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 at $118.49 (this includes shipping).

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 ($210) – 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 ($169, or bundled with keyboard and camera for $255) – 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 ($99) 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 ($54.99) for extra storage.

Other Extras

Flash DriveThis device hold 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. Also, at only $11.99, this is a great price for 32 GB of flash storage.

Keyboard/MouseAt just under $20, 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 How to Make a Mudpit for Summer Fun

How to Make a Mud Pit for Summer Fun

“You want to make a mud pit…on purpose…in our yard?!?” I can imagine your spouse yelling as you try to present the idea of creating a mud pit in your backyard, but hear me out…

Having Fun in Our Mudpit

Having Fun in Our Mudpit

We kind of made our mud pit on accident when we were trying to cover a dirt hill with sod (which is a story for another blog post), and in the process, I noticed how much the kids absolutely loved playing on a hill of pure dirt. They would climb up it, roll down it, dig tunnels through it and holes in it, and basically get really, really muddy. We would have to strip them down before they entered the house, and it created a lot of messy laundry.

Well, the hill was eventually covered with sod, and the parts that weren’t covered sprung up with grass and other foliage, but the hole that we dug the sod out of still remained, ready to be used. We originally were going to make another sandbox on top to mimic the one we liked at Blandford Nature Center, but well, we kind of ran out of money and were looking for a cheaper alternative.

I had a bunch of leftover seeds and plants from planting our summer garden and the kids were still begging for another dirt hill, so I went to work digging and made a dirt hill surrounded by a moat, surrounded by a path, surrounded by some plants. We stretched three hoses connected together to allow water to flow to the furthest regions of our yard, and walla! Mud pit!

Materials

Directions

  1. Plan It. Find a space in your yard that will be just perfect for a mud pit…preferably away from any pools you have, not right near the front door, but close enough to a water source.
  2. Dig It. Using a pointy shovel, dig out small squares of sod. You can use them to build a small grassy hill if you’d like. Just place the sod pieces on top of each other. Eventually they will settle in and make a nice little hill. Our kids love playing on ours!
  3. Shape It. Try to give it your mud pit some character. Build it up high in some spaces, level it out in others, use your imagination, and try to visualize how your kids will use it. I really think having a moat type structure is a good idea because it traps the water in and makes it more usable.
  4. Use It. I highly encourage all play in the mud pit to be conducted with bathing suits on! This way, kids can be sprayed off with a hose, jump through a sprinkler, or jump into a kiddie pool to get clean afterwards! With a few shovels, buckets, and watering cans, this mud pit has entertained our kids and their friends for hours.
Playing in the Mud Pit

Playing in the Mud Pit

Conclusion

Yes, making a sandbox is probably an overall cleaner project, and one that our kids have enjoyed just as much, but there is just something so primal about a mud pit that I think all kids should have a chance to experience. Being able to interact with nature, feeling the cool mud with its abundance of free electrons boosting your immune system, getting completely filthy, and creating, digging, and exploring the properties of mud are all hallmarks of any good childhood.

How to Set Up a Summer Routine That Keeps Kids Productive

With school out and summer upon us, I find myself wondering how I can make the best use of time with all of my children. Yes, I want to sleep in late, be outside as much as possible, go to the beach, make forts, be silly, and have the freedom to do whatever we want at a moment’s notice, but by having routines in place, I can ensure that my children continue to learn and grow while we have fun together.

The Importance of Routines

I am a huge fan of routines, and as a teacher and now a parent, I have seen them work wonders in many situations.

When routines are in place, especially ones that allow for flexibility, kids feel safe and can run on autopilot without constant hovering and redirection.

After my daughter has been in kindergarten all year, and will now be spending her summer days with her three younger siblings, I knew that a routine for her and her four year old brother especially would be very beneficial to keep them productive, to minimize the fighting, and to minimize them wanting to just watch TV or play on heir ipads all day.

Using Charts

I am also a big fan of making charts, and I love how making them with my children gets them to buy in to what I’m trying to teach them. I usually set up the structure for the charts on my own, then get their input as I begin to fill it out, fill in most of the rest of it on my own, and then get their final input. They especially like to get their help with the coloring!

Ruby Helping Me Color Our Charts

Ruby Helping Me Color Our Charts

For the purpose of this summer routine chart, I knew that I would need to provide my kids with routine, ideas, and flexibility, so I decided to include our daily routine, ideas for activities they could do, and a separate goal chart to remind all of us of what they needed to work on.

homeschool summer school and goal chart

Summer School and Goal Charts

Your charts have to work for you and your kiddos. They have to reflect both your needs and theirs. I have a lot of work to do around the house on a daily basis, and I need to spend a lot of time with the younger two, so my charts reflect this. I also want to be able to guide and scaffold my children during teachable moments, and these charts serve as a good reminder for how I can use my time wisely with them.

Setting Up a Learning Environment

I know that my teaching experience may make it easier for me to get into “teacher mode”, but the things that I do are so simple and easy that anyone could do them.

The number one thing that I do is create a stimulating learning environment.

I believe that children like to learn, they like to be challenged, and they like to stay busy. By setting up little learning stations all over the house, I can ensure that my children can do all of these things independently. This also allows me to jump in at opportune “teachable moments” to help scaffold them to the next level. (Check out how I set up a learning environment in my blog: How to Create an Environment that Encourages Independent Play and Learning.)

Activities

I am a big advocate of giving children choices, and the charts allow children to see what all of the possibilities are. Sometimes I like to make a big list of all possible activities so my kids know what all of these are and sometimes just need a reminder of all that is possible. When thinking about new activities for my children to do, I like to create learning goals to guide the activity choices. (To read about how I write learning goals, check out this article, and to read some examples of learning goals that I have created for my children, click here.)

Examples of Activities:

  • Imagination games
  • Dress up
  • Reading
  • Coloring
  • Write a story
  • Favorite things books
  • Play music
  • Build with Legos or blocks
  • Board games
  • Play outside
  • Rock garden

Usually, my children know how to use their imaginations to entertain themselves (because I’ve worked really hard on this with them), but if they ever falter, then I just drop what I’m doing and get down on the floor and play with them to help scaffold them to independence.

Daily Routine

After writing out a list of all of the activities, I created our daily routine.

I wanted to create a routine that would get them to use the best parts of their brain first thing in the morning.

I have found that we can all be most productive if we get up and get dressed right away. My oldest daughter is so used to this anyways from her school routine and both her and my four year old (who will be attending preschool next year) will need to do it again, so I think it’s best to leave it in place. I also needed something that would allow me to do some direct instruction, but also allow me some flexibility if I need to be with the younger two. You’ll need to tailor your daily routine to meet your specific needs, but here is what works for me.

  1. Get Dressed/Bathroom
  2. Eat Breakfast
  3. Brush Teeth
  4. 2 Workbook Pages – Handwriting, ABCs, basic math, cursive, mazes, etc.
  5. 1 Chore – Pick up, clean room, help with laundry, cooking, etc.
  6. 3 Activities – The workbook pages, chore, and activities can occur in any order.
  7. Lunch
  8. Choice Time (Rest Time) – When the little ones take a nap, the big kids can watch a movie (any length), watch one hour of an educational program, or play an educational game on the computer for one hour.
  9. More Activities
  10. Free Choice – If the big kids are good and do all of their workbooks, activities, and chores, then they can have 30 minutes to do whatever they’d like. (Lately it’s watching Digimon on Netflix or toy videos on YouTube)
  11. Daddy’s Home!

*I updated this routine June 2016 after we decided to take a break from ipads, touchscreens, and video games for a bit. (Find out why here.)

Goals

I like to tell my children specifically what they are good at (Check out by blog: When You Tell Your Children They Are Smart, It Actually Makes Them Dumb to see how I use specific praise.) and in addition to that, I like to talk to them about what they should be working on next. So with Ruby, for example, who at 5 is reading fluently at a 3rd grade level, we are going to start focusing more on writing. With Elliot (4), we will be working on reading skills and basic math, with Ophelia (2) we will be working on reading as well as language development, and Julian (1) is all about beginning reading and vocabulary development.

While it is helpful for the children to know what their goals are, it is even more helpful for me so that I can keep my mind aware of where each child is and what he/she is working on.

Then, I can design learning stations, create activities, and look for resources to support each of their goals. Click here to see my blog about learning goals that I set for my children.

Other Tips and Tricks

  • It will seem really hard at first, but it will get easier. The first day always seems impossible and like an incredible amount of work, but the longer you stick with it, the easier it will get. After about a week, they will get the “feel” for their new routine, and you will be surprised how well they do with it.
  • Find time to fill their tanks first. I love trying to find one on one time to play and cuddle with each child as soon after they wake up as possible. Once their tanks are full of love and cuddles, it’s much easier for them to play independently.
  • Create an independent environment. Make sure that there are games they can take out, toys they can play with, and activities they can be engaged in that don’t require your direct involvement or supervision.
  • Be consistent. Be really strict and consistent in the beginning, otherwise they will know that the routine is merely a suggestion instead of “just the way things are”. No matter how much you want to take a shower or get some free time, don’t turn on the TV no matter how much they beg! If you give in even once, it will set a prescience for future behavior.
  • Be patient, you’ll get some time for you…eventually. When the summer first comes, I initially say goodbye to any free time I ever had, but once we settle into our new routine, I start to find more pockets of time for myself.

When Things Aren’t Working

It’s inevitable that problems will arise even with the best laid plans.

One of the best lessons I ever learned as a teacher is that if you see a routine not working, don’t try to change it right away.

For example, one day in my 3rd grade classroom, I noticed that as we got lined up to go to lunch it was too chaotic, too noisy, and it was just not working. It was a gradual progression that all of a sudden came to a head, and I knew that something would have to be done.

Rather than talk to the students about the way they were lining up and how it was not okay in the moment, I bit my tongue and I waited. When they came back from lunch, I planted a seed by asking them how things went. Kids started sharing about how it was noisy, how it took a long time, and how we were late for lunch. I simply told them that we’d try to do better the next day.

The next day, I had a chart ready. I made the title “Lining Up” and then made two columns. One said, “Looks Like” and the other had the words “Doesn’t Look Like”. Then, long before we needed to line up for lunch, I had the kids act out what it would look like to do a really bad job of lining up. We wrote down on the chart paper all of the things they observed. Then, I had them act out what it should look like, and we wrote down on the chart what that looked like too.

When we lined up for lunch that day, it went so smoothly, I could hardly believe the difference. After lunch, we talked about how it went, and they were very pleased with themselves.

Every day for the next week, I reflected on the chart, and then after awhile, I didn’t need to anymore. Every once in awhile, they needed a reminder, but for the most part, things ran smoothly for the rest of the year.

We make a huge mistake when we simply bark orders at children to do better without really showing them what that looks like. If we can take the time to be very clear with our expectations and make sure that they understand what those expectations look like, then children will have a much easier time of doing what we expect them to do. This is why I think it’s very important to be clear about your summer routine and be consistent with your expectations.

How Our First Day Went

The biggest struggle we had was getting dressed. Whenever Ruby doesn’t have to go to school, she loves staying in her pajamas and will often want to stay in them all day. This is all well and good on the weekends, but during the week, I want to create a sense of formality and a sense of pride about our day that transcends pajamas. By getting dressed, brushing our teeth, and brushing our hair even if we won’t see anyone else, I feel that it instills a sense of pride and purpose. At any rate, it makes me feel better, and I like doing it, but try explaining this to a five year old! *Update: One year later, June 2016, Ruby and Elliot get dressed on their own without complaint every single morning. Yeah!

After that, the kids were really excited to all be together, and they loved the idea of “Homeschool Summer School”. They were very motivated to do their activities, and they worked very well independently. I think this was because this is so similar to what we do on a normal basis anyways. Because they are so used to independent play, they didn’t need much guidance from me. I would help them get started on new projects, scaffold them a bit, and when they were done, give them a reminder to clean up. It was a great day, and it’s going to be a great summer!

Elliot is Learning How to Write His Name

Elliot is Learning How to Write His Name

Ruby Coloring Her 1st Grade Writing Packet

Ruby Coloring Her 1st Grade Writing Packet

Ophelia Loves Learning Her ABCs using leapfrog abc games

Ophelia Loves Learning Her ABCs!

Julian Doing Tummy Time

Julian Doing Tummy Time

Elliot Reading a Star Wars Book

Elliot Reading a Star Wars Book

IMG_3394

Ruby Reading “A Book with No Pictures” by BJ Novak

Ophelia Loves Reading Dora Books

Ophelia Loves Reading Dora Books

Julian and I are Having a Conversation

Julian and I are Having a Conversation

Elliot Playing with His Mini Figures

Elliot Playing with His Mini Figures

Ruby Playing the Keyboard...and Feeling It!

Ruby Playing the Keyboard…and Feeling It!

Using Unifix Cubes During Imaginative Play

Elliot is Using Unifix Cubes During Imaginative Play

Ophelia is Mesmerized with Balls and Ramps

Ophelia is Mesmerized with Balls and Ramps

Making healthy oatmeal cookies with kids

Making Cookies!

Elliot Playing with Legos

Elliot Playing with Legos

Ruby Collecting Leaves

Ruby Collecting Leaves

Ruby, Elliot, and Ophelia Playing Together

Ruby, Elliot, and Ophelia Playing Together

Elliot is King of His Domain

Elliot is King of His Domain

In Conclusion

If you have children, summer is a fun time for them to take a break from school and enjoy playing outside in some much needed sunshine and fresh air. (Especially if you live in a place like Michigan where you are trapped inside by the weather for at least 9 months of the year.) But I believe that children need more than just undirected play all day. I feel like they thrive most when they are challenged and can see themselves grow. If you are fortunate enough to be able to stay home with your children over the summer, then I think that devoting a bit of time in the morning towards learning will be beneficial for everyone involved.

Happy learning, and here’s to a great summer!

Embracing Motherhood Why We Are Giving Technology a Break

Why We Are Giving Technology a Break

It started out with educational apps on ipads, playing Starfall and Pixie 4 on the computer, and watching educational programs mixed in with a moderate amount of choice, but then we got lax on the rules and noticed one day that technology had taken over our lives.

We debated a gradual reduction or a reinforcement of the original rules, but it was too late for that…

We had to quit technology cold turkey.

First, the iPads

One evening, during our nightly wrestling routine with daddy, our daughter Ruby (6) just wanted to watch Digimon (I don’t even know how we came to allow this in the first place). Usually, we can ask her to put her iPad away and she does so graciously, but this time, there was ATTITUDE! When daddy asked her to put the iPad down, she flat out said no, and then when daddy got more stern she said,

“What are you going to do if I don’t?”

Hubba wha?!?!?!? We both looked at each other in shock! Where did this mouthy little teenager come from all of a sudden?? And so daddy said what all parents of teenagers must say,

“Trust me, you don’t want to find out!”

Well needless to say, we knew something needed to change. That night, I took all of the iPads and our touch screen computer and hid them away. I also unplugged our WiiU, Playstation, and computer in the homeschool room.

The Aftermath

We weren’t really sure how to handle the explanation of the disappearance of the touchscreen devices, and when Elliot asked me the next morning where they were, I relied on a little white lie to get me through it.

“Someone stole our iPads!” I explained.

Phew, that was easy. 🙂 Elliot was quite upset, but still a pretty easy sell. He said, “God must be mad at us to let this happen.” Honestly, I don’t know where he gets these notions!

But when Ruby came home from school, she was a little more skeptical. First she wanted to know every detail of said robbery including why they miraculously didn’t take my laptop. Smart girl. Then, she wanted to conduct an investigation including knocking on the door of every neighbor and writing letters to all of her classmates. When she wouldn’t drop it, I said, “You’re right, it probably wasn’t a robbery. I’ll bet Julian just took them and hid them somewhere.”

“Are you sure you didn’t just do it mom,” she asked.

I explained that no, I didn’t do it, but even if we had our iPads, we were going to restrict their use anyways because we didn’t like how addicted everyone was getting to them and the attitudes that were emerging as a result.

To explain the unplugged video games and computers, we said that we couldn’t afford the electric bill, and so we couldn’t play them until our budget was caught up. We talk about money and finances a lot, so although they were a little upset, they really understood and accepted this explanation.

Technology Free Days

The first day without technology was TOUGH! No ABC videos to distract Julian while I was cooking, no TV during breakfast, and no choice time to entertain them while I stole some time to myself.

As they engaged in play, it was almost like they forgot how to entertain themselves. So I sat on the floor and played with them as they went from room to room trashing everything in sight. I felt like I was constantly cleaning and constantly on the move!

We spent the rest of the day engaged in play outside, and my the end of the night, they were exhausted. So was I!

By the second and third day, something beautiful started to happen. They asked about their missing iPads less and less, the negative attitude was disappearing, and we were having so much fun as a family! Whenever it would get really quiet for awhile, I would worry, “Oh no! They found them!” But then I would sneak into the room to see them engrossed with reading, playing quietly, or find that they let themselves outside to play. It was beautiful.

“Why didn’t we do this sooner?” we wondered.

Well, at least we’re doing it now…especially as these fleeting summer days beg to be enjoyed.

It’s Okay to Be Bored

Children don’t need to be constantly entertained, and neither do we. Boredom is actually a gift, a mind break that allows us to come up with new and creative ideas. The longer our children went without technology, the less they relied on us to entertain them, the fewer messes they made as they became engrossed in sustained imaginative play, the more they interacted with each other and nature, and the closer we became as a family.

As we settled into this new routine, I started finding pockets of time for myself again to work out, blog, and create. Something else pretty amazing started happening too. As the children settled into their boredom, they were more interested in what I was doing and wanted to help!

Who knew that helping me make cookies, fold the laundry, and sweep could be so much fun!

The older ones were also more willing to pitch in and do chores, and I really appreciated their help. Ruby decided she wanted her job to be laundry, and so one day she helped me put daddy’s bin of clothes into the washing machine and put away her and Elliot’s clothes. Elliot said he was really good at picking up, so he picked up the toys in one room…then he got distracted and started playing with the toys, but hey, it’s a start!

Finding a Balance

After about a week of nothing, we decided that they (we) could watch one movie during rest time. Previously, they were engrossed in their own little iPad worlds watching toy videos on YouTube and Digimon on Netflix, but with a movie, it was something we could all cuddle up and watch together. We love finding old classics like the Last Unicorn, Little Nemo, and Home Alone and watching them over and over.

When school is out and summer gets into full swing, we plan on implementing our summer routine where the older kids have to do four workbook pages (handwriting, math, cursive, etc.), three activities, and one chore to have an educational computer choice (Pixie 4, Storymaker, working on Favorite Things books, etc.) or watch a movie.

We also are going to let them have 3o minutes (from 4:00-4:30 when daddy gets home) to have a choice to watch whatever they want if they good and do all of their work, activities, and chores. Having this time gives us some leverage (i.e. by taking away a positive reinforcement it becomes a logical consequence for misbehaviors).

In Conclusion

During the long winter months, we may bring back the WiiU, Playstation, iPads, and touchscreen computer in limited and regulated amounts, but we definitely agree that taking a break over the summer is what is best for everyone. Technology can serve a valuable role in many educational opportunities, but it is just too easy to let it be a babysitter and let limits slide until the devices seem to take over. Going cold turkey and taking a break really worked for us and is something we will continue to implement as needed with all things in life.

Embracing Motherhood How to Make Stepping Stumps

How to Make Stepping Stumps

Making stepping stumps is a fun and easy project that will provide a fun and natural play area for your children (and a fun little place to sit and rest as well).

Children love things that are just challenging enough with an appropriate amount of risk and danger. They also need to be able to play unsupervised and interact with nature. These stepping stumps may become an ongoing yard project that you continuously add to (like it has for us). We are always on the lookout for more stumps. It makes for a fun scavenger hunt while we’re driving! 🙂

Materials

  • Stumps: When I was driving my husband’s pick up truck out on some country roads, I found several stumps of varying height that had been nicely cut from a fallen tree. Then, when we were coming home from Ruby’s spring concert, we spotted a few more, loaded them in the back of our van, and brought them home!
  • Shovel: You want one with a point that you can really step on.
  • Gardening Gloves: These are optional, but be warned, you will end up with dirt under your fingernails!

Directions

  1. Make a Plan: Try to envision the full potential of your stump arrangement. If you’re like me, you’ll want to leave room to keep adding on as you find more. I am hoping to copy Blandford’s meandering circular pattern that starts with shorter stumps and works up to taller stumps, but there are many other things you could do like placing the stumps haphazardly in one big configuration or making a straight path that’s very symmetrical. You might even make them almost flush with the ground and use them as a pathway from one place to the next. I encourage you to type “stepping stumps” or even “stepping stones” into Pinterest for some more ideas.

    Blandford Nature Center's Stepping Stumps

    Blandford Nature Center’s Stepping Stumps

  2. Dig a Circle: You’ll want to dig a circle larger than each stump. If you leave the sod intact, you can use it for another project like making a hill or making little grass stepping circles. After taking out the sod, dig down enough to bury about one-fifth of the stump. Make sure the dirt underneath is nice and soft to level out the stump.
  3. Level the Stump: After placing the stump onto the loose dirt in the hole, wiggle it around until the top is level. Then sit or step on it to help it settle in.
  4. Fill in the Dirt: Pack the extra dirt around the sides of the stump and step on it to really pack it in.

In Conclusion

Having stepping stumps is just one part of creating a backyard full of natural and fun ways to play. Once you see how your kids interact with the stumps, it might give you more ideas for extensions in the future. I hope to gather some shorter stumps so that it extends much further and begins and ends with descending stumps like a staircase.

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Our Stepping Stumps

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Our Stepping Stumps

Check out some of our other backyard projects:

Embracing Motherhood How to Make a Backyard Obstacle Course

How to Make a Backyard Obstacle Course

This backyard obstacle course is the simplest thing I have ever put together, but the kids LOVE it and play on it constantly. I’m always rearranging it, changing it, moving it, and adding new components to keep it fun and interesting…all using things that we have lying around or that I can find on trash day. 🙂

Children love things that are just challenging enough, and they need opportunities to play unsupervised with just the right amount of risk and danger. That is why I like setting up my obstacle course in an arrangement that isn’t too easy or too challenging. While I do enjoy cheering them on from time to time, I am happiest to see them play with the obstacle course independently. If I notice that it isn’t getting played with, I know it’s time to move it around.

How to Make a Backyard Obstacle Course Embracing Motherhood

How to Make a Backyard Obstacle Course

Materials

  • Tires: When we get new tires, I save the old ones. I also keep my eyes open on trash day to pick up any old tires that might be thrown away. *We cut holes in the sides of the tires so that they won’t hold water (which can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes).
  • Long Skinny Pieces of Wood: These are for the balance beams. It’s nice to have them varying lengths and thicknesses. 2’x4’s work great, but you can make anything work.
  • Blocks of Wood: These are for the base of the balance beams. You’ll need 2-3 that are the same height for each balance beam.
  • Wide Boards: These are for placing on top of the tires. You can make any size work. I like using long and narrow pieces. We had particle board laying around, so that is what we used, but you can use any type of wood. You can treat the pieces of wood if you’d like them to last longer.
  • Drill: This is for drilling holes in the tires. We added a circular attachment to our drill to make a bigger hole.
  • Screws: You’ll use these for the balance beams.

Directions

  1. Balance Beams: Attach blocks of wood to the ends (and middle if the board is long or weak) of your long skinny pieces of wood with long screws.
  2. Preparing the Tires: If you leave tires out without drilling holes, they will collect water and it will become the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. By drilling 3 large holes on the side, it will prevent water from collecting. We drilled holes on both sides so we wouldn’t have to worry about which side was facing up.
  3. Set Up: There is really no right or wrong way to set this up. You might want to have everything in a straight line, arrange it in a circle, or place individual pieces scattered throughout the yard. I like arranging the pieces in a circle because it encourages children to complete the course repeatedly. By putting tires underneath the edges of the long boards, it becomes a fun platform for kids to stand on and it also doubles as a bench for sitting and can even be used as a makeshift table during an outdoor picnic. I’ve also had fun putting a tire in the middle of a board to create a sort of teeter totter and on one end of a board to create a ramp.
  4. Rearrange: Whenever the kids stop using the obstacle course (or every 2-3 weeks, whichever comes first) I like to rearrange everything. This helps to prevent the grass that is underneath from dying and keeps it fun and interesting for the kids.
Rearranging the Obstacle Course

Rearranging the Obstacle Course

In Conclusion

The sky is the limit with this style of backyard obstacle course! I hope to keep collecting more tires to make some stepping tires and add some teeter totters (by placing one tire or two stacked up) in the middle of a long board. You will want to tailor your obstacle course to meet the specific dimensions of your yard and abilities of your kids, but the important thing is to make it just slightly challenging and have fun!

Check out how we’re getting our backyard ready for summer with our sandbox, stock tank pool, garden, teepee, stepping stumps, and more!

The Importance of Growing Up with a Garden

The Importance of Growing Up with a Garden

Gardening is a fun way for the whole family to eat nutrient dense food and enjoy the outdoors at the same time. Neither my husband or I are professional gardeners by any means, but by growing our own garden for the past few years, our entire family has learned a lot, enjoyed some good food, and had a lot of fun in the process!

Last Year's Garden Embracing Motherhood

Last Year’s Garden

I am excited to write this article as I reflect on our past gardens and start planning our garden(s) for this year! (We’re thinking about having three gardens this year: The area above for tomatoes and peppers, an area next to the house for herbs and lettuce, and an area by our teepee for corn and beans.)

My Brother Jarrod and I Enjoying a Garden as Kids

My Brother Jarrod and I Enjoying a Garden as Kids

Benefits of Gardening for Kids

There are many different benefits of gardening with kids. These are some of the benefits that we have noticed.

  • Learn About Life Cycles: Why read about the life cycle of a plant when you can grow one? By planting seeds, watching them grow, and caring for the plants, children become heavily invested in the life cycles of their plants.

    Elliot Planting Seeds Embracing Motherhood

    Elliot Planting Seeds

  • Learn About Photosynthesis: Photosynthesis (how plants get energy and grow) and cellular respiration (how humans get energy and grow) are two of the most basic and primary functions of life, yet we gloss over them very simply or hardly even mention them at all. If children can learn about such concepts in depth at a young age, they will build a lifelong understanding that will prepare them for even greater scientific understandings in the future.
  • See Where Food Comes From: No, food does not come from the grocery store! By seeing the time it takes for the plants to grow and finally harvesting the fruits of their labors, children will have a deeper appreciation for where their food comes from.

    Ruby and Elliot Picking Beans Embracing Motherhood

    Ruby and Elliot Picking Beans

  • Helps a Picky Eater: Even the pickiest eater can’t resist a tomato warmed from the sun or a freshly picked bean. I love watching my kids devour the fruits and vegetables they pick from the garden.

    Elliot Loves Eating What He Picks from the Garden

    Elliot Loves Eating What He Picks from the Garden

  • Connect with the Earth: If simply going barefoot on the earth’s surface (earthing or grounding) can boost the immune system by providing the body with an abundance of antioxidants (free electrons), imagine what actually digging in the dirt can do?

    Ruby Barefoot Picking Beans Embracing Motherhood

    Ruby Barefoot Picking Beans

  • Get Some Sun: Sunshine provides the body with much needed vitamin D, boosts the immune system, helps skin conditions, gives you more energy, and boosts serotonin levels, just to name a few of the benefits. So get out there in the sun! If I’m not worried about sunburn, I don’t worry about sunscreen, but if we’re going to be out for a long time and I think that by kids might get a burn, I like to use this sunscreen.

    Ruby Getting Some Sun in the Garden Embracing Motherhood

    Ruby Getting Some Sun in the Garden

  • Help with Chores: Kids really do love to help with chores, and this is pretty much one of the funnest chores to do! By working in the garden, they will learn the joy of helping out around the home in a very fun and hands on way!

    Elliot Putting Scraps in Our Compost Bin

    Elliot Putting Scraps in Our Compost Bin

  • Get a Green Thumb: In my experience, gardening is a skill best learned about by doing. By jumping into gardening without much knowledge, we have learned about the best planting times, different varieties of plants, what plants grow best together, how to prepare the soil, and so much more. By gardening with our children from a young age, they will enter their adult years with this knowledge tucked securely under their belts and a joy to accompany it.

    Ruby Planting Seeds Embracing Motherhood

    Ruby Planting Seeds

How to Grow a Garden

Now, I’m sure you can find a better expert than me to learn about all of the intricacies of gardening, but for what it’s worth, here’s how we garden. 🙂

  1. What to Plant? I like planting things that are easy to grow and that the children will have fun picking and eating. I like planting lots of tomatoes to make my tomato purée that I will freeze and use year round, many different kinds of beans that the children love picking, lettuce and herbs (cilantro, parsley, oregano, basil, and dill), peppers, cucumbers, carrots, sunflowers, corn (new this year), and maybe a few carrots and green onions.
  2. Start with Seeds: Starting in April or May, we like to start growing some seeds indoors in pots. Seed packets are fairly cheap (I picked up some organic seed packets at Walmart for 97 cents a piece.) and are way more cost effective than spending a few dollars per established plant. Once it’s above freezing at night, they can stay outside. I hear beans like to be planted when it’s still a bit frosty out.

    Sunflower Seeds Embracing Motherhood

    Sunflower Seeds

  3. Choose a Location and Prepare the Soil: Our original garden location (as seen below) is nice because it’s close to the house, but it is very damp which caused many of the plants to get a fungus last year. It also doesn’t get the best sunshine. This year, we are going to get a long hose, bury it, and set up a garden in the far corner of our yard near our teepee. For our original location, we used a rototiller, but in our new location, we’re digging up all of the sod by hand, so we’ll see how we manage without a tiller over there! I’m sure there’s lots you can do with fertilizing the soil, but we don’t do more than dumping the contents of our compost bin into the mix.

    Preparing the Soil for the Garden

    Preparing the Soil for the Garden

  4. Planting: I have made the mistake of planting things too close together (they’re so little at first), but then they grow too close together and compete for nutrients, so this year I will spread them out a bit more.
    Planting the Garden

    Planting the Garden

    Tomatoes from Last Year

    Tomatoes from Last Year

  5. Watering: In the past, we have used an arc shaped sprinkler, but I’ve since learned that it’s not good for the plants to get so much water on their leaves (because of the fungus) so this year, we will be putting in a soaker hose system (hopefully).

    Watering the Garden

    Watering the Garden

  6. Weeds: Weeding is really my favorite part of gardening. It’s very therapeutic and calming. I usually just pull out the weeds by hand, but every time my husband mows with the bagger, I collect the grass clippings and spread them out over the garden floor. This really helps to prevent weeds from growing.

    Using Grass Clippings to Prevent Weeds

    Using Grass Clippings to Prevent Weeds

  7. Composting: This is an excellent way for children to learn about recycling and to really see first hand what decomposition looks like. We dug out a square in our yard, added beams and boards around the sides (just like making a mini sandbox), and covered it with hinged doors with handles.

Getting Kids Involved

We don’t ever force our children to work in the garden. Whenever we’re going out there to work, we always invite them along, and if they refuse, that is perfectly fine. In the past, our kids have mainly enjoyed the planting and the harvesting process, but now, our oldest daughter Ruby (6) has been VERY helpful preparing the soil and getting things ready. She really enjoys talking about the planning of the garden now that she has seen it through to completion a couple of times. 🙂

In Conclusion

Growing a garden is truly a family event that is bonding in so many ways. I love working in the garden with our kids during every single stage. And when it’s harvesting time, the children see first hand the benefits of all of their hard work.

Happy gardening!

Check out some of our other backyard projects:

The Benefits of Allowing Kids to Interact with Nature (Without Being Hovered Over) Embracing Motherhood

The Benefits of Allowing Kids to Interact with Nature (Without Being Hovered Over)

Research shows that when kids are allowed to play in nature without someone hovering over them yelling, “Be careful!” and “Get down from there!” every five seconds, they flourish and grow in so many ways.

Ruby and Elliot Climbing on Rocks at Blandford Nature Center

Ruby and Elliot Climbing on Rocks (There Due to Construction) at Blandford Nature Center

When you think back to the fondest memories of your childhood, do you remember the times you were closely supervised while playing on a plastic or metallic structure for an allotted amount of fresh air time, or do you remember the times when you were wading in a creek catching tadpoles and crayfish, digging in the dirt looking for treasures, building forts, playing imagination games with neighbors and siblings, and exploring the world with fresh eyes without being hovered over (as I was lucky enough to be able to do)?

My Brother Jarrod (1) and I (2) Exploring Together

My Brother Jarrod (1) and I (2) Exploring Together

We live in an era of fear which has led to a dangerous amount of helicopter parenting where kids are constantly hovered over and controlled. Kids need elements of risk and danger. It helps them to be better problem solvers. by overcoming small obstacles where the risks are real, they will be able to overcome larger obstacles later when the stakes are higher.

Yes, getting exercise, sunshine, and fresh air are important, but even more important is that kids need time to be free, to get dirty, to fall down and get back up again, to explore nature, to be in the woods, the dirt, the sand, to gather sticks, to build forts that don’t follow any directions, and to do so without us supervising their every move.

Below is a picture of my children playing on the stepping stumps at Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, MI. They have an amazing natural playground, a little log cabin, trails that meander through the woods into wigwams and other structures, boardwalks that take you through the woods and showcase rescued animals, and much, much more. This is a great example of a place dedicated to providing children with opportunities for children to learn, explore, and play in nature.

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Stepping Stumps at Blandford Nature Center

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Stepping Stumps at Blandford Nature Center

Benefits of Kids in Nature

The Children and Nature Network, an organization dedicated to reconnecting children with nature, has an impressive collection of research showing the benefits of allowing children to interact with nature which is nicely summarized here. A part of me is like, do I really need to reference research to show how kids being in nature is beneficial? But since the research is right in line with what I have observed with my own children, I used it as a framework for my ideas. The following is a summary of the meta-analysis of research about the benefits of allowing children to interact with nature coupled with my observations as a parent of four children who love interacting with nature.

  1. Increases Observation and Creativity: Studies prove that being in nature increases both observation and creativity. I like giving my children magnifying glasses, a microscope, an insect viewer, and collection baskets to further their observation skills. I really enjoy sitting or lying with them in the grass and helping them to notice what is going on around them. I might ask, “Do you see that little ant walking in the grass? Where do you think he’s going? What sounds do you hear right now? Do you hear birds chirping? What color is the sky? Do you see any clouds? Do you see any shapes in the clouds? And so on…” I also like doing art projects that bring in the elements of nature that helps my children to see the beauty of nature.
  2. Encourages Imagination and Sense of Wonder: Research shows that when children have early experiences with nature, there is a positive correlation with their development of imagination and it gives them a sense of wonder. I love encouraging creative and imaginative play with my children, and never do I see their imaginations stretch further than when they are outdoors in nature. I remember during my 7 years as an elementary school teacher, I was always amazed when children didn’t know what to do with themselves at recess. I would love to see us do away with standard sets of playground equipment and instead erect elements that encourage creative and imaginative play like some little log cabins, stepping stones or stumps, meandering paths of natural foliage, or even something more wild like this revolutionary new playground!
  3. Builds Language Development and Collaboration Skills: Studies show that the increased imaginative and creative components that occur when children are in nature foster language development and collaborative skills, and that they also have more positive feelings about each other in doing so. What better way to learn than being outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine, running and playing with your friends and/or siblings in nature! I love watching my kids interact with each other in nature. The world is such a big place and by exploring many different elements of nature firsthand, they are learning about the world. When I was a classroom teacher, I loved using an “outdoor classroom”.
  4. Increases Skills in Multiple Domains: Research shows that when children engage in authentic play in nature-based outdoor spaces, they develop skills in a variety of domains simultaneously. There is really no limit to what children can learn when they are out in nature. It gives any learning a sense of purpose, authenticity, and wonder. While I was teaching a unit on ecosystems during my classroom years, we took a weekly field trip to a local pond to observe, collect samples, and take notes about what we saw. This first hand learning experience was so powerful for the children. They loved the hike there, the open ended nature of the project, being in the elements, wading in the water, walking through the brambles, and really paying attention to their surroundings.
  5. Improves Physical Health: Studies show that children who regularly have positive personal experiences with the natural world show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility. I mean, it goes without saying that kids will have improved physical health from playing outdoors, but we have to think one step beyond structured and monitored play on predefined playground structures to allow our children to explore the elements of nature, to get dirty, to have danger and risk, to stretch themselves, to be free, and to discover things we never could really plan for or create for them.
  6. Improves Mental Health: Research shows that being in nature helps children to deal with adversity and minimize stress. What’s amazing is that the more time they spend in nature, the greater the benefits. Researchers at the University of Illinois (Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances Kuo, and William Sullivan) discovered that children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) performed better on schoolwork after having contact with nature.
  7. Appropriate Risk Minimizes Accidents:  Studies show that playgrounds where there are genuine risks actually have fewer accidents than traditional playgrounds. When children are given real risks and learn how to handle them, true life-long learning takes place. On the other hand, children who are given sanitized play places are less conscious of risks and actually have more accidents. It’s understandable that we don’t want our children to get hurt, but letting them get a few scrapes and bruises when they are little can actually prevent them from breaking bones…or worse as they get older.

Detriments of Kids Not Being in Nature

I feel like we all know that being outside is good. Getting fresh air and sunshine, being involved in physical activity, participating in the elements of nature…these are all things that promote good health. But beyond the positives, there are some negative things that happen when children are deprived of nature. By not being in nature, children are missing out on so much. Research shows that beyond just the negative health concerns from spending too much time indoors, children can also develop an unhealthy fear of nature.

  1. Fears of Nature: When children are exposed to frightening environmental issues when they are young without fully understanding and appreciating the elements of nature or understanding how these issues can be solved, it causes them to be anxious about nature and want to avoid it. Children fear things they don’t understand (Don’t we all?), and if they first learn about pollution, endangered animals, and overpopulation before getting a chance to freely explore nature and create positive memories in it, is it any wonder that they would just prefer to stay inside with their ipads?
  2. Fears of Injury: When parents are constantly hovering over their children and yelling, “Be careful! Watch out! Get down from there! Get away from that!” they may think that they sound like they’re being good protective parents, but they are not helping their children learn how to assess and deal with risk on their own at all. We were at Blandford Nature Center the other day, it had just rained, and my kids were enjoying splashing in the water, getting dirty, climbing on everything, and having a BLAST. Another family came along while we were there and the mom was constantly yelling, “Don’t get wet! Stay out of the water! Be careful! Get down from those stumps!” She quickly left with her brood in a huff…everyone was still perfectly clean. My kids on the other hand, were soaked, dirty, and sooooo happy. Personally, I would rather keep a spare bag of clothes in the car for each child and let them get dirty and have fun rather than thinking that staying clean is the ultimate reward of childhood.

    Ophelia Having Fun in the Water

    Ophelia Having Fun in the Water

  3. Negative Health Issues: When children do not get adequate exposure outdoors, it puts them at risk for vitamin D deficiency which is a risk factor for rickets, cardiovascular disease, cancer, or autoimmune conditions. A U.S. environmental health report showed that most people spend 90% of their time indoors. Dr. Dennis Ownby states that,

“Maybe part of the reason we have so many children with allergies and asthma is that we live too clean a life.”

 In Conclusion

There are a few key pillars to my parenting philosophy such as feeding my children nutrient dense food, being a stay at home mom and completely devoted to their needs, teaching them about language, reading, and math from a young age, sustaining creative and imaginative play…and this, being in nature. I want my children to be completely comfortable being in nature. I want them to enjoy it, to crave it, to know what to do in it, to not be afraid of it, and to let it shape their brains during these early stages of development.

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Our Stepping Stumps

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Our Stepping Stumps

Check out my blog: How to Create a Backyard Haven for Children (coming soon) for ideas on how to add more natural elements to your backyard such as growing a garden (coming soon), making a natural teepee, creating stepping stumps (coming soon), designing an obstacle course (coming soon), building a sandbox, converting a stock tank pool, and more!

Here’s a video of our backyard as we get ready for summer. Ideally, we’d be living on 40 acres of wilderness, but we are doing the best we can with our one acre tucked within city limits. )

Embracing Motherhood How to Make an Outdoor Teepee

How to Make an Outdoor Teepee

Making an outdoor teepee is a fun and easy project that will provide a natural play area for your children. Who needs expensive plastic playground equipment when there’s old free tree branches lying around anyways?

There are lots of different variations and ways to embellish your teepee once you get the frame up…anything from being completely covered with bark to having living walls with something like beans or flowering vines!

Materials

  • Long Sticks: I drove around in my husband’s pick up truck and stopped along the side of the road whenever I found some really good long branches. Look for a few that have like a “v” at the top so that they can interlock and form the base when you get started.
  • Shovel: You want one with a point that you can really step on.
  • Gardening Gloves: These are optional, but be warned, you will end up with dirt under your fingernails!

Directions

  1. Make a Circle: Stand in the center of where you want your teepee and using a small to medium stick, draw a circle around yourself. Mark the edges of the circle by scoring it with your shovel.
  2. Plan Your Opening: Consider the position of the sun (if you want to have shade or not) and the location in relation to the rest of your yard. I wanted my opening to face the center of the yard so that I could always see who was inside, even though this meant that it would be really sunny inside all the time.
  3. Dig Holes: You’ll want to start with three holes for the anchor sticks. Dig a circle (much bigger than your stick…about 8-10 inches in diameter) and take out the piece of sod intact. Continue to dig down about another shovel’s depth. Make sure you leave a lot of loose soil at the bottom.
  4. Anchor Sticks: You might need some help to steady the three anchor sticks as you place them in at the same time. If you can find at least one stick that has a “v” at the top, it will really help to lock the sticks together at the top. Position the sticks in the ground, and lean them into each other until they are steady.
  5. Bury the Sticks: Fill in around the stick with all of the loose dirt that was taken out, and then place the piece of sod back on top. Stamp it down with your feet.
  6. Fill in with Sticks: I buried about eight more sticks, and then I just started leaning the rest of the sticks against other sticks. My little ones liked weaving in and out of the stick openings, so I left some spots more open than others.
  7. Cover: You can choose to leave the sides somewhat open, continue layering with sticks until it is filled in more, or find some other material such as pine needle branches or bark to fill it in completely. You might even want to grow something like beans or morning glories along the sticks to create some living walls.

In Conclusion

I probably had as much fun building this teepee as the kids have had playing in it. Once the weather starts to get nice, my husband and I like having outdoor projects to work on. It’s a fun way to be outside, get a bit of physical activity, and accomplish something! We are currently working on making some big dirt hills covered with sod, stepping stumps, obstacle course, and preparing our garden as we try our best to transform our 1 acre of regulated city land into as natural and fun of an environment as we can. (Here’s a little video of our backyard projects.) It’s going to be a fun summer!

Ruby and Elliot Playing in the Teepee

Ruby and Elliot Playing in the Teepee