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I got a FB message the other day from a long-distance friend. Her message?

“Help! I know you are a published author and I need ideas for how to get my son interested in creative writing. Do you use a curriculum? I want him to enjoy writing but I don’t know how to do that. I’m not a writer!”

I responded immediately, with idea after idea for sharing the gift of writing with her son. And it got me thinking—how many times do I hear this in person? (A LOT) How many other parents might be wondering the same thing? (Probably a few)

So I thought I’d share some of the things I do to nurture creative writing with my children.

  • For computer-savvy kids, Miss Literati is a great web site for aspiring authors to hone their writing skills. Kids sign up for a free account and post stories to the web site for others to read. My teenage daughter spends hours on this site, writing stories and reading others. What started as a hobby has become a true passion for her. She has hundreds of people “subscribed” to her stories and has really been able to polish her writing skills (including grammar and spelling) by being so actively involved on the site.
  • Another Internet-based program is NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program. As a former participant in the adult program, I was delighted to see them roll out a program specifically for kids. The challenge takes place in November but their free PDF workbooks are available all year long and have fantastic resources for helping kids develop characters, identify tone, set scenes, work on dialogue, etc. As an added bonus, kids who participate in the November challenge and meet their goal can submit their finished novel to CreateSpace for 5 free paperback copies! How cool is that?? (and check out their new Camp NaNoWriMo this August!)

If your kids are younger, or just not interested in computer-based writing, here are a couple other ideas we’ve used to keep our creative juices flowing:

  • Story-in-the-round. This needs, at minimum, two people but more works, too! One person begins a story. “I went for a walk in the woods and found a…” They stop and the next person continues the story. “…pair of purple sunglasses. I put them on and…” And so on. “…continued walking. Suddenly, a voice behind me screamed…” Participants can do this strictly orally or it can be written down as you go, so you can read it back afterwards. There are always lots of giggles when we do this and I’m always surprised at the direction our stories go! (For an older tween or teen, try emailing or texting your story-in-the-round…those are great fun, too!)
  • A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words. Sit your kids down with magazines and scissors and have them cut out interesting pictures. They can be landscape images, people – whatever they desire. Put them all in a paper bag labeled “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words.” Then, when you’re looking for writing prompts, have your kids each pull out a picture and write. We do this as a family activity and I love seeing the stories my kids come up with! Even the 6 year-old participates; she dictates her story and I write it down for her. Another fun twist: choose one picture and have everyone write their version of the story behind the picture. The differences will amaze you!
  • Read. What does reading have to do with writing? Everything! Reading opens up those windows—in your mind and in your soul—and allows kids to immerse themselves in new worlds, surrounded by new friends. Read together and read often. If you have older kids, read what they’re reading. Talk about the plots, the characters, the themes. Encourage “What if?” conversations. And then take it a step further and have your kids write about those “What Ifs.” Fan fiction (writing stories based on published books) is a great way to get kids—especially reluctant writers—to write. The characters are there, the story has started…they just get to take it one step further!

Sparking creativity and encouraging writing doesn’t have to be mundane…and you don’t have to be a writer yourself to facilitate it. Creative writing can be fun and inspiring—for both you and your kids.

I’d love to hear what others do — please feel free to comment

Hindsight is 20/20. No where is that more apparent than when it comes to educating our children. How many hundreds of books did I try exposing my reluctant reader to before the spark was finally lit, not by a book, but by his scouting magazine. Who would have thought that fossil found on a family hike would have begun an all and out obsession with paleontology.

How Lincoln Learned to Read by Daniel Wolff looks back at what may have started famous Americans on their paths to success. It identifies what experiences, classrooms, people or hardships cultivated Henry Ford into a mechanical mastermind instead of an environmental scientist like Rachel Carson.

Some of the personal histories are steeped with connections to homeschooling, more specifically unschooling and self directed education, while others are more traditional. But each retrospective reminds the reader that so much of the vital learning that takes place is not what was part of a plan or pre-described goal. Often, it is what happened despite the plan.

Reading this book will not give you a systematic guide to teaching your child to read. Nor will it give you the basic rules to help you raise the next famous American to add to the history books. Instead, this book clearly points out that each journey is different, influenced by countless factors, not reproducible, and only truly understood in retrospect.

Never the less, it inspires and guides. It opens your eyes to finding the value in the education being given by so many sources other than yourself. The influences of a child’s home, individuals they meet on a museum tour or nature center class, the world and local events of the time and so many more. Will the next great American biography include a description of how a field trip to a super computer began a lifelong passion or a TV documentary was the jumping block into figuring out a solution no one had thought of before? I guess we will wait and see. But as we wait, we will look at each day and activity as a piece of a puzzle without the box cover to know where each piece goes, at least not yet.

My kids have always drawn or played Lego while I read aloud. Once I learned that research shows that using your hands while listening actually helps you concentrate and remember better, I added to the list of quiet listening activities with things like latch hook, beading and snow flake cutting. The new favorite in our house is needlepoint.

Not only is needlepoint relatively easy for my kids who are as young as 7 but instead of following a pattern to make a picture like on latch hook, they love being able to take a premade needlepoint plastic form and choose whatever colors they want to use. We have made hearts or crosses. We have given them as gifts and made them just for fun. This latest visit to the craft store introduced my daughters to a fantastic new plastic pattern – a purse. Simply fill it in with needlepoint, fold and stitch the sides together. Add a button and a handle if you like.

A pack of small heart shapes is under 2 dollars and can be easily completed by Valentine’s Day so give it a try!

I’ll be the first to admit…computers kinda scare me.  Oh, I adore them — e-mail, Facebook, blogs, surfing the abundant resources, shopping, etc. — but it’s like I live in constant fear that they will one day stop working.

And they always do.  The notorious Windows hourglass (which, in all honesty, should be updated to a flashing sign stating “What you are trying to do is IMPOSSIBLE”) or Mac’s prettier-but-just-as-frustrating spinning, rainbow wheel-of-death.

I don’t have the time or resources to go back to school and get a degree in computer science or programming.  But I do have time to join Code Year 2012, a free resource to learn computer programming.  Signing up is as simple as entering your email address on the main page.  Once signed up, participants will receive a new, interactive programming lesson each week.  As the website says, “You’ll be building apps and websites before you know it.”

If that isn’t enough, there is also CodeCademy where you can begin learning JavaScript coding immediately, should you choose not to wait for those weekly lessons to show up in your inbox.  The lessons are simple enough for students to do, so my 12 year old and 11 year old will be learning along with me.

I don’t think I’ll be adding hardware or building computers from scratch any time soon, but if I can lift the veil a little?  For free?  Sounds good to me!

For more information about Code Year 2012,  check out CNN Money’s article or Wired online.

Ahhh, the beginning of a new year.  With decorations safely stowed and everything in the house fresh and clean again, my thoughts easily turn to what else I can tidy up and invigorate.  Guess what’s usually next on the list?  Yep — homeschooling.

I make lists of things I want to accomplish with the kids.  I browse bookstores and online categories for new material.  I contemplate schedules and online classes and textbooks and worksheets.  I visit blogs and hit inspiration overload.  I ask the kids to list everything they want to learn.

We go gangbusters for about a week.  Two if we’re lucky.  And then, inevitably, life takes over and things fall by the wayside and we’re back to our zany, unorganized homeschool life.  The life that absolutely works for us.

So this year, I’m trying out some different homeschool resolutions. They look a little like this:

  • Avoid homeschool comparison and envy.  It’s easy to get caught in this trap — to listen to other homeschoolers gathered at open gym or to read blogs and think, “Wow.  Those kids are entering essay contests and building rockets and racing snowmobiles and the only thing we did this week was make scented play-doh.”  So what?  Are your kids happy?  Did they have fun with the scented play clay?  That’s all that matters.
  • Embrace white space. For a lot of homeschoolers, a full calendar provides a soothing impression of a thriving homeschool.  If you’re gone every day, doing field trips and classes and play dates, surely the kids must be learning.  But days at home — to put together puzzles or play outside or, heaven forbid, help Mom clean — are just as valuable.  Learn to see the value in those slower moments.
  • Value what you have.  We live in a society that conditions us to continually want more — more material goods, more money, more everything.  There are many a day where I think to myself, “I wish each kid could have their own laptop.”  Or, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a real piano instead of this cast-off Casio keyboard so the kids could really learn to play?”  But we don’t.  And we don’t have the luxury to contemplate buying any of those things.  But we do have a laptop the kids can share and we do have a keyboard with working keys.  And I am grateful for all of it.
  • Lower your expectations.  As an unschooler, I tend to jump on the kids the minute they express an interest in something.  They want to learn how to count to ten in Spanish?  Great!  Let’s join LiveMocha and watch all your TV shows with Spanish subtitles — you’ll be fluent in no time! Interests will be fleeting.  They’ll come and go.  Do I support and nurture these?  Of course.  But they need to be in charge of how far they want to go.  Not me.

 

So there you have it.  I’ll call these my “Realistic Resolutions.” Will I slip up?  No doubt.  They’re New Year’s resolutions, after all.  But, just like every year, I’ll do my best…

I had never heard of the game CAMP until one of my kids received it for a gift. Now after playing it several times, I have found there are several aspects of the game that I really enjoy.

CAMP is a winner of the Dr. Toy Best 100 Children’s Products. It is listed as a game for ages 4 and up which makes most people think it must be a very easy game but it uniquely incorporates questions cards that offer 4 levels depending on the age of the player answering the question.

As you roll and move around the game board you my land on a Go To Clubhouse space. In some cases this moves you ahead, and at other times sends you back. No one is too upset when this happens, however, since going to the clubhouse means you get a read a fun fact to everyone. Did you know that a baby oyster is called a spat?

And don’t worry if you are not a camping family, most of the questions are animal facts such as “Which bird can fly backward?” and “What is a baby owl called?” All are multiple choice and again easy questions are available for young kids with 3 more levels for older kids and adults.

My son and I wrote this poem. He would say it was mostly him but I would have to disagree. Hope you enjoy.

‘Twas the night before Tuesday, and all through the house,
Each homeschooler was stirring, not hush as a mouse.

Remembering what they had learned yesterday,
And anxiously awaiting a field trip, next day.

The books were all nestled next to the trombone,
And a science experiment on top of the phone.

If you walked just downstairs, on that cold winter’s night,
The sight awaiting would be a slight fright.

With the cookbooks! And music! (But not such a mess)
Markers! A Star Map! And a half game of chess!

Mom had hung up the keys for the automobiles
For the following Wednesday, they gave Meals on Wheels.

And up in their beds, the three children where waiting,
By reading, and drawing, and Lego creating.

At eight a.m. sharp, all three jumped out of bed,
And into ol’ Mom’s room they hurriedly fled.

“Hey Mom, can we please just get going today,
To the zoo, or 4H, or Shakespearean play?”

Mom slowly rolled over, she buried her head,
“We just went last week,” she wearily said.

“So what!” all three kidlings shouted out quickly,
“You must not feel good Mom, you’re acting quite sickly!”

“You don’t want to go to a field trip or class,
Spend the day at the library finding books about glass,”

“Play scrabble, and sled with good friends at the park,
Or see how quick our eyes adjust in the dark,”

“Computer programming, and hamburger frying,
Shoveling sidewalks, and paper plane flying.”

“I’m joking,” their Mom said, “And, Oh, By the way”
“Today we’ll go, tomorrow; in PJ’s reading all day”

Mom is thankful to witness every tooth that falls out
And know what the novel the kids are reading is about

Pleased that while looking up Alexander the Great
Follows many interesting tangents without wait.

At the Museum that day the whole family had fun,
With their MHA membership, tickets cheaper a ton.

For learning was something they did throughout life
They followed their interests and dreams without strife.

Being Actors, and Writers, and Artists and Drummers,
Skaters, and Jugglers, and Swimmers, and Plumbers,

Cooks, and Reporters, and Pink Ballet Dancers,
Train Engineers, and Business Financers.

At the Top of the World!
Their minds set ablaze!
Yeah, Homeschooling, Homeschooling, Homeschooling Days!

The holiday season is in full swing.  Our family has several cherished traditions we’ve built over the years to mark this time of year.  For us, it is a time for sharing and giving, a time for personal reflection, a time to celebrate our relationships with family and friends.

Unfortunately, the messages and meanings of the season can easily be lost amidst the consumer mentality perpetuated by endless television ads and news reports, the store catalogs that seem to self-propagate, and the seemingly never-ending gift wish lists my kids write…beginning as early as October!  This year, I decided to introduce a new holiday activity in the hopes of guiding my kids back to why we celebrate at this time of year.

We typically create an Activity Advent Calendar for the month of December.  The presentation varies (we’ve done homemade numbered boxes, a numbered paper chain, etc.) but the idea remained the same:  like the candy advent calendar, the kids would open something each day and inside would be a holiday-related activity.  Bake Christmas cookies.  Take a night drive to look at Christmas lights.  Check out a new holiday book from the library.  Decorate pine cone ornaments.

The kids loved doing these daily activities.  And so did I.  But, determined to bring the focus back to others this year, I decided to modify our Advent Calendar.  Inspired by the Random Acts of Kindness movement, we created a HASA calendar instead (Holiday Acts of Service Advent).

The idea is simple.  For the 24 days leading up to Christmas — or the 21 days leading up to Solstice — or the 28 days until Hanukkah ends — or the entire month of December — commit to doing one act of service for someone else.  Sit down with your kids and generate a list of simple things you could do each day.  Assign one for each day, keeping your daily calendar in mind (classes, activities, etc. that may influence what you are able to do on certain days)  Then create an advent calendar.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how my kids would react.  I typed up an entire list of possible service/kindness ideas and gave each kid their own copy.  I explained the concept to them.  Their response? Unbridled enthusiasm!  They wanted to do them ALL!  They came up with new ideas of their own.  They pored over our monthly calendar and helped figure out which activities would best fit our schedule.

As December 1st approaches, we are busy putting together the physical display of our HASA calendar.  I’m looking forward to doing these projects with my kids…for others.  And my greatest hope is that they carry this spirit of kindness and giving into the New Year…and throughout 2012.

 

Possible Acts of Service ideas (gleaned from several online sources…with our own ideas mixed in!)

Bake & deliver hoiday cookies to library employees.

Pay for Santa pictures for someone at mall.

Collect canned goods for food shelf.

Pass out candy and spread cheer to folks mailing off their Christmas cards at the post office.

Leave small Christmas treats/gifts in shopping carts for folks to find.

Collect old towels and washcloths and drop off at local animal shelter.

Make holiday cards and tuck them under the windshields wipers of cars at the store/library/school.

Buy coffee for stranger at a coffee shop.

String popcorn and cranberries — and put them outside for the birds

Tape change (and a note!) to a vending machine.

Pay for the order of the car behind you in the drive-through.

Leave present or card in mailbox for your mail carrier.

Drop off books and magazines to a hospital, nursing home or doctors office.

Give a compliment to the manager of someone who helps you today.

Check in on someone you know is alone.

Send someone a small gift anonymously.

Hold the door open for someone today.

Make eye contact and smile at everyone you see today.

Run an errand for someone.

Bring up the neighbor’s garbage can and recycling bins.

Shovel someone’s driveway.

Send a thank you note to someone who has helped you in the past.

Tape candy canes and notes to neighbor’s doors, wishing them happy holidays.

Forgive someone in a bad mood or who is negative today and say something nice to them.

Purchase a couple extra bags of cat/dog food and bring to a local animal shelter.

Leave your change in the soda machine, vending machine, parking meter, etc. today for the next person.

Offer someone behind you at the grocery store to go ahead of you.

Renew a relationship with someone you’ve lost touch with.

Listen to everyone you speak with today.

Offer to help someone do a task they don’t want to do.

Return a shopping cart for a stranger in the parking lot.

Pick up litter you see lying around by the road or in a parking lot.

Offer to help someone who looks like they need assistance (i.e. a mother trying to open a door, an elderly person pumping gas, etc.).

Acknowledge someone who has helped you today, no matter how small the task.

Say an encouraging word today.

Tell all your family members how much you appreciate them.

Buy a hot cocoa or latte for Salvation Army bell ringers.

Purchase toys for kids in need.

Tape candy canes and happy holiday notes to ATMS, vending machines…

Send a box of gently used mittens and hats to a school or homeless shelter

Offer to buy a pack of gum or mints for checkout clerk at grocery store.

Buy an extra copy of your favorite holiday book and donate to your library or local school.

 

With Thanksgiving only days away, marking the official start of the holiday season, it is time to start planning holiday gifts!

Although schedules are even tighter than normal this time of year, we still try to make some of our holiday gifts.

This year, framed art tops our list. The kids draw almost every night while I read to them anyway, so why not turn those pictures into gifts for grandparents? After the purchase of some heavyweight, 5.5 x 8.5 white sketch paper, and a few 5 x 7 frames, we just need to get to work on our drawings. The kids plan for their drawings to be specific to what each grandparent likes, for example, a bird for Nani and a fish for grandpa.

Fun, easy, personal, and inexpensive!

One more easy idea we are considering, especially ideal for folks living  in the Midwest, are homemade hand warmers.

I am posting a link for this project!

http://www.littlepeoplewealth.com/2011/10/diy-thursday-homemade-hand-warmer/

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=pie+weights&x=0&y=0

Happy Holidays!

Turkey Time Art Projects

Looking for some fun art projects to usher in Thanksgiving week?  Here are a couple of gems my kids have enjoyed.

Scratch Art Turkey

Art Projects For Kids provides a wealth of fun art activities and this project has been a tradition in our house the last couple of years. Even the youngest artists can enjoy this take on the popular scratch art activities.  Kids print a template of a turkey and color it with oil pastels.  Using a black oil pastel crayon, color the entire surface of the coloring page.  Then, grab a toothpick and scratch away!  Kids can experiment with different lines (vertical, horizontal, diagonal, etc.) to create texture.

 

 

 

Turkey Animal Drawing

Larry Weinberg, owner of Anoka’s Rum River Art Center, posted this fantastic turkey art project.  Kids can follow the tutorial to draw their very own turkey.  After creating their pencil sketch, a Sharpie can be used to darken the lines.  Kids can then use either water color pencils (shown here), watercolor paints, oil pastels, etc. to create a one-of-a-kind turkey painting for their Thanksgiving celebration.

 

Enjoy!