activities, Best Idea Ever, dramatic play, projects, rainy days, recycled materials, SuperSam

Best Idea Ever, Vol. 3: Build a rocket out of boxes.

On a truly cold day, outside play is not practical for our family. Lucy isn’t walking yet, so she gets really cold if she’s just sitting in the swing or being pushed in a ride-on vehicle. SuperSam dislikes wearing coats or anything with long sleeves, so clothing ends up being a battle on particularly cold days. And Nora won’t leave on her mittens, so her hands get cold quickly. I’ve heard it said that there is no bad weather for playing outdoors, just bad clothing, and I generally agree…but if the children in question won’t wear the appropriate clothing, it’s hard to make it work.

So, on a recent bitterly cold day (when everyone was cranky and bouncing off the walls), I pulled out the giant cardboard packing boxes I’d been saving since Christmas. Add a box cutter, a roll of duct tape, and some crayons, and we had a morning activity waiting to happen.

I assumed we’d build a fort or a playhouse of some type, and I started putting the boxes together with that in mind. End to end, we had about a refrigerator box and a half’s worth of cardboard real estate with which to work. The Sisters set to crawling in and out of the boxes immediately. SuperSam grabbed some bubble wrap, held it up to one end of the boxes, and said, “This can be the windshield. It is thick enough to withstand the rays of the Sun when we do a flyby.”

That’s when I realized we were actually building a rocket. (Silly me.)

SuperSam got out his tool box and passed out hammers and screwdrivers to The Sisters, and they all started happily banging away. I cut some windows in the boxes and taped everything together while SuperSam added some coloring and numbers (“like NASA has on their rockets”) to the sides of the structure. Then Captain SuperSam and I made a seat out of a smaller box so he would have a place to sit in the cockpit. He insisted that Navigator Nora have a seat, as well, and I persuaded him that making one for Lucy would be the kind thing to do. (I don’t know why Nora gets all the best gigs in these situations.)

Finally, we made a control panel by gluing buttons and knobs (caps from gallon milk jugs and various bottles) on the bottom of a little box. The spacecraft was ready for flight.

The children played in it all week, first in the kitchen, where we had built it, and then later in the living room, where it took up almost all the floor space. It is currently stationed in SuperSam’s bedroom, where it will remain until he gets tired of playing in it. He tried to fit his bed inside, but the box wasn’t quite big enough for that. He did take a nap earlier this week just inside the opening of the rocket on the floor. “I’m training to be an astronaut,” he said, “so I might as well learn how to sleep in a rocket.”

activities, rainy days, sensory play, SuperSam, water play

Play with Water Beads

They bounce. They roll. They’re slimy. They disappear when you put them in water. They are the coolest things that didn’t exist when you were little. Water Beads!

The brand name is Orbeez, and you can buy them in many colors from Amazon, among other places. I found some clear ones at The Dollar Tree and bought two containers. (I love that store.) I have been saving them for a day when we need something a little snazzy to perk things up around here. I thought it would be a bad weather day…but it turned out that we needed just such a novelty to snap SuperSam out of a funk during his sisters’ nap.

We put the beads in a clear plastic shoe box, and he dove right in. (Not really, but almost. I think he would have stripped off his clothes and gotten into the box if it were possible.) He poured them in and out of containers, scooped them up in his hands, stirred them with spoons, and squished them to see what would happen.
After a while, he said, “What would happen, I wonder, if we put them in water?”
We decided to find out.
I filled a clear plastic measuring cup halfway with water, and he started dropping them in…and something amazing happened.
I thought they had dissolved. (I know, that makes no sense, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me.) We couldn’t see them at all. We held the cup up to the window, shook it around…no sign of the aqua beads. Then SuperSam stuck his hand into the cup and yelled, “THEY ARE STILL IN THERE!”
He was kind of spooked, actually.
We decided it was a good thing we had bought clear beads (all they had at the Dollar Tree) instead of the colored ones – this cool discovery would never have happened otherwise. 
The Aqua Beads were everything that water play usually is and more. We had a great time with them. They came out two more times during the day for “experiments” before I caught SuperSam trying to fill the bathtub with them “so I could see what it would be like to get under them with my whole body.”
“This AquaBead looks like Haumea.”
If anyone wants to sponsor this project, I am willing to host it in our bathroom. Please send donations of AquaBeads to SuperSam at our address. 
activities, celestial buddies, mail, planets, post office, projects, rainy days, SuperSam

Interplanetary Mail…SuperSam goes "postal"

Given my history with the post office, one might think I’d be reluctant to recreate it here in my house. SuperSam and his planets need to send Valentines to each other, though, and he has decided to be their postman. “I need a postman bag,” he said, “and a postman hat and outfit.”

I think we have this dapper postman guy to thank for that. Our local mail delivery lady looks nothing like this.

Postman from Clifford Barks by Norman Bridwell

With no mailman hat, I am improvising. We created some mailboxes out of coffee cans from Trader Joe’s. We covered them in bright paper, decorated with markers and stickers, and nailed the bottoms to some scrap wood to make them stand up. I stuck the ends of the pieces of wood into an upturned cardboard box (just cut x’s with a box cutter and pushed them in). We covered the box with green construction paper “grass.” and voila! Mailboxes.

I didn’t look on Pinterest. There is bound to be someone who has made cuter, easier, snazzier mailboxes. There is probably a step-by-step tutorial about how you can do it, too. I am not that woman, as usual…but I am happy to report that the boxes are sturdy enough so far to withstand the forceful play of my three small people. (The Sisters have found their boxes and like to hide items in them and find them again later.) Besides, there’s a lot to be said for using what you have on hand when you need to do something like this.

SuperSam: Mama! Let’s make a post office!

Mama: Great idea! First, we need to drive an hour to the nearest craft store to get cute Valentine-themed contact paper and brads that are heart-shaped!

Yeah, that’s not my life. I think if Macgyver’s mother had been a preschool teacher, she would have been kind of like me: resourceful, creative, able to make something functional out of almost nothing. Pretty, color-coordinated Valentine contact paper? Meh.

Continuing with my “function is more important than form” theme, we also made a mailbox out of an empty Tide detergent box by covering it in blue paper and cutting a slot in the lid with a box cutter. (SuperSam added the planetary graffiti. I guess he thought it needed some cutening up.) The little postman gleefully retrieves the mail from the box, puts it into his mailbag, and delivers it to the appropriate post office box. We added some “window” envelopes that had been headed for the recycling bin and some catalogs.

SuperSam gets up really early (well before 6:00 AM every day), so we sometimes leave out “invitations” for him in case he needs something new and different to work on in the mornings before everyone else is ready to go. I have come to really enjoy being awakened by the sound of his voice down the hall, talking excitedly about what he’s doing with the materials I left for him. Before going to bed, I set out a tray with paper, envelopes, colored pencils, markers, and labels for him.  I also left some “mail” in his box, including a note from the newest Celestial Buddy, Earth. The next morning, SuperSam played with this stuff for about 40 minutes, chatting animatedly with Earth about writing letters to all the other planets. By the time I came to the kitchen, they had covered the floor with mail. Exciting!

The postal serivce here has been in high demand as all the Celestial Buddies write each other letters on personalized stationery created by SuperSam. He even made stamps out of the labels (with pictures of planets and constellations on them, of course). Apparently the cost of sending a letter from one planet to another has not been affected by the economy…and if the volume of mail is any indication, these planets prefer to stay in touch the old fashioned way.

books, snow, SuperSam

7 books to read when you wish it was snowing

We are a household of snow lovers.

We have been waiting all winter for some decent snow. There was some over Christmas, but we missed it while we were away visiting family.

Finally, we got enough snow to put on our snowsuits and head outside to play.

Here are some pictures- smiles all around, even from the baby girls who hadn’t ever been in the snow before!

Instead of real snow, we’ve mostly had flurries, dustings and clouds that look like snow but don’t really make any. We’ve had rain. We’ve had fog. We even had thunderstorms one day.

“Rain, rain, go to bed…why can’t you be snow instead?” 


Ah, well.

In addition to being a household of snow lovers, we are a household of book lovers. We keep a basket of books together near our favorite reading spot in the living room. Really, we have baskets of books in every room of our home (and generally books are loose from their baskets and lining the hallways and doorways in a kind of breadcrumb trail where children have pulled them out and traveled with them), but these books in this basket rotate with the seasons or with topics of interest. Right now, the basket is full of books about snow. We have been reading them over and over and living vicariously through them while we wait for snow of our own.

In hopes that we might create some strong “snow buzz” among you readers and increase our chances of getting some more of our favorite precipitation, I’d like to share some of our favorite snow books with you. (These book images are NOT Amazon affiliate links, just so you know.) I’d also like to ask that you join us in the snow dance by wearing your pajamas inside out and dancing around with your pillow on your head (unless you have an aversion to snow and are hoping against our hopes, in which case you are both a spoilsport and exempt).

Snow by Uri Shulevitz is my very favorite snow book ever. (That’s saying a lot.) It is about the simple joy of snow and how it overcomes the naysayers. “Snowflakes don’t listen to radio. Snowflakes don’t watch television. All snowflakes know is snow, snow, snow.” I love everything about it…the simple text is so memorable that we quote it all the time when the topic of snow comes up (which is often, this time of year). “‘Snow,’ said the boy.” Sigh. It’s just perfect.

Mooncake by Frank Asch is the book that started SuperSam on his interest in all things space. The bear in the story wants to know what the moon tastes like and builds a rocket so he can travel there to find out. (There is definitely snow involved…you’ll have to read the story to see what happens!). SuperSam traditionally makes a mooncake from the snow each time there is enough on the ground to scrape it into a cup. And yes, he eats it. And no, I don’t stop him, even if the snow doesn’t pass my own personal standards of edibility. A little dirt will probably strengthen his immune system, right?

Mooncake, 2010
Mooncake, 2013

Flannel Kisses by Linda Crotta Brennan is currently Lucy’s favorite book. I love it, too. The illustrations are the coziest kind of cute, and the text is simple and straightforward. Although this book is wishful thinking for us so far this winter, I can remember snow days from childhood that felt as free and light as the one in the story…the day feels spacious and long, but the story is over before you know it (and the day with it). A great before-bed read for everyone.

The Mitten by Jan Brett is a retelling of a folk tale involving a lost mitten that gets bigger and bigger as more and more woodland creatures crawl inside. If you aren’t familiar with Jan Brett’s art, it’s amazing – she adds great story details in the sidebars of each picture that older children will love to notice and point out. The story is funny and simple, but the pictures are what really make this book a classic. It lends itself well to retelling with finger puppets or paper animals and a large mitten (paper or knitted)…a fun thing to try with your little ones after you’ve read the book together.

The Three Snow Bears by Jan Brett (an author/illustrator who is definitely worthy of being on this list twice) is a retelling of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This version of the story is happy and totally toddler-appropriate (although we tend to summarize for our littlest family members instead of reading all the words to them). In Jan Brett’s beautiful pictures, the story seems to have been about an Inuit girl, her sled dogs and this family of three personable snow bears (with such expressive faces!) all along. It’s a family favorite. (Special thanks to Megan for introducing us to it.)

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is one of those books that never gets old, no matter how many times we read it. This is a good thing, because everyone likes it and demands to have it read over and over. Ezra Jack Keats’ bright, eye-catching art draws readers into the story (and as a mama, I can’t help but love how cute little Peter looks in his bright orange snowsuit!). SuperSam really relates to Peter at this point in his life, and he always wants to discuss Peter’s disappointment when things don’t turn out exactly as he hopes with his snowball. This book has inspired us to create art both indoors and out with its bright colors, textures and patterns. It also served as a nice jumping off point for a lively discussion about freezing and melting.

Froggy Gets Dressed by Jonathan London is one of those books that is more fun for me if I read it with funny voices. It’s a bit repetitive, like all the Froggy books, and it can get tiring if I am asked to read it many times in a row. SuperSam loves it, though, as do most preschool-aged boys and girls I know. The repetition of the dialogue between Froggy and his mother and the taking off and putting on of the same clothes repeatedly are just perfect for them. The reference to underwear is like icing on the cake. If I start to feel bored with it or am reluctant to read it again, I just look at SuperSam’s delighted face and remember that reading together isn’t about me (and that I love reading all the other books on this list so much that I don’t ever have to pretend to be happy when my children ask for them!). It’s worth it.

There you have it…our wishful-thinking list of snow books. I’d love to know your favorites…what winter weather books should we add to our collection?

activities, four year olds, planets, preschool, SuperSam

Earth to SuperSam

SuperSam’s favorite toys of all time are his Celestial Buddies.
This is a photo of Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction, taken by SuperSam himself. He is especially fond of making his planets interact and asking us to guess what astronomical events we think he is representing. This never seems to get old for him.
I wouldn’t have guessed there was a big market for stuffed planets with faces, arms and legs, but my son is truly the target for this product. He loves his Celestial Buddies more than anything and plays with them every day. He sleeps with them every night. He takes them in the car everywhere we go, and we always have to have a big discussion about why they can’t come into the grocery store or into Mass with us when we get to church. He feeds them and talks with them about their feelings and drives them around in laundry baskets and helps them do chores. He’s a huge fan, truly. I doubt there is a more devoted, more loving caretaker of celestial objects anywhere (other than the Architect of the Universe himself).
So, the other day, when he announced he wanted to buy a new buddy for his collection, I was not surprised.
Being only 4 years old (not even 4 1/2 yet, as he’s fond of saying), SuperSam doesn’t exactly have a stream of income. He sometimes gets money for his birthday or other holidays, which he stuffs into his green and blue piggy bank. When he finds change on the floor or in the couch cushions, he adds that to his stash. I had no idea how much money was in the piggy bank, but I knew it couldn’t be much.
He was doggedly persistent in his argument that he be able to buy a new planet, listing out his reasons and building a case as the day went on. “I practically have half the solar system,” he said, “and I think it’s definitely time that I added someone new to my collection.” I was sure he wouldn’t have enough money, but he insisted repeatedly that we find out how much he had. “I think I have at least 42 in there,” he said. I knew he meant 42 coins, and I dreaded having to explain to him that a coin was not the same as a dollar. It seemed so complicated, and he was so excited by the whole idea that he was literally bouncing off the walls (making crashing sounds as he did it). My mind kept saying, “He is too young for the money conversation. He won’t understand if you try to explain it. He’s too worked up right now to focus on anything. It’s not even developmentally appropriate.”
It’s not developmentally appropriate. I know that. For better or worse, though, some children get to concepts before they are really “ready” to understand them. My child is one of those children. He’s not “ready” to understand the solar system and the universe, either, and yet he’s constantly spouting facts about nebulae and planets and constellations, quizzing us about which star is the biggest one known and whether we can be really sure that our entire solar system won’t be sucked into a black hole somewhere near the Andromeda galaxy. He picks his nose while he talks about how many Earths can fit inside the Great Red Spot on Jupiter and how Neptune has the strongest storms in the solar system (even though Jupiter’s best-known storm is more famous). He uses his chunky preschool crayons as he colors picture after picture of all the planets in order by size, or by distance from the Sun, complete with planetary symbols and moons. He depicts all the dwarf planets and loves to debate whether they ought to be included in the count and whether Pluto and Charon should be considered a binary system. He may only be four, but he believes he is a space scientist, and there’s no stopping him when he wants to know something. Who am I to stand in his way?
I took a deep breath and told him to go get the piggy bank.
We emptied it out on the table, and I made some little signs to help him know how many of each type of coin made up a dollar. He sorted all the coins into piles, then began arranging them in groups to add up to a dollar.
After he had sorted all the coins and separated them into groups, I helped him count all the dollars. He then asked to go “to amazon-dot-com” to see how much a Celestial Buddy would cost. We wrote down the amount of money he had and the price of his top three choices for Celestial Buddies.
He planned at first to buy The Sun, but it was $24.00. He only had $20.88. He then planned to buy Mercury (super cute with his little running shoes on, by the way!), which was only $18…but he then found that Mercury was only available from a seller in England and would take weeks to arrive. (“I will wait and get Mercury the next time I’m in England,” he said casually.) Finally, he made the decision to purchase Earth, which was $21.88. He was a dollar short.
I told him if he helped unload the dishwasher I would give him 50 cents. He helped fold some laundry to earn the other 50 cents, and then he was all set.
He handed over all the coins and bills to us, and we ordered his planet. The confirmation screen came up, and George showed it to him. The newest addition to the family, Planet Earth, would arrive on Tuesday.
SuperSam looked stunned. “Tuesday?? When is Tuesday?” he choked.
George looked surprised. “Well, it’s on Tuesday.” he said. He pointed at the days on the calendar, showing SuperSam where we were in the week. “Today is Friday. Earth will be mailed to us and will probably be delivered Tuesday. That’s the day after Monday,” he explained, patiently.
SuperSam was appalled. “There’s no way I can wait until Tuesday, Daddy,” he said, his voice rising. “I actually don’t even really know when Tuesday is!”
And that, I guess, is the difficulty in having a child like SuperSam. He had no problem with the money sorting, counting, comparing amounts…but he still doesn’t really understand when Tuesday is. He’s four. He doesn’t need to know any of this stuff yet. I’m never sure whether we are doing the right thing by explaining things as they come up with him, but I’m not sure what else we could do. He is full of curiosity, and he expects us to help him find ways to discover answers when he is looking for them. We try to keep it at an appropriate level, but it’s hard to keep pace with his questions and inquiries and research and ideas and projects if we only “let” him do things that are “appropriate” for someone his age. In some ways, he’s just different, so we have to handle things differently…and that often means thinking on our feet and processing things as they come up.
Happily for all involved, The Earth Truck (aka United Parcel Service) arrived a day early, bringing an adorable stuffed Earth to a very delighted little boy. He proclaimed, “Aw, he is just so cute!”, then announced that Earth is his very favorite planetary object ever because it is a “comfy” planet and that he will be playing with Earth every day for as long as he lives. He also mentioned a plan to write to his babysitter Katie and tell her about Earth “so she can be expecting a new planet the next time she comes to play with me, so she won’t be too surprised when she sees that I have added someone new,” he said. “And when she asks me ‘who gave you that planet?’ I will tell her, “Katie, I bought this for my very own self and no one even helped me buy it except Mama and Daddy had to order it on amazon-dot-com because I do not have a credit card, anyway.”

Earth is in for many exciting adventures here, I am certain…he has already been on a picnic with the gas giants and been for a stroller ride with Saturn pushing him (they were kind enough to pose for a photo, above, while SuperSam had snack). He has not yet been introduced to his moon, but I feel sure they will be fast friends.

activities, projects, rainy days, SuperSam

Cloud Dough

Cloud Dough…it’s the wonderful sensory dough you probably haven’t tried yet. (Probably. Have you tried it? I hadn’t heard of it.)

We found the recipe at Tinkerlab, where Rachelle has a great post about her experience making cloud dough with her two daughters. (She has a lot of other wonderful stuff, too – check it out if you haven’t before.)

We used flour and baby oil to make our dough. The original recipe calls for 8 cups of flour. We were smack in the middle of cookie baking season over here (meaning we were going through lots of flour already), so I followed Tinkerlab’s suggestion and cut the recipe in half (using 4 cups of flour and half a cup of oil).

Here’s what to do if you want to make your own batch of cloud dough:

Put the flour in a container. (We used a large underbed-type storage box with a lid.) Form a mountain out of the flour, then make a crater in the top of the mountain like a volcano.

Pour the oil into the crater.

Use your hands to mix the oil and flour together until the mixture is crumbly.

Then play with it. That’s it. The more you handle it, the better the texture will be. It’s okay if there are some oily lumps and clumps…you can work them out as you play. You can mold it into shapes and sift it like powder. The dough has a soft, smooth texture, and it smells nice, too, thanks to the baby oil.

This project was fun. It was easy. And really, it was not bad to clean up. SuperSam made it snow on his dinosaurs. He made “snowballs” from the cloud dough and made the dinosaurs throw them at each other. He made handprints. His dinosaurs made footprints. Then he made footprints…because he wanted to see what the dough would feel like on his feet. And really, why not? The floor was pretty much covered in flour already. (I did put him straight into the tub afterward.)

We have been storing our cloud dough in the box with the lid on it for over a month now. Each time SuperSam has pulled it out to play with it, it has had the same great texture…it hasn’t dried out or gotten moldy or anything yucky that sometimes happens to these kinds of sensory doughs.

SuperSam’s evaluation: “Everybody should make this and play with it. It will work best if you have some dinosaurs or astronauts to put in there. I wouldn’t use your best cars or trains with it because they might get a bunch of flour caught in their wheels, and you wouldn’t be able to clean them very well because they can’t go in the bath. But you can always have a dinosaur wash if your mom will let you.”

activities, Christmas, crafting, feasts and seasons, liturgical year, process art, projects, recycled materials, SuperSam

Christmas, ongoing…Recycled Paper Tube Nativity

Despite the growing number of Christmas trees lying in gutters across America (and a Cadbury egg display sighting by George this weekend at a local convenience store), Christmas is still in effect. Today’s the ninth day, and SuperSam and I finished up a project we started a couple of weeks ago.
Now that he’s discovered how much fun it can be to play with art materials and glue things together, SuperSam is kind of unstoppable. One of my favorite things is just to give him a pile of recycled stuff and say, “Hey, what do you think we could make with this?” and see what he does.
It was his idea to make a nativity scene out of paper tubes. I had been saving them for his rocket making, and when he asked for them, I assumed a string of rockets would soon appear. I was surprised when he suggested we make an angel instead. The angel turned out great, and then we were on a roll.
We worked together since hot glue was involved – he picked out all the pieces for each character, and I helped with the cutting and the assembly as needed. The pipe cleaner arms were entirely his idea- he said that Mary ought to have arms “so she can rock her baby in case he gets upset.” (I love that.) 
Yes, those are airplanes on the angel’s robe. And clouds. SuperSam definitely knew what he wanted in the costume department. (You can see how he got there, though.)
This isn’t one of those lovely tutorials about how you can make your own nativity out of cardboard tubes. Come on, you don’t need a tutorial. It’s easy and fun, and you should definitely do it – you have three whole days of Christmas left, so get busy!
We used toilet paper tubes or gift wrap tubes for most of the people, cutting them to appropriate lengths and adding pipe cleaner arms and clothes from scraps of fabric. We cut really small sections of tube for the sheep and covered them with quilt batting using Elmer’s glue. It was a sticky mess.
SuperSam did all the faces with magic marker. Most are smiling, and one king has a goatee. 
Baby Jesus is made from an empty spool I had been saving. He’s also purple…wait for it…”because he is the newborn king, and purple is the color of royalty.” My son, ladies and gentlemen…the liturgical sponge (who somehow managed to absorb something in church even though he was lying on the floor making drum machine noises during part of the homily).
Here is one of the kings bringing the baby a present. (Notice the sticky, half-bald sheep looking on…and Mary, for whom we emptied out the fabric scrap bag searching for the perfect piece of blue flannel.) 
After we completed the kings today, SuperSam played with the whole group for quite a while (until The Sisters got up from nap and threatened to eat some of the sheep). The kings ended up flying in from the end of the hallway on a spaceship “because we forgot to make some camels…we have, basically, none camels at this nativity”.
It was awesome.