Sometimes, Less Is More

How technology has transformed the art of teaching, and things from our “past” we should keep with us today and carry forward to tomorrow…

Technology is amazing, and teaching has come a long way because of it, especially since this pandemic. A year ago, who would have thought we could simultaneously teach remote and in-person students simultaneously through livestream technology? Not many of us, and definitely not me! But here we are. We can do hard things.

And while I have done everything in my professional mindset to embrace the new technology (and I have…I’m its biggest advocate!), lately I keep going back to the golden rule from my tech-ed classes in college: Technology is a tool to enhance instruction, not a tool to replace it. So I write this post not to deter those of us who are all-in with the technology during these unprecedented times, but to softly and gently remind us of the best practices that we know are still best practices. And to caution us to not let those best practices fall into the abyss of nostalgia as we suddenly and ferociously navigate this new territory.

Here’s my short list of tried and true practices that I am begging all teachers and parents to remember as we adapt to these new times:

Books. Kids need to handle books. Printed, bound, and published books. REAL BOOKS.

I cringe hearing about schools who are not distributing books due to the pandemic. I get the germ factor, but relying solely on e-books and virtual reading activities is detrimental to an emerging reader’s development. Especially the littlest – kindergarteners and first graders. Don’t get me wrong, publishers and educational companies (well, most of them) have been nothing but helpful and generous in opening up a lot of their books and resources in a remote capacity for teachers to take advantage of. But there is no way to replicate true concepts about print that emerging readers need to learn in an e-book. (Or if there is, I haven’t rationalized it yet…). Let me illustrate with an example. One of the early concepts about print kids begin to pick up is text directionality. Text directionality has several components. Some of those components don’t change with an e-book, like the fact the we read left-to-right on a page. Other components of text directionality DO change, or are absent all together. Like the fact that a book has a cover whose open end is on the right and bound end is on left, like the idea that we turn pages when we get to the end of a page (not scroll up or down like some online programs or e-books!). I’m not saying that e-books, online subscriptions, or online libraries and databases are bad. I’m saying they shouldn’t take the place of print books entirely. They should be supplemental.

Learning is socially constructed. Kids should still be interacting with the teacher and interacting with each other.

I’m really trying to let go of the past and embrace the present in order to come to terms with the future. But guys, there’s a reason teachers used easels and chart paper for MANY years. There’s a reason teachers and students share the pen, the real, physical pen, in interactive writing. There’s a reason kids come to the big book and use the teacher pointer to practice 1:1 correspondence. The safe learning community that is established when a teacher gathers her/his students together at the carpet and invites them in to enjoy a big book in front of them is 1000 times more effective than presenting a big book on the Smartboard and asking kids to interact with the text from afar. The literate brain connections that are established through kids actually using a marker to try it out on chart paper, use fix-it tape when they make a mistake, and write it correctly when they gain new knowledge, are light years more concrete (and developmentally appropriate, I might add) than asking kids to type a story on a computer. I know the mitigation strategies surrounding COVID prevent a lot of this from happening right now, but I promise you there are ways to do this still, without having to resort to hands-off learning from a distance, even for the kids who are learning at home! Two simple, quick tricks for doing this are getting real books in their hands, and getting real paper and pencil/marker/crayons in their hands.

Sometimes, less is more.

Things look so much cleaner when we use a computer to create everything we need for teaching. Yes, it looks cleaner when we type up a worksheet to use for writing. It looks cleaner when we have kids publish their story by typing it up and adding clip art. Yes, it looks cleaner when we use a publishing program to create a poster or a brochure or a flyer as part of a school project. Yes, it looks cleaner when we buy a phonics game from Teachers Pay Teachers (definitely nothing against Teachers Pay Teachers here…lots of blood, sweat, and tears go into the resources teachers decide to share with others on that platform). But let me ask you this. It looks cleaner, but is it better? Does cleaner work mean deeper learning? I’d argue no, at least not always. Sometimes those fancy, typed up worksheets are a crutch for students…do they really need to fill in the blank? Or could they have written the whole sentence all along? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for scaffolds when kids need it. But not all kids need all scaffolds, all the time. That becomes extremely limiting and in fact constraining, inhibiting a student from reaching their full potential. It’s like asking them to stay inside the box, rather than think outside of the box, or rather than telling them there’s really no box at all. Of course, there’s a time and place for fancy and published – if the purpose calls for it, it is needed. But I’m telling you, I’ve noticed some AMAZING student work hung in classrooms and hallways in the school I work that came from a piece of paper and a pencil, and that’s it. (Take a look at some of the pictures! I mean, come on! How good are these?!) Let’s take the artist metaphor and run with it. You wouldn’t give an artist a half started canvas and expect them to come up with a masterpiece, right? Because then it wouldn’t be their masterpiece, entirely. Instead, you give an artist an empty canvas to create a masterpiece.

Sometimes we have to give our students an empty canvas too. I think we’d be surprised at some of the masterpieces they come up with.

Pumpkin Party!

(Yes, I know my front stoop needs work. Just haven’t gotten around to this project in the 2.5 years we’ve lived here.)

We spontaneously painted pumpkins yesterday because I had paint pens lying around and I wanted my usual seasonal pumpkins for above the front door. And while we were painting, it got me all nostalgic for all the ways I’ve used pumpkins in the ten years I’ve been teaching and in the four years I’ve been a mom. You see, celebrating holidays in school doesn’t really exist anymore (for the right reasons, I might add). BUT that hasn’t stopped me from utilizing high-interest, engaging SEASONAL learning tools and pumpkins fit the bill perfectly for fall. I figured I’d share all the pumpkin activities I’ve ever done with my home kids (own kids) and my work kids (school kids), in case pumpkins are your jam too.

*Full disclosure: I never realized I’d be an amateur (ok even that’s stretching it…pseudo? imaginary? in-my-dreams?) blogger so I haven’t taken pictures of these along the way. So I scoured the internet to find pictures that would match the activities I’ve done. Hearty thanks to anyone who comes across this page and realizes I stole their photo.*

The Perfect Sensory and Fine Motor Tool!

Pumpkins are one of the most sensory driving tools you could utilize with your kiddo. Seriously, there are so many opportunities for sensory play using pumpkins. Think pumpkin guts and you’ll get what I’m saying. But with sensory comes lost of fine motor opportunity too, and what I love about pumpkins the most is how EASY and MESS FREE (ok, ok, once you gut the pumpkin obviously there’s a mess) and NO PREP some of these activities are. And remember how important fine motor skills and practice are for toddlers!

  • Rubber band pumpkin gourds: The grooves on those little pumpkin gourds are perfect for stringing rubber bands around them. This helps with finger and hand dexterity, which are an important part of fine motor skills that aid in writing – think pencil control and letter formation.
  • Painting with pumpkins: I’ve seen and done this many ways…first using mini pumpkins as paint brushes (the bruises have a fun time making “pumpkin butts” [the groove at the bottom of a pumpkin leaves an imprint that kind of looks like a butt print if you use it to paint]. I’ve also had my students take pieces of a pumpkin that has been carved and used them like sponge painting shapes.
  • Pumpkin puzzles!: This one’s fun, especially if Halloween is over and you’re looking for a fun way to get rid of the weird shaped pumpkins you’ve passionately gathered on your front stoop. Simply cut each pumpkin in half and spread out. Toddlers have a fun time putting the pumpkins back together again by matching each pumpkin half.
  • Pumpkin cleaning/Pumpkin seed separating: My younger bruise loved this last year. He sat and picked the seeds out of the goo from the top of the pumpkin for a LONG time when we carved pumpkins last year. Not only did it take a lot of persistence, pincer grasp practice (which we were working on in birth to three at the time), but it also exposed him to the major sensory feel of pumpkin guts/slime, which he loved!
  • Pumpkin beading: The adult pushes a bunch of nails into a pumpkin and the child stacks beads on each nail. We have fun making “pumpkin hair” or “porcupine spikes” on our pumpkins. Hand-eye coordination and pincer grasp on point with this one once again.
  • Pumpkin painting (different than painting with pumpkins): A classic, but less mess if you stick to pens instead of actual paint and paintbrushes. Use water based or chalk paint pens if you want the rain to wash it away. Why would you want the rain to wash it away? Well, makes it the craft that keeps on giving! You can keep decorating over and over again if the rain washes it away. If you want it permanent, use acrylic paint pens and a finishing spray so it sets.
  • Pumpkin hammer: Guilty…have never actually done this one, but came across it from a blogger I follow (completemomsense – check her Instagram out) and loved the idea. The bruises would die for this, but also really good for hand eye coordination too!
  • Pumpkin seed sorting and counting: Best to do when they’re still slimy or fresh, but my oldest bruise has some funky sensory *fears* so he was really resistant to do this last year. Once we dried them out he happily counted, sorted, and used them as counters or game pieces whenever he wanted.
  • Pumpkin shape sorter: So many shape sorter toys on the market…who knew you could just make one of your own with a pumpkin! Why not start the conversation about shapes with your kiddos while you have fun popping the matching shape through the hole in the pumpkin? Easy and fun, works on visual-spatial reasoning, and builds some math talk into the activity without even realizing it.

Pumpkins are for math and literacy too!

  • Pumpkin diagram: Awesome way to softly encourage scientific drawing, labeling, and writing. Although the picture has typed labels the student clearly glued on, I’d suggest encouraging your little one to write the words, or tell you the words to write and you write for them, so they make the connection between spoken words and print.
  • Pumpkin sorting: Gets kids noticing the features of a pumpkin, but also encourages language and vocabulary development through the specificity of categories and features. How are the fibers different from the seeds? How is the flesh different from the fibers? Great conversation starters that will get kids using specific describing words to talk through similarities and differences.
  • How to carve a pumpkin: How-to books or recipe writing encourages kids to call on past experiences (things they know how to do or have done before) and write about it in a structure way. By listing steps, and encouraging language like first, next, then, finally, after that (etc.) helps kids develop sequencing vocabulary.
  • Pumpkin math: Measuring circumference, height, and weight starts to build understanding around obvious mathematical concepts, and kids have a blast doing simple stuff like this. Using non-standardized units of measurement (i.e. ribbon instead of measure tape for circumference, linking cubes instead of inch ruler for height) eliminates concepts that are too abstract for toddlers, but lets them still get the measuring part done. It’s a lot easier for a little to understand the pumpkin is 14 blocks tall than 14 inches tall (Inch? What’s an inch?).
  • Pumpkin seeds: One pumpkin yields hundreds of seeds. And dried out pumpkin seeds become the perfect toy or manipulative. They can be counting tools, game pieces, dramatic play toys, crafting tools, sensory bin fillers. The list goes on.

I sprinkled some of my favorite book titles involving pumpkins (careful not to confuse with Halloween!) because, you know, my love of books. Thematic books are always a favorite in our household. And I try my hardest to sprinkle in fall books and pumpkin books this time of year, not just purely Halloween books.

Ultimately I think pumpkins are extremely underrated. So. many. ways. to. use. If you’re a fellow pumpkin lover then I want to hear your ideas too! What other fun and creative ways can I use my pumpkins? Because let’s be real, I purchase way too many every year anyway!

Nardini Family “Vacation”

I’m calling it a vacation but full disclosure, it was just a weekend away.

If you have littles, or maybe you have bigs now but you definitely had littles at some point, I’m sure you’ve been through exactly what I’m about to write. Save yourself some time and keep scrolling?

I’m sheepishly embarrassed to admit that this past weekend was THE FIRST TIME my little nuclear family unit went away – just us. No grandparents or friends or extended family. Luca is 4…is that pathetic? Maybe don’t answer that?

I think part of the reason we haven’t yet is because it’s a lot of work. At least when you have family or friends to travel with or to travel and go see, you’re all in it together and there’s more hands on deck. Since Luca was born we’ve done plenty of trips, don’t get me wrong, just not “just us”. I’ve simply been the type to prefer to save money, avoid the hassle, and just be a homebody.

It was great. We picked a place to explore that we haven’t been before – Ogunquit, Maine. Fall weekend, gorgeous weather. Even got one day of an “Indian Summer”. Great food (mostly), amazing hotel vibe in a pristine location. Couldn’t have asked for anything more, seriously. I’ve got instagram-worthy pics to show for it:

But like, there’s sooo much more that goes on behind the scenes.

First, let’s talk about the drive up on day one. “I want to leave as soon as we all wake up. It’s supposed to be gorgeous weather tomorrow, I don’t want to waste the day driving” I said. Ok, well that would have meant that I actually packed and prepared our family the night before. Instead I woke up at the crack of dawn and ran around scrambling to get us out the door and in the car by 9:30am. Not bad, we’ll be there by 12:30pm. We casually hit our first traffic blip – stop and go on 495. “Oh, my coworker said this highway’s the worst” he said. Great, thanks for the advance notice. Not only did we hit stop and go traffic the rest of the way, but we had to stop for lunch, stop for potty, and then stop for potty again (because a bruise didn’t have to poop when we stopped 20 minutes before). Soo we got there at 2:30pm. At least it wasn’t a waste of an entire day? Salvaged it all by spending the afternoon at the beach and coming back to the hotel for the kids to swim in the pool while the adults got drinks from the pool bar. Perfect.

Next let’s talk about night one. Ordered to-go food from a well-recommended local Mexican place and had fish tacos on the lawn at the hotel (which happens to be a cliff overlooking the entire beach) listening to live music while the kids ran around. Perfect. We get the kids back to the room, and bedtime goes surprisingly very well – everyone goes to sleep like normal and hubs and I head out to the patio attached to our room to have a nightcap and listen to the live music that’s still playing. Perfect. So something’s gotta be not perfect, right? Right. I go to bed around 10pm but get promptly woken up around 11:30pm with raging stomach pains. And by raging I mean unbearable-oh-my-goodness-this-is-more-than-a-hangover. Spent the better part of the next 5 hours in the bathroom, and if I wasn’t actually puking or the other way, you know, then I was sitting there in fetal position unable to move. Fish tacos. Luckily, I lulled myself back to bed and finally fell asleep around 4:30am and was able to snooze until the kids wake up around 6:30am. Still wasn’t feeling great, but light years better than how I was feeling 2 hours earlier.

Now we’ll talk about day two. Thankfully, I was feeling well enough that I wasn’t stuck in bed or miserable trying to explore this fantastic new place. I mustered the energy, courage, and positive mindset to not let the exhaustion from sickness and no sleep ruin my day, and I am grateful. Because we had a day. Walked a mile down the cliff path to another quaint little downtown to get breakfast, hubs took the boys to the toy store while Tessa took a cat nap back at the room, then ventured out in search of sweatshirts for the fam. Then back to the quaint little downtown from breakfast in search of a lobster roll. Found it at a place called Oarweed. I knew it was a calculated risk gambling on seafood again, but it was one I was willing to take. One of the main reasons we wanted to come to Maine. The lobster roll was delish but I definitely paid for it. Judging by fish tacos the night before, and the lobster roll after, I’m guessing it wasn’t just bad luck but I may be onto a new seafood sensitivity? Favorite food. Great. Still rebounded like a champ. Came back to the hotel room and the WHOLE FAMILY took a nap. Luca hasn’t napped in two years. It was glorious! The rest of the day was mostly just bruises being bruises and the bow being a bow. The boys stripped out of their clothes (because, you know, who wears clothes these days anyways?) and paraded around the room naked eating snacks playing hide and seek for a while before we ordered pizza and ice cream for dinner. (All thoughts of dinner out were out the window since I didn’t trust my digestive system.) Remember the instagram-worthy pics from before? Well, these are the reality-worthy pics (and I wish I got more of these because these don’t do it justice):

Night two went off without any climactic hitches (sorry if you were waiting for one). It was too cold to sit out on the porch after the kids went to bed, so it came back to bite us that we were all sharing just one hotel room. Hubs and I basically laid in the dark on our phones so we wouldn’t wake the kids. I was exhausted, so it was fine. We won’t talk about my 9pm snack of cheddar chips and Spindrift seltzer sitting on the bathroom floor (after I cleaned and sanitized it) because it was the only “safe zone” where I could snack in peace without the fear of waking any sleeping child. Other than that, only real thing that happened is, for whatever reason, Tessa sneezed at 4:30am and woke herself up, didn’t go back to sleep, and thus woke everybody else up. I guess there are worse things in the world than an early wake up call. So we made the best of it, caught the sunrise real quick, and hopped in the car to beat the rain home. Home by 10am meant I still had the day to unpack, debrief, and get the house back in order before returning to work tomorrow.

Haha. I guess there really weren’t too many cliche taking-kids-on-a-vacation stories. Maybe those of you who kept scrolling missed out. It was mostly just some mom-moments because I couldn’t steer clear of the seafood and am a functional zombie when operating on no sleep. (But hey, at least I was a happy functional zombie this time around?) And some family-of-five-sharing-a-single-hotel-room stories in which the bruises prefered to be naked most of the time. (But hey, what 4 and 2 year old boys don’t get a kick out of being naked all the time?)

Would I do it again? For sure, 100 percent, without a doubt. The boys. The boys especially. They will be talking about going on vacation to a hotel for years. They will be talking about swimming at the hotel pool for years. They’ll be talking about sleeping in a hotel bed for years. They’ll be talking about picking out toys from the toy store…till we go to the next toy store. Worth it? Worth it!

This one goes out to the…

  • Single moms/dads/caretakers
  • SAHMs/SAHDs with partners who work 24/7
  • Moms or Dads whose partners travel for work all the time
  • Military moms/military dads
  • Anyone else who spends days and nights on their own caring for kids
  • Parents and families who live long distances from other immediate family members and support systems

I put this picture up on my Instagram stories last night as a half-joke because my husband’s been on a (one night, one point five day) golf trip this weekend. And I captioned it “Dad’s away for a golf weekend we’re fine I swear.”

In reality, he will have been gone for a total of about 28 hours. Kind of pathetic for me to complain. But whenever he goes away it feels like an eternity. So behind this half-joke picture is a mom whose anxiety is through-the-roof high.

…whose spending the entire time watching the clock and coaching the seconds to tick by just a little faster…

…whose setting the tiniest goals for her own sanity (just make it to nap time, just make it to bedtime)…

…whose engaging in the great mental debate of whether or not to spend the 45 minutes getting the kids ready to leave the house and get out for a bit vs. staying home to avoid all aspects of the real world so no one has to see my single-parenting…

…whose sleeping with all lights inside and outside the house on and the TV on, and actually not really sleeping at all because of the fear of being alone in the house overnight with the kids…

…whose chewing off all of her cuticles and putting bandaids on bloody fingers because it’s the epitome of the manifestation of her anxiety…

Literally my world stops and time stands still because of how much anxiety I have doing this on my own. I am SO grateful that most of the time I get to do this life with my best friend, the greatest dad, and the handiest helper. So I suppose it’s SUPER selfish of me to throw a tantrum when he asks to get away for a little bit, or when he works late nights and has meetings leaving me to handle dinner and bedtime on my own.

I’m not quite sure my whole point in all of this but I think there are a few. First, behind every happy photo or what looks like a put-together mom could be something entirely different. I try not to judge or compare; I know we are all doing our best. And second, I think it’s important to normalize NOT being ok all the time, admitting when you need help (usually I’m the first to call in grandparent reinforcements, it just so happened that this weekend all grandparents were busy!), or letting go of things that aren’t going your way.

And, lastly, I try my best to put mind over matter and keep the most positive outlook, to enjoy the QT with my QTs, to not be afraid of leaving the house because I know it’s better to be out and about playing and interacting with others rather than hiding in my own safe-haven of a home going stir crazy and allowing myself to dwell in my anxiety. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it goes poorly. But the thing is, it ALWAYS goes. I try and find peace in that.

Bottom line, SO. MUCH. RESPECT. for the people who do this all the dang time. And if that’s you, I hear you and I see you and I feel you. You are a freaking superhero!

It’s Rhyme Time

Ever wonder why every baby and toddler song under the sun rhymes? Or why there is a whole genre of music called nursery rhymes? It’s not JUST because they are catchy and fun (or annoying…). Believe it or not, hearing and making rhymes is part of a set of foundational language skills that form the building blocks for conventional reading later in life (google phonological awareness for more info).

Kids typically begin to understand and experiment with rhyming around age 3 or 4. And once they can rhyme, it opens the door for experimenting with words and language in other ways, including manipulating sounds and words. Here’s how you can ensure your kid is loving all the rhymes in life just as much as you do:

  • PICTURES, not words. Rhyming is an aural skill, especially at first. Talk rhymes all you want. DON’T write rhymes…actually write rhymes all you want if that’s your jam…just not for your toddler to see. Writing words or even writing words under pictures are one of the biggest mistakes I see adults make when teaching kids to rhyme. Letters and words strung together don’t have meaning to toddlers, and you don’t want to confuse them. Remember, rhyming is an aural skill.
  • Sing. Sing all the darn nursery rhymes in the book. Make up your own songs and nursery rhymes and sing them. Sing them until you and your kid know every darn word. Sing your favorite pop culture songs together, especially ones that rhyme. The more aural exposure, the better.
  • Use “sounds like” instead of “rhymes with” when teaching rhyme. Say, “Cat sounds like bat!”. Don’t say “Cat rhymes with bat!” You can say “Cat rhymes with bat!” ONCE you’ve spent lots of time and practice with “sounds like” and you’ve introduced and taught the vocabulary word ‘rhyme’.
  • Give kids the chance to hear rhymes before you ask them to produce them. Initially, it can be really hard for kids to produce a word that rhymes with cat. It’s much easier, and more appropriate to have them differentiate between words that do sound the same and words that don’t. Instead of, “Tell me a word that rhymes with cat!”, say, “Which two words sound the same? Cat, bat, truck.” Or, “Does cat sound like pup? [no] Does cat sound like bat? [yes]” Think of it this way: multiple choice is an easier question than open-response. Start with multiple choice.
  • Make sure you have plenty of books with rhyming patterns in your home libraries. Read. Read them as much as you can. Kids are engaged when something sounds interesting to them, and the rhythmic sound of books that carry a rhyme are like music to a child’s ear.
  • Play games that involve rhyme. Especially matching games. Letting kids manipulate picture cards (matching, memory, etc.) and pair together picture cards that rhyme builds in a kinesthetic piece, which, we know already, helps secure schema as they form in kids’ brains.
  • When you hear it, acknowledge it and name it. Pointing out when your kid says something that rhymes or sounds the same, and drawing attention to it, not only defines what it is in context, but it teaches them how to notice subtleties in language and words. In the education world, this is loosely referred to as cuing and/or reinforcement. We draw kids’ attention to the things we want them to notice, the things we want them to pay attention to, the things we want them to keep doing. We do this in parenting too…think: “Oh my gosh look at how well Luca is cleaning up his toys by putting them back in the bin!” [trying to get Dominic to clean up] or “Wow, Dominic, look! You ate all your carrots! That was a great, healthy choice!” [trying to teach the importance of eating healthy] or “Nice job using your words to ask for that toy” [you get it, right?].

You can thank me later for helping you see the glass half full next time you have “Did you ever see a sheep in a jeep?” or “The Ants Go Marching” stuck in your head. Instead of banging your head against the wall (been there!), find your baby and see how many verses you can come up with together. It’s silly and fun and linguistically helpful to embrace the rhyme!

The Saga of Family Photos

What it takes to (semi?) coordinate a 4 year old, 2 year old, 8 month old, and a skeptical husband…

I’ve been itching to do family photos for a while now. The last time we did them (which honestly wasn’t that long ago) was Tessa’s newborn photos. But I feel like those are a little different than normal family photos because Tessa was still a blob, and we were a barely-functional new family of 5. We didn’t have the time or energy to put much into them, so we snapped a few and called it a day. I tried a little harder this time around, but let me tell you, it is still no easy feat to get this family through a 1 hour session of family photos.

Jen Morrissey, ladies and gents! She’s awesome, and a really great friend!

I have to start planting the seed with my husband MONTHS in advance. He can be SUCH a grump, so I have to grease the wheels wayyy ahead of time. And originally, I planned a sunset shoot for today (Sunday). Once I had organized it with my photographer (who doubles as my real life friend – what a treat!), I had to text her and say, “OMG Mike will murder me if I make him do family photos in the middle of football Sunday”. So we switched it to a sunrise shoot. He wasn’t too happy about that either but, hey, at least it wasn’t during football.

As it crept closer, I had to start priming him (yes, still referring to the husband). Priming him usually includes trading him a round of golf for a pleasant demeanor DURING the shoot. We’ve spent plenty of family photo shoots bickering aimlessly as we try to get non-smiley kids to smile. It just so happens that yesterday my brother in law asked him to join him in Asbury Park for a golf weekend next weekend. THAT was my ticket in! “Sure babe you can go golfing next weekend IF you promise to be a good sport for pictures tomorrow!”

Now that I had the husband hooked, it was time to focus on the kids. Remember the photographer, my friend, Jen? Listen to this brilliance she sent me last night (and I quote): “Tell the boys and Tessa about Wendy. She’s my friend who lives in my camera, and she whispers to me when she’s so happy with what she sees. And she tells me to tell you when they’ve done an amazing job and should get treats. And if they look hard enough with big enough smiles into the camera they may see her bouncing around. But most of the time she’s shy so she just gives out treats.” Seriously?! GENIUS!!

I exacerbated the Wendy story and decided to tell the kids that Wendy was, in fact, Santa’s special camera helper AND that she’s friends with Elfie (our Elf on the Shelf). So not only would Wendy be magically bringing treats if the bruises smiled hard enough, but she would report back to both Santa and Elfie and their Christmas would depend on it. Too mean of me? NAHHH.

Click any of the photos in this post to be taken to her website.

The other thing I told them to hopefully gain their cooperation was that we were going to a farm to take photos. This hooked Dominic, but what I didn’t tell him was that it was NOT an animal farm. Because every farm in his eyes has animals. I knew I only had a certain amount of time once we got there before he realized there were no animals so I was banking on the Wendy thing to come through.

So now we’re at the shoot, and the first thing we realize is Tessa pooped on the drive there. But her outfit is too complicated to try and change her in the middle of a field, so ehh we’ll just manage the shoot with a stinky poop in her diaper no biggie. (And I forgot to mention that, of course, on the day of family photos she wakes up with a booger eye all red and swollen and crusty…great!)

And we’re pulling out alllll the Wendy stops. Luca is so curious about Wendy, he keeps walking as close to the camera as possible to see if he can get a glimpse of Wendy, and is posing like a cute little boy left and right. I quickly realize 4 years old is the PERFECT age for photos.

Tessa is pretty cooperative too. All she needs is Mommy in her foresight and she’s all smiles…booger eye and all.

Meanwhile Dominic is over it after the first 3 snaps. Here comes whiney, vocal-fry Dom just asking when Wendy was going to bring treats. He’s not only over it, he’s legit ignoring it. We get the whole family into position and he’s purposely turning the other way, picking his nose, or putting his hands over his eyes.

CT-based photographer but also just stellar human.

So in comes the 3/5ths rule. 3/5ths rule means we can NEVER wait till all 5 of us are photo ready, because it will NEVER happen. Instead, wait until 3/5ths of us are ready and do the best we can. And actually, today, I’d say we hit 4/5ths the majority of the time so I’d call that a win. This is also the reason we can’t just rely on posed photos all of the time. By the end, we just told the boys to run around in the field while Jen snapped photos because the more movement for them, the happier they’d be, and the less annoyed with the camera they’d be.

And it wasn’t until the end that Dominic finally said, “But Mommy this is NOT a farm!” To which I responded. “Aw man, I’m sorry you didn’t like the farm I picked out this time. I’ll pick a better one next time.” And you know what? That response miraculously did not cause a meltdown, he simply shrugged it off and said, “Ok Mommy!”

Mid-shoot, Wendy magically dropped off airheads and rock candy, and one little taste and the boys knew exactly what to do. Luca’s so smart, he would take one picture, ask for a piece of a treat, then take another, ask for another treat (to which we obliged) and so on. He definitely got the most out of Wendy’s treats, and by 9am the bruises were so hopped up on sugar they were running in circles.

Yup, all of this before 9am. And then off to bagels, comfy clothes, and a relaxing football Sunday at home.

Plus, she sent some unedited sneak peaks (in this post!) a few hours later…and they made it all very worth it. I can not wait to see the rest!! ❤

Winkies and Whoo-Whoos

I had a moment last night. A moment of “pinch me am I delirious or is this really happening?”. Felt like it could have been out of an SNL sketch. It was happening. Here’s what happened.

Look at poor Tessa. What do you think is going through her head? THESE TWO NUTBALLS I HAVE FOR BROTHERS, HERE WE GO AGAIN! P.S. She’s happy if she has her sponge. Doesn’t let that thing go when she’s in the bath. Loves her dang sponge.

Threw these three into the bath together because Daddy was still in work meetings and Mommy was already running wayyyy past bedtime. Usually the bow gets a bath first by herself and then while mommy puts the bow to bed, the bruises get a bath together. I wasn’t prepared for this, and honestly, I see-sawed between just straight up laughter or parenting meta-moments wondering if I should really be jumping in and being the voice of reason? Or explanation?

Luca started it with “Mommy, me and Dommy have a winky and Tessa has a whoo-whoo!” Just randomly. Like no big lead up and no precursor studying of naked baby bodies before the onslaught of questions and comments. I immediately buckled up.

Dommy: Why does Tessa have a whoo-whoo? Where’s my whoo-whoo?

Me: *Crickets* (I’m too tired for this so I’m sitting there quietly weighing my options for how I want to proceed.)

Luca: Because girls have whoo-whoos and boys have winkies.

(Luca for the win!)

For the record, I tried to explain the appropriate anatomical word for female part and male part a while back, but it never stuck and just made my husband feel awkward (He says it’s weird if they say “vagina”). Who knows, if, to this day, they even know the real scientific words for private parts. But regardless here we are in the middle of bath time tossing around “winkies” and “whoo-whoos” like it’s our job.

Dommy: My winky’s right here! *Furiously pulls on his winky in his best effort to show me…as if I haven’t seen it before…and as if it can detach from his body.*

Luca: Dommy, my winky’s bigger than yours!

Dommy: NO! My winky’s bigger! (Is this a boy thing? Why do they compare winkies so freaking much?)

Luca: *Giggling and pointing* And see that’s Tessa’s whoo-whoo! That’s where her poop comes out!

*Dommy leans down and stares intently at Tessa’s whoo-whoo trying to process that’s where poop comes out, which it is in fact NOT where poop comes out.*

For this fleeting moment in my head I had to think about whether or not I actually wanted to explain the difference between the poop hole and the pee hole but honestly I was so exhausted I just let it go.

And then Luca did it for me.

Luca: My pee comes out of my winky! See! *Begins peeing in bath straight across Tessa (she’s in the middle) towards Dominic and thinks it’s hilarious.*

Dommy: *Looks down at his own winky, which is still submerged in the bathwater (thank goodness – otherwise we would have had criss-crossing fire hoses straight across Tessa).* And I start seeing a stream flowing and now know he is peeing in the bath too, right in Tessa’s direction.

Poor girl is sitting right smack in between her two nutball brothers getting her whoo-whoo scrutinized while being peed on.

So I guess my question is this: That was normal right?! That’s totally what happens when kids start to notice private parts and think potty talk is hilarious. I handled it fine right? Maybe I shouldn’t have put Tessa in the bath with them? But goodness they’re only 4 and 2, that’s fine right? Or is Luca or Dommy going to tell everyone at school that they showed Tessa their winky and they saw her whoo-whoo?! Oh god oh god oh god.

Also, how do I get boys to stop peeing in the bath? And to think it’s gross instead of funny?

And, like, how on earth am I ever going to handle the birds and the bees conversation? Actually, I won’t have to, at least for the boys. Gona make dad handle that one.

I think I’ll just keep bath time separate from now on, that was too much for my exhausted brain at 7:30 at night on a work day. Time for wine. And bed.

Good thing they’re cute.

The Snow Day Box

It’s September 17, 2020. September 17. Just acknowledging the fact that I’m about to start talking about Christmas and it’s September 17. Too soon? Nah, no such thing.

I wasn’t actually starting to think about Christmas (except if you know me, you DO know I start early…), but I’m participating in an Usborne Books Party on Facebook tonight that got me thinking about this. And aside from the To-Go Packs, The Snow Day Box is my other “best idea I’ve ever had”.

What is it, you ask? Simply put, it is exactly what it is. Santa delivers a box (old Amazon box wrapped in wrapping paper) for each kid filled with snow day activities. I started it last year and will continue it every year for the foreseeable future. It checks all the boxes: Bruises. Bows. Books.

Here’s why: I fill it ONLY with no-tech, developmentally appropriate, play-based literacy, STEM, art, and music supplies. Last year’s boxes for the boys were filled with books, drawing pads, coloring books, learning activities/supplies, new (and fancy!) markers and crayons, craft kits, slime kits, puzzles, stickers. Googly eyes and colored craft sticks and tissue paper and buttons and pom poms and glue. And they ATE. IT. UP. I can’t wait to build Tessa’s box this year.

Some of the stuff we took out and added to our art table right away, like the crayons and markers (needed to replace old ones anyway). But the majority of it stayed in the snow day box, and we only took it out on snow days. It was hard for the bruises – they wanted to take stuff out all the time – but if we did that I knew they’d blow through everything within a day and then have nothing for snow days (which defeats the purpose). And what it did was make room for lots of eager anticipation and excitement for snow days, a lesson in patience (good things come to those who wait), and not because it was a day off from school, but because they not only got to go play in the snow but also spend all day creating and building and crafting and reading…with ZERO (ok maybe there was a teeny bit here or there, but exponentially less than before!) screen time. I went from surviving snow days with movie marathons to enjoying family time doing things that grew our brains!

Want another tip? Doesn’t just have to be snow day boxes. But rainy day boxes or boredom boxes or cool down/calming boxes or quiet time boxes or….when we went into quarantine…I reintroduced an iteration of the snow day box as the learning box or the school-at-home box.

All year long, I’m constantly on the hunt for affordable, smaller items to fill these boxes. I like getting things that double as on-the-go items they can put in their to-go packs. Kill two birds with one stone, you know? I’ve had the most success with a few brands/stores. To bring it full circle, why I started this post, Usborne kills it in this area…regular books, activity books, sticker books, learning books, drawing books. Sooo many different options and the literacy specialist in me just screams! I’ve always preached Melissa & Doug and it rings true in this area too. My kids are big fans of their oversized coloring pads, re-useable sticker books, paint-with-water, and on-the-go sets. And to be honest, I get most of my stuff from the clearance end caps at Home Goods, Marshalls, or TJ Maxx. Found some great mini nat-geo slime kits and gems and rocks kits last year on clearance for three bucks. THREE bucks! For all miscellaneous craft supplies and glue and crayons and markers, Amazon definitely takes the cake.

And just to bring it back full circle one more time…it’s September 17. Hallmark movies are probably starting to play as we speak (EEK!). It’s not too early. Start now, a few bucks a paycheck, and you’ll have plenty to fill a snow day box by Christmas. Happy Christmas shopping!!

Who Says a Mom Can’t Have Her Cake…And Eat It, Too?

In other words, what it’s like to be a 33 year old Mom on a bachelorette party…!!!

In a few short days, my best friend and long-time college roomie is getting married. And COVID has really messed it up for her big day. She originally had a wedding planned for December at a resort in Mexico. To say this mom (me!) was eager for a real adult vacation is an understatement. And she having been a maid of honor at my wedding, I couldn’t wait to be there for her big day…the one she’s deserved since she was put on this earth. But, stupid COVID. So she planned a smaller, more intimate wedding for family in Cape Cod later this month. But then the Mass. governor put all the travel bans in place, and with her fiance’s family being from the Dallas area, that had to be canceled too. Stupid COVID. So finally she settled on an elopement in a few short days. No family, no friends, just her, her fiance, and a JOP. Stupid COVID. She’s gone through the ringer when it comes to this wedding, so we wanted to make sure she felt special for one last weekend, COVID restrictions and all. Kristen, we love you!

And now I’m about to tell the world what it’s like when two of the most opposite things in the world collide: being a mom, and a bachelorette party.

Let’s start from the beginning.

I have not been away from my kids overnight since September 30th, 2019. I know the exact date because that’s the weekend my husband and I escaped to Nantucket for a long weekend as a babymoon in preparation for Tessa’s arrival. My daughter is 8 months old now. And most of you know she has never taken a bottle, no matter how hard we’ve tried. Sooo safe to say I had some anxiety leading up to this weekend. The cherry on top being that my husband has also yet to be on his own overnight with all three kids too.

The good news? Well, a couple pieces of good news. One, I haven’t seen my college friends in ages and we had a pretty awesome day planned so I had some excitement to counterbalance the anxiety. Two, when I asked my husband, he had absolutely no anxiety or nerves surrounding the weekend whatsoever, even though I envisioned a baby crying all day and night because the boob was nowhere to be found. Three, two other nursing mamas also on the trip, and friends with lots of understanding and compassion.

Fast forward: Instagram ready on a chartered boat out in Boston harbor with a jet ski, driving green, plenty of spiked seltzers, and neon wigs. Definitely not a normal page from my reality. (If you can’t guess which one is me, just look for the loose fitting mom sweater and long mom skirt…)

The reality? Ha. Just you wait. There’s lots going on under that neon wig and mom outfit. Including but not limited to a panty liner to catch the pee I will leak all day long, a dose of antibiotics to stave off current UTI symptoms, high-rise spanx underwear UNDER my bathing suit to hold in all the extra skin and still look (halfway?) decent, nursing pads to catch the let downs that occur every time I think of my baby girl, and a huge black bag in tow that just happened to be filled with my breast pump, a mini cooler for pumped milk, and a hands-free nursing bra so I could pump and still enjoy some spiked seltzers. Also, about the hairy legs and unmanicured nails. Oops! And of course, I DIDN’T remember to pack my nursing poncho/cover…which just meant I was pumping for all to see whether I liked it or not.

But you know what, why should I be ashamed of that? Why should I worry about hiding all that? Why couldn’t I be a mom AND a good friend having a great time on a bachelorette party? Screw that, I totally could! So I pumped a lot, texted the hubby often to see how things were going (she took her bottle FINALLY at 6am this morning!), and yawned my way through dinner wondering how on earth I’d stay awake till the end of the night.

But I did it. I embraced the sh*t out of the situation and felt more free than I ever have in my life..well at least in a really really long time. The captain may have seen a few more boobs than he bargained for, but it was worth the good laughs and special times with friends I rarely get to see these days because of my reality. And my homecoming made for the sweetest (and usually unusual) extra snuggles from the bruises, with no plans to dictate our Sunday…and a hubby who, despite being on his own all weekend, still let me sneak in an afternoon nap to make up for the late night out (home by 11pm, that counts as late, right?).

In retrospect, I had two choices facing me this weekend: drain my cup and wallow in the challenges of trying to have fun in a social situation while filled with anxiety, OR fill my cup, refresh my soul, and come back a better mother for it.

I filled my cup, and I’m feeling pretty grateful. ❤

Top Tips for Teaching Toddlers LETTERS!

A little while back I wrote a post about using your child’s name to introduce letters. That post was called “It’s In The Name”. Think of that as the relative starting point for your toddler’s “learning letters” journey. Think of this post as the sequel to that post. Like an “adding on”, for what to do after you begin work with your child on their name.

I’m telling you…in fact, I promise you…that learning letters is more than just memorizing symbols and regurgitating songs. Learning letters is making connections between the spoken word and the written word. As a parent, it is one of your proudest moments. Or maybe in my little teacher heart at least I’ve convinced myself to believe it is one of your proudest moments. If it’s not, flatter me and just say it is!

And GUYS. There are so many fun things you can do with your child to make learning letters FUN. Yup, I said it. To make learning letters FUN. And no, it doesn’t involve flash cards and letter drills or spelling tests and literacy worksheets.

I’m about to list my top ten tips for making learning letters fun and meaningful for your child. But remember, it’s not a one size fits all model. Kids will learn at different speeds, in different ways, and with different tools. What I suggest may not work for your child. And that’s OK! It’s not failure. I will never say I have all the answers. I simply have suggestions.

So here goes:

Start with simple exploration…grouping and sorting by features. Getting kids to notice things like letters with sticks and letters with curves or letters with little curves and letters with big curves helps to teach them the language needed to talk about letters and their features. Talking about letter features helps kids better differentiate and distinguish between letters that may be very similar (like X and Y or b and d).

Meaning makes it stick. Teach in conjunction with letter sounds (and talk about letters and the sounds they make in context when encountering them naturally and authentically in print during reading)! I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. It will take longer (and be more confusing!) for kids to learn letters if they are learning them in isolation (think old school flashcards) than if they are learning them in conjunction with the sounds they make and in the context of books they read.

Recognition then formation. Recognition usually comes before formation, but it is ok to teach them simultaneously (i.e. if you have a letter of the week, it would make sense to focus on both recognition AND formation during that week). Teaching formation is also a great opportunity for you to use the “letter language” you established through exploration (go back to the first tip if you aren’t sure what I’m talking about!). If you are using “letter language”, then try to use the same verbal path every time too. For example, to teach D, you might say “Big stick down, back to the top, big curve to the bottom”.

Uppercase before lowercase. Teach all uppercase letters first, especially for formation. Once uppercase letters are mastered (or most of them at least), move to lowercase. There are some letters whose lowercase is the same as uppercase, so some of that comes easy once uppercase are learned. And it IS appropriate for kids to be writing in all capitals first before they learn lowercase letters – that’s why you see my son’s name in all capitals on all his work.

Models. And scaffold when needed. Have letters around you, in your environment, as models for your child to look at while attempting to form his own. Whether it’s letter puzzle pieces or magnetic/foam letters or a simple handwritten letter on a sticky note by yours truly, having a model for him to refer to is extremely helpful. And when your child gets frustrated or stuck, jump in to help without doing it for them. Go back to the verbal path, or pull out the model, or hand-over-hand.

Make and build, not just write. Deep learning occurs via the process of doing. Take riding a bike for example. You could tell your child how to ride a bike. Or you could try to explain it. Or you could even show them by riding a bike yourself. But the only way they really learn to ride a bike is by doing it. This is called kinesthetic learning, and it applies to letters too. Providing tactile, sensory letter activities (rather than paper and pencil practice every time) will move your child’s learning process along (and they’ll probably enjoy it more too!). Along these same lines, practice, practice, practice…and once a letter is mastered, don’t forget to revisit from time to time for maintenance (go back to the bike analogy if you need to: if you learn to ride a bike at age 5 but never get on a bike again until age 36, chances are you will be a little bit…or alotta bit…rusty – same goes for letters).

Lastly, FUN. Make it fun. This is a rule for learning in general. But really. It’s easy to go to the bookstore and pick up a few workbooks, or to search the internet for a printable worksheet. Or invest in a deck of letter flashcards. But easy does not equal engaging. Go the extra mile to make it fun when you can, and you’ll see the payout sooner (cost benefit analysis for all my business people out there). For the record, engaging doesn’t always mean complicated either, take the sticker letters below for example. No prep needed, simple materials. Done!

I’m sure I missed some other tips, but this is enough to at least get you started! Do you have any good ideas or activities for letter recognition or formation? Send them my way…I’m sure the bruises would love some new and creative learning tasks thrown into the mix! Happy letter learning!