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DIY Advent Calendar (Holiday bucket list)

21 Nov

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season–the obligations, the shopping, the preparation. It’s also easy to completely miss out on the true meaning and spirit of Christmas.

So how do you fulfill those obligations, observe family traditions, and still experience the joy and wonder of such a beautiful holiday?

I suggest making an Advent calendar or Christmas bucket list filled with activities that will help you appreciate all that comes with the month of December.

We made an Advent calendar for the girls in 2014, when they were a little more than a year old. We wanted to countdown the days until Christmas, introduce them to our traditions, and teach them about the reason for the season.


I had these envelopes printed at a copy shop in 2014 and have used them every year since then. I hang them on a decorative clothespin garland in a place of prominence.


I make a list of things we want to do in preparation for Christmas–things like watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” donate to Toys for Tots, bake cookies, decorate the Christmas tree, and make gifts for the girls’ caregivers or teachers. I’ve always made sure to include family traditions, charitable acts, crafts and/or gift-making, special treats, and movies.


Then, I print a blank December calendar and strategically schedule out our activities, based on when a particular event might be happening, or when a charitable organization needs donations, etc.


Once it’s all planned out, the setup and execution are really easy: Print (or write) out the list of activities, and cut out each activity; place each one in its corresponding envelope. Then, hang up or display the Advent calendar. Finally, open up the envelope on the corresponding day and enjoy 24 days of heart-warming activities with your family.


Pro tip: Keep the December calendar handy, so you can prep for the next day’s or week’s activities and generally stay on top of things.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Drink hot cocoa
  • Drive around the neighborhood to look at the Christmas lights
  • Shop for and donate a blessing bag for a homeless person
  • Have dinner by candlelight with Christmas carols
  • Have snowman pancakes for supper
  • Build a gingerbread house
  • Bake Christmas cookies
  • Shop for and donate a toy to Toys for Tots
  • Collect and donate items to the local animal shelter
  • Drop coins in a Salvation Army kettle
  • Write a letter to Santa Claus
  • Watch ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’
  • Put together the nativity
  • Read the Christmas story in the Bible
  • Make a gift for your teacher
  • Watch ‘Elf’
  • Make Christmas cards for your grandparents
  • Help decorate the Christmas tree
  • Read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’
  • Leave cookies and milk for Santa
  • Shop for a gift for your sister
  • Donate to a food pantry

Look for local Christmas events, such as visits with Santa Claus, Polar Express train rides, and movie showings. Think about the things you did as a child to celebrate Christmas. Consider also the things you might have to do (e.g. shop for or make a teacher gift) and make them into family activities. Think of those less fortunate and make an effort to help them. And of course, remember the reason for the season.


Enjoy and happy holidays!


Free learning resources for school-age children

24 Sep
Fall is official here! And while that brings with it the fun of playing in the leaves, dressing up for trick-or-treating on Halloween, and visiting the apple orchard and pumpkin patch, it also brings the hard work of learning to read, write, and count.
Anna and Elise are kindergartners this year, and they are thriving in their all-day classroom settings. Both girls (they are in different classes with different teachers) already have a dozen or so sight words memorized, can write their names properly, and can describe their environs using “above,” “below,” and “beside,” among other descriptors.
The girls’ teachers do not believe in issuing homework to kindergartners, as the daylong work of learning is taxing enough for their little bodies and brains. But they do ask us, as parents and families, to read at least 10 minutes a day and, if we’re able, to practice their “popcorn” words (words that pop up frequently in text and in conversation) and their amassing math skills.
One way parents can help their children reinforce their newly acquired skills is with free worksheets and activities from
Anna and Elise tackled this cute Halloween matching worksheet this afternoon. They sounded out the words, and while there were a few tricky ones (deciphering between “candy” and “candle” and “castle”), they successfully found each matching picture.
Check out this fall! Their worksheets, puzzles, mazes, color-by-number pages, and more (all of which are broken down by grade and topic) are a great supplement to what your children are learning in school!

Free learning resources for parents

10 May
Summer is both a fun and challenging time for us: The girls are out of school, which means more time for outdoor activities, special projects, and day trips; but the girls are out of school, which means less structured activity, fewer school projects, and quicker boredom.
We enrolled the girls in summer camp at the YMCA three mornings a week, so I can maintain my hours at work on those busy days; they’ll go to Kids Zone at the YMCA the other two mornings (or evenings), on my less busy days.
They’ll still get some structure with camp, but our other mornings, and all of our afternoons, are sure to need some.
My grand plan this summer is to institute a weekly schedule that incorporates arts and crafts, science, cooking, playing, and learning, possibly following the camp theme each week.
I hope to impart not only academic-type lessons, but also personal and social skills (e.g. age-appropriate chores, manners, etc.) through hands-on and play-based activities — just as the girls have gotten in preschool.
But I undoubtedly will run out of steam and inspiration, so I am really excited that there is a veritable treasure trove of resources at
Screen Shot 2017-11-21 at 12.13.42 PM
This cute maze, for example, is something the girls will love!
I’m also a fan of this sight words bingo worksheet and this home scavenger hunt idea.
Check out this summer! Their worksheets, puzzles, mazes, color-by-number pages, and more (all of which are broken down by grade and topic) are a great supplement to your summer activities!

How I stopped short-order cooking for my kids

26 Apr

My daughters, Anna and Elise, are 4 1/2 years old, and have been pretty picky eaters since they gained enough independence to make decisions about what foods they like and don’t like — especially for dinner.

Maybe more than 2 years ago, for lunches, I introduced the “snack plate”, which was an ice cube tray that I filled with little bites and nibbles of a variety of foods: lunch meat, cheese, crackers or chips, raisins, nuts, cut-up fruits and vegetables — and very occasionally, a sweet treat.

But around that same time, for dinners, I found myself making a meal for the girls, and then a meal for Christopher and me. Sometimes, I would get brave and hopeful, and I would make something especially for them with hidden vegetables or beans — butternut squash mac ‘n’ cheese, spaghetti pie with garbanzo noodles, zucchini-turkey meatballs with marinara — and other times, I relied on the staples: chicken nuggets, (boxed) mac ‘n’ cheese, pizza, waffles or pancakes, and sandwiches.

Rejection after rejection left me feeling dejected and under-appreciated — by two little 3-year-olds! I was cooking food especially for them — delicious AND nutritious food — and they hated it…and thus, they hated me. (#overdramatic)

Fast forward to about 3 weeks ago: I joined a Facebook group run by two mamas of little ones, who also happen to be registered dietitians and have a lot of knowledge and first-hand experience with feeding children. The conversation among the women in that community was immediately inspiring.

Simultaneously, Christopher and I have been starting to prepare the girls for the next developmental stage: kindergarten. Anna and Elise are beyond ready, academically, and for the most part, socially and emotionally, but they still have some growing up to do…and one of those benchmarks is being able to eat a well-balanced meal, focus on eating and not talking or playing (because 20 minutes is all they will have for lunch in the cafeteria), and having good table manners.

So, a little more than 2 weeks ago, I decided the girls were going to eat the same dinner (or almost the same dinner) as Christopher and me. And it’s gone surprisingly well!
Here’s how I did it:

1. I involved the girls in the meal-planning process. I sat them in front of my Pinterest boards and my cookbooks, and I suggested recipes they might like, explaining the ingredients and flavors with familiar and positive words. I didn’t limit it to dinner, either; I let them select breakfast, lunch, and snack recipes, too, if things caught their interest.

2. I involved the girls in the cooking process, as much as possible, and when appropriate. They dumped ingredients into the mixing bowl when we made snack bars and muffins. They helped roll up lasagna noodles when we made spinach-ricotta lasagna rolls. They rolled meatballs when we made zucchini-turkey meatballs.

3. I purposely served our first family meal on a weekend night, when we all could eat together at the table. Christopher and I were both there to encourage the girls, as well as model good manners and good eating habits. We continue to eat together, at the table, whenever possible — most usually on the weekends.


3a. I purposely deconstruct as much of the meal as possible. For example, we selected a spring vegetable and gnocchi skillet, and while Christopher and I had it all together in a bowl, the girls had their gnocchi, vegetables (corn, tomatoes, and zucchini), and kielbasa separate.


4. I ask that they take at least one bite of anything new or different on their plate. Some parents don’t believe in making their children take a “no thank you” bite, and prefer to let their children make the decision about what and how much to eat. I disagree; I believe that even one small, apprehensive bite could lead to more and enthusiastic bites. Just the other night, Anna and Elise took nervous slurps of coconut carrot soup, only to finish their entire servings.


5. I put at least one or two things on their plate that they will definitely eat. Most nights, the girls get some kind of fruit with dinner — applesauce, strawberries, or mandarin oranges. Sometimes, they get bread or crackers with cheese or hummus. For example, when we had that coconut-carrot soup, the girls had a piece of French bread with cream cheese, a hot dog, and a pickle with their small bowl of soup.

5a. I am not above hiding veggies in familiar snack foods. We’ve made roasted carrot-oat bars, and while the girls don’t like them plain — they prefer them with a simple cream cheese frosting — they still are eating a pretty nutritious snack. We’ve also made chocolate-avocado muffins, and the girls love them.

6. I incentivise the act of trying new foods. I did this shortly after preschool started this past fall, because the girls would come home and tell me what their snack was, but admit that they hadn’t taken even one bite of the fruit or vegetable, and I was tired of them a) not getting a well-balanced snack and b) wasting food. We used a sticker chart: The girls received a sticker every time they tried something new, and they could pick a small toy from the dollar store after they earned five stickers. It was very motivating for them, and since then, the girls have grown to love grapes, oranges, and raspberries, and they have tried salsa. More recently, the incentive is a lot simpler: I tell the girls to think of how proud Daddy and I will be if they try (and better yet, finish) these new and different meals. And it works! Last night, the girls literally shouted when Christopher walked in the door, “Daddy! We had carrot soup!”

My method might not work for you and your children, but it might give you some ideas. And my method is nothing new or unusual, but it is comprised of tried-and-true strategies. I encourage you, if you are struggling, to just try one or two of these tactics. Maybe start with a sticker chart, or start by having your kids eat one meal a week the same as you and your partner. Maybe start with lunch, rather than dinner. Maybe take it a step further and let your kids (this works especially well for older children) pick a new fruit or vegetable at the store, and then help you decide how to prepare it for a meal.

I don’t know why we waited so long, but I guess the silver lining is the girls must have been ready, because this transition has gone really smoothly. And my stress level has gone way down.

The only tricky part is finding meals and recipes that fit this new normal…

Valentine’s Day sensory box

11 Feb

For February, we’re “learning” about Valentine’s Day, about heart shapes and the colors red, pink and white.

Here’s our Valentine’s Day sensory box:

20150211_152257This box contains red and pink jingle bells; red, pink, and white pom-poms; red feathers; red and pink heart-shaped Mardi Gras beads; Valentine’s Day erasers; small pink jewelry boxes; heart-shaped cookie cutters; and white, heart-pattered plastic cups.

Everything came from the dollar store (thanks, in part, to my mother-in-law) or my arts and crafts stash.

20150208_10392120150208_103957I think this might be the girls’ favorite box yet. They love wearing the beads and transferring the beans from the big box to the small boxes and cups, or putting the jingle bells in the cups and shaking them around. They also love stacking the cups and nesting them inside each other.

20150208_104238They’re doing a much better job of keeping the beans contained to a confined space, rather than throwing them about…although they do still do that, too.


Our take on sensory boxes

21 Jan

In searching for age- and developmentally-appropriate arts and crafts projects for the girls to do (and for us to do with the girls), I stumbled upon the concept of a sensory box.

20141202_150320A sensory box is simply a medium-sized shallow plastic storage tub with materials inside that stimulate the senses and, hopefully, spark the imagination. A sensory box is often built around a central theme or concept.

A box has three components: the base, the tools, and the treats and trinkets.

The base often is dry beans, rice or pasta (plain or dyed), sand, gravel, or similar “filler” material. The tools are things that can be used to scoop, pour, pick up, sort, etc.; they could include measuring cups/spoons, small boxes/containers, or chopsticks. And finally, the trinkets are things that make the box fun and usually fit the theme.

I had read that sensory play not only is good for developing fine motor skills, but also good for developing child-directed creative/imaginative play. I learned that they also can help with developing language and vocabulary, improving focus, and, because they stimulate the five senses, tearing down barriers to everyday “tasks,” such as eating.

I was 100 percent sold on these things. I figured the investment of money, time, and effort was minimal for the outcomes. I pinned several ideas. And I had many more churning through my head.

After a trip to the dollar store and a hunt through my craft supplies, I put together two very simple boxes: one around the theme of Christmas and the other around the theme of winter.

20141202_150337The Christmas box contained red and green jingle bells, red and green pom-poms, ribbons, foam gingerbread men and reindeer, a small jewelry box wrapped like a present, small plastic containers filled with plastic cranberries, and Christmas tree-shaped measuring spoons.

I gave it to the girls pretty early in December, and they played with it for at least 20 minutes at a time for about 5 days straight. I left it out in the living room, among their other toys, and they would ask me to open it so they could play with it at least once a day.


They put the dry beans in their mouths every once in a while, and they flung the beans all over the floor quite frequently, but they were just so darn happy, it was hard to be upset.

The winter box contains blue jingle bells, blue and white pom-poms, ribbons, foam and plastic snowflakes, a small jewelry box wrapped in snowman paper, and pinecones. I forgot to initially, but I later added a couple of plastic cups.

20150120_165041I gave the girls the winter box for a while yesterday, but they already seem to enjoy it.


They were taken aback by the texture of the pinecones and the snowflakes. Anna enjoyed rubbing the ribbon on her face and wrapping it around herself like a scarf, while Elise loved feeling the pom-poms on her face.

20150120_165120They also figured out how to “sort” the beans into their cups, rather than just throw the beans around the room.


I plan to make a Valentine’s Day-themed box for next month, focusing on red, pink, and hearts, and a St. Patrick’s Day-themed as well as a spring-themed box for March, focusing on green (the former) and flowers, grass, and sunshine (the latter). I’ll be sure to post photos of the boxes as they are made.

Easy fall placemat craft for kids

3 Dec

I realize many parts of the country already have been at least dusted with, if not buried in snow, and by now the beautifully colored leaves are long gone, but…

I have a really easy fall craft that parents can do with their children: pressed leaf placemats.

These remind me of the leaf pressings we would do in Girl Scouts – where you seal pretty leaves between two pieces of waxed paper. Anyone else remember making those in Scouts or in school?

Well, this is an easier (no iron necessary!), littler-kid-friendly version!

20141111_203730Here’s how we did it:

First, we went on a walk around the neighborhood and collected leaves of all types, sizes and colors, as long as they were not torn and not too brittle.

Next, we cut out a piece of Contact paper to the size of a placemat, peeled off the backing, and laid it out on the table sticky side up; we held it in place using painter’s tape.

Then, we helped the girls place leaves face up and face down all over the sticky paper. Anna and Elise were about 15 months when we did this craft, so they picked up leaves and held onto them; they didn’t really lay them neatly on the paper. We guided their little hands, though, and managed to lay out about a dozen leaves on each placemat.

Last, we cut out a second piece of Contact paper, exactly the same size, peeled off the backing, and laid it on top of the first piece, sticky side down – sandwiching the leaves between the adhesive sides of the Contact paper.

20141111_20381220141111_203817I opted to sew double-fold bias tape around the placemats to give them a nice, finished look – and, in part, to match our existing placemats, which are a rich brick red color. I used this tutorial to sew the bias tape with mitered corners.

It is not at all necessary, but it sure makes for a polished look with relatively little effort.

20141111_203805Over time, the placemats might bubble up a bit, where the adhesive doesn’t stick well to the leaves, but they still work and are easy to wipe off! And they are so stinking easy and adorable!

These placemats were a great addition to our Thanksgiving table and would be lovely for everyday use in the fall months.