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I love it when I have a gift idea for kids that is delightful for the recipient, is practical and not too messy/big/annoying/noisy for the parent, has any educational or STEAM value going for it, and brings me joy to give. Bonus points if it is at a reasonable price point! I was able to check all of those boxes last week when we were invited to a casual joint birthday party for two sweet preschoolers. My daughter and I put together a festive little craft kit for each of the two birthday kids, and soon after we left the party, the moms both sent happy snapshots of their kids putting their new crafting materials to use! It was a hit with the moms and kids: HOORAY!!
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I was meeting with some moms one night and couldn’t help but gush over the book I had just started, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen. These were the same authors who had penned my recent parenting favorite, Siblings Without Rivalry, so I knew they would have practical, doable, and effective parenting strategies. I had only read one chapter, but there was already so much to digest I had to put the book down to give myself a chance to process and practice it before moving on.
“Ok, so what’s ONE thing you got from it so far?” asked the mom to my right.
“Hmm… well, my biggest personal takeaway so far has been empathy. Mostly because I’m so bad at it. But even saying something as simple as, ‘You’re very upset that your brother isn’t sharing well. That’s frustrating!’ can go a long way in helping her process her emotions and move forward, without much or any further intervention from me,” I replied.
This wasn’t the first time the authors had emphasized the importance of empathy. The first book I read from them also had a lot to say about this, which I shared about last week, but clearly I needed to hear it again.
“But that was just one of the four strategies they presented in the first chapter! I was a little skeptical when reading some of the other ones at first–some sounded pretty bizarre–but as I finished looking through the examples I realized it did make sense and probably would help them feel better. I just would never ever have thought of it myself,” I continued.
“Like what?” she asked.
“Hm… like, giving kids what they want… in fantasy,” I said. I waited for the weirdness of this statement to sink in.
It was in November that I started to go crazy. Our school district gives the kids an entire week off for Thanksgiving, so I got to spend all day every day with both kids. This hadn’t happened since summertime, and back then, my two year old was still young enough to be content with parallel play, or basically playing by himself. My four year old was not yet stressed out with the complications of adjusting to a big class in a big school, and everything felt easier. But sometime in the three months between, they both grew up a little.
My son now wanted to play with everything his big sister had. My daughter was frustrated with this immature boy who didn’t know how to take turns or share properly. Thanksgiving break found me exasperated and frustrated as I endured the endless bickering between the siblings:
“Mommmmyyy!! He won’t give me my toy back!”
“Mommmmmyyy! He threw my creation!!!”
“I’M NOT PLAYING WITH YOU!!!”
“MOMMMYYYY!! He HIT ME!!!!”
It was an endless stream of fighting, bickering, and tattling.
A few weeks ago, I had a craving for apple cider donuts. I did a quick search, skimmed through a few recipes, and decided to go with the ones from Sally’s Baking Addiction. That was a very good decision, because I not only discovered a fantastic recipe for cider donuts, but found one of my new favorite baking resources. Seriously, if you enjoy baking, her website is a treasure trove of mouthwatering recipes!
I made them once, and devoured them. They were delicious. I made them again, doubling the batch and sharing with friends. But I think I experimented too much with the spices this time, and was disappointed that the apple flavor of the apple cider didn’t come through as strongly. So I made them again yesterday for a family gathering. This time, I played it safe with the spices (no pumpkin spice or cloves heh) and I found a way to pack in even more apple flavor!
You see, the key to this recipe is to take regular apple cider and reduce it (i.e. boil it down) so you get a lot more apple cider-y flavor in the 1/2 cup that remains. If you just used 1/2 cup of regular apple cider in the recipe, there would barely be any apple cidery flavor in your donut. But if you start with the 1 1/2 cups of apple cider that her recipe calls for, and boil it down and let the water evaporate until you’re left with 1/2 cup of liquid, then it will have a much more concentrated apple cider flavor. And if you take it one step further and start with 3 cups of apple cider and reduce it to 1/2 cup, you will have an even MORE powerful apple cider flavor.
So that’s what I did. I made the apple cider part more cidery, I did a simpler version of the “apple pie spice” (didn’t want to buy cardamom), and now I can’t stop eating apple cider donuts. At least they’re baked, right? Speaking of which, you’ll need a donut pan (affiliate link) to make these.
These need to be enjoyed FRESH and with HOT COFFEE. That’s what I had this morning and it was pure bliss, and I am determined to give others the opportunity to recreate this delightful moment for themselves.
Apple Cider Donuts
Adapted from Sally’s Baking Addiction
Makes 12-15 donuts
My friend also said she has made these with a muffin tin and it still tasted good!
Sometimes, it’s hard to know how to teach your kids about Jesus in a natural, authentic way. There are those rare moments when they ask a deep question out of the blue, or when life presents a lovely “teachable moment” and we manage to have the presence of mind to run with it. But sometimes we miss those moments. Or maybe those moments come when we’re not really in the best frame of mind. In our family, we try to have a regular weekly time to intentionally share about God with our kids, but it can be hard to do it without sounding like a broken record or a parrot.
For the last couple of weeks, my son has been repeating the phrase “God made everything.” It has come up every couple of days, and while I was pleased to hear it at first, I just feel like there is so much more for him to ponder than that. It felt like a classic “Sunday school” line, and I was never able to steer our conversations much deeper than listing things God made, or trying to talk about how well, I mean, God made the people who made the cars…
We were on a long drive yesterday and I had the urge to share more about Jesus with the kids. We’ve been dealing with some challenges lately, and as much as I want to take matters into my own hands, I know in my heart that there is no amount of love or good intentions that can fix this situation, or all the bigger ones to come. Something in me desperately wanted to let Jesus back into the equation, not just in my own heart, but for all of us.
So we were going to talk about Jesus. And God. Where would I even begin? I had to think for a bit. We’ve gone over the story of Jesus’ birth a lot lately (after all, ’tis the season!), but I wanted to connect the baby Jesus to something real and present. I didn’t have my favorite kid’s Bible on me, and we had already listened to these Bible songs so many times that the lyrics were easy to tune out.
Maybe I would teach about the things he said when he grew up? Or talk more about God’s grace? I could try to share a story of how God had worked in my own life, but… all of the stories that were coming to mind were stories I wasn’t ready to tell just yet. I tried to think of what some of our children’s devotionals have talked about, but nothing felt right. I was craving some real, authentic conversation–not just one-way instruction. And then I remembered something.
A while back, one of my wise friends shared a simple and wonderful idea. I think we were discussing ways to intentionally teach about and worship God together during family devotions, and she talked about how she and her husband would teach a praise song to their two young boys. These were songs we might normally sing during a Sunday church service. As they explained to their kids what the lyrics meant, it presented a natural opportunity to share more about God, what we know from the Bible, and our goals as his followers.
So I picked out a familiar favorite from my youth, and cheerily pitched my idea, “Hey there’s a song about God I really liked from when I was younger. Can I teach it to you?”
“Sure,” they said.
“Ok. It goes like this, My Jesus, my Savior–do you know why we call him our savior?” I asked.
“Because he saved us from our sins so we could be with him forever!” replied my daughter.
The girl knows her Sunday school answers. Which is good, I guess… but I felt even more urgency to have authentic, real conversations about God!
“Yes, that’s why we call him that. Okay, so My Jesus, my Savior, Lord there is none like you,” I continued.
“Mama, what does lord mean?” she asked.
“Yord,” my three year old piped up.
I’m glad he was listening.
And we went from there. We were able to talk about what praise meant, other ways to praise God, how God can comfort us, what a shelter is, what a tower is, whether or not the bad guys attacked the tower with guns or swords and did they break the glass and did it get everywhere? And do people REALLY have guns? Like, in the REAL WORLD? And Mama, why do policemen carry guns?! …But Mama, there aren’t REAL bad guys in the world, right?
Well, there are. But God gave you Mommy and Daddy and your teachers and family to take care of you and you don’t need to worry about that. BUT ALSO that’s why it is good to know that God is your comfort, shelter, and tower of refuge and strength. Even when bad things happen–and they will–you know that in the end, after all things, God is bigger than all of that. And He has already won and you can be sure that no matter what happens down here, you will be able to spend forever with Him.
And that was just from the first two verses.
I was so happy to share one of my favorite songs with them, and even more delighted to dig into who God is and what that can mean in their lives. We are also going to ask a police officer why they have guns next time, because apparently none of my answers satisfied her.
On the way home today, she asked me to keep teaching her the song, and it turns out she had already memorized several lines. It was sweet to sing and discuss with her.
Memorizing Bible verses is great, but there is something about music and song that can really stick in a different way. I’m happy to remember that there are already so many great songs set to Bible verses, and so many truths written into the songs that we sing every week.
If you are looking for ways to share about God with your kids, try this out! You might be the one starting the discussion, but kids are so inquisitive. When they realize this is something you’re happy to dig into and talk about, chances are they will be happy to let their inquiries loose and really wonder and think about who God is. I hope you have some real, authentic, and meaningful conversations in your future!
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Sometimes, I just need my child to stay busy for a bit. Maybe I’m on the phone with the doctor, or maybe it’s Amazon Prime Day and I’m eyeing that fancy magnetic toy (that never goes on sale but is coming up in 3 minutes and 28 seconds…!). If your child is anything like my son, that means he doesn’t like it when you go in the office to get anything done, and when you really need those 5-10 quiet minutes, that’s when he suddenly wants to explore your mouse and touch your monitors and drive you batty.
I used to be able to appease him with a TV show. But sometimes, even that doesn’t work! I never thought I’d hear myself say, “Can you just watch some TV??” but that was me a couple months ago before I came across a new solution that has worked pretty well so far. It usually doesn’t buy me more than 20-30 minutes at a time, but when I really need to concentrate or avoid interruption for ten minutes, then it’s good enough.
Basically, I reserve one of his really cool, very engaging toys and only take it out during these high-need situations. He’ll ask to play with it at other times, but I don’t let him. I save it for when I really need it. Then, when I need to answer that phone call, I can just pull the toy out and he’s delighted he gets to play with it and stays occupied for a pretty long time because he knows once it’s gone, it will be a while before he sees it again.
So here’s what I did. For his birthday, we got him a bunch of small construction vehicles to decorate his birthday brownie with:
The next day, I poured some kinetic sand onto a large tray (I love the plastic ones from IKEA), added in the mini construction vehicles, and let him play for a good, long time. He loved it. We had a couple more days of that before I realized that this was a toy he could sit down with for a decent stretch. And that’s when I tucked it away to save for “emergencies.” Now, when I need to steal a few concentrated minutes to myself, I pull it out, dump it all on the tray, and let him have at it. He loves it! I will probably need to come up with a new toy soon, but for now it has been a nice option to have in my back pocket when I don’t want to resort to screen time.
This same idea works for traveling, going to restaurants, etc. I have a box of books and portable toys that work well for when I need them to be quiet for a bit outside of the house. I bring these along for weddings, church service (when the kids are joining), or long family dinners. I don’t take them out at any other time, so it’s always a treat when they get to play with it.
Some of my enduring favorites include I Spy books, which are really nice for sharing with other kids. They can all crowd around and look for objects together, even if no one can read yet. I realized how universally engaging these books were when our school librarian would spread out about ten books at the end of each school year for all 33 students to share. Since school was almost out, she wouldn’t let them check out any more books, but they still needed something to do for the thirty minutes of library time, and these books were always a hit. They would group together and start looking for objects and time always went by quickly during these times. Who knew? Even my three year old enjoys the simpler ones, like this one.
We also love this pack of 100 Things for Little Children to Do on a Journey from Usborne:
Each card is double-sided and has various prompts and activities to do, from mazes to doodling to puzzles and quizzes. It helps (but isn’t totally necessary) if your child can read, and they should be able to use a drawing/writing utensil. I always pack an extra dry-erase pen so any other interested children nearby can borrow a few cards and join in on the fun. One other tip is to train your kid to erase their drawing/writing before moving onto the next card. We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this set!
While we’re on the topic, here are some more ideas (and suggested ages) that have worked well. Most of them a quiet, and all of them fit nicely in a backpack, which make them perfect for travel:
Babies to Toddlers:
Again, these toys aren’t usually available for them to play with at home, so when I take them out for these rare occasions, it’s always a treat and it keeps the kids engaged longer than it would if it were one of their everyday toys.
How about you? What are some of your favorite go-to activities to bring out for high-need situations at home, or portable activities to take on the go? With the holiday travel season approaching, I’m sure we could all use more ideas!
I’m writing about this because I haven’t taught this to my son yet and lately, he has really picked up on his verbal skills. This also means he has been interrupting me a lot while I’m talking to other adults. Time to change that.
I first came across this idea in a mom blog. Maybe this one? I can’t remember where I read it first, but I decided to try it when my daughter was much younger, and it has worked with great success! She knows not to interrupt when I’m talking with someone else, and will quietly signal a need to talk, wait patiently, and know that I will give her my full attention soon.
So here’s what it can actually look like if you’ve got your child trained to do this. A few months ago (when I started this post), we were at the playground after school, chatting with another mom:
“So do your kids do wishlists or anything for Christmas?” I asked.
“No… they have enough toys, and I don’t think they know how to ask for things yet,” she replied.
“That’s true! I also thought we had more than enough toys–and we do, we really do–but his teacher started talking about these must have toys to buy for Christmas,” I started, watching my daughter swing on the monkey bars, “But then–“
“MOMMY!” my daughter shouted, scampering towards us. I gave her a look and keep talking.
“–But then,” I repeated, “after the teacher started going on and on about how great it was for imaginary play…”
My daughter quietly walked up to me and grabbed my hand. Without missing a beat, I put my other hand over hers and gave her a gentle squeeze, while still talking, “I started looking them up on Amazon… and now there’s all this stuff in my cart!”
“Oh, like what?” my friend asked, looking at me with interest.
“A cash register… a big cardboard house they can color and play in… a marble run, flashlights, walkie talkie,” I say, then turn to my daughter, “Thanks for waiting. What do you need?”
“Mommy, can I play over by the tree?” she asks, pointing off to the distance.
And she was off.
She didn’t do a rushing jittery dance or look at me with pleading hurry up! eyes. There was no tugging of my arm or exasperated sighs (all tactics 5 year old JoEllen was very familiar with). Just a patient little thing, knowing I would soon give her a moment with my full attention.
It’s possible! I’ll have to train the younger one intentionally, as I did his big sister, but it’s possible! If you have kids interrupting your conversations, try walking them through these steps and rehearsing it ahead of time:
Your child could put their hand on your shoulder or knee or whatever makes sense for their height or age. If you can practice a few times before you actually need it again, you’ll be surprised how well they can execute when reminded in real life!
P.S. Of all the toys, the marble run was by far the best investment. And I probably won’t buy the cardboard house again. It was a cute gingerbread house, but took up too much space, and the kids are more happy right now with a floppy makeshift cardboard house from big boxes anyway. The cash register is still in the cart.
Earlier this month, we threw my daughter an epic unicorn birthday party! I love having an excuse to get super creative, and my little girly girl has brought out a pastel, sparkly side of me I never knew I had until I became her mommy. It was super fun trying to brainstorm fun, yummy, pretty things for her! I had started planning it months ahead of time, and the week leading up to it was definitely crunch time. I prepped or completed some food item every day until the big day, and of all the things I made, this might have been my very favorite. I called them Magical Unicorn Horns:
It’s a yummy s’mores snack mix served in rainbow-decorated cone treat bags! These are EXTRA special because I think I might have come up with something ORIGINAL to contribute to the beautiful unicorn world of Pinterest!!! That’s a pretty big blogger accomplishment! At first, I was just looking for an excuse to use those colorful pastel marshmallows since they looked pretty. I was searching along the “Unicorn Poop” theme, but nothing really stood out to me as something pretty and yummy-looking. I guess it doesn’t help that I don’t actually like these fruit-flavored marshmallows.
Then I gave up on making “unicorn poop” and decided to just make some yummy snack mix with marshmallows and Chex in it. I mean, you can’t really go wrong mixing marshmallows and Chex, right? So I searched and searched for the perfect looking recipe, and eventually threw together my own combination of s’moresy snacks inspired by this snack mix recipe that I found:
They were a hit! Not only did they look great in the “horns” that I displayed them in, but the kids could not stop snacking on them all throughout the party. In addition to the unicorn horn display, I had set out an open bowl of the same snack mix with little snack cups for easier access. Even with a unicorn cake, chocolate-dipped marshmallow wands, banana cream pie and Pirate’s Booty on the table, they kept coming back for more of the s’mores snack mix.
So back to the pre-party prep: I was trying to think of a fun way to serve these up. Pretty cups? Bags? Ooh, maybe cone-shaped bags turned upside down to look like horns?? I ordered these cone-shaped bags, decided to experiment with some washi tape, and came up with this:
Once we got the Chex mix in, it was just a matter of getting them to stand up straight like horns. I tried righting them in muffin tins, but the sides weren’t high enough and they kept tilting. Then I remembered these cupcake wrappers I’d picked up at Home Goods a while back. They are sturdy little cups you can put baked cupcakes into after they’re all done and baked–kind of like wrapping paper for cupcakes (not to be confused with cupcake liners).
Mine were a simple yellow color, but there are some really cute ones online! Once I twisted the bags closed and pulled the cellophane back, they were very easy to put into the cupcake wrappers and stood up straight the way I wanted. Hooray!
At the party, the magical unicorn horns made for a lovely display and take-home snack, and the extra bowl of the same s’mores snack mix was the most popular snack by far. Later that week, I made some of the same snack mix for the parents in my son’s co-op (minus the marshmallows) and people came back for seconds and emptied the bowl in no time. It’s pretty addictive! So whether or not you’ve got a unicorn theme going on, this snack mix is sure to be a favorite at any event you go to. Who doesn’t like a mix of crunchy, salty, and cinnamony s’more sweetness to snack on? It’s easy and it’s yummy, give it a try!
My daughter had only recently graduated from stick figures to drawings with some real weight on them, so when she presented me with this exquisite drawing of Elmer the Elephant, I knew it was something special. It was one of the most detailed and complete drawings she had ever made of an animal! Little did I know that in a few weeks, a magical elf would transform this drawing and bring it to life!
Isn’t this amazing?! When she opened her eyes and discovered that her special drawing was transformed into a real, squishy, squeezable friend to have and to hold, she hardly had words. Her shining eyes said everything, and I knew it would be one of the most treasured and special stuffed animals she’d ever have!
The “magical elf” is actually a company named Budsies, and they are amazing! They can take ANY artwork and turn it into a REAL PLUSHIE!! I first heard about them when my friend Kristen sent me this adorable photo of her niece holding a cute drawing of a smiling rainbow with a crown and wings in one hand, and a GIANT adorable plushie version of her drawing in the other. My heart skipped a beat. Wait… a drawing… turned into a real-life, huggable creation?! NO WAY. That was too good to be true! Kristen shared, “My sister and I gifted it to her for Christmas and she’s slept with it every night since she got it :)” I don’t blame her, it was the most adorable rainbow I have ever seen!
My daughter started writing stories recently. I worked with her individually to teach her to read, but I’ve more or less left her on her own for writing. She likes to go to the paper shelf, grab the first sheet of paper she could find, and then start: Onc upon a time…
I love her stories. I love that she even likes to write, and I love gushing over them. But I have to admit, I get kind of annoyed when I find loose sheets of construction paper scattered all over the house. The construction paper is arranged in the order of the rainbow, and she has systematically worked her way down the colors and now we don’t have any red, orange, or yellow paper left. Also, she’s been into gel pens lately, but since I bought a cheap set from Costco, you can hardly even make out the glittery words, especially when she uses her favorite shimmery gold pen on a yellow sheet of paper. They’re not very pigmented, so even when she uses it on pink or blue, it barely shows up!
Here is an example of her glitter pen + construction paper combination. Her little brother was sad that there were no new episodes of his favorite TV show, Stinky and Dirty, so she took it upon herself to ask them to make more. SO PRECIOUS. But man it was hard to read! It took a few tries but at the right angle with the right light, I was able to capture this gem before mailing it off:
To: Stinky and Dirty, Dear Stinky and Dirty, My brother would love if you made my brother a new Stinky and Dirty [episode].
Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you
I realized she was going to keep writing. But I needed her to use white computer paper. And I wanted it all in one place.
Not only did I want her to have a place to collect her stories, but she struggled to write in a straight line and she would often have to draw her pictures on the back of the sheet. Which is fine. But all of this could be solved with a simple sheet of lined paper made for preschool and kindergarten sized letters! I went online to quickly purchase a notebook for preschoolers, but at nearly $10, I figured I could just print up some pages myself! But when I searched for templates, I came across a few obstacles. For example, I would have to pay for the download. Or I had to create an account before I could download it. Or it didn’t have the space for a picture, or it didn’t have a line at the top for a title. Too many lines. Too few. Why doesn’t anyone just offer a simple FREE sheet of dotted lined paper for big letters and space for a picture? C’mon Internet you should have been on this years ago.
Okay maybe there is a lot available and I’m just really
picky specific. Well, I’m going to tell myself that maybe you are picky in exactly the same way as me and now I am providing the perfect solution for us. You’re welcome.
So I remembered I am part of the Internet so I decided to add this to the www mix. Here ya go. Story templates for preschoolers, for those in kindergarten and first grade… paper for grown-ups who want to make cute stories for their kids :). Just print up 50 of them, punch holes, and put them into a folder with fasteners, like this one:
Before long, your little writer will be drawing pictures of pumpkins and writing sweet thank you notes to family members (okay it was once, but I’m so glad the precious note is saved in this makeshift notebook!!).
Dear Daddy, I am so thankful that you always go to work. Love (daughter). Dear (brother), I love how whenever I ask for something you always give it to me. Love (sister). *heart* *star* *smiley face*
And here is the four year old dropping some informational writing, y’all!!
Yes, I am a proud mama 😀 Though I’m not sure about that pumpkin cider…