came up with an idea of making a giant leaves-and-needles pile for him to jump in. He LOVED the idea and patiently waited until the pile was just big enough (and more importantly, off the deck). That was some great gross motor work, jumping and rolling and climbing and walking all over the pile. Oh, and of course all the sensory work - touching leaves, needles, pine cones, twigs and listening to all the crunching and rustling. Fortunately, Mr. M never suspected a thing (or else he'd be inside playing with the trains).

Friday, November 6, 2009

Homeschooling Week 1 - How Did It Go?

It's the end of the first official week of homeschooling and I'm ready to pat myself on the back and have a celebratory bowl of ice-cream (or anything else sweet). Better yet, I'm going to slice me another slice of this amazing SweetWater Pale Ale bread I bought today at Whole Foods.

Munch-munch, back to the recap of the week. Well, I have to admit that I had a lot of help from Word World's Chef Pig. Currently he's Mr. M's best buddy and MIC (Most Influencial Character). This week, Chef Pig is everywhere with us - riding trains (real and toy ones), baking bread (real and imaginary), reading books, building block towers. He's a great influence too - if Mr. M doesn't want to do something, Chef Pig leads the way.

Monday went absolutely great. We actually did every single thing I planned for us. And, even more importantly, Mr. M was eager and willing to build with blocks, play with buttons, do puzzles (he ASKED for them), etc. The only thing that didn't go as planned was the balance scales game. He simply didn't care for it at all. He understood the concept and could easily point to a heavier or ligher object when asked. But his heart was absolutely not into it. After a few minutes he just walked away. That's ok too.

The highlight of our Tuesday was objects tracing. I love this activity - it is super simple to set up and is quite fun. All you need is some paper, a crayon or a marker, and some shapes to trace (we used simple cookie cutter shapes from our Play Dough set). Oh and I also added a ruler to draw straight lines. Then Mr. M added a new twist by turning each outline into a face. And then he added some stickers too.
We also built a new train set with some leftover poster board, an empty Klinex box, and some markers. The huge train set upstairs was quickly abandoned and Mr. M concentrated on giving rides to Chef Pig and helping sorting bears get to their color-coded islands.

On Wednesday Mr. M rediscovered chalk. I give him very small pieces (to ecourage proper grip) and we both draw. We start off with a little imitation - lines, crosses, circles and his favorite letter of the moment - "C". Then we do little mazes and connect the dots-type games. This is really much cheaper than buying Kumon Mazes workbooks (although I LOVE them).

On Thursday we did little of what we planned. The day was simply too gorgeous to spend indoors. Instead, we went to the lake to feed the ducks and for a little playdate. And then we went for a train ride and a hot dog.
Finally, today- Friday - we went completely off our schedule. Instead of playing with blocks and house-cleaning, we were busy making Play Dough cakes and pasta, talking about different letters, and baking real bread.

Other things we did this week in addition to or, more often, instead of the pre-planned activities were

  • reading, lots and lots of it
  • music - mostly drums and some kazoo
  • magnets and magnifiers - Mr. M ran around the house one day trying to stick a magnet to everything; the next day he marveled at how everything - leaves, pine cones, acorns and Chef Pig - looked big through a magnifier
  • outside play - playgrounds, lakes, parks and front yard - the weather is gorgeous and we're making the most of it!