Tag Archives: Activities

Graph Paper Pictures

a graph paper picture from a kidThe younger boys celebrated their 8th birthday this weekend, and each received his very own Etch-A-Sketch toy. They got up this morning and boy did the creativity abound! I think they spent two hours making pictures together before they even wanted breakfast. Captain Earthquake brought his over to show me an abstraction that he’d made where all the edges looked like cubes. We laughed over some possible descriptions. I thought it looked like buildings reflected on a river or a maze while he said it was a road leading into a city or perhaps a Robloxian.

It occurred to me that doing a drawing on graph paper and coloring in the sections with different colors would be really fun. So we dug out the colored pencils and graph paper and went crazy. It was fun! After a few minutes of coloring in random blocks, we started drawing pictures. The rule was that you had to stick to the lines of the graph paper (we eventually broke that rule too, when the mood struck).

If you have some graph paper and a half-hour, try this with your kids. Let them decide on the rules (and let them change the rules if they want – half the fun is hearing your parent say “Do it however YOU want”). We enjoyed some time together and I got to talk about some drawing techniques without being threatening or sounding like I was correcting their efforts. Each boy did something different and all of us had something to be proud of when we were done.

The picture above is the one I did. The boys laughed at the scale of my pink flower, then they decided that it should be a TV flower because it was square. When I attempted a bird in the tree, the Captain informed me that I had drawn a penguin. So I announced that my penguin knew how to jump into trees. After we abandoned the “draw on the lines” rule, the hammock and table were added. I coulda done a much better bird if the rules had allowed curves. But that challenge made the whole thing so much more fun. I’m glad we drew together.

by AmyL


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Photo graciously provided by jurvetson, through a Creative Commons license, some rights reserved

Are We Too Busy?

front face of a watch that shows its inner worksWhen the older boys were just toddlers we were friends with a family that had three pre-teen children. The one message we heard from them constantly revolved around how busy they were keeping up with the kids’ schedules.

They quickly became the anti-example for our family. Hubby and I looked at each other and nodded sagely that we’d NEVER allow life to get so busy that it was constantly stressful. What they were doing, running from one activity to the next, was just crazy.

Now we have pre-teen children. And now we are awfully busy with sports and Scouting and church and 4H and volunteering, all on top of school requirements. Oh, and piano. They’re all learning to play the piano.

So are we too busy? We strive for balance. Keeping boys occupied tends to keep them out of trouble, but we don’t want to be overwhelming. Right now the younger boys have evening commitments once or twice a week, while the older boys have two or three evening commitments weekly. It is working out that the adults have something to do 4 nights a week to make it to all the boy stuff, and frequently activities overlap so we’re having to do some interesting juggling to make it all work.

Because they’re homeschooled, the boys usually have time every afternoon to play. In addition they usually take a healthy recess at lunch time and go outside to jump around and blow off some energy. Piano is done during the schoolday. 4H is only once a month.

This is the first year that we’ve encouraged the boys to branch out and choose the sport or activity they want. Up until now, keeping up with different choices was more than Hubby and I could mentally manage. Now, it doesn’t seem too hard. Tiring. Occasionally confusing. But not too hard.

Have we turned into the anti-example for someone else? It’s interesting how much I want to support the boys in their pursuits. Going to a practice or a game when I could be at home getting my own todo list done doesn’t seem nearly as much of an imposition as it did when our friends were describing it. I know that while the days seem long, the years are going to be short. We only get to do this once.

Keeping life balanced is a huge value around here, and I hope that we look back someday and think, “Yea, that worked out well.”

by AmyL


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Photo graciously provided by jurvetson, through a Creative Commons license, some rights reserved

The Teaching Power Of Stories

Every culture has a tradition of oral storytelling. The 35,000-year-old paintings on the walls of the Lascaux Caves are our earliest recorded evidence of storytelling1, and Aesop, a 6th century BC greek slave, wrote tales which even today are used to teach moral behavior to children. Stories are a means to pass on information, values, and knowledge. They provide the structure and framework through which humans sort, understand, relate and file information.2 In short, through stories people learn about the world and themselves.

Throughout time, narrative has been the most natural and fundamental teaching method and it seems that any lesson begun with the phrase “once upon a time” rivets the attention and interest of students. Simply put, stories are how we learn. The progenitors of the world’s religions understood this, handing down our great myths and legends from generation to generation3. Much research is available today to validate the powerful effect storytelling has as a teaching tool and an instrument to enhance motivation, communication and interpersonal skills.


When writing his book Story Proof: The Science Behind The Startling Power of the Story, Kendall Haven reviewed over 350 research studies and, perhaps unsurprisingly, each study agrees that stories are an effective and efficient vehicle for teaching and motivating, and for the general communication of factual information, concepts and tacit information.4 Specifically, it has been shown that material not learned within the context of a story is less likely to be retained,5, 6 whereas stories “engage us. … and help us to understand by making the abstract concrete and accessible”7. The benefits of the storytelling approach to education have been found to apply in very diverse subject areas. These include teaching literacy8, 9 mathematics,10 science11 and history to children,12 and educating professionals in such field as business13, nursing14 and adult education of foreign languages15 to name just a few.


Massachusetts based historian and folklorist, Merrill Kohlhofer uses storytelling to teach history to elementary children, both in schools across New England and at historic sites including the House of Seven Gables and the Peabody Essex Museums. According to Kohlhofer,  “Stories can help make what might otherwise seem dry facts and boring, irrelevant events come alive for the listeners. Because the events and characters of stories help create an emotional connection with the listener, the ideas the story carries make a greater impact, and seem both more relevant and more easily remembered and understood.  Listening to stories, participating in them, helps develop children’s linguistic skills – well-crafted stories both entice and challenge the listener to love language and its communicative power and serve to model verbal art.”

“I began by asking my listeners [3rd-5th graders] how many liked history – the response     was pretty lukewarm. After the question and answer session with which I conclude these programs, I asked the same question – and the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. …stories appeal to the child’s verbal intelligence, not something that happens that often these days where we appear to be shifting to a more visual culture.


Stephanie Wilkins, a longtime third and fourth grade teacher at Odyssey Day School in Wakefield, MA, relies heavily on story telling in her classroom.  Stephanie describes the power of story as a teaching tool stating, “Sitting and listening doesn’t do it [educate].  If they are just presented with material, it goes in one ear and out the other.  Role  play and drama, with them making up their own skits and acting out the stories, helps the students learn to handle and utilize concepts.  When kids get up and play a part they are going to learn and be more likely to remember.”

Odyssey Day School builds its entire curriculum on the concept of overriding themes and stories.  For example, the school -wide theme last year was Milestones: The path from yesterday to tomorrow.  When Stephanie’s class was studying the ancient Greeks, instead of just talking or reading about them they became part of the story. Each child researched and played a role of one of the Greek gods or goddesses. The theme was worked into all aspects of the curriculum. In science, they studied astronomy. In math, they learned about the algorithm and how the Greeks used stars to tell time, while in Art they were making sculptures and dioramas of ancient Greek Columns.


Stephanie expounds on the fact that storytelling not only enhances academic knowledge, but “fosters interrelationships between the kids. When they don’t even realize it, they are learning to step out of their own comfort zones and recognize similarities and differences in others,  learning from their ideas. They learn to compliment, cooperate, communicate,  plan, organize and they learn to listen. The story is not just about me presenting the material, it is a spring board for discussion for asking questions for probing further.  It brings it [the teaching] full circle.”


Another place where storytelling is still growing strong and aiding the development of self-esteem, creativity, and team cooporation is at Guard Up Family Swordmanship in Burlington, MA.  Guard Up runs summer camps, after-school and weekend programing based on interactive story telling and role-playing with an emphasis on teaching the values of good sportsmanship, teamwork, compassion, honor and courage. Guard Up really brings the story to life through role-playing which is a means of merging the power of stories with the benefits of active learning17. Children of all ages are fully immersed in medieval fantasy stories designed to entertain and educate. The story lines change and adapt based on the behavior of and choices made by the kids. The broad story arcs are planned in advance by a team of counselors, and evolve daily. Campers, as a group, devise strategies, find solutions, and choose their course of action whether defending their city from an invasion of living puppets, or negotiating a peace agreement with a horde of scurvy pirates.


We interviewed four of the Guard Up counselors, Chris, Lauren, Hannah and Joseph, to find out what inspired them, how they utilize the stories as a tool to impart knowledge and some of the surprising paths the stories took based on the actions of the campers, or Heroes, as they are called. They recognize that storytelling is a co-creative process.  Although there is a general story arc the counselors know the importance of letting the plot flow in the direction that the kids take.  As Joseph explains, “We can’t plan the specific details because it depends on the decisions of the kids.  We change the plot based on what the characters are doing.”   Lauren agrees “You want to take it where they take it.  You don’t want to be so stuck to the plot.  You want them to figure it out and feel excited.”  Guard up gives the kids the opportunity to design their own reality or as Joseph putt “the kids get to live their dreams”.  They design their characters and have a chance to be who they want to be and try out new things.  Many of them choose positive attributes and get rewarded for playing them.  On the other hand, if a camper decides to, say, fight her own team mates, she learns consequences within the game which makes her not want to do it in the future.


The motto of Guard Up is “courage, honor and compassion. “ Chris, another Guard Up instructor describes how the heros are given many opportunities to choose to display these attributes, such as the option to help other people without getting anything for themselves.  Once, for example, when a village was attacked by monsters, the campers stayed by the side of a shopkeeper, protecting her and even giving her their own healing potions when she was injured. When recollecting this tale, Hannah reflects that “these are the real teaching moments”.


Whether participating in adventure at the summer camp, after-school programs,  or weekly classes and activities, the children are, as Lauren says, “learning without even knowing they are doing it”.  Some knowledge is applicable in the academic sense, for example they learned basic anatomy during a quest to  reassemble the body of their village’s mayor – including his nervous system – or utilized mathematics and deductive logic to answer riddles, figure out clues and solve puzzles.  Additionally, history is incorporated both through mythology and true historical figures and settings.


Beyond gaining academic knowledge, they are also learning about themselves, social interaction, values and morals. Getting to be the hero they always wanted to be helps them gain confidence.  The emphasis on honor, courage and compassion flows through all of the activities.  For instance, when they were on the quest to “re-assemble the mayor” they needed to prove they were true of heart before they could retrieve the heart.  As Hannah so aptly put it, “We teach kids social skills by letting them explore outlandish possibilities.  They find the boundaries of their personality in a safe environment”.  They learn how to work together, negotiate, treat others with compassion, and attempt to solve issues through analytic skills instead of aggression.  It also gives them a chance to express their emotions, creativity and imagination.


When we first interviewed the campers, many stated that the characters they designed were more creative than they, themselves were.  When shown the paradox that they had designed their characters and that all of the character’s actions were coming from their own minds, one camper, Connor, stated enthusiastically, “If you come here I bet you’ll find out that you’re more creative than you think and that you have more talent than you notice.”

When asked, Connor and his fellow campers, Travis, Casey and Ethan offered many different lessons learned, including:

“Sometimes, you can have the best adventures where you don’t do war – do politeness first”
“Honor the game, be truthful, help others, and always try manners before violence. ”
“Teamwork and thinking about problem-solving can help in the real world.”
“The choices you make can really effect what goes on around you.”

Storytelling, besides being perhaps the oldest method of teaching, still plays a vital role in child development. When schools are becoming focused on teaching to standardized tests, it is more important than ever that children still have a way of learning through imagination and participation.  If parents are willing to look, there are still great opportunities for children to benefit from this timeless teaching method. Have you spun a story for your kids today?

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Cycles, or What Goes Up Must Come Down

chess warriors on the board fightingI got up early this morning, my alarm dragging me out of a dream that I was doing laundry. Dreams like that just shouldn’t be allowed! I spent a happy hour or so answering emails in ‘work’ mode, writing out invoices and putting them into envelopes, writing to people and saying “Pleeeease get back to me on this, see previous email, must go to print next week, did you want that as a full-page sir?” I got most of the concentrating and serious stuff DONE before the rest of the family had cracked an eyelid.

Now the boys are up, playing chess. They have replaced all but the King and Queen with little plastic soldiers: Grey ‘Modern’ ones with guns, and green ‘Medieval’ ones with axes and bows and arrows. They keep forgetting which is which: “No, the snipers on one knee are Knights, not Rooks!”

“You are so cheating.”

“You are so losing.”

I’ve been thinking how BUSY we are sometimes, as parents and as families. And then at other times, life is so slow, so routine! It’s been so busy the last few weeks I thought “Oh no, we haven’t done any of our lazy summery stuff!” Building puzzles, painting, playing board games, lying around saying “Weee’rrre boooored” till suddenly you have a great idea? Nope, nope. It’s been action stations here.

And our weekend will be the hyped-up icing on the cake. We’re going to have summer FUN FUN FUN before coming back home to a slightly emptier house, slightly rainier weather, and a slightly more boring life… till next time.

It’s good to remember, when the chores and assignments are stacking up, that soon life will cycle down again and we’ll be all caught up and wishing something exciting would happen!

by Nan Sheppard

Photo graciously provided by the Author, through a Creative Commons license, some rights reserved

Ten St. Patrick's Day Resources

a mother looking down upon her young sonWe made it to March! Phew. Spring will be here soon in my neck o’ the woods. I’ve been in the mood to plan ahead a little bit this year, and thought I’d share some of ideas I found online for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. For an historical and encyclopedic definition of the day, see the Wikipedia entry or hop over to History.com for their St. Patrick’s Day article.

I was of course more interested in the snack ideas. Allrecipes.com has an easy yet tasty-sounding recipe for a Chocolate Mint Milkshake. In fact, there’s an entire category of Irish or St. Patrick’s Day recipes listed there. I had no idea there was so much available!

And of course, no holiday is complete without making a craft or two with your kids. For younger children the good people at KidsSoup.com have some options. My favorite was the Froot Loop rainbow. There’s even a free printable available.

Speaking of printables, there are literally hundreds of coloring pages and other printable activities available online to help you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. About.com has a list of 14 sites that include coloring pages, templates, cards, and printable craft resources. Disney’s Family Fun.com has more printables centered around the St. Patrick’s Day theme.

Have you ever noticed that a shamrock shape can me made using hearts? Cut out some green paper hearts for gluing on to pictures or photo frames and voila! Instant holiday craftiness. You can also use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to trace (or make cookies – yum) if you’re a perfectionist about heart shapes. Heart stamps would also do the trick. Make a shamrock tee shirt, or some lovely cards to send to friends and family.

If you don’t mind getting a little messy, head on over to Celebrations.com and try the Thumbprint Shamrocks. Or make your own rainbow complete with pot of gold courtesy of Sherri Osborn’s post at About.com. There’s also a suggestion of making your own pot of gold with a margarine container and cardboard disks and a lot of paint. I’d rather buy those chocolate candies and put them in a dish. But I’m lazy.

This list only just scratches the surface of what’s available to help celebrate the day. What do you do to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?

by AmyL

Photo graciously provided by Ilja, through a Creative Commons license, some rights reserved