Monday, December 14, 2009

Free $100 Gift Cards!

Head over to Money Saving Mom and check out her post on how to win a free $100 gift card to the store of your choice! Perfect for that last-minute shopping or snagging some sweet after-Christmas deals!

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Few Words on a Beautiful Thrifty Christmas

I almost titled this post, "A Few Words on a Frugal Christmas" to pattern after MSM's blog, but I realized that I just don't like the word "frugal." It sounds too much like "frumpy" to me. "Beautiful" and "thrifty" are much better words to describe Christmas!

Anyway, I have been quite preoccupied lately with things like laundry, babies, and of course, Christmas! But I thought I'd post briefly to let you know a few things I've done so far this Christmas to save some money.

1. Photo Christmas cards FREE from This was using a coupon code that was good a couple of weeks back- I only paid for shipping!

2. Christmas letter on plain white paper with just a small Christmas tree graphic at the top. Usually I splurge for the holiday stationary, but this year I decided to just keep it simple and inexpensive.

3. Family gifts rather than individual gifts. As those of you with large families know, it can get awfully expensive when you have 10 or more people to buy for! I won't go into details on the gifts, but let's just say that they're partially homemade, partially store-bought, and I used a lot of creativity!

4. Thrift store gifts- I am SO blessed to have a Goodwill outlet right near my house where everything is "pay by the pound" except books ($0.25 for paperbacks, $0.50 for hardbacks). I have been able to buy most of my children's Christmas presents from there, and they will be completely spoiled- and I've spent less than $30 on all of them! Some of my best finds include- 3 puzzles in like-new condition with all the pieces, a Dora the Explorer doll, a way cool dinosaur that roars and stomps its feet, a foldable vet's office playset complete with accessories, and a talking/singing Elmo phone. Not to mention a bunch of fantastic books (I even found a science book with a pop-up microscope!). We also found 2 bikes at another Goodwill store and paid $20 for the pair. My husband had to put about $10 of parts and some elbow grease into them, but now the kids will have "new" bikes under the tree on Christmas morning!
I must mention, I am very picky when it comes to thrift store shopping. I once had a cashier start chuckling when I went to check out and she said, "Oh girl, you knew what you were looking for!" because I had a cashmere sweater, Steve Madden shoes, and an Ann Taylor shirt. I look for quality items that have been gently used. If it's for the kids, I make sure it can be cleaned and sanitized before I give it to them.

5. Homemade for family and friends- my husband's family is even larger than mine, and so for them I simply made a handmade ornament for each family unit. A friend showed me a great idea for an "I Spy" ornament. You take a plastic ornament ball (the kind that comes apart into 2 pieces) and use doll filling inside for snow, then put in pieces of confetti and other small objects for kids to look and find. Attach a list of the items on a tag attached to the ornament with ribbon. So easy to make, and so fun for a family's Christmas tree! I will also be making treats- probably these Easy Decadent Chocolate Truffles for everyone.

6. Using last year's sale items- Every year I participate in a "Secret Santa" gift exchange. After last Christmas and throughout the year I stocked up on small gift items that I found on sale at very low prices. By the time Secret Santa time came around this year, I didn't have to do any shopping! Very nice on my holiday budget. I am also using wrapping paper I got on a deep discount after last Christmas- probably the nicest paper I've ever had to wrap presents with!

I hope you have gotten a few ideas of your own for this Christmas- again, these are just a few things I've done, and I'll be sure to post more if I think of any.

What have you done to have a beautiful thrifty Christmas this year?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I'm Still Here! And With a Compilation of a Few of My Favorite Beautiful Thrifty Christmas Gift Ideas!

Didja miss me? Well, with my newest little arrival, many things have gotten put on the backburner, and this blog is one of them. To tell you the truth, I shouldn't even be writing on here now! I have many other more pressing things to do! But I just wanted to help out all my frugal friends by re-posting some FREE (or almost free) Christmas gift ideas. It's getting to be about that time, and we need to start putting on our elf hats and getting started in the workshop! So here are a few ideas to get you started, all from my Twelve Days of Christmas posts from last year. For more inexpensive ideas, check out my Christmas Gifts, Handmade Gifts, and 14 Days of Valentines sections.

1. Folder Games!

First of all, I must say that I can't take credit for this idea- my good friend Brooke is the one who was generous enough to share her family's collection of folder games with me (she is such an awesome mom!). Her little ones get very excited when it's time to do folder games. What is a folder game, you ask? Read on and you shall find out...

Brooke has this magic file box filled with over 60 file folders. Upon taking out a folder, attached to the inside you will find instructions for that particular folder game, along with all the materials/objects needed to play the game. Some of the games are more elaborate than others, but some are as simple as this one:

String Fun (pictured above)- Folder contains strings of different lengths and colors and the following instructions:
Ask the child,
a. Which string is longest?
b. Which string is shortest?
c. Put the string on the floor in a line
i. Walk forward on the line
ii. Walk backward on the line
iii. Jump over the line
d. Put the string on the floor in a circle
i. Hop around outside the circle
ii. Walk on tiptoes around the circle
iii. Walk on heels around the circle
iv. Jump inside and outside the circle

This may seem pretty silly to you, but trust me- to a toddler or preschooler, this is a roaring good time! (Seriously, I did it with my 4-year-old son this afternoon, and he just loved it!) Not to mention that it helps develop their motor skills and helps teach them their shapes, body parts, and directions.

It would take hardly any time at all to put together a set of 3-5 (or more) of these sorts of games and give them as a gift to a family with young children (or even to your own children!). For older children, you could do more complicated games involving math and reading. You could even continue to give additional folder games for future birthdays and Christmases and eventually give your recipient an entire collection!

I was at Wal-Mart today, and they have a box of 100 file folders for $3.88. However, they were not great quality, so I picked up a box of 24 (higher quality = will last longer) for $4.88, along with a cool little vinyl zipper pouch big enough for files for $1.88. For $2.69 you could give someone 4 folder games in a zipper storage pouch (not counting any supplies, like felt, stickers, or fabric that you might not have on hand).
As a mom, I know that sometimes I am just at a loss for things to do with my little ones. These games are an easy, fun, and educational way to interact with your kids and share some special time together.

Here are a few more of my favorites:

Concentration Stickers- Folder contains cards with stickers on them, 2 of each sticker
a. Place cards on table with sticker-side face down. Pick up two cards. If the stickers match, you keep them and pick two more cards. If the stickers do not match, you put the cards back and it’s your opponent’s turn.
b. Keep playing until all cards are matched.

Mailman- Folder contains brown paper “mail bag” and 5 envelopes with names and addresses, along with a bag containing 5 different colored and numbered houses (ex: envelope reads: Princess Alice, 16 Castle Road, London England; match with small castle cutout with number 16 on it); other houses: igloo, teepee, hut, regular house
a. Place houses around a room or in different rooms in the house. Have the child place the envelopes in the appropriate locations (matching the numbers on the envelopes to those on the houses).
Counting Apple Trees- Folder contains 10 numbered cards with felt trees on them, 12 circular red felt “apples” (you could even just make one tree attached to the inside of the folder, and have cards with numbers on them for the child to pick)
a. Place the correct number of apples on each tree

Get Rich- Folder contains bag with paper coins, each marked with amount (1, 5, 10, 25 cents), each amount a different color
a. Roll die. Calculate money amount according to chart and withdraw that amount. At the end of the time or number of turns, player who is richest wins.
b. Chart for die rolls:
i. 1 = 1 cent
ii. 2 = 5 cents
iii. 3 = 10 cents
iv. 4 = 20 cents
v. 5 = 25 cents
vi. 6 = 50 cents

Just Suppose- Folder has bag containing cutout images of different animals (kangaroo, cat, elephant, whale, owl, frog)
a. Just suppose you were a _______. How would you walk, talk, eat, run, crawl, sing, laugh, cry, etc.?

Sink or Float- When open, folder has sink image on left side, float image on right
a. Open folder and stand it up in front of child. Place a bowl of water between the child and the folder. Let the child drop items from around the house into the bowl one at a time. Have the child retrieve the objects and place them in front of the appropriate side of the folder.

Feel the Fabric Game- Folder contains 5 matching pairs of scrap material with distinct textures
a. There are 5 pairs of scrap material. Spread the pairs on the table and divide the pairs into 2 areas.
b. Close your eyes and move the scraps around in each area. With your eyes still closed, match the scraps by feeling them with your hands only. Stack the pairs in front of you.

As far as additional recommendations, just try to use games that are age-appropriate, don't hesitate to get creative and make up your own games, and for added durability you canuse lamination on all or parts of each game. Ziplock bags also work well when stapled inside the folder to hold small game pieces.

Can you think of a good folder game?

2. Club Memberships

A couple of years ago, my husband and I decided that we should each give one another a "love present," with the caveat that it should not cost a lot (if any) money. As I thought of what to give him, I started remembering all the times he had been looking through a magazine or a cookbook (he gets bored sometimes while I'm cooking) and he had come across a recipe for some decadent dessert and started drooling, saying, "Mmmmm...that looks should really make that sometime!" And so I decided to enroll him in his own personal "Dessert of the Month Club". I gave him a fancy looking scroll stating the terms of his enrollment (dessert must be requested by the 5th of the month, etc) along with a few potential dessert recipes I had cut from magazines. Needless to say, it hit the sweet tooth right on the crown. ;-)

For friends- you could try a "Dinner of the Month" club, in which you could have a set day of the month (like the 2nd Sunday) that they would come to your house for dinner. It gives them a break from cooking, and allows you to strengthen bonds of friendship on a regular basis. You could do a 6-month, 12-month, or whatever other enrollment period works best for your family. For extra fun, fasten the "enrollment certificate" to a plate, then wrap it like a normal gift.

For ladies from their man- enroll your wife or girlfriend in a "Car Care Club" and wash and vacuum out her car for her once a month. (Sweetie, are you reading this?) ;-) For a fun presentation, attach the certificate to a sponge.

For kids- Give them coupons for things like, "Get out of cleaning your room", "Pick your own dinner menu", or "Special date with Mom." Decorate a box or an envelope for them to keep their coupons in.

For friends with kids- give them a gift certificate for 6 months of free babysitting, planning one night a month they can leave the kids with you and have a date (this is also a great baby shower gift!). Attach the certificate to a rattle or another baby toy.

The other nice thing about these "gifts that keep on giving" is that it spreads the time and expense out over the course of several months to a year. The only thing I would recommend is to, if at all possible, plan the dates for service in advance and put them on your calendar, otherwise they can be easily forgotten.

Just have fun with it, make it something thoughtful and useful, and be sure to follow through!

3. Handprint Poems

This is just a quick example of what it might look like- I just traced my daughter's hand print and colored it in, and it's not framed- yours will look much prettier!

I made these a few years ago for all 3 sets of our parents (all the kids' grandparents). I simply used finger paints to get the kids' hand prints on a sheet of white cardstock, then I printed outthis poem on another piece of cardstock. I matted the poem and the hand print side by side on a darker color piece of cardstock along with the child's name, date, and age, then purchased a $5 frame from Wal-Mart and framed the whole thing. The grandparents all loved them, and still have them hanging in their homes.

You can get more creative with this if you want, and use patterned paper and embellishments to dress it up. My main recommendation is to actually brush the paint on the kids' fingers(rather than letting them dip their hands in the paint) because it doesn't waste as much paint and it makes for a much cleaner handprint.

And here's a bonus art project for the kids if you want another idea for a fun grandparents' gift- last year I bought an 8x10 photo mat, and I had the kids paint it however they wanted. While they were painting, I took a photo of them doing it. Then I had the photo blown up to an 8x10 size and used the mat they painted to frame it. It really captured the moment, not only with the finished product but with the photo showing the fun they had creating it.

4. Family Memory Game

This was one of my favorite Christmas gifts so far. My husband has a large family (he is one of 10 children, and most of his brothers and sisters are married with children), and they are spread out all over the country, from Boston to Kansas to California and a few places in between. Needless to say, we don't get to see each other all that often. So one year I made these family match games for all of my nieces and nephews.

A month or two before Christmas, I sent out an e-mail calling for family unit photos- the whole family, if there were kids, or just the couple if there were no kids, or just the person if they were unmarried. I then had several wallet-sized copies of each photo made (very easily done through and began making sets of cards, each set containing two copies of each family's photo.

Once I had the photos, I used scrapbook paper and glued the pictures to the white side using a glue stick specifically for photos. I found that the best way to do this was to glue the photos down prior to cutting them. Then I used my trusty paper cutter and trimmed each photo to the edges. Then I used my corner rounder (available at any craft store) and rounded each corner.

While it may seem like it took a long time to make 10 sets of these, it actually didn't take very long at all once I got the hang of it. I also included a slip of paper with each one listing ideas for games that could be played using the cards:

- Guess who? Go through the cards and try to remember each person's name.
- Remember When? Take turns choosing a photo and say something you like about someone in the picture, or say something fun you remember doing with them.
- Memory- Lay out the cards face down, then take turns trying to find a match.
- Story Time- Take turns picking out a card, and then make up a story starring you and the person whose photo you picked.

I also made a little "bonus gift" with the photos by matting them and attaching them to a pretty piece of patterned paper, which I then framed with the family name and date and presented to my husband's parents. It's hard to get a whole-family photo these days, so that was the next best thing.

I got a great response from doing these cards- they were simple, fun, and they helped to strengthen family bonds even across the country. Now when the cousins get together, they feel like they know each other a little better, because they've been "playing together" all year! I also appreciated the fact that these were very inexpensive to mail to the more distant family members.

Even if you don't have a large family, you could do these cards simply with individual photos. You could even include photos from different events (Halloween, birthdays, vacations, etc.) and have fun remembering the activities you did together. This is a great way to spread a little family love at Christmastime.

5. Where I'm From poem

Think you're not a poet? Think again! With this template you can write a poem that will touch the hearts of your family members. Here's a little sampling of mine:

Where I'm From

I am from the Morgans and Lees of Virginia. I am from the white-blossomed dogwood tree, the ruby red cardinal, and the quiet rushing of the Shenandoah River. I am from the horse farm, the house in the desert, and the “double-wide” on the mountain at the turn in the long dirt road.

I am from wood shavings and alfalfa hay, the creosote fence, the salt blocks in the field and the squeaky metal swingset. I am from the fallen willow, the daffodils by the stream, the gravel driveway, and the most loyal and sweet floppy-eared Doberman in the whole world.

I am from cuddle bears, Legos, barbies, the marble chess set, the furry mustard-yellow bedspread, and mom’s cast bronze horse with the little chain reins that I wasn’t supposed to play with but always did...

This would be a beautiful and thoughtful gift, especially for your parents or siblings. And all it takes is your heart and memories.

6. Pop-up Dollhouse

The crayon isn't a fixture. It's just for scale.

This idea came from the Small Notebook, and it is almost more fun to make than to give! It would be a delightful gift for any little girl. Using old home decorating magazines (check your local library to see if they're getting rid of any that you could use if you don't subscribe to them) cut out various items to decorate your room. Cut slits in the fold of the folder to make parts of the scene "pop out", then glue your images on to create a beautiful miniature room. Give a whole set to your favorite little girl, along with paper dolls to scale. So fun!

Again, if you want more ideas for inexpensive/free Christmas gifts, be sure to check out other areas of my blog. Remember- Christmas is about giving love, not about emptying your bank account! Hopefully I'll be back to blogging consistently again soon!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Spiritual Sundays: Where I'm From

Have you ever stopped to think about where you're from? I'm not talking about the geographic location, though that can be important- I'm talking about the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the tastes of your childhood. These are the things that have made you who you are.

If you had a difficult childhood, these things might have been pushed back into your subconscious, and it may be hard to recall the good among the bad. You might even question whether it's worth exploring, but I assure you that it is.

If you had a happy childhood, then these memories are probably readily available to you- they may even be things you chat about with your family members on a regular basis, so you don't think to write them down. But I think you should.

Last week I attended a very uplifting Enrichment Meeting where we learned about writing our own, "Where I'm From" poem. As we got into the class, I leaned over and said to my friend that it should be called, "How to Write a Poem That Will Make People Cry," because I assure you, the tears began to flow and the goosebumps on the arms rose as we listened to the beautiful array of "Where I'm From" poems that were shared. 

Let me assure you, these were not poems from poets- rather, they were from ordinary women who just sat down to write following this template. Yet the power of the simple imagery and the effect of the descriptive words was enough to give you chills and put a lump in your throat. 

I wrote down several thoughts for my own "Where I'm From" poem, and today I sat down to write it. I will share just a few lines with you, because I hope to give this as a gift to members of my family, some of whom read my blog and I want to save the whole thing for them. Here is just a sampling:

Where I'm From

I am from the Morgans and Lees of Virginia. I am from the white-blossomed dogwood tree, the ruby red cardinal, and the quiet rushing of the Shenandoah River. I am from the horse farm, the house in the desert, and the “double-wide” on the mountain at the turn in the long dirt road.

I am from wood shavings and alfalfa hay, the creosote fence, the salt blocks in the field and the squeaky metal swingset. I am from the fallen willow, the daffodils by the stream, the gravel driveway, and the most loyal and sweet floppy-eared Doberman in the whole world. 

I am from cuddle bears, Legos, barbies, the marble chess set, the furry mustard-yellow bedspread, and mom’s cast bronze horse with the little chain reins that I wasn’t supposed to play with but always did...

Once I started, the ideas began to flow and it was hard to stop. The important thing is to try to pinpoint why these things are important or special to you and use words to describe those qualities. Was it the sounds of objects/people, their tastes, smells, or the feel of them? These are the things that will turn it from a list into a poem.

I would encourage each of you to take the time to explore where you're from and get it down on paper, whether the memories are painful or pleasant. In doing so, you will certainly gain a sense of self, and create a treasure that will bless you and your family for generations to come. For more about writing your own "Where I'm From" poem, check out this website.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Weather Week Continues....

With a rousing game of Weather Bingo!

I made up these little weather bingo cards for the kids, with pictures depicting various weather words. From left to right, top to bottom they are: temperature, rain, hot, wind, sun, tornado, thunderstorm, cold, clouds. This was Starlet's card, but for Monkey I made it a little harder by changing out "thunderstorm" for "pressure" (I drew two arrows pointing to each other). I made the cards different so that they wouldn't always be getting bingo at the same time.

I went over the cards with them to make sure they understood the pictures, then I gave them each a handful of pennies to use as markers and we tuned in to the Weather Channel. Every time they heard one of their weather words, they put a penny on the correct space. Monkey had fun helping Starlet do her card, and it was a great opportunity for them to work on their listening skills.

Whenever one of them got three in a row, vertically, horizontally, or diagonally, they said, "BINGO!" and I gave them a mini marshmallow. They each got bingo 5-6 times, and they loved it- they didn't want to stop playing! It was a lot of fun. :-)

Cuteness Alert!

Believe it or not, I was at DOLLAR TREE today and I found this way cute bag!! They had a bunch of them- for a DOLLAR! It has one main pocket and then two outer pockets (the patterned fabric). Okay, so I know it's not the greatest quality, but for a dollar- how can I resist? 

They had several other very trendy colors and patterns available as well, so go check it out! I have no idea what I'll use this bag for, but it's slightly bigger than my purse, is just the right size for diapers and wipes (or a good book if I have the chance to go to a doctor's appointment alone). It's just a good size. I'm sure I'll find some use for it. 

Just wanted to share! So cute!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Summer of Science Week 2: WEATHER!

Welcome to Week 2 of our Summer of Science where we are learning about WEATHER! Weather is my son's absolute favorite subject, especially tornadoes, so he is really excited about learning this week.

We did our library trip yesterday and picked up a lot of fun books and a couple dvds all about weather. We started off yesterday by reading a book of "Weather Words" by Gail Gibbons, and then I had the kids each draw a picture of their favorite weather word. 

Today we decided to use a neat book on fun weather experiments to start exploring. Our first experiment was very basic- I had the kids hold their hand in the shade, and then hold it in the sun and talk about what was different. We learned that the sun gives off heat. Then we set up our little sun plate to track the sun's movements across the sky during the afternoon:

We are marking the location of the stick's shadow (it's a skewer through a paper plate, by the way) every hour to see how it changes.

Next, we tried an experiment to see if air has weight. We got a ruler, tied a string in the middle, then added an air-filled balloon on one end and an empty balloon on the other end. We could see that the balloon filled with air was heavier than the empty balloon. Cool!

Also this week, I've had the kids keeping a "Weather Log" in their notebooks. Each day I have them draw a picture of what the weather is that day.

Our next experiment was very exciting, and had I not had my hands full I could have taken pictures of us doing it, but I wanted to be sure everyone was safe. We boiled a pot of water on the stove, and then I held a pan of ice cubes over it. The water vapor in the steam met the cold pan and caused condensation, which formed water droplets that "rained" back down into the pot. I explained to the kids that this is how the water cycle works- water on the earth gets heated by the sun and evaporates, turning into water vapor. The water vapor rises and meets the cold air high in the sky and condenses to form clouds. The clouds become heavy with water droplets and it begins to rain. 

I showed them some good diagrams in one of the books to illustrate it, and then for my son I drew the circles and the arrows and wrote the numbers on his page and had him draw pictures for each step of the water cycle in the circles. Then I wrote down the words, "lake", "cloud", and "rain" on a separate piece of paper next to the numbers 1, 2, and 3 and had him copy them into the correct places on his page. He did a great job and earned a sticker!

For Starlet I kept it a little simpler and asked her to draw a picture of her favorite part of the water cycle. Can you guess what it is?

Rain! She also got a sticker for her work. After all that experimenting, we took a break before quiet time to read a story called "Storm Cats" about two cats that meet when they get scared during a thunderstorm. Just a fun story that went right along with our theme.

Tomorrow and Friday we'll learn more about BAD weather!

Monday, June 22, 2009

New Promo Code!

Hey guys, this is a good one! Time to plan all those fun summer dates with your sweetie, or give yourself a night off from cooking and take the family out to eat! Weekly Promo Offer 300 x 250

Click through this link and use the promotional code DISH at checkout.


Friday, June 19, 2009

A Rockin' Fathers Day!

Well, since we were in a "rockin'" mode anyway this week, I thought, why not bring some rock fun into Father's Day? So I let each child choose 3 rocks from their rock collections to paint for each of their 3 grandpas. Each grandpa will get a little piece of foam with two rocks glued to it (one from each child) and the words, "Grandpa, we think you ROCK! Happy Fathers Day!" I will probably also write the kids names next to the rocks they painted.

Here is some of our rock painting fun (well, right after they painted the rocks and decided to paint pictures too):

And here's one more fun idea for Father's Day- we have lots of great brothers-in-law (the kids uncles) and we will be seeing many of them on Sunday. I wanted to do something for them, but keep it economical, so I found these giant Hershey Kisses at Big Lots for $2 apiece and I made these little cards to go along with them:

The poem at the bottom reads, "Hugs are nice, and high-fives are too, but on Fathers Day only a KISS will do!" I also wrote, "Happy Fathers Day" on the little 'flag' coming off the Hershey Kiss. 

Are you doing anything thrifty and fun for Fathers Day? Leave a comment and share!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

More Adventures with Rocks & Minerals...

It's my little geologist Starlet...magnified... :-)

This morning we met up with some friends for a playgroup at a local park, and so to continue our first week of Summer of Science on rocks and minerals, I decided we could use the opportunity to do a little rock hunting. I gave each child an egg carton and had them collect rocks they thought were interesting. Here is Monkey's collection:

We dropped by the store on the way home to pick up some magnifying glasses so that we could take a closer look at our specimens (as you saw Starlet modeling above) and then we went home and after lunch we opened our boxes to see what we had found.

According to this geology field guide, nearly every rock was some form of granite! Which I found ironic, considering how much it costs to get granite countertops...

I then had the kids pick a few of their favorite rocks and trace their outlines into their notebooks and then try to color them as accurately as possible, including the various colored specks. We talked about the colors and shapes of the rocks as we did it.

I had Monkey take this a step further by having him write the word "granite" next to his pictures, and we talked about how granite is an igneous rock, so he wanted to write "igneous" also. Oh, and I pointed out that the stuff in pencils is actually a kind of rock too, and I found a photo of graphite in the book to show them. They thought that was cool.

Here is his completed journal entry for the day:

It was a fun and simple activity for the day. I think later this afternoon we'll watch one of the dvds we got from the library, and maybe tomorrow we'll try some rock experiments...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Welcome to Week 1 of Summer of Science: Rocks and Minerals!

I'm not sure if I mentioned this in an earlier post, but this summer I have decided to do a casual little homeschool project with my soon-to-be-kindergartener and preschooler that I have dubbed "Summer of Science." You see, my kids ask me questions nonstop, especially my son (the one starting kindergarten), especially about science and the world around us. So I have broken down the broad world of science into about 10-12 different topics to go along with each week of summer. 

I say "casual", because I'm not following any kind of curriculum, I'm just making things up as we go, utilizing internet and library resources to come up with fun exploratory activities for us to do. I'm trying to coordinate with things we do in the summer anyway, like going to the park, the children's museum, the beach, a local petting zoo, etc. and incorporating these activities as "field trips" for our various topics. Last week on our vacation we had the opportunity to tour Shenandoah Caverns and later do some "gem mining" at the resort, so I thought that studying rocks and minerals would be a natural choice for this week. Here's what we've done so far today!

Step 1: Start talking. We talked a little bit about how caves are formed before we toured the caverns, so Monkey and Starlet started thinking about it- we checked out a great kids' book from the library by Gail Gibbons called Caves and Caverns. (incidentally, Gail Gibbons writes fantastic kids' books on science topics of all kinds) 
Today while we were out running errands I started asking the kids questions, like pointing to the sidewalk and asking if they thought it was made of rock (one yes, one no). I asked them to come up with some of their own questions, like, "What is the hardest rock on earth? What about the softest?" I also pointed out pumice stones in the drugstore, and we talked about if rocks can float, and what rocks might be used for.

Step 2: Library! Before leaving the house this morning I had searched the library's online catalog for books and dvds on rocks and minerals. I took my list with me to the library and the kids helped me pick out several items for us to read and watch. Here's our haul:

Step 3: What do we know? What don't we know? When we got home, I sat with the kids while they were eating their lunch and went back to a few of the questions we'd talked about while we were out. Each one of them has their own "Summer of Science Journal", and I asked them what their questions and thoughts were on rocks and minerals and wrote them in each of their notebooks for them, so that later, after our "research", we could go back and fill in some answers.

Step 4: Learn! While the kids finished their lunches, I pulled out one of the books and read to them all about rocks and minerals. They got a little excited as we went along and some of their questions were answered in the book. Once we were done reading, we went back to their notebooks and I reviewed the questions we'd written down and they told me the answers they'd learned from the book we'd read, and I wrote them down as well.

Step 5: What did we learn? I needed some time to prepare for our next activity, so I gave the kids the assignment to draw a picture in their notebooks of one thing they'd learned from the book we'd read. Monkey drew a great picture of a diamond, since he thought it was cool that diamonds are the hardest rocks on earth. I wrote the word "diamond" on a separate piece of paper for him and had him copy it onto his picture (gotta keep those letter recognition and writing skills up during the summer!). Starlet drew a great picture of a mountain. 

Step 6: Have some fun. I thought it would be really fun to make our own rock candy, so I found a recipe for it here. Apparently it takes several days to several weeks to do, so we won't see results for awhile. But it was fun to get it started. I'll keep you updated as the process progresses! Here is where we are so far:

So that was Day 1- I'm hoping in the future to start with our library trips on Mondays so we have more time over the course of the week to do all this stuff. I was just trying to get caught up with all the post-vacation stuff earlier this week, so we got a late start. Tomorrow we'll be heading to the park to do some rock collecting- I'll keep you posted!

Are you homeschooling at all this summer? I'd love to hear about it- leave a comment and share!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Spiritual Sundays: Changes

Monkey and me at his preschool graduation. Hard, but so good!

I think that it is safe to say that, quite simply, change is hard. No matter what the change, something as small as switching shampoo to a life change like moving across the country- it's hard! I think that most of the time it has to do with a basic fear of the unknown. Take the shampoo for example- you've used the same shampoo for a month, you know what your hair will look like when you're done, you know the smell, the way it will suds up. But a new shampoo- will your hair be shiny? Tangly? Drier or more oily? More wavy? Straight? Will it rinse out easily or take a few passes? Will your hair smell the same as the shampoo or will it react with your body chemistry to smell different?

It might seem like a silly comparison- okay, it IS a silly comparison! But it just goes to show that anything that is unknown can make us nervous. It can make us long for our old shampoo- it can make us want to slam on the brakes and just stay put, because- well, what if?

One of my favorite sayings is, "That which doesn't change remains the same." Well, duh, right? But the reason I like this saying is that it shows you that no matter how scary or nerve-wracking or intimidating a change may be, you always have to consider the alternative. You could just slam on the brakes and stay put. You could throw it in reverse and stick with what you know. But would that really be better than taking a step into the unknown?

Let me back up and let you know a little bit about why this topic has been on my mind lately. Friday was an eventful day for us- my baby boy (my oldest) graduated from preschool, and we had a party for some of our best friends (also our neighbors) who are preparing to move to California. Going to these two events with the tears and heartache at moving to another stage of life, there was a part of me that just wanted to yell, "STOP! This is all going too fast! Slow down! Where did the time go? I feel like I missed something!" And yet I had to remind myself- that which doesn't change stays the same.

I started thinking about my baby boy and my friends. What were the alternatives to this painfully uncomfortable change? Would I want my son to stay my baby forever, and never have the chance to grow up and learn and progress and experience all the joys that childhood and young adulthood- and eventually adulthood- have to offer? Of course not! Would I want my friends to stay in a place far from their family and take employment that was unfulfilling and did not allow them room for growth and forward progression? No way! I love these people, and regardless of all of our heartache over the matter, the time for change has come, and that time is now, no matter how hard it might be.

I had something of a reality check yesterday while attending a family function that kind of helped me put this all in perspective. My sister-in-law recently had a beautiful baby boy, and there are 3 more of my sisters-in-law plus me who are also due within the next year. As I sat outside and watched all of our children run around and play in the water together, I couldn't help but marvel at the beauty that all of these changes have brought to our family. I thought back to the days when I joined this extended family and I had only 1 nephew. Now there are 16 little ones running around, playing, and getting into mischief (well not all of them are quite old enough for the running and mischief, but you know what I mean!) and 4 more on the way. I can't even begin to express the joy I felt at watching them, unknowingly building bonds of love and friendship that will last them the rest of their lives. What a beautiful example of change this is, and how change can bring unimagined joy into parts of our lives we didn't even know were lacking.

So I guess that my point is this: We cannot stick our heads in the sand and wish the change away. Is it okay to cry and get emotional? Absolutely! That's what gives our life experiences meaning and cements the memories into our hearts. But once the tears have dried, we must look ahead with hope, hope that the new memories we will make will be just as sweet as the ones we are leaving behind- perhaps even sweeter. We must take the opportunity to look ahead to upcoming changes and prepare ourselves by enjoying life in the here and now.

For example, with my new baby due in the fall, I have realized what a precious time these next 3 months will be in my life- it will be the last time I will have just my two children and me at home, because in September they will both start school (preschool and kindergarten) and I will have a new baby to look after. It will certainly be a joyful change to send them off to school and to welcome a new addition into our family, but I am sure that there will also be a part of me nostalgic for the days of summer when it was just our family of four. Looking ahead to this change has helped me to focus a little bit more on cherishing the time before the change, because I don't want to have to look back and wish I had savored it a little more.

So I have decided that I will take this opportunity, before life turns upside-down yet again, to appreciate what my life is now. I will cherish each moment, and anticipate the excitement of stepping into the unknown. I will remember the joys that have come from past change and look forward to the joys of the future. I will cry, but then I will smile, because change? Well, change is hard. But no change would be even harder. And in the end, change is really good.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Michelina's Deal at Kroger- Sweet Steal!

This week at Kroger the Michelina's Budget Gourmet Entrees are on sale 20 for $10- that's $0.50 apiece! I was a bit skeptical, but for that price I had to at least try them. I picked up two during my Kroger trip yesterday, and I had the Chicken Fried Rice for lunch. It was small, but very tasty, and certainly enough for my lunch when paired with my usual fruit and yogurt on the side. 

I decided it was too good of a deal to pass up, so today I went back and used a Kroger coupon I'd gotten in the mail for $2 off a $10 frozen foods purchase and bought 20 more! So for a mere $8 I have more than 3 weeks worth of lunches, and they'll make good snacks for my always-hungry husband. Not bad!

I believe the reason these are on such a low markdown is because Michelina's is changing their packaging. Be sure to look for the Budget Gourmet in the blue box (see photo above), and check freezer endcaps because that's where I found the best selection- most of the ones in the regular frozen entrees section had been cleaned out. 

Happy shopping!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Spiritual Sundays: From Heartbreak to Triumph- When Dreams Come True

This post will be slightly different from my usual Spiritual Sundays posts, as this is more inspirational that spiritual. I have had the privilege to have a front-row seat for an unfolding story that has warmed my heart and made me believe that maybe- just maybe- dreams can come true. It is a story of dreams deferred, hope ignited, heartbreak, and hope rekindled once again. I hope that this story warms your heart as it has mine, and I hope it causes you to stop and think about what you believed was possible.

I wrote the first part of this story at about this same time last year, in response to a tragedy:

May 2008

I just had to take a moment this evening to write about the terrible tragedy that occurred at Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby, yesterday afternoon. It may have been hundreds of miles away, but it was close to my heart.

The Kentucky Derby had always been something of an event in my home growing up. My mother spent a good part of her childhood at the Santa Anita racetrack, perching on the rail, mingling with jockeys, sneaking into barns to peak at champion thoroughbreds. She dreamed of one day galloping a horse along the back stretch at breakneck speeds, a fantasy she played out as she would fly with her horse Dina across the desert wilderness of 1960s Southern California. One of my favorite pictures of my mom is mostly a blur- the landscape around her fading into a wash of colors, the only thing in focus is a beautiful young woman crouched atop her speeding mare, hair blowing in the wind and a smile that seems ready to erupt into a squeal of pure delight.

Despite her passion, however, racing had always remained a spectator sport for my mom. She has had horses off and on throughout her life, mostly as a hobby, occasionally as a means of employment, always content to just be near the magnificent creatures that she loved. The blue grass of Kentucky seemed to be a watercolor dream that we got to share with her once a year, the first Saturday in May, when the TV came on, bringing the championship horses back into vivid color, and she would giddily pore over each entry in the Kentucky Derby.

The yearly event was always something I enjoyed, because I too share in my mom's passion for horses. But more than anything I think I just loved to see her so excited about it. As I have grown and moved away from home, I'll admit, I've missed a few years. But this year was different.

Earlier last year, my mom had the opportunity, for her 60th birthday, to travel to Kentucky. For a few days, she lived the dream. She toured the barns, she walked Churchill Downs, and she attended the Keeneland Sales. I spoke with her on the phone, once or twice during her trip- very briefly, of course- and she sounded nearly breathless with excitement, trying to tell me everything at once, yet hurrying to speak quickly so that she could get off the phone and re-immerse herself in the atmosphere. I couldn't help but smile during those conversations, thinking that my mom sure didn't seem like she had just turned sixty. It was the trip of a lifetime.

Shortly after that trip of a lifetime, my mom stumbled upon the opportunity of a lifetime. Her name was All Her Tricks, an unassuming bay thoroughbred mare with an elderly owner who was ready to retire. She was a beautiful horse, at a ridiculously low price. A price that became even more ridiculous as my mom started to research her bloodlines, consisting of Thoroughbred racing royalty. It was too good to be true, but there she was, the mount to carry my mom right into her blue grass watercolor fantasy. Perhaps it is true that when you have a dream and the time is right, the whole universe really does conspire to help you achieve it.

And so Tricks joined the rest of my mom's brood, a shining Thoroughbred princess living just down the barn aisle from a Tennessee Walker, an Arabian, an elderly Morab, and a middle-aged quarter horse. Tricks was kind enough not to be judgmental, and she quickly found her place amongst the herd as my mom worked just as quickly to find her a suitable mate.

After some months of trial and error, a handsome (and somewhat famous) stallion named Birdstone was courted and Tricks moved away to be with the hopeful soon-to-be father of her foal. Just weeks before the Kentucky Derby, my mom sent me a message with the exciting news- Tricks was expecting! An ultrasound had confirmed that she was with foal.

And so the Kentucky Derby arrived, this time with more excitement in our family than usual, because not only had we set a foot a foot in the racing world, but our little girl Tricks had family running in the race! My mom called me with the names- watch out for Eight Belles- she's Tricks' aunt (sister of her mother) and Visionaire- he's Tricks' half brother.

I watched all of the pre-race coverage, and talked with my mom on the phone while we watched together. Every time Eight Belles would come up, we'd get a little giddy. I listened to the commentators make their predictions, and I thought to myself, Eight Belles is going to do better than they think. They just don't think she'll do well because she's the filly and all the commentators are guys so they're just sexist. She's going to do better than they think. I just had a feeling about it.

As the race began, I held my breath, but I was smiling inside. My inner smile turned into an outward grin as the pack approached the final stretch and our little filly Eight Belles- seeming more like a family member to me than just another racehorse- made her move to second. I hadn't expected her to win, but watching her hold that second place just made my heart leap for joy. It was as if she and I had shared in a secret, and I had just known she could do it. As she crossed the finish line taking second place, my heart was galloping right along with her and I cheered aloud, "She did it! She got second! That's my girl!!" I was sure that somehow sweet pregnant Tricks was proud of her aunt and the valiant race she had run against the guys. I was basking in the glow of her accomplishment when Big Brown spooked, throwing his jockey, and the commentator said that a horse was down on the track.

I was immediately concerned, and then they said it was Eight Belles. My heart caught and I strained to see and hear what was going on. I know enough about horses to know that if a horse is down- really down and not getting up- that something is terribly wrong. Still, there was a voice in my head that wouldn't let me believe it could be that bad. I mean, she had just run an incredible race, healthy, strong, beautiful Belles- maybe she just had a sprain, and she's just tired so she can't get up quite yet...? I kept my breathing even and my thoughts careful, even as I heard the words, "heart attack," and "aneurism." Then the news came from a shocked and flustered vet- two broken ankles, had to be euthanized. Two broken ankles? How could she break them both? Euthanized? It took a moment for the word to register. Eight Belles was dead. Less than 2 minutes after a glorious finish and she was now lifeless on the very ground her hooves had pounded moments before.

I collapsed to my knees in front of the television, my hand clasped over my mouth, tears brimming behind my eyes. I just didn't understand. It didn't make any sense.

I waited nearly a half hour before I called my mom. I know her well enough to know that she wasn't going to be able to talk for awhile after something like that. She would collapse in tears to even hear of a horse being hurt in a book or a movie. And for it to be Eight Belles, the filly that represented the dream she had held in her heart for so many years- I just knew that it would be too much for her to bear. As I reeled from the tragedy of it, I fought with the need to get more information and the aching desire to turn off the tv. Why were all of these people celebrating? Didn't they see what had just happened? Why are they laughing and hugging one another? I was confused with the dissonance between the cheery images on the screen and the shock and pain that filled my heart. Certainly they couldn't be blamed- their dreams had just been realized. But for another trainer, another jockey, another owner and their family, their dreams had just been shattered into a million awful pieces. It didn't take long for me to see that I wouldn't get any more information from the television, and I turned it off, unable to watch the ceremony in the winner's circle. Big Brown will go for the Triple Crown; Eight Belles would never run again.

There are many people placing blame in this tragedy, faulting the jockey, the trainers, the breeders. But at the end of the day, at the end of that race, at the end of the finish line, Eight Belles was a beautiful thoroughbred who ran the race of her life. I know horses well enough to know that they won't do anything well that they don't want to do. And Eight Belles wanted that race- you could see it. Perhaps she didn't plan the ending, but I doubt she would regret it. She will live on in our hearts and our memories, and perhaps in the tiny heartbeat of a little foal whose great-aunt was a true champion.

Well, that little foal was born in the early morning chill of March this year, a beautiful little brown colt with red eyelashes. He is strong and playful, and has been given the barn name of Little Red while his official registered thoroughbred name is awaiting approval by the Jockey Club. On a visit to my mom in March, I got to see him frolicking about in a late spring snow and pestering his poor mom to death. He already loves to run, and I can only imagine what he'll do when finally put on flat ground away from the hills of West Virginia. He is spunky, yet eager to please, and was still a little shy around strangers when we first met. However, he warmed right up to my 4-year-old son- probably just happy to see someone around who was smaller than he is!

Last week, with the Kentucky Derby approaching once again, my mom called me with news- she wanted me to know that, as a newspaper article had put it, "the 'birds' are coming to town"! Two of Birdstone's babies, Little Red's half-brothers Summer Bird and Mine That Bird, would be running in the Kentucky Derby. Both would be long shots, but to even be eligible for the Kentucky Derby a horse has to be in the top 20 horses in the nation, as far as their earnings go, so it was definitely a boost of confidence in our hopes for the value in Little Red's breeding.

I wasn't able to watch the Derby yesterday, as I had a prior commitment to attend a dinner at church. But I watched all the pre-race coverage, hearing very little about the largely unknown "Birds", and called my mom before I left to ask her to call me on my cell to let me know how the race turned out. I reluctantly turned off the television after the national anthem had been sung and headed out the door.

Post time was at 6:24, and as I talked and laughed with friends at dinner, I alternated between checking my watch and my phone, eagerly awaiting the call. After all, it was the Kentucky Derby- you just never know what might happen. Just after 6:30 my phone rang. I stepped out in the hall before answering. My mom's voice came over the line, cracking with emotion as she said, "Kasey?" Suddenly remembering last year's outcome, my heart started to sink, but then she said in a voice thick with emotion, "Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby! He WON!" I was in shock. I said, "WHAT? HE WON? HOLY CRAP!"

I tried to get more information but the cell phone reception inside the church was bad, and my phone dropped the call. I immediately ran outside to call her back. I couldn't get ahold of her for awhile, but I kept trying because I was dying to know the details. When we were finally able to talk again, she filled me in: he was a 50-1 long shot, came from out of nowhere, and cleared the rest of the pack by 6 3/4 lengths. It was remarkable.

When I got home, I couldn't help but laugh when I watched the footage, because it was so improbable, yet so incredible. I was also so in awe of the fact that cute Little Red, goofing off in a field on a hill in West Virginia had a big brother who just won the biggest horse race in the world, and did it in such a miraculous and astonishing way that his name will go down in history. I thought of my mom, of her dream that seemed to be growing bigger and closer by the second. A dream that had been deferred for so many years, and was now being realized during a time of her life in which most people are planning their retirement.

This story has certainly not ended- really, it is just beginning. And it gives me hope that when we believe in our dreams, even with a guarded caution, they can come true. We can even put them off until we are sixty years old and still have a chance to do what might seem to be impossible. My mom is not a sheik in Dubai, nor is she a millionaire on a breeding farm in Kentucky. She's just someone who listened to her heart and followed her gut, did her homework and crossed her fingers, and hoped for the best but didn't hold her breath. Her story is just beginning, and I can't wait to find out the end.

My mom in DC in front of one of her favorite statues. You GO, Mom!

Friday, May 1, 2009

My New Clean House

I have always said that the thriftiest and simplest thing you can do to improve the look and feel of your home is to CLEAN IT! I also wrote earlier about how I kind of caught the cleaning bug after coming back from my mom's house, and I just wanted to share with you what's been working for me these last few weeks with getting and keeping my house clean.

The first thing I did was to make a list of all the regular chores that needed to be done to have a clean house, things like vacuuming, dusting, dishes, laundry, etc. Then I took my list and broke it down into things that needed to be done daily, weekly, and monthly. I kept it pretty basic, focusing only on those things that would really bug me if they weren't clean. My list looked like this:

- dishes
- empty dishwasher
- kitchen surfaces wiped down
- vacuum downstairs
- 1 load of laundry
- make bed
- 15-minute pick-up
- 15-minute declutter

- clean master bathroom
- clean kids' bathroom
- clean hall bathroom
- dust downstairs
- dust upstairs
- vacuum upstairs
- mop kitchen
- take out trash

- wash bath mats
- dust moldings and baseboards
- clean windows

Again, I kept it simple and just tried to include those things that I really noticed when they weren't clean. I'm sure it's not a complete list, and there will probably be more things that I will want to include, but for now it seems to be doing the trick.

The next step was to lay out some routines for getting these things done. All of the things to be done daily, I worked into my daily routine. For example, when I get up, I get ready for the day, and before I go downstairs to get breakfast for the kids, I gather up a load of laundry to take down to the washer. If I do this early enough, then I can switch it to the dryer before we leave the house. After I brush my teeth after breakfast, I make my bed. After dinner, I make sure that the dishes get done and the table cleaned off. 

The most surprising thing I've learned is that I can time myself on a lot of these things and they take so little time. Last night after our dinner of spaghetti, I timed how long it took me from start to finish, including clearing the table, putting away leftovers, rinsing dishes and loading the dishwasher, washing a big pot by hand, and wiping down the table, and it all took less than 10 minutes. We all have at least 10 minutes! Especially on those evenings when I just feel dog-tired, I just tell myself, I can do this for 10 minutes, then I'm done, and I envision myself waking up in the morning to a clean, shiny empty sink and a tidy kitchen. That always motivates me to give that extra little bit.

The same holds true for the vacuuming- my downstairs is around 1000 square feet and it takes me just over 10 minutes to vacuum it, which I do either while the kids are playing outside after lunch or sometime in the morning while my son is at school. Knowing that these things only take a few minutes motivates me to get them done, because I know how much better I'll feel once I can look down and see a clean, crumb-free floor.

The last thing I've worked into my routine- rather cleverly, I'd say- is folding the laundry. This used to be my big hang-up (excuse the pun) just because I find it SOO boring! So what I've done is to make it fun for myself. When I put the kids down for quiet time in the afternoon I give myself about 30 minutes to eat my lunch and watch HGTV (I love HGTV!). When my lunch is done, I clean up and go grab the clean laundry from the dryer, and sit on the couch and continue watching HGTV while I fold. It's become my little treat time- because why else would I be sitting on the couch in the middle of the day watching HGTV? Now I make sure I do at least one load of laundry a day, because if I don't then I don't get my tv time! ;-)

So my next step after setting up my daily routines (which, if I did them all at once would take less than an hour and a half) was to set up a weekly routine for my weekly cleaning chores. To do this, I took a look at my life and tried to figure out which days made the most sense for these areas to be clean. I decided on Monday as a good day for cleaning my master bathroom, because I usually make a little bit more of a mess on Sundays getting ready for church. While I'm up there, I might as well dust the master bedroom as well, because that only takes about 5 minutes. Wednesdays are a good day for dusting downstairs and cleaning the hall bathroom, because the book club I'm a member of meets on Wednesdays, and my playgroup meets on Thursdays, so that would be the day I'd clean them on weeks when I'd host. Fridays are a good day for mopping the kitchen, because it takes a little more time, which I have on Fridays because my son doesn't have school on Fridays.

 I talked with my husband and asked him if he would be willing to take on a couple extra chores to ease my burdens during the week, and he agreed. I gave him 3 chores, each of which takes less than 10 minutes: taking out the trash (his job before anyway), cleaning the kids' bathroom (he gives them their bath every evening, so he's in there anyway), and vacuuming the upstairs (it's no fun to lug a heavy vacuum upstairs when you're pregnant!). His willingness to help has been a huge relief for me.

So, as you can see that gives me Tuesdays and Thursdays that are free of weekly chores. I can use my few extra moments on those days to get some of the monthly chores done or to catch up if I miss a weekly chore on a scheduled day.

The benefits I've gained from these routines are:

1. When I look at something that needs to be cleaned, I can put it out of my mind because I know it will get its turn sometime soon, and I don't beat myself up over it.

2. The house is in such a state that when I get up in the morning, if I really don't feel like doing anything on one day then I can skip most of it (with the exception of dishes!) and not fall behind.

3. When I give myself time to relax now I actually feel relaxed because there aren't a million things around me nagging for my attention.

4. My home feels much more peaceful and so does my brain! Not to mention that it's company-ready. We had some surprise guests last night and there was nothing to feel embarrassed about. Actually, I felt quite proud!

This is my own little system, and I must give a lot of credit to FlyLady for giving me the basic mental tools that I needed to establish it. 15 minutes at a time, housework done incorrectly still blesses your family, don't try to catch up- just jump right in where you are! I won't try to say that my house will always be perfect, because I'm sure I'll have those times where I fall off the wagon, but for now this is working and I feel good about it. I'll just keep plugging away and taking advantage of my convenient nesting instincts!

Do you have a system for housecleaning that works for you? Leave a comment and share!

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