Sunday, May 27, 2012

Checking Out BrickMagic

I'm posting this a week late, but seriously, last weekend was so busy - 3 big events in 3 days - that I took me a while to get back to normal and catch up with things around the house. I already talked about the Gotta Be NC festival we went to on Friday and the Henside the Beltline tour we went to on Saturday. Then there was Sunday and time to go to the LEGO BrickMagic festival.

Needless to say, M went there dressed as Boba Fett. This time he fit right in! Ok, so he was like the only one wearing a Star Wars costume, that's true. But pretty much everyone else was wearing Star Wars t-shirts. Ok, maybe not everyone, but like every third person. So geeky ruled the day (in the best sense of the word). Let me tell you, during the chicken tour we haven't met anyone who recognized M's costume. The closest we got was some guy who thought M was Jango Fett. Other guesses included Darth Vader (mostly) and even a Power Ranger or a robot. But at the BrickMagic not a single person was confused.

So as at any festival there were costume characters at this one. On the day that we went, there were three 501st Legion stormtroopers. The day before, we heard, Lord Vader himself made an appearance along with Boba Fett. I can't believe we missed this photo-op. How cool would that be - to have a picture of my little Boba shaking hands with the big Boba. Oh well, maybe next year. Honestly, we didn't even know beforehand that there'd be stormtroopers, so M was thrilled. He kept talking about how now he made friends with real stormtroopers!

Of course, there were lots of Star Wars builds, including the Battle on Hoth (for some reason that's one battle M's most fascinated with) and Pizza day at stormtroopers' cantina. There was also a huge Death Star being built, but we showed up too late and the build was close by then. Again, something to think about next year.

We also checked out a bunch of vendors. I'm particularly interested in finding a Lego club for M, but at his pace. For now we build at home. He can now read the diagrams and follow them most of the times. He does have a lot of trouble with very small parts and long builds. He is also getting more interested in independent builds, not from kits. So I am thinking about getting him some lose bricks just for that ('cause he keeps mixing pieces from all the different kits which is a nightmare).

While wandering around, we stumbled onto Lego Mindstorm presentation. M is a bit too young for Mindstorms, but since those are robots, he's been asking for one for a long time. Seeing all the assembled and programmed Mindstorms was very motivational for him too 'cause once we got home he was eager to try learning some programming (with MIT's Scratch - free and easy to use). He actually got so into it that he kept asking me to "please, do some more programming with him". Needless to say, I'm very happy about it, especially since I tried Scratch with him a year ago without much enthusiasm on his part.

Back to the BrickMagic... Before we left, M also built a bit with bricks. But he was pretty tired and distracted and was clearly ready to go home. And so we did. The end.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

It's Chicken Tour Day!

Hooray, it's a chicken tour day! We've been waiting and waiting and finally the busiest weekend of the year is here and everything is happening - the Got to Be NC Festival, the Artsplosure, Astronomy Days, and lots and lots of other events. Oh, and of course, the Henside the Beltline Tour de Coop.

So off we went early in the morning to get the map of the tour and mark the coops we (ok, I) wanted to see. And then a good friend, Maria, and her daughter stopped by and we all went on this tour.

The part I love about the tour isn't so much the chickens themselves, although they are beautiful, but the yards we get to see and all the awesome and interesting and just plain wacky things in these yards. So when I read descriptions of each coop, I pay particular attention to the ones marked with the "backyard of interest" icon.

It is also great fun going to the same yard year after year. You get to know the owners a bit better so that you're no longer just strangers poking noses into the nooks and crannies of their yards. Plus, honestly, it's interesting to see what changes have been made in the yard since the year before.

So this year we once again went to see our neighbor's coop. It's a wonderful yard, very kid friendly, with a big play structure and, new this year, a zip line. Plus their chickens roam free around the yard and can be petted and fed.

Then we went to another one of the must-visit-every-year yards, this one belonging to an NCSU professor. I love this yard the most because it reminds me so much of a nice dacha - a large veggie garden, lots of fruit trees and just enough chaos to look both relaxed and beautiful.

But gotta mix the old and the new, right? So we went to some new (to us) yards in the Mordechai neighborhood (ah, it's such a lovely neighborhood too, wish we could afford it).

So what did we see aside from lots of beautiful chickens and some cute 6-week old chicks? Ok, we discovered this amazing old house hidding in the woods. Aparently, it's one of the oldest surviving houses in the county and it's still being lived in. M spent quite some time looking at the beautiful chickens and a rooster in the wooded yard by this house, then scored a free chocolate cookie and played ball with the boys he met.

In one of the yards, the one with a beautiful designer coop, we found these giant tadpoles in the pond. So awesome and makes me want to go out into our yard and start digging so we too would have a pond with tadpoles and frogs.

Nearby was a house with another stylish coop. But more importantly, they also had a restored Airstream trailer that was open for a look-see (it's now a studio) and a tire swing.

We did have to cut our tour short because we were late for M's yoga. I would've skipped it altogether, but he loves it and was very upset at me suggesting such a thing. And then we went to our friends for an impromptu party with burgers and mojitos. There were 6 kids at the party, all boys. So you can image how fun it was for M. He was running around outside in his Boba Fett costume (he's been wearing it for the last few days) and pretending to freeze the "baddies" in carbonite. And I got to catch up with my friends!

Gardening Update

It's not all fun and games and homeschooling around here. Sometimes we have to do real work, like gardening. Just last Thursday (as pretty much every Thursday for the last couple of months) we were working in the side yard, clearing all the English ivy and Virginia creeper, getting rid of old branches and twigs littering the ground, pruning, digging, planting, mulching and doing all possible to transform our neglected side yard into something nice. We are half-way there, I think (although I shudder at the thought of having to dig more holes in the awful mix of thick roots, big rocks, broken bricks and heavy clay that we have instead of proper soil).

We've been so busy with the side yard, that we had hardly any time left for the front yard veggie garden. Ok, so M finally pruned the dwarf peach (no worries, I gave him detailed instructions and he did a beautiful job). And I finally did get stakes and sisal rope and tied up tomatoes. And thankfully with all the rain we've been getting there was no need for watering. But the place is in bad need of weeding.

So what's growing and, most importantly, ripening, in our veg garden? We still have lots of lettuce. It is now getting shade from surrounding plants and hasn't bolted yet. We are finally getting some sugar peas. M picked the first few pods today, ate them "with great relish" and proclaimed them delicious. The carrots are too small, but he picked a couple anyway. Originally he wanted to store them for winter (you see, we've been listening to Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House in the Woods" and M is now all about stocking up for the winter). It took some persuading on my part to get him to eat these little carrots.

Plus, of course, we get lots of herbs - garlic and green onions, all kinds of mint, dill, rosemary, etc. Just the other day we made lemonade and added some fresh mint to it - yummy! (so if you need mint, do let me know, I've got lots of it).

Yellow squashes are almost ready, just a couple more days until we can start picking them. Some of the early tomatoes are starting to bloom and so are the two potato plants.

Even though the weather's been kind of crazy, the cukes are growing well and I'm hoping we get lots and lots of tiny cukes soon. 'Cause you know, as long as it's something M can harvest himself, he will eat it. But store bought veggies are a whole different story. Seriously, he will munch on chives and sorrel and mint as long as he can "graze". Maybe I'll plant lots of broccoli next year?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Got to Be NC Festival

Today I found out that, since M is now just a hair taller than 42 inches, our trips to all sorts of carnival and fairs are going to get a lot more expensive. Well, you see, most fair rides require riders to be at least 42 inches tall to go on rides alone (without adults).

 Of course, it also means I won't have to go on those whirling, tilting, spinning, swooshing through the air rides unless I want to (fat chance). So it's a good news/bad news kind of thing.

Sure, I tried not spending any money at all on the rides. I told M that we can look at anything and do anything at the Got to Be NC Festival as long as it was free of charge. But you know, there just ain't much free stuff these days. Fortunately, there was this awesome setup for a supersized water balloon toss. Can you believe it was free?! And you could shoot big balloons filled with cold water out of this oversized slingshot and try to hit your opponents as many times as you wanted. Major fun and I couldn't believe it was FREE!

But after we were done with that, the only other free thing we found was the fountain. But you know, keeping in mind that it only runs during special events (3-4 weekends a year), it was a terrific free opportunity.
Sure, the little petting zoo with goats and sheep and llama was free. But you had to pay $2 for a small cup of oats to feed to the animals. Of course, buying it was not necessary unless you wanted to take some cute pictures and enjoy listening to your child describing how a goat's tongue feels and how llama is so sneaky (because, with its long neck, it tries to snatch the cup out of your hands and eat it all!)

And then we ended up walking by the midway with all the rides... What made matters even more difficult for me was that M stuck to the rule and didn't even ask to go on a ride, not even once. Nor did he ask for any treats or to try to win prizes. So that's what ultimately got me. Turns out, we had to buy tickets for the rides, each ticket costing $1. But even the cheapest rides required 3 tickets and most rides were 4 or 5 tickets.

Luckily, there was a Friday Special deal where you could buy a wristband for $20 and have unlimited rides. And that's exactly what I did. It proved to be a good choice since M ended up going on all but 2 kiddie rides (one was closed for maintenance and the other one was for very-very young kids).

And he also went on 3 big rides - a chair swing ride, the Wipeout, and some sort of a twisting twirling ride I don't know the name of.

Ok, so he had to be pulled off that ride (actually, he motioned for the ride attendant to stop) because he got "a little bit scared,  Mama". But that didn't stop him from going on a swing ride and a few other nausea-inducing rides (like the Barrels of Fun one above) not once, but twice and even three times.

I wish I could go on those rides with him, but just looking at them makes me sick. So we're going to wait for Chris to come back and then M will get to go on really big rides, oh, and on bumper cars too.

Although I kinda wish I did go on this slide with him! Note to self - take more than $3 in cash to a festival next time around.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Homeschooling Progress

I haven't posted any updates about our homeschooling for a while. I mean, I post about books we read and field trips we go on, but what about the three Rs? So here is the update:

1. Reading

Big progress here for sure. M can read! Ok, so I said months ago that he could read. But back then it meant he could read short words. Now he can read entire phrases and even sentences. And on a good day, he can even read a short story, such as this one:

- Пустые банки и старые газеты... А еды нет! - грустно сказал Крош.
Под газетами Крош увидел мышку.
- Мышка, где еда? - спросил Крош.
Мышка не ответила. Ей тоже было грустно. Крош подумал и решил:
- Мы посеем семена! Когда они вырастут, будет урожай и будет еда. А где лежат семена?
Крош искал семена везде. В банках, под газетой. Он гремел и шуршал.

If this doesn't make any sense to you, don't worry, it's only a short part from a story in M's Смешарики reading book for beginners. And yes, it's in Russian because that's what I'm teaching M now. We'll start English later this year, probably when Chris gets back home.

While M's reading is still far from smooth, he's definitely showing a lot of improvement with blending sounds and making sense of the material.

2. Writing

Not much to show here. But we are working on it. Thankfully, we have lots of help from our occupational therapist. But M does spend more time drawing letters and numbers and they come out recognizable even though he tends to add extra lines to some of the letters, such as "E".

3. 'Rithmetic

With so much of our time and efforts spent on reading, we are taking it slow with math. As far as basic arithmetic goes, M can do simple addition and subtraction with numbers 0 to 7 without manipulatives. Anything greater than 7 he needs manipulatives support which is fine by me. Aside from simple arithmetic, we've played with grids and symmetry and functions. This is my 'field research' as I continue working on the Moebius Noodles book (it's going to be awesome).

It seems we haven't done all that much with school. But add to this all our field trips, all M's physical and occupational therapy work, and all our reading and I think we've been doing ok.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Spring Thing and Corals

Today was the day of the annual Spring Thing picnic with our homeschooling group. We missed last year's one, so we were really looking forward to attending this one. So yesterday evening I was busy making a very large pot of салат винегрет also known as the Russian beet salad. I was a bit worried since it has beets (and so many Americans seem to be averse to them) and pickles and onions.

Do you know how long does it take me to make 4 pounds of beet salad? It takes me 45 minutes, not including the time it takes to boil veggies. It might seem like too much time, but I assure you, I'm no slow poke. It's just Russian salads require all the ingredients to be uniformly and finely chopped.

Anyway the Spring Thing was awesome! We stayed there for the whole thing and I had a hard time getting M out of the park. First, there were all sorts of activities for the kids, including parachute games, balloons, water balloons and even a bouncy castle thing-y. I thought M was going to spend all his time at the bouncy thing, but instead he enjoyed the parachute and then - running around the big lawn with a group of boys armed with Nerf guns.

But that was until he discovered the Healing Oceans Together project. This project's goal is to create a card game that would be fun and engaging and would teach kids about marine life and how it can be protected.

They had a couple of tables, one for crocheting and one for creating coral reefs out of various recyclables and odds and ends. I was surprised how absorbed he became in making coral reefs with some egg containers, a paper cup, lots of salt dough and various pasta shells. Then he asked me to draw and cut out a coral out of a foam tray and spent quite a while coloring it.

Other children, mostly older ones, stopped by and they made really beautiful corals. One girl even made a salt dough dolphin jumping on the waves made out of a plastic bag, the entire structure intricately balanced on a stand made out of drinking straws.

On the way home, M kept talking about his coral reef and how now he wants it to grow. He asked me what could we do to make the reef grow. I explained that this one was a model, so it wouldn't really grow. But we could add on to it, I said. So maybe that's what we're going to do tomorrow.

China is Far Away

As I mentioned, M's favorite toy of the last year and a half, his big Wall-E finally broke. We are both very sad. If I could find someone to fix this toy (re-wire the eyes and glue the neck), that'd be wonderful. But since I don't know anyone like that, I got M a different Wall-E. But I told him that we're going to send this one to China for repairs and it will come back to us even better (since the new one is not the exact same model).

While I'm thinking about how to pretend-mail Wall-E to China, M is busy trying to figure out more important issues. One is "how come there are no toy factories in America". I am not sure how to explain that one. Another issue comes from me telling M that it will take 2 weeks for the updated Wall-E to arrive to us. So now he wants to know "why can't it be delivered sooner, maybe with a rocket instead of an airplane". The simple answer is that I didn't feel like paying extra for expedited delivery, but I'm not about to share this with M (although believe me, after 3 days of non-stop whining and complaining and asking me when will the two weeks be over, I'm regretting not shelling out that money).

Then M is working on the idea of his about all three of us travelling to China. At first, after finding out that virtually all his toys were made in China, M wanted to move to this promised land. I explained that he would have to start learning the third language, Chinese, which is pretty difficult. I also mentioned something about environmental pollution in China. So my 5-year old thought really-really hard and then said "let's move China to here, mom". How would we do that, I asked. Here's his explanation: "we'll build a factory and bring all the toys from China and pollute our environment and then we'll have China here". Hmm, I think we both need a more in-depth lesson about this country.

In the mean time, M's got another idea (he just can't stand the fact that Wall-E is missing all the fun, i.e. watching garbage trucks on Thursdays). This idea comes from a Russian cartoon M loves. The cartoon is called  Фиксики (Fix'ems). In it tiny people called Fixiki live inside all the appliances and electronic/electrical equipment. They help us keep all our things working and, using their awesome multifunction tool called помогатор (helper), they fix whatever's broken.

So yesterday M set his broken Wall-E in the middle of the living room, built scaffolding out of building blocks (so Fix'ems would have no problems climbing up to Wall-E's neck) and tasked me with watching out for Fix'ems while I work late. Unfortunately, no Fix'ems showed up. So now M is trying to figure out why they didn't. I really don't want to tell him that they only live in Russia 'cause what if he says we now need to move Russia here?

But for now M is taking care of the other Wall-E toy he has. This one is a little Wall-E, so M says it's Wall-E's son. Since Wall-E is temporarily without a dad, M's taking care of him and even teaching him manners (I recently overheard M lecturing Wall-E on when to say "thank you", "please", "sorry", and "you're welcome").

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Books for This Week

We've been reading so much lately! I think even more than usual. Admittedly, M's selections this week are rather eclectic. But there's a story behind every book.

We started with Pigaroons by Arthur Geisert. M loved his Hogwash and Lights Out book and was eager to listen to this story. The other two books were essentially wordless stories, but this one was different. It starts off with Pigaroons stealing the only large block of ice from the River Patrollers. Pigaroons steal because a) that's what they always do and b) they want to get the first prize at the Ice Festival for their ice sculpture of Hernando de Soto. But clever River Patrollers mess up their plans with a wonderful flying machine and what little ice they have left. Let me just tell you that for a couple of days after first hearing this story M kept making ice blocks and attempting to pretend-"carve" them into the likeness of his favorite toy, Wall-E.

Speaking of Wall-E, M's favorite Wall-E (yes, he has 2) broke down for good. The eyes completely fell off and the wires snapped. Needless to say, M is heart-broken. I feel out of sorts too 'cause even as a toy, Wall-E is extremely lovable. So I did something I don't normally do - ordered another Wall-E. Since it's arriving from the factory in China, we'll have to wait a few weeks. In the mean time, M is asking me all sorts of interesting questions such as "why don't we have a Wall-E-making factory in our country" and "why does it take so long to deliver toys from China". The upside to this story is that now he's very interested in learning more about China. So he was thrilled to see this book, Ms. Frizzle's Adventures: Imperial China at the library. Although I think he was a bit disappointed there was no mention of toy factories in it.

It's been so long since we've read any books about space. It seems that we went through all the ones at our library that were elementary-school level. So I was surprised to discover this one, Messages from Mars. I think it's just about the best children's book of facts about Mars. It's non-fiction, but set in a (hopefully, not so fictional or distant) future in which humans built colonies on Mars and the travel is so safe and quick, that even children can now fly to the Red Planet. All the different facts about Mars and Mars explorations are presented as messages children send to their friends and family as they travel to and on Mars.

Of course, the list wouldn't be complete without a few books about garbage M is currently flipping through every single day. The first one is Where Does the Garbage Go. Two things I like (and M loves) about this book. The first one is that it talks about how modern landfills differ from dumps that existed just a few decades ago. The second thing is that it has schematic drawings of all the different recycling facilities - for recycling paper, plastic, aluminum and glass. We've learned that no matter the material that gets recycled, it first has to be crushed or shredded and cleaned. We also picked up the Recycle by Gail Gibbons, but haven't gotten around to reading it this week, all because of this book (see below):

I am so happy I ordered this book! Seriously, Darth Vader and Son was an instant hit with M, myself and some of our friends we've shown the book to. Basically, it's all about the question "what if Darth Vader raised his son, Luke?" The answers, presented as hilarious cartoons, are all-to-recognizable. M usually insists on me reading new books to him right away. But not this one. Instead, he took it from me as soon as I got it out of the box and spent half an hour or so leafing through it and having a chuckle all on his own. Later he told me "you see, Darth Vader loves Luke! I always knew that. He is a good dad."

A while ago I discovered that our library system had 3 of the Dr Suess's books available in Russian. But I could never find them at the library branch we usually go to. Fortunately, I stopped by another library branch and there were not one, but two copies of each book! Hooray! M picked Horton Hatches the Egg. I read it to him before too. I think M loves Horton's awkward resilience plus the picture of an elephant climbing a tree to sit in a nest is too funny! Dr Suess books are among a handful of books that I read to M in English (since not all the stories have been translated into Russian and they are too fun to not read over and over).

Usually on Thursday evenings we join our Russian friends for a Russian story time, followed by чаепитие (tea time), of course. Last week the story time was changed to a puppet theater time. The play, performed by three of the moms (including yours truly rocking the role of the stupidest piglet), was The Three Piglets. Now, I did read this story to M ages ago, but he wasn't too interested. But the puppet theater performance changed all that and he asked to get the book. In the Russian version of the story, the piglets sing a song that has a line "we aren't afraid of the big  bad wolf, big bad wolf, big bad wolf". The very next day I overheard M singing his own version as he played with his garbage trucks: "we aren't afraid of the stinking trash, stinking trash, stinking trash".

And this book has been our bed-time reading for a week already. It's a collection of stories about Paddington Bear, wonderfully translated into Russian (M's birthday gift from his uncle). M loves Paddington and keeps asking when will we be going to London to the Paddington Station. He thinks that Paddington makes regular appearances there (does he? that'd be awesome!) This is our second time reading this book. The stories are very long, so I usually only read one each night before bed time. Needless to say, M's favorite stories in this book are the ones with Mr Curry since they are the funniest. Frankly, I think so too.