Do you live near a Home Depot?
If so, I highly recommend checking out the FREE do-it-yourself workshops for kids offered once per month (usually in the morning on the first Saturday of each month, with an extra event around the holidays). A wonderful friend introduced us to these workshops around Thanksgiving, and our boys now look forward to attending the monthly activities. Children are provided everything they need to complete a project (with help from an adult) to include materials (wood, paint, stickers, etc.), access to tools (usually a hammer and/or screwdriver) detailed instructions, a commemorative pin, a Home Depot apron (on which children can proudly attach their commemorative pins), and a certificate of achievement. Once a child has completed 25 workshops, they receive a special commemorative pin!
Dominic Jones, pictured above, is only 6 years old but has already achieved his "25th Workshop" pin (pictured in the gallery below!). Since workshops are available all over the United States, Dominic has been able to attend the DIY workshops every month for over two years, even if traveling out of state with his family. After seeing first-hand how comfortable Dominic is with tools, paints, and project assembly at our local Home Depot workshops, my children are each working towards their own "25th Workshop" pins! I recommend these events for both boys and girls, ages four and above (though a younger child might be able to complete the projects with additional parental assistance).
Benefits of DIY Workshops
I am not at all affiliated with Home Depot, but I have found there are a lot of reasons to attend these fun workshops. Clearly, the top reason is that the workshops are fun and children enjoy getting to take home projects such as toy vehicles, helicopters, picture frames, or the "block calendar" that is being offered in January 2018. Here are a few more reasons:
-Children become familiar with tools in a safe environment
-Gets the kids out of the house when the weather isn't conducive to outdoor play
-Provides time away from electronic toys
-A fun way to bond with a parent or other relative
-No mess! Home Depot sets up a spacious workspace and cleans up after the event!
-Fun with friends! It's free, so invite a friend and have a great no-cost play date!
How do I sign up?
Visit www.homedepot.com and select "DIY Projects and Ideas" and "FREE DIY Workshops" to see what is available in your area. Register ahead of time and show up early if you want your best chance to complete the monthly featured activity -but don't worry, if the store runs out of the featured monthly project they always have back-up activities on hand.
If you have attended a Home Depot DIY Kids Workshop, please share your experience in the comments section below! Have fun!
Will your children be helping you cook during the winter holidays? Does it matter?
Since becoming a mom, I have often struggled with bringing my children into the kitchen. Sure, we occasionally bake something together for fun. Yes, I have been teaching them how to prepare a few simple healthy meals and snacks so they gain practical skills. But since I never particularly loved cooking myself, is it even possible to teach my kids to enjoy cooking? It is worth the effort?
Michael Pollen (author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma and the man behind the powerful documentaries "In Defense of Food" and "Cooked") has convinced me it DOES matter.
Michale Pollen is the one responsible for cutting through conflicting dietary advice with the simple and popular recommendation "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Pollen's work addresses the growing rate of childhood obesity and explores how industrialized food processing has slowly convinced millions of us that cooking isn't worthwhile if it can be avoided -a mindset that is having serious consequences on health and resulting in a devastating loss of cooking skills. While reflecting on Pollen's research, it occurred to me that the reason I dislike cooking may be rooted in the fact I didn't develop an appreciation for cooking as a child.
What are your happiest memories of food and cooking as a child?
I have happy memories of some special meals -but very few happy memories of cooking and being taught how to cook. I want to change that for my children, and I am concerned about the number of kids growing up today whose happiest food-memories will revolve around fast food or "junk food," as opposed to memories that involve cooking and enjoying nutritious foods with their family. Holiday cooking in particular can be stressful -but it can also be the perfect time to welcome your children into the kitchen, give them simple confidence-building jobs to do, all while creating warm family memories and a positive association with cooking and nutritious food.
If you have a teen or tween, they can help with nearly any kitchen task. If you have younger children in your home, here are some ideas on how to allow them to contribute to cooking. Just don't limit yourself or the kids to monotonous tasks -don't be afraid to get creative together and experiment with new ingredients. Put on some music, and make it fun!
1. Gathering ingredients. Kids should be able to grab produce from the refrigerator or select low-level pantry items.
2. Washing produce. My kids love spraying produce with produce wash (store bought or homemade both do fine, but I like to offer a small bottle for little hands). Sometimes we forego produce wash all together -I just set out a bowl of water and some microfiber towels at the kitchen table, and the kids enjoy scrubbing items like apples with their hands and laying them out on a towel to dry.
3. Chopping produce. I found a set of amazing plastic kids knives on Amazon that are perfect for small hands. They can cut nicely through carrots, cucumbers, or apples -but are not so sharp that I worry about an injury. My kids also love turning the handle on our apple peeler-corer-slicer.
4. Scooping ingredients. It might be faster and less messy to scoop ingredients for baking without help of the kiddos -but the sooner kids learn to look at a recipe and use the proper measuring cup or spoon, the sooner they can make a genuine contribution to helping in the kitchen! Even scooping ingredients and letting little ones dump them into a mixing bowl can be fun and a great place to start.
5. Arranging toppings. If making a casserole, pizza, or dessert with fruit toppings little ones love being given the job of spreading and arranging toppings. Kids can also be given their own personal size food items to top, while an adult prepares a large version.
6. Clean up. Washing dishes may not sound like much fun to an adult, but being allowed to stand on a stool and wash a large bowl or pan with bubbly soapy water can be great fun for little ones.
7. Serving food. In my house, I usually dish out food for the little ones. This year, I will make a point to include the little ones in serving food (adding a scoop of vegetable to each plate, passing out rolls, etc).
8. Choosing future recipes. My kids love picking out recipes for future cooking adventures.
This list could go on forever, but the important thing isn't how kids are involved in cooking -it's that they grow up remembering they were welcome in the kitchen. It is about ensuring they have memories of not just baking treats, but helping prepare healthy salads or nutritious warm dishes.
Don't fear the mistakes!
Finally, I know it is difficult, but try to embrace the messes and mistakes. In our house, we still laugh about the time my oldest child decided to warm up some biscuits in the microwave, but set the timer for five minutes instead of 50 seconds. The house smelled like burnt biscuits for days, which wasn't funny at the time, but now gives us a laugh every time we remember it. For the record, he is an excellent cook today and rarely relies on the microwave for anything. Things may go wrong sometimes, but those kitchen mistakes may be the things your kids look back at someday and smile about as adults.
Food is often portrayed in the media as being a "problem" -cooking can be too much work and unhealthy foods can make us sick or overweight. However, I agree with Michael Pollen that food has always been important culturally, it always will be, and it is worth learning to embrace healthy cooking as a positive and enjoyable family activity. However, if having a child in the kitchen is too much to handle on a special day with guests on the way, maybe pick an item or two to make early (cranberry sauce? pie? an appetizer?), that your child can be proud of sharing with family and friends on the actual day of your celebration.
I will admit that I have some work to do in changing my attitude about cooking from seeing it as a chore to viewing it as a great way to bond with the family and improve our health, but that is the direction I hope to go in the coming year. If you have any thoughts or advice on including children in the kitchen, please share in the comment section below. Happy Holidays!
What does summer mean to you?
How does your family spend the summer break from school? Sports? Swimming? Visits to the park? There are a lot of great ways to enjoy summertime, which may or may not involve reading. Growing up, my summers were filled with summer reading. I remember making frequent visits to the local library and reading for fun all summer long. Until recently, I had never heard of the "summer slide" -and it certainly had nothing to do with my reasons for reading as a child.
So what is it?
Put simply, the summer slide describes the loss of academic skills that some children experience over an extended break from school. One might assume that a break from summer learning will only impact kids for a short while at the beginning of the next school year, but research shows that it can impact their academic skills for years to come.
In 1978, Barbara Heyns published a book titled "Summer Learning" which drew attention to the fact that achievement gaps between socioeconomic and race/ethnicity groups widen over the summer break from school. Research continues to back up these findings, with many professional organizations citing research conducted at John Hopkins University published in 2007, which found achievement gaps at the 9th grade level could be traced back to gaps in summer learning during the elementary school years (Alexander, Entwisle & Olson, 2007).
What can be done?
There are a variety of ways parents and communities can promote learning while children are on break from school. For most families, simply ensuring access to interesting books is an important part of the equation. Many libraries recommend that children read at least six books over the summer, and offer incentive programs to encourage summer reading.
My family's primary goal for this summer is to limit electronic and "passive" entertainment while encouraging our kids to do activities that keep their bodies fit and their minds sharp. So yes, swimming, parks, museums, and neighborhood walks are on the agenda. We are encouraging "hands on learning" by letting our kids help care for plants in our little container garden, and letting them help with simple recipes in the kitchen. Finally, we are building a home library with books that interest them -summer is a great time to let children choose what they would like to learn without the schedule or constraints of a formal curriculum.
What types of books should I provide to my child?
My personal answer is "think beyond simple story books" and "ask your child, he or she might surprise you!"
I recently placed an order of books for my children. Before completing my order, it occurred to me to let my kids flip through a copy of the book catalog and let THEM tell me what looked interesting. I was shocked when my 7 year old excitedly told me he "hit the jackpot" by finding a book about DNA. I knew he liked science, but I had no idea that he would enjoy a book about DNA (and was even more surprised to find that the book was written at this reading level). I should also add that last fall this same child was complaining about reading at school -it turned out he was being given books that were boring to him and too easy for him to read. Once I began to introduce him to more complex chapter books and interesting non-fiction books, his love of reading was restored.
Ideas by age group:
Still aren't sure what books might interest your child? Here are some additional suggestions:
Babies: Soft cloth books, touch-and-feel board books, story books for cuddling & bedtime, waterproof bath books, and books with a high contrast black/white/red color scheme for young infants
Toddlers and Preschoolers: Story books, sticker & wipe-clean books for fine motor skills development, and engaging non-fiction books
Elementary school children: Story books (to include chapter books as child's reading level progresses), non-fiction books, and a variety of activity books (learn to draw, fold paper airplanes, or other activity books that match a child's interest)
Tweens and Teens: Chapter story books, non-fiction books, and "How To" books for areas of interest. If an older child hasn't yet developed a love of reading, it may help to select humorous books or an engaging mystery or other "page turner."
Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D., & Olson, L. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72, 167–180.
In recent years it has become a tradition to welcome the hot days of summer by treating our kids to a box of ice pops. Within a few days or weeks, my husband and I start questioning whether buying icy cold tubes of food coloring and sugar water is such a good idea. We always say "We should just make our own frozen treats, with fruit, instead!" -But it never happens. Until this year!
Please understand, I am not a Pinterest Pro, by any means. I do crafts, experiments, and recipes with my children because I want to make memories with them, but a good portion of the time my creations look like a Pinterest Fail. That having been said, making ice pops is incredibly easy!
What do you need?
If you don't already own them, you need to snag a box of popsicle bags (or use ice pop molds). I bought 100 "Zip-a-Pop 2X5 Popsicle Bags" off Amazon for about $10. I bought them weeks in advance so that I would be prepared for an impromptu ice pop making session with the kids when the hot weather arrived.
Beyond that, all you need is a blender, a funnel, some fruit (fresh or frozen), a little water, and the sweetener of your choice. I used a small amount of local honey.
Step 1: Gather your fruit. If using fresh fruit, wash it. If using frozen fruit, let it thaw slightly (enough so that it will blend easily).
Step 2: Put your fruit in your blender with a small amount of water (a few tablespoons should do it if you are using a watery fruit like grapes, otherwise you might want to use 1/2 cup or more).
Step 3. Add a scoop of honey or other sweetener, 1-2 tablespoons is plenty for a large blender.
Step 4. Blend until you have a smoothie-like consistency, add more water if you want it thinner.
Step 5. Fill the ice pop bags (leaving a half inch or more at the top so there is room for the frozen treat to expand). Using a small funnel to fill each bag is the easiest, fastest, and cleanest way to get the job done!
Step 6. Place bags on a baking sheet and place in freezer overnight (or until frozen).
My Ice Pops
I made two batches of ice pops. One bowl was full of fresh grapes, honey and water, and had a very thin consistency. The other batch consisted of frozen strawberries, blueberries, cherries, water and honey, and had a thick consistency. Both batches came out just fine.
I started out by giving each of my children their own small bowl of the blended mixture and a small spoon, so they could fill their own bags. They enjoyed this very much, but it made a colossal mess. I then held a bag with a small funnel in top and let them take turns scooping the mix into the bags and that produced much nicer looking ice pops with less mess (and they still had fun).
So if you are looking for something quick, easy, and fun to do on a hot day skip the store-bought ice pops and make a batch of homemade fruit-pops instead. Pictures below!
A Quality Alternative to 'YouTube Kids"
If you are one of the many parents disappointed by how videos are "screened" for the YouTube Kids app, I am about to make your day. I tried out YouTube Kids when looking for musical and educational videos for my young children -you know, recordings of a few popular kids songs or answers to science-themed questions in "kid friendly" form. Occasionally, YouTube Kids would deliver -but soon my children were stumbling across videos of middle-aged men playing video games and flaunting collections of over-priced action figures (followed by pitches to "like" their channel and buy the advertised toys). Not what I had in mind.
Enter technology-enhanced books!
As we moved away from YouTube, I opted to indulge my children in some new books. In recent years, our kids' books were limited to library visits and the occasional new book as a birthday or holiday gift. I ordered "The Usborne Children's Encyclopedia" pictured above, but was in no rush to to use the electronic "QR Links" feature -I was trying to get away from electronics after all. That was until this week, when spring break ended and I wanted to do something a little different to get my kids excited about resuming their homeschool work.
So what are QR links?
To put it simply, QR (Quick Response) links are barcodes you can scan with a smart phone app that instantly takes you to a specific internet link. There are a variety of apps you can choose from (some paid, some free), but my free app works perfectly. My kids went CRAZY over this feature! So far the links we have visited all took us to educational videos -and of MUCH higher quality than what we were finding on our own through internet searches or YouTube Kids.
The best of both worlds...
Here is how we use the Usborne Children's Encyclopedia: I let my kids choose a page that interests them (or I choose one relevant to our current homeschool lesson), which we read together. Once we are done reading (I do NOT let them skip right to the video), I let the kids take turns scanning the QR code and starting the video. Not only are the topics interesting and the videos well-chosen, but I have found they are PERFECT for inspiring my kids to ask more questions and instilling a desire to conduct additional research. I thought adding video links to a children't book might be a bit of a gimmick, but now that I have used it I am in love!
Yesterday we read about dolphins and then watched a video of bottlenose dolphins in action. We read about planets and then watched a video explanation of how the solar system formed, followed by clips of the Mars rover. Today the kids learned more about mountains and butterflies, and ended up watching a clip of climbers on Mount Everest. My seven year old says he wants to do at least ten topics a day. My six and four year old pay attention to the video links even when some of the information goes a little over their heads -and ask relevant questions afterwards.
Just what we needed.
I no longer have to roll the dice with YouTube when looking for a great video for my kids -we have just started using this encyclopedia, but so far I am very pleased with our ability to choose any topic of interest and find a great video link pre-selected for us (FYI if you don't have a QR reader, Usborne provides a list of links you can enter manually into your internet browser, but I highly recommend using the scanner if possible). This is a win-win for our family. My kids get to enjoy a little video time, and I love how much they are learning.
This has become a great tool in helping substitute mindless YouTube Kids videos with more educational fare. Highly recommended!
"Screen time" has changed.
My first son was born 19+ years ago. Parents were already wary of the "electronic babysitter," but I kept an open mind. I still remember the moment I popped in a "Baby Einstein" video for the first time, when he was 7-8 months old; it instantly captured his attention. By age two my son was reading, writing simple words, and drawing detailed pictures so I assumed whatever I was doing was working. I never considered electronic toys anything but an asset to his early education.
Tablets, smart phones, YouTube, and more...
When my 7 year old son was born, I thought our experience with electronics would be similar, if not better. Wrong.
Initially, I allowed a few kids videos (Baby Einstein, the "Signing Time" series to teach my little ones sign language, etc.) but shunned certain toys as being "a bit much" for a young child. What child needs a tablet? Eventually that changed. When my husband and I embraced smart phones and tablets, our kids wanted to use them, too. We eventually let the kids play some of the popular electronic video games that many of their friends were playing, and experimented with what we thought would be a safe, friendly, educational children's app -YouTube Kids.
The addictive reality.
The nature of many popular electronic toys and television programs today is different than what I expected, and highly addictive. If parents do not set a timer for screen time, children can power through a series on Netflix at the speed of light -and many new programs are a far cry from the slower-paced shows that my oldest son grew up on. Worse yet, many of the videos on YouTube Kids are long advertisements for toys with zero educational value and a lot of questionable language. Sure, there are some gems out there, but if children are left to browse videos on their own they can easily be sidetracked by low-quality programming.
Should you just say "no" to electronic play?
It wasn't possible for my oldest son to click a smart phone button and instantly access "garbage programming" disguised as a "kid friendly" show -but that is exactly what happens with kids today. So what is the solution? For some parents, it is to turn their back on electronics entirely. I know at least one family who doesn't allow any television or screen time at all, and I respect that, but the reality is most parents are looking for moderation. My family's current solution to occasionally ban electronic play entirely, but most of the time we simply manage screen time with timers and a rule that our kids can only play with electronics at the end of the day.
We have banned a few things altogether. Our children are no longer allowed to watch YouTube Kids unless it is a video selected by an adult. In a few days, we will completely remove video games that do not involve physical activity (meaning we will allow "dance" games or exercise games such as Wii Fit Plus, but we will not allow games that encourage our kids to zone-out such as Minecraft). While our children initially were not happy about new restrictions on electronics, they understand that we are becoming more strict in this area out of concern for their well being, and not as a punishment.
I have always believed that it is important to give your children choices, but to remember it is the parents's job to control the available choices -and this applies to electronic entertainment. What role do electronic devices play in your home? Have you made any changes to acceptable "screen time" in your home? Experiences welcome!
Kristina Johnson is a homeschooling mama who is passionate about childhood education and the quest for a healthy, clean lifestyle. Visit the "about" section to learn more about Kristina, her family of seven, and the mission of the "learning and laughing" website.