Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nature Activities for Toddlers

I'm a nature-loving mama, so it has always been important to me for my children to experience nature. It's not the same as when I was growing up, because I lived on a mountain surrounded on all sides by a forest. My kids and I live on the outskirts of a city, so we are lucky enough to be next to a river and a nice park that we can frequent daily. 

Here are a few easy nature activities for toddlers. I chose the things my kids enjoy most, but this is by no means the only options. The ideas for play are only limited by your imagination, so get out there and be creative and have fun! Let the kids decide what they want to do in nature and they will thank you for it!

Collect Sticks!

Or stones. Or shells. Or leaves. Whatever you can find and pick up outside in nature will do. You wouldn't think it, but it is so fun for a toddler! My little man loves collecting sticks at the park! He will diligently, and with more focus than he normally exerts, collect sticks for an hour. Then when his arms are full and he can't carry any more, he will set them down behind his "rock slide" and count them (it's his "pretend cave"). Or build a stick teepee. Or make a fence or road with them for his cars. Or have a stick sword fight with his sister. Lots of possibilities! 

He was so proud of himself and even counted all of them to tell Bean how many he found!

Find Insects!

Or birds or animals, whatever lives in your area. My son especially loves finding honey bees and watching them slurp up delicious nectar. We don't know where these bees have their hive, but they are constantly hanging out around this patch of milkweed at the end of our driveway. Butterflies also love it here, but I haven't been able to catch a picture of them. You can just barely see the bee zipping by. 

Go Rock Jumping!

Ok, so for a younger toddler, you may be thinking, no way! But seriously, if your kid is a jumper, let them jump! Obviously, somewhere safe where they won't break a leg or something, but if the rock is only a foot off the ground and they happen to fall down the first few times, it's ok. Kids are resilient and they will get back up on that rock and jump off again! They will learn to balance and be able to work on their coordination skills, along with other important gross motor skills. This is also a great exercise to build confidence! Parents these days are scared of anything bad happening to their kids. I admit, I am one of those moms, even though I was the kind of kid who used to jump off bridges into rivers and swim in lakes where I often saw moose and bears not ten feet from me. And yes, if my kids fall and start to cry, I do rush over and see if they need help. But if they are fine, I wipe their tears and encourage them to go play again rather than remove them from their playing. My son was always really cautious, but the day he decided to climb up on the "rock slide" (it has one smooth side they can slide down), and jump off it, he was sold! Jumping off of stuff is now one of his favorite activities!

Go Swimming!

Find a local beach, lake, pond or river that is safe to swim in. Kids will learn wherever they go, be it collecting shells, spotting fish, finding driftwood or building sandcastles. Some kids will prefer to sit on the beach, digging holes or searching for rocks and shells, while others will want to explore in the water and go swimming. It is always a fun experience for us and gradually over time they become more confident in the water. 

Go on a Nature Walk!

We are very fortunate to have grandparents who own a summer cottage on an island with no electricity. We have to go over from the mainland on a boat and once we are there, we are immersed in a wonderful world. I grew up spending every summer there and now I am glad I can bring my kids there! They love exploring the paths, wandering into the trees and discovering giant June bugs or catching a toad and letting it go. They love that they can walk on their own and be fearless lions (their current favorite animal to pretend to be) that are making a home for themselves on a giant boulder. 

Lastly, if you're stuck in a city and can't get out to explore nature with your little ones, you could create a nature table or a treasure basket filled with natural things to explore at home, like shells, pine cones, leaves of all shapes and sizes, rocks and flowers. Whatever you have on hand or can collect. Our nature collection has grown over time and my kids love it. We have even asked family members who have gone on vacation to bring us home something from where they visited, like a small bag of sand and shells from a beach in Aruba. :)

Be sure to stop by Suzy Homeschooler's too, she is sharing The Benefits of Being Bored Outdoors! And next week is our last week of our Toddler Series! We really hope you enjoyed the activities we shared (and we will share more toddler activities, just not as part of this series). Look forward to our upcoming series! 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

HomeSchoolPiano Review

We received a lifetime subscription to HomeSchoolPiano to review. The lifetime subscription covers up to five students and gave us access to HomeSchoolPiano's Complete Set of Books. This is a product for all ages. My 3 year old and 4 1/2 year old have both watched the videos and practiced playing the piano keyboard. 
A bit about HomeSchoolPiano:
Willie Myette is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and has toured the US and Europe as a clinician and performer. He began JazzKids in 1996, which has grown to be a program used by hundreds of teachers around the globe. The JazzKids books and workshops have taught children as young as six years old how to improvise and play their own music. was founded in 2007 and has been used by thousands of students. Now with HomeSchoolPiano, parents can teach their students from the comfort of their own home how to play the piano using Willie's methods!
There are three books in the set along with the core book, which teaches a beginner everything they need to know to begin learning about how to play the piano. HomeSchoolPiano strives to "teach you how to become a fully expressive piano player who is as comfortable creating music as you are reading music." You will learn how to read, compose and perform your own music! With your purchase, you will receive instant access to the online lessons. All you need is an internet connection and a phone, tablet or computer to watch the videos on. It is recommended that you use a full-size keyboard or piano with this program. Each unit consists of seven lessons and the videos are up to ten minutes long. Students can work at their own pace while watching the videos and practice afterwards. 
The website is easy to navigate and once you are signed in, it remembers which lesson you used last. We have slowly been making our way through the introduction videos (CorePiano) and have watched some lessons from Book One. 

You can easily pause, rewind, fast-forward and play the videos.
You can find the length of the video at the bottom.

The videos are set-up so that you can see the teacher playing the piano and speaking to the camera in the lower left hand corner. Any available downloads to supplement the lessons are at the bottom of the video (video, audio, mp3, etc.). A top view of the instructor playing the piano is in the direct center and above that is a digital piano, which shows the keys being played in bright orange with the name of the note above it. 

If you are looking for a piano teacher for the visual learner, then Homeschool Piano is perfect for your child. The videos are also great for students who need to watch something several times before they have it, because you can pause it, rewind, rewatch, whatever you need. I am one of those learners and if I was learning to play piano with an instructor, I would feel too awkward to ask them to go over it again. So a program like this is perfect for those shy students. Visual learners will love seeing and hearing the piano being played right before their eyes! Auditory learners will also benefit from the style of these lessons, based on how the video plays out. The lessons teach you to hear and recognize the sounds of the notes being played.

Homeschool Piano Review

The HomeSchoolPiano Method: Technique, Rhythm, Ear Training, Reading, Song and Improvisation. This six-step cycle has been tested and makes it easier for children to learn the piano faster. You will learn proper technique right from the beginning and you will be shown how to develop speed and dexterity. Rhythm is the "engine" that drives music and this program uses a unique vocalization process. You will be taught ear-training exercises to learn rhythm, melody, and harmony, which will improve your performances and improvisation. You will be taught how to read music using sight reading practices, which will make it easier to compose your own music. The songs they use are original and do not sound like exercises, so you'll be having fun playing while you learn! And finally, the last skill they teach is the most important one: improvisation. You will learn how to let your creativity soar and be able to create your own music!

There are also tests that go along with the unit lessons. Here are a few examples of how the tests look. They often only show a handful of questions and you can readily check your answers. Correct answers will be marked off with blue and incorrect with red. You can opt to show the correct answers, that you can see where you made your mistakes.

Each book also comes with a downloadable pdf book. You can view it online or you can print it out. We printed ours out and hole-punched one side and arranged them in order in a 3-ring binder. The kids haven't used it much, but they enjoy using it to match the notes and name them using small pieces of felt that I designed.
Homeschool Piano Review

While this piano program was created with homeschool students in mind, I believe students in public school or even adults would benefit from these videos. My own children will likely take a break from it for the remainder of the summer (due to vacations and mostly being out of the house). But we intend to revisit this program at the start of the new school year!

Homeschool Piano Review

So here is the one big improvement I think HomeSchoolPiano should do to make this product even better - make an app for it! Why make an app for it when there are other piano apps available? Well, there are tons of piano apps out there. However, most only teach you certain songs, and some are not designed well and barely work, while others are just not kid-friendly (such as a million and one pop-up ads). We have tried out a couple and there's only one that we found that pairs well with this program. It is just a basic piano and the keys light up and display the name of the key (similar to the HomeSchoolPiano videos). It does have songs that you can learn, but we did not use that feature much. My daughter used this app alongside the HomeSchoolPiano lessons so that she could watch the videos on our computer or laptop and use the app on the tablet. While it is not a full-sized keyboard or piano, it definitely kept her attentive and interested in the videos. She was able to use the videos and app independently. When we tried to set her up with the videos on our laptop and the keyboard on the table in front of it, she became intimidated and did not want to have anything to do with it.

So, why should HomeSchoolPiano create their own app? A) It would be designed to work specifically with the HomeSchoolPiano lessons. B) While you can watch the videos on your phone or tablet while you are on-the-go, you are unable to practice what you learn. With an app, you would basically have a mini piano in your pocket. You can freestyle play or practice specific songs whenever you want. C) It would make lessons easier for homeschoolers who have multiple children, that way everyone can watch the videos on a computer/laptop and practice together or on their own, meaning one child could use the piano app while another uses a real piano/keyboard.

So how much is it worth? Considering what most parents pay for a piano tutor, it isn't much at all. They have two payment options, and both give you a lifetime subscription! How amazing is that? You can use this program with up to five students and it doesn't matter their age or what level of piano instruction they are at, they can begin wherever they need. And if other subjects, vacation, or life is hectic and they need to take a break, they don't have to ever worry about their subscription running out or that they have to cram through the lessons faster than they can properly learn them. They can return when they are ready to begin again.

Option One
Success Package (One payment of $299): Unlimited life-time access to HomeSchoolPiano along with all bonuses (downloads, jam tracks, sheet music) for up to 5 students.

Option Two
Payment Plan (Payments of $99.97 per month for three months): Unlimited life-time access to HomeSchoolPiano along with all bonuses (downloads, jam tracks, sheet music) for up to 5 students.

Try out the Free Lessons before deciding if HomeSchoolPiano is right for your children! Be sure to also check out the JazzEdge Network, which includes Willie Myette's jazz education, performances, and other educational resources.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Pom Pom Sensory Bin

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for your support!

Today's Toddler Series theme is Pom Poms! Pom poms are seriously awesome and so much fun to play with! You can make pom poms out of yarn (YouTube tutorial) or you can use store bought Pom Poms. Since young toddlers often put things in their mouth, I'd suggest holding off on introducing them to homemade yarn pom poms, just in case a strand comes lose. However, if they are past that stage, feel free to let them help you make a couple pom poms! They are super cute and fun to make!

We used regular store bought pom poms simply because our dog, Kaede, is notorious for making off with our homemade pom poms... She meticulously pulls out each strand one by one...

We filled the bottom of a sensory bin with small and medium sized pom poms. We added tubes (aluminum foil rolls and toilet paper rolls), small ice cube trays, large plastic tweezers, and medium and large sized Easter eggs.

My kids love simple sensory bins like this! They are perfect for quiet time play, like before or after nap time when toddlers need some relaxation. Or if you are homeschoolers and have a little one, a sensory bin like this might keep them busy while you are working with an older child.

The tubes are fun to stuff full of pom poms and to watch them disappear through them and fall out the bottom.

You can use the ice cube tray for cooking, as Munchkin did, or use it to match pom pom colors. Fill one side with pom poms of different colors and then ask them to fill the opposite side with the matching color (or shade if you want to challenge them).

Bean loved playing with the paper tubes and created a little tower and "pom shoot".


Munchkin really liked filling the eggs with pom poms and then working out his fine motor skills by closing them.

Even though Munchkin is almost 3 and Bean is 4 1/2, they both still love sensory bins like this! It kept them busy for over half and hour and they have asked for it several times since. 

For an older toddler, you could also add some colorful pipe cleaners. This way they can use them to create little critters, like black and yellow bumble bees, or pretty butterflies! My kids usually want to make dogs and cats. We did not add any this time because we somehow worked our way through our stash of pipe cleaners... Whoops! Time to restock. :)

Be sure to stop by Suzy Homeschooler's to see her Motor Activities Using Pom Poms!

Monday, July 14, 2014

How to Make a Felt Teepee

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for your support!

We will be working through some American history this year, from a preschool-kindergarten perspective. Most of the learning will be from reading living books, playing with themed small worlds and sensory bins (Safari Ltd. TOOBS will definitely be used!), along with many hands-on activities and crafts. For the past month we have been working on our first month-long unit study! To begin American history, we definitely had to start with Native Americans. I have always loved learning about their beliefs, culture and history. We have a few relatives who are Native American, but they live on the other side of the country and sadly we have been unable to visit them in years (kinda hard to drive that far with two little ones). However, I have many great memories of spending summers with them, sleeping in tipis, going to Pow-Wows and watching Sun Dances (I was too young to participate). I used to listen to the Medicine Man tell stories and teach me about plants and how they were used for ceremonies and healing. During one of the ceremonies, it began raining and the Medicine Man parted the rain out of the circle. It sounds crazy, but it actually happened. Even my dad was shocked and we were just talking about it the other day. It was truly wonderful and I hope my children will be able to share similar experiences some day. 

In order to teach my children about Native American history, I wanted to make them some felt creations that they could use for small world play. Since I have actual experience living in a tipi (or tepee or teepee, however you want to spell it), I knew that was where I wanted to begin. I looked at old pictures of the tipi I stayed in and decided to model my felt tipi after them. The only part I left out was the door flap, because it's summer time. However I will likely add a flap that can be rolled up or folded over in the future. 

To make a tipi you will need:
Felt - I used cream colored felt
Thread - Ecru and brown colored DMC Embroidery Floss
Embroidery Needle
Sharp Scissors - fabric scissors work best
Disappearing Ink Pen - for tracing pattern
Fabric Markers (optional) 
Watercolor Paints (optional) 
Bamboo Skewers - for the lodge poles 
Paper and pen/pencil for tracing pattern

I began by tracing a large circle on thick paper (easier to use as a template for tracing). I did not want to make the tipis too big, because they are made out of felt and I wanted them to be stable and able to stand on their own. Then I cut out the circle and folded it into quarters.

I drew three circles of the same size along one of the folds. The circle in the middle will be the top of the tipi where the smoke escapes from. The circles on the ends will be the two sides of the opening to get in and out of the tipi. You can customize the size of the tipi to fit your needs. We made them kind of small, but we will likely make larger ones in the future. The small tipis fit two Safari Ltd Powhatan Indians TOOB figures comfortably (standing or laying down). Tipis typically could house a whole family.

Fold the template in half, along the line of small circles and cut out the small circles. Then you can use that as your template, or you can trace that onto another piece of paper. It should look like the picture below.

Trace the pattern on your felt and cut it out. If you use a disappearing ink pen the trace lines will fade.

Felt usually has a soft side and a rough side, so I made sure the soft side was on the inside of the tipi and the rough side was on the outside (easier for painting). It should look like this when it is standing up (below).

You can whip stitch or blanket stitch the edges of the tipi (use thread that matches the color of the felt). Stay close to the edge, but not close enough that the stitches will pull out.

Then add your wooden lacing pin details with a brown thread. You can either whip stitch them (like below) for an easier design, or if you scroll down, you can see on the tipi with triangles, how I stitched them to look more like wooden lacing pins.

I made three teepees (tipis, tepees), all with different patterns. One we kept relatively plain and the others we decorated using watercolors. Yep, you heard that right. Watercolors. We used Faber-Castell Watercolors, because they are seriously the BEST. We tested them out on wood too and in both cases they worked great! Just be sure not to use a lot of water and paint carefully. The paint will bleed out if it is too moist, because felt is incredibly fibrous and it will spread like wildfire. So take your time. Maybe even test it out on a piece of scrap felt before attempting it. The effects were exactly what we were hoping for! The paint is flexible and nothing peels off, although it is slightly stiff, but honestly that's a good thing! I let them dry overnight before I let the kids play with them.

I tested the watercolors and fabric markers on a piece of scrap felt before attempting to paint the teepees. The red and orange are watercolors. In the middle is what black fabric marker (Tee Juice) looks like. I found that the marker ink seeped into the felt and while it was dark on the other side, it looked grayer on the front side. 

We created our own patterns using colors that were symbolic to Native Americans. I tried to keep them more to the theme, but for the most part I asked the kids what kind of pattern they wanted and did my best to make it work. You can use a disappearing ink pen to draw a pattern first, if you want. We used a black fabric marker to mark a few lines that we intended to paint over with black paint after. And you should be aware that anything you paint will end up folding up into a cone shape, so don't be like me and paint an off-center circle around the top. :)

This is the pattern that Munchkin had requested: "lots of triangles and dots!" He also chose a red, black, orange and yellow color scheme. The two detailed tipis have their smoke flaps sewn open. I simply folded them over and line stitched along the fold.

You can glue the lodge poles to the felt using Elmer's Craft Bond Glue (it's flexible and durable) if you want it to be permanent, but we chose not to. This way the kids can pretend to take down the tipi and pack it up for travel. I kept the pointed ends of the lodge poles on the bottom, so they can easily press them into dirt or play dough, whatever medium they are using for a surface of their small worlds. You can just as easily cut off the tips so that no one accidentally pokes themselves.

Bean's teepee is the one with the yellow base. She had wanted a buffalo and a "man with a shield". She drew out the pictures on paper using crayons and I did my best to copy her art on the felt.

Here's a little small world Bean set up the morning after I finished making them (before I measured and cut the lodge poles). I love that they are so sturdy! And they were a great addition to our unit study and small world play.