It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

(Picture just because.)

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

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

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

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

Infant – 6 Months

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

6 – 12 Months

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

1 – 2 Years

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

3 -5 Years

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

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

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

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

So…Voting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Were Broken, But We Were Rebuilding: Using Interactive Writing and Shared Reading to Find our Classroom Community Again

A few weeks ago my working life did a literal 180. I went from being a full time literacy specialist at one school to a full time first grade teacher at another. I volunteered to temporarily fill in as a long term sub when the previously-hired substitute wasn’t able to teach anymore. My reasons for volunteering? (1) I didn’t want it to impact anyone else at my school – it was easiest if it was me who went, (2) getting my hands dirty actually teaching during this pandemic would give me valuable insight that would only help me collaborate with and support the teachers I work with when I get back to my normal position, and (3) teaching first grade for a longer period of time would only make me a better literacy specialist – first grade is one of the most important years of a child’s literacy development.

BUT.

It flipped me on my head. I went from stability, happiness, and comfort at work to chaos, unpredictability, and exhaustion. I inherited a class of 13 in-person firsties and 6 at-home firsties in community crisis. I spent most of my first day preventing physicality, redirecting unkind comments and behaviors, and mediating peer-to-peer conflicts. I went home that night and had the most panic attacks in 12 hours I’ve ever had in my life. I spent my entire night and next morning hysterically crying and vomiting from the stress of having to step foot back in that classroom. I was broken. The kids seemed broken too. And it certainly wasn’t anything like what I had thought I signed up for. How on earth had these kids survived in an environment like this for the six weeks they’d already been in school? How on earth have the kids learning at home kept it together having to observe this as spectators through a computer screen, while they wait to virtually never make it through a single lesson in peace? How on earth did the previous long term substitute come to work every day? And HOW ON EARTH was I even going to begin making a difference for these kids? Five plus weeks wasn’t nearly enough time for this community to heal. But after several more agonizing days, I made one single commitment: to show up. To let the academics go (for now) and focus on this classroom’s (and each individual’s in it) mental health, safety, and well being.

And I’m here to share with you what my rainbow after the rain has been.

I turned to interactive writing and shared reading as my saving grace. My hope when I had no hope at all. Here’s how it goes: each week we made a class book. Old school class book – like the kind where the teacher models with a student sharing the pen and then each kid in the class gets to do a page, and we collect all the pages and put them together into a book. Then we made copies of the book, one for each kid, so everyone has one in their book box and we can read it together as a class over and over again. The literacy skills this enforces are endless: interactive writing promotes concepts about print, idea generation, sentence construction, conventions, spelling phonetically, and learning sight words (to name a few). Shared reading of the books we make helps us practice 1:1 correspondence, reading sight words, text directionality, and most importantly builds our confidence as readers – even my one student who was a non reader can read these books because we’ve practiced it so many times again and again.

While the literacy skills are endless, the social-emotional work these class books targeted was LIFE SAVING.

The first class book we made was all about our emotional health. How do each of us want to feel this year? Sophie wants to feel safe because the virus is scary. Ethan wants to feel happy because he hasn’t felt happy at school in a long time. Grace wants to feel calm because the classroom has been anything but calm. Every time our class was in crisis, or we had friends not getting along, or we had friends making poor learning or friendship choices, we went back to that book. “Hey Susan, go get your book. Look at how Joe wants to feel this year. What can we do to help him feel that way right now?”

The second class book (and the ones thereafter) was all about getting to know each other as people. We did one (in the video above) about things we like in fall. Through that book we learned that there are a few friends in our class who don’t celebrate Halloween, a friend who had never seen the leaves change before. I realized that these kids had no motivation to be an active, respectful, and responsible member of a classroom community because they didn’t even really know, and I mean really know, anyone in that class. They were classmates, and were slowly working on becoming friends, becoming teammates, becoming family.

I did a post a little while back about not losing sight of the teaching practices we know are best practices just because of this pandemic. And a little after that post I watched the closing address at this fall’s TC Saturday Reunion by Lucy Calkins, in which her message was to just show up. Just show up. (If you haven’t watched it, even if you aren’t a fan of TC, give it a watch – the message is powerful and brought me to tears.) It’s like everything that has gone through my reflective teacher brain this fall has brought me to this moment.

And you know what? Our days were still long and our days were still hard. Like really hard. I sacrificed LOTS of time with my own kids and my own family (like all teachers always do!) so that I could make sure I could continue to show up for these kids. If they’ve ever needed anyone to just show up, it was then. And most likely now that these five plus weeks are up, I’ll slowly turn into a blip in their radar. They’ll grow up probably not ever remembering that time their class was in crisis, that time their teacher changed more times than they could count. I’ll slowly become “Mrs. Who?” but that’s ok, my job was to just show up. And not give up.

So we kept writing and we kept reading. Not just me…them too. We all showed up, we all learned, and we all grew. It wasn’t perfect, but it was worth it. And in 2020, that’s what matters. ❤️

From Diva Baby to Delicate and Dainty

One of my first few posts on my blog was aptly titled “Diva Baby or Quarantine Baby…That Is The Question”. That’s because Tessa has been a very different baby than the bruises were (they were more similar than not). She had infant habits that I’d call diva (and I now say diva because I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just quarantine, but she is, in fact, a diva)…like not taking a bottle, not wanting to be put down, crying whenever mom hands her off to someone else. A lot of these habits have evolved and gotten much better as she’s gotten older. But I now notice how delicate and dainty she is compared to the boys, who were all over the place like a bull in a china shop.

And delicate and dainty sure is cute. She has the sweetest fine motor…she will sit for minutes and hours trying to pick up leaves or wisps of grass from the ground. You give her a piece of ribbon to hold on to at daycare and she’ll still be clutching it in her hand by the time you get home that night. She’ll play with all the food you give her, but gosh darnit she won’t bring any of it near her mouth on her own. The bruises run circles around her as she just sits there happily with no desire or intention to even try moving. Lots of noise or too much talking startles her…she prefers the peace and quiet (which she rarely gets thanks to the bruises).

Here’s where the mom-anxiety comes in. At what point is delicate and dainty a concern? I’m no stranger to the birth to three experience. The educator side of me saw some red flags that I was never able to let go of with Dominic, and at 9 months he qualified for birth to three, with moderate to significant developmental delays in 4 out of the 5 major categories: communication (expressive and receptive), cognitive, adaptive, and physical (fine and gross motor). The only area he was totally fine in was social. We worked our tails off for a year in OT, Speech, and Behavioral Intervention (our service providers were angels!), and the kid graduated advanced in all categories a year later. So he was either just a late bloomer from the start, or his early intervention worked miracles. I’ll never know the answer to that question.

So here we are with my bow and I can feel those little anxieties creeping up again. Mostly because it’s impossible not to compare your child to every other baby around you, especially the ones who are younger or the same exact age but are doing more advanced things. The boys were scarfing down soft table food and feeding themselves anything they could get their hands on at 9 months. Tessa takes her purees like a champ, but wants nothing to do with anything solid. We’ve also been in a few social situations lately where Tessa just sits on the ground while babies who are two months younger than her roll, crawl, and scoot circles around her. She hasn’t made it beyond push-up position.

Case in point: we’ve resorted to using mama’s cordless jump rope as a training tool for trying to encourage Tessa to crawl. She loves it, and I can see her little body working so hard!

I’m trying SO hard to sit on my anxieties this time around and not jump the gun. To wait it out because deep down I think I’m just realizing (and beginning to accept the fact) that all my babes are late bloomers and that’s ok. But man, you know how hard it is to sit on that worry? To feel it creeping into your mind and have to actively work to squash it. It’s hard! Especially when the pediatrician is peppering you with questions at the 9 month appointment like…is she feeding herself? (No.) Is she putting things in her mouth? (No.) Is she crawling? (No.) Is she trying to crawl (No.) Hey, she’s clapping and waving…that counts for something right? And to be totally clear, the pediatrician had zero concerns despite us answering no to a majority of her questions. Just said babies develop at different paces.

Yeah, yeah, I hear this all the time, and have heard it all the time since kid one. But it still makes it so hard not to compare! It must be a mom thing.

You know what the worst one is? I hate hate hate when people say…”She’s number three, she must know all the tricks by now.” Or, “usually after kid one they all develop faster.” Guess what? My kid one hit his developmental milestones earlier than my kid two, and so far, my kid three. I think the best advice (to myself AND to the people who keep saying junk like that) is to just stop. Let it go. Enjoy the moments, those milestones will come. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that she’s not tearing the house apart yet? I’ll never ever ever complain about her preference for all things mama either. I’m ok with my delicate and dainty, I don’t love her any less. ❤

Sometimes, Less Is More

How technology has transformed the art of teaching, and things from our “past” we should keep with us today and carry forward to tomorrow…

Technology is amazing, and teaching has come a long way because of it, especially since this pandemic. A year ago, who would have thought we could simultaneously teach remote and in-person students simultaneously through livestream technology? Not many of us, and definitely not me! But here we are. We can do hard things.

And while I have done everything in my professional mindset to embrace the new technology (and I have…I’m its biggest advocate!), lately I keep going back to the golden rule from my tech-ed classes in college: Technology is a tool to enhance instruction, not a tool to replace it. So I write this post not to deter those of us who are all-in with the technology during these unprecedented times, but to softly and gently remind us of the best practices that we know are still best practices. And to caution us to not let those best practices fall into the abyss of nostalgia as we suddenly and ferociously navigate this new territory.

Here’s my short list of tried and true practices that I am begging all teachers and parents to remember as we adapt to these new times:

Books. Kids need to handle books. Printed, bound, and published books. REAL BOOKS.

I cringe hearing about schools who are not distributing books due to the pandemic. I get the germ factor, but relying solely on e-books and virtual reading activities is detrimental to an emerging reader’s development. Especially the littlest – kindergarteners and first graders. Don’t get me wrong, publishers and educational companies (well, most of them) have been nothing but helpful and generous in opening up a lot of their books and resources in a remote capacity for teachers to take advantage of. But there is no way to replicate true concepts about print that emerging readers need to learn in an e-book. (Or if there is, I haven’t rationalized it yet…). Let me illustrate with an example. One of the early concepts about print kids begin to pick up is text directionality. Text directionality has several components. Some of those components don’t change with an e-book, like the fact the we read left-to-right on a page. Other components of text directionality DO change, or are absent all together. Like the fact that a book has a cover whose open end is on the right and bound end is on left, like the idea that we turn pages when we get to the end of a page (not scroll up or down like some online programs or e-books!). I’m not saying that e-books, online subscriptions, or online libraries and databases are bad. I’m saying they shouldn’t take the place of print books entirely. They should be supplemental.

Learning is socially constructed. Kids should still be interacting with the teacher and interacting with each other.

I’m really trying to let go of the past and embrace the present in order to come to terms with the future. But guys, there’s a reason teachers used easels and chart paper for MANY years. There’s a reason teachers and students share the pen, the real, physical pen, in interactive writing. There’s a reason kids come to the big book and use the teacher pointer to practice 1:1 correspondence. The safe learning community that is established when a teacher gathers her/his students together at the carpet and invites them in to enjoy a big book in front of them is 1000 times more effective than presenting a big book on the Smartboard and asking kids to interact with the text from afar. The literate brain connections that are established through kids actually using a marker to try it out on chart paper, use fix-it tape when they make a mistake, and write it correctly when they gain new knowledge, are light years more concrete (and developmentally appropriate, I might add) than asking kids to type a story on a computer. I know the mitigation strategies surrounding COVID prevent a lot of this from happening right now, but I promise you there are ways to do this still, without having to resort to hands-off learning from a distance, even for the kids who are learning at home! Two simple, quick tricks for doing this are getting real books in their hands, and getting real paper and pencil/marker/crayons in their hands.

Sometimes, less is more.

Things look so much cleaner when we use a computer to create everything we need for teaching. Yes, it looks cleaner when we type up a worksheet to use for writing. It looks cleaner when we have kids publish their story by typing it up and adding clip art. Yes, it looks cleaner when we use a publishing program to create a poster or a brochure or a flyer as part of a school project. Yes, it looks cleaner when we buy a phonics game from Teachers Pay Teachers (definitely nothing against Teachers Pay Teachers here…lots of blood, sweat, and tears go into the resources teachers decide to share with others on that platform). But let me ask you this. It looks cleaner, but is it better? Does cleaner work mean deeper learning? I’d argue no, at least not always. Sometimes those fancy, typed up worksheets are a crutch for students…do they really need to fill in the blank? Or could they have written the whole sentence all along? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for scaffolds when kids need it. But not all kids need all scaffolds, all the time. That becomes extremely limiting and in fact constraining, inhibiting a student from reaching their full potential. It’s like asking them to stay inside the box, rather than think outside of the box, or rather than telling them there’s really no box at all. Of course, there’s a time and place for fancy and published – if the purpose calls for it, it is needed. But I’m telling you, I’ve noticed some AMAZING student work hung in classrooms and hallways in the school I work that came from a piece of paper and a pencil, and that’s it. (Take a look at some of the pictures! I mean, come on! How good are these?!) Let’s take the artist metaphor and run with it. You wouldn’t give an artist a half started canvas and expect them to come up with a masterpiece, right? Because then it wouldn’t be their masterpiece, entirely. Instead, you give an artist an empty canvas to create a masterpiece.

Sometimes we have to give our students an empty canvas too. I think we’d be surprised at some of the masterpieces they come up with.

Pumpkin Party!

(Yes, I know my front stoop needs work. Just haven’t gotten around to this project in the 2.5 years we’ve lived here.)

We spontaneously painted pumpkins yesterday because I had paint pens lying around and I wanted my usual seasonal pumpkins for above the front door. And while we were painting, it got me all nostalgic for all the ways I’ve used pumpkins in the ten years I’ve been teaching and in the four years I’ve been a mom. You see, celebrating holidays in school doesn’t really exist anymore (for the right reasons, I might add). BUT that hasn’t stopped me from utilizing high-interest, engaging SEASONAL learning tools and pumpkins fit the bill perfectly for fall. I figured I’d share all the pumpkin activities I’ve ever done with my home kids (own kids) and my work kids (school kids), in case pumpkins are your jam too.

*Full disclosure: I never realized I’d be an amateur (ok even that’s stretching it…pseudo? imaginary? in-my-dreams?) blogger so I haven’t taken pictures of these along the way. So I scoured the internet to find pictures that would match the activities I’ve done. Hearty thanks to anyone who comes across this page and realizes I stole their photo.*

The Perfect Sensory and Fine Motor Tool!

Pumpkins are one of the most sensory driving tools you could utilize with your kiddo. Seriously, there are so many opportunities for sensory play using pumpkins. Think pumpkin guts and you’ll get what I’m saying. But with sensory comes lost of fine motor opportunity too, and what I love about pumpkins the most is how EASY and MESS FREE (ok, ok, once you gut the pumpkin obviously there’s a mess) and NO PREP some of these activities are. And remember how important fine motor skills and practice are for toddlers!

  • Rubber band pumpkin gourds: The grooves on those little pumpkin gourds are perfect for stringing rubber bands around them. This helps with finger and hand dexterity, which are an important part of fine motor skills that aid in writing – think pencil control and letter formation.
  • Painting with pumpkins: I’ve seen and done this many ways…first using mini pumpkins as paint brushes (the bruises have a fun time making “pumpkin butts” [the groove at the bottom of a pumpkin leaves an imprint that kind of looks like a butt print if you use it to paint]. I’ve also had my students take pieces of a pumpkin that has been carved and used them like sponge painting shapes.
  • Pumpkin puzzles!: This one’s fun, especially if Halloween is over and you’re looking for a fun way to get rid of the weird shaped pumpkins you’ve passionately gathered on your front stoop. Simply cut each pumpkin in half and spread out. Toddlers have a fun time putting the pumpkins back together again by matching each pumpkin half.
  • Pumpkin cleaning/Pumpkin seed separating: My younger bruise loved this last year. He sat and picked the seeds out of the goo from the top of the pumpkin for a LONG time when we carved pumpkins last year. Not only did it take a lot of persistence, pincer grasp practice (which we were working on in birth to three at the time), but it also exposed him to the major sensory feel of pumpkin guts/slime, which he loved!
  • Pumpkin beading: The adult pushes a bunch of nails into a pumpkin and the child stacks beads on each nail. We have fun making “pumpkin hair” or “porcupine spikes” on our pumpkins. Hand-eye coordination and pincer grasp on point with this one once again.
  • Pumpkin painting (different than painting with pumpkins): A classic, but less mess if you stick to pens instead of actual paint and paintbrushes. Use water based or chalk paint pens if you want the rain to wash it away. Why would you want the rain to wash it away? Well, makes it the craft that keeps on giving! You can keep decorating over and over again if the rain washes it away. If you want it permanent, use acrylic paint pens and a finishing spray so it sets.
  • Pumpkin hammer: Guilty…have never actually done this one, but came across it from a blogger I follow (completemomsense – check her Instagram out) and loved the idea. The bruises would die for this, but also really good for hand eye coordination too!
  • Pumpkin seed sorting and counting: Best to do when they’re still slimy or fresh, but my oldest bruise has some funky sensory *fears* so he was really resistant to do this last year. Once we dried them out he happily counted, sorted, and used them as counters or game pieces whenever he wanted.
  • Pumpkin shape sorter: So many shape sorter toys on the market…who knew you could just make one of your own with a pumpkin! Why not start the conversation about shapes with your kiddos while you have fun popping the matching shape through the hole in the pumpkin? Easy and fun, works on visual-spatial reasoning, and builds some math talk into the activity without even realizing it.

Pumpkins are for math and literacy too!

  • Pumpkin diagram: Awesome way to softly encourage scientific drawing, labeling, and writing. Although the picture has typed labels the student clearly glued on, I’d suggest encouraging your little one to write the words, or tell you the words to write and you write for them, so they make the connection between spoken words and print.
  • Pumpkin sorting: Gets kids noticing the features of a pumpkin, but also encourages language and vocabulary development through the specificity of categories and features. How are the fibers different from the seeds? How is the flesh different from the fibers? Great conversation starters that will get kids using specific describing words to talk through similarities and differences.
  • How to carve a pumpkin: How-to books or recipe writing encourages kids to call on past experiences (things they know how to do or have done before) and write about it in a structure way. By listing steps, and encouraging language like first, next, then, finally, after that (etc.) helps kids develop sequencing vocabulary.
  • Pumpkin math: Measuring circumference, height, and weight starts to build understanding around obvious mathematical concepts, and kids have a blast doing simple stuff like this. Using non-standardized units of measurement (i.e. ribbon instead of measure tape for circumference, linking cubes instead of inch ruler for height) eliminates concepts that are too abstract for toddlers, but lets them still get the measuring part done. It’s a lot easier for a little to understand the pumpkin is 14 blocks tall than 14 inches tall (Inch? What’s an inch?).
  • Pumpkin seeds: One pumpkin yields hundreds of seeds. And dried out pumpkin seeds become the perfect toy or manipulative. They can be counting tools, game pieces, dramatic play toys, crafting tools, sensory bin fillers. The list goes on.

I sprinkled some of my favorite book titles involving pumpkins (careful not to confuse with Halloween!) because, you know, my love of books. Thematic books are always a favorite in our household. And I try my hardest to sprinkle in fall books and pumpkin books this time of year, not just purely Halloween books.

Ultimately I think pumpkins are extremely underrated. So. many. ways. to. use. If you’re a fellow pumpkin lover then I want to hear your ideas too! What other fun and creative ways can I use my pumpkins? Because let’s be real, I purchase way too many every year anyway!

Nardini Family “Vacation”

I’m calling it a vacation but full disclosure, it was just a weekend away.

If you have littles, or maybe you have bigs now but you definitely had littles at some point, I’m sure you’ve been through exactly what I’m about to write. Save yourself some time and keep scrolling?

I’m sheepishly embarrassed to admit that this past weekend was THE FIRST TIME my little nuclear family unit went away – just us. No grandparents or friends or extended family. Luca is 4…is that pathetic? Maybe don’t answer that?

I think part of the reason we haven’t yet is because it’s a lot of work. At least when you have family or friends to travel with or to travel and go see, you’re all in it together and there’s more hands on deck. Since Luca was born we’ve done plenty of trips, don’t get me wrong, just not “just us”. I’ve simply been the type to prefer to save money, avoid the hassle, and just be a homebody.

It was great. We picked a place to explore that we haven’t been before – Ogunquit, Maine. Fall weekend, gorgeous weather. Even got one day of an “Indian Summer”. Great food (mostly), amazing hotel vibe in a pristine location. Couldn’t have asked for anything more, seriously. I’ve got instagram-worthy pics to show for it:

But like, there’s sooo much more that goes on behind the scenes.

First, let’s talk about the drive up on day one. “I want to leave as soon as we all wake up. It’s supposed to be gorgeous weather tomorrow, I don’t want to waste the day driving” I said. Ok, well that would have meant that I actually packed and prepared our family the night before. Instead I woke up at the crack of dawn and ran around scrambling to get us out the door and in the car by 9:30am. Not bad, we’ll be there by 12:30pm. We casually hit our first traffic blip – stop and go on 495. “Oh, my coworker said this highway’s the worst” he said. Great, thanks for the advance notice. Not only did we hit stop and go traffic the rest of the way, but we had to stop for lunch, stop for potty, and then stop for potty again (because a bruise didn’t have to poop when we stopped 20 minutes before). Soo we got there at 2:30pm. At least it wasn’t a waste of an entire day? Salvaged it all by spending the afternoon at the beach and coming back to the hotel for the kids to swim in the pool while the adults got drinks from the pool bar. Perfect.

Next let’s talk about night one. Ordered to-go food from a well-recommended local Mexican place and had fish tacos on the lawn at the hotel (which happens to be a cliff overlooking the entire beach) listening to live music while the kids ran around. Perfect. We get the kids back to the room, and bedtime goes surprisingly very well – everyone goes to sleep like normal and hubs and I head out to the patio attached to our room to have a nightcap and listen to the live music that’s still playing. Perfect. So something’s gotta be not perfect, right? Right. I go to bed around 10pm but get promptly woken up around 11:30pm with raging stomach pains. And by raging I mean unbearable-oh-my-goodness-this-is-more-than-a-hangover. Spent the better part of the next 5 hours in the bathroom, and if I wasn’t actually puking or the other way, you know, then I was sitting there in fetal position unable to move. Fish tacos. Luckily, I lulled myself back to bed and finally fell asleep around 4:30am and was able to snooze until the kids wake up around 6:30am. Still wasn’t feeling great, but light years better than how I was feeling 2 hours earlier.

Now we’ll talk about day two. Thankfully, I was feeling well enough that I wasn’t stuck in bed or miserable trying to explore this fantastic new place. I mustered the energy, courage, and positive mindset to not let the exhaustion from sickness and no sleep ruin my day, and I am grateful. Because we had a day. Walked a mile down the cliff path to another quaint little downtown to get breakfast, hubs took the boys to the toy store while Tessa took a cat nap back at the room, then ventured out in search of sweatshirts for the fam. Then back to the quaint little downtown from breakfast in search of a lobster roll. Found it at a place called Oarweed. I knew it was a calculated risk gambling on seafood again, but it was one I was willing to take. One of the main reasons we wanted to come to Maine. The lobster roll was delish but I definitely paid for it. Judging by fish tacos the night before, and the lobster roll after, I’m guessing it wasn’t just bad luck but I may be onto a new seafood sensitivity? Favorite food. Great. Still rebounded like a champ. Came back to the hotel room and the WHOLE FAMILY took a nap. Luca hasn’t napped in two years. It was glorious! The rest of the day was mostly just bruises being bruises and the bow being a bow. The boys stripped out of their clothes (because, you know, who wears clothes these days anyways?) and paraded around the room naked eating snacks playing hide and seek for a while before we ordered pizza and ice cream for dinner. (All thoughts of dinner out were out the window since I didn’t trust my digestive system.) Remember the instagram-worthy pics from before? Well, these are the reality-worthy pics (and I wish I got more of these because these don’t do it justice):

Night two went off without any climactic hitches (sorry if you were waiting for one). It was too cold to sit out on the porch after the kids went to bed, so it came back to bite us that we were all sharing just one hotel room. Hubs and I basically laid in the dark on our phones so we wouldn’t wake the kids. I was exhausted, so it was fine. We won’t talk about my 9pm snack of cheddar chips and Spindrift seltzer sitting on the bathroom floor (after I cleaned and sanitized it) because it was the only “safe zone” where I could snack in peace without the fear of waking any sleeping child. Other than that, only real thing that happened is, for whatever reason, Tessa sneezed at 4:30am and woke herself up, didn’t go back to sleep, and thus woke everybody else up. I guess there are worse things in the world than an early wake up call. So we made the best of it, caught the sunrise real quick, and hopped in the car to beat the rain home. Home by 10am meant I still had the day to unpack, debrief, and get the house back in order before returning to work tomorrow.

Haha. I guess there really weren’t too many cliche taking-kids-on-a-vacation stories. Maybe those of you who kept scrolling missed out. It was mostly just some mom-moments because I couldn’t steer clear of the seafood and am a functional zombie when operating on no sleep. (But hey, at least I was a happy functional zombie this time around?) And some family-of-five-sharing-a-single-hotel-room stories in which the bruises prefered to be naked most of the time. (But hey, what 4 and 2 year old boys don’t get a kick out of being naked all the time?)

Would I do it again? For sure, 100 percent, without a doubt. The boys. The boys especially. They will be talking about going on vacation to a hotel for years. They will be talking about swimming at the hotel pool for years. They’ll be talking about sleeping in a hotel bed for years. They’ll be talking about picking out toys from the toy store…till we go to the next toy store. Worth it? Worth it!

This one goes out to the…

  • Single moms/dads/caretakers
  • SAHMs/SAHDs with partners who work 24/7
  • Moms or Dads whose partners travel for work all the time
  • Military moms/military dads
  • Anyone else who spends days and nights on their own caring for kids
  • Parents and families who live long distances from other immediate family members and support systems

I put this picture up on my Instagram stories last night as a half-joke because my husband’s been on a (one night, one point five day) golf trip this weekend. And I captioned it “Dad’s away for a golf weekend we’re fine I swear.”

In reality, he will have been gone for a total of about 28 hours. Kind of pathetic for me to complain. But whenever he goes away it feels like an eternity. So behind this half-joke picture is a mom whose anxiety is through-the-roof high.

…whose spending the entire time watching the clock and coaching the seconds to tick by just a little faster…

…whose setting the tiniest goals for her own sanity (just make it to nap time, just make it to bedtime)…

…whose engaging in the great mental debate of whether or not to spend the 45 minutes getting the kids ready to leave the house and get out for a bit vs. staying home to avoid all aspects of the real world so no one has to see my single-parenting…

…whose sleeping with all lights inside and outside the house on and the TV on, and actually not really sleeping at all because of the fear of being alone in the house overnight with the kids…

…whose chewing off all of her cuticles and putting bandaids on bloody fingers because it’s the epitome of the manifestation of her anxiety…

Literally my world stops and time stands still because of how much anxiety I have doing this on my own. I am SO grateful that most of the time I get to do this life with my best friend, the greatest dad, and the handiest helper. So I suppose it’s SUPER selfish of me to throw a tantrum when he asks to get away for a little bit, or when he works late nights and has meetings leaving me to handle dinner and bedtime on my own.

I’m not quite sure my whole point in all of this but I think there are a few. First, behind every happy photo or what looks like a put-together mom could be something entirely different. I try not to judge or compare; I know we are all doing our best. And second, I think it’s important to normalize NOT being ok all the time, admitting when you need help (usually I’m the first to call in grandparent reinforcements, it just so happened that this weekend all grandparents were busy!), or letting go of things that aren’t going your way.

And, lastly, I try my best to put mind over matter and keep the most positive outlook, to enjoy the QT with my QTs, to not be afraid of leaving the house because I know it’s better to be out and about playing and interacting with others rather than hiding in my own safe-haven of a home going stir crazy and allowing myself to dwell in my anxiety. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it goes poorly. But the thing is, it ALWAYS goes. I try and find peace in that.

Bottom line, SO. MUCH. RESPECT. for the people who do this all the dang time. And if that’s you, I hear you and I see you and I feel you. You are a freaking superhero!

It’s Rhyme Time

Ever wonder why every baby and toddler song under the sun rhymes? Or why there is a whole genre of music called nursery rhymes? It’s not JUST because they are catchy and fun (or annoying…). Believe it or not, hearing and making rhymes is part of a set of foundational language skills that form the building blocks for conventional reading later in life (google phonological awareness for more info).

Kids typically begin to understand and experiment with rhyming around age 3 or 4. And once they can rhyme, it opens the door for experimenting with words and language in other ways, including manipulating sounds and words. Here’s how you can ensure your kid is loving all the rhymes in life just as much as you do:

  • PICTURES, not words. Rhyming is an aural skill, especially at first. Talk rhymes all you want. DON’T write rhymes…actually write rhymes all you want if that’s your jam…just not for your toddler to see. Writing words or even writing words under pictures are one of the biggest mistakes I see adults make when teaching kids to rhyme. Letters and words strung together don’t have meaning to toddlers, and you don’t want to confuse them. Remember, rhyming is an aural skill.
  • Sing. Sing all the darn nursery rhymes in the book. Make up your own songs and nursery rhymes and sing them. Sing them until you and your kid know every darn word. Sing your favorite pop culture songs together, especially ones that rhyme. The more aural exposure, the better.
  • Use “sounds like” instead of “rhymes with” when teaching rhyme. Say, “Cat sounds like bat!”. Don’t say “Cat rhymes with bat!” You can say “Cat rhymes with bat!” ONCE you’ve spent lots of time and practice with “sounds like” and you’ve introduced and taught the vocabulary word ‘rhyme’.
  • Give kids the chance to hear rhymes before you ask them to produce them. Initially, it can be really hard for kids to produce a word that rhymes with cat. It’s much easier, and more appropriate to have them differentiate between words that do sound the same and words that don’t. Instead of, “Tell me a word that rhymes with cat!”, say, “Which two words sound the same? Cat, bat, truck.” Or, “Does cat sound like pup? [no] Does cat sound like bat? [yes]” Think of it this way: multiple choice is an easier question than open-response. Start with multiple choice.
  • Make sure you have plenty of books with rhyming patterns in your home libraries. Read. Read them as much as you can. Kids are engaged when something sounds interesting to them, and the rhythmic sound of books that carry a rhyme are like music to a child’s ear.
  • Play games that involve rhyme. Especially matching games. Letting kids manipulate picture cards (matching, memory, etc.) and pair together picture cards that rhyme builds in a kinesthetic piece, which, we know already, helps secure schema as they form in kids’ brains.
  • When you hear it, acknowledge it and name it. Pointing out when your kid says something that rhymes or sounds the same, and drawing attention to it, not only defines what it is in context, but it teaches them how to notice subtleties in language and words. In the education world, this is loosely referred to as cuing and/or reinforcement. We draw kids’ attention to the things we want them to notice, the things we want them to pay attention to, the things we want them to keep doing. We do this in parenting too…think: “Oh my gosh look at how well Luca is cleaning up his toys by putting them back in the bin!” [trying to get Dominic to clean up] or “Wow, Dominic, look! You ate all your carrots! That was a great, healthy choice!” [trying to teach the importance of eating healthy] or “Nice job using your words to ask for that toy” [you get it, right?].

You can thank me later for helping you see the glass half full next time you have “Did you ever see a sheep in a jeep?” or “The Ants Go Marching” stuck in your head. Instead of banging your head against the wall (been there!), find your baby and see how many verses you can come up with together. It’s silly and fun and linguistically helpful to embrace the rhyme!

The Saga of Family Photos

What it takes to (semi?) coordinate a 4 year old, 2 year old, 8 month old, and a skeptical husband…

I’ve been itching to do family photos for a while now. The last time we did them (which honestly wasn’t that long ago) was Tessa’s newborn photos. But I feel like those are a little different than normal family photos because Tessa was still a blob, and we were a barely-functional new family of 5. We didn’t have the time or energy to put much into them, so we snapped a few and called it a day. I tried a little harder this time around, but let me tell you, it is still no easy feat to get this family through a 1 hour session of family photos.

Jen Morrissey, ladies and gents! She’s awesome, and a really great friend!

I have to start planting the seed with my husband MONTHS in advance. He can be SUCH a grump, so I have to grease the wheels wayyy ahead of time. And originally, I planned a sunset shoot for today (Sunday). Once I had organized it with my photographer (who doubles as my real life friend – what a treat!), I had to text her and say, “OMG Mike will murder me if I make him do family photos in the middle of football Sunday”. So we switched it to a sunrise shoot. He wasn’t too happy about that either but, hey, at least it wasn’t during football.

As it crept closer, I had to start priming him (yes, still referring to the husband). Priming him usually includes trading him a round of golf for a pleasant demeanor DURING the shoot. We’ve spent plenty of family photo shoots bickering aimlessly as we try to get non-smiley kids to smile. It just so happens that yesterday my brother in law asked him to join him in Asbury Park for a golf weekend next weekend. THAT was my ticket in! “Sure babe you can go golfing next weekend IF you promise to be a good sport for pictures tomorrow!”

Now that I had the husband hooked, it was time to focus on the kids. Remember the photographer, my friend, Jen? Listen to this brilliance she sent me last night (and I quote): “Tell the boys and Tessa about Wendy. She’s my friend who lives in my camera, and she whispers to me when she’s so happy with what she sees. And she tells me to tell you when they’ve done an amazing job and should get treats. And if they look hard enough with big enough smiles into the camera they may see her bouncing around. But most of the time she’s shy so she just gives out treats.” Seriously?! GENIUS!!

I exacerbated the Wendy story and decided to tell the kids that Wendy was, in fact, Santa’s special camera helper AND that she’s friends with Elfie (our Elf on the Shelf). So not only would Wendy be magically bringing treats if the bruises smiled hard enough, but she would report back to both Santa and Elfie and their Christmas would depend on it. Too mean of me? NAHHH.

Click any of the photos in this post to be taken to her website.

The other thing I told them to hopefully gain their cooperation was that we were going to a farm to take photos. This hooked Dominic, but what I didn’t tell him was that it was NOT an animal farm. Because every farm in his eyes has animals. I knew I only had a certain amount of time once we got there before he realized there were no animals so I was banking on the Wendy thing to come through.

So now we’re at the shoot, and the first thing we realize is Tessa pooped on the drive there. But her outfit is too complicated to try and change her in the middle of a field, so ehh we’ll just manage the shoot with a stinky poop in her diaper no biggie. (And I forgot to mention that, of course, on the day of family photos she wakes up with a booger eye all red and swollen and crusty…great!)

And we’re pulling out alllll the Wendy stops. Luca is so curious about Wendy, he keeps walking as close to the camera as possible to see if he can get a glimpse of Wendy, and is posing like a cute little boy left and right. I quickly realize 4 years old is the PERFECT age for photos.

Tessa is pretty cooperative too. All she needs is Mommy in her foresight and she’s all smiles…booger eye and all.

Meanwhile Dominic is over it after the first 3 snaps. Here comes whiney, vocal-fry Dom just asking when Wendy was going to bring treats. He’s not only over it, he’s legit ignoring it. We get the whole family into position and he’s purposely turning the other way, picking his nose, or putting his hands over his eyes.

CT-based photographer but also just stellar human.

So in comes the 3/5ths rule. 3/5ths rule means we can NEVER wait till all 5 of us are photo ready, because it will NEVER happen. Instead, wait until 3/5ths of us are ready and do the best we can. And actually, today, I’d say we hit 4/5ths the majority of the time so I’d call that a win. This is also the reason we can’t just rely on posed photos all of the time. By the end, we just told the boys to run around in the field while Jen snapped photos because the more movement for them, the happier they’d be, and the less annoyed with the camera they’d be.

And it wasn’t until the end that Dominic finally said, “But Mommy this is NOT a farm!” To which I responded. “Aw man, I’m sorry you didn’t like the farm I picked out this time. I’ll pick a better one next time.” And you know what? That response miraculously did not cause a meltdown, he simply shrugged it off and said, “Ok Mommy!”

Mid-shoot, Wendy magically dropped off airheads and rock candy, and one little taste and the boys knew exactly what to do. Luca’s so smart, he would take one picture, ask for a piece of a treat, then take another, ask for another treat (to which we obliged) and so on. He definitely got the most out of Wendy’s treats, and by 9am the bruises were so hopped up on sugar they were running in circles.

Yup, all of this before 9am. And then off to bagels, comfy clothes, and a relaxing football Sunday at home.

Plus, she sent some unedited sneak peaks (in this post!) a few hours later…and they made it all very worth it. I can not wait to see the rest!! ❤