Tuesday, December 27, 2016

New Year, New Goal

For years, I made New Year's resolutions. Sometimes I kept them, and I would feel proud about that. (Example: "I'm going to take at least one photo of Pip every day to share with our family and friends." That's been a win!) Sometimes I did not, and I would feel truly disappointed in myself. (Example: "I'm not going to eat any more refined sugar, ever." Yeah, right!)

Then, for a number of years, I dropped the habit altogether. Looking back, many of the expectations I put on myself were unrealistic from the start (clearly!). I am glad I realized then that it wasn't worth the stress I put on myself to meet them or the frustration I felt when I failed.

In recent years, I have picked up the January habit again, but I have stopped using the word "resolution" and started setting "goals." It has completely changed my approach to how I view the incoming year, and in a very positive way. I also limit myself to one or a few; no more laundry lists, which are too daunting to follow through. Because, really, we can set a new goal any time of the year, right? We don't have to overwhelm ourselves at the beginning!

So, for the coming year, I have created this goal: make my screen time more meaningful and more productive.

I require a computer for my work, and I enjoy social media. I can't eliminate screen time, nor do I want to. To make the time more meaningful, I will eliminate the junk.

This means unsubscribing from emails that do not interest me. Sale messages from a website I ordered one gift from two years ago are out of there. Updates about social events in the city we visited in 2013 are gone. If the messages in my inbox are all of interest and pertaining to my life right now, I will spend less time sorting the junk and be able to review and react efficiently to what I receive. This can take a while if you're really far in the hole with junk email, but it's so worth it. Even if you work through five or ten junk messages a day, clicking the unsubscribe button on each one, eventually they will all stop (some take up to two weeks to remove you from their mailing list, so be patient and diligent and you will see a difference). There are apps that claim to do it for you, but I have not known anyone who had complete success with one, yet.

It also means cleaning up my Facebook feed. I adore Facebook for seeing photos of my friends and their families, for receiving information about local events, for following blogs, and for obtaining and sharing other generally helpful and uplifting information. I realize that is not how everyone uses Facebook, and that's fine, but that's what I want out of it: enjoyment. So, I will sort through all my "liked" pages and quietly "unlike" the ones that no longer pertain to me. I will hide Facebook posts--namely political--that unnerve me, and I will unfriend repeat offenders, if I deem it necessary. This is not to be mean or rude, but rather as a form of self-care; I have to protect my own heart. I get my national and international news directly from reputable sources; I don't want it, or any garbage masquerading as news, in my feed.

These simple changes will tailor my experience, and I believe it will be a much more pleasant one.

To make the time sitting at my computer more productive, I have got to create a structure for the minutes I spend in that spot. This is going to take some experimentation, because while I don't know exactly how to make it better, I do know that what I do right now isn't working. See for yourself.

Current scenario, typical of many mornings: I turn the computer on and creep into the kitchen to make coffee, careful not to wake anyone in the house. When I get back, I open my email. Then I open Facebook. I start Photoshop. I go back to email and delete messages that are obvious junk. I go to Facebook and open my notifications and follow through on any that I want to know more about. I open another tab and go to our online store to see whether there are new orders, although the likelihood of me packing and shipping them immediately is incredibly low. I open a fourth tab and start a music station on Pandora. I go back to email and look for any new, time sensitive messages; I open those and might react as needed and might decide to deal with them later. I return to Pandora to change the station. I open a few images in Photoshop to retouch and save them. I open Word and start typing a summary of the events and lessons of our school week. I realize I need to update our co-op's website, and open a new tab to take care of it. I remember that I have a topic I want to research, so I quickly open a new tab to type it in before I forget it. I see new Facebook notifications so I pop back over there. I open a few comics files in Photoshop, thinking I should prioritize knocking out a basic task or two to help Chris along on his current project. Just as I start on the first page, I hear Pip's feet hit the floor, and I realize that while I started many things, I may not have finished a single one, which stresses me out. And this is how our day together begins.

Some people thrive on hopping around between multiple activities; clearly, I do not. For me, the current norm is a mess, and yet I have been functioning this way for some time. I spend mental energy throughout the day either searching for moments to get back to my desk to chip away at what I started, or feeling frustrated at how few of those tasks I got done.

I know it has to change, and I think the most specific plan I can have, for now, is to take my seat at the computer knowing I must deliberately focus on one task at a time, instead of all the jumping around, and see how that pans out.

For January, I am stopping at this one goal, because it's big. I'll revisit it in a month or two--or earlier if what I'm doing doesn't seem to be working--and make changes as necessary to ensure its success. I've realized that it's very important for my well-being for this to change. And I am confident that it will have a positive effect on other areas of my day to day.

It's a little scary to share a goal, because making it public invites accountability. But there it is. Do you set goals for the new year?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Slow Cooker Rainbow Dinner

My local grocery had purple potatoes on special this week. I had never done any cooking with them, but had heard plenty about them on the chef competition shows I occasionally binge-watch while working. I grabbed some "must sell today" boneless cuts of beef and built this hearty--and colorful--meal from there.

Into the slow cooker went the following, in this order:
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
7 large carrots, chopped
Bag of purple potatoes
1 lb boneless beef
A sprinkling of coarse sea salt
3 yellow onions, quartered

It cooked on low for 9 hours and smelled amazing.

We each added salt and pepper to taste when it was time to eat, and we ate well. The potatoes were great, although Pip was simultaneously mesmerized and horrified that they were purple on the inside, too.

It later occurred to me that with some fresh tomatoes, steamed broccoli, and ripe blueberries, we would have truly covered the color spectrum. Maybe next time!

Monday, December 12, 2016

3 Minute Project: Licensed Notebook

Confession: I keep the packaging from Pip's toys.

Before you are horrified, let me explain. I don't keep all of it. Don't think I have a closet full of shreds of cardboard or bits of plastic or anything like that. But when she is given a licensed item--think movie and TV characters--I am careful to neatly cut out and save the images from the outer shell of the gift that might otherwise be tossed into the recycling bin.

Here's why: licensed items cost way more than plain ones, and kids think they're fun. (Did you see my post about the Peanuts-inspired notebook?)

When Pip received an Inside Out blanket, I salvaged a group image from the front of the package and turned that could-have-been-lost artwork plus a spiral notebook we had here at the house into "new" school supplies for her.

First, I cut freehand around the characters the shape I wanted the image to have. There were words and things I didn't want on the final product, so I took that into consideration when deciding where to trim.

Next, I applied glue stick glue to the back of the image and affixed it to the front of the notebook so it would cover all the words on there, too. (You know, where it says "80 Pages Wide Rule" and all that.)

Finally, I put packing tape--of which we have plenty, due to our home-based business--over the entire front cover of the notebook, in straight rows starting at the bottom. I purposely cut it longer than the cover so I would have enough on each end to fold over and stick to the back for an extra sturdy finish.

And done!

It probably took you longer to read this than it will take you to decorate a unique notebook for your kiddos using objects you have around the house. Enjoy!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Gift Card Rebate at USPS

I was standing in line at the post office, just people-watching while I waited, when I spotted an ad for a $15 prepaid Visa card. Free money? Tell me how.

This really only does you good if you're planning or willing to spend $100 on gift cards. And gift cards for specific vendors, at that. But if you're already going to spend the money, you might as well get 15% of it back, right?

There are two ways to look at this.

1. Gift cards make simple (and simple-to-ship) gifts. Done and done.

2. If you're going to spend the money at one of the select merchants anyway, you're either paying now or paying later.
Note: If you are someone who will buy the card now for the rebate and then forget to send in the form or lose the card before it's been completely used up, I do not encourage you to do this! Same applies if you think of these gift cards as "free money" and make more frivolous choices with them; they're not free money! You bought them! Shop carefully!

This is a limited time offer; purchases must be made by December 10, 2016, and they must be made at a Post Office. Rebate form required. There is fine print on the back; if you're wanting to pursue this offer, please read it before you buy. The merchants listed on the form include Michael's, Toys R Us, Starbucks, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, and Bahama Breeze. I do not know if any other merchants are included in this offer.

I occasionally buy gift cards for my own use when they're on sale. (A $10 GC to one of the few places Pip can safely eat for $8? That's a win!) Or when there's an in-store or instant rebate, which I see at pharmacies sometimes.

Do you ever purchase gift cards for your own use? Or strictly to give as gifts?

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

7 Clutter-Free Gifts for Kids

I write this as the mom of a child with plenty of things. Yes, she has a few requests for Christmas. And yes, she will likely receive them. But she needs very little (she's growing like a weed; don't 7-year-olds like to get shoes as gifts?), and I know many of her friends are in similar situations.

We still like to give gifts as much as any kid likes to receive them. So we've started giving more gifts of "experiences." I haven't followed up with the child-recipients of said experiences, but they have gone over pretty well with their parents. If you're looking for a clutter-free gift for a child in your life, this is for you.

Vouchers for a Play Place
If there's an indoor play place or trampoline park where the child lives or in a neighboring town, this is a great gift. If you want to give the child something to open, consider some fun socks since many of those places require them.

Gift Cards for a Favorite Restaurant
Pip loves going to Dairy Queen for ice cream. When she received her own gift card for DQ she flipped out, and immediately asked me how many Dilly Bars it would buy.

PJs are useful and you can get really fun ones for kiddos--seasonal, character-covered, you name it.

Movie Tickets
When I was a teenager, I took each of my youngest brothers to the movies for their birthdays. They got to pick the movie. I may have even sprung for popcorn (if not, sorry pals). It was really special. A gift card for the local theater can be a fun thing for kids to have control of (within reason of course).

Tickets to a Performance
Live children's shows appear at various venues around the country. Whether it's a stage version of a TV show the kiddo likes, or a ballet performance, or a monster truck rally, it's going to make an impression. If you're a grandparent, and it's feasible, take the child to the event yourself and make a great memory together.

A Class
Whether it's art, ballet, karate, gymnastics, horseback riding, violin, you name it, the cost of classes adds up! They--and their parents--would probably welcome a month or more of class tuition (consider if there's a registration fee, too--you don't want to accidentally leave the parent with an unexpected bill). If you want the child to have something to open, consider giving them the clothing or equipment they'll need for their new class.

A Membership
Membership to a zoo, children's museum, science center, or art museum is a fabulous gift that a child and her/his family can enjoy all year long. If you want the child to open a gift along with it, consider something that they can use on trips to the location, like binoculars for the zoo or a sketchbook and pencils for the art museum.

Has your child ever received any of these gifts? Did it go over well?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Favorite Sale: Bargain Hunt

A few weeks ago I was planning a day in Owensboro, Kentucky, when my cousin asked me if I was going to Bargain Hunt. I was indifferent, because I had been to other Bargain Hunt locations before. One was nice, but in a fairly lengthy shopping trip I found only a few things I thought I could use that I was willing to pay the asking price for. Another was OK, but items tended to be bought before they got to the really deep discounts (more on that in a minute). One was so heavily frequented and so poorly maintained that it always looked like it had just been looted.

She encouraged me to stop by, at least, and take a look. I'm so glad that she did.

If you've never been to Bargain Hunt, here's the premise. The store receives items that have not sold elsewhere (like a Big Lots or other closeout stores). They may be missing their original packaging, or part of it, or they may be pristine and just no longer the item of the season. They are marked with a discounted price and a date. 

Here's where it gets fun: the longer an item is in the store, the deeper the discount becomes. So if something just arrived, you pay (discount store) sticker price. If it's been there several weeks, you pay 10% less, another week means 20% less, and so on. There are items in the store that are 90% off the original discount store price. And that's where you really win! Even at the initial discount prices, they offer some great deals. But if you can stick to the "Best Bargains" racks and shelves, you'll find amazing prices on nice things. If you're not going in looking for something specific, only look at the Best Bargains, and you'll be amazed at the markdowns and save the most money.

Every store is different, of course. How they're managed and how they're shopped makes a huge impact on the feel of the location, as does where their merchandise comes from, since I assume they're all different and dependent on what's nearby. This location in Owensboro is wonderful. I've now been there twice. Here's a peek at my savings round up from my most recent visit:

This purchase of under $17 included the following--and I promise I'm not exaggerating!
- 2 long sleeve pajama tops for me (0.50 and 0.70)
- 1 pair of jeans for me (0.70)
- 1 winter coat for me (3.50)
- 2 sets of 100% cotton standard pillowcases (2.00, 2.60)
- 1 set of 100% cotton king pillowcases (2.80)
- 6 seasonal items (0.50 each)
- 1 camera case that Pip plans to transform into a lunchbox for her dolls (0.90)

My first visit was nearly as successful, but I didn't share it because I wanted to make sure it wasn't a fluke. After my second trip, I don't think it was.

Do you have a Bargain Hunt near you? Have you ever shopped there? I'd love to hear about your favorite finds!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

November Thing a Day Giveaway Update

At the beginning of November, I shared my plan to find one thing in my home every day that we no longer use, and remove it. We're a couple of weeks into the month, and I'm pleased to report that besides giving myself a little breathing room that I was desiring, I have also made and saved myself some money!

On day one, I listed an item on eBay that had been sitting on my desk for months, waiting for me to do just that. It only took a few minutes to take photos, write a description, and set a price, and it sold that day. Although I knew the rest of the project wouldn't be like that, kicking things off with a little extra cash was fun!

After that, the task started slowly, in Pip's closet. Each day of the first week, I reached in and pulled out something that I knew she could no longer wear. Some items are going to a local assistance center, and a few seldom-worn more formal dresses are going to be sold at a consignment store. One dress that she loves is so battered and stained that I put it into my craft stash; I'm thinking it will find another life as doll clothes.

I moved on to my clothes next. For a couple of days, I pulled out one item that I knew I wouldn't wear any more, either because it didn't fit properly or because it was so worn or stained that I had to wear it under something else. Stipulations on how I can or cannot wear a garment have no room in my life. As I was rummaging through my chest of drawers looking for a top that I wanted to wear, I realized I would save time by just dumping out an entire drawer and sorting the contents into "I still wear this" and "I no longer wear this." It took just a few minutes to pull about 10 items from two drawers that I didn't need to keep. I tried on three of the tops once more, for good measure. All of those are now out of there. The drawers open and close easily and everything inside is something that I currently enjoy wearing. Everything else was either tossed out or is going to the assistance center to be enjoyed by someone else.

I did the same thing in my closet, which took about 20 minutes (I recognize that I don't have a large closet), and besides tidying it up, I discovered a nice stash of health and beauty items that I had forgotten about. So I'll save a little money in the coming weeks and months by not needing to purchase shampoo, soap, razors, deodorant, toothpaste, and so on. We already have it!

Chris recently went through his clothes, and since I make almost all clothing purchases and handle the household laundry, I know where his wardrobe stands. I am not tackling that one this time around.

Other spaces in our house have benefited from a quick clean-out, although the things removed from there were not to share, but rather to discard. These locations include bathroom storage cabinets, our medicine and first aid stash, and the top of the refrigerator. I found several things I had forgotten about in my "gift items purchased for a later date" bin, which will also serve me well in the upcoming holiday season!

Getting started in our school room (which is our formal dining room) has encouraged me to re-imagine the space, and I'm very excited about the potential outcome of that change and how it will affect my peace in the house and our use of the room.

I am joyfully continuing this project and looking forward to seeing how the second half of November plays out.

If you've been doing the same thing, I'd love to hear how it's going! And if you haven't started yet, I invite you to join us today as we bit-by-bit clear our homes of things we no longer use and pass still-good items along to someone who can enjoy or benefit from it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

My Little Pony Birthday Party

Pip requested a My Little Pony themed party for her 7th birthday. It was a wonderful celebration!

We utilized our church's gym so that weather would not be a factor. I concentrated decorating efforts on one small area where we served cake and ice cream and where she opened gifts. That's where the majority of photos would be taken anyway, right? She really liked the "official" decorations that we saw in stores, so I purchased a few licensed items: tablecloth, birthday banner, cupcake liners and toppers, and a pack of "dangling spirals" that I disassembled and used in two places. The galvanized serving pieces were borrowed from friends. To these I added solid colored plates, napkins, and cups, and used solid color plastic tablecloths for the backdrop.

The cupcakes were made from a boxed gluten free mix and topped with a simple homemade frosting. We bought ice cream and offered water and pink lemonade. Simple.

I enjoy making decorations, so the guest tables were my chance to get creative. We set up one table inspired by each of the "Mane Six." I clipped the images of each of the ponies from the "dangling spirals" and used them in my centerpieces. Some of the items I had at home, but anything else I needed, I found at the local dollar store. I used binder clips (one of my go-to tools!) to stand them up.

Applejack: orange tablecloth, yellow gift bag filling

Fluttershy: yellow tablecloth, pink patterned scarf, pink Easter grass

 Pinkie Pie: pink tablecloth, pink curling ribbon

Rarity: white tablecloth, squares of purple tablecloth (although cardstock would do), silver sequins, mason jar, purple sparkly tissue paper

Rainbow Dash: blue tablecloth, orange cardstock, rainbow tissue paper twisted together and pushed through the hole in the bottom of an upside down foam koozy

Twilight Sparkle: purple tablecloth, purple tissue paper, pink cardstock for the star, clear plastic jewels, mason jar inside a fleece sock, purple dish towel

Pip wanted party games that all of her guests could enjoy, and she came up with a great list. Again, one was inspired by each of the Mane Six.

One table hosted Rarity's Cutie Mark Design Station and Twilight Sparkle's Friendship (Is Magic) Bracelet Making Booth.

The table that held Applejack's Sweet Apple Acres Barnyard Haybale Stack (hay bales were just kitchen sponges cut into similar shapes and sizes) also contained ponies to play with.

A pinata had been at the top of the party wish list; who better to assign to this party staple than Pinkie Pie?

And, finally, Rainbow Dash's Thunderbolts Obstacle Course was a huge hit!

The cost of the party was, I thought, reasonable. It was cute, and the guests and the birthday girl all had a fabulous time. The fun started for us in the weeks before, as we figured out the details of the event. I'm delighted that Pip loves party planning as much as I do!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Thing a Day Giveaway

Several years ago, I challenged myself to find one thing in my home every day that no longer served me and get rid of it. It could be something to pass along to a friend or family member, something to donate to a charity, something to sell, or something to recycle or throw away.

Some days were easy. I could open a drawer and quickly spot a top that I passed over on three occasions because I didn't like how it looked or felt. Or notice a lone earring the mate of which was long gone. Or find a plastic storage container in the kitchen cabinet that was stained and whose lid didn't quite close any more. Although I didn't strive for more than one thing a day, if I saw multiple items in a single glance that needed to go, they went.

Some days were hard. I would look at a series of items and think, "Well, I might need that if..." or "Maybe I could use that for...." Even on the difficult days, though, I stuck with it and eventually ran across one or more things that could better serve somewhere else.

Some things I found were items that we could truly use and enjoy, but they needed some work to be functional again. I altered a garment or two. I replaced buttons. I repaired jewelry. I framed and hung on the walls art that had been sitting, unappreciated, in a closet.

What I found as things slowly started to trickle out of the house was that it gave me peace. It gave me breathing room that I didn't even realize that I needed. It was freeing to not have to wade through things that were "just ok" for me to find the things I really liked.

The beauty of one thing a day is how little time it takes. It means you don't have to set aside the time to clean out an entire closet, although there are days that you might get energized by your progress and want to do that, and that's great! But if you're consistent with just one thing a day, then by the end of November you will have found 30 items that you don't need and that can better serve elsewhere.

As I mentioned, it's been several years since I followed this approach to slowly clearing the clutter from my home. As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, and I am overwhelmed by all I have to be thankful for, I am reinstating this practice for myself. I don't know how long it will last, but I intend to do it throughout the month of November, at least. I expect it to bring about that same sense of peace, and I look forward to sharing the things that are still good--just not needed in my home--with others who may truly enjoy them.

I challenge you to do the same in your home!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Slow Cooker Russian Beef and Potatoes

Reasons I love my Crock Pot:
- I can prepare a healthy dinner in the morning when I've got the focus and energy.
- Whoever is home while it's cooking enjoys the aroma of slow-roasted food.
- Most or all parts of the meal being prepared in one location means fewer dishes to clean up.

Reason I love my Crock Pot even more on Tuesday:
- I appreciate being greeted by a ready meal when I return home from what I know will be a full day.

I'm hard pressed to think of a day that I don't like to get dinner planned and prepped early. But days like today, when I'm looking at a calendar that includes a homeschool co-op meet-up, a fall festival, gymnastics class, and a trip to the store for Halloween candy and costume supplies, I know that by the time I get home, I will not find great joy in making dinner. This is a bummer because I really do like to cook for my little family.

Because my kitchen is not currently stocked with many fresh veggies, today is a super simple slow-cooker day. I'm going with the most basic items: meat and potatoes. When I return home this evening, I'll toss a bag of frozen California mixed vegetables on the stove top to steam, and we'll have a quickly prepared, colorful, and tasty dinner.

Here's what's going into the slow cooker this morning:
1.5 lbs small baking potatoes, whole
1/4 cup butter
1 lb boneless beef sirloin
A heavy sprinkling of Penzeys Tsar Dust Memories Russian Style Seasoning

(This is approximately double the amount of butter I typically use in the slow cooker, but it's also about half the vegetables that I typically put in, so I want to make sure there are enough juices.)

This is going to be good.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Homemade Halloween Costume: Pippi Longstocking

We love making homemade costumes! We put them together for Halloween, occasional conventions, and, sometimes, theme parties. It's always a team effort.

Our crew:

Pip - the one who will be wearing the costume. She's responsible for choosing what character she wants to portray, assisting with shopping for materials, standing patiently for fittings, and not complaining about how long it takes to achieve whatever hairstyle the costume requires.

Mimi - the seamstress. I used to ask my mom to "help me" with the sewing portions of the costume. Now I am more realistic and I ask, "would you be willing to sew this?" She's pretty great about it, especially considering the random materials I sometimes bring her and that oftentimes she's creating a look without a pattern.

Chris - the sculptor and builder. He handles much of the detail work and anything that needs to be sculpted or painted (armor, amulets, shields, props, masks, etc).

Me - the gatherer and the hairstylist. I am often the one hunting in thrift stores and discount bins for the items needed to make the pieces, and making sure we stick to the budget of "as close to $0 as possible." When it's costume day, I'm the one helping Pip get dressed and doing hair.

Her costume for this year is currently in the works, but here's a peek at last year's look: Pippi Longstocking.

At the time, she loved the Pippi movies from the late 60s/early 70s so that was our inspiration.

Here's what we used, and where we got our materials:
Walmart - white tennis shoes, white cotton tights, small piece of checkered fabric, Rit dye in orange and green

Thrift store - women's pale green shirt, women's orange ribbed sweater, child's bloomers, striped baby swaddling blanket

Halloween store - comb-in hair dye

Our closet - wire hanger, sheet gripper, brown Sharpie marker, hair elastics, wire cutters or needle nose pliers

Chris cut the tights into very long socks. He then mixed up the orange and green Rit dyes according to package directions and dyed one each color. Rather than dipping the shoes, he took the laces out and painted one with each of the dye colors. When Pip put on the costume, we made sure the socks and shoes were opposites, and we used one sheet gripper to attach a sock to her bloomers to look like a single garter.

The green shirt remained as it was, and served as the basis for the dress. Mimi cut three patches out of an orange ribbed sweater for the front and back of the dress (you can see just a sliver of one in this photo). She then cut the swaddling blanket into an apron that crossed in the back and sewed that together, adding the checkered pockets afterward.

My job of turning Pip's hair red was more of a chore than I expected. When I finally got it combed through fairly evenly, I had to work quickly as the type of temporary hair color that we had purchased started to stiffen up after a few moments. I had already cut the straight bottom piece out of a wire hanger using the wire cutter on my needle nose pliers, and Chris held it across the back of Pip's head while I braided each side of her hair around it. After both braids were secured with elastics, I trimmed the end of the wire so that it didn't extend farther than her hair--I didn't want any other kids to walk into it on accident! Finally, Chris dotted some freckles on her face, neck, and arms with the Sharpie.

This costume turned out to be quite affordable, and very cute. Most importantly, Pip loved it!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Homeschooling and Pen Pals

Last year, when Pip had just turned six and was starting to read on her own, my sister-in-law had the fantastic idea of teaching our daughters how to be pen pals. It was an easy sell since they were already best friends who had lived in the same city until not too long before. It was great writing and reading practice for both of them, and the letters they wrote back and forth, telling each other about the things going on in their daily lives, were absolutely precious.

She sweetened the deal with a pen pal box that she wrapped for Pip for Christmas. It was self-contained, and completely full of everything a kiddo might want for letter writing. Pip went nuts for it.

This year, writing to a pen pal is part of our weekly lesson routine. Pip currently has four--all cousins and friends in other states--so it usually works out to writing one letter to a different pal each week, each month. Sometimes, she has received a response by the time a pal's name comes back around, and sometimes she hasn't, and either way, it's totally ok.

If you would like to create a pen pal box for your child, or as a gift for another child, here is a list of items that have proven useful or fun or both. You can easily customize a box to fit a child's personality and interests. It's super simple, inexpensive, and so much fun!
- Box (Pip's is a decorative photo box from a craft store, but a shoe box would work just as well)
- Colorful stationery
- Pens and pencils
- Stickers
- First class postage stamps
- Return address labels for the recipient (Shutterfly sometimes offers them as a free gift!)


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Homeschooling and Zoo Membership

A zoo membership is something that we utilize year round. When the weather is nice, we enjoy the outdoor exhibits. When it's really hot, or really cold, or raining, or whatever, we venture indoors.

Because we know that we can come back whenever we'd like, there's no pressure to "see everything." There have been times that we stopped by to visit just a few exhibits. I remember at least one trip where we only went to the playground.

Besides free entry any time we want to go, our membership to Nashville Zoo also gives us free or reduced entry for a number of other zoos and aquariums. If you have or are considering buying a membership to any zoo or aquarium, see if they're a member of the AZA--the benefits might surprise you. 

Budget suggestion: if grandparents are asking what you or your children would like for an upcoming birthday or holiday, memberships that you can use all year make a great gift!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Time to Play

Yesterday was a time to play.

I haven't kept count of the number of times I've sat down with my laptop to write my next post, but I can tell you that I've done it again and again. I think, "Early in the morning, things will be quiet and calm." Emails and social media notifications from the hours I slept beckon. I think, "When Pip has gone to bed, something will come to me." I end up preparing a lesson plan, or chatting with Chris as he works into the night in his home studio, or watching old episodes of The Office. I think, "While Pip plays in her room, I will slip over to my desk and take care of it." I get caught up doing laundry, or washing dishes, or joining in her games.

In recent weeks, my blessed life has kept me occupied. Writing started to feel like a chore, when it began as a great source of joy. My primary goal with this newborn blog has been consistency. Yes, I hope the content is relevant. Yes, I want to share projects and ideas of which I am proud. Yes, I am involved in many things, and I value it as something that is just mine.

While struggling for the umpteenth time with what I might share next, I realized that I would benefit from following the sage advice of a friend who has blogged much longer than I. She said, especially when the writing got more difficult, to make sure to get out and play.

So, yesterday was a time to play. I stepped away from the laptop. Pip and I dabbled in her lessons I had prepared, but we also reveled in the fact that all nine seasons of Curious George are now on Hulu. I didn't complete the Halloween wreath I had planned, but we did figure out what we needed for Pip's costume. I was grateful when Chris offered to make dinner--something I usually enjoy doing myself--and served up some comforting grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.

My family is content and I'm refreshed and excited to see what comes next.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Slow Cooker Garlic Tomato Beef with Polenta

When I can get a nice-looking piece of beef that will provide more than one meal for under $5, we're having beef for dinner.

This 1-lb boneless sirloin tip steak went into the slow cooker right on top of the can of diced tomatoes with roasted garlic and onions. I didn't add anything else. It cooked on low for 6 hours, and then I drained the juice and shredded the meat with a fork.

At dinner time I mixed up the instant polenta according to the package directions, and when it was finished I stirred in all of the Italian five cheese blend that I had left (we had been into this bag before), along with a splash of milk.

I plated the polenta first and spooned the beef and tomato mixture on top. The grapes and a green salad were on the side. It was simple and tasty, and the leftovers reheated well for a second round later that week.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Our Homeschooling Week

It is rare that I hear parents talking about how peaceful their Monday mornings are. Up until recently, I was in that same frantic scramble that all my public and private school parent friends were. I would wake up extra early, plow through as much of my to-do list as possible, and then attempt to entice my kindergartner to jump into music practice and writing practice and math equations as soon as she woke up and ate a little breakfast. Before lunchtime we were both frazzled.

And then I had an epiphany. I was so determined to start our lessons first thing Monday morning to "set the tone for the week" that I wasn't allowing myself the flexibility that I truly appreciate about homeschooling. While I was embracing the option to customize our year, building in days off for family travel, holidays, and special events, I wasn't even considering a customization of our week.

This rigidity had no place in our homeschool. As we began our lessons this fall, I addressed the fact that we needed some calm at the end of our family- and activity-filled weekends. I wasn't enjoying staying up late Sunday night to prepare for school, and beginning the week with a sleep deficit was not doing me any favors. Now, we're starting our week off with a whole new approach and, so far, I'm loving it.

Monday mornings are no longer for structured lessons. In addition to managing my home/work/volunteer responsibilities, I now invest that time in setting our calendar for the week ahead, preparing activities for the coming days, and gathering up the materials we will need. I don't wake Pip up; she may sleep as late as she needs, and when she's out of bed, she reads, plays, draws, and eases into her day. Our Monday school time doesn't start until we're both ready, which is often after lunch. We've been at it for only a few weeks so far this semester, but it seems to be a welcome change for Pip. I can say most certainly that it's a welcome change for me.

Last school year, we followed the local school system's annual schedule pretty closely, beginning lessons in August and finishing by the end of May. The more I think about it, the idea of a year-round schedule, as well as the idea of an on-six-weeks/off one week routine each appeal to me for different reasons, but I haven't made a commitment to either, yet. That's still up for debate.

What schedule does your homeschool follow?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Favorite Sale: Payless ShoeSource

Pip is growing so fast that I refuse to let a coupon for a shoe store expire! If it happens, I feel like I'm just throwing money away. When I recently received an offer for $10 off a $30 purchase at Payless, I knew we could put it to good use.

As we arrived, we found that there was a back-to-school sale happening, but honestly, there's nearly always a sale of some kind going on at this store. The salesperson informed me that the coupon could be used on any purchase, including sale and clearance items, so that's where we started. Pip and I spent a little time trying things on and comparing prices of similar styles. We left the store with three pairs of shoes (two for her, one for me).

I was shooting for spending exactly $30 to get the maximum savings, but the $14 pair I selected for me--just a shade cheaper than most of the $15 sandals--were my favorites. I threw the dance shoes in for Pip for $5, knowing that she'll soon outgrow the pair that she has at home.

Just the sale prices would have been a decent deal, totaling $34. But then with the coupon I saved an extra $10, bringing the pre-tax total down to $24. It's looking even better, right? When you see the original price of each pair, you'll understand how much fun this shopping trip was!

Sandal for me: original price $29.99
Silver shoe for Pip: original price $29.99
Black dance shoe for Pip: original price $26.99
Total original value: $86.97
Total paid: $24.00 (plus tax)
That's a savings of about 72%!

For an added bonus, the receipt has a survey at the bottom that I can answer for $3 off my next purchase of $9.99 or more. I will answer that survey and I will not waste the discount. Even if there is not another pair of shoes I'd like to buy before it expires, they also carry socks, purses, jewelry, accessories, and sunglasses. I'll get something, either for us or as a gift for someone else, during this sale or the next. 


That was the end of my original post. But here's an update. I took the online survey, and took my code back in the next day. I first picked up a 6-pack of athletic socks for Chris for $9.99, but all socks were buy one, get one free, so I picked up another 6-pack of socks for him. I left the store that day with 12 new pairs of socks for $6.99 before tax. The receipt had an access code to take the survey again and earn another $3 off another purchase of $9.99 or more. If nothing else, it looks like we're all getting new socks this week! ;)

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Homeschooling and Free Museum Admission

One of my favorite things about homeschooling is the opportunity to provide tailored enrichment activities to accompany our lessons and cater to Pip's interests. If I were not careful, the cost of these field trips and hands-on experiences could add up quickly. So, of course, free and almost free admission opportunities are my favorite places to start when planning our outings! Today I've got museums on my mind.

Although I'm writing about these for use in conjunction with our homeschool, they could all just as easily make for great family days out.

Some venues are always free. The Owensboro Museum of Fine Art, for example, is technically free (although they gently ask a voluntary admission of $2/adult, $1/child). Pip loves to visit the rotating exhibits, but her favorite feature is Kaleidoscope Kave.

Some venues have a set recurring free admission opportunity. For example, when we lived in Atlanta, the High Museum of Art offered free admission to all Fulton County residents on the first Saturday of every month.

Some locations offer isolated free or reduced admission opportunities. Last winter, as a way to contribute to the Nashville food bank, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts offered admission in return for canned goods. This is not without cost, but it was a way to help feed the community while checking out the museum for less than the price of a ticket. (I would like to note here that we frequent the Frist, and children's admission is always free!)

Some organizations of which you may already be a part offer free or discounted admission to events and venues; if you are a veteran, a member of a credit or other type of union, AAA, etc, definitely check your member perks to see what you might be missing! Chris and I have a low limit, no annual fee credit card with Bank of America, and one of the perks is monthly "Museums on Us" weekends where BoA covers the cost of admission for cardholders and their children. There's a full list on the website of locations that take part in this program.

For me, the easiest way to keep up with free admission opportunities is through social media. I follow all my favorite educational venues on Facebook, including museums in our region. Occasionally I'll see a free admission day, and that's when we plan a trip or take a spur of the moment opportunity to visit. If I don't see any discount days coming up at a venue we'd like to see, I will call or email them and ask if they offer any discounts; the worst thing they can tell me is no, right?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Using Binder Clips to Create an Art Gallery

Our school room is constantly evolving depending on what we need from it at any given time. Lately its primary function has been as a catch-all for art projects.

Yesterday, I decided that we couldn't have all this artwork piled up on every flat surface any longer. Pip and I got to work with 8 nails, some kitchen twine, and a handful of small binder clips, all of which we had around the house, and we created a gallery to display her most recent pieces.

First, I placed one nail in the top of a door frame and one nail in the top of a window frame, knotted the ends of a pieces of kitchen twine, and strung it between them. Then we used binder clips to hang several pieces across that line.

Next, I placed 6 more nails in the wall below the line and above the bench, putting them roughly the same distance from each other. I hung a binder clip on each one and together we chose which pieces she wanted to display.

My intention is for this to be a rotating gallery of whatever Pip has recently created. When we stepped back to take a look at the finished product, she was proud of it, and I was happy with our return to clear surfaces.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Homeschooling and the Fine Arts Center

One of my favorite educational resources is our local fine arts center. The Glema Mahr Center for the Arts in Madisonville, Kentucky, offers "school day matinees" throughout the academic year with ticket prices at a fraction of a typical performance rate (this past season, they were $6 per seat). They welcome homeschool families, and we regularly join in the fun.

In addition to enjoying shows from the audience, Pip has experienced the magic of sitting onstage during several small-cast performances. Many productions, particularly those put on by traveling children's theatres, have study guides that teachers and parents can obtain in advance to help plan related lessons for before and after the field trip.

The Anne P. Baker Gallery, located inside the fine arts center, almost always has visual art on display as well. Each new collection is very different--from photography exhibits to student displays to juried art shows--and admission is free. It's a low-pressure way to experience a small taste of an art museum, and a chance for Pip and me to see a variety of beautiful work. It always sparks conversation and often inspires a new art project. She loves going so much that when her cousin came to visit last fall, Pip insisted we stop by to show her our local gallery.

This past season, the GMCA hosted two community choir performances that were free and open to the public. There were also a variety of family performances--like acrobats and musicals--available throughout the year. Although ticket prices are higher than the school day matinees, several of them were clearly worth the investment for us.

Our fine arts center offers an annual Summer Arts Academy for students from kindergarten through high school. There is a small tuition fee, like most day camps. Pip has attended the past two years and loved it! Participants sing, dance, act, and create visual art.

No matter what region you're living in, I encourage you to find your nearest Fine Arts Center. It can be a wonderful place to start when planning low-cost extracurricular activities for your homeschool.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Peanuts Notebook

With her love for Peanuts and her regular time spent writing and drawing, I was not at all surprised when Pip recently asked me for a Charlie Brown notebook. With a quick stop at the dollar store and a few minutes, I turned a plain yellow spiral notebook into a Peanuts inspired sketchbook for her that she thought was super fun.

The notebook was new, but everything else I had on hand.

I made the stencil from a piece of scrap cardstock. I cut the cardstock into 3" by 1 1/4" strips and then taped them together. I consulted an image of Charlie Brown and noticed that the zig zags on his shirt didn't look like right angles, so I tiled each piece to make those angles a little sharper. I then trimmed along the sides to get rid of the extra corners that were sticking out along each edge. You can see that the outer points are not actually single points--you can see the corner of each strip of card. When I went to trace it onto the notebook, I just followed the stencil as best I could and then filled in the little corners freehand.

I think it's great fun to take a known property and create something inspired by it. It's often much more affordable than purchasing the licensed item(s), and the act of putting it together myself can make it more meaningful, too.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Homeschooling First Grade

Pip is one of those homeschoolers who looks bewildered when people ask "what grade are you in?" Following the age requirements of Kentucky, where we currently reside, she would have just finished kindergarten. In our homeschool co-op, though, the first grade class was the better fit this past year. Fluidity is one of my favorite things about homeschooling.

As I plan her first grade/kind of second grade year, these are the books that I'm reading for reference and that I'm currently planning to work with when we get back into our "school year" routine this fall.

Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and their Parents) by Eline Snel
For the Children's Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay
Honey for a Child's Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life by Gladys Hunt
Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors by Rachelle Doorley
Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 1A
The Usborne Classical Music Sticker Book
13 Artists Children Should Know by Angela Wenzel

This does not include the picture books and literature that will be utilized daily, as that will be a constant rotation based on her current interests. The majority of those will be borrowed from the library or purchased at McKay Books in Nashville--one of my favorite used bookstores! For life science we'll explore the world around us and take off from there, and history will be examined through the lens of children's lit. There will also be plenty of additional resources pulled in as we go along; this is only my starting point.

While I use the term loosely, and we have plenty of crossover between them, the subjects on my mind when contemplating her first grade education are music, reading, writing, science, history, art, math, and life skills. Much of her learning will be done through play (using Shopkins to explore math concepts was a hit this past year), and we'll take field trips to experience science, living history, and performing arts first hand.

This upcoming year is going to be a good one. I look forward to continuing to participate in Pip's day to day growth and learning process. It's an amazing gift.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Slow Cooker Beef and Veggies

It pains me to waste food. I make sure that precious little gets thrown out in our house. So when I was making coffee this morning and saw the "priced to move" piece of meat I had bought yesterday, I knew I needed to get it cooked today so it would not be lost. I also had a handful of produce that was all still okay, but on the verge of unusable. Enter the slow cooker.

I adore my slow cooker and use it year-round. It doesn't heat up the kitchen, it requires very little clean-up, and I am able to put dinner together in the morning when I'm feeling energetic and have it ready in the evening when I might otherwise think, "let's all just eat a bowl of cereal." Because we definitely have a bowl of cereal for dinner sometimes.

Here's what went into to the crock:

One single-serve Mott's Granny Smith Applesauce
A slab of boneless beef (approx 1lb)
A dousing of herbs de provence
Two yellow onions, peeled and quartered
1/3 of a package of celery, washed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
10 carrots, washed and chopped into 1-inch pieces

I set the slow cooker on low and went about my day. Approximately 5 hours later, I got this text from Chris: "Crockpot smells good!!" And when Pip and I got home from a full day, about 9 hours after the cooking began, we sliced a tomato to go with it, and dinner was served. It was delicious! 

There were some leftovers. If they're not eaten for lunch in the next day or two, I'll prepare some corn on the cob or potatoes to fill out the meal and we'll enjoy them again.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Homeschool Record Keeping

I eased into homeschooling during Pip's preschool years. Not only did it give me the confidence to go forward with it, but it also gave me the opportunity to toy around with different methods of record keeping. I was glad to have that time, because during those early years I figured out my favorite method of planning and recording our lessons. You can find more about my method here.

As we began her kindergarten year, though, I wanted to make sure that I was keeping up with all information required by the state. We're in Kentucky; if you're here, too, the state's Department of Education homeschool information packet is published here.

At the end of our academic year, I laid out everything I had been saving in a plastic tub since last August. This included math and science workbooks, art projects, assignments brought home from co-op, performance and recital programs, award certificates, weekly and monthly calendars I had created throughout the year, and photos. I went through piece by piece and decided what was pertinent to keep and what was being recycled.

This is what I saved. I probably recycled two to three times this amount. 

All weekly and monthly calendars made the cut. They serve as a record of attendance, and outline our daily lessons and activities in detail.

I selected several pages from Pip's math workbook and one full unit from her science workbook that are good examples of her work. I chose about five writing samples, and a pretty big pile of artwork. (I do love kids' artwork, and especially my child's!)

I kept all Pip's award certificates, performance programs, and any documentation of participation in special events. I also went through the digital photos I had been taking all year and created a collage for each month. (I waited until I had a credit from Shutterfly and then ordered them all at once--I love their customer appreciation perks!)

Although I was feeling pretty good about this collection of information, I consulted the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) website for their recommendations about what records to keep for younger students. To complete my summary of the year, I created a document that included the following suggested items:

- materials and memberships used
- extra-curricular activities
- limited participation activities
- projects, awards, and achievements
- life skills acquired
- field trips taken
- volunteer experiences

Some of these items may not apply to all students at such a young age, but I intend to use this year's record as a template for the coming years and I thought it better to include them than not.

Following the HSLDA recommendation I also included a copy of Pip's birth certificate and immunization records.

When everything was compiled, it fit neatly into a single manila folder. I might put it into a cute binder at some point in the future, just for fun, but for now, it's a tidy complete record and readily available if I need it.