Finishing The Peaceful Preschool

We finished The Peaceful Preschool a couple of weeks ago. It is a milestone I want to document. 

This year, I had a big shift in how I structured our days. My husband and I have talked about homeschooling since before we were married (both of us were homeschooled for significant portions of our school careers).

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This year I finally realized that if we were going to homeschool, there was no “break” in sight. What I mean is that most of the moms around me put their children in preschool programs for at least two days a week and then start kindergarten not long after. So there’s a break at some point. But if we wanted to homeschool, then we were going to have to find ways to live together each day at home. This helped me see our days as not just a season to get through but rather as a season that could be preparing us for what we hope to do in the future.

When I saw The Peaceful Preschool, I was intrigued. I love that it's a joy-filled guide for all sorts of skills to cover—pre-writing, pre-math, phonics, and practical life, just to name a few. These skills are given in a fun, nurturing framework. What sold me on the program was the creator, Jennifer Pepito, and her focus on simply enjoying these years with our children. I realized she wasn’t trying to make a program full of busywork to keep kids entertained. Rather it was a guide for making memories and special time with preschool-age children. And that is exactly what it was for us. 

The Peaceful Preschool is divided into twenty-six weeks, with one letter of the alphabet designated for each week. But rather than worksheets and Pinterest-y activities, the focus is on real, meaningful, and fun activities at home. Some people take two weeks for each letter, but we generally did one week per letter.

We started in February and finished in August. When we started, my son had no real letter recognition (however, before he was eighteen months old he had been able to identify a number of letters, but somehow this disappeared over time).

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As we progressed through the ABC cards, my son naturally picked up his letters, which was such a fun development to witness. By the letter M, he knew all the letters, both uppercase and lowercase. This was not my expectation or intention in doing The Peaceful Preschool, and I’m sure a lot of it had to do with readiness. But I do think that the regular routine clicked with his brain.

The structure of progressing through the alphabet did not seem artificial (as I had expected). Rather, it was a helpful framework that gave us books, activities, and tons of ideas. My son loved to point out how things we were doing connected to that particular letter, and we had so much fun doing phonics scavenger hunts and arranging the tactile ABC cards we made. We also planned field trips so that we had fun outings most weeks that connected in some way to our preschool. 

We planted a garden and painted. We went on nature walks and had bean-bag tosses and played pretend store. We re-discovered finger-knitting and counted ALL THE THINGS and cleaned house together. It was a fun six months and gave us some guidance during  a very busy, often-challenging season.

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Here are the three biggest things I learned:

1. I need to focus on the relationship for teaching to be successful. Some of my best memories are the days we spent doing preschool (his too!). He talks often about the day we spent sniffing spices during the letter A week. I introduced sewing to him during the C unit (we sewed a button like in Corduroy), and he discovered that he loves sewing. We spent time playing hopscotch or keep the balloon in the air, not to mention the chores we continued to work on. He also has his own version of finger-knitting now. Plus I have a new appreciation for the types of chores that are age-appropriate. All in all, my son saw it as really special, and we loved including my one-year-old when we could. 

This focus on the relationship means that we never worried about the academic side of things or trying to "finish" something that felt forced.

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2. I was in need of a rhythm to guide our days. Our current morning time developed out of The Peaceful Preschool. Almost every day, we have tea time after afternoon quiet time. This guide helped me find natural rhythms in our days and weeks. It helped me be more intentional in including my children in chores around the house and find some sense of peace in the eternal mental debate of housework vs. time with my kids. 

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3. Learning happens within a framework. I didn’t want each activity—or each week—to seem random. I wanted it to provide a chance for us to learn new things and drink in all the richness and beauty of the world. This happened because we had a framework guiding us (the letters of the alphabet). The glitter alphabet cards shaped each week. We made our flash cards on the first day. At the end of the week (or the last day of that particular letter), we finished by making the giant letter and hanging it on our wall . The book selection is also really fabulous. Even if we did no activities in a particular day (as was often the case), we almost always had morning coffee on the couch with our Peaceful Preschool books.

I've loved watching my son's focus develop and also learning how much I don't know about the world we live in. We started doing nature walks and keeping nature journals (not super faithfully!). We have tried to spend more time outside and develop a curiosity for the world around us.

I'm surprised by how much these past six months helped our family. We have found such a better groove for our days and weeks.

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So what’s next?

We plan to come back to Peaceful Preschool when my youngest is old enough. For now, we’re doing A Year of Playing Skillfully with my now-four-year-old. We are also doing some beginning phonics and a nature program. We’re having a blast! 

I'll always be glad I took the time to start and finish this program with my son. It has given us all a thirst to learn more, be curious, and structure our lives in such a way that these things become second nature. 

Heather + Smartphone: A Reflection for Our First Anniversary

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I was a flip phone lover from the start (and there’s still a very special place in my heart for that sturdy little beast). I loved the simplicity. I loved how cheap it was. I loved how long I could hang on to one flip phone while Smartphone screens shattered all around me. I could throw that guy across the room, and he still turned on.

And I was a little afraid to change my life by getting a Smartphone. People talked about all the negatives—how it sucked up their time and made them feel disconnected from the world. I didn’t want to be obsessed with my phone. Simultaneously, these people said they couldn’t live without their shiny rectangles.

But I finally broke down in 2016 and joined the Smartphone club. And looking back, I’m so glad I did. I’ve been thinking lately about this year and what I learned.

As a sidenote: I did have an iPad mini before the Smartphone (and before its screen shattered in an unfortunate incident). It stayed at home (I didn’t have a network for it or anything), but I did use it to keep up with blogs and Instagram, read, and take pictures at home. Still, it was a big deal that it stayed in my bedroom, as I’ll talk about later.

I am generally pro-technology. I grew up as improvements came out every year, and each improvement seemed to open up more possibilities, from a microscope connected to our computer to AIM to watching videos online.  So ultimately, I love technology and believe it can make our lives so much better and easier, allowing us to focus on important things. Technology is currency—better technology and the know-how to use it really can make our lives easier and better and make us more efficient.

I found this out this year.The Smartphone ultimately simplified my life.

 It’s so nice to not have to plan for every possibility. If I need a coupon when I’m out, I can just scan my phone (rather than printing a bunch out ahead of time). The same is true with directions and recipes. I do find that I still prefer a paper list I’ve written beforehand for grocery shopping. But there have been many times when I’ve been out and wanted to double check ideas for a recipe.

 Prior to the phone, I had to remember my iPad, camera, and phone on trips and all the requisite chargers. The Smartphone could take the place of all of those (and was only one thing to keep charged!). It is also only one thing to check. 

The Smartphone makes me feel so prepared on outings. It’s one device that meets many needs (including music). It syncs with my car and actually makes talking on the phone in the car easier.

I love how easy it is for me to listen to Podcasts or Audiobooks without having several devices. I can listen in the kitchen and then in the car and then when I’m cleaning. It allows me to feel inspired and use time better.

The biggest reason I got a Smartphone was for pictures. I love taking pictures, and since I make a family Adventure Book each year, I love having pictures of daily life. It was hard lugging my DSLR, and sometimes I wanted to be able to capture those every day moments (like a baby asleep in his carseat or a meal at a restaurant). I love this aspect. I did have to learn to reformat my book layouts to accommodate more portrait photos (and I learned to try to take more photos in landscape). I also have to remind myself that it’s still worthwhile to have the DSLR out from time to time. Still, you can’t beat a camera that you always have with you.

The Smartphone also makes it so much easier to keep up with friends. Texting was just challenging on the flip phone when everyone else had smartphones. At a certain point, I had a hard time due to the odd format or length of Smartphone texts. The Smartphone has made it much less cumbersome for me to respond to other people’s texts. I feel more connected, and I love how easy it is to respond.

The two biggest challenges for me are mindless surfing and the feeling of urgency.

I realize it became habitual so quickly to pick up my phone and just scroll through Instagram one more time. I didn’t have this problem with the iPad because it lived in the bedroom (and there’s something about size, too, that makes mindless surfing easier on a small device). I especially want to be careful about this mindless picking up of the phone around my kids.

The other challenge is the feeling of urgency. When your phone is always with you and often out, it is easy to feel like you have to check every notification and respond to every text. I don’t enable many notifications (what is it about that red bubble with a number that makes me feel so urgent?!). I try to be really careful about this in the car, but I do need to be more careful around my boys. I hate that phrase, “Let me just check one more thing,” but I utter it far too often.

Going forward, here are two things I’m trying to let my phone be more of a tool for me (which it really can be!) and less of a distraction.

First, I read somewhere this year that we need to design technology that allows us to accomplish needful tasks and then lets us go. Typically our phones suck us in (or at least this happens to me—see, “check one more thing” above). There’s always something to check, something to alleviate boredom, something to make us feel that flicker of excitement.

When I get tired, especially, I can just surf mindlessly (that little magnifying glass button on Instagram is a trap for me!). So the first thing for me was realizing that when I’m tired, I need to put down my phone (or limit myself to reading).

Another thing I’ve been trying  is giving myself something worthwhile to do on the phone. When I’m nursing Walt, I love to check Instagram. So I let myself check it. Then I stop. I found that I need a BIG goal on my phone. So I set out to read through the Bible in 90 days. The plan is on the Youversion App, so all I have to do is click on it, and there my reading is. It’s a big goal because I need that to force me to stop wasting time.

I found early on that I spend less time scrolling mindlessly when I have an engaging book, so I do this too. But the Bible goal has been the best use of my phone so far. I’m loving that it’s lofty enough to keep me from mindless surfing while not feeling like some kind of self-imposed punishment.

The second thing I’m trying to do is keep my phone out of our daily lives. I try to have paper books I’m reading too (so I can pick up a book in a spare minute), I leave my journal out for jotting down ideas, and I try to leave kids’ books lying around. I want to experiment with keeping my phone in the bedroom or on the counter more.

There are so many good things about Smartphones, so many things that can truly simplify our lives! My goal this year is to continue to find out how I can integrate the Smartphone into a simple life.

I would love to hear your ideas for helping our phones simplify our lives! 

How Blogging Changes the Story

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I've been reading Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversationwhich presents a hopeful view for more responsibly incorporating technology into our lives and relationships. 

In the book, Turkle talks about how people now rely on social media instead of older, more private ways of reflecting. For example, some people consider Facebook or a blog their journal. However, Turkle points out that it’s different to write for an audience than it is to just be writing for oneself. She writes,

"In theory, you know the difference between yourself and your Facebook self. But the lines blur and it can be hard to keep them straight. It's like telling very small lies over time. You forget the truth because it is so close to the lies."

I've been thinking about how blog posts fit into this concept. We all have an online persona, but how could I make sure that my real life and online life match up in an appropriate way. More importantly, how does blogging about something change the way I think about it and therefore the way I act? 

There are several reasons I like blogging.

I blog to write our family story—so often I read back through previous posts and love the glimpse into forgotten aspects of our family life. But I make a family album each year that does a much better job of the memory-keeping and is more private.

I blog to record what I’m learning—to capture the insights I gather from the books I read and the people I talk to. But I write privately when I need to really grapple. 

I blog to share--to have a place where others can read, hopefully relate, and comment. But of course, there are good in-person conversations in my life, too. 

So what’s the benefit of posting to a blog? Why does it make me feel like I’ve accomplished something? Why do I find it so helpful? 

I think the answer lies in the process/product concept of writing. Through the actual process of writing, we gain as humans. We learn as we write because it helps us think and clarify. This process is as important as what we finally create. But we also learn through the final product, not only sharing it but the response that it encourages from others.

I think there are three reasons I find blogging beneficial for me:

1. I blog because I need to finish. I need to complete the thoughts that run around in my head. I often have ten post ideas going at once because I can’t stop thinking about certain things. Sometimes I have to take a break from public writing to turn this off.

But more often than not, a blog post is what finally stops the ceaseless bouncing around in my head (and the obsessive conversations with my husband and friends). I get it out on paper and try to find some closure for the thought--at least for now.. Why does it need to be blogged? The blog gives me the incentive to polish it, to complete it because I’ll be sharing it. Not every thought is ready for this completion, but some are. I close one line of thought and open myself up to new ideas on the topic. 

2. I also love finishing posts because it gives some form of accountability. When I finally write a post on rest or dealing with tantrums, I have come face to face with what’s going on. I am more aware of my behavior and line of thought afterwards. 

3. The last thing I really love is that blogging often gives me some measure of optimism. Though there are plenty of incomplete things in my life and a number of truly hard things, when I finally write about something for a public space, I end up being more optimistic (I started writing my thoughts as prayers instead of "Dear Diary" journaling during high school for this very reason).

Hope is an important part of who I am as a Christian, and though I may be temporarily in a hard spot, I know that I am called to be joyful even in affliction and to place my hope in God.  

Again, not every idea or situation is ready for a public space. But I do think that blogging has value.

It does change my story though. Once I’ve written about not criticizing my husband or our attempts to preschool—I feel more determined to keep these up. Sometimes I’m fearful that I’ll close a line of thought too soon—that I’ll try to tie up something with a neat bow that isn't ready. But I try to find a balance of finding mini-closure while leaving myself open to new ideas. 

Online writing and sharing is important. I think it can even be beneficial. But I also think I have to be clear with myself about what I share and why and how it might change the way I think or act. Unlike the conversations I have in real life, there's no instant feedback to each sentence I say. But I think there's value in working through an idea, finishing it (for now), and then sharing it in its entirety. I benefit when others do this, too.

What do you think about the value of blogging? Do you find that posting (or reading) a blog post changes the way you think/act? 

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Less Waste with Babies and Toddlers

IMG_1002I recently read Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, who, along with her family of four, creates only one quart of garbage per year. I knew we could learn something from a family that can go that extreme (they aren't big recyclers either!). I love her ideas--like buying in bulk, simplifying so you have only what you need, and learning to make things at home (like yogurt or bread). I cleaned more of the excess from our kitchen. I bought reusable produce bags (which I love). I've tried to look for better packaging when possible (purchasing our milk in glass jar that you return for a refund, for example, and preferring cardboard and paper to plastic.

The craziest thing is how it seems like going zero waste or organic will cost more time and money. But that's not always the case. Simple, inexpensive, and mindful living often all three go together seamlessly. As an example, I once dreamed up a post about my "lazy" parenting decisions, and the list was very similar to this one.

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One thing I found in both The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Zero Waste Home is that neither author is applying their method to the baby/toddler years. These years are sometimes filled with more survival tactics than future years, and it can be extra challenging to cut down on waste or even save money when you're just trying to survive.

Toddlers often take long (and frequent) baths. They like prepackaged snacks and snacky foods (like squeezable yogurts and juice boxes). They collect tons of toys. And yet each little stage goes by so quickly. As parents, we do need some convenience in our lives and can't always go full force with zero waste in these years (at least, I'm not sure I can).

I thought through a few things we've done (most unintentional) that have helped with this, and a few new ideas for going forward. Please realize that I'm only sharing what's worked for us or what I want to try, not what I feel everyone should do. I would love to hear your ideas for reducing waste while parenting babies and toddlers!

  1. Cloth Diapers and Early Potty Training

This is a simple way to save tons of money waste, but it involves an initial investment and some extra work (although never running out of diapers is a nice trade-off!). By eighteen months, Liam was mostly potty-trained, which also helped.

Unfortunately, we now go through 1-2 diapers a day (naptime and bedtime) and washing that few cloth diapers (every 2-3 days) seems like a waste of water. Plus the cloth weren't absorbent enough at night. So I've tried to make peace with our 1-2 disposables a day until we get fully night and nap potty-trained. I'm interested to try earlier potty training this time around, but time will tell. (I wrote a little bit about the start of cloth diapering here).

  1. Use Regular Glasses and Dishes

Because I was so fascinated with the Montessori method, we started Liam with a shot glass for drinking (rather than a plastic cup). We don't have any plastic kid plates or bowls and only two sippy cups getting dusty in the back or our cabinet.

I love that this saves space and that Liam knows how to use regular, adult dishes. We've had maybe three breaks, which isn't so bad. (The only downside is when other kids come, they often are not used to dishes that will break). This seems like an easy way to cut down on plastic use and teach a child about control of error.

  1. Exclusive Breastfeeding/Baby-Led Weaning

Obviously I realize that not everyone can do this. But exclusively breastfeeding (no bottles) saved us lots of money and, I feel, lots of work. Again, this isn't for everyone (some moms have to use bottles or love using them!) but it worked for us.

By trying out baby-led weaning (letting the baby start with table foods rather than purees) also saved us a lot of time and money. I didn't have to buy or make jars of baby food.

  1. Toys

 Again, because of Montessori, we prefer wood and metal toys and toys that encouraged open-ended play. Liam's favorites are his blocks, his wooden train track and trains, and any cars. He also loves his play kitchen. (Although to be fair, when I was looking through pictures for this post, there were tons of him playing with his favorite plastic toys, as well!). IMG_8723

The biggest thing I've learned about toys is to be moderate and thoughtful. It's easy to think of all the things he might love for Christmas (which I'm doing right now), so we have to be careful as parents not to go overboard. We're preferring memberships to the children's museum and zoo now.

Even with books, I try to be moderate. I love having plenty of beautiful books in our library, but I no longer feel like I must purchase every book Liam loves.

  1. Hand Me Downs

We were fortunate enough to get tons of bags of hand me downs from cousins and friends. Clothes can also be a great gift idea, too--my sister has given Liam most of my favorite outfits for him. (Plus it cuts down on the clutter of receiving only toys!).

I was also surprised by how many other baby items we received as hand-me-downs (an exersaucer, two highchairs, and a bouncy seat, for example). Going back, I would have purchased even less before he came and waited to see what we actually needed (and if anyone else had something we could buy/have secondhand).

  1. Snack Foods

So many toddler favorite foods (and baby foods too) naturally produce a lot of waste. We've done our fair share of buying individually packaged crackers and yogurts. I don't think this is necessarily bad, but after reading about zero waste, I've tried to evaluate what we actually need.

Liam is eating a lot more homemade yogurt (thanks to my mom) and homemade treats (like healthy muffins). I also try to pack more sliced fruit instead of snacks, and I can pack these in containers for him to eat in the car. The secret seems to be in not having the snack foods around in the first place and then he stops asking all day long (although we still love our big bags of veggie sticks).

  1. Freebies

This is something both Marie Kondo and Bea Johnson advocate--don't accept freebies. Whether it's a cheap party favor or a hospital gift bag with formula samples, as I've decluttered, I've realized that most freebies just end up being wasted. Plus I think it sets a good example for our children when we don't accept every freebie.

  1. Wipes and Paper Towels

 I cringe to think of how many wet wipes and paper towels I went through when babysitting (I had no idea then how expensive those things can be!). I am too irresponsible to be allowed to buy wet wipes (and by that I mean that I will go through a whole pack in a matter of days). So we just don't. We use towels or washcloths, even when on the road. Or we find a sink and just wash hands (and sometimes faces). Having an extra set of clothes for Liam also helps.

Going Forward

Thoughtfulness and awareness are the biggest lessons I have gleaned from Zero Waste Home. When I buy something disposable, I try to think about it as part of the larger picture of garbage.

As I mentioned above, we're trying to be more creative about snacks, which has also helped Liam be healthier. He will eat homemade bread with jelly or cheese and he loves leftover soups.

When we run out of Play doh this time, we'll probably make our own to save money and packaging. However, I don't think we're going to be able to give up markers yet (something Johnson recommends in Zero Waste Home).

I'm also more committed to teaching my children to care for the earth and be mindful consumers. Sometimes it feels so overwhelming and as though nothing makes a difference. Zero Waste Home reminded me that is simply not true. We are composting more again, and Liam helps. I try to fill our kitchen with more glass than plastic and to always take my reusable shopping bags when we might stop by the store.

I also don't want to teach him to love stuff, and so we're trying to take an active role by thinking through Christmases and birthdays.

Still, when in this phase of life, it is important to be reasonable, so I didn't say "no" when he asked for a fancy yogurt at the store yesterday, and we still do use ziploc bags (we'll see about phasing those out). I'm sure we'll continue to see places where we can cut down our waste (and often our spending, as well).

10 Picture Books for Construction-Obsessed Toddlers

1-2015-03-20 Motherhood has given me an appreciation for construction sites that I never had before. I know what different machines do (to some extent!), and I am astounded by all the details of a construction site.

These ten picture books are filled with bright, eye-catching illustrations, and more than a few focus on how machines can help build playgrounds and parks for children to enjoy. They make it easy to celebrate all the noise and mess of construction. These books also encourage toddlers in their own creative play with construction vehicles. I get excited when I see dump trucks and cranes now, and Liam and I always theorize about what the machines are doing.

B is for Bulldozer: A Construction ABC (June Sobel and Melissa Iwai): This bright board book takes toddlers through the alphabet with rhymes focused on the construction of a theme park. There's also a subtle passage through the seasons in the background, illustrating the time it takes to build the park. Liam loves the rollercoaster zooming at the end, as well as the children who stand at the fence and watch through the seasons.

What Can a Crane Pick Up? (Rebecca Kai Dotlich): This whimsical board book has Seuss-like rhymes as it shows all the many things a crane can lift high in the air. The illustrations and text are creative, and the story is upbeat.

The Diggers (Margaret Wise Brown): The Diggers is very different from Brown's other books. The text and illustrations are quirky and original. There is some rhythm, but overall, the writing is hard to describe (but wonderful!). The book focuses on how animals and men can dig but how diggers provide the ability to complete even bigger projects. I love the colors and the whimsy of this book, as well as the train's departure at the end.

Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site (Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld): This was one of our very first favorite books. The rhymes on each page are perfect, as the reader watches five construction vehicles tuck in tight and go to sleep. Yellows, oranges, and pinks illustrate the day each vehicle has while blues and blacks tie into the nighttime theme. The illustrations are beautiful, and the faces on each vehicle are delightful.

Dig! ( Andrea Zimmerman, David Clemesha and Marc Rosenthal): The reader follows Mr. Rally as he uses his digger to tackle five jobs. The repeated refrain as he completes each job adds unity to the story, and the conclusion is a lot of fun. Rosenthal's drawings are cheerful.IMG_9807

Digger Man (Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha): The authors of Dig! (see above) also author and illustrate Digger Man, along with two of our other favorites: Fire Engine Man and Train Man). Their illustrations are colorful, as a little boy explains why he wants to own a digger in simple sentences. The big brother theme runs through this book, just as it does through Fire Engine Man and Train Man.

Tip Tip Dig Dig (Emma Garcia): In this board book, toddlers see the noise made by each construction vehicle as the vehicles work together to build an adventure playground. Each vehicle is a bright color, and the rhythm (focused on verbs) captures even the attention of very young babies, as well.

Mighty Dads (Joan Holub and James Dean): This celebration of parenthood shows how the daddy vehicles help the child vehicles learn how to do their jobs. The construction vehicles are given names (Little Vator for the child excavator and Dozy for the Dozer), which adds to the whimsy. The illustrations are bold. I really like the rhythm and the focus on each machine's job. And of course, it ends where all good children's books end: at bedtime.

Demolition (Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock): The illustrations for Demolition focus on what each machine does and are less cheerful but very well-done. At first, I was a bit put off by the focus on destruction (although Liam certainly wasn't; he loved the riveting rhythm and noises). However, the end shows the fun purpose behind all the demolition. I especially love the focus on the significant parts of each machine (like the jaws or the wrecking ball). This one is probably geared toward older toddlers, and there is a great section at the end that gives more detail about each machine.

Job Site (Nathan Clement): This book focuses on what the boss tells each machine to do. The repeated "Boss says..." gives unity to the story as each machine does its job. The focus is on each machine until the very end when you see what they were working so hard on. Try to find the boss in the last picture.

More of our favorite books: 0-6 months // 6-12 months // 12+ months // train books 

It seems like there are a lot of construction-focused picture books out there. Do you have any we should check out?