Sunday, October 24, 2010

Elementary Age Toys

As the gift giving season rolls around again, I thought I would share some toys that have been very popular in our house. I don't like "fad" toys. You know, the ones that are here today and gone tomorrow. The ones people stand in line for hours to buy the day after Thanksgiving only to have the child put them aside by New Year's Day. I'm not a big fan of electronic toys either. We do own a few remote control vehicles (which my boys love) and a Wii, but for the most part our kids spend their time interacting with things they can build with, design, use their imagination, etc. While the Wii is fun for a our Family Fun Nights, it's the toys below that my kids pull out almost on a daily basis.

My favorite toys are construction toys or toys that can be put together in different ways. Nothing holds a child's attention more than something they can create themselves and do differently the next time. Many of our favorites are classics that have stood the test of time. We enjoy Legos, Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs at our house. I recently went downstairs to discover that my 10, 12 and 14 year old daughters had constructed a Lincoln Log village.

My girls have also enjoyed this geodesign board and pixel blocks. Both of ours are from Discovery Toys, but neither are currently available. I found a wooden geoboard I like a lot (and may replace ours with it) at Hearthsong.

Pixel blocks are tiny cubes that can be stacked to make 3-D creations or attached horizontally to make a picture. They come in many different colors. Here the girls made lots of different pictures and attached them like a patchwork quilt. One of their most amazing designs was a scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I found a set similar to ours at Amazon.

Everyone likes Wedgits. (Ours had been put away for awhile. When I got them out to do this post, the kids literally fought over who was going to play with them first. ) Wedgits are both a construction toy and a puzzle. On the most basic level it is a construction toy. My 18 month old can stack them, knock them down and stack them again. My 3 and almost 5 year old can build purposeful towers in a multitude of ways. The Wedgits set comes with a set of cards for the older children. Each card has a picture of a figure the child is supposed to replicate. The cards are labeled according to difficulty. The easier ones are straight forward however the higher levels are more challenging and require thinking "outside the box" in order to recreate the shape.

Kathryn (almost 5) built this tower.

Will (7) and I worked on this card. It's not as easy as it looks!

We like puzzles. Traditional 100-500 piece puzzles are a favorite with Ravensburger being our preferred puzzle maker. I often buy them on eBay. We also enjoy puzzles that must be solved. Rush Hour has been enjoyed by several at our house. It comes with plastic cars and a set of cards. On one side of each card it tells you how to arrange the cars on the board. The object is then to get the red car out. If you aren't able to solve it, or need help, the solution is on the back.

Playmobil is another favorite company. Their products have provided my children with many hours of enjoyment setting up scenes and acting out stories. Last year we gave the castle set to all of our children as a shared Christmas present. Even my then 13 year old was thrilled. The one thing I don't like about Playmobil is all the tiny pieces. I sometimes get tired of the tiny guns, flashlights, small basket of carrots and even cuffs for some outfits that I find lying around. I try not to vacuum them up, but I must admit I have done it on more than one occasion. We try to keep each set sorted into different boxes. This is a job I definitely leave to the kids, because I have no idea if a particular sword belongs to a knight, a pirate or a Roman soldier!

Hayley (10) purchased this small house/barn with money she received for her birthday. If you aren't familiar with Playmobil, this should give you an idea of how small the pieces are but also how detailed your scene can be. Playmobil is pricey but well made. We've made several Playmobil purchases from eBay and even found sets at yardsales.

Even older girls still enjoy dolls. When our girls are 7, they may select one of the large 18" dolls. So far we have Kirsten and Samantha from the American Girl Company and Liberty from Vision Forum. My girls have really enjoyed these dolls and the books about them. Ashley (at 14) still has Kirsten in her room. I suspect she will be retired to the attic in another year or two and carefully saved until she can giver her to here own daughter.

Will is a University of Tennessee fan. When he was 5, we gave him a set of Football Guys in UT uniform for his birthday. He has enjoyed them immensely. We have since add the Hockey, Baseball and Soccer Guys to our collection. I rotate our children's toys from time to time to keep them "new", however these sports figures have remained on the shelves since they were received. One of the boys will often get them out when watching a game on TV to recreate what's happening. I've also seen them be creative by putting baseball cards or their Safari animals on the field/rink.

Several years ago Will started collecting animals from Safari. At first I though they were cute but didn't really see them as being a toy that would get a lot of attention. Boy was I wrong. Luke (9) and Hayley (10) have joined in collecting them and I think someone in our house plays with them almost everyday. I've seen them do normal things like set up a zoo and strange things like create 2 teams of animals to play football! These animals are well made with good attention to detail. The picture below shows a small sampling of our current collection.

So now you've seen what's popular at our house. We've owned our share of toys that have lots of lights, sounds and talk to you, but they don't tend to be the ones the children go to time and time again. Toys that allow them to use their imagination and their own creativity seem to be what make successful toys at our house.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Books, Books and More Books

While I enjoy reading books to my toddlers, I love the picture books I share with my preschoolers best. There are books in the this list that make me laugh and some that make me cry. Some of them I love for the pictures as much as the story. Select a book from this list to share with your child, and I don't think you will be disappointed.

Where's Our Mama?
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and others in this series
Big Green Pocketbook
Little Bear's Trousers
Mouse Mess
Fergus's Upside-Down Day
Henry and Mudge books
Mr. Putter and Tabby books
The Little House
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
Stand Back Said the Elephant I'm Going to Sneeze
Miss Rumphius
Miss Fannie's Hat
The Relatives Came
All the Places to Love
My Great Aunt Arizona
Make Way for Ducklings
Blueberries for Sal
Chick-a Chick-a Boom Boom
The Old Woman Who Named Things (probably my favorite on the whole list)

We always give our kids a few books for Christmas. Any suggestions for what I can give this year?

First Books

We love books at our house. It's hard to homeschool without owning a lot of books, but I think we still have a lot. When we moved to TX the movers told us we had more boxes than any move they had ever done before. I'm sure the number of books we own contributed greatly to the total. I often tell people, "First we buy books. If there is money left over, then we eat!".

I love cuddling on the couch with my young children and reading a good book. I love it even more when a little one brings a book to me saying, "read." Today I'm going to share with you some of our favorite board books. These are the books my children ask for so often I have memorized them. We've discovered a few new ones a long the, way but many have been in our home since our first born. I'll be hanging on to them to share with my grandchildren some day.

Goodnight Moon
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Brown Bear, Brown Bear and others by Eric Carle
The Big Red Barn
Guess How Much I Love You
Barnyard Dance and others by Sandra Boynton
I Love You As Much
The Mitten and others by Jan Brett
Runaway Bunny
We're Going on a Bear Hunt
The Snowy Day
Ten Little Lady Bugs
So Many Bunnies

What are your favorites?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What's for Breakfast?

(ham and swiss muffins)

Today I'm linking up with Kimberly and the Four Moms to share breakfast ideas. Breakfast at our house is fairly simple and we stick to a rotating menu (except when I'm without an oven for four weeks :-) ). My daughters each have a day that they are responsible for breakfast. I take care of the rest.

Monday- muffins and yogurt (One of my daughters makes muffins each week and we freeze them.)
Tuesday- cheese toast and applesauce
Wednesday- sausage and eggs with toast
Thursday- fruit smoothie with peanut butter graham crackers or yogurt sundaes with homemade peanut butter granola
Fri- My choice
Saturday- Whole wheat pancakes or waffles
Sunday- rotates among items I can make ahead

Sunday mornings are crazy enough with all of 10 of us getting ready for church without the hassle of an extended breakfast preparation. However our worship service runs longer than most and then our family enjoys a lengthy time of fellowship afterwards. It's usually around 1:30 before we eat lunch, so we need a hearty breakfast. I often use recipes I can make ahead. With 3 sous chefs in the house, one of them is usually assigned one of the following recipes as a Sat. chore.

Amish Breakfast Casserole
1lb bacon, diced
1 medium sweet onion, diced (I use dried flakes if I'm making this ahead, otherwise the taste is too strong.)
6 eggs, lightly beaten
4c frozen shredded hashbrown potatoes, thawed (I use more)
2c shredded cheddar cheese
12 oz small-curd cottage cheese
1 1/4c shredded swiss cheese

In a large skillet, cook bacon and onion until bacon is crisp; drain. In a bowl combine the remaining ingredients; stir in bacon mixture. Transfer to a greased 9x13 dish. Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes or refrigerate overnight and then bake. (may need to extend baking time)

Breakfast Casserole
6 slices bread, crusts removed
1lb sausage cooked and drained
1 1/2c. shredded cheddar cheese
6 eggs
2c. milk
1tsp salt
dash pepper
dash dry mustard

Grease a 9/13 dish. Place bread on bottom (I usually add an extra slice or two, if the bottom isn't covered.) Place cooked sausage on top of bread. Cover this with cheese. Mix remaining ingredients and pour over the cheese. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes.

Ham and Cheese Quiche (makes 2)
2 9 inch pastry shells
2 cups cooked, diced ham
2 tsp dried minced onion
2c sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
4 eggs
2c half and half
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper

Line unpricked pastry shells with a double thickness of heavy-duty foil. Bake at 400 for 5 minutes. Remove foil; bake 5 minutes longer.

Divide ham, cheese and onion between the shells. In a bowl, whisk eggs, cream,salt and pepper. Pour into shells. Cover and freeze for up to 3 months. Or cover edges with foil and bake at 400 for 35-40 or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Let stand for 5-10 minutes before cutting.

Breakfast Burritos
bulk sausage
shredded cheese
Brown as much sausage, cook as many hashbrowns and scramble as many eggs as you think you will need. Warm tortillas. Line up the ingredients in bowls and construct burritos. Some of my kids don't like all the ingredients so they can make their own the way they like it. We then wrap them in aluminum foil and put the child's name on the outside. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to eat. Heat in the microwave. Serve plain or with salsa. I suggest allowing them to thaw before heating, if they've been frozen.

Baked Oatmeal (Everyone at my house likes this, and that is a great accomplishment!)
3c. rolled oats
3/4 c. brown sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1c milk
1/2 butter or margarine, melted (can sub applesauce, if desired)
2 eggs

Mix together and bake in a greased 8x8 at 350 for 35-40 minutes. (Or tightly cover and refrigerate overnight) Cut and serve warm, with a little milk over each square if desired.

We often add frozen blueberries and for the kids' birthdays I throw in a few chocolate chips!

Ham & Swiss Muffins
1 pkg crescent rolls
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 lb ham, cut up (I cube deli ham)
3 tsp Dijon mustard (I use 1 1/2)
1 c. shredded Swiss cheese
1/4 tsp pepper

Mix all but crescent rolls. Pinch off dough and place in greased mini-muffin tin pan to form cups. Fill with mixture. Bake at 350 for 15 min.

Sometimes we bake these ahead and heat them in the microwave. However, my husband LOVES these and prefers them hot so we usually mix up the ham and cheese the night before and assemble them the next morning.

Peanut Butter Granola
6c dry oatmeal
1/2c wheat germ (I use 1 c.)
1/2c toasted coconut (I omit)
1/2 c sunflower seeds (I use 1c ground flax seed)
1/2 c raisins
1c butter (sometimes I use 1/2)
1c peanut butter
1c brown sugar

Combine the first 5 in a large slow cooker. Melt together the next 3. Pour over oatmeal and stir to coat. Cook on low 1 1/2 hours, stirring every 15 minutes.

Breakfast Apple Cobbler
8 medium apples, cored, peeled, sliced
1/4 c sugar
dash of cinnamon
juice of 1 lemon
1/4c butter, melted
2c granola

Combine all ingredients in a slow cooker. Cook on low 7-9 hours or on high 2-3. Serve plain or over vanilla yogurt.

More Toddler Toys

Here is a picture of the peg set I mentioned in the post below. Kids can build with it or you can use it to teach colors, counting, patterns, etc. I've never been disappointed with any product from Lauri.

A friend suggested adding a wooden train set to the list. I agree. I was planning to put it in my elementary toy recommendations, but after she mentioned it I realized my just turned 3 year old spends lots of time playing with ours. He can construct a simple track but really likes it when one of his older siblings builds an elaborate one with lots of hills.

Many wooden track sets are compatible with other sets. We started with a Melissa & Doug set I purchased on eBay. We've added lots of pieces from the Thomas & Friends set. I think Brio also works with these two. I like giving gifts that can be added to over the years. My mom gave Andrew a new accessory for his birthday on Monday.
When we first got our train, I wanted one of the nice train tables with built in storage drawers. I also wanted the track permanently fixed to the table. We couldn't afford a table at the time, so I just bought a big Rubbermaid tub to store it in. That was 5 years ago and it's still in the tub. I am SO glad we didn't attach it to anything. I think our children have enjoyed it MUCH more by being able to build a different track every time they play. It also allows me to be able to store it out of sight for awhile and bring it out again after a few months. (I just learned my friend, Kimberly, is offering her readers a chance to win a train table from Constructive Playthings. Check out her blog for your chance to win.)

A couple of obvious suggestions are baby dolls and cars/trucks. With 4 girls, we have acquired quite a collection of dolls, clothes and other accessories. We've especially enjoyed Bity Baby from the American Girl Company.

Can a little boy have too many cars and trucks? I'm sure you can at some point, but I've seen my big boys (ages 9 and 7) line up over 30 of them and have their own NASCAR race. We have a playmat from Discovery Toys that has a road drawn on it. It is made up of 9 different squares that can be put together in a multitude of different ways. My boys have played with this A LOT. I don't think DT sells this particular mat anymore, but you could search for it on eBay or perhaps find a similar product from Hearthsong.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Few of My Favorite Things

My friend Kimberly, at Raising Olives ,did a post today on some products she recommends. It gave me the idea to do something similar. I thought some of my friends with younger children might benefit from my many years of collecting toys and books. I am going to share some of our family's favorite toys, games and books with you.

I don't like toys that make lots of noise and whose sole purpose is to entertain. I like toys that require my children to be creative, use thinking skills or help them interact with another sibling. You will probably recognize many of my favorites and some may even be toys you played with as a child

Infant Toys (ages 12mo and under)
I don't think infants need a lot of toys, especially not the ones with flashing lights and lots of sounds. Discovery Toys offers several things that have been favorites here including the super yummy teether and stacking cups among others. Throw in a few multi-sensory toys, something to cuddle and a push toy to encourage walking and you really don't need much more.

(Oops. The shape sorter should be in the next group)

Toddler/Preschool Toys
Some of my favorites at this age are shape sorters, peg puzzles (love Melissa & Doug products), Duplos, building blocks, beads to string, Lauri products (wonderful crepe puzzles and an incredible stacking peg set) and Fisher Price Little People sets. We have added to our Little People collection over the years and now have enough to create a small city.

These Lauri items have kept my preschoolers engaged for hours. If you loose a piece, Lauri will replace it for fifty cents.

One of the many Melissa and Doug peg puzzles we own.

Will made this creation today before I even decided to do this post. I would get rid of almost all of our toys before I would get rid of the blocks. We have a wooden set and a foam set. Many of our wooden blocks have faces drawn on them because the children would pretend they were people and then build a house for them. My 10 year old currently has a 3 story house built with the wooden blocks for her Playmobil family.

This is the first Little People set we purchased. Ashley received it for Christmas when she was two, so this set is 12 years old. We've added the garage, airport, city, castle, fire station and pirate ship.

Our Duplo bricks are also a favorite (Legos for preschoolers). The children enjoy the basic brick but seem to enjoy them more in combination with the animal, farm and people sets we've added. Emily received the people set when she was three. (4 ethnic groups each with a dad, mom, grandparents and 2 children) She lined them all up in rows, set one gentlemen in front and proceeded to have "church."

We also have a Duplo dollhouse which I like a lot. It wasn't cheap, but it was well worth the money. I plan to hang onto it for my grandchildren. When Kathryn first received it she was too young to construct the house, but her older sisters could build it and then she could play with it. The walls and floor of this house come apart and can built in many different ways. You can build a ranch or a 3-story townhouse.

So, what are your favorites?

Coming Next: Elementary suggestions

Monday, October 11, 2010


Luke turns 9 today. Yes, we have back to back birthdays at our house. This year Luke gets to have a big party and invite friends. He decided to invite several families to play a baseball game. We will be doing that on Saturday.

Luke is an all around good kid. He does well in school and loves to play sports (although most of it is done in the backyard). He played baseball this summer and did very well hitting and playing 3rd base. When he's not in the backyard with a ball in his hand, he loves to read, play with Playmobil and play chess.


Andrew turned 3 today. He is an amazingly energetic, constantly talking, full of energy little boy. If you are a friend on Facebook, you've read about the numerous "Andrew Antics." Thankfully the antics have slowed considerably, so I'm hoping the next year will be a little calmer. Andrew definitely keeps me on my toes, but oh, how I love that little guy.

School projects

Last week we completed our first unit of history which included a multi-week study of WWI. Emily created a display board on WWI which included informative articles, poetry, maps and even a love letter from a wife to her soldier on the front line.

Hayley completed a lapbook on various WWI era topics provided by Tapestry of Grace (our history curriculum).

Luke and Will made a salt dough map of the European countries at the beginning of WWI.