Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Peek in Our Playroom: Some of Our Favorite Chanukah Things

We are not yet focusing on Chanukah as a learning and play theme specifically here, but rather than do a massive playroom overhaul in a week or so when we do begin exploring this holiday more in depth, I favor adding/swapping out toys and learning materials a little bit at a time. I have written before on my love of toy rotation and moderation in setting up a play space, and these are methods I stick with in general throughout the year. Slowly we've taken down and packed up our Autumn and Thanksgiving themed artwork, decorations and learning materials. Just as gradually I am adding in some of our Chanukah-themed materials and in the days and week to come, I will also phase in our Winter-themed activities (which I will focus on in a later post).
When I am putting things away from one year and thinking ahead to the future, I save what I think we may use again and photograph and recycle/toss what we cannot use in the future. I admittedly have a hard time parting with artwork my little guy has created and may or may not have WAY too many paper plate turkeys to count for next year, but bit by bit I do downsize--and by moving on with the old, we can make room for the new. In order to also be more environmentally sound and financially responsible in our play and learning endeavors, I also try to make and purchase activities and materials that we can use and grow with. Here are some of our favorite Chanukah things as we set up our playroom for this season:
 Check out our I-Spy Chanukah Sensory Bin! We [re]used one of our favorite sensory bin fillers, rainbow rice as our base. Little hands can search for and explore a variety of Chanukah themed objects inside. Little ones love "real" materials, so whenever possible I add actual artifacts to our play and learning activities rather than models or toy versions. I find that contrary to my intuition that such things would be mishandled and broken, even very young children learn through exposure to "special things" and "grown up" materials to treat such objects with gentle care. That said, play and accidents happen, so don't toss in your finest antique menorah or that special set of beeswax Chanukah candles you've been saving for this year. Here's what I did toss in for exploration:

  • dreidels
  • Chanukah "gelt" (plastic coins that can be inexpensively purchased at a party supply store or Dollar Tree)
  • latkes (cut from yellow craft foam)
  • toy donuts from our play kitchen
  • toy frying pans and spatulas 
  • 9 Chanukah candles (enough to fill a Chanukah menorah)
  • a tin Chanukah menorah
For older children, you can provide a key with objects to search for and hide them ahead of playtime beneath the rice. Add an element of math to the fun by also making this a counting game and hide a certain number of each object.

For some more fun with math and numbers, here's our 5 Little Latkes set! 
We love counting games and action rhymes. Here's a favorite action rhyme of ours. You can use one hand as a "frying pan" and with your other hand use your fingers for the "latkes." Alternatively you can easily set up this play set using a toy pan and spatula (we found ours at Dollar Tree a few years ago) and handmade latkes. I used yellow craft foam and a brown permanent marker to draw a corresponding number of dots on one side and the appropriate numeral on the back [not pictured].

Five Little Latkes

Five little latkes sizzling in the pan [hold one hand open and place five fingers from your other hand over top]
The pan got hot and one went "BAM!" [clap hands loudly]
Four little latkes... (repeat down to zero)
No more latkes sizzling in the pan
The pan got hot and it went "BAM" [clap hands loudly]

Dreidel games are an integral and traditional part of celebrating Chanukah. Played by the standard rules, the game teaches a variety of skills--counting, recognition of "half," subtraction and addition, as well as the social skills of taking turns and accepting wins and losses. Spinning a dreidel involves a whole skill set in and of itself and many little hands still have a hard time with this one. I always provide a variety of dreidels in different sizes and materials to explore and manipulate. Until fine motor skills are more developed, actually spinning a dreidel can be quite challenging and for some, frustrating. Rather than overly focus on it, I provide plenty of play opportunities to use them in less traditional ways and also join in with little ones to spin and play together.
There are beautiful sets for purchase like the one pictured to the left. You can also make your own game set using a dreidel and toy gelt (like what I used for our sensory bin) or actual coins. The gelt also need not be actual coins--you could play for marbles, pompoms, popsicle sticks or other small items. (Just make sure they do not pose a choking hazard to younger players.)
This Doodle Dreidel can be easily prepared at home and offers an easier option for little hands that still struggle with spinning traditional dreidels--not to mention the colorful results! Just use a permanent marker to write the appropriate Hebrew letters on an old CD (please ignore that a very tired version of me two years ago totally put the letters in the wrong order here!) and add a washable marker through the center. I always tape paper to the bottom of a recycled box (boot boxes are a great size) to minimize flying objects that could simultaneously poke an eye out AND color on the walls.

In addition to providing opportunities to handle actual Chanukah menorahs (and I supervise with more fragile models), we made this play menorah last year for my son and we STILL love it. I used cardboard, patterned duct tape, clothespins (my son painted those!) and hot glued on some pom-pom flames. Practicing with pinching and releasing clothespins is a great fine motor activity and this toy can also be used to practice setting up and "lighting" a menorah correctly and counting each of the eight nights of Chanukah.

Revisiting those "real" materials and mathematical concepts, you can set up this fun pattern recognition activity using Chanukah candles to teach about A-B patterns. More advanced children can determine their A-color and B-color and set up their pattern accordingly. You can also create your own color coded prompt cards to assist those newer to pattern recognition or throw in a third element (like a C-color or an A-A-B pattern) to those who are further along with this skill. When I was growing up, half the fun of lighting our menorahs each night of Chanukah was selecting candle colors and patterns each night. (The other half of the fun was scraping off the dried up wax the next day!)

This laminated interactive poster is something I put together last year from recycled art, cardstock and velcro. My then young toddler was still just scooting his way around the house on his tushy (we are a family of late walkers here) and loved sitting by the giant menorah and pulling off/replacing Chanukah candles. This year he can run around the house like a meshuganeh (thank G-d) and also appreciate more of the one-to-one correspondence and numeral recognition skills he is developing as he counts from one to eight! You can make your own poster or a similar activity using felt and a flannel board.

Thanks for peeking into our playroom! Join us tomorrow for a blast from the past post on setting up a Chanukah themed play-space for infants and younger toddlers...
Until then, happy playing!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Beyond the Book: "Are You My Mother?" Extension Activities

 With Thanksgiving and our family vacation behind us and some weeks ahead before Chanukah starts, we needed a theme we could slow down and get cozy with before the excitement of the winter season takes over. This seemed like a wonderful time to explore the theme of families, especially our own family! This is a topic that in preschool classrooms often gets meshed into other units and sometimes overlooked altogether. At home, it can seem redundant to talk about family--isn't it already implied? But the people that we greet and love each day are so special and such an integral part to who we are and who we become. We belong to a fabulous Mommy & Me playgroup through our synagogue that is doing a family theme this session. Rather than focusing on the family unit as a whole, the group's creator focused each of the six meetings in the session on a different family member. I thought this was such a special and cute way to address each person's important role in the family. I also see the value in viewing the strength of security of each unique family unit as a whole, so here we are doing a bit of both.
"Mommy, Tatty and ME!"

One of my son's very favorite books is P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother?, which you can surely find at your local library or purchase. It was one of my favorite childhood books as well, so it is quite nostalgic to share it with my son now. We read this as an introduction to our family theme with a focus on mothers. Afterward, my little one created his own "family nest" with a bird for each member of our family. I based our craft after the one posted on this site, which also has some great story-related snacks to include in your own extension activities if you wish!
I provided my little bird with:

  • half a white paper plate
  • a brown do-a-dot marker
  • pre-cut strips of recycled brown paper bag (older ones can cut/tear their own and you could also use brown construction paper)
  • pre-cut cardstock "birds," one for each member of our family--he got to choose who got each color
  • google eyes for each bird
  • a feather for each bird--again, I let him choose the colors
  • cardstock beaks (fold in half and cut a triangle for an open beak)
  • school glue in a recycled plastic cup with a paintbrush 
He had so much fun deciding which bird would represent which member of our family and, of course, using plenty of glue! 

Here are some more ideas to travel beyond the book with Are You My Mother? through play and learning activities:

Dramatic Play:

Make your own nest! Set your little bird up with his/her very own nest to play in. Using an empty laundry basket, encourage your little one to gather materials like shredded newspaper/junk mail or (for less mess) blankets and cushions to build a nest. This a great a cozy place to play, to sit on some pretend eggs (you can even add in some old plastic easter eggs with homemade birds*) or stuffed toys) or to curl up with your favorite books about families, animals or birds!

DIY/Arts & Crafts:
*Chances are you have some old plastic eggs lying around somewhere. Those colorful springtime discount store finds make great shakers, matching games, dramatic play toys for your little chef, and now, home to some handcrafted little chicks. Using large pom-poms, feathers, google eyes and cardstock in colors of your choice along with some glue, you can create your own little chicks to put inside plastic eggs and to use in play. For best results, use tacky glue or a low temp hot glue gun (with supervision and adult assistance).

Sensory Play:

Use shredded paper, feathers, and add some toy birds (you can make your own as seen above) for a bird/nest themed sensory bin. You can also use bird seed for sensory play and add animals and things related to the story, like demonstrated in this great article.

Feed the birds! Help a mother bird and all birds out this time of year and make your own birdseed treats to hang outside. You can bring along a set of binoculars (or even make your own with recycled toilet paper tubes taped/stapled together) and observe feathered friends around your neighborhood.
We used pine cones, peanut butter and birdseed to create these fun little birdfeeders.

Who's My Mother? Animal Match-It

You can find a great printable set of free mother and baby animal cards here and play a game of animal mother and baby match-it. You can also talk about which animal babies hatch from eggs and which are born live. 

Reading and playing together are wonderful ways to share time as a family. Wishing you all happy playing and plenty of cozy snuggles with old and new favorite books!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Exploring Shapes & Colors Through Play

We're back from our Thanksgiving weekend family vacation and ready for more school! With a few days left of this month before both the Jewish month of Kislev and the month of December begin, we're focusing this week on the themes of families, kosher foods, and on some catch up from things we didn't quite get to yet over the last few weeks. In addition to the Jewish and secular themes I plan for us, I also try to incorporate learning about letters in Hebrew and English, shapes, colors, and numbers. A lot of this learning can be done through the lens of topics we're already exploring and a lot more happens through exposure and play.
Teaching about shapes and colors can be daunting when we focus on what we feel a preschooler "should" know. Awareness of shapes and colors happens for different children at different times. It is something that they are inherently exposed to in their environment whether we teach it intentionally or not. My strong feeling is that fostering a love of learning and exploring as well as confidence in this process is more important than being able to rattle off names of shapes and colors as well as letters and numbers by a certain age. For children who do love worksheets and classic/traditional activities, these are fabulous! For those who are more reluctant, a measure of creativity and playfulness is due. Using shape and color names to describe every day items and experiences is a great way to incorporate this concept (not to mention a great way to distract from other challenges at meal/snack times or when getting dressed). Color or shape scavenger hunts can make an every day visit to the park or grocery store a little more fun. Even very little ones can be exposed to colors and shapes by using discovery baskets prepared with toys/materials infants can manipulate and explore all in one color or all in one shape. Toy aisles are stocked with puzzles, sorters and manipulatives that encourage development of shape and color awareness. Library and bookstore shelves are loaded with great books on these topics and early readers often love these as they can "read" the words based on recognition of familiar colors and shapes.  Here's a peek at some of the ways we learn and play about shapes and colors here:

I've pointed out in previous posts how we make use of all of our somewhat limited space here. This is an invitation to create set up on our deep freezer with Magnetile triangles. The same activity can be done with any type of magnetic shapes on a refrigerator, magnetic door, cookie sheet or using felt shapes on a felt board. For a great process art activity, use scrap paper to cut out a particular shape and create a collage. Older children can practice cutting skills and even tracing a stencil to prepare. Want to mix it up again? Using a variety of shapes, create an invitation to create shape creatures!

We love our journals here! While some schools of thought might shy away from teaching both colors and shapes at the same time, I mainly aim to teach my toddler through continued and varied exposure. Each month I give a journal prompt with one color and one shape. I provide coloring materials in that color (often in a variety of shades and mediums) and stickers or pre-cut foam/paper in that shape and color to glue on. I particularly like adding an element to glue or stick on so my little one can manipulate the shape in a more 3-dimensional form to get tactile recognition as well as visual. Blocks, magnets and puzzle pieces also provide this opportunity.

 Cookie cutters with playdough or paint, rubber stamps and ink and sponges cut in different shapes with paint are also great ways to play with, explore and manipulate shapes while simultaneously introducing colors. Older children can also manipulate hole punches in different shapes and practice with stencils and tracing.

You can also play and prepare some fun games right at home to encourage shape and color recognition. Here are a couple of our favorites:

Color Scavenger Hunt
You will need:

  • a box, container or bag in your color of choice (I'll use blue as an example). If you don't have one, you can use a brown paper bag and color/paint it ahead of time.
  • a magnifying glass (optional but fun!)
  • household items and/or toys either already set in "hiding places" or in their usual spots for your junior detective to scout out
Let your junior detective know you are going on a Blue Hunt today. You need to find as many blue things to fill up your blue box/bucket/bag. You may want to have a few blue items already set out to demonstrate and perhaps even a few that are NOT blue to give an example of an incorrect response. Have fun walking around the house to search for things that are blue--you might be surprised at your little one's keen eye! For an added element of fun, put on some playful music and encourage your little one(s) to find as many things in blue as they can before the music stops.

Shape Monster, Shape Monster

Shape Monster, Shape Monster
Munch, Munch, Munch
Feed me a ______ [shape name] for my lunch!

We love this rhyme/game! To play, you will need a "Shape Monster" puppet and a collection of shapes to feed it. You can either use a puppet you already have as your Shape Monster or you can have fun making one from a brown paper bag, a sock or felt. To prepare your own set of durable shapes for feeding your hungry Shape Monster, you can laminate a set cut from construction paper, or use craft foam, felt or even just use blocks/toys. For a fine motor element, you can create a DIY toy using a recycled baby wipes container and have your little one(s) feed the desired shape through the top slot!

Have fun and happy playing!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Thanksgiving Theme Wrap-up

We interrupt our usual Mad Science Monday series to bring you one last portion of Thanksgiving-themed fun here before we take off on our family vacation. We are busy celebrating here today. We tend to extend the Thanksgiving season as much as we can in either direction. We actually had our "official" turkey dinner yesterday and today we are celebrating my husband's birthday and the many wonderful attributes he brings to our family that we are truly thankful for! My little one is just at the age that he is kind of grasping this birthday thing--a little more than he did even at his own birthday back in July! Although, when I told him "today is Tatty's birthday" and asked how old he thought his Tatty is, his response was "He's two!" For sure he is referring to the youthful sense of fun and wonder my husband exudes! In addition to some Thanksgiving themed fun around here, we are busy baking, decorating and preparing for a fun family celebration this evening. We may very well still toss in this great science experiment after his nap, though! Here's a peek at some of the other activities we have been doing to learn about and celebrate Thanksgiving. Wishing you all a happy Thanksgiving holiday filled with fun, family time and lots of playing!

We learned about the letter T today. We stamped some letter Ts
onto this turkey and added some Thanksgiving-themed
stickers as well.
 Whenever introducing a new alphabet letter, I sing this little song to the tune of "I Have a Little Dreidel:"

I have a special letter
I wonder what it is
I have a special letter
And it sounds just like this [make letter sound, i.e.: "t-t-t-t"]

Oh [sing letter name, i.e.: "T, T, T"]
It makes a sound like this: [make letter sound](x2)

Then we list some common words beginning with our special letter, many times including props/visuals.
 We both had a lot of fun with this playdough invitation to create a turkey. We used our stash of homemade playdough along with some pipecleaner legs, feathers, cardstock beaks and wattles, google eyes and foam hearts for decorating. Many of these materials will be reintroduced later in an invitation to create a turkey collage that we will try out for our Table Time activity tomorrow.

We also had a great time making and decorating this cute paper plate turkey hat/craft. They are perfect toppers for toddler sized heads or the center of your Thanksgiving table!

Happy Thanksgiving & Happy Playing!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Thanksgiving Theme: A Second Helping

Welcome back to our Thanksgiving themed smorgasbord! As I mentioned before, we do not celebrate Thanksgiving quite in the typical way, but we do have family traditions around it that we look forward to each year. I feel strongly that meaningful celebrations and connections are the most important ingredient on the Thanksgiving menu! One thing we look forward to each year is our family getaway to a favorite location in central, VA. We love countdowns here and this year to count down the days until our upcoming trip, I used a collection of postcards and photographs from our Thanksgiving trip over the past few years. My son is so excited each morning to turn over another picture as we get closer and closer to traveling day! And there is a lot to learn, play about and do together while we wait...

Thankfulness is such a key concept to this holiday. While Thanksgiving pushes thoughts and feelings of gratitude to the forefront of our minds once each year, Judaism teaches us daily to feel and express gratitude. We begin each and every morning with a declaration of gratitude to G-d for restoring our soul into our bodies for yet another day. The Modeh Ani is one of the first prayers children learn to say. We also make special blessings over different types of foods before eating. Thereby, we are reminded throughout the day--even in the most menial and physical of routines like waking up and eating--that we have all that we need and we need all that we have, thank G-d. Our Thanksgiving unit seemed like an extra special time to learn and play a bit more about the special blessings over foods. As he gets more and more verbal, my son loves to say his own brachos and will even remind me to do so with him if I forget! He loved this sorting activity this morning:
I brought a basket of toy foods and props from his dramatic play area over to the rug in a basket. I was given this set of posters as a gift when I left a teaching job before I was married. The school was cleaning out its Jewish books and materials closet and someone thought I might have a use for them in the future. I remember kind of chuckling to myself because I didn't know if I'd go back to teaching after I was married or not and wondered to myself what I would possibly need them for if not. Nonetheless, they made the move from New York to Virginia and have gotten a lot of use both in my classrooms and home ever since! One at a time, he selected an item from the basket and we decided together (or sometimes he did so independently) which poster to place it on. Beginners to learning brachos over foods would do best to be introduced only two or three different food groups at a time. I was actually quite amazed at how well my son did with this activity and that he actually wanted to keep playing after we had completed the game!

 Thanksgiving is also a great time to explore the concept of table manners, trying new foods and even practical life skills like setting the table and folding napkins. Writing skills can come into play if you involve children in making place cards for guests or family members. You can use pictures of traditional Thanksgiving foods cut from magazines or newspaper grocery adds to glue onto paper plates to play your own game of "Yes, please, No thank you!" Kids can definitely be included in creating this activity and older ones can practice cutting skills as well. 
There are oh so many cute and adorable Thanksgiving arts and crafts projects out there. I try to balance craft projects with process art opportunities and some fun with mixing Autumn colors and painting seemed like a great way to include some more process art into the menu.

We love painting on bubble wrap! It's a fun sensation with a paintbrush and, of course, with hands as well. The prints come out beautifully when you press paper over the top. We will use the dried prints later on to make this adorable "I is for Indian Corn" alphabet craft.

After covering the bubble wrap with gorgeous shades of red, orange, yellow and brown, my little artist still wanted to paint some more on paper. I offered some paper and some "turkey" feathers to use as a paintbrush. He LOVED "tickling" the paper with the paint-dipped feathers.

And in between all of the games and arts and crafts, we're still making time for snuggling up and reading. PJ Library is a wonderful organization that provides free books for Jewish children and families nationwide. I was so excited to be a part of this great program in my own community that I actually attempted signing up my firstborn while I was at the hospital and in labor. Long story short, I needed to know the gender, name and birth date of my child and none of those were yet confirmed at the time! So I signed up as soon as we were home from the hospital. Our first book arrived right around the time he was 6 months old and we've looked forward to the wonderful gift of building up our Jewish family library each and every month since. 

He were are almost two years ago with that very first book, Todah by Kyra Teis. Todah is the Hebrew word for "thank you," and the beautifully illustrated story takes the reader page by page through the many things a little baby might feel thankful for throughout the day. I started putting the sweet, lyrical poem to music back then and we would sing our way through the book again and again. Today he was so excited to find it inside his school bag since we had not read it together for quite a while. He chimed in with "todah" each time my finger pointed to the word. 

Holidays here are all about creating new family traditions together and revisiting and nurturing old ones. Whether you're building a menu for next week or just building with blocks, know that the times we spend in connection together are by and far the most meaningful and memorable ones our children will have. Happy connecting, happy creating and happy playing!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Think Outside the Box: Un-planning and Unwinding

Yoga Time with the Toddler!
We are a family who thrives on routines and when routines change, we strive to find a new normal as quickly as possible! Big and little things can change family routines--holidays, work schedules, season/time changes, traveling, visitors--you name it! These all present wonderful opportunity to teach flexibility and adaptability. Change, however, can also feel unsettling or challenging--particularly to sensitive little ones.
Whenever I have taught outside the home and something is different or suddenly changes, I encourage my students to look for and find the things that are the same. Who are the people that help us that are the same? (This is particularly useful if/when a familiar face is not around or a teacher is absent.) What are the things in the room that are the same that bring us comfort? What are the parts of the day that did not and do not change? I have a particular passion for teaching children flexibility perhaps because I, myself, often struggle with rigidity. I love to know what to expect. I love to plan. I love routine and structure and some might call me a creature of habit. Still, surprises can be fun. So can spontaneity. "Mixing it up a bit" in a safe, secure environment can add just the right spice to life! My husband brings a perfect balance of these qualities to our home and as I see my own son thrive in the routine and the expected (and sometimes grapple with the opposite), I am invited to support him as well as he grows toward flexibility (and so do I)!
Becoming a play-at-home mom this year was a new opportunity to build meaningful routines. My husband's work schedule along with his lengthy commute each day set the pace and the tone. When I started staying home, my son quickly appreciated the additional Mommy time and also began to crave more Tatty (Yiddish: father) time as well. We adjusted evenings to really include a good dose of quality father and son time. They enjoyed walks and building towers and reading, playing and bonding together. We also did things as a family and continued family dinners, but evenings and bedtime routines became very centered around the two of them. This was also a nice respite for me, having been "on" all day at home, and perhaps a nice change of pace for my husband as well, having been in an office all day.
Recently my husband was blessed with the opportunity to begin a teaching job a couple of nights a week in addition to his day job. It is a wonderful opportunity for our family to work toward our goals and plans for the future and we both made some adjustments at home (as well as to his previous work schedule) to ensure as smooth a transition as possible. He has eliminated his commute on the days he works nights as well and works locally instead. This allows him to still have his quality time with our son on those days (and me to have a little break as well). But now, those evenings were Mommy & Me time and even though I totally had this daytime thing down, a few more hours in the evening seemed to stretch endlessly. I found I had no idea what to do with that time other than turn to screens. So I consulted the experts: my husband, my fellow mommies, and Pinterest. And what I found we needed most was not more planning and more activity, but rather, some UNPLANNED time to UNWIND.
Adjusting to our new routine is a work in progress and we always invite the opportunity to go back to the drawing board as necessary. But if you, too, are finding yourself with some hours to fill in your day or evening and aren't quite sure how to fill them, here are some things that are working for us:

Our local library has some great children's
Yoga DVDs. Pinterest has links to great
websites for child-friendly Yoga and
exercise routines as does YouTube. Sometimes
we make up our own as well!
Tonight my son asked to do Yoga. He loves choosing
what color mat to use, watching me light a favorite
scented candle and is now also growing into
performing the poses he sees on the DVDs we use or
by watching me.

    Here's an example of a family Activity Bucket List
    I created for a workshop on surviving the summer
    without school!
  • The You-Pick Method: I am such a planner by nature that it never occurred to me to ask my son what he wanted to do with this time together. Several fellow home-preschooling mommies suggested this one, so I tried it. And what do you know? It worked like a charm! Asking my little one what he wants to do with our special time was an empowering experience for us both. He is a bit young yet to ask it in a completely open-ended manner (though I imagine this will be less intimidating as he gets a few more Mommy and Me nights under his belt). I offer a few suggestions and he chooses what we do. I include activities he enjoys that we don't necessarily get to during the day like cooking/baking, Yoga, arts and crafts projects and (YES) movie nights. Larger families can utilize a voting process with predetermined activities or a rotation of who gets to choose. Kids can be involved in creating a family Bucket List--even using an actual bucket with activities written on individual papers inside--of choices for unplanned family time like this. 
This is my U-Pick-a-Project Basket! We do a lot of arts and crafts as part of our preschool experience. I also keep a basket stocked with ready to make projects for open-ended evenings, rainy days, or other unplanned times together. Sometimes I stock up on cute little kits or seasonal projects from the dollar store or discount aisle of the craft store. Other times I save materials from old projects in a ziplock bag. The idea of the U-Pick-a-Project Basket is to have things ready to go that require little to no additional prep. It's not necessarily an invitation for process art (although you could create a basket more conducive to that as well, and rather than including kits and crafts, include materials, small parts and trinkets that can be used for art and creation), It's also a great travel accessory if the projects are not too messy and material-intensive. I plan to bring our Thanksgiving themed collection along on our upcoming family vacation for some festive fun in our spare time.

  • About Those Screens: We don't have a television, but we do allow for select videos and shows. While this is not the only thing we do in the evenings or with down time, it is one thing we do. Sometimes that just means snuggling on the couch to a favorite show on Netflix or DVD (I got some awesome Sesame Street snuggles tonight thanks to a DVD my son found at the library). We've also done themed movie/activity nights. We checked out the movie Cars recently after my son got a pair of Lightening McQueen slippers and was curious about it. I wasn't so sure this would be his type of film, but I popped him the bathtub (with some toy cars to splash around with), and got him in his favorite truck pajamas. Next, I helped him carry his bin of toy cars and trucks to the rug and even brought a car riding toy downstairs for him to sit/ride around on in his very own drive-in theater. We popped in the movie and the feature film captivated his undivided attention for about 15 minutes before he mostly had a blast just playing with the movie on in the background!

  • PLAY! My son took the lead with this one. He loves to play and even though we are home together, our days are often busy and filled with activities in and out of the house that are more structured. Having a time and space in the day for unhindered play at his discretion is vital. He has toys and books and a whole world of ideas that, when I am lucky, he invites me into! And when we have unplanned unwinding time, I don't feel the ticking of the clock to get dinner ready or be at our next engagement. There's nothing between this moment and bedtime to stop me from getting down with him and joining his game of traffic jam or making a pretend smoothie in his kitchen set or helping him draw a picture of a "big triangle" in his journal because he wants to color it green! 

Some fun baking together--but you don't even have to turn on the oven and get out all of the ingredients in your cupboard! We have just as much fun washing and preparing vegetables, making smoothies or practicing cutting, peeling and grating. And who says it has to be edible? You could whip up a favorite playdough or sensory play recipe instead.

  • And once you've joined their world for a bit, invite them into yours! So putting away laundry, washing dishes and making Shabbos dinner might sound like chores to you and me, but even the most daunting tasks are more tolerable fun when shared with the ones you love. My little guy probably wouldn't go for a whole evening of household chores, but he is totally eager to help out (and sometimes hinder a bit) with activities in the kitchen and around the home. Plus, there is such a benefit to including even very young children in age appropriate chores. My little one loves cooking and baking with me (even if he almost never tastes what we make in the end) and he's just as eager to help me transfer laundry, put things away and clean/wash/scrub ANYTHING. I include these activities in our time together so that we can spend time together, rather than me being absent and unavailable to him while I get the housework done. 
We are all adjusting to our new routine and, while I was a bit unsettled in how to plan for these extra hours just the two of us, now I am savoring the gift that is being UNPLANNED in those hours. As much time as I do spend with my little guy during the day and as much as we both love and learn through themed play and home preschooling, I feel very much that these less structured times are the ones where I really get to know the little boy my husband and I are raising. It may not be a specifically Thanksgiving related activity, but it has me feeling thankful nonetheless this time of year and all year through.

And the best way to unwind at the end of a full day? Unplanned snuggles!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Thanksgiving Theme: Some Of Our Favorite Things

These fun little craft stick puppets make a festive addition to
one of our favorite Thanksgiving themed fingerplays,
 "Five Little Turkeys" (printed below)
We do not have a "traditional" Thanksgiving in our home since we already have a Thanksgiving-sized meal every Friday night for Shabbos, but both my husband and I have fond childhood memories of Thanksgiving traditions and have created our own family traditions around the holiday. My husband's birthday is also very close to Thanksgiving and he is a huge fan of the all-American turkey dinner, so we usually have one over a weekend prior to or after Thanksgiving. We also take an annual family getaway over Thanksgiving weekend. While I remember vividly the stories I learned in school about the history of Thanksgiving and the many adorable projects and crafts centered around that, I take issue with teaching misinformation to my own little one and rather focus on some of the kinder aspects of this celebration. Gratitude is something that I feel must be taught and modeled from a young age. I also feel that it is a gift that keeps on giving. Feeling genuine gratitude is by and far one of the key factors that I feel leads to a positive outlook throughout life and an overall sense of resiliency. The ability to tap into feelings of satisfaction with what we already have within and around us is the very best tool to mitigate feelings of anxiety, depression and hopelessness. This, of course, encompasses teaching little ones manners and how to say "please" and "thank-you," but it goes deeper as well. There is a great article here on teaching gratitude to children in age-appropriate ways. In addition to modeling and teaching these concepts this time of year and all year round, Thanksgiving is also an opportunity for us to make cute turkey crafts, sing fun songs and action rhymes and learn through play about the many fun traditions that bring us such nostalgia for our own childhoods this time of year. Here's a peek at a few of our favorites:
We up-cycled some of our old artwork and
a brown paper shopping bag along with some
construction paper scraps to make our family
Thankfulness Turkey. Everyone is in on the
fun of adding feathers to our friend!

When I was still in high school, I volunteered in a preschool summer camp where every Friday morning, the director sang a song about thankfulness with the students. She invited each student to share one thing they were thankful for and incorporated it into the song. Fast forward about 15 years and I adapted the song into my own classroom along with this Thankfulness Jar that the children could write/dictate their thankful feelings on in the morning before stuffing our jar with gratitude. I initially did the activity around Thanksgiving, but it was such a hit that I began to do it every week on Friday mornings and often saved the beautiful sentiments the children had to send home collectively at the end of the school year. My son loves the act of folding up a paper turkey feather for our Thankfulness Turkey and stuffing it in the jar so much that he asked to write more thankfulness notes just to be able to do it again! So at two years old he may not fully have grasped the depth of gratitude that we would eventually aim for (one of his messages was how thankful he feels for the thankfulness jar!) but practice makes perfect and I'm glad he wants to practice. You can sing along, too:
We Are Thankful/Todah Raba
t.t.t.o.: Are You Sleeping

We are thankful, we are thankful
For our friends, for our friends
We are thankful we are thankful
For our friends, for our friends

[and in Hebrew]
Todah Raba, Todah Raba
L'chaverim, L'chaverim
Todah Raba, Todah Raba
L'chaverim, L'chaverim

After we sing the two verses (and I also incorporate sign language for the words "thank you" and "friends" into the song) you can invite your little one(s) one to share thing they feel thankful for and sing about that!

Check out this website for more on this action rhyme
and other fun Thanksgiving activities

This is an activity I prepared last year that survived classroom and toddler use well into this year! For little ones, it's a great way to practice those fine motor skills. My toddler is also at the point where we can make a matching game out of calling a color name and even older kids can enjoy practicing patterns as well.

We are having a lot of fun playing and learning about some of the themes around the Thanksgiving holiday. Stay tuned for more in the days to come and, as always, happy playing!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Mad Science Monday: 'Sploding Pumpkin Patch

We love any and all science experiments that explode here, so when I saw this great simple science experiment over at Lemon Lime Adventures, I knew we had to try this one out for our next Mad Science Monday. We are transitioning our Autumn theme into a Thanksgiving theme over the next week and a half, and we already had a couple of mini-pumpkins on our nature shelf just waiting for their next big gig.  This is a great toddler-friendly activity that they can really get their hands on. The fun outlasted the bubbles as we continued trying to slurp back up the sudsy baking soda and vinegar mix into the squeeze bottles and squirt it out again. And while they are mastering the scientific concepts of basic chemical reactions along with the fine motor skills and coordination of squeezing and squirting condiment bottles, little scientists are also building and developing descriptive vocabulary. Here's how you can set up your own 'Sploding Pumpkin Patch for some Mad Science fizzy fun any day of the week:

You Will Need:

  • a basin or baking dish to work in--you could also set this up in a sensory table if you prefer
  • mini pumpkins! We had two, but you can use more!
  • empty condiment bottles or squeeze bottles
  • white vinegar
  • baking soda
  • dish soap
  • green food color

To Set Up Your Experiment:
Squirt several little blobs of dish soap across your basin/pan, spacing them out by several inches. I had about 4-5 little blobs in the bottom of my basin. Add one or two drops of green food coloring to each blob of dish soap. I sprinkled baking soda generously across the top and placed the pumpkins on top of that. I filled two squeeze bottles half way with white vinegar and then it was time to play, experiment and observe!

He had so much fun slowly squirting the vinegar in the beginning and watching the first bubbles appear. Then he had fun squeezing a bit harder and squirting faster! Once the bottles were empty, we experimented with squeezing them and slurping up the soapy, sudsy liquid from the bottom of the basin and squeezing it out again. It was a lot of bubbly fun! 

Want to do more? We love self-cleaning science here, and any time I use baking soda and vinegar with my little one, I always remind him of their other uses in the kitchen and around the home. If your junior scientist(s) want some more fun after the experiment is done, invite them to help in the clean-up process. Empty out the contents of the basin and rinse it well. Then replace the pumpkins along with a bit of warm water (soapy if you'd like) and a sponge or towel for pumpkin washing!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Little Learning (More) About Letters in Hebrew and English

My son LOVES this book, one of the very
first board books he ever got. It introduces
each Hebrew letter with a picture and Hebrew
word along with it. 
 Along with our themes in play and homeschool learning, I try to incorporate early recognition of letters in both English and Hebrew. The intention is not that my two year old is able to recognize every letter and beginning sound (though he is already able to do so with many in both languages) or even that he begin reading or writing at this point. The intention is to introduce them through play and exposure in a way that is enjoyable and encouraging.

Teaching the Hebrew alphabet, or alephbet is something I am passionate about as I did not learn it myself until I was already in my twenties and teaching it to preschoolers! The "old" method of teaching the alephbet in America involved teaching the letter with the associated sound and a Hebrew word. Nowadays many favor teaching the letters with their associated sound and an English word since most children do not speak Hebrew fluently in their home. (Think letter dalet for dagim [Hebrew: fish] or dreidel versus dog or donut.) In classrooms I generally focus my teaching on the newer style, incorporating only commonly familiar Hebrew words to a letter. At home, we do both and introduce English words beginning with the sound of the Hebrew letter as well as Hebrew ones to build vocabulary.
We started building our alephbet train when our son was still teeny tiny! It hangs now (still yet to be finished) above our dining room table. He loves looking at it and reciting the letters as he eats! Now that he is older he will take a hands-on involvement in helping to create our remaining train cars.

 In English, I follow a specific order of introducing letters recommended by speech pathologists and early reading specialists. This method is intended to be most supportive to young children as they develop early verbal and literacy skills. In Hebrew, I introduce letters in alphabetical order. I do not have a set routine of how I introduce letters in either language. Sometimes we do a craft or project. Sometimes I incorporate it into sensory play or use manipulatives like magnets, foam letter shapes, puzzles, etc. The most important thing to me is that my son (or students) find it enjoyable and are exposed to letters more and more rather than that they memorize them or demonstrate proficiency. Children do learn their letters, beginning sounds, rhyming awareness and penmanship all in due time. Sometimes one or multiple areas excel while one takes more time to develop or "click." Generally speaking, however, it does happen--and in cases where additional support is needed, there are a lot of great resources out there.
Learning the letter "H" and about some of the aspects
that make a Jewish home so special: welcoming guests and
the mezuzah on the door!

Using a variety of manipulatives like these letter rocks or magnets, stickers, stamps, puzzles and more can appeal to letter, word and name recognition while simultaneously developing fine motor skills and tactile awareness both necessary to develop future writing skills!

Worksheets and coloring sheets also have their place. We use them with crayons and markers and other art materials and sometimes we use them with dry erase markers or even playdough in a laminated pouch like this one so we can re-use them again and again!

Rather than formally introducing the letter "R," which we had learned a bit about over the summer, I incorporated it through review into our Noah's Ark theme as we learned about the rainbow

I am admittedly a recovering reluctant reader. My own mother has a master's degree in teaching reading and child literacy! Yet I was not the kid who loved to read. I think I finally developed my own love of literacy and reading in high school. What I did love throughout childhood and into adulthood was writing. My mother provided ample opportunities to practice that in journals and notebooks, even on the computer. What I didn't know was that I was learning to love reading through my writing. Exposure and opportunity were everything! Fostering a lifelong love of literacy takes both of these factors--anything else is icing on the cake. Happy reading, writing and most importantly, playing!