Everything You Need to Know About Essential Oils

Everything You Need to Know About Essential Oils

Essential oils seem to be all the rage these days. People are looking for safer and more natural ways to take care of their bodies and homes and essential oils have a very strong allure. But are essential oils really all they’re cracked up to be?

When I get to talking with my friends about essential oils, two things always come up: 1) What are you actually supposed to DO with essential oils? and 2) What is the safest way to use essential oils? So I set off to do some research, and do you know what I learned? I learned that while essential oils aren’t the be all/cure all for everything, they are just like the spices we use for cooking. The more you play around with aromas and healing properties, the more you will be able to add a drop here and a drop there to positively effect the health and well-being of your entire family. So come learn with me!

What ARE Essential Oils?

Essential oils are basically the distilled and concentrated oils of a plant. But interestingly enough, they are not really essential and they are not really oils.

They are called “essential”, not because we need to get them from our diets (such as with essential amino acids like lysine or essential fatty acids like omega-3s), but rather because they contain the essence of the plant’s fragrance. Also, they are not really “oils” like olive oil and coconut oil because they do not contain fatty acids (although they are both hydrophobic and repel water).

If you look at the two examples below, the first one is a picture of oleic acid (up to 83% of olive oil is comprised of oleic acid), and is basically a long chain of carbon atoms (with a bend) surrounded by hydrogen atoms.

Oleic Acid (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, D.328, 2008)

Oleic Acid (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, D.328, 2008)

This next picture is of eugenol (about 20% of clove oil is comprised of eugenol), and it has more of a hexagon shape that is made of mostly hydrogen atoms and hydroxide diatomic anions.

Eugenol (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Fuse 809, 2013)

Eugenol (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Fuse 809, 2013)

So the term “oil” is used to reference the highly concentrated part of a plant that has been extracted. The oils extracted from plants are basically stored as microdroplets in the glands of plants.

Lavender Oil Glands and Trichomes (Lavandula Dentata) - Photo Credit: Power & Syred, 2008

Lavender Oil Glands and Trichomes (Lavandula Dentata) – Photo Credit: Power & Syred, 2008

The droplets diffuse through the walls of the glands and spread over the surface of the plant evaporating and creating the fragrance of the plant. According to Encyclopedia Britannica,

The function of the essential oil in a plant is not well understood.

Some postulations are that it protects the plant from parasites, or maybe it attracts bees, but since very few essential oils are actually involved in the plant, some people say that these materials are simply a waste product of plant biosynthesis. At any rate, they sure smell good!

How Are Essential Oils Made

Most pure essential oils are extracted from plants using steam distillation. Freshly picked plants are placed in a still and suspended over boiling water. The steam saturates the plants for fairly short about of time (about 15-30 minutes), and then it is rapidly cooled causing the steam to condense back into water. The water is drained from the still, the essential oils float to the top, and are then collected. The remaining water is sold as floral water, otherwise known as a hydrosol.

Another method is known as expression and is typically reserved for citrus peels such as orange, lemon, lime, or grapefruit. It is made in a similar way to olive oil by pressing the oil from the plant’s flesh, seeds, and skins.

Some plant material is too delicate and must be extracted with solvents (as is the case with rose oil). The oils that are extracted with solvents are called absolutes.

The Concentration of Essential Oils

I find it absolutely fascinating to think about how much of the raw plant is needed to make a small bottle of essential oil. I’ve found a few examples here that may vary slightly based on each oil company producing it, but will still blow your mind nonetheless.

Lavender Fields in France (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Marianne Casamance, 2011)

Lavender Fields in France (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Marianne Casamance, 2011)

  • 27 square feet of lavender are needed to make one 15 mL bottle of lavender oil
  • 75 lemons are needed to make one 15 mL bottle of lemon oil
  • 1 lb of raw peppermint material is needed to make one 15 mL bottle of peppermint oil (source)
  • One drop of peppermint oil is the equivalent of 26-28 cups of peppermint tea (source)
  • 200,000 rose petals are needed to make one 5 mL bottle of rose oil (source)

What Makes a Good Essential Oil?

Choosing the best high quality oil can take a little bit of research. Here are some of the things to look for when selecting an oil.

  • Special Note – There is no classification in the aromatherapy world for “therapeutic grade” oils. So any oil company who say, “no other oil company can say…”, it’s probably because their company has trademarked these words. (Read more about The ‘Therapeutic Grade’ Essential Oils Disinformation Campaign here.)
  • Growing Methods  – Look for oil companies that use sustainable and ethical farming practices free from herbicides, pesticides, and heavy metals. Note that the “organic” certification is great, but may not be available in some countries where the plants are grown.
  • Label – The label should include: the botanical plant name (i.e. lavandula angustifolia for lavender), plant part (flower/stem oil, flower oil, peel oil, etc.), and common sense caution (i.e. keep out of reach of children, consult a health practitioner if pregnant or nursing, etc.). Country of origin is also nice to know as well.

    Clove Oil Label

    Clove Oil Label

  • TestingGC/MS (Gas Chromatopography/Mass Spectrometry) testing identifies the different substances within a test sample.
  • Cost – If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. For example, jasmine oil and rose oil are very concentrated, hard to make, and will therefore run about $80 – $100 for a mere 5 mL. But higher cost does not always mean higher quality when it comes to price comparison.

Essential Oil Safety Guidelines

  • Is it safe to use undiluted oils? – It is generally recommended that you can use oils like lavender and tea tree “neat” without any dilution, but if you repeatedly use an essential oil without dilution on the skin for a period of time, you can become sensitized to it with an adverse reaction that will appear “suddenly” and may possibly never go away. It’s always safest to dilute essential oils using this guideline:
    • For Young Children (6-24 months) – 1 drop plus 1 T. of carrier oil
    • For Children (2+) and Sensitive Skin – 1 drop plus 1 tsp. of carrier oil
    • For General Daily Use – 2 drops plus 1 tsp. of carrier oil
    • For Periodic Use – 3 drops plus 1 tsp. of carrier oil
  • Which carrier oils are the best? – Carrier oils are the best way to dilute essential oils. Here is a list of the best carrier oils with notes about why you might consider each one.
    Carrier Oils

    Carrier Oils

    • Sweet Almond Oil – This is my favorite to use for skin care because it’s very light, reasonably inexpensive, has a sweet smell, and is very nutritious with lots of vitamins including A, B, and E.
    • Jojoba Oil – This oil is a bit thicker, has a longer shelf life, and has pretty much no odor. It mimics collagen making it great for people who suffer from any skin conditions.
    • Fractionated Coconut OilFractionated coconut oil has almost all of the long chain fatty acids removed leaving it with mostly medium chain fatty acids making it very saturated and very stable with a long shelf life. It will also stay in liquid form, is less likely to clog pores than regular coconut oil, and has the antioxidant and anti-mircorbial properties of capric and caprylic acid.
    • Olive Oil – This can be the most convenient carrier oil to use because you probably have it in your cupboards! It also contains lots of proteins, vitamins, and minerals that really help with skin and hair.
    • For Aging Skin – Apricot, Aragan, and Rosehip are all really great oils for aging skin.
  • Can young children use essential oil? The safest way for babies and young children to use essential oils is through diffusion, hydrosols (floral water left over after steam distillation), and application to the feet – the least overwhelming place for the senses (if they won’t put them in their mouth that is). Plant Therapy makes some great blends for kids over 2 like this Nighty-Night blend.
    • 0-3 Months: Avoid all essential oils, their skin is too sensitive and permeable
    • 3-6 Months:  Very little contact with essential oils with the exception of: Chamomile, lavender, dill, and blue yarrow
    • 6-24 Months: Can safely use a variety of essential oils including: citronella, grapefruit, orange, and tea tree
    • Children 2+: Can safely use an expanded array of essential oils including: clary sage, clove (for teething), frankincense, lemongrass, myrhh, oregano, spearmint, and vetiver
    • Avoid: Stay away from peppermint with children under 6 and eucalyptus and rosemary with children under 10 because they contain the constituent (1.8, cineole) which has been known to cause breathing problems (so this also means no thieves oil). (source 1, source 2)
  • Can pregnant and nursing women use essential oils? – Even though many pregnant women enjoy the benefits of essential oils, there haven’t been any studies to determine their absolute safety (ethical reasons), so pregnant women should use with caution. Here are a few general guidelines:
    • Avoid the use of essential oils in their first trimester
    • Only them use periodically – not daily
    • Avoid absolutes because of the trace chemicals
    • Avoid adding oils to the birthing pool because it could be harmful to the new baby
    • Avoid clary sage, all eucalyptus, lemongrass, myrrh, and oregano to name a few (source)
  • Is it safe to ingest essential oils? – When you think about how oil and water don’t mix, it is weird to add even just one drop of lemon essential oil to your water because not only is that the equivalent 1 lb of lemons, but it could cause burns, blisters, and lesions in your mouth, esophagus, and stomach lining if the undiluted droplet comes in contact with your sensitive tissues.
    • If you really want to get the health benefits of lemon in your water, I would just squeeze half of a lemon into your water and leave the oils for diffusing and skin care.
    • You can also find lavender tea, peppermint tea, and chamomile tea made from dried herbs that is a much safer method of ingesting.
    • Enteric coated capsules that will not release until they reach the small intestine (like these peppermint capsules for IBS) are also safer than trying to ingest essential oils.
    • Unless there are extreme circumstances (i.e. you are suffering from a debilitating illness and NOTHING else is working) and you are under the specific guidance of a trained aromatherapist, I would NOT RECOMMEND INGESTING ESSENTIAL oils. (source)
  • What should I do if I get some essential oil in my eyes or it burns my skin? – If you get some essential oil in your eyes or on your skin and it burns, the worst thing you can do is try to rinse it off with water. The best thing you can do is wipe the area clean with a carrier oil, some whole milk, or cream which will bind to the oil and rinse it away (source).
  • Other Precautions – Keep undiluted oils away from airways (nose and mouth) and avoid essential oil use with people who have respiratory diseases such as asthma because they can inflame the airways (source).

Best Uses for Essential Oils

Once you get past some of the basics about essential oils, I think that the most common question that I have heard (and thought myself) most often is,

“How do I actually use essential oils in my daily life?”

So here are some of the ways to use essential oils that are safe, practical, and things we could all use in our daily lives. Everyone has different smells that they find either intoxicating or disgusting, the best advice I have is to just get your nose in front of as many essential oils as you can until you find the fragrances that you really like.

  • Diffusing – Our sense of smell is very powerful at triggering emotions and memories and by diffusing essential oils, it can create very significantly alter your mood in a positive way by inducing anything from peace and calm to vigor and energy. Look for a cool air diffuser that uses high frequency vibrations to create an ultra fine mist. Check out this list of amazing diffuser blends that will fit just about any mood you might have. There are also a lot of pre-made blends you can get for different purposes. As a beginner just testing out my own blends, I like using a few drops of orange and clove oil or lavender and vanilla.
  • Rollerballs – Preparing rollerballs with your favorite essential oils and a good carrier oil can help you to enjoy your favorite scent on the go or give you a healing mixture at the tip of your fingers. Just apply to your wrists, neck, or feet. Check out this list of some great rollerball blends.
  • In the Bath – DO NOT add essential oils directly to the bath…they will not evenly disperse in the water. Make sure to add them to a surfactant (soap), carrier oil, or even some cream or whole milk first.  Sugar scrubsbath salts, or bath bombs if you want to get really fancy, are great ways to get essential oils into your bath experience.
  • Skin Care Products – I like making my own toothpaste (using peppermint oil), my own deodorant (using tea tree and lavender oils), my own body butter (using whatever essential oils I want to enjoy), and my own lip balm (using eucalyptus oil). You can also make your own massage oil (lemongrass, marjoram, and peppermint soothe muscles) or any other number of skin care products using essential oils. (I love all of Wellness Mama’s recipes.)
  • Cleaning – By mixing white vinegar, dish soap, tea tree oil, and eucalyptus oil, you can make your own tub and tile cleaner.  You can also make your own all purpose cleaner by mixing together vinegar, lavender, lemongrass, sweet orange, oregano, and tea tree oil. Check out more cleaning recipes here. Just make sure you’re using amber spray bottles if you need your cleaner to have a long shelf life.
  • Compresses – Hot compresses are typically used to help muscles and tissues while cold compresses are typically used to constrict blood vessels and control swelling. To make either one, fill a pan or large bowl with either very hot or very cold water, add about 6-12 drops of oil (examples: clary sage for menstrual cramps, peppermint for headache or stomachache), swirl a cloth through the water, wring it out, and apply it to the affected area (source).
  • Cotton Balls – Put a few drops of an essential oil on a cotton ball and place in the bottom of a trashcan, behind the toilet, in some stinky shoes, or in a drawer to help eliminate odors and leave behind a fragrant aroma. You can also add a few droplets on dryer balls to make your clothes smell really nice.
  • Spray Bottles: Mix your favorite oils in water, make sure to shake before use, spray on clothes, to freshen up a room, as a bug spray or to keep cats off from things (citronella, tea tree, eucalyptus, rosemary, lemongrass).
  • Inhaler: Add about 25 drops of essential oils (eucalyptus, fir, cypress, etc.) to a cotton ball and stuff into one of these inhalers. (See more on how to make one here.)

Healing with Essential Oils

If you can think of an ailment or condition and type that into google next to the words “essential oils”, I am sure that you will find a TON of ideas. Some of the most healing oils that come up over and over again for different ailments are: tea tree, oregano, chamomile, and lavender. You can make a really good healing salve (better than Neosporin) using: Coconut oil, tea tree, lavender, frankincense, and helichrysum essential oils.

Keep in mind that if you’re using essential oils to treat a physical symptom (i.e. skin condition), you’ve got to treat the underlying cause or the symptom will keep reoccurring. That being said, if you’re feeling any of the symptoms below, I have listed some of the best essential oils for eliminating them (source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4, source 5, source 6).

  • Insomnia: Lavender and chamomile, maybe a little bit of orange are the best choice, also marjoram, ylang ylang, lime, bergamot, neroli, and lemon (spray the room, pillow, or diffuse in room 30 minutes prior to bedtime)
  • Headache: Peppermint, lavender, eucalyptus, or rosemary (roller ball, compress, diffuser)
  • Cold and Flu: Tea tree, pine, lavender, peppermint, thyme, lemon, eucalyptus, or rosemary (diffuser, roller ball, inhaler, compress)
  • Chest Congestion/Cold: Eucalyptus (or fir and cypress), frankincense or bergamot will help kill germs too (inhaler, diffuser)
  • Skin Fungus: Tea tree, oregano, thyme, cinnamon, clove, lemongrass, and lavender (roller ball, carrier oil, lotion)
  • Tooth Pain: Clove oil – only use over the age of 2, numbing agent, so don’t swallow (external compress, with carrier oil in the mouth)
  • Eczema: Lavender and chamomile are very soothing (mix with Renew lotion)
  • Bug Bites: Basil, lavender, tea tree (carrier oil)
  • Morning Sickness/Nausea: Ginger, spearmint, lemon, grapefruit, orange, or lime (inhaler, rollerball)
  • Back Pain/Sciatic Nerve Pain: Marjoram, lavender, cypress, chamomille, and black pepper (massage oil)
  • Stretch Marks and Scars: Chamomille, orange, and rosehip mixed together (carrier oil, lotion)
  • Stress/Anxiety/Fear: Lavender, chamomile, citrus scents, geranium, ylang ylang, petitgrain, and neroli (diffuser, inhaler, rollerball)
  • Fatigue: Spearmint, grapefruit, lime, and sweet orange mixture (inhaler, diffuser)
  • Menstrual Cramps: Chamomile, clary sage, lavender, peppermint, rose, or rosemary (hot compress)

In Conclusion

I do not think that essential oils are the be all and end all to all things related to health and beauty, but I do think that they are an integral part of every natural household. The attraction to essential oils seems to be such a buzz these days, and I’m glad that now I have a pretty strong understanding of what essential oils are, how they are made, how to find high quality oils, the proper safety precautions that should be taken when using essential oils, and have some practical ideas for how to use essential oils in my home. I am excited to continue using essential oils and learning more about each of their individual properties, aromas, and uses. Thanks for learning with me!

*I recently used these Essential Oil NOTES for an essential oil presentation. Feel free to print them out and use them for your own purposes. If you would like the Word document so you can make changes, please contact me.

Additional Resources

The Importance of Visualizing and Meditating Before Giving Birth

The Importance of Visualizing and Meditating Before Giving Birth

Visualizing and meditating before birth has helped me to have three peaceful home births (Ruby, our first born, was a slightly different story…read her birth story here and my afterward thoughts here), and as I prepare for the birth of baby #5, the reality of being 8 months pregnant has finally hit me, and I know that I need to make a conscious effort to get in tune with my baby and my body before the birth happens.

Using Yoga to Meditate

I absolutely LOVE the way my body feels when I regularly move through yoga. After several weeks of a new routine, the awkward and stiff feelings are replaced with strength and confidence and the world melts away as I focus and concentrate on my movements.

Yoga is as much about freeing your mind as it is about freeing your body from tension and pain. With four young children to take care of and so many things to constantly make, prepare, and do, it’s really hard for me to find time to clear my mind and really concentrate on the present moment.

But when I do find the time to move through a yoga video, the calm music and gentle guidance of the instructor allow me to let go of the world and to be fully present in the movements of my body. I can let go of my to do list, my worries, and my fears…everything else simply melts away as I focus on my breathing, my baby, the position of my limbs, and the intricate placements of each of my ligaments, muscles, and bones.

Sometimes it’s hard to justify setting aside a full hour for myself to do yoga, but when I make it a priority, I feel stronger, calmer, and more at peace. Some other amazing perks are that it makes my leg cramps go away (I also have found GREAT relief using this magnesium spray), helps with my lower back pain, and helps me to sleep better at night.

My Favorite Yoga Vidoes

When I first started doing yoga, I went to the local library and checked out everything they had. I also looked for YouTube videos for “prenatal yoga” and found two videos that have stood the test of time throughout all five pregnancies.

My ultimate favorite is Shiva Rea’s Prenatal Yoga by Gaiam. This workout is put together sooooooo well and incorporates every single little movement that a pregnant woman should go through to release tension and strengthen her body. I also love the modifications for each trimester, the soft background music, the serene setting, and Shiva’s gentle guidance.

Another top favorite video is ZenMama Rainbeau Mars: Prenatal Workout. This video is a bit easier than Shiva Rea’s and because Rainbeau talks during her movements (rather than having the sound dubbed over later), there are little mistakes and such, but I actually really enjoy this video more because of these foibles. I also LOVE her guided relaxation piece at the end.

I encourage you to explore several videos as well and find something that works for you. When you do the same video/videos over and over, it can help you to memorize the routines so that when you need a quick little “pick me up” you will have some go to moves.

Visualizing Life with a New Baby

The reason why I usually start “nesting” so early is that I spend a lot of time visualizing what our lives will be like with a new baby. My husband and I will talk late into the nights about what our new bedtime routine will look like, how he will take care of me and support me during the important recovery stage of postpartum care, what our new morning routine will look like, where the baby will sleep, how we will regulate the temperature of our bedroom, what nursing stations I will require throughout the house, and every other possible little detail that we can think of.

I find times when I can let my mind go (usually before I go to bed or when I’m cuddled up with a little one during the day) and totally visualize what it will be like to cradle a sweet little babe in my arms. I think about being tied to a bed or chair for long periods of time as we establish breastfeeding and I recover, and I try to see what I will see then…which inevitably leads to lots and lots of organizing and cleaning because I just KNOW that the dust on the ceiling fans, the organization of our book baskets, and interior cleanliness of our refrigerator is going to gnaw at my mind!

Visualizing the Birth

Whenever I get into the final weeks of pregnancy, the fullness of what I will be going through hits me, and my first instinct is to panic. I start worrying about how I will get through the pain of transition, how I will manage pushing out an entire body through my lady parts, and how a potentially long labor may drain me of every speck of energy until the point of collapse.

My second instinct is one of excitement as I visualize meeting this tiny being that has been nestled in my womb for so long. Seeing his little face, knowing that he will grow up like all of my other children with a unique and definitive personality all his own, feeling the soft touch of his skin and the elation that my husband and I will feel when we actually get to hold him and gaze into his precious little face…all of these things lift me to a tremendous emotional high.

But then back to the birth…I reflect on my past births, but know that this one will be its own story. I picture myself feeling the first acknowledgement of labor, the recognition that these contractions aren’t Braxtons anymore…they are real, and this baby is coming. I know that the excitement of that moment will trump any notions of sleep, and it makes me treasure those moments of rest that I have now.

I visualize myself keeping it a secret as long as I can letting my husband rest or work…finishing whatever he needs to do so that he will have the energy to support me in my final moments when I know that I will need him the most. I see myself putzing around the house in the beginning stages of labor as I prepare food, tidy up the house, and pull out my birthing kit. (Ummm, I still need to order this…) I also know that I will need to rest during this beginning stage and save my strength for the more difficult parts.

I see my body starting to take things seriously as I’m no longer able to move during contractions, and I wonder, “Where will I want to be when this happens?” For Julian’s birth, I liked being in our living room, far away from the children’s bedrooms with the soft glow of the fireplace and the large windows in the doors that give me a view to the backyard. I think about lighting candles (Oops, I forgot to add some to my last Melaleuca order…), turning on my Pandora Enya mix, and preparing a stack of pillows and my exercise ball (I need to clean this off and pump it up…) for what will probably result in back labor once again (I have a body that cradles posterior babies it seems.).

I think about where I will want to be when I push (probably on my hands and knees like the last three births), where I will rest afterwards, and how we will sneak past Elliot (if he’s sleeping) to get to the large sit and stand jaccuzi tub in our bathroom for an herbal bath afterwards.

I also think about where the midwives will be while they are here and how they may need a place to rest if labor is long and food to eat to help everyone keep up their strength. I wonder when I’ll call my mom to let her know labor has begun and think about whether or not the other children will need to be entertained so Scott can support me or whether it will all happen in the dark hours of the night.

As I think about all of these things, and continuously prepare for this upcoming journey, it puts my mind at ease. I can “see” what is going to happen, and it’s takes away my initial feelings of panic, anxiety, and self doubt. When I think about the birth after visualizing and meditating, I feel tranquil and excited for what is soon to happen.

Helpful Resources

As I embark upon my fifth birth, I have plenty of my own stories to reflect on and think about, but when I was preparing for my first and second birth, these are the resources that helped me to learn more about what would happen to my body before, during, and after labor. This knowledge helped to alleviate my fears about the unknown and put my mind at ease during the process of birth.

*Note: I am a person who likes to know EVERYTHING inside and out, I LOVE research, and I strongly believe that knowledge is power. Some people, however, will say that the best advice is to not listen to too much advice because everyone has so many different opinions. When it comes to childbirth, you might feel more comfortable in a hospital, at a birthing center, at home with a midwife, or completely unassisted, but the bottom line is that some crazy stuff is about to happen to your body, and I truly believe that the more you learn about the process, the less you will succumb to fear of the unknown and therefore pain.

  • Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth – Ina May is a very knowledgeable midwife, and I love the way she explains exactly what happens to a woman’s body during birth with special attention to information that supports a natural birth. I also loved reading all of the birth stories. *I also really like Birthing from Within by Pam England. 
  • The Business of Being Born – I can’t even fully explain how this opened my mind up to the world of birth, but when everything was so foreign and so new during my first and even second pregnancies, this documentary was nothing short of a miracle for my mind, and something that I watched several times. It was really good for my husband to watch as well. There is also an additional four part series called More Business of Being Born that is in some ways even more amazing.
  • Hypnobirthing Resources – I’m trying to find exactly what I used for this, and I think it was the cds from the Hypnobirthing Home Study Course ($170), but this Birth Hypnosis cd by Gabrielle Targett ($1.99) sounds very soothing as well. I remember taking a bath when I was very much pregnant for Ruby (our first) and falling into a deep state of meditation as I prepared for my birth. I never really entered a state of hypnosis, but listening to these cds during labor really helped me to connect with a very peaceful center (that along with my Enya and Sigur Ros mix), especially when I started to feel like I was going to panic from the pain.
  • Orgasmic Birth – Personally, the idea of having an orgasm during birth seems quite strange to me, but I was very fascinated to learn about the close connection between pleasure and pain. This documentary helped me to open up to the idea that birth isn’t just a painful experience to endure, but a beautiful and amazing experience to take part in. *It also makes me chuckle when I prepare my “birthing area” with dim lights, flickering candles,  and soft music because the ideal environment for having a baby is truly best when it’s the same environment used to make a baby. Speaking of which, this video hilariously makes this point quite well…seriously, you have to watch it! 

  • Birth Videos and Stories – In a birthing class Scott and I took before Ruby’s birth, we watched some videos of women in Africa giving birth outside with very little assistance. Even though we knew we would be more comfortable with having the assistance of a midwife present, I enjoyed watching numerous videos of unassisted births (like this one) because they helped to give me the confidence that my body was made to do this. I also liked reading stories about unassisted births (like these) as well.
  • Prenatal Massage – My husband is so sweet and loving to give me some amazing pregnancy massages throughout all of my pregnancies. At first, we enjoyed using the guided prenatal massage in Shiva Rae’s prenatal yoga video, but now he just massages me while we unwind and maybe watch a bit of TV at the end of the day. I’m having trouble tracking down a reliable copy of Shiva Rea’s yoga dvd that includes the massage other than this, but this article and video provide some nice tips as well. The bottom line is that if your partner is willing to massage you, there is really no “wrong” way to do it as long as you have open communication about what feels good and what doesn’t. I have also enjoyed getting a professional prenatal massage that really helped with some sciatic nerve pain.
  • Chiropractic Care – When I was pregnant for Ophelia, I had excruciating sciatic nerve pain. After several trips to a chiropractor who specialized in treating pregnant women, I was able to have the pain completely relieved. I highly recommend asking your doctor or midwife for a chiropractic recommendation, especially if you’re feeling any pain. There is a lot they can do when it comes to helping with the baby’s position as well. If you have a baby in a posterior position (which can lead to some pretty painful back labor), they can help with this as well. The Belly Mapping Workbook is also a good resource for “spinning babies”.
  • Birthing Classes – We were originally planning a hospital birth for Ruby, and so Scott and I took every single birthing, baby care, and breastfeeding class that we could. When I was about 31 weeks along, we made the decision to switch to a birth center and proceeded to take every class they had to offer as well. It was really fun to learn together!
  • Birthing Plan/Support Team – I highly recommend writing down a birth plan and discussing it thoroughly with your birth partner who will be an advocate for you while you concentrate on giving birth. You may also want to consider hiring a doula who can be your advocate, help guide you, and provide support to both you and your birth partner. Knowing that you have this plan and knowing that you will have proper support will help to put your mind at ease throughout your pregnancy.

In Conclusion

Being able to enter a meditative state during pregnancy is so helpful because it makes it that much easier to enter that same state during the process of labor and delivery. Visualizing the birth, anticipating what it will be like to go through each stage of labor, and making sure you are completely prepared will help to eliminate the fear, panic, and anxiety that can come with the unknown. As I sit here in my eighth month of pregnancy, I am grateful to have the time to write this all down and reflect on my own journey that will soon bring me face to face and skin to skin with baby #5.

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The Best Wellness Supplements to Keep Sickness at Bay

When you’re sick or starting to feel sick, these are the four supplements that you WON’T want to be without. When I feel myself starting to get run down, I of course try to make sure I’m getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, eating a nutrient dense diet, eliminating processed foods, and washing my hands regularly, but sometimes all of these things aren’t possible or enough, and I need a little boost.

Being a busy stay at home mother of four (soon to be five), I don’t get to take “sick days” (although my husband does pamper me on the weekends and when he’s at home). So, when I see everyone around me dropping like flies, or when I start to feel the first onset of an illness, I try to take it easy as much as I can and start loading up on these supplements. It’s amazing how when you take a supplement that’s REALLY good, you can feel the positive effects right away.

Over the years through much research and experimentation, these are what I have found to be the best wellness supplements on the market!

1. Pure Radiance C

I have done a TON of research about vitamin C supplements and tried everything under the sun. These pills are simply AMAZING! If I take ONE PILL when I am starting to feel sick, within 30 minutes, I can literally feel my symptoms start to reverse.

Pure Radiance C

Pure Radiance C

Vitamin C is an excellent supplement when you’re feeling sick because it helps to boost the immune system, but this vitamin C from Pure Radiance is different from the acidic chewable tablets you’ll find at the grocery store. Instead of containing the synthetically manufactured component of vitamin C known as ascorbic acid, Pure Radiance C contains only vitamin C derived naturally from berries. And although studies show that they both boost the immune system equally, I have experienced different results. I think it’s because it’s very concentrated, and that is why I notice such a difference from just one pill.

You can obtain vitamin C naturally from diet in foods such as raw milk (vitamin C in pasteurized milk is destroyed) and fruits and vegetables such as oranges, broccoli, strawberries and brussel sprouts, but fruits and vegetables today don’t pack the same nutrient dense punch as they used to because of the depletion of nutrients from the soil. That is why I especially try to make sure to buy organic produce during cold and flu season.

2. Activate – C

This dietary supplement drink mix has blown me away with its effectiveness. The powerful combination of ingredients and the ease of taking it in delicious liquid form makes it something that everyone in our family enjoys. When I start to feel sick and drink one of these, I feel a noticeable improvement in my health right away.

Activate - C

Activate – C

Activate – C is a supplement you add to water that contains 1,200 mg of Vitamin C (in the form of ascorbic acid, water soluble, acts as an antioxidant), 15 mg of zinc (white blood cells can’t function without zinc), vitamin E (a fat soluble antioxidant…so take this with a meal that contains fat), astragalus extract (a powerful immune booster), and aronia berry extract (which has more antioxidants than elderberry).

3. Wellness Formula

This used to be the ONLY supplement we ever needed to keep sickness at bay, but since they changed their recipe, it just doesn’t pack the same punch as it used to. But still, if I take these pills when I FIRST start feeling sick, I am usually able to prevent the illness from settling in. They also have liquid and chewable options for children (although they don’t boast as impressive of an ingredient list).

Wellness Formula

Wellness Formula

I actually wrote an entire blog about how this was the ONLY wellness supplement I needed, and even though this is a part of my “wellness arsenal”, it’s no longer at the top of my list ever since they modified their ingredient list to pretty much include less of everything…so it’s still effective, you will just need to take a LOT of it.

*There is a warning label advising that this is not for pregnant or breastfeeding moms…although I believe that this is because not every ingredient has been through a clinical trial for this demographic. I personally have taken it after researching each ingredient and have had no problems, but this is also why I prefer having other sources for wellness supplements while I’m pregnant and/or nursing. 

4. Umcka

My sister married a man from South Africa, and Umcka is his family’s secret weapon against illness. Unlike the other supplements, this doesn’t need to be taken at the onset of illness. It’s meant to be taken during illness and will shorten the duration and severity. I usually like the cold care formula in a drink, but the chewable tablets are good too and the kids love them!

Umcka

Umcka

The main ingredient in Umcka Cold Care is pelargonium sidoides, commonly known as African geranium, a medicinal herb. It is especially effictive for treating acute bronchitis and increasing the body’s natural healing rate. Read more about it here!

5. Other Supplements

These supplements aren’t currently part of my regular regime, but I have had success with them in the past, and they might work perfectly for you!

  • Throat Coat Tea – When you wake up in the morning, and it feels like your throat is clogged with phlegm or is sore from coughing, preparing this tea with a bit of raw honey will do wonders!
  • Zarbee’s Nighttime Cough Syrup – If you have a little one who is having trouble sleeping because of a bad cough, this all natural syrup is amazing! It has vitamin C and zinc to boost the immune system along with honey (so don’t give to children under 12 months) and melatonin (a natural hormone, safe for kids) to help them sleep.
  • Chewable Vitamins for Kids – For our kids, sometimes giving them some cheap chewable vitamin C and chewable vitamin D (especially when they’re not getting much sun) can help them keep sickness at bay. I also like giving them these children’s vitamins that are designed to be recognized by the body as food.
  • Bee PropolisBees create this propolis out of tree resin and honey to seal small cracks in their hive. It basically acts as nature’s antibiotic and is great for ear infections, killing very harmful bacteria, stopping the growth of candida, and boosting the immune system. I have noticed really good results after using this.
  • Elderberry Syrup – You can make your own by boiling dried elderberries or you can buy it. It’s supposed to be an amazing immune booster, but I have just never found it to be super effective, although I have heard many people swear by it!

In Conclusion

If you’re scouring the internet because you’re feeling sick or want to prevent illness in your home as we embark on yet another cold and flu season, then you will be bombarded with one article after another touting a variety of different claims, so I am here to tell you that these are the supplements that have worked for me and my family.

Nothing is as good as getting lots of quality sleep, drinking plenty of water, eating nutrient dense foods, and avoiding overly processed food substitutes, especially for our little ones, but sometimes the cold and flu season is especially brutal and we need a boost (or a break), and that’s when these supplements can make all of the difference.

What's So Bad About Phthalates?

What’s So Bad About Phthalates?

I’ve done a bit of research about phthalates to know that they are bad, but I wanted to dig a little deeper to see just how bad and learn more about the possibilities for exposure.

My Health Journey

As a health conscious mother of four (soon to be five) and also on a pretty strict budget as a stay at home mom, I’m always trying to balance out health and cost. I first of all try to serve my children as much nutrient dense food as possible while at the same time try to eliminate as many toxins as I can. That being said, stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol which leads to inflammation, free radical damage, and a weakened immune system, so I try to avoid that too by not getting too paranoid about things that can affect our health.

That being said, I believe the best health journey is one that is continuous and involves baby steps. Once, I tried throwing out everything processed and only purchased organic whole foods, but the cost was overwhelming and something we couldn’t support on one income. So now, we do what we can, and I’m always trying to just focus on the next step rather than the final destination.

In this series of articles, I would like to explore some of the toxins that are lurking in our everyday lives, explain what they are, how they are hurting us, and discuss how they can be avoided. I hope that this research will serve our family as we continue our health journey, choose better and safer products, and try to live the best life that we can every day for both our current and future health.

What are Phthalates?

Most phthalates (pronounced f-THAL-ates) are plastcizers that are added to plastics (such as vinyl flooring, raincoats, shower curtains, plastic toys, and IV drip bag tubes) to make them more flexible and harder to break. They are also added as a dissolving agent (solvent) and fragrance carrier to many personal care products including soaps, shampoos, deodorants, and laundry detergents.

*On a side note, phthalates are not commonly found in things like plastic wrap, food containers, and water bottles…although these plastics do contain other dangerous chemicals that can leech into your food and beverages that I will discuss in future articles.

Finding Phthalates on Labels

If you’re a label reader (like me), the scary thing about phthalates is that under current law, they can simply be labeled as “fragrance”, even if they make up to 20% of the product.

If you’re looking at your labels, you may notice different acronyms and names:

  • DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate) – used in nail polish and other personal care products
  • DEP (diethyl phthalate) – used in personal care products, such as deodorants, perfume, cologne, aftershave lotion, shampoo, hair gel, and hand lotion
  • BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate) – used in vinyl flooring, car-care products, and personal care products
  • DMP (dimethyl phthalate) – used in insect repellent, plastics, and solid rocket propellant
  • DEHP (di-phthalate, bis-phthalate, or 2-ethylhexyl phthalate) – used as a softener in PVC products, such as IV bags, tubing, and other medical devices

*In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed a law calling for the phthalates DBP, DEHP, and BBP (benzyl butyl phthalate) to be banned in all toys (including teething toys) and bedding intended for children 12 and under. There are, however, no regulations on phthalates in toys made in China, and they have been tested to have very high levels (28%-38%).

Why are Phthalates Dangerous?

While most studies reflect the effects of phthalates on animals, the results have been disturbing enough for people to start taking notice. Most adults will metabolize phthalates through the digestive system and excrete them via feces or urine, but this isn’t really possible for fetuses in the womb and particularly dangerous for the immature digestive system of infants and young children, so they are most at risk.

While more research is needed, animals studies show that low exposure to DBP phthlates (found in most grocery store cosmetics) can damage the reproductive system of males and that DEHP (used to soften plastics) is toxic to the developing fetus (especially at high exposures such as experienced by those undergoing medical procedures). Other studies show that,

“there is a potential for phthalates to impact birth outcomes, including gestational age and birth weight, fertility (lower sperm production), and anatomical abnormalities related to the male genitalia,” states Maida Galvez, a pediatrician and director of the Mount Sinai Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit in New York City.

Phthalate exposure is also linked to asthma, the timing of puberty, childhood obesity, and other health conditions such as breast cancer.

How to Avoid Phthalates

While I don’t think it’s practical or possible in this day and age to chuck every man made material possession and move deep into the woods to be free from human influence or innovation, there are some ways that we can start to eliminate our phthalate exposure both gradually and practically.

  1. Look for phthalates or fragrance on labels. Avoid anything with “fragrance” or any mention of any type of phthalate. Instead of using air fresheners, just put a few drops of essential oils into a spray bottle filled with water.
  2. Look for phthalate-free labels. This may seem like kind of a no-brainer, but it is a pretty good way to find things that are free from phthalates. 🙂 Look for phtalate-free labels on cleaners and cosmetics especially.
  3. Check the bottom of plastic bottles and choose those labeled #2, 4, or 5. Avoid #3 and #7 because they may contain phthalates.
  4. Use a french press for coffee. The plastic tubing and high heat in coffee pots are a recipe for high phthalate exposure.
  5. Don’t buy plastic toys from China. If you buy children’s toys in the U.S. (made after 2008), they cannot contain phthalates, but even still, you might want to steer towards wooden toys like these wooden teethers that my friend makes! And don’t buy plastic toys from China (or other countries) where there are no regulations on phthalates.
  6. Know where your milk comes from. Even organic milk may have passed through plastic tubes (with DEHP) on the way from the cow to the bottle. The fatty acids in milk basically pull the the DEHP out of the plastic tubing and into the milk. We actually get raw milk from a farm (that we have visited) where the milking is done by hand and never touches plastic of any kind.
  7. Sweat more. Sweating helps your body to eliminate phthalates twice as effectively as elimination through urine. So, adults can exercise more or visit the sauna!
  8. Be careful when painting. Most paints have DBP to help them spread better, so make sure there are no children are around and the room is well ventilated, or look for natural paints without DBP.
  9. Choose non-vinyl options if possible. For example, you can check out these non-vinyl shower curtain options and these PVC and phthalate free raincoats at Puddlegear that will not produce chemical off-gassing bringing phthalates into your environment. *These options are expensive and things I would save for more advanced elimination.

Conclusion

The people most at risk from phthalate exposure are unborn babies and infants (especially males), so it’s especially important for pregnant mamas and parents of young children to be aware of things that contain phthalates. During human studies, women have tested higher for the type of phthalates found in cosmetic products, so women are typically at greater risk as well. So before slathering lotion on yourself or your baby, spritzing on some perfume, or washing your clothes, check your labels and know what you’re putting onto and into your body.

Like I said before, I don’t think it’s worth the stress to get super paranoid about every possible danger in life because we’re all going to die one day anyways, but by taking thinking of it as a health journey instead of a health destination, we can continuously choose one thing at a time to improve in our lives that will help not only our current health, but our future health, and the health of future generations as well.

5 Creative Ideas for Making Photo Albums of Your Kids

5 Creative Ideas for Making Photo Albums of Your Kids

By Guest Blogger: Alex Gomez

Author Bio: Alex Gomez is a social media professional who dabbles as a freelance tech writer and photographer. This gadget and car enthusiast also plays video games and keeps himself updated on technology news in his spare time.

5 Creative Ideas for Making Photo Albums of Your Kids

Back in the early days, we documented our best memories through compact cameras with disposable film rolls that could be developed into photo prints. As years have gone by, printed photos began to go out of style, and soon we switched to the digital way of photographing kids.

With the advent of digital photography, the photos we’ve taken remain stored in our computers and storage devices until who knows when. Are you going to just let the memories that come with your children’s photos become forgotten?

If you want to preserve beautiful memories that your kids can look back on when they grow up, print your digital photos and create beautiful photo albums with them.

Time to get crafty! Here are five creative ideas for making photo albums of your kids:

1. Alphabet Photo Album

letter-j-for-jump

Image Credit: flickr.com

While there are different alphabet learning resources that can help you teach your kids their ABCs, a photo album can also be a great one! Snap photos of meaningful things, people, activities, and places whose names start with a letter in the alphabet. Your choice of photos has to mean something to them, so they can recognize it easily and learn their first ABCs fast.

2. Poem-Filled Photo Books

End a fun-filled day with your kids by reading them poems that you’ve personally written just for them. If you can’t find the right words, you can search for meaningful poems and quotations of mothers and fathers to their children. Include photos of you interacting with your children, whether it’s giving them piggyback rides or just having a hearty laugh with them.

3. Book of Firsts

book-of-firsts

Image Credit: flickr.com

Your kids’ first year is the most exciting time because that’s when they experience things for the first time. Document their first haircut, first step, or their adorable first smile. Better get your camera ready so that you won’t miss out on those precious, unexpected moments and have something to add to your children’s books of firsts.

 4. Travel Photo Book

travel-photo-book

Image Credit: flickr.com

 

If your family loves to travel, preserve your vacation memories by making themed photo books. Instead of stacking your photos in your closet and hard drive, make exciting and adventurous stories out of them. If you want to get creative and make one on your own, make a DIY travel scrapbook instead.

4. Birthday Memories

Compile photos of your kids’ birthday parties in one album. Start from the very first birthday to the most recent ones. This kind of photo album will be a sentimental way to keep track of how much your kids have grown through the years.

In Conclusion

You kids’ photos don’t deserve to be tucked away in a shoebox and buried deep in your computer’s hard drive or storage device. They should be displayed and preserved so that when your kids grow up, they have physical mementos that will tell wonderful stories of their childhood.

How I Survived Postpartum Depression

Let’s be honest. Being a mom is hard. Being a person is hard. Sometimes it’s hard just to “be”. Period.

I am not perfect. I am not happy all of the time. Sometimes I even totally lose my shit…but you might not know that about me because I have a tendency to mostly share just the positive…because that’s what we do. We celebrate what we’re proud of, and we sweep the rest under the rug.

I was at a MOPS meeting the other day and felt such a profound connection with all of the women there as we started sharing stories of postpartum depression. To be honest, I was completely floored when I heard story after story that kept sounding like my story, and as I looked around the room, I noticed not just a room full of tears, but a room full of love and support. It made me realize that none of us really have the answers, but by sharing our stories, we feel connected, we feel like we’re not alone, and it made me feel, well…ok, almost normal even.

The bottom line is that it made me want to share my story. I have tried to write this blog for a long time, but I could never find the right words, and then I realized, there are no right words. There are just words – words that come together to form a story, and that’s what I’m going to do now; I’m going to share my story. Just know that yes, I’m happy now, and I’ll share that part of the journey too, but first I want to take you to some of the darkest moments I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.

Postpartum Depression Round #2

About 9 months ago (when Julian was 13 months old, Ophelia was 2, Elliot was 4, and Ruby was 6), I started writing a blog called, “I’m Choosing to be Happy Today”, as way to work through some of the depression that I was feeling. But while everything I was writing was completely real, raw, and full of emotion, there was no happy ending, and so I had to put it aside until things weren’t so bleak.

Now that I’ve been able to crawl out of the depths of postpartum depression (for the second time), I think I’m finally ready to share my story.

It was the middle of winter and yet another cold and flu season was upon us when I noticed a little bit of spotting, and then a bit more, and pretty soon, I was experiencing the first period I’ve had since…gosh, I don’t even know how long! (4 births in 6 years…hello!) My mom warned me about fluctuating hormones, but I brushed her warning away thinking,

“I’m too tough to get emotional. I’ll be okay.”

At the same time as I got my period, it seemed like my milk was drying up. Julian was up to feed in the night just about every hour, and he would get really rough, pulling on my nipple, hitting me with his arms, and flailing his legs. (On a side note, I think this is what led to my nursing aversion.) When he woke up with a practically dry diaper after an all night nursing marathon, I knew that it was the beginning of the end of our breastfeeding relationship.

This made me so sad – desperately sad. The only way he would go to sleep was with me nursing him, and even though he ate food with us at every meal, I never really had to worry about how much he ate because he would just nurse him all. the. time. (In hindsight, I wish I would have started this bedtime routine with him a little sooner.)

The thought of not being able to breastfeed Julian anymore, the ongoing lack of sleep, the constant busyness and business of our daily lives, feeling overwhelmed and constantly behind, and now these hormonal changes with the onset of my period absolutely turned my head upside down. It was a gradual change for sure, but one day, it felt like a switch had been flipped. Everything that used to make me happy was suddenly driving me bat-shit crazy.

The way that everyone needed me every single moment of every single day made me want to run and hide. I felt like a failure, a loser, and a fraud. I started fantasizing about going back to work and putting them all in day care. I just didn’t feel like I could handle it for one minute more…and then I remembered feeling this same way when Elliot started to wean. I tried hard to pinpoint why I was feeling this way. Was having two little ones 2 and under just too much for me to handle? Did I need to work on creating more of a balance in my life? Did I need more things just for me? I just couldn’t figure it out.

Usually, I’m pretty good about seeing what I’m doing well and planning new areas of growth for my future, but with everything going on…

My self-doubt started to outweigh my self-worth.

I started feeling like I was failing everyone. I started feeling like I was doing everything wrong. I started feeling like I wanted to quit being a mother. I started feeling like I wanted to find someone more capable to take care of my kids and just get a job where I knew I would be able to succeed (as if that would be so much easier).

Whenever I would hear the little voice of self-doubt in my head, the one that said, “You’re not good enough. You are a fat, frumpy, disheveled mess. You are a failure.”

I would scream, “NO!” and I would try to quiet that little voice and instead look at my sweet little darlings, and I would choose to be happy.

I felt like I was at the edge of a precipice and could go either way. With one more little negative event or thought, I knew that I would tumble into the abyss of sadness, but with every conscious choice placing me into the world of “happy”, I saved myself from that doomed path.

Then one day, I woke up, looked in the mirror, and noticed a giant zit on my chin. That was it. It was the zit that broke the camel’s back so to speak. Everything came crashing down around me, and all of those little walls of happiness that I had worked so hard to build suddenly came crashing down.

I tried to choose to be happy again like I did before, but I just couldn’t. Every little thing was making me cry, and I felt like a complete and utter failure.

Usually, I have a long list of things that make me happy – things like making a healthy meal from scratch, cleaning out and organizing a drawer or cupboard, designing a new learning activity, cuddling up and reading with one of the kids, getting the house clean and organized, writing, or researching a new blog topic,- but no matter how many times I went through the motions, NONE of these things were making me happy.

And then I couldn’t even go through the motions.

I would find myself just sitting there on the floor, looking out the window with a blank stare while the kids played around me, feeling like I was in a fog, and like I could just start bawling at any second.

When my husband came home for lunch one day and didn’t say the right thing, I snapped. I got angry and told him to LEAVE. We fought via texts until he came home hours later, and I just bawled about all of the things that were making me sad.

He was very kind and supportive, but he said,

“It doesn’t make any sense. None of these things were making you depressed a few weeks ago. Where else could this be coming from?”

Those words really struck me because he was right. I didn’t have a reason to be depressed. My life was good, and I was surrounded by things that should make me happy. Why couldn’t I see that? Why couldn’t I feel that? And of course…that just made me even more depressed.

But I kept thinking over and over again about choosing to be happy. And even as the tendrils of depression tried to reach out and pull me into oblivion, I kept thinking, “NO! YOU’RE NOT TAKING ME!!!”

I tried thinking about all of the things that were spiraling me into depression in a positive way, and so instead of thinking, “When will Julian ever sleep through the night?” I started thinking about his sweet little smile, the feel of his body tucked into mine, and how I was the only one who could comfort him at night.

That evening, I cracked a beer, slipped into a warm bath, and just thought about all that was good in my life. Then I pulled my daughter Ophelia into the bath with me. She was so happy to pour water and to “swim” in our sitting Jacuzzi tub. I looked at her face, really looked, and noticed how she was happier than ever just by being with me. She didn’t need any special activities or toys, she just needed me.

The more I started to think about how I was enough, how just the mere existence of me was enough to nourish and sustain all of my children, I could feel the veil of sadness begin to lift.

Where before every thought had been in a muddled in a fog of sadness, suddenly everything started to look so clear, so simple, so…attainable. And just like that, I felt my breasts fill up with milk. I almost wept with tears of joy! It was almost like all of my worry, self-doubt, and depression had inhibited my milk supply. I was overjoyed to feel my milk let down as Julian nursed hungrily. In the times of nursing him after that, I noticed that if I wasn’t present in the moment, I couldn’t make any milk, but as I became aware of his warm body, his sweet eyes looking up at me, and my love for him, I could feel that old familiar fullness of milk.

And that was that. It wasn’t a long list of things that helped me to lift my head up, it was a moment. I forgot about my insecurities, my fears, the future, and my past, and just really and truly tried living in that moment. Noticing the smells, the sounds, the textures, the sensations…just being in the moment…it was my life preserver.

Now, it wasn’t a completely magical fix after that. I still felt like I was at the bottom of a deep dark well, but it was like the sun finally came out and illuminated a step that I never noticed before. Every day, I worked hard to see the sunshine at the top of the well and the light that illuminated the way, and brick by brick, I found a way to climb out.

Postpartum Depression Round #1

Now, before I delve more into what helped me come out of my postpartum depression for good, I want to step back in time to my first experience with postpartum depression because this was truly my darkest time, and I never even thought that this could be connected to postpartum depression until my experience after Julian.

Before we had children, I loved being a teacher, and I mean LOVED it. After I got my Master’s degree in Linguistics, we were blessed with our first child, and the year after that I landed my dream job as an ESL coach working with teachers to help make input more comprehensible for English language learners. Little did I know, however, that I was pregnant again. After only one year on the job, I knew that I just couldn’t leave my sweet babes in daycare anymore, and so I quit my job to be a stay at home mom. (Read more about that story here.) We decided to move back to our home state, lived with my parents for 8 months, and then finally moved into a rented house in the city (which we would later come to find out was a pretty rough neighborhood) while my husband worked over an hour away.

Instead of feeling like we had made it, I felt completely lost. Who was I? How would I fill my days? And what was there to stimulate me besides poopy diapers and preschool activities???

I mean sure, I was loving being home with my little ones and really enjoyed challenging them with creative learning opportunities, but I started to get depressed…and I mean REALLY depressed. I thought that by moving “back home” we would be surrounded by the positive support of friends and family, but what they had to give just wasn’t enough to fill the deep whole in my heart. I longed for adult interaction and the need to be challenged intellectually, I wanted to own a house in the country, I wanted a good friend group, I wished my husband worked closer to us, I felt like I was missing so many parts of me…and then, just like with Julian, my period returned, my milk started drying up, and I started slipping into a really really deep and dark state of depression.

Because it was so long after giving birth, I never thought of it as “postpartum depression” or even “depression”. (I think technically it’s called postpartum distress syndrome.) All I know is that I would cry…a lot. I would check the mail ten times a day hoping for something exciting to happen. I felt listless, restless, lost, and worst of all…empty. I hated that I couldn’t lose the last 10 pounds of belly fat, and I hated how I looked in the mirror. I used to have all of these dreams and aspirations, but then, I felt like I had nothing, and then I would feel so GUILTY! I mean, I was able to be home with my two golden treasures, wasn’t that enough? I got to cuddle them, read to them, take them to play groups, build forts with them, go to the library for story hour, put them down for naps, feed them healthy food, and just BE with them.

But it wasn’t enough. I didn’t feel whole, or complete, or even like me really.

Then one night, my husband and I got into a HUGE fight that ended up with him driving away. I wasn’t sure if he would come ever back because he’s usually never the one to leave. I was so relieved when several hours later he came back. We were finally able to talk without screaming, and we decided that we didn’t want to end our marriage. I also knew that I wanted to find happiness as a stay at home mom, and so that’s what we set out to do. It wasn’t always easy, but we just took things one day at a time.

After that conversation, I started discovering the new me. I read Nourishing Traditions like it was my Bible, got really into feeding my family healthy food, I started working out and eating a better diet, we found out we were pregnant again, we moved one mile away from my husband’s work to a beautiful home in a safe neighborhood where he could come home for lunch every day, and I started my blog about embracing the new me…embracing motherhood. After Ophelia was born, I was prepared. I encapsulated my placenta into pills and started taking them after she was born. Whenever I felt the first signs of depression, I would take a pill, and I would immediately start to feel better.

Now, as you know, postpartum depression did find me again after our fourth child, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the first time, and somehow, I found my way out of it once again.

What is Postpartum Depression?

After going through all of this, I started to realize that it was more than just a choice of being happy or not. Yes, that was a battle going on in my mind, and yes all of the chaos of my life made me more susceptible to depression, but there was something going on with my hormones that made it the perfect storm.

When you’re pregnant, your body produces extraordinary amounts of estrogen and progesterone to help you grow your new baby. The moment the placenta leaves your body, however, estrogen and progesterone return to pre-pregnancy levels. This hormone crash is why up to 80% of women feel the “baby blues” in the first few weeks after pregnancy. About 10% of women will suffer from a more severe form of the “baby blues” in the first year, and this is what is known as postpartum depression (PPD). After the baby is a year old, postpartum depression is actually called postpartum distress syndrome (PPDS), but is still primarily related to fluctuating hormones. A more serious form of postpartum depression is postpartum psychosis (PPP) in which the mother may suffer hallucinations, thoughts of suicide, and thoughts of harming the baby. This is more related to a bi-polar disorder and should be treated immediately.

The reason why postpartum depression can affect mothers so long after birth is because many of the hormones present during pregnancy still remain afterwards. Relaxin, for example, takes about 5 months to leave, which is why you are more prone to sprains at that time, and prolactin, that hormone that produces milk, will stay present during the entire phase of nursing. Proloctin is also what suppresses the production of the fertility hormones estrogen and progesterone (which prevents ovulation and menstruation). Once the baby starts to nurse less, estrogen and progesterone levels will increase, ovulation will resume, and the menstrual cycle will return. If there is an imbalance with these hormones and there is too much progesterone, anxiety can occur, and if there is too much estrogen, depression can occur.

The bottom line here is that after you have a baby and when your period returns, your hormones can get out of whack and make you feel crazy, especially if you already have a history of depression.

Tips for Overcoming Postpartum Depression

These are the tips that have helped me to completely pull away from postpartum depression, or postpartum distress syndrome, or just plain old depression, or whatever the heck you want to call it.

  1. Find happiness in the moments. At first, you just have to find the happy moments…the moments that make life worth living, the moments that make you smile, and the moments that make you see that being on this earth is where you need to be. After awhile, you can find the happy days, and then the happy weeks, and eventually they will lead to happy years and a happy lifetime, but you have to start small. Baby steps. Find the happy moments first.
  2. Build a support system. Talking with other women who have experienced the same thing is so valuable, and something I simply can’t even express enough. Now, if you talk to someone about what you’re going through, and instead of listening to you, they try to “fix” you and tell you all of the things that you “should be doing”, RUN! You need to find someone, anyone, who can just listen to you and let you talk about every feeling you have, every thought, and every idea without judgement, and without trying to fix you. All they need to do is listen. Sometimes, the best option might be to speak to a therapist or psychiatrist about what you’re going through.
  3. Know that the cause of (and the solution to) your depression lies within. Does it seem like your husband, your kids, your job, your appearance, etc. are all contributing to your depression? If you fall into this trap of thinking, it can make you think that if you leave these things, then your depression will simply end, but it’s not that simple. The way you perceive the world and interact with the world is controlled by you and only you.
  4. Have open and honest communication with your significant other. My husband has been there with me through the good times and the bad, and through it all, I have learned that he cannot read my mind, he cannot always pick up on subtle clues to figure out what I am thinking and feeling, and that I need to share my feelings openly and honestly on a regular basis. If I bottle things up, they will eventually explode, but when I share my feelings often, it helps me to figure out why I’m feeling what I’m feeling, and that’s what open communication is all about.
  5. Feed your intellectual adult brain. Yes, being a stay at home mom is a very rewarding, thrilling, and amazing experience, but I needed something to stimulate my adult brain too. By creating a reading system for young children and blogging, I feel like I have an outlet, a voice, and a form of expression. It continuously motivates me to research, learn, stretch myself, and grow.
  6. Accomplish something. Sometimes you need to see something checked off a list that isn’t part of your daily routine. For example, once I found my niche of blogging and creating a reading program for young children, I have continuously needed to see myself making progress in order to be happy. Sometimes, I need to complete something as small as making a list of blog ideas in One Note, collecting some research based articles online, drafting an outline for a blog, or perfecting the rough draft of a flashcard sketch. But whatever it is, I need to feel like I’m moving forward.
  7. Know that sometimes you might need a life preserver. Have you ever physically felt what it’s like to drown before? I have. When we lived in Colorado, we stupidly went tubing down a river that was full of spring rain with no life jackets and cheap little inner tubes. As I went over a mini rapid, my tubed slipped out from underneath me, and I was immediately pushed to the bottom of the river by the very powerful pressure of the rapid. I tried desperately to reach for the surface, but it was so so hard, and I thought, “This is it”. I could feel myself slipping, ready to let go. I could literally see my life flashing before my eyes, and suddenly I thought, “NO!!! I’M NOT READY TO DIE!!!” With every last bit of strength, I reached for the surface, and as if by some miracle, my hand latched onto something. It was a kayaker, my guardian angel, there to save me. As my head exploded to the surface, arms flailing and mouth gasping for breath, he yelled at me to STOP panicking, to hold on, and to kick my legs. When he brought me to shore and then disappeared down the river as if he were some sort of apparition, I felt as though I had been given a second chance at life. That story is pretty much the best analogy I can think of to describe depression. When you’re in the depths of depression, it literally feels like you’re drowning, and sometimes you just need a life preserver, something to rescue you so that you can tread water again. Maybe it’s a trip to the spa, maybe it’s making a big change in your life or many small ones, maybe it’s seeing a therapist and/or taking some medication, but the important thing is that you need to grab ahold of something so that you can tread water again.
  8. Don’t be afraid to facilitate change. If it bothers you that your house is continuously messy, find a way to keep it clean! Get rid of the clutter, get your kids and spouse to pitch in more, or hire some cleaning help. If you hate your body, find a way to work out, cut out the sugar, or count calories. If you’re upset that you haven’t accomplished anything, find something to accomplish! Try a new recipe, sign up for an online class, or do a paint by number. If you’re mad at your husband because he won’t help out enough, TELL HIM!!! How else is he supposed to know? If you are frustrated that your kids don’t help out enough, TEACH THEM HOW! How else are they supposed to learn? Anyways, you get the point. 😉
  9. Create healthy habits. This may sound simple, but it is so so important. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and plenty of sunshine, eat a healthy and well balanced diet, make time for mediation/yoga/reflection, and find something to be thankful for every day. Before you can take care of everyone else, you have to take care of yourself.
  10. Take placenta pills. I didn’t learn about encapsulating my placenta into pills until my third pregnancy, and boy what a difference that made! Whenever I would start to feel a little depressed, I would pop a couple of placenta pills and feel like a completely different person. Now I just to remember to save some to see if they’ll help when my period comes back.
  11. Know that sometimes, it’s just hormones. Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, it’s just hormones. After Julian, when I realized that it was actually the hormones making me sad and not my entire life, it was a lot easier to mentally switch gears.

In Conclusion

I have been very hesitant about sharing my experiences with postpartum depression because I don’t want people to judge me or feel sorry for me. I don’t want people to look at me like I’m weak, and most of all, I don’t want people to look at me with pity and say things like, “Are you really okay,” while touching my arm in a consoling but also slightly condescending way. I’m tough, I’m strong, and I’m capable, but I’m not stronger than postpartum depression, and I think I’m finally okay with that.

I’m glad to share my story because I think that we all need to share our stories. It’s the only way we can feel – it’s the only way we can know – that we’re not alone. So, if you have a story that you’d like to share, share it. Share with your loved ones, share it with your girlfriends, or share it here. If you’d like to submit a guest post about your experience(s) with postpartum depression, that would be awesome! You can even post it anonymously if you want. The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone, you’re not a failure because you’re depressed, and there is a way out, you just have to find it.

Additional Resources

  • Click here to see a map of the United States to find someone to talk to about what you are going through.
  • Tools for Mom – Here you’ll find checklists, questionnaires, support groups, and more.
  • Postpartum Support International – This is a great portal to learn more and to find many additional resources.
26 Learning Centers for Play Based Preschool Learning

26 Learning Centers for a Homeschool Preschool Curriculum

I love setting up an environment where my young preschool aged children (and older children as well) can be engaged in play based learning. I do this by setting up lots of little centers in every room that encourage creative and imaginative play with a little bit of skill based learning thrown in there as well. This is basically a Montessori approach to learning where children are given a lot of choice in a resource rich learning environment that incorporates plenty of opportunities for guided instruction.

While being a stay at home mom and raising our four children (after being an elementary school teacher for 7 years and getting my Master’s degree in Linguistics), these are the learning centers that have worked for me and have helped all of our children learn how to read at a young age, develop curious and imaginative minds, and get ready for school.

Before I dive into the learning centers, I wanted to set the scene with a few tips and tricks that have helped my learning centers to be successful.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Little Learning Centers: Set up small tables, little chairs, small couches, and other areas that are easy to access for little ones.
  2. Organization: I love using baskets, bins, cardboard boxes (with the flaps cut off), and tubs to sort and organize my toys and supplies. I like to label things when I can as well.
  3. Children’s Choice: Introduce children to new learning centers, but after introductions are made, let them choose what they want to do. Follow them and provide guidance and support wherever they choose to be.
  4. The Way to Start Your Day: Start the day with the most learning intensive projects first. You’ve got maybe an hour or two after they wake up for optimal attention, so use your time wisely!
  5. When to Pack it Up: If I have a center set up (like a Play-doh or a water table center) that’s really messy, but doesn’t sustain their attention for very long, I will pack it up. I’m usually okay with cleaning up a big mess as long as it was really and truly worth it. *With a new baby on the way, I’m starting to pack away all centers that make a big mess, just to help me manage things a little better. 🙂
  6. Rotation: If a center isn’t getting used, I’ll pack it away. Then, when I take it out again later, it’s like a brand new toy all over again! (If they still don’t use it, I’ll just get rid of it.)
  7. Routines and Procedures: Having a good behavior management system in place will make the day run much more smoothly. I have found both as a teacher and now a parent, that most behaviors can be managed with consistent routines, procedures, and expectations.

Whether you are setting up an atmosphere for homeschool or just looking to create a stimulating learning environment for your little one(s), these learning centers are sure to engage, stimulate, and provide hours and hours of play based learning opportunities for your child(ren). Also, keep in mind that we have four children ranging in age from 21 months to 7 years, and they ALL enjoy using all of these centers to varying degrees. 🙂

Here is a little video of me showing most of the learning centers we have set up in our home.

1. ABC Magnet Letters

Learning the ABCs isn’t just about singing a song, it’s about learning BOTH the letter names AND letter sounds really really well. Doing so will lay a strong foundation for reading.

ABC Magnet Letters

ABC Magnet Letters

This ABC magnet letter center is a perfect way for little ones to explore what they are learning about letters in a fun and hands on way. *Watch a video of Ophelia using ABC magnet letters here

Using the ABC Magnet Center

Using the ABC Magnet Center

Materials Needed:

  • Magnet Letters: I like these foam ones the best (120 pieces, capitals and lowercase letters), but they are currently only available from third party sellers on Amazon. These would be pretty good too if you don’t mind the pastel colors. I do like the Melissa and Doug wooden letters (52 pieces, one capital and one lowercase for each letter), but the magnets separate from the wood after time. This set of 240 lowercase letters (blue consonants and red vowels) from Lakeshore Learning is also a really great teaching tool, but the letters just aren’t as fun for kids to use. I like using it more for a teaching tool or to set up a lot of words at once. If you look at my letter set up, you’ll notice that I like setting the magnet letters in a shallow box so that little fingers can easily dig through them. Don’t worry about sorting the letters out, they’ll just get mixed up again! 🙂 I also like having these Leapfrog ABC letters for the refrigerator.
  • Muffin Pans: I like using this 2 x 3 pan for learning three letter words, this 12 muffin pan for either three or four letter words, and this mini muffin pan for longer words (and counting practice).
  • Magnetic White Board: There are lots of different options here. You could get a larger white board to hang on the wall, mini white boards to fit on laps, a standing mini white board, or even an easel. It all depends on your space really.
  • Small Table: You don’t really have to have a table (the floor would be just fine), but it does make it more fun! I made this mini table (pictured above) using scraps of wood we had lying around, and I measured it specifically to fit this funny little place in our “homeschool room”. When I was a teacher, I liked taking the lower parts of the table legs off from my rectangular tables to make a lower work surface for kids, and they loved it!

Here is a video of 21 month old Ophelia using a variety of different ABC magnet letters.

*For more of my favorite ABC resources, check out my blog: 10 Best Resources for Teaching the ABCs.

2. Counting

Learning how to count lays the foundation for math like learning the letter names and sounds lays the foundation for reading. It can take young children a very long time to learn one-to-one-correspondence (meaning that each object represents one thing, so it is definitely a good idea to encourage children to count often.

In the picture below, you’ll see that I have a mason jar numbered and labeled. I used to have 20 or so different counting jars with different things in them from beans to legos to small cars, but these counting bears were always the favorite, so that’s all I use now. 🙂 *The Investigations math curriculum is great for teaching math concepts in a fun and exploratory way.

Counting Bears Center

Counting Bears Center

I like using anything that encourages counting like the game Connect 4. Not only is this good for counting, but it’s good fine motor skill practice for little hands too.

Counting with Connect 4

Counting with Connect 4

Materials Needed:

  • Counters: These are the counting bears that I like to use.
  • More Counters: Lakeshore Learning has TONS of great counting resources. Check them out here.
  • Mason Jars: These wide mouths jars are best for storing the counters.
  • Muffin Tin: I like using this mini muffin tin to practice counting and for my ABC Magnet Center too.
  • Connect 4: This Connect 4 game is a great way to practice counting (we usually go to 20).

3. Drawing

I really like having one table in the house set up just for drawing. This table is in our homeschool room, and I always have coloring books, workbooks, how to draw books, printouts of favorite things to draw, stencils, paper, crayons, markers, other office supplies like scissors and tape, and a little box for finished drawings laying out and ready to use.

Drawing Table

Drawing Table

Not pictured to the right is a tall bookshelf that I keep stocked with a variety of coloring and work books, mini books we have made, blank mini books ready to be filled, extra markers, and more supplies.

The pencils here in the picture below belong to our 7 year old daughter Ruby. She LOVES drawing and can be found doing one project or another here at this table every single day.

Ruby's Drawings

Ruby’s Drawings

Materials Needed:

  • Coloring Books: I like collecting coloring books and workbooks from garage sales, thrift stores, and trips to the grocery store based on whatever our children are interested in.
  • Crayons, Markers, Pencils: These are the pencils my older daughter loves. They are kind of expensive, but really good quality. I really like having this pencil sharpener too.
  • Paper: I get paper scraps from my parents’ business and cut it up for drawing paper, but blank computer paper like this works well too.
  • Printouts: I like going to Google and typing in “free coloring pages” and then whatever my kids are into like monsters, princesses, Dora, or the ABCs. I have a cool storage rack like this that I hang on the wall to hold available printouts for children to grab.

*Check out more of my arts and crafts blogs here

4. Painting

Yes, painting is messy, but soooooooooooo much fun for kids! Having a bunch of painting supplies on hand and ready to go makes for a really fun project.

My Painting Supplies

My Painting Supplies

I like letting kids draw whatever they want when we paint, but sometimes I’ll paint with them and we’ll talk about different things to paint like the sky, flowers, trees, cats, or whatever! If I’m feeling really artsy, maybe we’ll look up some famous artists someday and try to mimic their work.

Painting Over Masking Tape Letters

Painting Over Masking Tape Letters

Ruby Painting

Ruby Painting

Materials Needed:

5. Arts and Crafts Box

I love collecting things from garage sales, thrift stores, or the crafting aisles at Walmart to fill my craft box. (*I must also thank local artist Kelly Allen for giving me a bunch of crafty things when Wisemaker shut down.) I like to put most things in plastic bags and label them. It’s really fun to just take out the whole box, and get crafty!

My Craft Box

My Craft Box

Materials Needed:

  • Craft Box Items: Pom poms, little googly eyes, artificial flowers, buttons, sequins, glitter, pine cones, headbands, cotton balls, shells, pipe cleaners, paper scraps, yarn, and ribbons are some of the things I have in my craft box. Or you can just buy a random assortment of things here or here for example.
  • Glue: Glue sticks are nice for paper things, but you’ll want Elmer’s glue for bigger things, and maybe even a glue gun if you want things to be really permanent.
  • Paper: Sometimes it’s nice to make things on paper, so I like to have an assortment of large and small blank paper as well as construction paper.
  • Craft Ideas: I like letting the kids make whatever they want, but sometimes you need some inspiration or a pre-made kit like this headband kit or this bracelet kit.

6. Cutting and Gluing

Cutting is a really hard skill for little hands to master, and so any opportunities for young children to cut and glue will help prepare them for kindergarten. Sometimes it’s fun to just cut shapes out of colored paper and glue them onto large pieces of white paper. Other times, it’s fun to just cut and cut and cut! 🙂 One thing I’ve noticed though is that if a child isn’t ready to cut, don’t push it.

Fancy Cutting Scissors and Construction Paper

Fancy Cutting Scissors and Construction Paper

Materials Needed:

7. Stickers and Stamps

Stickers and stamps are a really fun way for kids to be creative, work on vocabulary and language skills, and develop their fine motor skills. I like to let the kids have complete freedom and do whatever they want with stickers and stamps, but sometimes they need a little help getting started. When this happens, I just get out my own piece of paper and think aloud as I choose what stamps to use and how to arrange my stickers. For extra vocabulary practice, I like to write descriptive words underneath the stickers or add word bubbles to the characters.

Stickers and Stamps

Stickers and Stamps

Materials Needed:

8. Write On/Wipe Off

Write on/wipe off boards are such a novel thing that it makes writing really different and fun. It’s a good way to give your child guided practice as they start to learn how to make lines, shapes, letters, numbers, and more.

Write On/Wipe Off Books and Whiteboard Center

Write On/Wipe Off Books and Whiteboard Center

Materials Needed:

9. Water Play

I usually save my water play centers for the dead of winter when we really need something to liven things up. It can get very messy, but kids LOVE it, and hey, it’s just water. When my water centers are in motion, I pretty much constantly have a load of towels in the dryer. 🙂

Water Pouring Center

Water Pouring Center

Ruby and Ophelia Pouring Water

Ruby and Ophelia Pouring Water

A less messy option is to just do water play in the sink, or better yet, in the bathtub! There have been many long winter days where we take a bath in the afternoon just for fun!

Elliot Doing Water Play in the Sink

Elliot Doing Water Play in the Sink

Materials Needed:

  • Cups and Saucers: There are many different types of tea sets that are really fun to pour with, but sometimes larger cups are fun too.
  • Tubs and Buckets: It’s nice to have a tub or bucket for collecting the water and another for pouring into. I like these rectangular dishpans a lot.
  • Water Table: I did buy this water table last winter, and it was a lot of fun, but not really as fun as the tables with cups and saucers. In the summer we keep it outside, and that has been fun, although a bit of work to keep clean.
  • Towels: I like keeping a stash of old towels hanging near the water centers.

10. Cars and Trains

Our youngest son Julian (21 months) is absolutely OBSESSED with anything that has wheels. All day long he loves pushing his cars and trucks. At the end of the day, there are little areas of cars and trucks everywhere. It’s adorable!

Toy Cars

Toy Cars

Julian Loves Pushing His Big Truck Throughout the House

Julian Loves Pushing His Big Truck Throughout the House

Even though we have an official “Car Center”, there are cars and trucks stashed in just about every room in the house!

Julian's Bedroom

Julian’s Bedroom

Materials Needed:

  • Cars and Trucks: Like with just about everything else in our home, I like finding cars and trucks at thrift stores and garage sales for $0.25 – $0.50/piece. This 20-pack Matchbox set would be a nice way to get started though, and these bulldozers and trucks would make a nice addition. I try to stay away from things that require batteries and make noise because a) they can be really annoying and b) I think that they stifle the imagination. We like using a large truck like this to store all of our cars in.
  • Ramps: We have this ramp, and it’s amazing, but apparently, they’re not making it anymore. Bummer. Something like this or this would be really fun too.
  • Train Tracks: Our kids have a lot of fun with these wooden train tracks. Smaller cars fit on them perfectly too.
  • Road Rug: The kids love our road rugs and play many imagination games using them. You can get a small one like this, or a large one like this. We got our large rug from a thrift store, but you can find some great ones on Amazon like this.

11. Building Toys

Toys that require building are my absolute favorite. They engage the children for extended periods of time, and they really help to get their creative juices flowing. When they’re first learning about how to use the building tools, my husband and I spend a lot of time building with them to model the possibilities. But once they get going, they really start learning from each other, and it’s incredible.

Many Different Kinds of Blocks

Many Different Kinds of Blocks

Big Legos, Kinex, and Unifix Cubes

Big Legos, K’nex, and Unifix Cubes

I love having this table set up just for Legos. The big kids play here as a part of their nightly bedtime routine every night while we put the little ones to bed first. We enjoy buying and making Lego kits from time to time, but mostly they just enjoy building whatever they’d like.

Lego Table

Lego Table

Ophelia and Ruby Building with K'nex

Ophelia and Ruby Building with K’nex

Materials Needed:

  • Big Legos: I like using two bags of these big legos at once. I have a large cardboard box that I cut the flaps off from, cut the front down so that little hands can reach in, and reinforced it with duct tape.
  • Small Legos: We inherited my husband’s old lego set from when he was a kid, but you can buy some basic legos like these. We have also enjoyed making many kits together, but when we’re done, the pieces just get thrown into the collection. I love using large shallow Amazon boxes with the flaps cut off, or a storage tub like this to store the legos in so that kids can find the pieces they’re looking for more easily.
  • Mathlink Cubes: These cubes are great for learning about patterns, counting, or just using to make swords and towers.
  • K’nex: There are so many different ways kids can play with these K’nex building toys. While there may be many different kits available, we have never tried any out.
  • Wooden Blocks: These large wooden blocks are something you must have! We also like these small colored blocks, these ABC blocks, and while we don’t have these large cardboard bricks, I always thought they would be fun to have.
  • Other Fun Building Toys: We don’t have the following building toys, but they are on my wish list!

12. Reading Nooks

I like having little reading spaces all over the house. By making the books easy to see and easy to reach, children are more likely to become engaged with them.

Little Chair and Boxes with Books

Little Chair and Boxes with Books

I like rotating my books based on who is reading them and where. The older children are able to go to the bookshelves to select books, and they each have huge assortments of books in their rooms, so I kind of like to keep my baskets of books and little chairs geared for the little ones.

Little Reading Chairs with a Basket of Books Inbetween

Little Reading Chairs with a Basket of Books Inbetween

Materials Needed:

  • Little Furniture: We bought our mini chairs at our local Walmart, but if I were to buy some online, these mini bean bag chairs look great and have great reviews, and this sturdy wooden framed chair would be the dream! I highly recommend getting something that has a removable cover that can be washed! We inherited a mini couch like this from my parents who bought it for my twin sisters (who are now grown). I think it really pays to buy quality when it’s an item that will get used a lot, but this foam mini couch would be really fun too.
  • Book Baskets: I started collecting wicker baskets like these when Ruby was born to hold diapers and such, and the size and shape is just perfect for storing books! I think this lined wicker basket would be even better, but it’s twice as much. I think it’s really important to fan the books out so that as many can be seen as possible (so big ones in the back), and so they are really easy to grab.
  • Bookshelves: I like storing chapter books and books waiting to be rotated in, as well as our adult books, on bookshelves. We have picked up small ones like thisbig ones like this, and square ones like this over the years at garage sales and thrift stores that have worked really well. I never bought one, but I always thought this book rack storage shelf would be really cool too.
  • Best Books: I have a blog about my favorite books for babies and an Amazon astore with my favorite books for children of all ages, but mainly, I just try to find really good garage sales where the books are like $0.10/each and stock up on ones that cover content, have interesting pictures, and contain text that is on the larger side. I’m always looking for really good sturdy board books especially.

*Read more of my blogs about teaching reading here.

13. Favorite Things Books

I believe in giving children a foundation of learning by helping them master the basic skills, but after that, I like to let them choose to engage in whatever they are interested in. These favorite things books are a great way for me to encourage each child to follow his or her own learning path. Basically, I just do Google image searches and print out pictures of their favorite things.

Ruby’s Favorite Things book is filled with her favorite Miyazaki films, My Little Pony characters, Digimon characters, and pictures of special memories that we printed out. Elliot is really into monsters, superheroes, Godzilla, octopuses, and anything gross. Ophelia loves learning about the ABCs, counting, Dora, seasons, weather, maps, and more, so her book is more educationally themed.

Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot's Favorite Things Books

Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot’s Favorite Things Books

Inside Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot's Favorite Things Books

Inside Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot’s Favorite Things Books

Ophelia Reading Her Favorite Things Book

Ophelia Reading Her Favorite Things Book

Materials Needed:

  • Paper: I like using laminated covers and card stock like this for the pages. Sometimes I just print the images right on the page, and sometimes I cut and glue them. This paper cutter has been very handy.
  • Printer: Finding a good printer is tough, and I am not too happy with the printer choices we have made in the past. But my dad owns a small business where he does a lot of printing and highly recommends the Epson WorkForce ET-4550. He says it prints great and the replacement ink is VERY affordable because it uses liquid refills. Once we’re out of ink for our current printer, we will be purchasing this one!
  • Laminator: This is the laminator I have. It is really basic, has a good price, and works great! This one is about the same price and has even better reviews though.
  • Binder: I have tried the comb binding (with binding spines) and it is affordable and easy to use, but not super durable (yet simple enough to fix). I have also tried the cinch binding (with binding wires) that is much more durable but the binding wires are quite expensive.

14. Little Figures and Houses

Creative and imaginative play is one of THE MOST IMPORTANT aspects of childhood. When I was a third grade teacher, I was always amazed when kids had no idea what to do with themselves during recess. When I was growing up, my brother and I always played intricate imagination games that would take us to other worlds and keep us engaged for hours.

Playing with little figures and houses is an excellent way for young children to use play to make sense of the world around them. Sometimes their play is about real things (going to bed, taking a bath, getting dressed) and sometimes it’s a completely made up fantasy.

Little House and Mini Figures

Little House and Mini Figures

When Ruby and Elliot were first starting to show interest in little house and mini figures, we would get on the floor and play with them as we modeled different scenarios with heroes and villains as well as other story lines that they could play along with. Now, Ophelia and Julian are learning from their older siblings how to do the same thing.

Doll House with Toy Baskets

Doll House with Toy Baskets

We have little houses and figures in just about every room in the house, and they always keep our children engaged in imaginative play for extended periods of time.

Ruby and Elliot Playing with Little Houses and Figures

Ruby and Elliot Playing with Little Houses and Figures

Materials Needed:

  • Little Houses: Just like with everything else, we look for all sorts of houses, castles, barns, tree house, and any other structures at garage sales and thrift stores. These things are so expensive to buy new, but just look on Craigslist or find a way to buy them used. Otherwise, Fisher Price Little People houses like this small one or this larger one are great too.
  • Figures: We are always buying these My Busy Books at the grocery store, not so much for the book and play mat, but for the mini figures inside. I am always on the lookout for small figures like these superheroes and these Peanuts characters. I try to stay away from Barbies and anything else that objectifies women.
  • Baskets: I like using wide shallow baskets like this because children only like to play with what they can see. This toy rack has also been very nice for organizing toys (although I just dump anything anywhere, it at least looks organized).

15. Dress Up

Playing dress up is another really great way for children to use their imaginations. By getting dressed up, they can become a different person with new characteristics. This imaginative play is a very important aspect of their development and actually a key piece of the highly successful Tools of the Mind Preschool Curriculum.

Dress Up Clothes and Hats

Dress Up Clothes and Hats

Sometimes when children get dressed up, they don’t know what to do. I like to provide scenarios and props to help spin them into action (usually some kind of problem and solution involving a hero and villain works well). Being able to engage in extended imaginative play (without adult interaction) is a very important skill for little ones to develop. It teaches them how to sustain their attention on something for an extended period of time and fosters all sorts of creativity that is a much more important aspect of an optimal learning environment than some would think.

Dress Up Dresses

Dress Up Dresses

Ophelia is a Cowgirl!

Ophelia is a Cowgirl!

I like looking for dress up clothes at garages year round, but my favorite thing to do is to hit up thrift stores right before Halloween to pick up more outfits, hats, and props to add to my collection.

Materials Needed:

16. Music

My husband is very musical, and so we have him to thank for filling our house with such wonderful instruments. He is talented at playing just about everything and has a very good ear for music. The kids love sitting on his lap while he plays the drums and we all enjoy making family music together.

Drums, Keyboard, Bass Guitar, Electric Guitar, and Amp

Drums, Keyboard, Bass Guitar, Electric Guitar, and Amp

I have placed colored stickers on the keyboard with letters on them to teach kids the names of the keys. We like printing out simple song sheets (look for ones that have the notes and letters for each note) and color coding them so that the children can learn how to read music.

Keyboard with Labeled Keys

Keyboard with Labeled Keys

Materials Needed:

17. Puzzles

Puzzles are an excellent way for children to practice their dexterity while also learning about the vocabulary and content of the puzzle. Yes, there are times when I have to hide my puzzles when the little ones want to just dump all of the pieces out in one big jumble, but when they’re ready to actually sit down and attend to one (or maybe two) puzzles at a time, then I leave them out!

Puzzle Rack

Puzzle Rack

Playing with Puzzles

Playing with Puzzles

Materials Needed:

18. Pocket Charts

There are many different pocket charts that you can get for a variety of purposes. I like having my pocket chart as an interactive wall center. Sometimes I use pre-made cards, sometimes I use my own flashcards, and sometimes I use flashcards that the kids have colored. There are so many different options for pocket charts and the best thing is that they don’t take up any floor space!

Pocket Chart with Beginning Word Sounds

Pocket Chart with Beginning Word Sounds

Materials Needed:

19. Play-Doh

Play-Doh is a fun moldable adventure for children. Little fingers love squishing and squashing it, and there are so many different options for creativity.

Ophelia and Elliot Playing with Play-Doh

Ophelia and Elliot Playing with Play-Doh

I like keeping my Play-Doh supplies stored in cardboard boxes (from Amazon) with the flaps cut off and labeled with mailing labels. It’s nice to have a table or space on the floor to play with the Play-Doh so that it doesn’t get ground into the carpet. Right now, my Ophelia is obsessed with this

Materials Needed:

20. Puppets

Puppets are a wonderful way to teach children new things or entertain them using funny voices and silly dialogue. I enjoy using puppets to talk to my children or read them books and we all like putting on puppet shows.

Puppet Stand

Puppet Stand

Materials Needed:

  • Puppet Stand: I made this puppet stand using spare scraps of wood we had lying around. It’s a good thing it’s covered up with fabric, because it’s a very crude job! I even had to screw it into the wall just so it would stay standing. 🙂 If you don’t feel like making your own, you could certainly just buy one like this.
  • Hand Puppets: These animal hand puppets are great (and a good price), but I really like the puppets with mouths that open, and my kids LOVE our Ernie and Kermit the Frog puppets because they recognize the characters. You can get this Sesame Street Puppet Collection here, but it is pretty pricey. This set of 8 multi-ethnic puppets is a better value.
  • Finger Puppets: This is a great 16 piece finger puppet set.

21. Games

I love, love, LOVE these big cupboards with shelves that we inherited when we bought our house, and I have one entire cupboard where we keep most of our board games. Many games I have found at garage sales and thrift stores, and many others have been on wish lists for Christmas and Birthdays. The frustrating thing about the popular games these days is that they seem to be made cheaper and cheaper with each generation. I like finding older versions of classic games like Connect 4 and Guess Who that are of obviously superior quality.

Our Board Game Cupboard

Our Board Game Cupboard

When little ones are first learning about board games, I find that it is very important to let them play however they want. When they are ready, they’ll want to play by the rules, so in the meantime, don’t make everyone frustrated by forcing it.

We try to make it common practice to just take out one game at a time, and we try to not make TOO big of a mess. Also, I’m sure there are a ton more great games (especially educational ones) out there, but we usually look for ours second hand, so we just get what we can find! 🙂

Materials Needed:

22. Science

When I think of teaching little ones science, I think about teaching them how to see the world up close and giving them opportunities to explore it. I want them to get magnifying glasses and look at bugs…how they move, where they’re going, they’re characteristics, I want them to catch frogs and learn how to gently handle them, I want them to observe the colors of the sky and to see the patterns in the clouds, I want them to get messy as they compare the texture of dirt to mud, and most of all, I want them to play, explore, wonder, question, and see…really see the world.

Ruby and Elliot in the Garden

Ruby and Elliot in the Garden

Ruby and Elliot Doing a Vinegar and Baking Soda Experiment

Ruby and Elliot Doing a Vinegar and Baking Soda Experiment

Materials Needed:

23. Social Studies

Learning about where we are in place in time should be a gradual infiltration of knowledge instead of a sudden mind dump. As a third grade teacher introducing concepts such as “we live in a city that is part of a state that is part of a country that is part of a continent” and “before we lived here other people lived here with fewer advancements in technology” are all really big ideas that can be hard to grasp when introduced too quickly.

The more children can be exposed to these concepts at a young age, the more receptive they will be to learn about them more in depth at a later age.

State, World, and Universe Maps

State, World, and Universe Maps

Materials Needed:

24. My Favorite Workbooks

During the summer (and weekends, holidays, etc.), I have a pretty nice routine that involves all of us adopting a homeschool framework that helps all of us to be productive and accountable. First thing in the morning, I like to have my older ones do about 2-4 pages from any workbook of their choosing. Sometimes the little ones like to do workbooks too, sometimes they just color, and sometimes they’re playing elsewhere. 🙂

My Favorite Workbooks

My Favorite Workbooks

Some kids really really like sitting down and doing workbooks, and some just don’t. I think you have to find what works for your child. Try to expose them to some pencil paper activities where you can and let their interests lead the way.

Materials Needed:

  • Kumon Books: Every single Kumon book is simple, fun, direct, to the point, and a very effective teaching too. I love everything they make from tracing and mazes, to addition and subtraction, to upper and lowercase letters, to rhyming words, and much much more.
  • Brain Quest: I love everything Brain Quest makes! Their workbooks are high quality with full color, simple graphics, age appropriate content, and fun for kids. You might like starting with the Pre-K or K workbook for your little one.
  • Star Wars: When I was doing homeschool preschool with my son Elliot, he was pretty reluctant to sit down and do any sort of workbooks, but he loved these Star Wars workbooks! We enjoyed the Kindergarten Phonics and ABCs and Kindergarten Math Skills. There’s also some really great Preschool ABC and Preschool Number workbooks.
  • Investigations Math: This curriculum does an amazing job of making learning math fun! There are lots of different games that help to build math concepts. You can buy individual student books by grade level on Amazon like this K workbook. If you go to the Investigations ordering page, you’ll see that it’s not super easy to order from them unless you’re buying the whole kit and kaboodle.
  • Grocery Store Books: If you go to the book section at any grocery store or Walmart, there’s always a selection of different workbooks. I have enjoyed using these as well. If you live near any teacher stores, I highly recommend going there and just looking through the resources in person.

25. Technology

We have always enjoyed using technology as a teaching tool with our little ones. Read more about why we don’t ban screen time for our little ones under two here, and also read more about how we set limits with technology here. If you are the type of parent who has trouble setting limits, leaves the TV on all day even if no one is watching it, or is struggling with young ones who want to spend all day in front of a screen, then you might want to skip this section. But if you’re okay with using technology in a structured and supervised way, then you might love the following blogs:

Our Favorite Preschool Apps

Our Favorite Preschool Apps

In Conclusion

By setting up a stimulating environment filled with many different learning centers, your little ones will not only be engaged, they will be growing and developing so fast that you might find it hard to keep up, and that is definitely not something to complain about!

You don’t have to be a teacher in order to provide your child with a stimulating learning environment, and you don’t need to wait until you send them off to school before you can expect them to learn anything. Babies and young children crave stimulation and learning. and you’re not going to find all that you need in workbooks and paper/pencil activities. Kids need opportunities to learn through play, and play based learning centers are a great way to get started!

For Further Reading

  • Zone of Proximal Development: Children of all ages, babies included, love to be challenged. By providing learning opportunities that are at the right level for your child and by scaffolding them to new learning, they will be engaged, happy, and continuously making advancements.
  • Learning Goals: Now, I’m not talking about state standards, lesson plan books, and goal sheets, I’m talking about knowing where your children are developmentally and thinking about where they could go next based on their ages, abilities, personalities, etc. Knowing this will help you to design your learning environment with each child’s needs in mine. See examples of the learning goals I set for my children here.
  • How Children Learn: When you look at brain development and see that the neurons in a child’s brain peak at about 2-3 years of age, you will understand why I believe that this is the most crucial window of opportunity there is.
  • Oral Language Development: Learning how to speak is what represents the background knowledge that children will bring to every new learning experience that they encounter.
Best Educational Programs for Young Children

19 Educational Programs for Young Children to Watch

Setting reasonable limits for screen time means that your children can enjoy some quality educational programming as a part of their balanced day. Studies show that children who watch educational programming at a young age actually perform better academically than children who do not. (Especially when “anti-educational” fast paced programs, like SpongeBob, are avoided.) Setting reasonable expectations for screen time, even for educational programming, is a very helpful part of the process.

In order to watch these programs, we connect our TV to our computer and are purposeful about all that we watch. If you decide to cancel your cable subscription, you can use the money you save for to spend $9.99/mo. on a Netflix subscription and/or $99/yr on an Amazon Prime subscription, and purchase some of these DVDs, and then (with the help of free YouTube, PBS, and Nick Jr. programs) you will have all you ever need to entertain and teach your kids!

So, when our children DO watch TV, the are the educational programs our little ones have been entertained by, learned from, and wanted to watch over and over again.

1. Preschool Prep

These videos have played a fundamental role in teaching our children their letter names, letter sounds, digraphs, consonant blends, sight words, shapes, colors, and numbers. We show them to our little babies to introduce them to the concepts, again as toddlers when they are fully engaged, and again during the preschool years for good review.

Preschool Prep DVDs

Preschool Prep DVDs

Buy the entire 10 DVD collection here for $60! If you get anything, at least get the Letter Names and Letter Sounds DVDs and your children will learn their ABCs in no time (which will help them learn how to read at a much younger age than you might imagine, check out more of my favorite ABC resources here and my Embracing Motherhood Store here.

2.  Leapfrog

These videos have a story line that makes them more engaging for an older child learning his or her alphabet, but I still love them for reinforcing letter sounds and other great concepts such as numbers, shapes, opposite words, and more. The characters are cute and engaging, and all of our children really like these programs in addition to the corresponding educational toys.

Leapfrog

Leapfrog

Get a 3 DVD collection of some of our favorites (Amazing Alphabet, Learn to Read, and Numbers Ahoy) here for $10.29, or you can watch 12 episodes on Netflix (if you have a subscription). There are also lots of great toys, like this Leapfrog Fridge Magnet set, this Leapfrog Letter Discoveries Board, and this Leapfrog Scribble and Write Tablet that will help your children learn their letters.

3. Your Baby Can Learn

I stumbled across what were originally called “Your Baby Can Read” videos before our first daughter was born and started watching them with her when she was 6 months old. By watching these videos, teaching her the ABCs, and reading lots and lots of books, she was reading by the age of two. I am very sad that they went out of business because some people were mad about the idea of having children under two watch TV, but they are rebranding themselves and coming out with new and wonderful videos that your little ones will love and learn a lot from.

Your Baby Can Learn

Your Baby Can Learn

You can buy the entire learning kit online ($150) that includes videos, flashcards, and teaching tips that will make learning how to read very fun and possible for children at a very young age. Or, you can check out their YouTube Channel to see free videos. I love how they are now making learning videos for all languages. My three year old daughter Ophelia LOVES language, is an amazing reader, and is really excited to learn other languages too. You can also just type in “your baby can read” into Youtube and find some of their original videos that I simply love!

Your Baby Can Learn Deluxe Kit

Your Baby Can Learn Deluxe Kit

These videos have inspired me to create my own system to teach young children how to read. You can see what I have so far at my Embracing Motherhood store and stay tuned for more!

ABC Flashcards

ABC Flashcards

4. Bada Namu

This is a cute little show that my kids actually found through YouTube Kids. It’s really great at teaching vocabulary and has lots of cute songs. I love how the lyrics are displayed at the bottom of the screen so that children can read along as they listen to the songs.

bada-namu

You can go to their YouTube Channel to see all of their videos and check out their pre-made playlists. If you go to their website, they have an entire curriculum to teach your little ones everything they need to know. The resources look really awesome!

5. Maisy

This show is particularly engaging for babies and toddlers, but the older ones don’t mind it too much either. This show focuses on simple concepts like bedtime and birthday which is great for teaching little ones about their world. I especially like watching this show so that my little ones will get engaged with the Maisy books like this 16 book collection (for $53.99).

Maisy

Maisy

You can watch full episodes for free on YouTube or you can buy the DVDs. We like the Goodnight Maisy DVD (for $8.97), the Good Morning Maisy DVD (for $9.36), and the Playtime Maisy DVD (for $9.32) to name a few.

6. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood

This show was modeled after Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and even approved by Ms. Roger’s herself. It teaches children a lot about how to handle their emotions and about really basic concepts that they may deal with on a daily basis like trying new foods and making new friends. We pretty much love all PBS programming, and this is no exception.

daniel_tigers_neighborhood_logo

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood

You can watch episodes for free, play games, watch stories, and color on the PBS website.

7. Harold and the Purple Crayon

Growing up as a child, I always loved reading Harold and the Purple Crayon. The simplicity and creative imagination it evoked seemed to open up a world of possibilities in my mind. We stumbled across this show, narrated by Sharon Stone, and were mesmerized by the melodic tone of the show. It’s a great show to watch during rest time or before bed because of the calm music and gentle stories that put you in a sort of dreamland with the feeling of being read a story.

Harold and the Purple Crayon

Harold and the Purple Crayon

You can watch full episodes for free on YouTube or buy the DVDs on Amazon if you would like to watch this lovely program. I also highly recommend checking out some of the many Harold and the Purple Crayon books.

8. Blue’s Clues

This show is simple, predictable, engaging, and has fun cute characters that are very entertaining for young children. I love the concept of solving a mystery and how real children are incorporated into the show.

blues clues

Blue’s Clues

You can buy DVDs, like this Blue’s Clues Alphabet Power for $5.99, or you can watch full episodes for free on Nick Jr. Our children also enjoy the many Blue’s Clues books.

9. Peep and the Big Wide World

This show is extremely simple and engaging for toddlers in a way that feels like someone is reading them a story. I also like how it connects to real children trying out experiments that relate to the concepts in the show.

peep and the big wide world

Peep and the Big Wide World

You can buy DVDs, like this 3-disc collection of Peep and His Pals for $12.99, you can watch it for free here on YouTube, or you can watch free episodes and play games here.

10. Sesame Street

I grew up loving Sesame Street as a child, and to this day, sometimes I just prefer watching the older episodes. 🙂 But Sesame Street has continued to change with the times while still maintaining their recognizable and lovable characters.

sesame-street

Sesame Street

You can go to the PBS website to watch full episodes, play games, and do art activities, but I’m most impressed with their comprehensive YouTube Channel. You can watch videos here sorted by your child’s favorite character, watch different playlist compilations, or just explore all of their videos.

11. Peppa Pig

This is a fun little show that we recently stumbled upon. Our kids of all ages (1-7) love watching it. Maybe it’s the narrator’s accent that they love most of all, but at any rate, the simple story line and message of the show is really cute and engaging.

peppa_pig

Peppa Pig

You can watch full episodes for free on YouTube just by typing “peppa pig full episodes” into the search bar. You could also buy some DVD sets on Amazon along with some cute books and toys.

12. Backyardigans

This is a great show for modeling the use of imagination. I love how all of the characters come together in their backyards and then enter these creative worlds that they design in their minds.

Backyardigans

Backyardigans

You can watch free full episodes on the Nick Jr. website, watch full seasons of episodes on Amazon Prime, do a YouTube search for “Backyardigans full episodes“, or buy DVDs on Amazon. Our kids have also enjoyed reading the many Backyardigans books.

13. Super Why

Even though this is really designed for more of a preschooler to school aged child, our toddler has still really enjoyed it. It does a wonderful job of teaching the basic concepts of reading using characters and problems that children can relate to. I also like the Super Why books and learning games available.

4-superwhy-group

Super Why

You can buy DVDs, like this Fairytale Double Feature for $8.29, or you can watch seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix (if you have a subscription), or watch it on PBS if you have a cable subscription. *PBS has some Super Why games too.

14. Wild Kratts

This is a great program for teaching children about animals. I love how it switches from the cartoon characters to real life characters and animals. There is also a nice set of corresponding Wild Kratts books.

Wild Kratts

Wild Kratts

You can buy DVDs, like this Wildest Animals Adventures 5 disc compilation for $23.69, watch seasons 1, 2, and 3 on Netflix (if you have a subscription), or watch a select amount of videos on PBS for free.

15. Little Einsteins

I love how each program incorporates famous artists and composers and uses them throughout the program as part of the storyline. The show is very engaging, moves at a nice pace, and provides a balanced amount of learning and entertainment. There are also many Little Einstein books to enjoy.

little einsteins

Little Einsteins

You can buy DVDs, like this 3-Pack of Favorite Adventures for $24.96, or you can watch seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix (if you have a subscription). You can also watch a select number of videos and play Little Einstein games on Disney Jr.

16. Dora

Both of our girls (and the boys somewhat too) have LOVED this program as toddlers! I love the way the show teaches sequencing with the beginning, middle, end concept of a story while teaching Spanish at the same time. I especially love how watching the show has made our girls LOVE reading Dora books.

dora

Dora the Exlplorer

You can watch free full episodes on the Nick Jr. website, you can buy Dora DVDs, like this Greatest Adventure’s DVD (with a run time of 198 minutes) for $7.99, or you can watch full episodes on YouTube if you search for “Dora full episodes“. We used to watch full episodes on Netflix, but they’re not there anymore. You can find them on Amazon Prime, however. Our kids also really like Dora in the City. There are also some great educational Dora apps.

17. Magic School Bus

This show really appeals to more of preschool to school age children and does a wonderful job of teaching scientific concepts in a fun and engaging storyline with the unpredictable Ms. Frizzle! There are also tons of Magic School Bus books (like this one about the solar system, this one about the human body, and this one about the dinosaurs), and that connect to the TV programs.

the-magic-school-bus

The Magic School Bus

You can buy the entire 52 episode collection on 8 discs for $35.99 here, or you can watch all four seasons on Netflix (if you have a subscription).

18. Sid the Science Kid

This program is great for younger children and does an amazing job teaching basic scientific concepts such as why we need to brush our teeth, how we grow, and simple machines. The simplicity and predictability of the program are engaging, and I love how it shows clips of real kids and gives you ideas of things you can do at home. We really like the Sid’s Science Fair app too.

sid-the-science-kid-logo

Sid the Science Kid

You can buy some episodes on Amazon, like this one about rainbows (for $5.99), this one about weather (for $4.99), or this movie (for $5.99) or you can watch episodes at PBS Kids.

19. The Amoeba Sisters

This is definitely for the older preschool child (up to an adult), and may not be engaging for all, but our son Elliot started watching this when he was 4 year old. He LOVES the cute little characters with word bubbles and he LOVES learning about the science of biology, so this has been perfect! I really like it too because it helps me to learn as well!

Amoeba Sisters

Amoeba Sisters

Go to their YouTube channel here. You can watch all of the videos in order on their playlist, and I highly recommend subscribing so that you can stay up to date with any new videos.

In Conclusion

I love having some simple shows for the kids to watch when I need them to be entertained and know that they are going to be learning and benefiting in some way. I know that some people feel that banning all technology and TV and screen time is a good idea, but that’s just not something that works in our family. By setting reasonable limits with screen time using routines, I feel like we have a very good balance in our household.

Check out more of my technology blogs here, or check out more of my nature blogs here to see how we engage our children with outdoor activities as well! You might also like my blog: My Favorite YouTube Playlists for Teaching Kids Ages 0-6.

Buying a New Computer Shouldn’t Cost a Fortune

If you’re in the market for a new laptop or home computer, check out these recommendations from our resident computer guy!

By: Guest Blogger Scott Maaser

scott

Scott “The Computer Guy”

Bio: Not only does my husband fix computers for a living by day, but he writes code for desktop apps in a few different programming languages by night. He is also the resident computer guy in both of our families and circle of friends. He pretty much lives, eats, and breathes computers, and so when I saw this website recommending “great deals on computers for homeschool families”, I naturally showed him wondering if it really was a good deal. He laughed, and explained how buying a new computer these days shouldn’t be an expensive ordeal, and how “deals” like these aren’t really deals at all . I asked him to write me a post explaining his answer in more more detail, and here it is, from our resident computer guy!

Buying a New Computer Shouldn’t Cost a Fortune

School is back in session, and that means back to school shopping. Pens, notebooks, backpacks – everyone knows how to shop for those items, but when it comes to computers, sometimes the amount of options and features can be overwhelming. Where do people go to get recommendations for computers? Most people I know go into a big-box store like Best Buy, but stores like that have to cover a lot of overhead and aren’t really looking out for your best interests.

Who Am I?

I’d like to take a quick break here and talk a little about myself and my experience. I’ve worked at Best Buy in the past, and I’m currently working as a Client Technology Technician, which is just a fancy way of saying I just fix computers at a large company. I’m fixing laptops day in and day out – both in the workplace and with my co-worker’s computers. I’ve been doing work like this on and off for the last 20 years.

What They’re Really Selling You

My wife just sent me a link to this website which advertises discounted laptops for homeschoolers. I looked through what they offered, and I noticed a couple of things. First of all, I saw a few models of the laptops they offered as ones I had worked on 4-5 years ago. Looking at their pricing, I didn’t really see how their price points offered any kind of noticeable discount. I know they do include a 4 year warranty, laptop bag, and 8GB flash drive, but not everyone wants to purchase all those add-ons. They also offer a slight discount on Microsoft Office at $118 (more on this later).

If you take a look at their Lenovo T400 at $250, for example, I noticed that it came out in 2010 and really does not have the specs to compete with modern processors and memory technology. In fact, Amazon currently has T400s selling for less than that.

So look, all this aside, I know there are some really good laptops (and desktop computers) out these days that come with a manufacturer’s 1-year warranty, have modern technology, and cost significantly less than the computers you can get from big-box stores and most online retailers.

My Laptop Recommendation

Lenovo 100s with Windows 10  – I have been using Lenovo laptops and ThinkPad laptops for over a decade. They hold up the best over time and have had the least number of issues during normal wear and tear. This version of the 100s has double the standard storage space with 64GB of solid-state storage. This model also comes with a full version of Windows 10 which means it’s ready to handle pretty much any kind of educational software and web browsing you can find to supplement education.

My Desktop Recommendation

Azulle Mini Desktop PC with Windows 10 (or bundled with keyboard and camera) – With 2GB RAM, 32GB storage, and a modern Intel Atom processor, it will handle any basic task you throw at it. You will be able to hook this up to your TV and watch Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, or anything else. It also has VGA video output, so you can connect it to most computer monitors.

If you are looking for a monitor, this ViewSonic 22 inch monitor can really bring your computing experience into vivid existence. ViewSonic has been in the monitor business for decades, and this display really showcases some of their best efforts. It comes with DVI and VGA ports, which allows it to not only connect to most computers, but also can scale up to Full HD 1080p resolution. It even has built in speakers so you can experience stereo sound right on your desktop without purchasing additional speakers.

The Azul Mini Desktop Computer can stand alone as it’s own system and will allow you to install Microsoft Office or any other variant of free Office alternatives. As a teacher or student (yes, even homeschool), you can get Microsoft Office for FREE (along with 1 TB of online storage). If you don’t want to go that route, here are your other purchasing options: purchase it for a one time fee of $149 (1 installation), pay $9.99/mo. (or $99/yr.) for up to 5 installations or $6.99/mo. (or $69.99/yr.) for 1 installation.

It also has 3 USB ports, which means it will not only handle a standard set of USB keyboard and mouse, but it also has one more port in case you want to hook up a USB external Hard Drive for extra storage.

Other Extras

Flash DriveThis device holds 32 GB, which is enough to move anything you need to move from one device to another. Speaking of devices, this has connections for both full sized USB, like on your computers, as well as micro USB, to connect to Android and Windows smartphones. This allows you to copy things to and from your phone or tablet to your computer – super handy. 

Keyboard/Mouse: This wireless keyboard and mouse combo is a great buy. It’s made by Logitech, which is the industry leader in keyboards and mice. Plus, it’s wireless so installation is simple. Wireless peripherals have come a long way in terms of battery life. I use a wireless Logitech keyboard and mouse at work, and I usually need to change out the single AA battery in the mouse and the 2 AA batteries in the keyboard about once a year. Plus, the wireless feature means less wires coming in and out of your computer.

Printer: We have gone through many many printers, and finally settled on the Epson WorkForce Pro because it was reviewed to be the best quality and most cost effective printer for a small business, and with the amount of printing that we do, this has provided both quality and quantity, but not without hassles. It can’t handle thick card stock, we have dealt with many paper jams, and the ink is pricy, but overall, we have been quite happy. If we had to purchase a new printer today, however, we might take a look at some of these models.

In Conclusion

All in all, getting a new computer that can help you move your home computing experience into some newer, faster technology shouldn’t break the bank. Feel free to leave a comment (or send an email) if you have any questions about anything, and I will be happy to answer them!

Embracing Motherhood Chicken Soup Recipe

Healing Chicken Soup Recipe

This is just your basic chicken soup recipe, but when each component is carefully prepared from the roasting of the chicken, to the making of the stock, to the preparation and addition of other ingredients like the soaked barley, it is truly a masterpiece. I like to make some sort of soup every other week or so (especially during the cold months) because it makes a great “go to” lunch, dinner, breakfast, or snack. Whenever I am too busy to prepare a meal or feel hungry and tempted to eat a pile of cookies or go to McDonalds, I just put my soup on the stove and minutes later I have a nice, delicious, healthy, and nourishing meal.

Ingredients

  • Roasted Chicken (Cut into bite sized pieces. Usually when I make a roasted chicken, we are able to make one meal out of just eating the meat and what’s left over gets put into the soup.)
  • 4 Quarts of Chicken Stock (Check out how I make my simple bone broth here.)
  • 2 c. Soaked Barley (You could also use soaked rice or soaked beans, but barley is the healthiest choice.)
  • 2 c. Chopped Carrots
  • 2. c. Chopped Celery
  • 4 T. Real Salt (I buy my Real Salt in bulk here, you can buy a shaker here, or a refill pouch here.)
  • Optional: 1 c. Chopped Leeks, 1 c. Chopped Bok Choy, or whatever else is leftover in your fridge that could be chopped up and sounds like it would be good in soup (broccoli, potatoes, zucchini, green beans, etc.)!

Directions

  1. Bake the chicken. Check out my roasted chicken recipe here, but basically, you’re going to season your chicken and bake at 350° F for 1.5 hours.

    roast chicken

    Roast Chicken

  2. Cut it up. Let the chicken cool, cut it off the bone, and leave to soak in it’s own juices.
  3. Make your bone broth. Read more about making bone broth here, but basically, you’re going to low boil your bones, skin, etc. with cold filtered water and a dash of apple cider vinegar (to draw out the minerals) for 24-36 hours (or at least overnight). Then, drain the broth and use it for your stock.

    straining the broth

    Straining the Bone Broth

  4. Low boil and add the chicken. Bring the chicken broth to a low boil. As it’s heating up, add the chicken. If it looks like there is too much broth, drain some off and either freeze it or save it for later. (I like setting some broth aside and adding it later to make my soup last longer!)
  5. Add the veggies. Depending on how big of a pot you’re making and how long you think it will last, keep that in mind when you cook your veggies. Carrots and celery tend to take longer to cook, so I like to add them first. If I’m adding bok choy, leeks, and parsley, I’ll wait to add them to the end and not cook them for very long so that they don’t get soggy.

    Chicken Soup with Carrots, Celery, Bok Choy, and Leeks

    Chicken Soup with Carrots, Celery, Bok Choy, and Leeks

  6. Add your starch. You can add your pre-soaked barley, some rice, or even beans too (garbanzo and white beans are my favorites). Sometimes, I like to hold off on the starch and just leave the meat and veggies, and sometimes, I like to cook a pot of rice and pour my soup over it. Yum!

    chicken soup over rice

    Chicken Soup Over Rice

  7. Salt to taste. Yes, you can over salt your soup, and I have done it many times! Start out with some, then add a little more and a little more until it tastes just right.
  8. Enjoy! When everything is just right, get out your bowls and enjoy some soup! It’s also really good to serve some piping hot sourdough muffins with this meal.

    Chicken Soup with Carrots, Celery, Bok Choy, and Leeks

    Chicken Soup with Carrots, Celery, Bok Choy, and Leeks

In Conclusion

Chicken soup make with organic, pasture raised chickens using properly prepared broth and grains is just about one of the healthiest meals you can eat. I love making a pot whether it’s summer or winter for a nourishing go to meal that can last my family through the week. Read more of my soup recipes here or my chicken recipes here.