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January 30, 2022

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Playing 7 Wonders for Family Game Night (which is… every night, now!). This photo was taken when the kids were 5 and 7 years old.

The Short Version: There are so many super fun games to play, and they’re really good for your kids, too! I’ve made a detailed list (roughly in order of increasing ability/age) of our favorites below!

I recently sent out our family newsletter, where every single one of us mentioned our newfound enjoyment of playing family board games. Shortly after, friends started asking for recommendations, usually in the form of something like, “Can you recommend something for us? I’m so tired of playing _________!” (<– usually rhymes with Dandyland). I would try to get a quick idea of what their children were able to do: Can they identify numbers? Count dots on a die? Read? Do simple addition? Then I’d sort through the catalog of games in my mind and try to recommend a few. This is one of my new pandemic skills: recommending fun board games for kids in various stages of learning and development. Yay.

In the last two years, our kids have made the leap from playing “kid games parents try to avoid” (you know the ones…) to “kid games parents actually enjoy” (like Monopoly Deal and Sleeping Queens) to our current situation: “Grown-up games our kids can now play!” Hallelujah! This past month, we have been consuming a steady diet of 7 Wonders, Carcassonne, Splendor, and Ticket to Ride Europe every night after dinner, and are working our way through the various expansions these games offer.

I’ll be honest, I never thought I’d be the kind of parent to have shelves and shelves of bookcases stuffed with dozens of board games. I had seen photos on buy/sell groups of impossible numbers of board games crammed into every square inch of various cabinets and shelves before. How on earth can one family own so many games and actually play them all? I wondered. But now those are our shelves, and let me tell you: the benefits of those games are hands down worth the eyesore-ness of them!

Preschoolers can learn about grids and coordinates with Race to the Treasure.

Benefits of playing games with kids

There’s nothing like finding the right game for a particular stage of your child’s development. Candyland helped with colors, Uno helped with colors and number fluency, while Blink helped with colors, shapes, and subitization (fancy word for recognizing “how many” without counting, like how you’d instantly recognize there are 4 dots on a dice without needing to count each individual dot). Sneaky Snacky Squirrel gently introduced our young kids to dealing with disappointment and loss (very important life skills!), and Race to the Treasure was a great way to teach kids about grids and coordinates. All of them were more fun than doing worksheets or workbooks, and gave our very young kids an engaging way to learn important concepts that was hands-on and screen-free.

At one point, it occurred to me that I could spend hundreds sending my kids to math tutoring programs, or we could just practice adding numbers by playing Sushi Go a few times. The latter cost <$7 for several rounds of adding, didn’t require me to drive them anywhere, and was a fun way for me to spend time together with them, too! Once I considered how inexpensive that was for so much math fun, our stockpile of games began to multiply.

The learning goes way beyond math. There is so much planning, strategy, visual-spatial reasoning, logic, and social and emotional development that takes place when playing certain games. There are also some really enjoyable word-based games, such as Bananagrams. You can imagine how delighted I was this week when the kids worked together to create a Bananagram crossword while I cooked dinner. Maybe they’re not all legitimate words (…paringer?), but they were working together, playing with words, discussing meanings, and very, very proud of themselves. While. I. Cooked. Dinner. I can’t promise that will happen for you, but if it does, you owe me a comment on this post so it can make my day, too! =D

Ben popped in near the end and contributed some of the Q-words, but the rest was all them! They didn’t play the game according to the official instructions (don’t think my youngest is quite ready for that on his own, yet), but still had fun!

That is ultimately my goal with this post: For you to try some of these games, have fun with the kids, and enjoy seeing your kids learn and have fun without you, too. Maybe it’ll even buy you a couple hours of sleeping-in time on a Saturday morning, and we all know how priceless that is! (Carcassonne is a great one for this: easy set up, games last for a pretty long time, and I didn’t hear any arguing last Saturday morning when they played!). My hope is that you will find games that can bring the family together to have actual fun for everyone–both kids and parents! For that reason, I’ve created a list of games we love, below.

Notes on The List

I divided the games into three major categories: “Must Have,” “Nice to Have,” and “Still Made the Cut.” Even though my kids have outgrown some of the games in the “Must Have” section, they are games that I still highly recommend for parents of younger kids! Within each major section, I put the games roughly in order according to age/ability, starting from the simplest games. In an effort to narrow things down even more, I added an asterisk for my own personal favorites, or the games our family reaches for all the time. I also noted if a game was particularly good for travel, which includes most of the card-based games and the ones that pack very small.

Next, I tried to boil the information down to three parts:

  1. Very approximate age recommendations: You know your child best! But at age 4, my son was able to play several games that were for kids 8+, so you could be missing out on a lot if you simply rely on the ages listed by the game makers. If it turns out your pre-k child is not ready for it yet, no worries! Just hang onto it and try again in a year or two! When they’re ready for it, it’ll be fun!
    playing this game too (even if a child wasn’t asking them to)!
  2. General comments/thoughts.
  3. Skills/strategies supported: This can help you figure out if the game is appropriate for your child, or would support skills your are hoping your child can build fluency in (i.e. Skip-Bo is a fun way to practice remembering numbers in sequence).

As ALWAYS, I would really love to hear from you! There are a ton of games out there, and I know this list only scratches the surface. Do you guys play any of the games on this list? Did any of them catch your eye? Which ones did I miss? Please share in the comments below!


MUST HAVE
If we were to have another child, I would purchase these games again if we didn’t have them already. These are also my go-to games to buy for gifts for other children.

Sequence for Kids
Fun for preschoolers
Kids can work on animal recognition, game strategy skills and thinking ahead even if they can’t read yet.
Skills/strategies supported: Animal recognition, matching, counting 1-4.

Sneaky Snacky Squirrel
Fun for preschoolers
A simple game where kids spin the wheel and try to fill their trunk with one acorn of each color. Setbacks include getting an acorn stolen, losing a turn, or having all your acorns “blown away” by the wind.
Skills/strategies supported: Fine motor skills (optional tweezers to use to pick up and place acorns), colors, numbers 1 and 2, a gentle introduction to losing and disappointment, and some game strategy when it comes to picking acorns. No reading skills needed.

*Blokus
Fun for preschoolers to adults
This is a super fun game that can work even for very young kids! And, I always enjoy a game more when I get to actually try my hardest without being an awful parent… so this was a good one for the early days when we still had to play easy on the kids for most games, but Ben and I could focus our attacks on each other without making it harder for the kids.
Skills/strategies supported: Visual-spacial reasoning

Blink
Fun for preschoolers and elementary age
Among the more fun games to play with very young preschoolers. I felt like this game was actually the bridge from really slow, repetitive, mind-numbingly boring games to “Hey, I can actually try with this game!” Easy parent hack: It’s no fun to always have to play slow/easy, but it’s also not that nice to beat your kid every time. One thing to keep things fun for everyone is, instead of dividing the cards evenly, go with 90/10 or whatever makes more sense for you and our child. Then you can actually play hard as you try to work through your 90% pile, but not feel like a terrible person while your kid tries their hardest to work through their 10% pile! I think the kids like seeing that you are into the game, too! If your child is realllly slow, just take an even bigger pile to start with until it’s a fair competition!
Skills/strategies supported: Recognizing shapes, recognizing colors, subitization
(Card-based game, good for travel)

Spot it
Fun for preschoolers through adults
This fun deck of round cards has many variations for play, which keeps things fresh. It’s compact, and perfect to take along for a trip. Kids don’t have to be able to read to play this one, and you can follow the same “easy parent hack” I noted for Blink to keep things interesting for you, the parent, as well! Basically, divide the cards unevenly, in your kid’s favor, to increase the challenge for yourself.
Skills/strategies supported: Recognizing shapes, observational skills, reflexes, speech-language skills, fine motor skills.
(Card game, good for travel)

*Outfoxed
Fun for late preschoolers through elementary age
This is a fun cooperative game where teammates work together to find clues, reveal suspects, and try to catch the pie-stealing fox!
Skills/strategies supported: Process of elimination, logic, deduction, reasoning, communication and teamwork, memory, simple addition.

Skip-Bo
Fun for preschoolers through adults
This is a nice low-key game that also happens to be a great way to practice numbers 1-12 for your young child. I make this game more engaging for myself by making my stockpile bigger, so I can try my hardest while giving my kids a good chance of winning.
Skills/strategies supported: Counting 1-12, strategy
(Card-based game, good for travel)

*Monopoly Deal (not to be confused with Monopoly, which is in a much lower category)
Fun for late preschoolers through adults
This game will forever hold a special place in my heart as the game that got us through the first terrible few months of the pandemic, when there were wildfires and smoke that kept us indoors, COVID that kept us away from friends and family, and crazy hail that made me think maybe the world was ending.
It didn’t. And instead, we played Monopoly Deal. And for that I am forever grateful.
It is also wins the awards for being the game started the era of Family Games Mommy and Daddy Actually Like to Play, Too! as well as Games Our Youngest Can Legitimately Beat Us In.
When I recently mentioned this game to my friend, she immediately groaned, “Noooo… not Monopoly!!” But I promise you this is a TOTALLY different game experience than the traditional board game! Games are relatively short, at around ~15-20 minutes, and in my opinion this game is so much more enjoyable. Players try to be the first to build three sets of color cards (i.e. having both Park Place and Boardwalk counts as one set), facing setbacks like paying rent, taxes, gifting birthday money to other players, etc. along the way.
Skills/strategies supported: Addition, simple multiplication concepts, strategic thinking
(Card-based game, good for travel)

*Sleeping Queens
Fun for late preschoolers through adults
A fun card game with whimsical pictures and short game play. Easy to learn and understand, and one the kids can play together on their own from a fairly young age!
Note: There are two versions, but I recently realized that the “10th anniversary” one we have (which is the one I linked) has 16 queens instead of 12, which I think makes the game more fun.
Skills/strategies supported: Addition
(Card-based game, good for travel)

*Sushi Go
Fun for late preschoolers through adults
Pass cards around to try to make the highest scoring sushi combinations! This game is fun, but may require an older child or adult to help organize the game and add up points at the end. Playing time is around minutes.
Skills/strategies supported: Addition, subtraction, early multiplication concepts, probability, strategic thinking
(Card-based game, good for travel)

*Ticket to Ride – First Journey
Fun for late preschoolers through adults
Players use trains to build routes from one destination to another. The first person to complete six routes wins! For a moment I thought my assessment of age-appropriateness was wildly off when Amazon listed the manufacture recommended age as 13-15, but the box itself says 6+ (and I see reviewers mentioning their 4 and 6 year olds playing this game, too!). It’s a really fun concept and the Ticket to Ride series is one of my personal favorites! There’s just something so satisfying about completing routes efficiently!
Skills/strategies supported: Map skills, planning, strategic thinking

*Bananagrams
Fun for mid-elementary through adults, adaptable for younger kids
Kids should be able to read and write fairly fluently to play this game properly, but there are all sorts of ways to interact with the letter tiles that don’t require following the rules of the game. My kindergartener enjoys turning tiles over and just seeing how many words he can make, or working with his sister to make crosswords with it. I recently taught them a different game using the same tiles called Pirate Scrabble, which I might enjoy even more than the original Bananagrams game!
Skills/strategies supported: Letter recognition, wordplay. Kids should be to read at a second grade level before playing this game the way it is intended, but you can always use the tiles just to form words for fun.
(Game is small, good for travel)

*CATAN Junior
Fun for late preschoolers through adults
Collect resources to build ships and pirate lairs! It’s a simple introduction to the larger and much loved CATAN game. Solid A for this game.
Skills/strategies supported: Planning, counting, budgeting resources, subitization

*Splendor
Fun for elementary age through adults
Collect gems to purchase cards! Collect cards to get the most points by the end of the game. It’s pretty simple, and very fun. Our youngest beat us all the first couple times we played, and we all had to concede that his strategy has been the winningest. But now that everyone uses the same strategy, it’s not necessarily the best strategy anymore… which is all to say that despite playing several times these past couple of months, the game hasn’t gotten old yet!
Skills/strategies supported: Planning, addition, strategic thinking

*Carcassonne
Fun for elementary age through adults
This game is GREAT. Set-up is easy, the basic concept is pretty simple to teach, and it is very fun. It does require you to study the instructions a bit before beginning, but not nearly as much as 7 Wonders. When you’re first learning it, I would suggest leaving the farmers out. You can always introduce them later, when you’re ready for something to spice the game up and when you’re ready to focus on reading instructions again. Ben and I played this with my brother, sister-in-law/bff, and my mom during a recent family trip and had so much fun late into the night! Great game overall, and one our kids quickly picked up, too.
Skills/strategies supported: Visual/spatial reasoning, planning, addition, strategic thinking, budgeting

*Ticket to Ride – Europe
Fun for elementary age through adults
This game is more complicated than Ticket to Ride – First Journey, and my youngest may or may not have cried midway through the Youtube video we watched to learn the new game… but it’s fun now! I love budgeting my trains and looking for the most efficient way to complete routes. Maybe it’s just how my planny-planny brain works, but I’m really glad we got this one and that the kids enjoy it, too!
Skills/strategies supported: Map skills, planning, strategic thinking

*7 Wonders
Fun for elementary age through adults
Let me start by saying that this game has probably been the family favorite for several months, now. It’s really fun, the expansions are great, and even I regularly choose it when it’s my turn to pick! HOWEVER. You should know what you’re getting yourself into. For one, 7 Wonders is kind of a pain to set up and put away. It’s not one that the kids can play on their own yet, and you need at least 3 players to play. There’s a whole user manual of directions that comes with it, and you actually have to read it. Pre-pandemic me barely had the patience and focus to sit through and learn this game from my friends, but now that it has fully embedded itself into our lives, I enjoy it just as much as the kids.
There are several expansions for this game which keeps it fresh (and also make it increasingly complicated to set up). As much as I enjoy this game, I can only recommend it if you are ready to do the work of reading the pages and pages of instructions, patiently teaching the kids (with open-faced hands, in the beginning), keeping the pieces organized, expecting them to interrupt you a lot as they learn the game to explain what all the cards mean, and if you enjoy long games played across several rounds. I know, I just lost most of you… and for those of you still reading… you’ve probably already played this game. If you haven’t already, I would suggest learning/playing it with grown-ups first before trying to teach it to kids. In summary, this game is kind of a pain to learn and a chore to put away, but super fun once everyone knows it! (Ok I know I’m not selling it well, but just wanted to be up front about things!).
Skills/strategies supported: Planning, addition, subtraction, multiplication, negative numbers, strategic thinking, budgeting resources, organizing


NICE TO HAVE
If you have the space and money for it, I’d also keep these in the collection!

Zingo
Fun for preschoolers through elementary age
Like Bingo, but with a slightly annoying token dispenser which is pretty fun for the kids to maneuver. Kids don’t need to be able to read to play this game. This one makes the list not because I loved playing it, but because it was one of the first games our kids were able to play together for long periods of time, without us.
Skills/strategies supported: Reflexes, directionality.

Q’s Race to the Top
Fun for preschoolers through elementary age
I have great memories of playing this game with the kids, where they took turns rolling the dice and then doing picking a “You,” “Do,” or “?” card. These cards would prompt them to answer interesting questions about themselves (What do you think about at night before you go to sleep?), do fun actions (With your eyes closed, balance on one leg and count to 20. Now try the other leg.), or consider best responses to various situations. The board itself is basic, but the three sets of card actions are where the fun and learning are at! A fun game perfect for the preschool ages.
Skills/strategies supported: Social skills, emotional skills, gross motor skills/physical movement, empathy, communication, problem-solving

Race to the Treasure
Fun for preschoolers through elementary age
This is a cooperative game that has players connecting path pieces to make it to the treasure before the ogres get to them. It’s a nice introduction to goals, excitement, coordinates and grids, and the tension of an Ogre possibly stealing your treasure.
Skills/strategies supported: Using grids and coordinates (i.e. “A4” and “C2”), probability, dealing with a little tension, teamwork and communication

Rat-a-Tat-Cat
Fun for late preschoolers through elementary age
This game is almost exactly like a math game I used to teach my students called Low Score. You could literally grab a deck of cards, click on that link for instructions and play a game that is mostly the same (just take out the face cards). Or you could pay extra and buy this game for the novelty of cat and mouse cartoons and the removal of complications that J, Q, and K cards could bring. Since I wanted it to be fairly easy for my then-4 year old to learn, I opted to buy this game, and I have no regrets! But if you want to save space/money and already have a deck of playing cards, I’m telling you… my math games are SO FUN!!! Try them! =D
Skills/strategies supported: Addition, probability, strategic thinking, memory
(Card-based game, good for travel)

*Exploding Kittens
Fun for elementary through adults
“A Kitty-Powered Russian Roulette Card Game,” which to my kids, is simply a card game with silly cartoons and fun actions! Try to make it to the end of the game without exploding! Simple to learn, and fun for kids to play with other kids.
Skills/strategies supported: Strategic thinking, probability
(Card-based game, good for travel)

Throw Throw Burrito
Fun for elementary through adults
This game feels a little like Spoons, but where you try to make sets to get points and where you also get to throw squishy/plushy burritos at each other. Put away the fragile vases for this game!
Skills/strategies supported: Reflexes

Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza
Fun for preschoolers and elementary ages
This game reminds me of Slapjack, but with a fun, chest-thumping twist. I don’t mind it, but it generally falls into the category of games I’m happy to let my kids play by themselves :).
Skills/strategies supported: Reflexes, memory.
(Card-based game, good for travel)

*Quixx
Fun for elementary through adults
At first glance, this might look like kind of a math-y game that a teacher would give her students to play for “fun math practice.” AND IT IS! I would totally! It’s a very fun math game, and has so much good addition practice! Trust me! I play it with my kindergartener (helping him figure out his score at the end), and also my second grader. It’s great fun addition practice for both of them, and me? I enjoy the game plenty! This definitely falls into the category of fun math games that I actually enjoy playing with my kids.
Skills/strategies supported: Subitization, simple addition of one-digit numbers, addition of 2-digit numbers.
(Small game, good for travel)


STILL MADE THE CUT
(on the shelves (for now))
These games are not bad. But I wouldn’t buy a replacement if we lost it.

Hisss
Fun for preschoolers to early elementary
This is actually a game our kids like to bring out to play on their own. They enjoy matching up the colors and seeing how long of a snake they can make!
Skills/strategies supported: Color recognition, counting

Uno
Fun for preschoolers and elementary ages
As long as your child knows their colors and numbers (or, at least can match numbers), they can get the basic feel for this game. It’s also a good way to help your child learn to recognize and match numbers if they’re still working on that.
Skills/strategies supported: Number recognition, colors
(Card-based game, good for travel)

Sum Swamp
Fun for early elementary ages
This is an addition and subtraction game. We had a few plays out of it, and the kids enjoyed it just fine. I was kind of surprised to see that it got 4,543 5-star ratings on Amazon, though!
Skills/strategies supported: Counting, number recognition, addition, subtraction, evens/odds

Robot Turtles
Fun for preschoolers through elementary ages
This game teachers kids early programming concepts and teaches them to plan ahead. My son actually chose, bought, and gifted this game to his computer-y dad for Christmas. Isn’t that cute? And you know what, Ben likes it! We played it recently for family game night and I have to say, it honestly wasn’t bad for something that is advertised as a game for preschoolers.
Skills/strategies supported: Early programming principles, thinking and planning ahead, left/right concepts.

Monopoly
Fun for elementary ages
I like when my kids play this game with each other. But I don’t really like to play it with them.
Skills/strategies supported: You’ve all played this one, right? I mean… it’s a good one for working on dealing with tremendous disappointment and not being a poor sport? Or learning not to be a rude winner?


We have a lot of the classic games at home too (Monopoly, Chess, Chinese Checkers, Mancala, Candyland, Scrabble, Battleship, Chutes and Ladders, Connect 4, Trouble, Taboo, Scattegories, etc.). We’ve played them here and there, but Chess is probably the only one on that list they go back to regularly. Board games have come a long way since these games came out, and I hope you were able to find something on this list that you’d like to try!

April 1, 2021

This content may use referral links. Read my disclosure policy for more info.

Instant Coffee + sugar + hot water. Blend. Dollop onto milk.
So. Good.

I was pretty sure I was the last person to hear about this delightful coffee concoction, but when I texted a photo to one of my friend groups last year, 4 of the 5 didn’t know what it was. When I posted it to my IG account, enough people asked what it was that I decided there were definitely more people that needed to know about it. And bloggers don’t let readers miss out on recipes that are both super easy and super yummy (and extremely Instagrammable). So I wrote this post up for y’all, and then… I forgot about it? I don’t know what happened, but here we are a year later, and I will now think of this as my “1-yr anniversary with Dalgona Coffee” celebratory post. If you haven’t tried it yet, this coffee whip is everything you are hoping it would be: creamy and frothy (without using any cream), tasty, and EASY.

It’s been about a year now since I started making it. As we had all started to adjust to the new normal of hunkering down at home last spring, I watched the world learn new things: how to bake banana bread, how to bake sourdough, and how to make Dalgona coffee. Dal-what?? What was this beautiful creation, and how could I get it in my life?!

It’s really as easy as this picture says:

I use Bustelo instant coffee and 1 tablespoon of sugar (I prefer my milk tea with 50-75% sugar, for reference)

The ingredients are easy to procure, and it’s a texture and taste I would pay good money for. But I don’t have to! You can totally make this at home!

What do I use to blend it?

The main question is how you plan to blend the coffee whip. If you have a hand immersion blender with a whisk attachment, I definitely recommend that. It’s what I use, and it takes about 30 seconds to whip up (unless you’re ridiculous like me and try to do it one-handed while taking a video and end up splattering it on everything within a 2 ft radius).

If you don’t have a hand immersion blender with whisk attachment, the most common recommendation seems to be to use a hand mixer (but you’d have to wash a big bowl afterwards) or a milk frother. Though… if you have a milk frother, I wonder if you might be too fancy for instant coffee. Then again, I have a milk frother and I still like this particular drink very much.

The other option is to use a wire whisk and blend it manually. I’ve read online that it is taking people upwards of 20 minutes when using a whisk, and someone even told me it took an hour. And I honestly couldn’t imagine why. Maybe he tried a little bit of liquid in a big bowl? So I tried it myself and timed it, just so I could tell you here.

First I put the ingredients into a glass, then spun the whisk around with my hands like I was trying to start a fire. I stopped when it was about 3-4x the volume of the original mixture, which took exactly 5 minutes. I dolloped half of the coffee whip into a glass of milk for Ben, and the other half for myself. Stir, sip, and…

It was delicious!!! True, the final result is *slightly* less pretty, but it tasted just as good and still had that wonderful creamy texture. Honestly. And if you were willing to do the fire-starter method for longer (maybe tag team with someone), you could probably get more volume/fluffiness. But I don’t think it’s necessary.

So if the lack of a hand mixer or milk frother or hand immersion blender is keeping you from trying this, and you don’t have 20 minutes of whisking strength in your arms, then try this fire-starter whisking method!

Also, make sure you stir everything up nicely before you drink it to get that whipped texture mixed in, and use your fat boba straw to get nice big gulps of that creaminess!

March 23, 2021
Illustrated by Garth Williams in Little House on the Prairie

When I was young, I used to wish I could step into my books and live in them. I read American Girl books and wished I could knock on Samantha’s door and walk into her beautiful 1904 Victorian Christmas home. I devoured Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of traveling west in a covered wagon in the late 1800’s, and imagined going to town to pick out ribbon for my hair or going on merry sleigh rides with friends. I read Pride and Prejudice and thought wistfully about how lovely it would be to dress up and attend one of the many fancy balls. I imagined it all through rose-colored glasses and thought someday it would be fun to dress up and pretend to live in the old days: at a farm, in a charming pioneer town, or at a ball.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but one day it dawned on me that actually, I would look really out of place dancing at Netherfield or walking along the streets of one of Laura’s childhood towns. Even if I wore a big, beautiful gown and put my hair up in lovely curls, I would stand out, and probably not in a good way. As reality settled in, I was sad to realize it probably wouldn’t be very fun at all for me. People would probably give me funny looks because my hair was black, and I would generally be out of place. Would Laura even want to be my friend?

When I was older, I saw pictures of Chinese railroad workers and learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese from entering America during the time my beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder was making her way out West. I learned that Chinese women were viewed as immoral, and had actually already been banned from America several years before the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.

…Wait, what?!

Ok, nevermind, I don’t want to live in history. I didn’t want to live as a girl in China’s history, where women had to bind their feet and where baby girls were not valued as much as baby boys. And I certainly didn’t want to live anytime during American history, where racism abounded to the point where Chinese people were not even allowed into the country, and the few Chinese women that were present were treated horribly. But that was all in the past, right? Wow, I thought to myself, there is no better time and place to be a Chinese girl than in present-day America. I felt so fortunate to exist right here, right now.

If I admired America as the best place to be a Chinese girl twenty years ago, I love it with an added sense of pain and betrayal today. The recent uptick in hate crimes against Asians and the shootings in Atlanta show that a lot of that ugly old racism is still here today. I’ve long been familiar with the fear that comes with being a female walking alone at night: I stay aware of my surroundings, I grip my keys tightly between my knuckles, and I sometimes run to my car in a flurry of fear and anxiety.

This past year has presented me with another layer of fear to live with: being Asian and leaving my house–at any time of the day. In broad daylight, I keep a close eye on my surroundings, especially if I am in an unfamiliar (and less diverse) city. Instead of gripping my car keys more tightly, I brace myself for a racial slur or a comment and try to stay mentally ready with a possible response. I wonder to myself, Would I push back and defend myself in order to fight against the stereotype of the passive Asian? Or is it better to simply protect myself and leave? What if my kids are with me? Does protecting them mean to flee, or does it mean showing them what it looks like to say something and stand up for yourself?

When I hear about racists harassing Asians at local grocery stores and gas stations, a common theme that pains me is learning how nobody stood up for them. If anyone were to target me and spew racist comments my way, I would be upset. But if there were other people around and nobody intervened or said anything to me after, I would be devastated. Silence is complicity. And then I can’t help but wonder: What would I do if I were a bystander? Would I say something to the harasser? Would I step in? Would I say something to the victim afterwards?

I like to think I would do something, but I know that if I don’t really think it through and come up with a plan, the easiest response would be nothing. In all my mental preparation, I imagine myself with sharp and silencing comebacks, but I know that the real JoEllen would probably be tongue-tied and terrified. My heart rate increases just imagining myself in such a scenario.

What should I do if I see racism taking place?

So when my friend shared a link to “Hollaback!’s Bystander Intervention Training to protect others from harassment in public settings,” I gave it a click. It turned out to be just what I needed:

The Five D’s are different methods you can use to support someone who’s being harassed, emphasize that harassment is not okay, and demonstrate to people in your life that they too have the power to make our communities and workplaces safer. 

Surely out of the five options, I could find at least one that felt realistic and doable. And I did. The 5D’s are: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct:

These are just snippets from the website, which is super well-organized and full of helpful graphics, examples, and tips. I highly recommend taking a look, especially if you have ever found yourself wondering what you would do if you saw someone being harassed in any way. After reading through the options, I felt like Distract and Delay were two things that I could do. I was mentally rehearsing, “Excuse me, do you know what the next stop is?” when I realized that the only time I’m on a train is when I’m traveling, so I mentally modified it to, “Excuse me, do you know where I can find the milk?” (grocery store) and “Excuse me, do you know which way the library is?” (gas station) and “Excuse me, have you seen our red ball?” (park). Whatever the situation, I feel better knowing that I’ve got a method in my pocket to use instead of simply relying on my own bravery and wit (though if I’m honest, I think even this would require some bravery from me).

This organization has full on trainings you can sign up for, but even taking five minutes to scroll through their page and think through which ones feel accessible to you is a worthwhile way to spend your time. It would mean a lot to me if you did. Any one of you. Because even that act of preparation is a way of saying you care and have sympathetic intentions.

And if someone ever says mean stuff to me in the future, I really hope a bystander will show that they care. The website shares that “Research shows that even a knowing glance can significantly reduce trauma for the person who is targeted. One of the most important things we can do is to let the person who is targeted know, in some way, however big or small, that they are not alone.” So if you ever see someone yelling “China Virus!” or “Kung Flu!” at someone, please do something and be one of the helpers.

Let’s stop it before it begins

You know what would be even better than seeing a bystander step in and stand against harassment? If there were no harassment in the first place. If the person spewing unkindness had instead been taught, at a young age, to treat others with respect, compassion, and empathy. If that person had been exposed to all sorts of different people with different skin tones and different traditions and different backgrounds, and learned to appreciate the differences rather than to use them as a way to feel superior.

This is something that is super important to me as a parent and educator. One accessible way to teach this to my kids is with books. I have always valued having my bookshelves full of diverse authors and characters, and I want the same thing to be accessible for families everywhere. I was delighted to learn that my husband’s coworker Tony had compiled an extensive list of diverse book recommendations into a tidy spreadsheet, and I was even happier when he said I could share it with you all. You can search for books based on the reader’s age, the character’s appearance and skin tone, and even whether the protagonist is female or not. There are nearly 300 titles listed, but this list is actually a portal to many more books than that since oftentimes only one book is listed to represent an entire series. I’ve already checked out several titles from the list that our whole family has enjoyed, and encourage you to do the same!

Some personal favorites of mine on the list include Last Stop on Market Street, Jabari Jumps, Jamaica’s Find, Dragons and Marshmallows (part of a series), and the Mindy Kim books (part of a series). I would also add The Proudest blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, and The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig. I appreciate books that share about the specific ethnic backgrounds and experiences of diverse characters as well as the ones that portray kids with various skin tones as simply normal American kids. It’s important to me that my Asian American kids, for example, read books about Asian characters that aren’t always about dumplings or folktales, but also books where Asian characters are simply regular kids at school. That’s one of the reasons why The Invisible Boy is one of my all-time favorite children’s books! It’s a story that shares about compassion within a bunch of regular kids, one of whom happens to be an Asian American child.

It’s also important to me that other kids in America are reading books about Asian characters that aren’t always about dumplings or folktales, but also books where Asian kids are simply regular kids at school. I want our heritage to be appreciated, but I also need for our Asian kids not to be othered. And of course I want this for every kid, not just Asian ones! So I love this list and hope you can take a moment to peruse it and find something just right for you and your family to check out from the library or purchase.

Let’s Do Better

America has come a long way. I mean look, I’m here! And I feel so fortunate and lucky to be here for many, many reasons. But we haven’t made it, yet. We still have a long way to go. It’s hard to imagine an America where everyone is truly respected and regarded as an equal, but I have to hope that things can get better. I believe that if we all keep taking these small steps to work towards that–learning how to be a helpful bystander, teaching our kids to appreciate the differences in people around them–the world really will be a better place.

I hope you can take these steps with me.

March 21, 2021

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A gorgeous chewy chocolate cookie with crisp edges, that beautiful crackle, deep toffee flavor, generous blobs of chocolate wafers throughout, and the perfect sprinkle of Maldon sea salt: My new all time favorite chocolate chip cookie!

I know, I said I had a different all time favorite in 2014… and yet another different one in 2017. But I guess my cookie tastes grow and change with me. Who knows what 2024 will bring! Also, I still make the Salted Chocolate Chunk Shortbread all the time (SO GOOD have you tried it yet??). There is always a stash in the freezer ready to save me and Ben when we have that specific craving, which happens more often than is good for us. But that shortbread and these drop cookies are two totally different categories to me, so I don’t feel like I’m giving those cookies the shaft by sharing these.

I got this recipe from one of the youth at church, and was kind of skeptical at first. I mean, Tasty recipes were fun to watch, but would this cookie actually taste good?

Yes. It did.

Alvin Zhou, the recipe author, made a fun video comparing three favorite cookie recipes: The 2-minute vs. 2-hour vs. 2-day cookie. I actually tried making the 2-day cookie, toffee and all, and even though those are “the ultimate” chocolate chip cookie, I have to be honest: I like this one (which happens to be the 2-hour one) even better! Seriously, these cookies are amazing. They’re everything you want from a nice bakery chocolate chip cookie: chewy with a toffee taste, nearly the size of your face, cracks running across the top with big oodly pools of chocolate looking you deep in the eyes… and that hint of salt splashed across the top. They have earned a permanent residence in our freezer drawer, so when I have a deep craving for one (like… right now), I can pop one in the toaster oven any time.

They’re easy to make and the video on the Tasty website gives you a good idea of the consistency you should have at each step. You don’t even need a mixer, so if you’ve been craving chocolate chip cookies, you definitely need to give these a try!


Notes about ingredients:
I’ve been miffed by comments online like, “This recipe was the worst! I substituted A for B and cut the sugar in half, and the whole thing was hard as a rock! Horrible! Don’t try this recipe!” But c’mon now, that’s not the recipe’s fault! Some substitutions work well, but many can change the final texture or taste significantly. So I wanted to make some notes about ingredients to help you get the best results!

A sprinkle of Maldon sea salt on top gives it a little crunch and the perfect hint of saltiness to balance all that sweet!

More tips for success:


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February 19, 2021
Chocolate Babka Roll with Chocolate Streusel (YUM!!) and Fudge Filling (mmmMMmMMm)

There is so much I love about Melissa Clark’s Chocolate Babka recipe: The fudge filling, simple syrup, and most of all, the chocolate streusel! I could eat that streusel every day.

Melissa Clark’s Chocolate Babka is bread and chocolate heaven:
Fudge filled swirls topped with chocolate streusel and finished with simple syrup. YUM.

But as often as I would love to toast up a thick slice of chocolate babka, I don’t always have it in me to make it. It can take 6-27 hours to finish, depending on how long you let it rise for, so I set out to find a way to adapt my favorite elements of her babka and turn it into a roll. After going through and trying various recipes online, I found a combination I LOVE: pillowy, soft bread dough (the same one used for the copycat Cinnabon rolls I make) and the three elements of Melissa Clark’s 26 hour babka that I love best: the fudge filling, the syrup, and the streusel! These last three can all be made ahead of time and kept in the fridge until you’re ready to make the bread dough.

This shot is not representative of how much fudge filling there is. I think it was one of the end pieces of the roll, but trust me–it’s very chocolatey!

The other thing I love about having this in roll form is that I can easily wrap and freeze each roll individually to enjoy weeks later for a midnight snack or a treat-breakfast. If you’re looking for your next pandemic baking project, give these a try! They’re so delicious!


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December 30, 2020

Back in May, when we were all trying to figure out how to stay sane while staying home all the time, I decided to make DIY milk tea kits for some friends. A lot of our favorite milk tea places, like Boba Guys, were temporarily closed and I thought this would be a nice way to add some delight to a very difficult time. I make milk tea at home all the time, so it’s not unusual for me to have a jar of simple syrup ready to go in the fridge and my favorite tea leaves (specifically for milk tea) in the cupboard. I’ve learned over time that you can’t just substitute milk or condensed milk in willy nilly; you have to have a really rich and creamy milk component or the whole thing will come out unsatisfyingly watery.

But if it’s your first time trying it, all these components can be mini hurdles that make the whole endeavor kind of frustrating: figuring out which tea leaves actually work well in a milk tea, the annoyance of boiling up and cooling down some simple syrup, and learning the hard way that even your whole milk is not creamy enough to give your milk tea the body you were hoping for.

So I tried to make a kit that would be as user-friendly as possible! Inspiration came easily, as Boba Guys had just published The Boba Book (aff. link)! It could not have been more well timed: Their shops weren’t open, but now we had the secrets to their magical concoctions at our fingertips!

This book is fantastic. I have especially enjoyed their recipes for Classic Milk Tea and Roasted Banana Milk!

After ordering their recommended tea leaves, I tried out their recipe and it really hit the spot! I knew I wanted to share it with more people, so I ordered more packs of tea and made kits including bottles of premade house syrup and half and half. Finally, I made little instruction cards to print out and include with the kit.

Print these simple instructions out on cardstock, cut in half, and tuck into your kit!

All of the required ingredients for the Classic Milk Tea are included in the kit (except the optional toppings… apologies to the boba lovers!). If your friend runs out of syrup, instructions are included to make more. But at least for their first few go arounds, the pre-made bottle of syrup should make things a bit easier!

To make the kits, I ordered a set of these cute bottles on Amazon (affiliate link). They’re kinda pricey, but pretty packaging makes my heart sing, and I needed all the uplifting I could get back in May! Plus, I have used the extra bottles a ton since then to store my own syrups, condensed milk, lemon juice, salad dressing, etc. at home. They’re great!

Next, I boiled a large batch of house syrup, let it cool, and divvied them out into the jars. I bought a half gallon of half and half and filled up more jars, and then put together the kits with the tea leaves and instructions. Voila! Happiness in a little box! I made sure my friends were home when dropping them off so they could refrigerate the liquids immediately. This part was not hard, since everybody was home. All. The. Time. (And we’ve all been back at home again for the last month! What’s the situation where you live? I’m *SUUUUPER* curious to hear how it is in other states and countries!!).

And that was it! Spreading sunshine, one milk tea kit at a time! Happily, the Boba Guys shops have re-opened, but if you don’t have one near you, you can recreate their delicious drink in your own home! Whether you decide to make your own sets of kits to share with friends or attempt to make some milk tea for yourself, I really hope this can bring some cheer and delight to YOU in what has been a very difficult year!

I hope you are all well, and I would love to hear from you and and how you are doing and managing during this unprecedented year. Hope you had a happy holiday, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

November 29, 2020
Our new Thanksgiving tradition!

We had a quiet thanksgiving at home this year, and as much as I missed hugging my grandparents and seeing my relatives, the day turned out to be really lovely. Since we didn’t have any place to go, or anyone else to cook for, I felt truly free to do whatever I wanted and spend relaxed time with my family. So after a quiet day of pom pom animals, Legos, and Sleeping Queens (affiliate link to our current family game obsession), we sat down to a delicious meal of hot pot and apple pie. Does it get any more Chinese American than that?

Hot pot: Choosing from a generous spread of thinly sliced meats, veggies, and noodles to dip into flavorful simmering broth, taking it out when it is perfectly cooked, and dipping it into your own bowl of tasty, customized sauce. Each bite is freshly cooked, hot, and soul-satisfyingly delicious! It’s such a fun way to gather and eat! This photo is from my friend Lily’s table, because apparently several of us had the same idea, and her spread was way prettier than ours!

One of the best things about hot pot is that other than a well-timed grocery run, there isn’t much prep. All the cooking happens at the dinner table, which left me even more time to tinker freely in the kitchen all day. So I decided to make an apple pie. A simple but fancy-looking one with a pretty braided lattice pattern a la Chrissy Tiegen. I had three goals for my pie: make something easy but delicious, make it not too sweet, and try the pretty braided lattice design.

My big little girl did most of it!

I used store bought crusts from Trader Joe’s, fresh Golden Delicious apples from our CSA box, and tweaked a recipe I had found on allrecipes.com for the filling, hoping to avoid the overly sweet filling that I usually associate with apple pie.

It may look tedious, but it’s 2020, and this braided lattice design turned out to be really fun and satisfying to do! I’m not sure if JoEllen in 2021 will have the time or patience to cut and braid strips of dough for a beautiful pie, but if my daughter’s in, then I’ll try make time for it! Seeing her delighted smile at her unhurried, relaxed Mama as we stood side by side making pie made me realize, for the upteenth time, how much I need to slow down and enjoy these small moments. My full presence and unhurried enjoyment of hers leaves the biggest impression on her, and I think it’s these little things that she’ll remember the most someday.

After filling our bellies with hot pot, we all managed to find some space to enjoy pie together. The story of actually eating the highly anticipated pie turned into a saga and memorable moment that deserves its own post (filed under “parenting”)… but I’ll have to save that story for another time. Suffice it to say, the pie was delicious and we just might have started a new family tradition with it!


Apple Pie
Adapted from this recipe

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Melt the 1/2 c butter in a saucepan. Whisk in 3 tbsp flour to form a paste. Add 1/4 c water, 1/3 c sugar, and 1/3 c brown sugar, and bring to a boil. Stir in 1/2 tsp cinnamon. Reduce temperature and let cool slightly, then pour over your sliced apples and mix so that slices are coated.
  2. Place the bottom crust in your pan. Fill with apple mixture, mounded slightly. Cover with a lattice work crust.
    Note: If you’re worried about your outer edges burning, wrap with a strip of foil for the first 30 minutes of baking.
  3. Bake 15 minutes in the middle of preheated oven. After 15 minutes, reduce the temperature to 350°F. Continue baking for 35-50 minutes, until apples are soft and the lattice design is golden brown.
    Note: If your pie pan is on the small side, place a baking sheet on the rack underneath to catch any dripping.

Enjoy!!

*I used to think Granny Smith apples were the ideal apples for pie, but Kenji at Serious Eats recommends Golden Delicious, and I’m glad I went with it! If you do go with Granny Smith, you might want to increase your sugars up to 1/2 cup since they’re a bit more sour.

September 8, 2020

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I am happy that I can recall the exact moment I suspected she was expecting. We were driving in the car on the way to an amusement park when she remarked how she felt oddly queasy that week. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye and there was a pregnant pause as I waited to see if she would finish that train of thought. “Soo…” I finally ventured, “Queasy, eh?”

And here we are, eight months later, and she’s a mommy!

I’m so glad I can remember that moment together with her: the anticipation, the excitement, the wonder of it all, sitting next to her in the car. Part of me is also sad that we weren’t able to see her grow over the last few months, talking strollers and baby carriers and morning sickness after church service on Sundays. When it was time to plan her baby shower, I wanted to do everything I could to make it as special as we could, despite the distanced nature of everything.

You can find lots of ideas for how to throw a virtual shower online, like sending out electronic invitations (evite is great!), setting up a Google Meet or Zoom meeting, and ideas for games to play online together. Today, I want to share with you some specific ideas and special touches we tried to think of to make her baby shower extra special! These can be adjusted to work for any celebratory event, such as a bridal shower or birthday party, as well!

Group Gift: Start Baby’s Library

I love this idea that I came across at another friend’s baby shower: bring a book (can be secondhand) and write a note in it for the baby! What a special way to start the baby’s library, or grow a young child’s library! It’s a treasure they can enjoy for years to come. I saw this really cute poem on Zazzle that I wish I had used:

Just one last request
that won’t be too hard,
please send baby a book
instead of a card.

Whether a book that is old
or one that is new,
please sign the inside cover
with a note from you.

Since it was a virtual shower, we invited each guest to send a book to us ahead of time. Some wrote their notes in and mailed the books to us, others ordered off Amazon and had it shipped to us (we wrote the notes in for them), and some local friends simply dropped it off at our homes. We put all of the books on display using this cute book rack and gave it to her the day of her baby shower. She loved it! It was a sweet way to put a personal touch on things when we couldn’t all be together in person.

Updates From the Guest of Honor

Whether at an in-person event or a virtual one, there is always that time early on in the party where guests get to (have to?) mingle. Usually we do it in small groups over snacks or drinks, but in a virtual gathering, let’s be honest: it’s kind of weird. If making small talk in a small group was a little awkward before, imagine being the host to a virtual party where dozens of attendees stare at you, muted, waiting for you to get things rolling while you wait for everyone else to arrive.

I was kind of dreading it when I got a GREAT idea! People weren’t here to see me, after all. They wanted to see and celebrate HER! It occurred to me that most friends of the mom-to-be had not seen her in person for months, and would enjoy getting updates on how things were coming along– baby bump photos, fun little moments throughout the pregnancy, and other ways that she was preparing. Since my friend isn’t super active on social media, I invited her to send a few photos showing some highlights from the last few months, or any photos of her nursery if she wanted to share.

I put the photos together into a simple slideshow using Google Slides and I used “Screen Share” to allow all the attendees to see my screen as I presented the slideshow. We started off the baby shower with her sharing about each photo. It was cute, heartwarming, funny, and a great way to get things started while putting all of the social attention on the person we all came to see!

Games to Play

There are so many options online for games to play online. A simple search on Etsy for “baby shower games” will yield dozens of options in adorable themes. This Nursery Song Emoji Pictionary game was especially fun! One idea I got from another friend was to use Zoom’s “Breakout Room” feature to make small groups that could work together. We would explain the game, then send everyone into a breakout room for 5-10 minutes to work on the game answers together. We all came back and shared answers before breaking out again. It definitely made the party feel more intimate and personal instead of only a large group gathering.

Read Aloud for Baby

read aloud is just what it sounds like: someone reads a book out loud. If you do a quick search on YouTube, you can find a read aloud on almost any popular children’s picture book! I thought it would be cute if we put something together so the baby could still hear our voices, especially since many of us wouldn’t be able to meet the little one in person for quite a while. A read aloud seemed like just the ticket.

Since the baby shower had the safari animal theme, I thought of one of my kids’ favorite books: Giraffes Can’t Dance. The storyline was great, and the text was also conveniently divided into rhyming stanzas. For a group gift, we asked each guest (attending or not) to take a quick 10 second video or audio clip of themselves reading a stanza. They sent me their clips and I compiled them into one long audio file (I used Windows Movie Maker), and then played the audio while taking a video of the book.

We were able to play the read aloud during the baby shower, and now the parents have the file so they can play it for their baby any time they want!

Conclusion

It’s not easy planning something that is engaging, interactive, personal, and fun during this time, but at least we have virtual options! I’m sure some of you have had to plan a shower or virtual party during the last few months, and I’d love to hear other ideas you have for making the party more fun, smooth, or special! If you have a party coming up, I hope some of these ideas are helpful and that your special person feels the love and warmth from everyone!

August 22, 2020

There’s a pandemic, so we have to stay home. There are fires in California and the air is depressingly smoky outside, so we can’t even play in the yard. There are two children in the house who I had promised a beach trip to last week, and I continue to learn the painful lesson that I really have no control over what’s happening next week, tomorrow, or even today. Like, will we have power, and will I actually get to cook dinner tonight? Who knows.

Another place I had been planning to bring them was to the local mini golf course. I had brought them before, but they didn’t seem to appreciate the fun of it that time: the hills, slopes, open-and-shutting-door, excitement of getting a low score. Hm, I thought to myself, maybe we’ll do a practice round at home first. Then they can see how the whole thing works and maybe appreciate the real thing more when we finally get to it!

So a couple days ago, in the midst of a depressed indoor slump, we decided to make our own mini golf course in the house! We already had a pile of recyclables (old cardboard boxes and sheets, cardboard tubes, etc.). I gave them six red disposable cups and we went around the house setting up obstacles together. The first hole started at the top of the stairs. I tapped my ball down and… got a hole in one! The kids didn’t understand the game well enough at that point to appreciate my accomplishment, but at least Ben cheered for me 🙂

Those foam things have lived lives as horses, swords, bumpers, and boat paddles so far!

The second hole had a ramp:

Keeping it classy with blue tape and red Solo cups.

The third hole had a tunnel and two tissue boxes to knock down:

We moved the starting circle closer to the tunnel when the kids went. Do whatever you need to keep it fun (and not frustrating) for the kids!

The kids were really into the ramps:

The round alphabet circles marked the starting point for the tennis balls we used as golf balls.

We kept score, which was good number-writing practice for the younger one and good adding practice for the older one:

We had a great time working our way around the house, hollering at exciting moments and high-fiving like it was a championship event. We taught the kids little things like waiting for the ball to stop before hitting it again and tapping the ball instead of pushing it around. It was really fun! We were so loud with our cheers that I worried the neighbors would be concerned, but I guess no one was outside to hear our ruckus. The kids were beaming and Ben and I had our share of laughs and it was seriously one of the best nights we’ve all had together in a long time!

At first I thought I’d have to play easy so one of the kids could win, but by hole four, I started to realize that they didn’t need me to go on easy mode. It was too late–the kids were in the lead, and in the end, the youngest one won! It was so cute. When I declared his totally legitimate victory, he had such a strong emotion he ran around the house in a circle in excitement! It was so cute!

This can be a fun activity for all ages. Older kids will really enjoy the opportunity to get creative with the obstacles and probably require less help tearing tape and setting things up. They have also probably had more experience at an actual real life mini golf course so they’ll have more ideas for each hole. If you find yourself stuck at home and unable to go outdoors safely, maybe this is the activity for you and your family tonight, too!


Here are some basic guidelines for setting it up:

Materials:

Instructions:

  1. Map out a general course around the house. It can start upstairs, be creative!
  2. Use something to mark the starting point for each hole. We used these round alphabet circles, but an “X” made with blue tape works just fine, too.
  3. Set a cup down sideways as the “hole” and secure it with blue tape.
  4. Use household objects or clean recyclables to set up obstacles in between. Get creative!
  5. Get a piece of paper to keep score.
  6. Gather everyone and play!

Tips:

August 7, 2020

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Now that we’ve decided to homeschool our kids for the year, I have started scrambling to get supplies to keep our space organized, functional, and to promote enjoyable learning. I already feel like I’m one step behind, as things are more expensive than usual or only bulk quantities are available. The new chapter of pandemic shopping has arrived.

I have a bunch of friends who are also working to prepare their space for kids learning at home, and I thought it could be helpful to throw together a quick list of recommended supplies to have on hand at home. Here’s a collection of supplies I think can help keep your space organized, kids focused, and everyone a little more sane this year as we bunker down and get learning!

I’m assuming most kids will be starting off with distance learning (vs. homeschooling, where the parent is the main teacher), so this list is adjusted for that. If you’re on a tighter budget or short on space, I’ve suggested alternatives that can still help make things more functional without breaking the bank. Of course when it really comes down to it, the main must-have is probably the technology required to connect to the teacher and do the assignments, and I hope your school districts can provide that for you if needed! Here are more items that can help things run more smoothly at home.


Keeping the space organized

Rolling Utility Cart: This cart is key to clearing up valuable surface area on our shared desk and keeping our space feeling (more) zen. I also got a bunch of 4″ plant pots from IKEA and filled them with supplies. The top level holds our most frequently-accessed supplies: sharpened pencils, sharpies, paint brushes, colored pencils, crayons, markers. The lower levels hold other tools and supplies that we want handy: scissors, rulers, glue sticks, glue, stamp markers, etc.

A good alternative to a rolling cart is a desk caddy, like this one that is currently still available for $1.99 at Target! By the way, if you haven’t stocked up yet, Target is currently having their annual back to school sale, where you can get basic supplies like 2-prong folders, markers and glue for just $0.50!

Individual whiteboard: This is super handy to give kids a chance to practice writing words or math problems in a fun way (what kid doesn’t love writing on a whiteboard?) and keeps you from stressing out about them wasting paper. If you’re feeling fancy, there are magnetic boards with lined sides for younger kids. If you’re feeling super fancy, these Boogie Boards have been a hit with my kids (Christmas might be a good time to throw something novel into the mix)!

Clear pocket sleeves: These are related to whiteboards, but more versatile! You can stick a sheet of white paper inside and have a functional whiteboard. For a more budget-friendly option, just use a glossy sheet protector. I use these in addition to whiteboards because you can put in worksheets you plan to use over and over (100’s chart, multiplication problems, math templates, etc.) and save on paper and printing.

Book Bins: Give each child their own place to store their folders, writing, handouts, etc. A book bin is a super handy way to keep things together without having them flopping all about in a frustrating dumpy heap. Since I’ll be sharing the homeschool space with the kids this year, I also got this pretty one for myself to keep my frequently used teaching books and papers close by and organized. It also conveniently fits in our cube storage shelf (which I LOVE).

Paper organizer: This is definitely a “nice to have” item, and we survived just fine without it before we got one. But it makes paper organization soo nice! It’s important for kids to have easy access to basic, frequently used supplies like paper, sharpened pencils, erasers, etc. so this definitely helps with the flow throughout the school day. If this one is too big or you don’t anticipate using construction paper too often, a smaller tray organizer is great for the two basics: lined paper and white computer paper.

Pencil sharpener: We have a jar of sharpened pencils always at the ready. I got an electric pencil sharpener a while back and it’s still going strong, but can’t find it on Amazon anymore so I linked one that looks pretty similar. I like that it has a small footprint and that it comes with a replacement blade! For a less expensive alternative, I also specifically like these manual pencil sharpeners, which are currently $0.50 at Target!


Materials that directly support learning

If you plan to spend more time working on academic content alongside your child, here are some supplies you might like:

Base 10 Blocks (K-5): Remember these from elementary school? They are such a useful hands-on way for kids to understand place value and how numbers are built. I like how this set includes a thousands block. If you’re on a budget, this set will also do the job.

Gear Clock (K-5): When I taught fourth grade, I was always a little appalled to see how many students still struggled to understand how to read an analog clock. I mean, it is hard, and I’ve known grownups who still struggled to read clocks. So I’ve taken it upon myself to start teaching my kids how to read the clock, because two lessons in a math workbook over the course of the year are not enough to help them really get how it all comes together. This gear clock is a great tool since it directly shows the relationship between the minute hand progressing and the smaller but important movements of the hour hand.

Blank Hardcover Book (K-5): One of my favorite items to buy for my students each year were these blank hardcover books. They would pick their favorite published narrative story and we’d walk through the steps of getting the story from their lined paper and into this blank book. It took some planning, but the end result was always such a hit! Students were so proud of their final, hardcover products, and it was so much more exciting than stapling sheets of paper together. I think kids feel a lot more excited to write when they feel like they have an audience, and publishing their work in a book like this really makes them feel like “real” authors who are writing for others.

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons (PreK+): I’ve blogged about this book before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again at this time. If you’re the parent of a kindergarten or first grade student, the main thing they *really* need to know by June is how to read. It is so foundational to everything else they will encounter at school that if I could only recommend one thing to a homeschooling parent concerned about kindergarten, it would be this book. More info in the blog post!


Other supplies I’ve gotten to support learning

So the following items are items I got for our family. I wouldn’t necessarily offer them as a blanket recommendation, since they are specific to the ways I want to teach and may not be relevant for your child’s stage of learning. But, feel free to peruse and check it out! I always like to see other people’s supply lists (the FOMO is strong haha) so now you can spy mine. I put an asterisk by the ones I am an especially big fan of.

Math supplies:

*Toy Register (PreK-5): Kids can stare at pictures of money all day long, but give them some play money and let them practice buying things and it will be so much more meaningful. I also set up a poster the other night to help my kids see the relationship between the various coins and the dollar bill and I am weirdly excited to walk them through it and help them make “cents” of money. 😀

*Tangrams (K-5): These are great to improve spatial visualization, familiarity with shapes, comparing skills, and understanding of fractions. I used to do these in my mom’s classroom all the time, and it probably built up persistence and grit, too, since some of those puzzles were really hard for me to solve as a little kid.

Unifix Cubes (PreK-2): Use these to practice counting, patterns, addition, subtraction, measurement, and more! Also good for improving fine motor skills in little hands.

*Geoboard (K-5): This is great for teaching shapes, symmetry, angles, fractions, and area.

Counting bears (Pre-K-1): For pre-k and primary kids. Useful to help with counting, comparing, making patterns, etc.

Counters (PreK-5): Handy for math games, counting, sorting, ten frames, bingo, and probability.

*Pattern Blocks (PreK-5): Great for developing familiarity with shapes, area, symmetry, and just good old fun designing.

*Fraction tiles and circles (1-5): I like to do the construction paper cutting version of these the first time around where the kids have a set of rainbow paper strips and we fold and cut them down, labeling each segment. However, for continued play I think these will be so much easier to manipulate. I made several magnetic sets of the circle ones when I was a teacher, and just ordered a rectangular set.

Hands-on Equations (3-5): My students always had fun “playing” with these sets and I have a feeling my kids will really enjoy figuring these out. It’s basically hands-on algebra, and even though it took a pandemic for me to pull the trigger on buying my own set, I’m really excited to teach it now!

Abacus (1-5): I watched a video on how to use an abacus and it looks really fun! I wanted to buy the pretty one from IKEA but they’re all sold out 🙁 My little cousin is an abacus whiz so maybe one day he can show my kids something cool.

Montessori Beads (preK-2): This is a very specific set of materials that honestly, I haven’t spent that much time figuring out how to use yet. But another teacher friend of mine loves them for her little one, so I thought I’d try them out. Will report back if they skyrocket to the top of my list this year!


I have other supplies here and there but they are very specific and these are the ones I wanted to highlight. Share this list with friends who are scrambling to buy school supplies and maybe the few of you can buy in bulk and save together! Or, take the extras (even I can’t imagine a use for six whiteboards) and make sweet back-to-school kits for your neighbors’ kids.

Regardless of how you and your family are doing school this year, I wish you the best and hope somehow we can all look back on this time and have fond, happy memories to recollect. I especially feel for the working parents who have to figure out how to juggle… everything. I honestly can’t even begin to imagine, and I am saying a general prayer for you all right now <3.

Like I mentioned earlier, I love to see what other people are getting, so do me a favor and drop a link to some of your favorite supplies or something you’re thinking of getting!