Monday, January 26, 2015

Celebrating Valentine's Day with your Littlest Loves

One of the days I used to cherish as teacher was always Valentine's Day! My classroom would inevitably become a sea of red and pink tissue paper, construction paper and glitter. It was always noisy and the kids went home with a sugar high. BUT I got to see their faces as they passed out their valentines with pride, working hard to make sure that they visited each 'mail box' we had made and I knew how excited they were to open the paper cards from all their classmates. Not to mention, many of my students had a handmade love note for me so I got to deliver a lot of hugs in return! For many, it was their first experience spreading the love of this holiday and I wished it could always be as simple and satisfying as it was at five and six. Now my own children are old enough to enjoy some Valentine's Day activities so I searched out a few that would be fun and home-friendly.
Suncatchers (image source)

For this Heart Sun Catcher, you will need thin cardboard, like a cereal box, clear contact paper, tissue paper and glitter. I know, it takes courage to let little hands shake glitter!
  1. Start with a rectangle of your thin cardboard and cut out a large heart, leaving enough of a frame around it so that it will be sturdy.
  2. Cut two pieces of contact paper the same size as your cardboard rectangle. Peel one and lay it over the heart so that you are exposing the sticky side. Keep the other piece to lay on top of the work when it is finished.
  3. Allow your toddler or older child to decorate the sticky heart however they like, sprinkling glitter, laying down tissue squares or adding other materials you think of...
  4. When finished, peel your remaining contact paper and cover so that nothing is sticky or falling off. 
  5. Display!
Here are a few more cute ideas
Stamping with fruits and vegetables is great fun and shows little ones that there can be many ways to use something when you add a little imagination! I thought this would also be a nice Valentine's Day gift for a grandparent or teacher. You will need rubber bands, a bunch of celery, construction paper or card stock, red and green tempura paints.
  1. Before cutting the base of your celery off, wrap the top and bottom with rubber bands to keep them together. Then remove the base of the celery with a sharp knife.
  2. Pour red paint in a shallow paper or plastic plate and dip the bundled celery stalks
  3. Have your child stamp the flower shape on the paper several times
  4. Dip your child's finger in green paint or use a brush and have them add stems to the flowers 
There are many other animals that can be made from hearts!
This activity is better suited for a slightly older child but a preschooler can certainly help and will enjoy watching the hearts be transformed into an animal face! Have your child help you look at this picture to count how many hearts you will need of each color. Sorting by color and size is another great extension of this craft. You will need, brown, pink, black, red and white construction paper plus a glue stick or white glue and scissors.
  1. Fold two pieces of brown construction paper in half. Cut one large half heart from the first piece, unfolding it to reveal the whole heart. From the second piece, follow suit but cut two smaller hearts. With your scraps, find another brown piece to fold in half for an even smaller heart.
  2. Using the same technique, cut a hear from the pink paper that is just slightly smaller than the medium brown hearts.
  3. Fold and cut two small white hearts for the eyes
  4. Fold and cut an assortment of black hearts: nine all together.
  5. Finally you will need one small red heart for the tongue.
  6. This dog face goes together like a puzzle. You will cut the pink hear and one medium brown heart in half for the ears. The other medium brown heart is the top of the dog's face with the large brown heart overlapping it upside down as the bottom of the face. Piece together the rest for all the details!
  7. For more images of the steps to make this treat, click here
Now, if you are looking for a very addicting and super easy to make treat, try these sweet and savory Valentine's Day Pretzel Buttons! A student of mine used to bring me a pretty cellophane bag filled with these every year and I had to practice great restraint not to eat them all by the end of the school day. The best part about these is that they are perfect for boosting the fine motor skills of your little helpers (suffice it to say that my almost two year old son can already unwrap a hershey kiss with ease!) You will need pretzels (circular pretzels are shown here, but I think the square pretzel snaps are easier to use,) Hershey's hugs, and pink and red m&ms.
  1. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and heat your oven to 200 degrees
  2. Have your helpers unwrap the desired amount of Hershey's hugs (maybe give them a quota of how many they can eat)
  3. Place pretzels in rows on baking sheet with one hug in each center
  4. Bake for four minutes (do not let chocolate melt; it should still hold its shape)
  5. Carefully press m&m onto each hug; you may need to let the pretzel stand for a moment if the chocolate is too soft
  6. Deliver to neighbors, teachers or just gobble them up with your kids!
Happy Valentine's Day to you and your littles!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Passing the Days of Winter by Treating Yourself

As the days become a little more gray and we are spending more time inside than out, it's important to find small ways to indulge our senses to improve our mood and patience while we manage the day to day tasks of family life. It can be too easy to dismiss the thought of pampering ourselves amid the onslaught of taking care of so many other people and things. But, it does not have to take very much time or money to make small changes that add comfort and bring a little something special to an otherwise ordinary day.
pamper yourself when stuck inside
The impact on daily life that can be made by paying attention to our senses occurred to me as I was standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes and not loathing the monotony as I usually would. The difference was that I was wearing new slippers and fabric lined rubber gloves. It sounds silly and is easy to take for granted, but those two small changes allowed me to actually lose myself in the task and let my mind wander, all because I was comfortable! Cold floors and dry skin in the winter are just part of reality for those of us living in New England but it also makes us appreciate warmth when we get it.
cozy slippers are a must
Another way I've been breaking up the afternoon slump at home with two kids is by drinking tea in the afternoon. This can also be a great evening ritual. I choose herbal varieties that smell great, like orange and peppermint. If you've ever visited a store like David's Tea in Chestnut Hill, you know that there is as much to learn about tea as there is about wine and craft beer. Loose teas can come in almost any flavor you can imagine, but you can also keep it very simple and  inexpensive with tea bags from the grocery store (which my grandmother always dried out to use again, if you're really frugal.) To me, the more huggable the mug, the better. What has become a nice routine for me is now an experience I enjoy with my daughter. My three year old usually joins me with her Peter Rabbit mug filled half-way with luke warm peppermint tea.
Find your huggable mug
We can all agree that our sense of smell is powerful and sometimes inside a house with children and pets, the reason we know this is not very pleasant. Candles can be dangerous with curious, climbing toddlers, like my very agile son, but there are other ways to infuse the home with good smelling things. An inexpensive bouquet from Trader Joe's has become a treat to myself during the usual and sometimes challenging task of getting through the grocery store. The blooms brighten my kitchen and add a fresh but not overwhelming scent. Another great way to add a welcome smell to your home is by using your crock pot! There is nothing like cooking something on low for many hours to fill your house with a cozy aroma. A third easy indulgence is scented hand lotion, which has a surprisingly consistent effect of perking me up.
market flowers from flickr
Lastly, consider listening to more music! Smartphones make it easy to have music at our fingertips and even by knowing one artist or genre that you like, Pandora can do the rest for you! I used to only listen to children's music when my kids were awake and playing until I was at a friend's house one day and she was actually listening to good music that we both enjoyed. It dawned on me that not everything had to revolve around my precious little ones and that it was probably good for them to be exposed to a variety of music (so long as the lyrics weren't wildly inappropriate, which can be harder than it should be to ensure.) Another great way to boost everyone's mood, is to put on a few fun songs and dance! Our line up: 'Shake It Off' by Taylor Swift; 'Happy' by Pharrell Williams and 'I Gotta Feeling' by Black Eyed Peas. The funny thing is, my daughter now requests these as a lullaby at night.
dance like no one is watching
Now that I've become conscious of these small efforts that make my senses happy, I'm finding more and more changes to make and items to use that all help pass the long days of January. I added a brightly colored mat in front of my washer and dryer, put a lavender scented plug-in in my bedroom, and I keep a stash of dark chocolate covered caramels in my cupboard. It's the little things! Happy Winter.

About the author:
Liza d'Hemecourt is the blog coordinator for Parent Talk. She formerly taught kindergarten and first grade and now lives in Needham with her husband and two children.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Annual Summer Camp Fair on the Horizon

Hello Parents,

Wishing you all a very Happy New year! As the year begins with a small snowstorm and a rainy weekend, here’s an event promising a beautiful summer that awaits us in a few months: THE PARENT TALK SUMMER CAMP FAIR OF 2015 IS HERE!!!!!
Some families know that they will need a camp for their child while others may be undecided. In either case, information and options will be helpful! Did you know that a summer enrichment program is recommended for children who have a hard time transitioning from home to a structured environment? Not to mention the prospect of going a little stir crazy with all those weeks out of school. Plus, with the many options available in our area, there is sure to be a camp opportunity that will provide a positive and memorable experience for your child.

Finding a summer camp that's a good fit for your child and for your family's schedule can be task made simpler when all the options are presented for you. At this year's annual event, nearly forty camps will be represented and the best part (aside from an excuse to be out of the house and among friends) is that it is FREE. We have worked hard to make the Summer Camp Fair a fun shopping experience rather than an overwhelming obstacle.
The event will be full of information and interaction with individual camp coordinators all under one roof.

Sew Easy Table at Summer Camp Fair 2014
WHEN: Tuesday, January 20th from 7pm-9pm. Please note that the snow date is January 27th.

WHERE: The cafeteria at Newman Elementary School (1155 Central Avenue, Needham)

NOTE: THIS EVENT IS FREE TO ALL. Attendees will leave with a booklet listing all the camps that were in attendance that night, plus a few more.

Charles River YMCA table at Summer Camp Fair 2014
So please join us on JANUARY 20th, to find out the fun activities our kids can enjoy this summer: music, sports, photography, creative arts, classical arts and sciences, gymnastics, field trips and many more!!!!

Please spread the word to friends, relatives, and family who would benefit from attending.

We look forward to seeing you at the campfair! 
Meredith and Aarti
Summer Camp Fair Co-Chairs

Friday, January 2, 2015

Making Sense of All These Toys

The holiday gifts have been opened but maybe you still have some of the boxes laying around…That's a good thing! Empty boxes are a perfect way to start organizing the loot that your kids were so excited to receive before it creeps into all of your living space. It's time to take stock of what's there and find the best way to group, store and display your children's toys so that they get the most use and you get to keep your house in order (oh, wait---does that exist for parents?)
Here is another great article on rotating toys from a mom and teacher blogger.
A good place to start, if you haven't already done this, is to first pack away the toys your child no longer uses. If  you think these toys have only lost their luster temporarily, store them away to be brought back out in a couple of months when the winter doldrums have made everyone bored. Ready to say goodbye to forgotten toys? If you have the room to store them, consider donating to the next Parent Talk Sale in May, or donate the ones in great condition now to a worthy cause like A Room To Grow.

Now that you're looking at only those things your children are using, get started...categorize. I classify toys into categories based on the way my children can play with them. There are self-explanatory toys---they can go to these and engage independently without any adult intervention or explanation. These can be large or small, but their physical placement and rotation is key! The second category is toys that requires set-up, or adult supervision. Storage is the most important factor for these.

Smaller self-explanatory toys can be musical instruments, certain puzzles, stuffed animals or even a basket of favorite books. My kids do best with these when they are visible and easily accessible, like on a low table, bench or shelf. The rule of thumb with these is that less is more! Rotating self explanatory toys is very effective; swap them out when they are napping or in the evening when you're doing a clean sweep.
This blogger illustrates how she creates a Montessori environment for her little ones.
For larger, self-explanatory toys your child will stand to use (easel, kitchen, workbench, puppet theater) choose a few locations in your home where you spend time and wouldn't mind seeing these. For example, I opted to put the new wooden dollhouse in a corner of our living room rather than the plastic Black and Decker tool bench. (Eventually, one of the less sightly large plastic toys will end up in its place because rotation is key!) Maybe you can fit an easel in your kitchen where you can supervise marker use, or find a corner of your child's room for the tent to be 'permanently set up.'

This grandfather's blog describes the joy he finds in woodworking.
By finding nooks in different rooms of the house for larger interactive toys, you allow your child to focus more intently than he might if that toy was lined up against the playroom wall amid many other options. Now, once you have placed these large toys, gather all of their accessories, then decide what size container you need so that it becomes a play area that is organized and easy to access.

When placing the large toys, you can go a step further to enhance play by grouping complementary toys nearby. For example, place a basket of baby dolls and a high chair near the kitchen, or the cash register and a shopping cart. Consider having a table and chairs or a few floor pillows near your puppet theater for audience members. Maybe your dollhouse would double as an animal hospital; you could even group small figurines into categories for play with the dollhouse and store them in see-through plastic shoeboxes.

Another great resource for playroom ideas!

In a couple of months, change it up! Move the dollhouse into a bedroom and put the easel back into the playroom etc. I can't tell you how much more life has been brought to certain toys when given a simplechange of scenery.

For toys that require set-up, supervision or explanation, containers are still key, but location is not as important.  These may be puzzles, games, craft kits, paints, or anything that has many small pieces that you don't always want your child to be able to access. My sister has four children and ran an in-home daycare for years. I marvel at the way she goes to a closet and whisks out a box or plastic tote of toys that 'go together' (like Polly Pockets with their accessories or a magnetic scene with the magnets that belong to it or a sensory bin of aquarium rocks with jewels and pretend fish.) In this way, it's like she is presenting her kids with a 'new' toy because they don't see it all the time but she decides when it gets used and controls the pieces getting lost by putting it all back in its box, up and away. She does this with such ease and speed that it looks effortless!

This is a very inspiring article about organizing for play!
It takes time to group these 'kits' together but I think the bigger challenge lies in finding containers. My sister re-uses take-out dishes with lids, vinyl zippered bags that sheets and blankets come in, even coffee containers. If you're not using a clear box, just remember to label the contents. The nice thing about toys that require set-up is that you can store them away anywhere. Maybe you have an extra shelf in your linen closet or pantry or laundry room. Chances are, when you have the time to sit down with your child and show them one of these toys, you can take a minute to go into the next room to put your hands on it!

If you still aren't sure how to best go about organizing your child's toys, just follow their cues. Watch them play and see what objects they group together and what gets totally ignored.  Playing with toys can be analogous to shopping. Think about yourself and how you prefer to shop. Most of us are overwhelmed in a large department store and prefer the experience and place more value on items in a small boutique. The time and thought you place into categorizing, displaying and storing your child's toys will pay off. It's not only rewarding to see your kids engaging with things you've given them, but it also makes life as a parent a little bit easier when they are busy!
Click here to view image

About the author:
Liza d'Hemecourt is the blog coordinator for Parent Talk. She studied theater and education at Boston, then went on to do community theater while teaching kindergarten and first grade. Liza now lives in Needham with her family and stays home with her children, ages two and three.

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