It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

(Picture just because.)

Developmental Holiday Gift Guide: Everything you need to succinctly know when buying TOYS and BOOKS for infants through five years old

It’s here! Because a lot of you asked for it, I put together a holiday gift guide by age with a combination of (mostly) developmentally appropriate toys and books from the teacher side of me (professional opinion) and the tried-and-true, our-family-favorites mom side of me (non professional opinion). These are by no means complete lists. I’m sure there are things I forgot or things I might add along the way, but with each age range I’ve attached a general description of things to look out for/things to consider depending on the child’s age. I’m always hoping to hear your ideas too…send them along and I’ll add them into the lists! If you actually click on each age range heading, you’ll be taken right to my Amazon lists. Amazon is great, but I’m also going to try to buy local this year, so we can try and help save some small businesses along the way!

Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of limiting technology – usually one technology gift per child per year. (Also full disclosure, somehow they end up watching way more TV and movies than they should on a weekly basis so don’t let that statement make you think differently of me.) This year we’re replacing the boys’ old iPads and that’s considered a huge gift for us. But most of the time I gravitate towards simpler or more traditional toys. For infants and young toddlers, I like a lot of the wooden toys, handmade toys, or montessori themed toys. For older toddlers I start to merge what is tried and true and high quality with what is high interest – and yes, that sometimes means forgoing classic and stylish toys for tacky trends and well known brands.

We’ve also ended up with a lot of crap over the years, and our playroom is in desperate need of a clean out, purge, and re-org. I usually do this right before Christmas anyway, in order to make room for the new crap that’s about to roll in. This year I’m really thinking of moving to a rotational toy room just to make space and get rid of the clutter. You know, the kind where we store bins in the basement of different types of toys and each bin gets its monthly turn of playroom feature and you keep rotating so things don’t get old and stale (and so you have more space). But this is a topic and a post for another day so let’s get right to it…

Infant – 6 Months

Think vision, think tummy time, think dangly, think texture. For this age I really don’t/haven’t bought much. But what I DO buy are things that are high contrast: black and white, or bright, bold colors in symmetrical/geometrical patterns because for babies the vision stimulation is everything! Go with soft crib books and loveys/security blankets with lots of texture. The more texture the more comfort. Anything to promote tummy time. Activity gyms are an absolute MUST HAVE because not only are they a valuable tool for tummy time, but the soft toys that usually dangle from above are perfect for the many milestones babies will hit in the first several months of life: visual stimulation, baby push-ups, kicking and batting, and grabbing and tugging.

6 – 12 Months

Think teething, think fine and gross motor, think mobility, think strength. You need things that are both small enough for a baby at this age to manipulate, but big enough so that they aren’t a choking hazard. We love rubbery teething toys, and any type of “in and out” toy. By “in and out”, I mean toys that can be transferred in and out of buckets (i.e. shape sorters, stacking rings, blocks) because this provides not just entertainment for long periods of time, but fantastic fine and gross motor practice and coordination. If you go the mobility route, do your research. We’ve had plenty of walkers or push toys that are not built for balancing, and the minute a baby puts weight on it the whole thing topples over (including baby!). We’ve had luck with the two I specifically put on the list – baby can learn to take assisted steps without the parental fear of everything and everyone toppling over. If you go the book and puzzle route, think wood puzzles with chunky pieces, or books with bright colors and simple organization (like first word books or board books with short sentences – 3 or 4 words). At this age, they start taking in words and receptive language like crazy even though their expressive language won’t pop out for a while still. Activity centers are also a worthwhile investment because everything is usually attached (no missing pieces, no choking), with lots of fine motor practice and different activities to explore.

1 – 2 Years

Think fine and gross motor ON STEROIDS, think active and physical strengthening, think practice and patience, think the building blocks of imagination and creativity. If your one or two year olds are anything like mine, by this age they are testing out every physical skill they have and getting into everything. If there’s one word I’d use to describe them, it’s BUSY. That’s why this age is filled with toys and activities that promote open-ended exploration and lots of movement, with some more detailed, refined, and delicate fine motor skills. Old favorites like Mr. Potato Head are perfect for this age, as there are endless combinations paired with trickier fine motor. For larger movement toys, sit and push or ride-on/ride-along toys are great for promoting movement in a more controlled way. At this age kids also start to have an imagination, and begin to dapple in pretend play. This is the best age for an introduction to things like baby dolls or stuffed animals or larger pretend play toys like figurines or animals, or my most favorite gift of all time – the play kitchen and play food. Megablocks (oversized legos) come in here too, but I caution you to avoid sets that build a certain thing (your kid will never follow the directions to build a certain structure at this age) – instead opt for the general starter kits that give you all the various blocks but with no specific design. Towards the end of this age, I also start to think about sensory (more on that in the next age range) so play doh makes its first appearance here. Nothing fancy though – no need to get the big elaborate kits – just the dough with cookie cutters are plenty for this age. If you’re considering books at this age, think language development. Board books (still!) with simple story lines, seek-and-find, or rhyming patterns help kids at this age develop their language as well as a sense of story.

3 -5 Years

I really couldn’t decide if I wanted to do 3-4 years or 3-5 years for this category, as I feel the jump in development that happens in year 4-5 is massive, so what would be a good gift for a 3 year old may not be a good gift for a 5 year old. But I just wasn’t able to splice it out enough to have two separate categories.

Think pretend play and dramatic play, think energy, think creative and imagination, think longer, more extended projects and play time, think sensory, sensory, sensory, and think about massive amounts of skill and knowledge development in huge bursts and leaps and bounds. Lots of sensory options, and it really depends on how much mess you want to deal with. (Full disclosure: I recommend letting them get messy sometimes because if you avoid all things messy they are missing out on important sensory stimulation and opportunities.) I love the variety packs play doh has come out with that include their cloud, krackle, and slime. Train sets or toy car collections or animal collections or doll houses (Calico Critters is a good gender neutral option!) come in at this age, as kids are able to more successfully organize their play to be able to play with lots of things at once. This is when you start to see kids set up zoos and towns and cities and race tracks. You also start to see them assume the role/perspective of someone else – maybe they’re running around the house as Woody from toy story all the time, or they spend an hour playing Paw Patrol with their Paw Patrol figures. High energy activities like bikes (balance bikes are amazing for development of balance!), scooters, and (gasp!) bounce houses that are small enough to fit inside your basement but large enough to allow for lots of jumping and wrestling and bouncing. I also love incorporating crafts and art supplies at this age – things like crayons and markers and coloring books and sticker books and even blank artists’ pads are engaging but also help to develop more specific fine motor skills. We introduced the grand easel at 3ish (maybe it was even 2.5ish), and it was a little too soon. We spent a lot of the first few months having to hover and teach to make sure markers or chalk weren’t drawn on anything other than the easel. But once that lesson was learned it is the perfect activity center. For puzzles and books, you’re now moving into the more complex, traditional puzzles (still with larger pieces but a smaller number!) and books in a variety of genres like non fiction, traditional picture books (I still keep it hardcover at this age if I can!), and old favorites like fairy tales and books in a series (Berenstein Bears anyone?!).

Remember to check out the post about Snow Day Boxes, too!

A little while back I did a post on Snow Day Boxes – boxes that Santa brings my kids every year filled with no-tech/low tech special activities that the kids can do on snow days (or rainy days or quiet time or rest time, etc.). It’s worth a read, as it could become your newest yearly tradition! If you’re interested, click here to read that post too. Happy shopping!

So…Voting

One of the most controversial yet most important civic duties of an American citizen’s lifetime, especially now. There are lots of reasons I believe people should vote. Today I wore a graphic T that reads “voting for my future”. My future is in this picture. In fact, the future IS these three, and they are the most important future that exists in this world. They are my reasons why.

Our district had the day off today — it’s the first time we’ve had Election Day off in a LONG time. I appreciate our Board of Ed’s commitment to encouraging all of our stakeholders to vote, and one of the ways they did that was by having a day off from school. Luca came home from preschool yesterday saying, “Mommy tomorrow is a stay at home day because it’s a special voting day.” And it would have been easy for me to just say ‘yep’ and move right along onto the next thing. But I believe now more than ever we can help our kids begin to understand what this process is and why it’s so important. We can build their good habits now. Yes, at 4 and 2 years old.

Here’s what we did to celebrate (and learn about) Election Day in our household:

A while back I grabbed these blank booklets in the Target dollar section. I pull them out every time I make a social story for my kids (like when I made the book about getting a haircut for Luca). Last night, I pulled one out to make a voting book for the kids to do in the morning.

This morning, when the bruises first came downstairs, we voted on our day: what we wanted for breakfast, what book we wanted to read, what math activity we wanted to do, what craft we wanted to do, what we wanted to do outside, what we wanted for lunch. The pictures made it easy and clear for the boys to see their choices, especially Dominic who is far from letter/word recognition. The names helped Luca practice letter and word recognition. The boxes to put a checkmark helped both boys practice a challenging fine motor skill.

Not only were they hooked and their engagement was spot on, but we had some difficult conversations too. Like when Luca voted for rainbow rice for sensory time but the rest of the family voted for kinetic sand. He shed some tears because he ‘lost’ and was upset that he wouldn’t get to do what he wanted to do. We talked about what makes voting fair: the idea that everyone has a voice to make a choice, and sometimes our choice isn’t the winner, and that’s ok. It’s also ok to be sad or mad if our choice isn’t the winner, but it’s NOT ok to treat others poorly because we are sad or mad.

An unanticipated tie on a few items (what we wanted for lunch and what book we wanted to read) had my husband and I laughing as we tried to explain a tiebreaker…call Gammy to ask for her vote? A recount? Of course my husband had to throw his math brain at me and tell me I should have avoided that by only including an odd number of voters. Oh well!

But even despite some tears and some confusing situations, what was also important with our activities was follow through. In order to show that voting matters in a concrete way, it was important to follow through on our “results”. So when everyone chose button owls over bead snakes for our art project, that’s what we did. Our voting results dictated our day, and surprisingly the boys got it. It made sense. They understood. And they had fun.

At one point, Luca was so into it, he decided to create his own poll. He got his own piece of paper, made check boxes on either side, and went around to each family member asking if they wanted “this” or “that”. Get a good laugh at the two choices he gave Mommy by watching the video below.

I wish so badly that we weren’t voting in a pandemic. My husband and I made the choice a while back to physically go to the polls on Election Day, forgoing mail-in voting (and our safety?!) to show our kids what it’s like to go to the polls and vote. I wish so badly that I could take Dominic and Luca with me, so they can see what it’s like to be a good citizen, to uphold our civic duty. To each get the sticker that says “I voted!” and wear it proudly. They won’t be coming along with me when I head to vote in a few hours for the sake of their safety – I trust myself to avoid germs, and I do not trust their curiosity to avoid germs. But at least they’ve begun to build an understanding of what it means to vote, and why it’s important. I hope our country turns itself around and begins to set a good example for them in the hours, days, weeks, and months to come – regardless of who I vote for, and regardless of the outcome of this election (I recognize there is privilege in this statement).

Mommy do you want to make monsters or drink wine? LOL.

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!

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 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!!

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!

It’s In The Name

This post is a little tricky for me because it’s hard for me to paint the whole picture of literacy when I start talking about things in isolation. As in, I would never want someone to think activities I suggest are random and disconnected. All of my activities have context, and are done as a piece of a bigger picture. Think of the literate child as a giant puzzle. There are lots of pieces that go into that puzzle, and those pieces work together to create the masterpiece. Each individual puzzle piece doesn’t have a lot of meaning on its own, and they don’t have a lot of meaning if they aren’t put together correctly.

One of the pieces of the literate puzzle is letter recognition and formation. (I’ll do a different, more detailed post on this later and I’ll also do a separate post on language development and the foundations of reading.)

One of the ways I’ve begun work on letter recognition and formation with my own kids is through their name. In fact, I’ve done and still do a lot of informal and casual work with my toddlers around their name. Why? Well, two reasons. The first is more philosophical, the second more practical.

  1. As you begin to teach toddlers letters, you want the letters to mean something. Think about it. Toddlers are in an extremely egocentric stage of life. There is NOTHING more meaningful to a toddler than their name. And you don’t just want them memorizing symbols with no understanding of what they actually mean. As toddlers get older and pass through the stages of emergent reading, they’ll build a foundational understanding that letters (graphemes) are the symbols we use to represent sounds (phonemes) in our language, and sounds are put together to form words or chunks of words with meaning (morphemes).
  2. As a parent, god forbid my kids are ever in a situation where they’d need it, I want them to know their personal information. Start with first name (recognition and formation), then move to last name, then address, town, phone number, etc. Remember though, all of this takes months and years of work – you’re not just teaching a kid his first and last name, address, and personal information in the span of a week or two. Go slow. You want it to last.

Where To Start

Not sure where to even begin? Start with talk, start with modeling it, start with environment, start with recognition. Talk. Talk about your child’s name with him. Talk about the letters in his name, talk about the sounds the letters in his name make, especially the first one. Show his name to him, write it for him. Point out when you see his name, point out when you see the letters in his name…around the house, in the car, at the grocery store, anywhere! Noticing print in the environment is fun and peeks curiosity, and also helps kids begin to understand that letters and words have meaning. Once you make this type of talk more of a habit, you’ll notice it just kind of embeds itself into your daily conversations and play, making it a naturally occurring part of your child’s life. And as your talking about it, casually help your child begin to recognize it.

“Oh my gosh, I found your name on your art project! Let’s look. Do you see any place with letters? What letter do you notice? L? I notice L too and I know Luca starts with L. Yup, you found it, that’s your name! Now let’s read your name. Oh my gosh you can read! Look at that, you just read your name. Do you know any of the other letters in your name?”

The best part of name recognition activities is kids don’t have to know the other letters in the alphabet yet. Here are some examples of some more formal (but not very fancy!) name recognition activities.

Before you write it, build it.

Once you’ve noticed your child more successfully finding and recognizing both the individual letters in his name and his name as a whole, you might start building the bridge between recognition and formation. Before you jump to formation, consider the middle ground. Provide lots of opportunities for your child to build his name before he’s forming it independently. There are so many good toys and tools out there that allow for this type of work. But you don’t need anything fancy either. Most of the time either I make the materials we use for name building or the kids help me make the materials. We’ve used everything from painted rocks to popsicle sticks to cut up squares of paper to foam or magnetic letters. I’ve been dying to get my hands on some letter beads lately too! (And these are all the same things you might use for word building later on down the road.)

A couple things to keep in mind when helping your child navigate the building phase: At first, provide a model. Have your child’s name written and displayed in a place where they can see it while they work their way through building it, matching and checking each letter as they go. As they get better and better, you can remove the model slowly so they are building it on their own. Also consider only giving them the letters from their name at first (i.e. if I want Luca to build his name, I’m only going to give him an L, U, C, and A first – I’m not going to mix in any other letters of the alphabet yet). Each time they build their name, have them tell and touch each letter in order, and then run their finger under the entire word while saying it. (L, U, C, A, Luca.) “Tell and touch” and “Run your finger under it and say it” become good strategies down the road for reading other words too, not just one’s name.

One At A Time

When you’re ready to move from building to forming, aka writing, go slow. Introduce one letter at a time, beginning with the first letter and going in order. Provide lots of different opportunities for your child to practice that same letter again and again over multiple days and even multiple weeks. Scaffold for your child if needed. Scaffold means to provide your kid with a just-right amount of help (not too much so it’s too easy, and not too little so it’s too frustrating) for them to be able to start connecting the dots on their own. Examples of scaffolds for letter formation include providing a model for them to refer to, doing hand-over-hand letter writing, tracing, giving start dots, and using the same verbal path every time when describing how to write the letter (the verbal path for L might be “big stick down and little stick across”). Make the opportunities as kinesthetic as possible – don’t just use pen and paper every time. Use chalk, paint, play doh. Write with your finger in sand, in play doh, in shaving cream, in dirt. Write with pencils, write with crayons, write with markers, write with sticks. Be creative. It doesn’t get boring if you’re changing it up constantly, and the research behind kinesthetic writing is SOLID.

Maintenance

It’s so important to not just “one and done” it. When he’s mastered a letter or he’s mastered his name, you’ll want to revisit it often. Like the saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” [Side note…is that how the saying goes? I’m not sure I got that right and if I didn’t, well it’s my saying now.] And also don’t be surprised if, as you begin to introduce other letters, you see regression. (N?! That doesn’t look like an N and you were just doing N’s perfectly last week!!!!) That’s ok! Think of how many things that little brain is trying to keep track of. As you add new things, other things get squeezed and moved around. Everything needs ongoing practice to not get rusty or smushed out! Lots of ways you might do maintenance activities, from quick rainbow writes all the way to fun crafts and art projects involving your child’s name.

Accountability

Once you’ve considered a certain letter or word (in this case, your child’s name) mastered, you now should hold them accountable for reading and writing it regularly. In a sense, accountability is just another strategy for maintenance. And remember, you only ever hold a kid accountable for something you KNOW he knows and can do easily. Right now, I hold my 4 year old accountable for his first name because he knows it and has mastered it, even if each letter isn’t formed perfectly every time. I don’t hold him accountable for his last name yet because he hasn’t mastered it. He has mastered the first letter, but still sometimes mixes up other letters and has trouble remembering proper formation of all the letters. So if he has to write his full name, I hold him accountable for writing his first name, then I jump in and write his last name for him. We’re at the point now where I’m beginning to hold him accountable for the first letter of his last name, then I fill in the rest from there.

Ultimately, you should be able to see how a lot of these suggestions go for any letter learning. You might see some of these things show up again in future posts. If there’s one thing you remember, it’s that we start with names because names have meaning. If you’ve ever taken a biology class or a cognitive psych class, you may remember Bartlett’s famous experiment. Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? Well, long story short, Bartlett helped us (or maybe just me) understand “schema”. Schema are a set of preconceived ideas that your brain uses to perceive and interpret new information. While schema are better known in terms of how one views the world, they apply to learning too. Your toddler is literally being pummeled by a million bits of new information on a daily basis. How your toddler’s brain decides what sticks and enters his schema and what bounces back (to be absorbed hopefully on another day) is based on what has meaning to him. How do we begin to make letters stick? Start with a name because NAMES HAVE MEANING!

In case you’re ‘masking’ about it…

School’s around the corner. As in teachers go back next week, and kids the following week. EEK! Our district is currently following a hybrid model, like many others around us. That means teachers go back in person full time, while cohorts of students cycle in and out of the building in a weekly rotation: one week in, one week out. Everything back-to-school is so politicized and sensationalized right now that the way I’ve kept my family grounded and myself rational is by preparing logically. One of the many topics up for debate has been masks. I won’t (and this blog never will – it’s not the point) get into the politics surrounding our communities, but I will share how I’ve been finding the fun as best I can in all the chaos.

When I realized masks were here to stay, I made a decision to embrace them regardless of how uncomfortable, scrutinized, and debated they are. Who knew masks would be fall’s hottest accessory? We’ve had a whole summer…and even some of spring…to get used to them, and I think we’re ready for it. Want to get your family ready for it too? These 5 tips and tricks just might help!

  1. Build a collection. Buy or make a lot! If you’re working in an environment that requires non-medical grade masks all day long, every day of the week, you quickly realize one or two masks hanging from your rearview mirror just isn’t gona cut it. So I invested. Planned for two masks a day, five days a week, knowing each mask would have to be properly laundered before wearing again. That’s 10 masks a week if you don’t want to be doing mask laundry every day! For me, I’ve hit up Old Navy and Kitsch, and I’ve been lucky to have my Aunt Cathy who’s been mass producing masks for our family personally. For the boys, I invested in Crayola’s SchoolMaskPack too and I love them. They even came with a mask laundry bag so you don’t lose them like socks in the wash!
  2. Have fun with it. My necklace thingy became my mask thingy and I’ve had fun making sure I have enough of a selection of masks to match whatever outfit I might choose. And Aunty Cathy even made Tessa and I a matching mask and bow set! The bruises’ have fun prints and patterns and they get to pick the mask they want to wear each time they need one. Different styles and types help too, and lately I’ve even found that some of mine are better for really hot days than others based on how thick they are.
  3. Normalize it. Even if you disagree with masks, save those conversations or hot-headed remarks for adult time. If kids hear you speaking negatively or fearfully or anxiously of masks, they will internalize those same feelings. Point out other people wearing masks, and look for others you like. (“Mommy I want a dino mask!!!”) If it’s normal to you, it’s normal to them, and really they won’t think anything of it.
  4. Practice it. Build a mask tolerance. On our very first outing once lockdown was lifted back in the spring, we ventured down the road to the garden store on Mother’s Day weekend. It was a 15 minute trip, if that. Just enough time to practice mask wearing and see how the kids would tolerate it, and they totally surprised me! Since then, our kids wear them any time we are out in public. We’ll take them off if we are far enough away from people (we’ve only ventured to outside places – my kids still haven’t been back inside any stores or inside any restaurants), but as soon as we’re close to people it’s MASK TIME! (Like MAIL TIME…Blues Clues anyone?) Also super important to have them practice putting them on and taking them off – if you do it for them they won’t know how to do it once they’re at school on their own.
  5. Survive it. Remember, this is temporary, even though it feels like it’s already been forever. Temper the storm. We will go back to mask free days. And sooner rather than later if we all do our part!

Building Math Muscles

Tara, this one’s for you!

First of all, I kind of feel like I’m a big cheater with this post. Cheating on my books and my literacy passion. Cheating on my soulmate. I guess that means I’m a pretty faithful and loyal woman, right? Nonetheless, I’m gona cheat, and it’s gona be ok.

I’d also be a fraud if I only ever talked about books and reading and writing on the “books” section of this blog because my roots with math go deep. Way deep.

When I was a little girl, math was HARD. I was the little girl who absolutely loved school – woke up on weekends disappointed it wasn’t a school day, played school with my fisher price chalkboard and stuffed animals (I even stole my first grade teacher’s chalk holder – I guess that makes me a thief, so yeah, there’s that.). But every day, when it was time for math, my heart sank and my stomach did somersaults.

I fell victim to the whole ‘women in math and science’ conundrum. Elementary school turned into middle school and high school, and by high school I was just trying to get through algebra and physics memorizing every formula. I still did well because formulas were rote and as long as I memorized I did ok enough to at least pass. I was never stellar, and despite AP and honors courses in humanities, I was much slower with math. And any time I had a novel problem that required me to think about what was needed to solve the problem rather than just apply a formula I had memorized, I failed. Epically. I cried and I stayed after and I doubted myself and I gave up. I HATED math; I’d never be a math person.

Looking back, I was so concerned with doing well in school that my strategy for memorizing only got me so far. I (nor my teachers) never took the time to actually help me understand what it meant. I didn’t have the number sense to make sense of numbers! I’m still the type that will pull out my cell phone calculator to figure out tips at restaurants or use my fingers for simple addition or subtraction.

Luckily I married a math guy so I don’t think my kids will have it too bad. Needless to say, I swore this off for my own kids. I wouldn’t let them fall victim to my own shortcomings, especially Tessa. I’m a mom on a mission with this one.

So we do math. We do math a lot. Not like “Hey it’s math time get your whiteboards ready!” But lots and lots of conversations and games and play based activities involving math. By golly these kids will have number sense if I kill myself trying. (And funny enough these activities have all helped me build my OWN number sense at 32 years of age..shh don’t tell anyone.)

I went back into my archives and pulled anything and everything math related with my kids that I ever documented. I organized it all into the math standards via Common Core, plus some add-ons. It’s not perfect…I’m much less confident in my math brain than I am in my literacy brain! (And I also know that making mistakes – mommys included – is ok, so I’m not afraid to be imperfect.) Hopefully I get your math brain going, and give you some ideas for what you might want to try with your own littles.

Counting and Cardinality

Operations and Algebraic Thinking

Measurement and Data

Geometry

Math Talk and Math Language

(Honestly, ALL of what I do includes math talk and math language – I could have put every single photo in this gallery.)

Patterns

A couple odd notes because it’s Friday night and I can’t really organize my brain…

I try my best to incorporate executive functioning and fine motor practice into many things we do. Executive functioning is a set of mental skills that refers to one’s ability to organize, be flexible, plan, recall, and maintain self control. As adults, we use executive functioning skills subconsciously as we manage, plan, and monitor the many tasks that we must accomplish each day. It doesn’t come as naturally to kids – they need to be provided with experiences that help them struggle (in a good way!) through challenging tasks with the appropriate help and encouragement from you along the way.

Similarly, I think in today’s day and age we often take fine motor skills for granted. Fine motor skills are the coordination between smaller muscles. Think pincer grasp, cutting with scissors, threading beads, writing, buttoning, zippering (on the contrary think of gross motor skills like walking, running, throwing…). Therefore, I try and build these into as many activities as I can as well, especially and most importantly for the 2 year old.

Lastly, most (if not all) of what I do with the 4 year old is adaptable in some way to the 2 year old. That way I’m not planning double the activities, and they can use/benefit from the same materials. I tried to include the 2 year old in as many of the photos above so you can see how I tweaked activities slightly to match his developmental level. If anything, I ALWAYS let him participate even if it’s just free play with the same materials his brother is using. The brothers are each other’s biggest motivators, so I play on that as much as I can!

If anything, I hope this can be a good resource for you to come back to when you’re in need of something to do. Bookmark this page now so you don’t have to come digging later!