Archive for the ‘Family fun’ Category

Neither Mark nor I are too enthusiastic about decorating for Christmas. We never have been. While I appreciate a beautifully decorated home in someone else’s house, I can’t help but feel like decorating in my own home is sort of a hassle. Consequently, we’ve never bothered to be well-equipped to deck the halls. But this is the first year that Charlie is aware of and seems to understand Christmas (at least the decorating/Santa/presents part). So he’s been asking about how we’re going to get ready for Christmas.

Since I’m all about using what you have and doing things for less dollars, I was thrilled to stumble upon this idea for making a holiday garland out of pine cones. And since you know our front yard is chock full of pine trees, we have plenty of pine cones to use as decorations. You can find the full directions for the pine cone garland here, but the concept is simple: screw small cup holders into the bottom of each pine cone, punch small holes in a long ribbon, and hang a pine cone from each hole.

This was a great activity to do with Charlie. Charlie collected a huge number of pine cones from the front yard, sorted them by size and quality (no inferior pine cones were going to grace our garland!), then he helped hang each pine cone in a hole in the ribbon.

Coupled with other items we already had such as stockings (including a beautiful embroidered one for Charlie made by my very talented mom), ornaments in a vase, a cool red star made by my artistic sister-in-law, and some candles, this pine cone garland makes our fireplace look downright festive.

All told, our decorated fireplace cost just a few bucks for the small cup holders for the pine cones. Not bad at all.

And for the next family decorating project, I think we’ll try homemade paper snowflakes which in addition to being pretty and oh so inexpensive, will give Charlie some practice using scissors. Then we’ll get a Christmas tree which will be our decorating splurge because, whether we go real or artificial, it’s certainly going to put us back more than a few dollars.

What are you doing this year to decorate for the holidays? Do you go all out or are you more of a less is more decorator?


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Charlie started his second year of preschool in early September. He loved the first day, tolerated the second day, and threw a fit on the morning of the third. For about three to four weeks after that, he started whimpering just about every time we mentioned school and cried endlessly on the mornings he had to go to school. His teacher assured us that Charlie always quickly recovered after Mark dropped him off at school, but it was still gut-wrenching to leave him there when he was so upset. Gradually, things have gotten a bit better. Some days he still cries before going to school, but it happens less and less.

During the midst of those first few weeks, Mark and I were desperate to come up with ways to make Charlie’s transition to preschool less painful for all three of us. We decided to create a picture schedule for him. We wanted him to easily see when he was going to go to school (and when he’d stay home) as well as see that even on the days he goes to school in the mornings, he still has a lot of time in the afternoon that are free for him to choose what to do. So we wrote down all of Charlie’s favorite activities, such as reading, riding his bike, and going to the park, and then we started taking photographs to represent each activity.  Some of the images of the activities were of just the activity, like this one of books to represent reading:

Or this one of his bike:

We quickly realized however, that Charlie would much prefer to look at pictures of himself doing his favorite activities (it appeals to the narcissism that’s probably found in every four-year-old). So we added lots of photos of him doing the things he loves like going for a walk with the dogs (no, we don’t let him hold the leashes outside):

Or vacuuming (yes, he is crazy about vacuuming):

After downloading the photos, we pasted the images into Microsoft Word where Mark typed the name of each activity over the photo image. Once we compiled all of our activity photos, we printed them on our color printer. We tried printing them on photo paper, but we actually found that the color looked better printed on plain paper.

We decided we wanted this to be a learning picture schedule too, so we also typed in large font all the days of the week and days of the month (we just typed numbers from 1 to 31). Just as for the activity photos, we printed out the days and the numbers on our color printer. Then we took all of our picture schedule images and cut them into pieces so that each image had just a small border around it.

Mark took all the images over to Staples and had them laminated in big sheets. Then we cut out each image and attached a small strip of Velcro to the back of each one.

Finally, we had a large sheet of poster board leftover from another project, so we grabbed that (you know I’m all for using what you have!), and attached several strips of Velcro in lines on the poster board. (Did you ever wonder how to know which end of Velcro to attach where? Several years ago our friend Shannon told us this ridiculously sexist way to remember: the “soft” side of the Velcro is the “female” side. It is placed on the item that stays put while the bristly side, the “male” side, is placed on the item that moves – yup, the female is soft and stays at home while the bristly male roams. Terrible, right? But to this day I remember. )

The final step was just to write a little on the poster board and Charlie’s personalized picture schedule was officially born:

Charlie loves his picture schedule. We try to remember each night to prepare the schedule for the next day. Charlie finds the correct day and date and then constructs his desired schedule.

This project, though fairly time-intensive, was inexpensive.

The tally:

  • Poster board: free
  • Taking the photos and printing them out: free
  • Laminating the images: I can’t remember exactly, but it was about $10
  • Velcro: about $2

Grand total: roughly $12

For less than $15 we have a custom picture schedule and we can add to it as Charlie’s interests change.

I should note that though the picture schedule has really helped Charlie, what has helped Charlie’s transition to preschool even more has been Mark’s decision to stay with Charlie for about 15 minutes after they arrive at school. Charlie adores that and seems to be really comforted by it.

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On Friday morning I didn’t go to work, Charlie didn’t go to preschool, and Mark packed up the car so the three of us could head to the beach for the weekend. When Mark and I created our budget in January, we didn’t set aside any money for travel which, aside from being stunningly stupid, also means that everything we spent on this trip was grabbed from another part of the budget. Don’t ask me which part. I’m not sure. However, we did manage to cut costs on this little vacation. Here are some ways we didn’t spend a fortune:

1. We went to a beach within relatively easy driving distance. We wouldn’t have considered going anywhere we had to fly given the prohibitive costs of airline tickets and a rental car.

2. We picked a motel that was a block off the beach rather than on the beach. Though my fantasy beach vacation is to rent a house right on the beach and stay for a week, we couldn’t afford that (nor could I take that much time off work right now). Not having an ocean view from the motel saved us a bundle, but being only a block away meant that the beach was accessible any time we wanted. In fact, Charlie and I woke up early Saturday and Sunday mornings and wandered over to the beach to watch the sun rise. (As an aside, have you ever experienced something that you know instantly will become a forever memory? That’s how I felt watching the sunrises with Charlie.)

3. Our motel offered a mini kitchen. We brought a bunch of food from home and picked up some refrigerated items at a grocery store on our way into the beach town. Though we ate seafood dinners from restaurants both Friday and Saturday nights, we made breakfasts and lunches in the motel.

Certainly not a fancy motel (if “motel” and “fancy” can ever be used together), but fun for mid-century modern enthusiasts.

4. A good friend let us borrow beach gear including umbrellas, chairs, a bucket and a shovel (thanks, Kriste!). Since we almost never go to the beach (this is only our second time visiting the North Carolina beaches in the six years we’ve lived here – shame on us), we have no beach gear of any kind.

Charlie's enthusiasm for sand castles turns out to be limitless.

5. We went in the off-season. Prices for hotels, motels, and vacation rentals drop dramatically after Labor Day. Even though we’re closing in on the end of September, it’s been so darn hot here for months now. The beach weather this weekend felt like summer (but the beach was probably a lot less crowded than it is in the summer which was a bonus).

You can see I've been working on my tan.

I am so glad we took this trip. Though this was not a relaxing vacation — traveling with Charlie is never relaxing — we did have a great time and Charlie was overjoyed to be at the beach.

So where do you go to get away?

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Is there a more marvelous invention for children than washable paint? When Charlie’s artwork creatively expands beyond the confines of a mere sheet of paper, I needn’t panic. In fact, I can almost be proud of his ingenuity.

Behold, the masterpiece that Charlie and his dear friend “ABBY ABBY ABBY” created on our storm door:

We left the hand prints on the door for several days and then, with a bucket of soapy water and a washcloth, Charlie had almost as much fun cleaning the door as he had painting it.

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Charlie adores vacuuming. And by “adores” I mean he has a slightly freakish obsession with it. Our regular vacuum is too big for him to use himself (he can do it, but he doesn’t have the stamina for doing the whole house, which he likes to do), so he begs Mark to vacuum for him. Mark vacuums the house while Charlie squeals with excitement, dances around and on the vacuum, pulls the cord out of the wall, and turns the power switch off and on. Charlie has a toy vacuum which is the right size and weight for him to push (or bang) around the house, but it doesn’t actually suck up any dirt and he sometimes gets bored with it.

On Saturday morning, I went to a yard sale and came home with several items: a great sun hat, several shirts, and a present for Charlie. The latter item is the true gem of the bunch — an item that surely has me on the fast-track to Mensa membership:

This vacuum is the right size and weight for Charlie to push around himself and it actually works. Since Saturday morning, Charlie has vacuumed the entire house four times. We just have to follow him around plugging the cord into the electrical socket in whatever room he’s in. Then we just sit back and let him go.

Behind the curtains -- a frequently overlooked place by inferior vacuumers

Hmm, I wonder how he’d do with a mop.

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Charlie’s preschool teachers created a schedule so that the children parents in the class rotate who brings in snacks and who brings in playdough for everyone to share for the week. The first time it was our turn to bring playdough I thought, “No problem.  We have TONS of Play-Doh.  Oh, wait, we’re supposed to MAKE the playdough?  They’re kidding, right?”  See the difference there — Play-Doh versus playdough?  One is the smelly stuff that comes in the yellow and red canisters and one is, well, something we’re supposed to make, with ingredients, on the stove top. It’s not that I’m opposed to making playdough — after all, it is very inexpensive to make — it’s just that buying it is also inexpensive and, well, a lot quicker because not all of the ingredients in playdough are common pantry items.  In fact, in the 15 or more years of cooking for myself, I have never, not even once, had reason to have cream of tartar or food coloring in my cupboards.  What the heck is cream of tartar anyhow?  So the first time we had to make playdough for preschool I was lucky enough that my neighbor had both cream of tartar and food coloring and she lent them to me the night before we were supposed to show up at school in the morning with the playdough.  (My neighbor also has young children and all I can assume is that she had cream of tartar and food coloring because she’s had to make playdough too. Well, actually, she does a lot of baking so I think she uses food coloring for that, but since I don’t really bake I certainly never had any use for food coloring.) That being said, we’re now fully stocked with cream of tartar and food coloring and have made playdough a few times. It’s actually sort of fun and fairly quick. Charlie helps add the ingredients and especially likes adding the food coloring. I don’t let him knead the dough though because it’s quite hot.

The other day I noted Charlie’s top 5 toddler-to-preschooler toys and playdough was on my list. So I thought I’d post the preschool recipe for homemade playdough in case you’re feeling creative. I should note that this makes quite a lot of playdough — much more than comes in one can of Play-Doh.

Homemade Playdough

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 Tbsp cream of tartar
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • food coloring
  • essential oil, extract, spice, or glitter (if you’re really feeling fancy)

Combine all ingredients into a large pan on the stove over low heat. Stir to combine and continue stirring. The mixture will start to thicken. After about 5-10 minutes, it will pull away from the sides of the pan and form a ball in the center. Remove the pan from the heat. Allow the playdough to cool slightly, then turn onto a floured surface. Knead, adding more flour if necessary, to achieve a non-sticky, pliable dough. Store in an airtight container.

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Lately I have been looking around the house at Charlie’s various toys and thinking about which ones have been really good buys. I don’t necessarily mean the cheapest toys, but rather the toys that have gotten the most use. Here’s a rundown of the top five toys (in no particular order) that have gone the distance, entertaining him as both a toddler and a preschooler:

Push toys. Charlie has been obsessed with the vacuum cleaner for a long, long time. When he was a baby and seemed to cry incessantly, Mark frequently would hold Charlie in one arm and vacuum with the other arm because somehow the combination of the noise of the vacuum and the movement of vacuuming was very soothing to Charlie. As he grew older, he wanted to help vacuum. So for Charlie’s second birthday, Mark bought him a little toy vacuum. Charlie adored it from the moment he opened it. At some point, maybe a year later, Charlie broke the vacuum, so we quickly went out and bought him another one because we knew he’d continue to love it. And, to this day, he does. Given how much he uses it, I only wish the toy vacuum actually sucked up dirt.  A second very successful push toy was a shopping cart that we gave Charlie shortly after he started walking. He doesn’t play with it as much now, but he loved that shopping cart for at least 18 months. Now he mostly uses it to store things in his room. And, for a really inexpensive push toy, Charlie has absolutely adored the recycling bins since he was about a year and a half. He loves to push them from the garage to the curb when it’s time for the recycling to be picked up each week, and then he pushes the empty bins back to the garage. Sometimes he’ll sit in the bin and asked to be pushed around the yard.

Ride-on toys. Charlie has a few toys he can ride and they’re all great. Two of them — a school bus and airplane — he’s had for about two years. Both of them play annoying music and have batteries that just won’t die, but Charlie loves them. Well over a year ago, we scored a fantastic tricycle for Charlie on Craigslist for $20. We had to drive about 30 miles to get it, but it was so worth it.

Though both the pull toys and ride-on toys tend to retail for considerably more money than the other items on my toddler-to-preschooler toys list, you can often find deals on them on Craigslist (like we did for Charlie’s tricycle) or watch for sales at the big toy stores. For an energetic child like Charlie, both of these types of “action” toys are really helpful to help expend some of that energy. And, as a testament to the appeal of these toys, they are always the first thing that other children play with when they come over to visit Charlie.

Playdough. Playing with playdough helps develop fine motor skills (all that kneading, rolling, and cutting), as well as early language skills (naming both colors as well as the cutter shapes like stars, trees, and cats). When Charlie was younger, the cat cut-out was by far his favorite and got a lot of use, but Lord help us when that thing would temporarily go missing. Now Charlie seldom uses the cut-out shapes. Instead, he “writes” his name making the letters out of the playdough. He also creates pictures, usually faces, and when he gets to the mouth, we talk about whether he is going to make a happy face or sad face by the way he makes the smile. It’s a nice, easy way to talk about emotions.

Sidewalk chalk. I don’t know exactly when we bought Charlie his first pack of sidewalk chalk, but it was probably the summer after he turned one. Initially, of course, he just used it to scribble, but even then he was developing fine motor skills. As Charlie learned to talk, he started demanding that we draw pictures for him — usually pictures of him. We went through a long phase of drawing pictures of Charlie; left to draw for himself, he’d still just scribble. Miraculously, one day he started drawing his own pictures of himself, and it was clear that he’d been studying how we drew the pictures so he could learn. He now carefully draws a head, then tells us how he needs to add eyes, a nose, and a smile. Then he’ll draw his body. Finally, he’ll often try to label his drawing by writing his name next to it (he’s really good at the C and H, but then it starts to break down from there).

An unexpected benefit of always having sidewalk chalk on our front porch is that it gives Charlie a chance to interact with other kids in the neighborhood. It turns out that sidewalk chalk is like a kid-magnet. All we have to do is start drawing and children seem to show up. It’s great.

ABC wooden blocks. These blocks are a classic multi-function toy, which makes them useful at several different developmental stages.  Mark bought wooden blocks for Charlie when he was about 18 months old.  Charlie’s interest at first was just to stack two blocks, one on top of the other.  As his fine motor skills improved, we played little games to see how many blocks he could stack. We encouraged early language development by naming the pictures on the blocks — cat, dog, flower, etc. Eventually, Charlie started building up the blocks and counting them. Then he made bridges out of the blocks for his trains to drive through. Now he’s learning to recognize letters so he looks through the blocks looking for the C-H-A-R-L-I-E and then arranging them just so. When we played with the blocks the other day, he decided to create a picture of himself (he’s a little obsessed with pictures of himself).  He rearranged the blocks into a face, and then found some things lying around the house he used to make the body.

It’s oddly comforting to me that most of the for-the-long-haul toys that made it onto my list aren’t very sophisticated; in fact, most of them are toys I played with as a child.

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