Our Experience With Online Piano Lessons

posted in: Parenting | 0

bphotoart-busy-kids-piano-lessons-2I love music. And my kids do too. But that’s not news to you, since I’ve blogged about raising kids who love music in the past, as well as why you shouldn’t give up piano.   Now, my boys haven’t really had formal lessons, as they haven’t been old enough.  But this summer, Toby, now in kindergarten, asked if he could take piano lessons.

Perfect timing!

So, I went digging through my music cabinet to see what books might be suitable for a younger piano student. I have quite a wide span of material, not surprisingly (my grandmother was an organist and a piano teacher, and I took piano lessons in grades K-12). When I inherited my grandmother’s upright piano, my mom gave me even more piano lesson books.

I found some books by Faber and Faber that I thought would be helpful (you can find lots of Faber and Faber piano books on Amazon #afflink). But I wondered if there was something else out there for the beginning pianist.  Something more modern and interactive.


That’s when I discovered Busy Kids Do Piano (#afflink). When I saw this review opportunity grace my inbox, I was really excited! Busy Kids Do Piano is a complete system that includes online lesson videos and printable worksheets. Like any quality program, it’s not free.  The Busy Kids Do Piano course is $49.95, which works out to a more than reasonable fee of $2.50/lesson.

Let me digress for just a moment. You may know that learning music isn’t just about learning to play the notes. It’s also about understanding rhythm. So when you research a learning method, it’s important to evaluate how well it teaches rhythm, note length, and other basic concepts… because these are the building blocks you need to make a strong foundation for later understanding of music.

So, for me, it was important to ask myself, does Busy Moms Do Piano teach these concepts?

The answer is yes.

For the first lesson, she doesn’t even have kids use the piano — because they are learning about rhythm. Toby had fun choosing a percussion instrument from our musical instrument box — he selected two, actually.

With a tambourine and a rhythm stick in hand, Toby listened intently as he learned about the different notes, what they looked like, and how long their counts are. He practiced tapping along for the different notes, and I made sure he understood the concept of “holding” the note.

After playing the video through a couple times so that Toby could play along as instructed, he was ready to work on his worksheet.

I’m not one to force too much learning in one sitting, but when my kids are interested in a concept, I’m all for continuing!

So I pulled out the first worksheet and Toby worked his way through it. He learned how to draw a whole note, a half note, and a quarter note. We played the rhythm that was written on the page together.

Toby had fun completing the printable worksheets!
Toby had fun completing the printable worksheets!

Over the next days, Toby continued to be excited about piano, and repeatedly asked me when he could do another piano lesson.  Specifically, “the one with the video.”  Score!  I love it when my kids stay interested in something.

Looking back at our experience, I would say my child enjoyed Busy Kids Do Piano, and I did too.  The materials were clear and I was able to walk Toby through the activities without any trouble.  While I would have been comfortable teaching a more traditional lesson to my child, I think Busy Kids Do Piano is a great program for anyone who wants to familiarize their children with piano.  It’s an easy way to try out piano lessons, with the benefits of being able to go at your own pace, and being able to do the lessons anytime, anywhere.  And, as I mentioned, the fee for the material is more than economical when you consider a typical in-person music lesson might cost more like $30 for a half hour.

Can the Busy Kids Do Piano (#afflink) method replace a traditional teacher?  I think that’s hard to say…it depends on what you’re looking for, honestly.  For beginning musicians, or children you want to acclimate to music?  Sure.  For more advanced students?  Nope.  But it’s definitely a starting point for entry into the wonderful world of music!   I grew up taking music lessons, and a number of my relatives are musicians.  I think music lessons with a live teacher play an important role in shaping the musical experiences of children.  The instant feedback, the communication — you just don’t get that with a video lesson.  But these lessons are a good way to set the stage for learning music in the more traditional way, later on.


Note: I received this product free in exchange for an honest evaluation and review.  The opinions and thoughts expressed are 100% my own.

Cultivating Water Kefir

posted in: Learning | 0

bphotoart-water-kefir-experiment-Over the past few years, I’ve learned how to cultivate different fermented foods — sauerkraut, sourdough starter (for bread), kombucha, milk kefir, and now water kefir.  My toddler, Toby, has enjoyed helping with these processes.

I’ve found milk kefir to be the easiest of the fermented beverages to maintain, followed by kombucha.  Water kefir, thought, I found more tricky.  I think the original water kefir grains (not really grains, but that’s what the lumpy starter is called) weren’t hardy enough — but as is usually the case, the third time proved to be the charm.

After “killing” two sets of water kefir grains, I gave my water kefir making attempts a break.  Then my mom went off dairy and mentioned to me she would miss having milk kefir every morning.  So, for Christmas last year, I acquired a third set of water kefir grains.  Since they came a bit early, I ended up cultivating them myself, and giving her a whole starter of her own (plus some water kefir ready to drink!).

And that’s where this activity comes into play.

I had a learning curve with water kefir, because it was different than milk kefir.  With milk kefir grains, you just dump them in fresh milk, let the concoction sit for about 24 hours, and then strain out the grains from the milk-turned-kefir, and start again.

But with water kefir, you need to use sugar water.  The water kefir grains digest the sugar and turn it into probiotic goodness (similar to what the milk kefir grains do with the lactose in milk).  But the trick is this.  Water kefir grains like minerals too (which is the opposite of my kombucha starter — it dislikes minerals).  So, through trial and error, I discovered that my water kefir grains thrived in brown sugar water more than in white sugar water.

And I was curious how much of a difference it made.

So Toby and I performed an experiment.

Over the course of a week or two, we fed several different types of sugars to water kefir grains, and observed how quickly the water kefir grains multiplied (that’s one of the benefits of this, once you have your own starter, you’ll have plenty of new to share with your friends and family!).

We weighed out equal amounts of water kefir grains, and put them into four different mason jars (pint size).

Our control group was given nothing but plain filtered water from our fridge.  The remaining three groups each got white sugar, brown sugar, or unrefined turbinado sugar — dissolved in the same amount of filtered water as our control received.

After four days, we checked on the water kefir grains.

We did taste test the different water kefirs (though not the control group).  The molasses flavor was most pronounced in the turbinado, followed by the brown sugar.  We also strained out and weighed the water kefir grains from each of our mason jars.  It was interesting to see which had grown the most.  Those that we fed turbinado sugar grew the most, followed by brown sugar, then white sugar.  And our control group in water?  Those grains actually withered and shrunk (aka “died”).

We repeated the process for another four days, but unfortunately my kitchen elf must have run off with the sticky note containing the final weights of each set of kefir grains.  So I can’t share the number with you — but I can tell you that the trend continued.

So, based on our experiment, I can tell you that our water kefir grains were happiest with the most unrefined sugar.  Water killed them.  They survived with white sugar, and even multiplied, but to really boost their numbers I’d definitely use brown sugar or unrefined sugar.

Here are some pictures from our experiment…

Here's what water kefir grains look like.  Kind of like cottage cheese clumps...
Here’s what water kefir grains look like. Kind of like cottage cheese clumps…
Toby scooping sugar.
Toby scooping sugar.
Toby was excited to do this experiment!
Toby was excited to do this experiment!
We labelled each of the mason jars with the type of sugar the water kefir grains would get.
We labelled each of the mason jars with the type of sugar the water kefir grains would get.
Toby thought about which one would grow best.
Toby thought about which one would grow best.
I let Toby do the measuring and dumping...
I let Toby do the measuring and dumping…
We used different spoons to dissolve the sugars into their respective waters.
We used different spoons to dissolve the sugars into their respective waters.
Toby added water and stirred everything equally.
Toby added water and stirred everything equally.
The water kefir was put into mason jars and labeled for our experiment..
The water kefir was put into mason jars and labeled for our experiment..
Finished water kefir, ready to drink!
Here are the visual results of the first four days' fermentation.
Here are the visual results of the first four days’ fermentation.
We weighed the water kefir grains...
We weighed the water kefir grains…
Like good scientists, we recorded our findings...
Like good scientists, we recorded our findings…

I’m sure we could have been a little more efficient in our experiment, but the whole point of this was to get my toddler thinking about what might happen.  He enjoyed checking on our experiment, and was excited to help weigh the water kefir grains.

Practicing Scissor Skills with Family Photos

posted in: Parenting | 0

Practicing Scissor Skills with Family PhotosaThis is a fun little activity that I created on the fly for my four year old.  He wanted to cut things with his scissors… And I just happened to have some photos on hand.

Now, I’m not advocating you hand photographic prints to your child to have them practice their cutting skills, because we all know where that could lead.

(Yikes! It could be worse than “mom, I cut my bangs!!”)

But most printers can print out average quality photos, even on normal printer paper.  I used my color laserjet printer to print out some photos on standard printer paper — 9 images to a sheet.  This created some nice straight lines between the images, which I hoped Toby would try to follow when cutting.

It seems like I didn’t explain my idea quite well enough (or Toby had his own activity in mind) — the activity became a series of snips and cuts in seemingly random array.

Oh well.

In the very least, I provided my child with something of interest to cut.

The simple actions of cutting — scissor skills — were still being practiced:

  • holding the paper with your helping hand
  • proper scissors grip (thumb in the hole on top, fingers in the hole on bottom)
  • safety skills for using and carrying scissors

So, even though our activity didn’t turn out exactly as intended, I’m still calling it a win.

Toby got to practice his scissor skills using printouts of family pictures.

And, the icing on the cake?

My toddler got out the hand broom and dustpan, and swept up all the paper scraps …on his own accord.

Hooray for self-sufficiency!

bphotoart-scissor-skills-pictures-2170 bphotoart-scissor-skills-pictures-2163 bphotoart-scissor-skills-pictures-2160 bphotoart-scissor-skills-pictures-2172

Why You Shouldn’t Give Up Piano (or whatever instrument you play)

posted in: Learning | 1
Why You shouldn't Give Up Piano (or whatever instrument you play)
Photo from Pixabay.com. Used with permission.

I’m that kid.  The one who begged her mother for piano lessons at the young age of …um… maybe five?  My grandmother, an organist and pianist, was my first teacher.  From there on, I loved it.  We found a sweet lady down the street from us as my next teacher; I remember getting on my bike and pedaling over to her house, two streets away.  My brother took lessons from her too.  In high school, I (well, we both) started lessons with another teacher, this time across town — my mom had to drive us.  I continued those lessons until I graduated.  But that wasn’t the whole of it.  In fifth grade, when everyone got to pick an instrument, I’d already talked my mom (a professional flutist) into giving me flute lessons.  Sweet child I was… but obstinate — so a few years later I switched to oboe.  Those lessons also continued through my high school years.

In college, I no longer took lessons, but I still enjoyed playing.  I was able to improvise chords on the piano, I kept my fingers lithe and was able to retain mastery of some of the more difficult pieces I’d learned.  Oboe was tougher to keep going — the reeds were finicky, not tolerant of an owner who wasn’t playing as regularly as one should.  In case you’re not familiar with reed instruments, you have to break the reed in, and over time it becomes softer and worn out, eventually needing to be replaced.  In my high school days, I would have on hand at least 5-8 reeds in various stages of their life.  I even knew how to make my own reeds (under the tutelage of my oboe teacher).  I bet I could still wrap an oboe reed today — though my knife skills might be a little lackluster now, so it wouldn’t be the most refined reed I’ve produced.

Having kids put my musical endeavors on hold.  My oldest son, as a baby, screamed at the sound of the oboe, which dissuaded me from bringing it out.  I lost my embouchure… the muscle tone in the lips required to produce a refined sound.  I could still play, but to do so for any length of time I’d have to practice and work up to it.

Music will remain a part of my life though, now, and in the future.  I sing, I whistle, I hum.  my boys have heard the same songs since they were born, and even in utero.  It’s funny, actually.  The other day my mom was telling me she learned all the verses of “How Great Thou Art” while singing me to sleep.  That is one of my go-to songs for the boys.  Music runs deep.  Another favorite song of mine is the alphorn melody my dad plays (usually on the French horn, sometimes on the alphorn).  I have that tune memorized, without ever having practiced it.  And that melody is one of the little ditties I hum to my boys.

Ah, but time to stop reminiscing. What all this leads me to is this.

Music has been a part of my life from the get-go.  I haven’t always been happy about having to practice or go to lessons, but I’m always grateful that I was “forced” to stick with it.  Music has taught me so much.

Music is calming, relaxing.

Music is food for the soul.

And that brings me back on track.  If you’re thinking of giving up music, of letting your instrument gather dust — don’t do it.  If you’re looking to pick it back up — by all means!

I get such enjoyment out of making music.  I wish I could play more often.  Sure, I may not sound as great as I did “at my prime” …but that doesn’t matter.


Want to Start Your Kid in Music Lessons?

The big question is often this:

when is my child ready to start music lessons?

And I’d say the answer depends on the child.  Dyan at And Next Comes L has put together a post addressing that very question.  Read her thoughts: When is a child ready for piano lessons?

And parents, if you’re thinking about the whole logistics thing of balancing music with sports and other extracurricular activities — here are a few articles I found recently — they discuss the importance music can play in our lives.

First, there’s a study that found correllation between music lessons and child development (Music lessons spur emotional and behavioral growth in children):

“What we found was the more a child trained on an instrument,” said James Hudziak, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, “it accelerated cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management and emotional control.”

And then another article about the same study notes the fact that 75% of students in American high schools “rarely or never” get extracurricular art or music lessons (Science Just Discovered Something Amazing About What Childhood Piano Lessons Did to You).  The piece also notes:

Prior research proves that learning music can help children develop spatiotemporal faculties, which then aid their ability to solve complex math. It can also help children improve their reading comprehension and verbal abilities, especially for those who speak English as a second language.

So yeah.  Music is good for your brain.

Travel “ID” Card For Toddlers (Free Printable)

posted in: Parenting | 4

When we went on our last several “big” vacations, I made sure to have some sort of “ID” on our toddler.  One trip, it was a keychain with mom and dad’s names and cell numbers, but more recently I made up these travel ID cards for my boys because I knew Toby would get a kick out of having his own ID card.  What kid doesn’t want to have their own “grown-up” ID?

A little further on, I’ll share a printable template with you so you can make your own travel ID card for your child.  Feel free to customize it.  I did (we swapped out the allergies section for flight information).

Some travel tips for you:

  1. Teach your kid what to do if they get separated from you.  While we stressed to Toby that we weren’t going to leave him, I did talk with him a number of times about what to do if he was not with us and needed an adult’s help to find us.  Knowing your parents’ names and their cell phone numbers is a big help, so we worked on that.  And since he doesn’t have our phone numbers memorized yet, I told Toby to show the adult the phone numbers I had written on his keychain, or the ID card in his pocket.
  2. Write your number on their arm with permanent marker. I picked this tip up on a blog somewhere — the blogger kept a permanent marker in her purse and whipped it out at amusement parks, airports, and other busy places.  That way, the kid can just point to their arm (or hopefully the helpful adult can discern that the numbers are a contact number to call if lost.
  3. Make hand-holding fun. Sometimes kids are just at the cusp of being independent …but aren’t ready yet.  We were able to bridge that gap by offering our hand and asking for “help” — either in knowing where to go (i.e. “look for the gate with the numbers 45”) or maybe as an extension, asking for help with the luggage.  Many rolling suitcases are very kid-friendly!
  4. Safety information is important to review, but doesn’t have to be scary. My toddler had a blast looking at the emergency instruction sheet in the airplane.  We talked about why those instructions were there and what to do in an emergency.  Find a way to stay upbeat and positive, it doesn’t have to be scary.

Okay, and now onto the travel “ID” card.  Here is what the printable travel ID card looks like:


Get Printable ID Card JPG | PDF

After inputting all the details, and adding a picture to the card, I “laminated” the whole thing.  And I say laminated in quotes because I didn’t use an official laminating product, but simply two pieces of packing tape.  Information that I added to the card for our airport excursion?  The airline we traveled on, flight numbers, and destination cities. I figured that way any airport personnel could get my toddler to the right destination if needed.

Of course, all this will do you no good if you leave it at home. So either make two and keep one in your purse until you get to the airport, or be prepared for an excited toddler to misplace it before your trip.  Toby was so excited about the surprise I’d made for him that he took his ID card out of the backpack pocket… and once we were enroute to the airport I discovered that the newly made travel ID card was somewhere in our home.  Oh well.

Learn to Ride a Bike …how we skipped training wheels completely

posted in: Parenting | 7

Learn to Ride a Bike ...how we skipped training wheels completelyIt seems like training wheels are a right of passage.  But, recently, there’s been a trend to forgo the training wheel phase completely.  I have to admit, I was intrigued with this idea when I heard about it a few years ago.

We did end up getting a balance bike, and while I was secretly hoping that my son, Toby, would learn to ride a pedal bike without having to use training wheels, I wasn’t completely sold on the idea (yet).

When he got the balance bike, it was wintertime — we allowed Toby to coast around (carefully) in the basement.  Once spring arrived, it was time for the balance bike to head outdoors.  He spent the better part of the summer gleefully coasting around the neighborhood on his balance bike, scaring his parents with his ability to coast down the “big hill” at the top of our street.  It was pretty impressive.

I toyed with the idea of getting him on a pedal bike then.  But, at three, he was still a little small for the pedal bikes we’d received as hand-me-downs.  One even came with training wheels, but Toby hated it. He preferred the tricycle if he was going to pedal around.

So, that’s what we did.  Toby practiced balancing and gliding with his balance bike, and practiced pedaling on his tricycle.

Toby's balance bike
Toby’s balance bike

Come this spring, Toby was excited to get out the bikes again.  His preschool had a few balance bikes that were used for a few weeks in May, leading up to “bring your bike to school day.”  He took his balance bike.  Another classmate was on a pedal bike (without training wheels)… and that reminded me we should give it another shot!

So, I brought out the pedal bikes. Yes, we have two.  I took the pedals off one of them, and had Toby glide around on that bike to get the hang of steering and balancing the much heavier metal frame.  A word from the wise, if you decide to do this — bike pedals thread differently (both are NOT “righty tighty, lefty loosey”).  I made a short YouTube video (watch DIY balance bike from toddler pedal bike) if you want to see how easy it is to take the pedals off and put them back on.

Our DIY balance bike, with pedals removed

Once he got the hang of that, Toby wanted to go back to his tricyle for pedaling. He wanted nothing to do with the pedal bike that was begging to be ridden

Toby's pedal bike
Toby’s pedal bike

I promised to help him if he would try.  With some cajoling, Toby climbed onto his pedal bike, and I helped him balance by holding him at the armpits.  He got his feet on the pedals, and then started going with me doing most of the balancing.  We quickly progressed to me “helping” by holding his shirt (yes, I was literally just pinching the fabric on the back of his shirt).

The first time I let go, Toby immediately put his feet down and stopped biking…still a little unsure of pedaling and balancing all by himself.  After some reassurance that I hadn’t been doing anything and that it was all him, Toby was willing to try again.  I told him I would warn him before “letting go” this time.  He got started, I gave my warning, and let go.

It was perfect. He kept on going for a number of feet before stopping!  Steering was still iffy, and starting/stopping was shaky.  We were definitely at the mental tipping point.  Toby decided he was done for the day, and got out the tricycle again.

The next day, we went to my uncle’s auto shop for an oil change. I brought along the pedal bike on a whim.

Again, we started off with me holding onto Toby’s shirt, so he could learn to get started and figure out how to steer.  I jogged around with him, wearing his baby brother on my back, while holding Toby’s shirt. 

I added some verbal reminders at some point:

pedal, balance, steer!

I repeated those three words numerous times, and after a few minutes he was all but biking independently. Now it was time for the mental challenge. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say, Toby learned to ride his bike before our oil change was done — and he learned to start, steer, and not-quite-brake to stop.

One of the first few times I let go of Toby’s shirt:

This is how we skipped training wheels. "Pedal, balance, steer"

A video posted by Betsy Finn {BPhotoArt.com} (@betsy.bphotoart) on

Within minutes, Toby was totally confident:

Wohoo! On our pedal bike! We skipped training wheels.

A video posted by Betsy Finn {BPhotoArt.com} (@betsy.bphotoart) on

fall down seven, get up eight.

We had some falls, but nothing to write home about. Over the next week, Toby was rearing to go on bike rides with me pretty much daily.  He wanted to zoom down the “big hill” in our neighborhood.

So we added another verbal reminder:

show me your “slow downs”

Before I let him go down the hill, he had to show me he could slow his bike down by braking gently — and NOT come to a complete stop.  Once that was done, we were ready to tackle the hill. I made Toby keep pace with me on the first time down, and I admit I went really slow. After several times, Toby was ready to go faster.  He zoomed ahead of me, doing great — until it came time to switch from gliding to pedaling.  When he started pedaling, the front wheel turned abruptly and Toby tumbled off the bike.

I love teaching independence, but tumble was big enough that it had my heart pounding.  Toby was scared and crying.  We talked through things, I reassured him, and reminded him he had to try the hill one more time before we called it quits for the night. No way was I letting him end on a bad note.

So we tackled the hill again. This time, I reminded him:

pedal, balance, steer, …use your slow downs!  …keep gliding, steer, and when you’re ready, gently start pedaling …gentle.

Success is so sweet.

It is worth the hard work, the tears.

Independence is hard work. It can be scary. But we made it.  Toby loves riding his pedal bike, and can now turn on a dime, and stop smoothly.  He’s learning the rules of the road as we go, too.

Am I glad we skipped training wheels? absolutely.  I’m sold on the duo of balance bike and tricycle.  It allowed us to separate two skills (balancing and pedaling) so that he could focus on each independently.  I’m glad Toby used the balance bike for a whole summer, because he got really good at balancing.  But now, I’m glad that he’s on a pedal bike.  We can go so much further on bike rides now.  He loves his independence, and I do too.

Meant to share this one yesterday. .. #latergram

A photo posted by Betsy Finn {BPhotoArt.com} (@betsy.bphotoart) on

I’d love to hear your opinions on training wheels, and any learning to ride stories you’re up for sharing in the comments below!

Valentine’s Day Blessing Activity

posted in: Learning | 4
Valentine Blessings - a book-based activity
Photo from Pixabay.com. Used with permission.

I grew up loving the Berenstain Bears books, and it is so fun to see my son enjoy the adventures of the Bear family too.  What’s neat is that Mike Berenstain (Stan and Jan’s son) continued his parents’ legacy by continuing the series!  This book-based activity is inspired by one such book… The Berenstain Bears’ Valentine Blessings #afflink.

It’s a cute story about a valentine Brother Bear gets from his secret admirer, which distracts him from the upcoming hockey game.  The story line is simple, but there are some good lessons within.  Papa Bear tries to help Brother feel better about things by telling how Mama and he started dating… and ultimately Brother’s hockey game goes well, the secret admirer is revealed… you get the idea.

I love that the book comes with some built-in activity suggestions.  There are some talking points for parents to help kids get thinking about ways they can be a blessing to others.  Maybe by making a special valentine and sending it to someone, or by helping out in the community.

Valentine Blessing Activities

I love the phrase, “blessed to be a blessing.”  Part of the goodness of life is being able to pay it forward.  To care about others and empathize with them.  To bring joy into the lives of those who need it.

So, to kick things off, Toby and I talked about what things we do (or could do) to be a blessing to others.  Here are some things we came up with:

  1. Make and send cards to people
  2. Send artwork to people, or give it to patients at the local hospital.  (I love this idea, because the minimalist in me can’t allow all my son’s masterpieces to be saved for the memory box.  What a great alternative destination compared to the recycle bin!).
  3. Make meals for others (we make meals for new moms and the sick through our church… Toby likes to help with the prep and delivery).
  4. Give away things we don’t need or use anymore
  5. Leave a cup of pennies by the mechanical horse at the grocery store (it’s a penny per ride)
  6. Take cookies or other treats to school and leave them in the mailboxes
  7. Bake bread and drop it off on our neighbors’ doorstep
  8. Put out a snack for the mailman and the trash guys.
  9. Pick flowers and give them to people
  10. Call people just to say hello

I’m sure there are many more ways to help others, but these were just a few of the things we thought of.  I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!

Sending “Blessings” in the Mail

Now, before we get onto my craft activity idea, I have to confess.  I didn’t get my usual slew of photos taken to document our activity.  I’m going to blame it on the RSV virus that Zack has been dealing with… the past few days have been spent holding a sick baby boy so that he could feel a little less miserable.  I guess that’s a blessing though — we were able to find a position in which he could be comfortable.

So, I’ll share our activity, and then add photos to this post at a later time.  Now, back to business.

Around our home, we have a lot of stuff that ends up getting recycled.  And while that’s better than being tossed in the trash, I’d much rather repurpose things that can be reused in some way or another.  I’m all for form over function.  So, for this recycled Valentine craft, I gave my toddler a bunch of paper and had him cut it up, with scissors, to his heart’s content.  Once the “shredding” was finished, we started decorating.  I had Toby glue and tape the paper strips all over the front of a piece of red paper (since the majority of the paper Toby cut up was white).  After that, we had to let things dry.

Once the glue was dry, we folded the paper in half, so that the white was on the outside.  Then I cut out a heart window in the paper, so it would make a window on the front of the card.  If your child is old enough to cut out the heart, go for it (my son’s scissor skills aren’t quite refined enough yet).

You’ll now have a nice window to the inside of the card, providing a nice color contrast.  Feel free to glue the heart you cut out onto the inside of the card somewhere.

I invited Toby to decorate the card himself, so he could write or draw whatever message he desired. If you want, you can write something cutesy inside.

Toby proceeded to decorate some additional pieces of paper… he wanted to mail more cards to people, to make them happy. Made my heart melt!

Valentine’s Day Read and Play – Along with me, more than 20 bloggers are participating in a Valentine themed read and play!  Make sure to check out the other fun book-based Valentine’s activities…. enjoy!


Race Car Math

posted in: Learning | 1

Toby has been enthralled with race cars lately.  It may be partly because he got a number of them as gifts.   Whatever the reason, I thought we could take advantage of his enthusiasm and work on his math skills.  Especially since he was having difficulty differentiating between pairs and single items when counting the number of matches in our photo memory game.

So, I told Toby to gather up some race cars so we could do an activity. He was thrilled.

There was no set lesson plan, but I knew I wanted to work on addition and subtraction with the cars as a visual.  So I’ll tekk you what we ended up doing, and then share some pictures to show you what our race car math activity actually looked like.

Race Car Math
We used race cars for a visual aid with simple addition and subtraction.

Race Car Math Activities

So, what did we do? A lot of things! These mini activities were spur of the moment, prompted by the questions Toby asked, as well as the opportunities that I saw arise.

  • We Weighed Race Cars – Toby practiced reading and writing numbers.  We spent quite a bit of time talking about which cars were heavier and might therefore go faster.
  • We Grouped Race Cars – Next, we made piles and groups of cars so that we could examine which piles were bigger.  We made three piles and used words to describe them (big, bigger, biggest …small, smaller, smallest).  Toby also counted the cars in each group so we could learn which numbers were highest and lowest.
  • We Added and Subtracted Race Cars – To familiarize Toby with the concepts of addition and subtraction, I changed up the number of cars in the pile; we recounted and he discovered the difference.  He had fun with this!
  • We Paired Race Cars – As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to reinforce how to count pairs.  So, we spent time pairing up cars and then counting both the number of pairs …and the total number of cars.
  • We Raced Cars Down Ramps – Finally, it was time to see which of those cars were actually the fastest.  We raced the race cars on a small ramp, then on a big ramp.  Toby had the most fun with this activity. We experimented with different angled slopes, and at what point the cars couldn’t actually roll down the ramp.

Race Cars + Math = Fun!

I love turning everyday play into teachable moments like these.  It doesn’t take any prep work or planning.  Now, take a peek at the images below to see what our race car math morning looked like!

Click on any image below to enter gallery view mode.

A-Z STEM SeriesThis post is part of the A-Z STEM Series (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) for Kids.

Throughout January, many wonderful bloggers are working their way through the alphabet of great kids STEM activities perfect for home or school.

These kids STEM activities will be specifically geared for preschool through early elementary ages. Each letter of the alphabet will be represented with a different STEM activity for science, technology, engineering, and math.

By the end of the month, you will have an amazing resource to use with your students and/or children!

Making a Popcorn Garland – 5 eco-friendly tree trimming ideas

posted in: Notes | 0

Making a Popcorn Garland: 5 eco-friendly tree trimming ideasWhen it comes to decorating our Christmas tree, I’m all for making it simple and easy these days. I grew up with a show-stopping, light laden tree, trimmed to all get out. Sometimes it would take my dad a week to put all the lights on — when finished, every single branch would be individually wrapped in strands of Christmas tree lights. And the ornaments would follow suit. Sometimes the tree was almost blinding! Very pretty, but a lot of work.

So for our own tree, we’ve gravitated towards simplicity. Each year, we’ve done fewer and fewer strands of lights, until this year we found the perfect number – two. Two strands of lights… no double digits. No hours spent working with lights. Just a simple spiral around the interior of the tree’s branches. Add a home-strung popcorn garland, and then it was time for the ornaments. We went simple on the ornaments, putting up less than one of our two boxes. Toby was so excited to help hang ornaments this year; I had a box of non-breakable ornaments for him to work from while we hung the breakable ones higher up. He was thrilled. Our tree may be a little unevenly laden with decorations, but that’s part of its charm.

I’ll talk about my five eco-friendly tree trimming tips in a minute, but first let me share our popcorn garland experience. As we did when making popcorn bars, we used the Stir Crazy Popcorn Popper #afflink — but didn’t add any butter, of course. No one wants a greasy popcorn garland.  The popcorn was made, then spread on cookie sheets to cool.  We then got out some lengths of thread and needles… and started stringing popcorn.

Initially, I’d planned to do the traditional cranberry popcorn garland for outdoors, but then I thought, why not string the popcorn only, and put it on the Christmas tree?  We’ll still put the garland outdoors, after Christmas day has come and gone… when the tree goes outside.  So the birds will still be getting a feast.  But this way we can enjoy the results of our hard work too.

Toby was very diligent about doing this project, even though it was probably a little “old” for him.  He poked his finger with the needle a few times, but not enough to draw blood.  He threaded most of a 3 foot strand himself, while I made a 15 foot strand with Steven’s help.  Note to the wise — you can make a few shorter strands, line them up on the tree, and it will look like one continuous popcorn garland.  No need to make extra work by dealing with an extra-long tangled thread.

Click on any image to enter gallery view mode.

Now that you’ve seen our project… I’ll share the finished tree pictures with you.  But first, those 5 eco-friendly tree trimming tips.

  1. Make a popcorn garland to trim the tree.
  2. Reuse old ornaments.
  3. Cut down on the number of light strands.
  4. Get an on/off switch for your tree lights so you can save energy more easily. They even have switches that look like ornaments #afflink
  5. Let your tree do double duty by putting it out in the backyard for the wildlife after Christmas

I know these aren’t mind blowing tips, but they are pretty simple — and easy to do.  And the easier something is, the more likely you can incorporate it into your routine.

And now for a sampling of our Christmas decorations. Click on any image to enter gallery view mode.


What about you?  How do you trim your tree?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Teaching Kids to Use Words …Not Actions

posted in: Parenting | 2

I’ve heard it said that kids express their feelings through actions.  Actions are their words when they don’t know how to express themselves.  It seems like every child goes through a stage of using their body to communicate rather than their words.  But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, or fun, for parents!

Teaching Kids to Use Words... Not Actions.  Ideas for helping kids communicate verbally instead of physically.Some examples?

  • baby is crying — it hurts toddler’s ears.  Toddler hits baby because baby is “being mean.”
  • cat steals toddler’s toys — toddler is upset and swats at cat to grab the toy back.
  • mom is busy on phone — toddler wants attention, hits or pushes mom.
  • toddler gets pushed by another toddler — both are upset, and start hitting.
  • toddler doesn’t like that an older kid is doing something “wrong” — goes to hit bigger kid for “not listening.”

So, how can we teach kids to use their words instead of getting physical?  Is it really that simple?

Sometimes it’s not.

Kids hit and become physical for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it’s due to sensory overload, and an inability to process things because of the environment around them.  Other times, strong emotions can dominate their mind, and it’s tough to not act in the moment.

Physical communication can also be a cry for attention.  An attempt to communicate feelings of sadness, rejection, loneliness.  Other times, it may be a planned way to get attention.

Because sometimes, any attention is better than no attention.  But that doesn’t solve our problem, does it?  As we grapple with understanding the “why” behind physical communication, it’s not like we can put our response, our discipline and correction, on hold.  Toddlers who communicate physically need to be redirected.  They need help verbalizing their feelings, and learning that there are other, more appropriate ways to respond to something that frustrates them or makes them feel bad.

When a child reacts physically, it can be tempting for a parent to respond forcefully and angrily.  Especially if the action seems to be done out of malice.  But sometimes it does more good to understand the root of the problem.  Sometimes it helps to say, “come here, let me hold you while we talk this through.”  Or, maybe suggest: “if you need my attention, a better way to get it would be to use your words.”

When my son uses his body to communicate instead of his words, I do my best to talk things through with him.  If another child, or an animal, is being hurt, a stern initial reaction may be necessary.  But then, it’s time to focus in on the motivation, the trigger for the outburst.

Instead of honing in on how it is mean to do ______, perhaps the better approach is to ask, “what were you feeling when you did ______?”  If the child evades giving an answer, perhaps the emotion is not describable.  Maybe suggesting emotions could help.  “Are you sad, angry, lonely, upset, hurt….”  It’s amazing how helpful it can be to give words to a child so that their emotions can be communicated.

Once the emotional motivation is understood, then alternate actions can be taught.  “Instead of hitting back, next time use your words to say, ‘please stop.’  Or walk away.  Or find an adult.”  If a child is really in need of a physical outlet, then perhaps it would be good to provide an example of when such physical behavior is appropriate.  “We don’t hit people.  We hit balls with bats, we hit nails with hammers.”

Consistent reinforcement of what is inappropriate physically, as well as what an appropriate response might be, …well, it may take time for you to see results.  But don’t just focus in on the negative behavior.  Make sure to reinforce the positive communication, both verbal and physical.  “I see you are being so sweet to your baby sister, thank you for making her giggle, and for hugging her gently.”

But sometimes, kids get physical for a simpler reason. They have too much energy pent up — and need to blow off some steam.  Maybe a daily rough-housing session with mom or dad could use up some of that energy.  Or a fun time spent outside running after a soccer ball.  By finding appropriate ways to “get physical,” kids often become more self-controlled in situations where physical communication isn’t warranted.

What advice, ideas, or tips do you have for helping kids deal with their emotions and learn to communicate with their words?

Making a Photo Thankfulness Tree

posted in: Notes | 3

Make a Photo Thankfulness Tree for Thanksgiving - BPhotoArt.comTo help us get in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I came up with the idea to make a Thanksgiving tree decoration with photos. We are calling it our Photo Thankfulness Tree.

Making a thankfulness tree can be as simple as elaborate as you like. We went the simpler route… I pulled out some craft supplies (orange paper, a brown paper bag, tape, scissors, and a glue stick). After cutting the brown paper bag into strips, we taped it onto the window, bending and folding the straight strips to create knotty branches. While we were doing this, my printer was putting family snapshots and photos onto paper for us to cut out. Once printed, we cut out the faces in free form circular shapee. I then traced a few leaves onto a piece of paper for Toby to practice his scissor skills while I cut out the rest of the leaves free handed.

Toby picked out the photo faces one at a time, gluing each to its own leaf. We talked about that family member while their leaf was being made. As we worked, I also asked Toby what he was thankful for. His responses were recorded on the leaves that were leftover. Have kids collage a Thanksgiving tree by cutting out faces of family and friends they are thankful for. Include pets, toys, and other “favorites” that are cause for thanks. Just a simple: “what are you thankful for?” prompted all sorts of interesting conversation for us while making this photo thankfulness tree.

When it came time to tape the leaves onto the tree, Toby intially was reluctant. In his words, “the leaves fall off the trees onto the ground.” So we compromised with several fallen leaves on the ground, and then he proceeded to post the rest on the branches as I requested.

We finished our tree just as my husband was walking in the door; Toby was really excited to show Daddy everyone and everything he said he was thankful for.

Next time we do this, I’ll incorporate it into our month of gratitude for November. How, exactly? I think I would make and set aside an additional set of 27 leaves (or however many days until Thanksgiving), and each day, I would have the kids add another thing they are thankful for. Note to self – remember to plan ahead for that next year.

DIY Buckle Toy (From an Old Car Seat)

posted in: Parenting | 12

I’m a big fan of repurposing things and finding ways to reduce our environmental footprint.  So, when one of our carseats was issued a new buckle under a recall, I was lamenting the fact that we would have to just throw out the old one.  Obviously it’s essential that the buckle not be used due to safety reasons (just like with those expired car seats) — but I still cringe when it comes time to toss “treasures” like these in the trash.

DIY  Buckle Toy From an Old Car Seat  - Betsy's Photography {BPhotoArt.com}Perhaps by coincidence, I realized we could use this seat belt buckle from the car seat to make a DIY buckle toy.  Toby has been trying to learn to buckle himself into his carseat, and while he’s mastered the chest clip, the buckle itself has had him stymied.

I used two lengths of string to attach the clips to the buckle’s metal clip… and then we were in business.  This toy took me less time to make than it took to swap out buckles in the carseat by a long shot.  I spent maybe one minute making this DIY buckle toy… easiest toy ever!

And, you are probably wondering how it went over.

Well, when I told Toby my plan to make him a car seat buckle toy for him to practice with, he exclaimed: “that would be wonderful!” and squealed in delight.

The next ten minutes were spent devoted to mastering the car seat buckle — Toby is still working on the release button (which, since recalled, is a little sticky to depress), but he quickly figured out how to get the clips clicked in.

When Daddy got home, Toby was thrilled to show off his car seat buckle toy. He proceeded to demonstrate, saying “this is how you…”

Overall, I’m thrilled with this quick and easy DIY buckle toy.  It serves a practical purpose, helps keep junk out of the landfill, and was really simple to put together.

So, next time you have to get rid of an expired car seat, consider removing the buckle components from the carseat to make your own DIY buckle toy!  I won’t suggest hoping for a recall on your buckle, because really, who wants to stress out about having used an unsafe carseat?

Alternatively, you could buy an automotive seatbelt extender #afflink for practice with an adult seatbelt, like the one to the right.

I’m probably going to use this as a busy bag activity for Toby, as it travels well.  I haven’t decided whether to allow it in the car or not… as I could see myself getting thrown off by the seatbelt clicking sound while enroute.  We’d have to have a talk about not trying to click this buckle toy into the actual car seats.

Take a peek at the images below to see the DIY buckle toy in more detail, both clipped and unclipped, as well as my toddler practicing putting the buckle together.

Click on any image below to enter gallery mode.

Cultivating Gratitude: Ideas for a Month of Thanksgiving

posted in: Parenting | 4

Cultivating Gratitude: Ideas for a Month of Thanksgiving - Betsy's Photography (BPhotoArt.com)This month I want to focus on gratitude.  Being thankful for what we have, being aware of others who have not.  I want to make sure my boys know the importance of being thankful for all the blessings in their lives — and also that they understand the importance of paying it forward. There’s a saying about being “blessed to be a blessing to others.”  Helping others isn’t a one way street.  It benefits us too — it grows character and deepens empathy.

So, this November, we’ll be doing several things to cultivate gratitude.

Make a Gratitude Frame or Jar.

I love looking at all the fancy Pinterest projects that focus on giving thanks and recognizing our good fortune.  I’ve had friends tell me the best thing they ever did was put up a gratitude poster in their kitchen, where everyone wrote down things they were thankful for throughout the week.  I saw an adorable shadowbox picture frame that was filled with slips of paper on things to give thanks for.

Last year, I helped Toby make one of these. We used a plastic peanut butter jar (cleaned, of course), and strips of brightly colored paper.  He told me things he was thankful for and I wrote each item and drew a picture of it on the paper.  He enjoyed pulling them out and talking about the things we should be grateful for in our lives.

We’ll do something similar this year — I’m thinking a garland of paper slips or something (but not fall leaves since it’s already snowed here in Michigan).

Donate our excess and unused items.

Throughout the year, we gather bagfuls of things we no longer need or use — and take them to be donated.  I include my boys in this errand, as it helps to make it real for them.  We have more than we need.  By donating things, we can share with those who are not as fortunate.

There is a local place called House By the Side of the Road that I like to take our donations to.  It doesn’t resell the items, but rather offers them freely to members of the community who are in need.  Sometimes we’ll take donations to the more standard Salvation Army, Purple Heart, etc.

Take meals to new moms and the sick.

Our church has a meals ministry, where you can sign up to take a meal to the new moms, or those undergoing surgery or recovering from illness.  This is a good way to give back to the community …and I can involve my toddler with the process too.  Sometimes there is nothing more helpful than the delivery of a home cooked meal, ready to be eaten.  And we can share out of the abundance of food in our pantry.

Keeping an open dialogue.

Toddlers notice everything.  And they aren’t blind to the injustices in this world.  Whether it’s something as child-like as the refusal to share a toy, or the more “adult” (for lack of a better word) concern of homelessness — they are experiencing life around them and it is our job as parents to help them process these things.

When Toby and another boy were both in tears about who had the swing first, I gently asked my son to give the swing to the other boy, even though Toby may have had it first.  As my son willingly forfeited “his” swing, I was struck by his generous heart — I am thankful for opportunities to teach selfless compassion.  Other opportunities arise when we walk past the homeless on the sidewalk, or spot someone who needs a hand getting the door open. Yes, there are bigger problems in this world than whose swing it is, but by cultivating gratitude on a small scale, our children can learn to apply it on a larger level.

Remembering to talk about why I’m thankful.

I’ve been trying to focus on being thankful. Cultivating gratitude for the many blessings in my life, or even the little things. By talking about these things with my boys, I can help them understand just how much in life there is we can be thankful for:

  1. Friends who share without reserve, family who takes care of me. So many of the blessings I encounter involve friends and family. In the same day, I was blessed unexpectedly with handmedowns for our newborn… and during a rough afternoon, was grateful that my boys were being entertained by family (and we were treated to takeout!). It’s the little things that let people know you care.
  2. Sleep.  I’m so grateful for a newborn who sleeps for long stretches — often 6-7 hours at night. It’s the complete opposite of what my first son did as a newborn (woke every 1-2 hrs). The extra long stretches of sleep are such a blessing for my sanity. I’m also thankful that my toddler is content to play by himself while mommy takes a nap from time to time.
  3. Beautiful sunrises.  My toddler woke up one morning, came downstairs, and stopped dead in his tracks as he looked out the window. Then he turned to me and exclaimed, “look at the beautiful sunrise!” He then proceeded to describe it: “light, dark, light dark, light!”  The clouds had indeed formed a gorgeous pattern for us to enjoy.  I’m so thankful that my son reminded me to enjoy the beauty of nature today.

What ways do you cultivate gratitude in your children?


Letter Recognition Game

posted in: Parenting | 0

Toby knows a lot of his alphabet, but we’re still working on letter recognition. So, this summer we spent some time out on the deck playing a letter recognition game. It also incorporates gross motor skills, which was great for getting out that extra energy my toddler has on any given day.

I stumbled across this game idea when sorting through some of the resources that were included in a hand-me-down “learn to read” kit. The kit came with a playing card sized deck of alphabet cards — but also with a set of jumbo cards. These things are huge. And what was neat? The cards have the uppercase letter on one side, and the lowercase letter on the other.

So, I had Toby distribute the cards on our deck randomly — all uppercase letters facing up. Then, I called out a letter and had him find it. Toby had a great time running to the letter, jumping on it, and then flipping the card over to reveal the lowercase version. We ran into a few snags on round two, when there was confusion between the “p” and “d” lowercase cards, but that became a learning opportunity to discuss letters with similar shapes.

Letter Recognition Game - Betsy's Photography

This game was easy to get out, easy to pick up, and lots of fun.  I love games that help with life skills and learning to read.

Letter Recognition Game - Betsy's Photography

Letter Recognition Resources

Letter Recognition Activities + Crafts

Letter Recognition Games

Writing + Spelling

Conquering Your Kitchen – A Kitchen Guide You’ll Love

posted in: Notes | 0

I recently had the opportunity to review a cookbook that’s right up my alley, and I wanted to share it with you!  Conquering Your Kitchen (#afflink), by Annemarie Rossi, is about one mom’s journey to becoming competent in the kitchen.  With no formal training and little knowledge of how to cook healthy food, Annemarie set out to learn to cook meals from scratch that her whole family would enjoy.

Conquering Your Kitchen with Menu Plans and Easy Prep Recipes - An Interview With the Author - BPhotoArt.com

Conquering Your Kitchen

The book isn’t just a cookbook, but a guide on how to get organized in the kitchen.  Annemarie explains how to meal plan, grocery shop, and make meals from real food — without a lot of complicated directions or a huge time involvement.  All of the 80 recipes in Conquering Your Kitchen require 30 minutes or less of prep work; with recipes this easy, there is no excuse not to eat healthy!

There are sections on breakfasts, snacks, dinners, desserts in Conquering Your Kitchen (#afflink) — you’ll be inspired and ready to feed your family once you’ve delved into the various recipes.  I know I’ve been on a quest to cook from scratch and make healthy meals for my own family, so it was exciting for me to find some recipes that we could incorporate into our (very relaxed) meal plan.  I’m especially excited about the fact many of Annemarie’s recipes are low in sugar, or use natural, unrefined sweeteners like maple syrup or honey — things I can actually eat!  She also discusses adaptations for those with food restrictions (i.e. gluten free).

Also, make sure to check out the free printable resources — including menu plans, conversion charts, a shopping list, and more!

My Thoughts On Conquering Your Kitchen

Long, extravagantly prepared meals are lovely, and we have accomplished a number of those at our house, but that’s mostly thanks to my husband.  He has a lot of cooking experience, including restaurant training, so at least one of us is great at timing meal components to be ready simultaneously, even though it’s not me. The recipes that Annemarie shares are right up my alley, and I love the promise of 30 minutes or less to a finished meal.

I have to admit, there are a number of occasions where I’ve gotten flustered in the kitchen while cooking, and my dear husband has rushed to my side to take over and rescue whatever meal I was attempting to create on my own.  He’s even saved a gluten-free playdough experiment from failing for me.

Despite these speed bumps, my cooking skills have improved over the years.  Practice makes perfect, and if you don’t try, you won’t have a shot at ever succeeding.  Maybe that’s why this book was such an enjoyable read for me — I’m in the process of learning how to conquer my kitchen

While reading through Conquering Your Kitchen, I definitely had some “aha!” moments.  I don’t have any specific examples that come to mind, other than the kitchen organization section in general, but I definitely found some information and ideas that could be immediately incorporated into our kitchen.

Anyways, no need to bore you with an more extensive review (though I will share some more thoughts at the end of this post).  Let’s get on to the really exciting part — an interview with the author of Conquering Your Kitchen (#afflink)!  I think you’ll find Annemarie to be really down-to-earth; her journey to conquer her own kitchen may sound similar to your own story.  Without further delay, here are the questions I asked, and Annemarie’s candidly refreshing answers!

An Interview With The Author, Annemarie Rossi

Tell us a little about yourself, your family, and the kind of cooking you all enjoy most (any favorite recipes?)
I live with my husband and two elementary school aged children outside Boston, Massachusetts. We’re a mainstream suburban American family. My 10-year-old son helps on occasion with the cooking, but it’s my 9-year-old daughter who really likes to get in on the action. She likes to make recipes out of her ChopChop Kids Cookbook (#afflink). Our favorite family meals include taco night and pizza. Personally, my favorite meal is a big, loaded salad. And we all love just about every type of dessert! Homemade ice cream is a treat we enjoy during the summer.

What was the inspiration behind The Untrained Housewife Series?
The Untrained Housewife was started by Angela England in response to an email that was sent across her mothers’ group email list: “Help! My mother never taught me how to cook!” Many women who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s didn’t learn basic cooking skills at home. A whole generation of intelligent, accomplished women find themselves overwhelmed by the prospect of providing homemade food to their families.

Were you what you’d consider an “untrained housewife?”
I did learn a recipe or two from my mother, but in general, I was not especially “trained” in the kitchen. I learned to cook little by little over the years.

I love the concept of empowering women to feed their families good meals. Where did you get the idea for Conquering Your Kitchen?
Angela envisioned this book long before we met, but the topic was a natural one for me. I get sad when I hear women say, “I can’t cook,” and I loved the idea of writing a book that would walk people through the logistics of how to cook good meals at home. I believe that everyone can cook. My 9-year-old makes lasagna all by herself. It’s not rocket science – it just takes time and commitment.

How did you go about changing from a packaged food household to a from-scratch food household?
We started out with the 10 Days of Real Food challenge from the website, 100 Days of Real Food. During those 10 days, we made a commitment to eat food that was either made from scratch at home or that had a very short ingredient list with ingredients that we might cook with at home. For those 10 days, we didn’t eat anything with added sugar except for natural sweeteners (honey and pure maple syrup). This 10 day experience help get me started on adjusting to a homemade food lifestyle.

Was your family enthusiastic about the home cooked meals, or did they need some convincing of your new cooking style?
My family was generally enthusiastic. They liked the idea of the 10 day challenge. There were a few instances during the 10 days when the kids encountered highly processed treats like popsicles and lemonade stands. I left it up to them to decide if they wanted the treats (I wasn’t forcing this commitment on them), and they did choose to stick with the real food commitment.

What’s your opinion on the importance of families having sit-down meals regularly together?
Sitting down as a family to eat meals together regularly is essential. My family has dinner together most nights, and we like to do a sit-down breakfast on the weekends. Family mealtime is one time of the day when distractions are set aside and we can simply spend time together.

How do you keep on top of the never-ending cycle of keeping good quality food ready for your family?
It’s impossible to keep on top of the cycle without meal planning. I plan meals one week at a time so that I never find myself without anything healthy available to eat. I also try to keep my freezer stocked with back-up meals and healthy snacks like muffins and granola bars. That way, there’s always something available even when our schedule gets interrupted.

I’m not perfect. We do go out to eat sometimes, and we do eat processed food sometimes. It’s all about doing your best and not getting stressed out about food.

Do you have any recommendations for those who are trying to conquer their kitchens — on a restricted diet?
I was diagnosed with dairy and gluten sensitivities several years ago, and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It woke me up and made me more aware of what I was eating. I stopped eating dairy for 2 years, and I didn’t eat gluten either for one of those years. I became skilled at reading ingredient labels, which I hadn’t regularly done before that. I now eat small amounts of high-quality gluten and dairy, but they aren’t the focus of my diet like they used to be.

For those who are living with food restrictions, I recommend focusing on the positive. You have an awareness about what you’re eating that others don’t have.

How did you see your food budget change when switching to completely homemade foods?
My food budget didn’t actually change much when we switched our focus to homemade food. Processed food is almost always more expensive than homemade food (contrary to popular opinion), but my budget remained stable because I started buying higher quality, often organic ingredients. It’s important to look at your food priorities and decide where you want to focus your spending. Organic milk and veggies, grass-fed meat, and locally produced items often cost more than their lower-quality counterparts, so you need to decide where to focus your resources.

Do you have any words of wisdom for those considering a CSA or farm share, but are worried about the “odd” foods?
I was nervous to join a farm share at first, but now I can’t imagine how I ever lived without it. A farm share stretches people outside their comfort zones and gets them eating veggies they wouldn’t buy at the store. This imposed variety results in a healthier diet, and it facilitates meal planning. Many farms allow you to swap veggies that you know your family won’t eat, so you won’t necessarily come home with food that’s destined for the compost bin.

Is the Farmer’s Market a good step down from a CSA, for those who aren’t willing to make the commitment?
I wouldn’t call it a step down. Farmers’ markets are another great way to support local farmers and get delicious, locally grown produce. Shopping at the farmers’ market is a good fit for people who want to pick out exactly what produce they bring home. It’s also a good option for those who travel often in the summer and can’t get to the farm share pick-up each week.

Do you maintain a vegetable or herb garden, and why?
We don’t have a lot of sunlight in our yard, but I do grow raspberries, chives, and a few other goodies each year. We’re planning to try pumpkins this summer. I love being able to show my children how food grows, and we all enjoy the fresh bounty that comes from our own yard. I don’t have a green thumb, so it feels a bit miraculous when things actually grow in our yard and we can eat them!

Any suggestions for those of us who have trouble timing all the components of a meal to be ready at the proper time?
I always prepare part of dinner before dinnertime. We all get hungry and cranky around 5:00 at my house, so I can’t bear to do the entire dinner prep in that time and space. I put some of the pieces in place the night before, or else during the morning. Planning ahead is a key element to success in the kitchen.

How has eating from scratch impacted your family’s health?
When we used to eat a lot of processed food, my children were always bringing home the latest cold or stomach bug from school. These illnesses would typically spread through the family, and someone was sick more often than not. I also suffered from seasonal allergies. I never thought these minor health annoyances had anything to do with food. But when I started cooking most of our food from scratch, we stopped getting sick and my allergies disappeared completely. I haven’t been congested in years. Our quality of life has improved dramatically as a result.

Of all the recipes in Conquering Your Kitchen, which are your favorites?
From the breakfast chapter, I’d say it’s the blueberry banana baked oatmeal. The raw chocolate energy bars are my favorite snack at the moment. From the veggie chapter, I love the roasted cauliflower. For dinner, I never get tired of the chili recipe. I love every recipe in the dessert chapter, but I think the brownies are probably my favorite.

Do you have any favorite cooking websites or cookbooks that inspire you?
I’ve always been inspired by Lisa Leake’s website, 100 Days of Real Food (#afflink). She helped me to see that a typical family can move away from processed food. My favorite cookbooks are Joy of Cooking (#afflink) and anything by Mark Bittman. In Bittman’s cookbook, Kitchen Express (#afflink), the recipes are written in paragraph form without specific quantities. The reader has to figure out what he means when he says to add a little bit of this and a handful of that. I think it was this cookbook that taught me how to cook things on my own without following a recipe exactly. Everyone should learn how to do this.

Anything else you want to share, about Conquering Your Kitchen or otherwise?
This may come as a surprise, but I don’t actually love to cook. I’m not one of those people who gets excited about cooking all afternoon and creating a feast. I don’t mind cooking, but I don’t love it. I do LOVE to eat, though, and I love having a healthy family. This is what keeps me motivated in the kitchen. Anyone can do this!

Annemarie Rossi, is the author of Conquering Your kitchen. She received her undergraduate degree in Psychology from the College of the Holy Cross, as well as a Master’s Degree in Pastoral Ministry from Boston College. Now a suburban mom in the Boston area, Annemarie has been happy to see a trend in healthier eating throughout New England. She enjoys traveling with her family, and they always visit farmers’ markets and restaurants that celebrate locally sourced food while on vacation. To keep up to date with Annemarie’s recipes, tips, and food travel stories, follow her at RealFoodRealDeals.com.

Final Thoughts On Conquering Your Kitchen

While I received a complimentary copy of the book, Conquering Your Kitchen (#afflink), for review purposes, my opinion of this book is my own — and I am a fan. I really enjoyed the recipes, the discussions of how to arrange your kitchen for efficient cooking, and many other tips that fall in line with my vision of a well-run kitchen.

Thank you so much, Annemarie! I hope Conquering Your Kitchen helps many feel more confident and at home in the kitchen. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that there is nothing like a good homecooked meal. They always taste so much better.

So, what about you? Do you have any favorite easy recipes or go-to meals that can be made from scratch — without too much effort or pre-planning? I’d love to hear thoughts on your confidence in the kitchen, or where you are at in your journey to conquering your kitchen!

Finding Balance as a Homemaker + Home Business Owner

posted in: Parenting | 2

Finding balance in life is tough, regardless of your calling, your job, or your commitments. This past week I guest posted over at KiddyCharts.com about balancing homemaking with running a home business — complete with tips for how to keep on top of both while still giving your kids the attention and activities they need.

Finding Balance As A Homemaker + Home-Business Owner - BPhotoArt.com

Here are some additional tips for finding balance when mothering a newborn amidst running a home business:

Give yourself a break

You need to recover from the birthing process, the experience, and the demands of adding another member to your family.  It’s ok to take it easy (that’s the point of maternity leave, right?  even work-at-home businesswomen deserve to schedule a break).

Plan and announce your maternity leave

Your break, or maternity leave, won’t be really effective unless you announce and publicize your plans.  Make sure to give yourself a reasonable window of time so that you won’t feel rushed back to work.

Accept help

Whether it comes in the form of meals being delivered, or relatives being willing to come clean your house, PLEASE do yourself a favor and accept graciously!  You don’t have to be super mom.  You don’t have to do it all yourself!

Be flexible

If things don’t go according to your initial plan, it’s important to be willing to adapt.  Maybe you decide it’s time to go back to work sooner than you expected… or maybe you aren’t quite ready to jump back in when you had hoped.  Either way, be realistic and make changes if needed to save your sanity.

Seek out community

Don’t isolate yourself, seek out the company of moms in similar circumstances in case you need someone to lend an ear, or give advice.  One of the downfalls of running a home business is that you don’t necessarily get out all that often.  So… make sure to venture out from your homestead, even if it’s for something frivolous!

Do You Have Tips for Finding Balance?

Where are you at in your quest for finding balance?

If you have tips for finding balance in a hectic week, or have found ways to balance homemaking and running a home business, I would love to hear from you!

Or, if you’re struggling with the concept of finding balance, know that you’re not alone. Is it tough to carve out some “me time,” or maybe dedicate enough attention to your kids? Perhaps you feel like your spouse is neglected because you’ve worn yourself out during the day and have little to offer at the end of a long day.

I’d love to hear what’s hardest for you about finding balance in your life.

15 Ways To Have Kids Help Clean House

posted in: Parenting | 10

Getting your kids to help clean house… impossible? Maybe not! But even despite our best intentions, a well lived in house never seems to stay sparkling clean. Children cart dirt, crumbs, and who knows what throughout the house, dishes pile up almost as soon as the counter is clean, and there is never a good place to dump things when you come in from the garage from a day’s travels. Cleaning is an ongoing process, and a little further on I’ll share 15 ways you can have your kids help clean house.

15 Ways To Have Kids Help Clean House - BPhotoArt.com

My son is just a toddler, but we’ve been intentional about having him help with age appropriate chores for a while now. The funny thing is, he LOVES to clean — and sometimes will remind me that we need to take care of the “messy monster” in a certain area of our house.

What’s A Messy Monster?

We were given a children’s book from my husband’s childhood library called The Messy Monster by Michael Pellowski (#afflink). It’s a wonderful story about Sam the skunk, who, along with his friends, try to find the messy monster who ruined their picnic spot.

After reading this story, I realized we could tie in the “messy monster” concept to messes in our own home. If thhe play room is messy, I might say, “oh no, we need to take care of the messy monster in the play room!” Or my son, noticing the dishes piled on the kitchen counter, might exclaim: “Mama! There’s a messy monster!” It has become our way of identifying messes or cluttered spots around the home so we can take action to clean up the mess.

We’ve also talked about how a little cleaning here and there will keep the messy monster away. Which leads me back to those ideas for having kids help clean house!

15 Ways To Have Kids Help Clean House

So, yes, my toddler is smitten with cleaning.  We have a little chore chart for him on the side of the fridge, with drawings and words to describe each task.  Wondering what ideas your kids might enjoy?  Here are some ways to have kids help clean house that you might consider putting on their chore list.

A note — I always invite Toby to clean, but unless he’s made a mess, he’s not required to participate.  For example, I’ll extend an invitation to help with the laundry, or with the toilet cleaning.  But if he has strewn toys all over the living room, or spilled a drink on the floor, he is expected to clean up after himself.  Now, we do still provide direction and help as necessary; toddlers sometimes have a short attention span and need gentle reminding.  But it’s important to set ground rules so your kids know what is expected… and what is, for lack of a better word, optional.

Also, I’m not recommending you just dump these tasks on your child and walk away.  Engage yourself in conversation, explain how things work, and most importantly, supervise your child so that the cleaning can be done safely!

  1. Laundry – sort + load, even “fold” or put away, depending on the child
  2. Trash day – empty trash, gather recycling, help put at curb
  3. Dishwasher – empty when clean, flip clean/dirty magnet, load soap and close door
  4. Washing in sink – give soapy water, a sponge, and some dishes while you work in other half of sink
  5. Scrubbing stove – talk about stove safety, give scrub brush and let loose
  6. Keeping things tidy – messy monster discussion, pick up toys before next activity, have washrags accessible for independent cleaning of spills
  7. Vacuuming – toy vacuum can be used alongside the real thing
  8. Sweeping – a broom and dustpan, or even a hand broom, are great for cleaning up crumbs after meals
  9. Emptying cat litter – wear gloves, help scoop
  10. Wiping down counters – give wet rag, let them help
  11. Dinner Table – clearing dishes from table after dinner
  12. Give away old things – make room to play, teach about giving to those in need, help drop off donations
  13. Toilets – kids love to scrub toilets, and if you use dish soap with toilet brush, there aren’t any nasty chemicals to deal with.  Start by letting them help scrub while you do mirror and sink
  14. Beating rugs – give kid a tennis racket and let loose (this was a big hit for my son)
  15. Dusting – a dust rag or feather duster can be used to get kid-height spiderwebs; floorboards and windowsills are easier for kids to reach!

Kids Help Clean House? No Way!

“Ok, those all sound like great ideas,” you might be thinking, “but, really? it doesn’t seem feasible.”

Basically, I will always extend an invitation for my child to help clean. At this age, I accept his help, however imperfect it might be, and I also accept his decision not to help. But, if he chooses not to help, I will remind him I am cleaning and he needs to play by himself.

I’m not saying my son does all these things every time I extend the invitation.  But, in general, he does have the desire to keep our house clean, and to be a part of the solution rather than the problem.  Some days more so than others.

Seriously, my toddler asked to clean the toilet upon waking for the day...
Seriously, my toddler asked to clean the toilet upon waking for the day…

So, what can you do to encourage kids to help with chores like these?

  • Provide kid-sized cleaning tools (dust mop, dustpan, rags, spray bottle, etc)
  • Use eco-friendly products that aren’t packed full of chemicals.   The fewer chemicals, the better.  In fact, we clean most things with a homemade cleaning solution (white vinegar and water) specifically so that it is safe for my toddler to be present, helping, and engaged.
  • Make it fun, be excited, and express your gratefulness/thankfulness for the help you receive

Gallery – Kids Can Help Clean!

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Resources: Having Kids Help Clean House

Here are some resources for having kids help clean house.  You might want to consider chore charts, if that sort of thing motivates your child, or perhaps a more laid-back approach is more your style.  Make sure to check out my pinterest board on cleaning for general cleaning tips and ideas (not all kid-related).  Links will open in a new window for your convenience

Follow Betsy @ BPhotoArt.com’s board Cleaning on Pinterest.

How Do You Clean House with Kids?

So, you’ve seen my techniques. I focus on open-ended activities that my child is interested in, give him a little room to run with it, and just spend time cleaning together. When he was a baby, I’d clean with him in a wrap or carrier on my back. We both enjoyed that.

But what do you do? Have you found some great ways to clean house with kids? Any seemingly great ideas that flopped? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Cleaning With KidsCleaning House With Kids

This post is part of the Cleaning House blog hop. Make sure to visit these other wonderful articles on having kids help clean house!

Sew Together, Grow Together – Sewing Activity

posted in: Parenting | 21

Sewing Activity for Kids - a creation from the book: Sew Together, Grow TogetherI don’t remember when I learned how to sew.  I know it must have been pretty young; my mother probably had me on her lap when she was working on projects, much as I’ve done with Toby.  As you might guess, my love of sewing has been passed on to our son.  He was thrilled to receive dinosaur sewing boards and colored sewing beads for gifts.  He often pretends to sew or knit when I am doing so, and he absolutely loves to help use the sewing machine.  I think Toby’s favorite part is putting in and removing pins.  It’s a tie between that and using his scissors to cut things.

Sew Together, Grow Together (Book Review)

At any rate, I recently had the pleasure to review a lovely parent-child sewing activity book by Trixi Symonds of Coloured Buttons: Sew Together, Grow Together.  Trixi’s book has an assortment of 20 whimsical creations that will capture any child’s fancy.  The projects are designed for children as young as five, with the help of an adult (even one who doesn’t know a thing about sewing!).

Okay, so I know you’re thinking, “wait, you don’t have a 5 year old!”  And you’re right.  My son is just a toddler.  But, he is interested in sewing and I figured this could be a work-together sewing activity for him.  The projects are definitely age appropriate for the aforementioned age range, but if you’re comfortable sewing and helping a younger (interested) child through the creation process, I’d say, go for it!

A Child-Directed Sewing Activity

Toby and I perused the book, and while the white koala bear on the cover initially caught his eye, ultimately he settled on Floyd, the center green monster.   A second project was selected for baby brother (still in utero) — but that’s a story for another day.

While I did guide him towards specific selections, ultimately all the decisions were Toby’s (yes, I gave options to make life easier for him).  He chose the project, he decided what size to enlarge the pattern by (250% rather than 150%), he selected the fabric and embellishments too.  A purple denim was chosen for the main body (probably because his cousin’s show riding outfit was made from the same color), and white muslin for the eyes and our first attempt at a mouth.  Ultimately, we switched to embroidered features as it worked better that way.

Toby picked the colors:

  • black and white eyes
  • red for the mouth and outlining the eyes
  • yellow eyebrows
  • green hair

While this project is simple enough to be completed completely by hand, I have a sewing machine — and know that toddler attention spans can be limited.  So, after cutting out the pattern pieces (I adapted it for placement on the fold), we sewed it together with our serger.  Toby helped to turn it right side out, then helped  me hand stitch some of the embellishments before bedtime.  I completed the stitching for Floyd’s face that night, and got our supplies out for completion of the project the following morning.

Ready to finish the sewing project
Ready to finish the sewing project

In the morning, Toby was thrilled with the progress on Floyd.  He was a big help adding rice for the arms and legs as well as stuffing for the main body.  I let him decide how “huggable” Floyd should be (i.e. how much stuffing to add), then we sewed the final opening shut.

It was very gratifying to see how excited my son was to complete this sewing activity with me.  While his age necessitated a little more “participation” on my part, Toby was so proud to show off Floyd — that HE made — to daddy that night.  I have not heard such excited squeals of delight coming from him in a while.

Sewing Teaches Life Skills

The process of sewing is really vital, I think.  It teaches skills that are useful for everyone, regardless of age or gender.  And you end up with a tangible representation of your efforts.  However imperfect — a hand-sewn creation is a labor of love.  Sewing is a learning process, an activity that will be useful later on in life.

And, sewing is a creative outlet.  You have a pattern, yes.  But it’s there as a starting point.  Once you get comfortable, you can depart from any pattern, making adaptations that please you.  It’s part of the joy of sewing — making alterations as you see fit.  I always joke that I work best when I’m not working from a pattern ;).  But the truth is, when you get to more advanced sewing projects, alterations are often necessary on the fly.  So, learning to depart from the pattern at a young age isn’t a bad thing at all.

Let your child think outside the box.  Let creativity blossom.  Allow for an alternate interpretation, and see where it takes you!

Making sure Floyd smiles for the camera
Making sure Floyd smiles for the camera

My Thoughts on Our Sewing Activity

Sew Together Grow Together - Trixi SymondsOverall, I really enjoyed this sewing activity.  I know my toddler did too.  While we only completed this one project for the purposes of the book review, I did skim through the others and found them to be of a similar skill level.  These creations truly are feasible for someone with minimal or no sewing experience to tackle.

The book layout is designed cleanly, with a visual table of contents and large photos for each sewing activity. Perfect for helping young children decide what creation to tackle! I found the directions to be very easy to follow, and appreciated the simplicity of the numbered list step-by-step breakdown of the project.

Overall, the sewing activity was a big success, and I think we’ll be creating more from this book in coming months (as time allows, of course!).

Sew Together, Grow Together can be purchased through Trixi’s Etsy shop, either in physical book form or PDF format.  While I typically am a fan of physical books, I enjoyed how easy it was to print out the pattern and instructions from the PDF,  a departure from the norm of having to photocopy a pattern from the book.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes. The opinions expressed in this post are my own.

Sewing Activity – Gallery of Snapshots

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