Music - First Instrument Exposures

You don't need to sign up for music classes to expose your child to the wonderful world of instruments, rhythms and melodies!

Pretend Play - Snack Stand

Pretend play is essential for young children! Props like this snack stand are easy to make and can fit a variety of play themes.

Early Language and Literacy Development - Listening and Speaking

Think beyond the alphabet to develop early language and literacy skills; sharing books are having family conversations are powerful tools!

Recipe - Mama Bear's Chili

Let's get cooking! A warm bowl of chili will make everyone's bellies happy this fall!

DIY Toys - Pizza Playset

We love making our own toys like this pizza playset. It saves a lot of money and we can make exactly what we want and nothing more!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Stuffed French Toast Casserole with Mixed Berry Sauce

It's no secret that we love brinner - breakfast for dinner. One of our favorite recipes is stuffed french toast with berry sauce. We usually cook the toast, spread cream cheese on one slice, nutella on another and sandwich them together before topping with berry sauce. I decided to try a french toast casserole to avoid standing over the stove cooking slices and assembling sandwiches individually. Instead of refrigerating overnight, I assembled the casserole right after breakfast and refrigerated it until I was ready to bake it for dinner. And I'm happy to say it received thumbs up from the whole family! As I experiment with various fillings and sauces I'll add them for all of you to try.

Stuffed French Toast Casserole with Mixed Berry Sauce
Yield: 6 servings
  • 1 stick butter, divided
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • Cinnamon, to taste
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 loaf Texas Toast or sliced homemade challah (I used this recipe for the bread machine and it was perfect and delicious!)
  • 4oz cream cheese
  • 2 tbsp nutella
  • 3 cups frozen berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and/or cranberries)
  • 2 tbsp maple syrup or honey, or 3 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  1. Beat eggs lightly; add milk and vanilla and beat until well blended. Reserve.
  2. Place cream cheese and nutella in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for 20 seconds, just until softened. Stir cheese and nutella together. Reserve.
  3. Place 6 tbsp butter in glass 13x9" pan and microwave at 70% for 45 seconds. If butter is not melted, microwave at 70% in 15-20 second increments until all the butter is melted.
  4. Sprinkle brown sugar and cinnamon over butter and stir together gently.
  5. Layer bread slices over butter (I cut off the crusts to make the slices more rectangular but it's not necessary). 
  6. Pour half egg mixture over bread, making sure to coat all the bread.
  7. Sprinkle more cinnamon over the bread (adjust to your liking, we like A LOT of cinnamon but not everyone does).
  8. Spread the cream cheese mixture over the bread then top with another layer of bread slices.
  9. Pour remainder of egg mixture on top and sprinkle with more cinnamon. Dice the remaining 2 tbsp of butter and sprinkle over the casserole.
  10. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
  11. Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes.
Berry Sauce
While the casserole is baking, make the berry sauce. Place berries, sweetener and cornstarch in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes until thickened. Smash berries using a potato masher and cook 2 more minutes. Serve over top of french toast.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

It's the Season of Giving - Operation Christmas Child

Now that Little C is old enough to start understanding what it is to do nice things for others, we are really focusing on gratitude, giving and acts of kindness this holiday season. Our first mission was to fill a couple shoe boxes with gifts for children less fortunate than she! Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child collects shoe boxes every year and distributes them to children all around the world. If you'd like to send a shoe box you still have time before National Collection Week ends Nov 24! Look here to find a drop-off location near you.

I don't want to bore you here with all the details so if you're interested in donating or just learning more, please visit the Samaritan's Purse website. What I will say is that you don't have to spend a lot to make a child smile. We went to the dollar store, bought 2 plastic shoe boxes (you can use cardboard but I figured the box could be used for something after it was unpacked) and filled them with toys, school supplies and hygiene items. In the end, it cost $13/box to fill plus $7/box to help cover shipping costs - and we packed those boxes to the brim! It took 3 rubber bands on each to keep them closed!

I forgot to take a picture while we were packing, but here are our finished boxes!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

5 More Phrases for Parents & Teachers to Avoid

1. You have to share – sharing is one of those values every parent wants to instill in their children. However, it is something you can’t force, much like respect and honesty. Model sharing when you can, guide your children when they interact with others and hope it finds its way into your child’s life. Here’s the most important thing to remember: sharing toys translates into taking turns. Making your child give another child a toy as soon as he asks for it does absolutely no good and can actually be harmful to both children’s growth and development. The first child may become more possessive and less likely to share on her own and the second child will not learn patience and come to expect to get everything he wants the second he wants it.

Try this: Say “Billy wants to play with the truck, are you finished with it?” “No? Ok, then can you let him have a turn when you’re finished?” Compromise and creative problem-solving can also arise from disputes over toys. “Jamie wants to play with the dress-up cape, are you finished with it?” “No? Well, is there something else we can find that Jamie can use as a cape?”  

We only have one foam sword so we came up with the idea of using a pool noodle in order for both children to be able to play.

2. Good job! and its opposite, Be careful! – as much as these phrases have been ingrained into our heads and just tumble out on their own most of the time, they really don’t mean much to children! If you can’t stop yourself from saying either phrase, at least follow it up with something more descriptive.

Try this: “Wow, look at that painting! There are so many colors! How did you make all those shapes?” “You’re on the edge of the bed, be careful so you don’t fall off.”

Painting the canopy for our tree house.

3. You shouldn’t feel that way – no one should ever be made to think their feelings are bad! A wide range of feelings is a normal part of being human and sometimes we may feel things that don’t make perfect sense. It’s our job to help children understand and explore feelings and find appropriate ways to deal with those feelings. Even if you see absolutely no reason why a child (or adult!) should feel sad or angry in a certain situation, please resist the impulse to say “well, there’s no reason to feel that way.” The fact of the matter is, they DO feel that way so let’s figure out how to move past it!

Try this: “It seems like something’s bothering you, do you want to tell me what it is? sounds like you feel sad. What do you think would help you feel better? Do you want to draw a picture/write a letter/snuggle…?”

Little C was sad that Daddy couldn't play with her so we wrote him a letter expressing her feelings.

4. Don’t say that/you don’t mean that/that’s not true – this one goes hand in hand with “you shouldn’t feel that way.” If a child says something, chances are they mean it and you never want them to hold back the truth because they think it will make you upset. They may not fully understand what they’re saying or use a phrase improperly, but in their own way, they mean it. And that means we’ll probably all hear “I don’t like you” at some point in our lives but that doesn’t mean we’re horrible parents whose children hate us! As hard as it is, try not to take what they say personally and stay calm. And though we can’t change what children say or stop them from saying specific words or phrases altogether, we can help them understand the effect their words have on others or that there are certain things we shouldn’t say around other people.

Try this: “Telling your sister you don’t like her hurt her feelings; instead why don’t you tell her why you’re upset with her.”

5. Don’t hit, kick, bite, throw… - in short, if children feel the need to hit, kick, bite or throw something, it’s near impossible to stifle that impulse. Whether they’re angry, teething or simply overflowing with energy, they can’t simply stop the action. Also, when you simply say “don’t throw” it gives the impression that throwing in general is not allowed. But I’m sure that’s not what you mean! You probably mean to say, don’t throw the ball inside the house or don’t throw toys at your brother. Explaining the specific activity that is inappropriate is the first step; the second is telling your child what he CAN do. 

Try this: “You can’t kick your brother, that hurts him and we don’t hurt people. But you can kick this pillow or this ball.” “That big ball is an outside toy and we can’t play outside right now. But if you want something to throw, try these bean bags; here, see if you can throw them onto the couch/these paper plates.”  
If you're child loves to throw, try this tadpole toss game!

To read more ideas like these, check out Top 5 Phrases for Parents & Teachers to Avoid and a great book, It's OK Not to Share by Heather Shumaker.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

November Music Lesson

Thanksgiving Day (artwork - American Indian wampum belts)
  1. Waking up - option 1: Shakin' It by Parachute Express; option 2: Rock 'Round the Mulberry Bush by Greg & Steve; now that we're awake let's go to the kitchen and see what's cooking! movement
  2. Apple Tree by Unknown (lyrics below) - oh I see apples being sliced and put in a pie crust! I love apple pie! Where do apples grow? On a tree? Let's sing about the apple tree, I'll sing first and then you repeat after me. echo song
  3. A Pumpkin for the Pie by John Feierabend & Jill Trinka - There's another pie coming out of the oven. What kind of pie is this one? Pumpkin! Oh and the turkey's going into the oven, I'm getting so hungry! Let the children use a drum/shaker/etc one at a time to make the rhythm for the song. instrument rhythms
  4. I'm a Little Turkey by Unknown (lyrics below) - Dinner's not ready yet! Let's dance like turkeys while we wait. movement
  5. Giving Thanks by Chief Jake Swamp - American Indians celebrated the first Thanksgiving here in America with visitors from England, which is across the ocean! The visitors, the Pilgrims, learned from the Indians by watching how they grew and gathered food, built houses and made clothes and belts, like these Wampum belts. Let's listen to American Indian Pow Wow music while we read this story.
  6. Alternate story Thanks for Thanksgiving by Julie Markes
Apple Tree
(sung to "Charlie Over the Ocean" - leader sings the phrase first, then everyone else repeats)
Oh way up high, oh way up high (point up high),
In an apple tree, in an apple tree (round arms overhead)
2 little apples, 2 little apples (hold up 2 fingers)
Looked down at me, looked down at me (circle fingers around eyes and look through)
I shook that tree, I shook that tree (pretend to shake tree)
As hard as I could, as hard as I could (keep shaking)
Down came the apples, down came the apples (raise hands then wiggle fingers and lower)
Yum they were good! Yum they were good! (rub belly)

I'm a Little Turkey
I'm a little turkey, fluffy and brown (point to self) 
My wings flip flop when I turn around (flap arms)
I have a lot of feathers on my back (wiggle fingers at lower back)
And a big orange beak that goes "clack clack!" (clap hands together in front of mouth like beak)

Sing it loud!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

October Music Lessons

Last month we started our music class play groups and I have to say Little C loves music class! We do it once a week with some of our usual play date buddies and although most of the children are very shy about it, they seem to have a good time and start participating at least a little by the end. And Little C...well, she's great! She sings along with me, dances, counts off our songs, answers my questions when no one else does; I'm so glad she's comfortable doing music!

Although I can't share with you all my materials right now - a lot of them include images and clipart which are not mine to distribute - I can share the songs and activities we do. We had 2 separate sets of songs for October:

Halloween in Italy (I incorporated paintings of gondoliers in Venice and photos of the Tower of Pisa and the Colosseum):
  1. The Airplane Song by Laurie Berkner - pretend you're getting on an airplane and traveling around; instead of ending at home, have your plane land in Italy! movement song
  2. Stirring, Stirring by Unknown (words below) - the gondoliers in Venice and their long paddles remind me of a witch stirring her cauldron! fingerplay
  3. Fly Little Bats by Wee Sing - look around at all the Halloween decorations on the Italian houses. I see some bats! Let's pretend to fly around like bats. movement song
  4. Five Little Pumpkins - What other decorations do you see? Oh! There are some pumpkins! Hold up 5 fingers for 5 pumpkins. Let children take turns using an instrument (drum, maraca...) to create the rhythm while everyone else recites the rhyme and does the actions. fingerplay & instrument rhythms
  5. The Baker's Cat by Jean Warren - read the story or sing it to the tune of "Down by the Station." This story is great for color recognition, counting and predicting events. 
  6. Follow up activity 1 - for each child, cut a cat shape out of black construction paper. Then give each child about 10 white dot stickers. Direct them to place the stickers on their cat and then color the stickers any color they want. While they work, invite discussion about other kinds of pies the cat could eat and what color her dots would become.
  7. Follow up activity 2 - purchase one mini pumpkin for each child (I found some for 69 cents each at a local farm) and let them paint it as they wish. *Note: if you use tempera paint, the paint will wash off if left outside in the rain!

Fall Harvest Festival (artwork - pumpkin carvings):
  1. The Wheels on the Bus - pretend you're taking the bus to the pumpkin farm. We used the following verses: wheels go round, door goes open and shut, money goes clink, driver says move on back, buckle goes click, horn goes beep, wipers go swish, people go bump, wheels go round (slow up a hill and then fast down the hill!) fingerplay
  2. London Bridge Name Game by Unknown (words below) - the bus is going over a bridge, let's make a bridge and you all can go under the bridge while we sing. movement song
  3. Apple Tree by Unknown (words below) - look at all the apple trees at the farm! What color apples do you see? Those apples look so tasty but they're so high! Let's sing about the apple tree, I'll sing first and then you repeat after me. echo song
  4. Five Little Pumpkins - Oh there's the pumpkin farm! Some of them have been carved for Halloween; there are so many ways to decorate a pumpkin! Hold up 5 fingers for 5 pumpkins. Let children take turns using an instrument (drum, maraca...) to create the rhythm while everyone else recites the rhyme and does the actions. fingerplay & instrument rhythms
  5. What Falls in the Fall? by Laurie Berkner - sit or lay quietly and listen to the song. What kinds of things fall in the fall?
  6. Follow up activity - collect fallen leaves and let the children choose a few to tape to a piece of fall-colored construction paper. Have the children sponge paint the paper gently using fall-colored paints. When the paint is dry, remove the leaves.
Stirring, Stirring
Stirring and stirring and stirring our brew, ooooo-ooooh, ooooo-ooooh.
Stirring and stirring and stirring our brew, ooooo-ooooh, ooooo-ooooh.
(whisper) Tiptoe, tiptoe, tiptoe... (shout) BOO!

London Bridge Name Game
(sung to "London Bridge")
Learning names is so much fun, so much fun, so much fun.
Learning names is so much fun, (drop arms around whichever child is under the bridge)
What is your name? 

Apple Tree
(sung to "Charlie Over the Ocean" - leader sings the phrase first, then everyone else repeats)
Oh way up high, oh way up high (point up high),
In an apple tree, in an apple tree (round arms overhead)
2 little apples, 2 little apples (hold up 2 fingers)
Looked down at me, looked down at me (circle fingers around eyes and look through)
I shook that tree, I shook that tree (pretend to shake tree)
As hard as I could, as hard as I could (keep shaking)
Down came the apples, down came the apples (raise hands then wiggle fingers and lower)
Yum they were good! Yum they were good! (rub belly)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Top 6 Areas of Focus for Growth and Learning in Toddlers

Early childhood teachers have training and curricula and guidelines to help them fill their days with meaningful activities. But many parents don't have those same tools and are left with the question, what should I be doing with my toddler? Less is more in my opinion and all those academic skills everyone is so worried about are best left to accidental learning at this age. By that, I mean learning through normal daily activities instead of formal instruction. That being said, there are a number of things to make time for in order to stimulate your toddler's emotional, physical, cognitive and social growth and development.

  1. Free play: Let your child decide what she wants to play with and let her go! Try not to interfere too much or direct her play this way or that. If you want to be involved (or they insist you be involved!) follow her lead and have her tell you what your role should be. Some good materials to have on hand for free play are pretend play props, building materials, animals/dolls, books, puzzles and musical instruments.
  2. Creative exploratory art/music: I know art is messy, but it's a fantastic outlet for creative and even scientific energy (i.e. what happens when I mix these colors, what if I stick this in here?). The key during this age is, it's all about the process. Don't worry if all their drawings are scribbles and all their paintings end up looking like brown blobs; they're doing whatever they need to be doing! If this concept is very hard for you, try this: instead of asking "what did you draw/paint/make?" ask "how did you do that" or "what colors did you use?" Also, let your child listen and move to a variety of music and provide access to musical instruments, purchased or homemade.
  3. Gross motor play: Running, jumping, climbing, sliding, swinging, tumbling and dancing. Do it indoors or outdoors, with recorded music or instruments, with playmates or in structured classes.
  4. Socializing: Disclaimer: you don't have to - and shouldn't - try to force your child to interact with other adults or children. The purpose of this is to give them the opportunity to be around other children, in whatever capacity they feel most comfortable whether it's playing with someone, next to someone, alone or just watching other children. Setting up play dates with one or two other children is ideal; large groups can be intimidating and make shy children shut down even more. Story times at local libraries or stores are also great places to be around other children.
  5. Shared story time: Read read read! Board books, picture books, simple stories, fairy tales, seasonal books...just read! For older toddlers, you can see if they'll focus their attention a little longer by reading chapter books before bedtime. I've been reading the Magic Tree House books by Mary Pope Osborne with Little C before bedtime, 1 or 2 chapters at a time, and she loves them. Eventually I'll loop back and start reading again from the beginning so she can get more out of them. And don't forget, let your child read to you! You'll be amazed at what they remember about familiar books. Some they'll be able to retell you word for word and others they may paraphrase and with others they may just make up their own story. However they read, they're building important literacy skills! The only guidance you should provide is helping them flip through the pages one at a time from front to back.
  6. Involve your children in daily activities and chores: Children learn the most through shared experiences with you - I can't stress that enough! Whether it's helping to cook or clean or fold laundry or take care of a pet, those moments with you are precious.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Our Favorite Fall & Halloween Books

I'm sorry it took til the end of the month to put this list together, but here are some of our favorite fall and Halloween books!

*Stay tuned for a full post on my Spooky Wheels on the Bus's almost finished!

  1. Leaves by David Ezra Stein
  2. The Silly Scarecrow (Clifford's Puppy Days) by Danielle Denega
  3. Under the Apple Tree by Steve Metzger
  4. Little Critter: The Fall Festival by Mercer Mayer
  5. Let it Fall by Maryann Cocca-Leffler
  6. Mouse's First Fall by Lauren Thompson
  7. The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams
  8. The Night Before Halloween by Natasha Wing
  9. Five Little Pumpkins by Dan Yaccarino
  10. Halloween Faces by Nancy Davis
  11. Mouse's First Halloween by Lauren Thompson
  12. The Spooky Wheels on the Bus by J. Elizabeth Mills
  13. Skeleton Hiccups by Margery Cuyler
  14. If You're a Monster and You Know It by Rebecca & Ed Emberley
  15. Go Away, Big Green Monster! by Ed Emberley
  16. Glad Monster, Sad Monster by Ed Emberley