Wednesday, July 19, 2017

That Day Last September When I Saved the Summer

In many ways I felt like last summer was a bust.  I was somewhat distracted with my recently re-opened Etsy shop.  We had just enough camps and activities on the books that it made it tricky to just hop in the car and go to the park for a day of roaming and exploring.  We usually go to the creek several times every summer, but last year a friend's son got a leech in the water and I could never bring myself to go back there.  We even skipped our long-standing tradition of going to the opening day of the county fair because it was 95 degrees and just, nope.

It was sort of a blah summer - reflected in both our lack of really enjoyable family time and my mood.

In early September we went on a field trip with other families from the study center to see the tall, historic sailing ships in port in Erie, Pennsylvania, a two hour ride from our home.  I'm not naturally spontaneous or fun-loving but I knew this was an opportunity to do something for my kids to "redeem" the humdrum summer we had had.  I told everyone to bring an extra set of clothes (because you might get wet while touring the ships...??)  I packed up lunches and water and snacks and we left early the next morning to meet up with our group in Erie for the tour.  

It was awesome!  We loved the ships and hearing about their sailing from the crew.  I think Aaron especially enjoyed it since he and I had recently watched a few episodes of  Horatio Hornblower :) We enjoyed our lunches with our friends and were finished with the last tour around 1 in the afternoon. It had been a blistering hot day - lots of sweating and re-hydrating while waiting on long lines in full sun.  We were all sticky and uncomfortable and couldn't wait to get in the air conditioned van. The kids thought we were headed home but I surprised them with a spontaneous trip to the beach at Presque Isle.  

I can't tell you how much enjoyment I received from their surprise and delight.  Mom, are you really taking us to a beach??  You're going to let us take our shoes off??  Can we walk in the water???  We know you'll probably say no, but can we swim??  They about fell over when I said yes.  I wasn't acting like myself at all.  They could hardly believe that I would  let them swim and get sandy in their clothes.  Oh!!!!  This is why you told us to bring extra clothes!!!!   I hadn't even brought towels.  They just swam and jumped and ran and splashed until everyone really was getting tired (it had been a really long day).  Even then, it was hard to convince them to get out and dry in the sun.  They were water logged.  And you can imagine the amount of sand in their underwear ;) Everyone changed into their dry clothes in the back of the van - sand and dirt flying everywhere - me trying to remain calm and in my happy-go-lucky-summer-state-of-mind.  We even hit up the ice cream stand before leaving the peninsula.  I taught my kids about ordering extra sprinkles for when the you've licked the first layer of sprinkles off your cone.  We pulled up back at home well into the evening and stayed up late telling Dad about the day and eating pizza in the driveway as the sun set.  

The kids still talk about that day.  I still think about it regularly.  It was the day that made last summer amazing.  For me, at least.  I intentionally let go of so much of my uptight, plan-everything-to-a-T ways, and we had an unforgettable day.  It meant so much to me to be able to give that to my kids, it's hard to really convey how important it was to me in words.  But I've always wanted to share some photos from that day.  They're a souvenir of one of my favorite days ever.  And they're a reminder of the sheer joy it was to make my children so very happy with a few simple "spontaneous" changes to the plan :)

Monday, July 17, 2017

How We Do #wildandfree In Our Urban Backyard

When my husband and I daydream about the things we want for our children, it often comes back to experiences that we associate with living in the country.  We want them to have free and open play spaces, we want them to climb trees, observe wildlife, tend to plants, raise chickens and gather fresh eggs, blaze bike trails through the woods, and build tree forts out of scraps.  We appreciate the positive affect that a "free range" childhood can have on the development of children.  (Lots of great studies have been done on the benefits!)  For a while we were actively looking at properties that were a bit more rural, had more than a couple acres of land with mature trees and grassy areas that didn't need to be manicured.  And hey, a little creek would have been the bonus that would have made all our house-hunting dreams come true.  

A few times we found properties that a-l-m-o-s-t made us pull the trigger... but we didn't.  And quite frankly, we're not unhappy to be staying in our current home within the city limits. Its space is sufficient and we've adopted an attitude toward our property and location that have allowed us to give our kids as "free range" a child-hood as possible in our present circumstances.

In fact, I've come to appreciate, that "free range" can happen anywhere, and doesn't require rambling rural fields and cool shady woods to be a reality for our kids.  In short, "free range" doesn't mean you have to have a home on the range.  It means giving your children unstructured free time, materials to inspire creativity and imagination, and the freedom to explore, create, and "do their own thing," as it were.  

We have a .16 acre lot and here's what we do to give our kids some "free range" experiences in our very own urban backyard...

(1)  First and foremost, I long ago abandoned all illusions of a yard worthy of Better Homes and Gardens.

Seriously.  I packed them away and stashed them in the dank, dark basement, and only think about getting them out after my children have gone away to college.  No, even then they'll probably bring their friends home for mud football games in the yard, so I'm just leaving my illusions packed...
I had always thought that once I was a home owner I would also have a beautiful yard with gorgeous flowers and a bubbling fountain.  Alas, how wrong I was.  I have a yard littered with scraps of projects and experiments, pieces of imaginative games, and holes that kids have dug.  It took a few years, but I'm finally OK with the state of the yard!

(2) We give our children tools and the freedom to use them.

Hammers, nails, screws and screwdrivers, rope or twine, a heavy duty bucket...  Our older boys have a couple power drills and have permission to use a saw when Dad is nearby.  Common sense safety rules apply, and they're not allowed to damage any structures (house, garage, playset) or trees, but otherwise we tend to let them use the tools how they want.  They've built some pretty awesome things ;)

(3) We give them supplies.  Or better yet, we let them collect their own.

Once you give your kids tools, they'll need some stuff to build with.  When we moved into our house there were a few saw horses and piles and piles of 2x4's and other scrap wood in our garage.  Those pieces of wood have come in and out of the garage more times that I could ever count.  Play houses, makeshift basketball nets, mini golf courses, American Ninja Warrior courses, and more have been crafted from that scrap wood.  Our garage it also filled with old, unused landscaping stones.  The kids get to do whatever they want with them. Some years they've used them to surround a garden.  Another year they used them to build a castle wall, and another time they were part of a frontier fort visited by Lewis and Clark.

You don't have to buy "supplies."  Our kids actually get lots of supplies from garbage hunting :)  (This is another aspect of their "free range" childhood that I had to grow to appreciate with my husband's encouragement ;) )  Recently they went out with a wagon during Big Trash Week and came home with lots of great stuff, including two 8 ft long bamboo poles and a large set of pvc-type pipes and various connectors.  You can always find scrap wood in garbage piles.  One of my sons also looks for old furniture that he can use for "harvesting" screws, etc...  The great thing about acquiring supplies this way is that once the items break or the kids are done with them, there's no guilt about taking the stuff right back out to the curb :)

(4) We let our kids climb things.

Don't have woods on your property full of beautiful climbing trees?  Sometimes you just gotta let your kids climb what you do have.  My little kids are actually light enough to climb our small Japanese maple in the front and the big kids can shimmy up the huge silver maple in the back, but they're not really great climbing trees.  So the kids also climb up to the top of the play set, the deck railing, and the wood fence to get up to the mulberry tree.  I confess I think climbing is important, but I hate to watch it, so my husband is usually around when they're defying gravity ;)  

(5) We encourage our kids to keep critters.

We can't go out to the yard to collect fresh chicken eggs or milk goats, but we can still give our kids some up-close encounters with city nature.  Last summer it felt like we had a menagerie on our deck.  It was a bit annoying to me (again... Better Homes and Gardens yards are never littered with makeshift plastic and mesh habitats...) but the kids had the chance to witness tadpoles turn into frogs, and fat green caterpillars turn into polyphemus moths, and snails slime about in a tupperware.  And it actually was pretty darn fascinating to get a front-row seat to the show :)

(6) We allow our kids to take a portion of the garden and give the freedom to do whatever they want with it.

Kids love to plant stuff and watch it grown.  For many years now we've had a family vegetable garden, but we've also let the kids take pieces of the yard for themselves to grow pretty much whatever they want.  They often try flowers, but with little success.  Of course they love eating the snap peas and beans they've grown themselves, or they'll run out to pick a quick leaf of lettuce from their garden to put on their sandwich.  We let them plant what and how they want.  They care for the garden how they want.  And even though I probably bought the seeds they used they can pretty much do whatever they want with their harvest.  Carrot chive soup is a favorite...... among the kids, at least.

(7) We let them use the garden hose.

  It's a sacrifice, but we actually will let them make mud :)  We let them build dams and bridges with spare bricks and and sticks and mud.  Our kids love to flood the driveway and then send little sticks and leaves and homemade boats floating down into the street and down to the sewers.  (Sometimes playing with the hose inspires them to wash the car, so bonus!)

(8) We allow them "import" nature.

This sort of goes along with the "we let them bring other people's garbage into our yard."  If my kids want to build a lean-to or teepee, they scour the neighborhood for fallen branches after a storm and drag them back to our house.  I mentioned we have a big maple tree, but it loses its leaves very late in fall and no one wants to wait that long to rake and jump in piles.  My kids bring our three wagons around the neighborhood, rake other people's lawns and bring the leaves back to our yard.  We're the only people I know who import leaves into their yard each fall, but I let them do it because, childhood :)
(ps - my kids get money and cookies from neighbors all the time for this leaf-raking service they provide every year!)

(8) I just leave them alone :)

This is sort of the heart and soul of "free range."  Kids' creativity shines when they're free from the rigorous schedules of structured activities and the order and limits often imposed by adults on their "play time."  My children are usually much more creative and cooperative amongst each other when I don't try to steer the activity or moderate every little dispute.  With a few tools, a patch of garden, and the freedom to be creative, my kids can do an awful lot of wild and free things in our own small urban backyard :)  

(9) We DO get out when we can.

Please don't assume we lock our kids in the backyard!  We let them out and about the neighborhood too, but I just used the word "backyard" for continuity's sake!  ALSO, We make it a point to get our city kids out of the city frequently, too!  It's good for the body and soul to get out and hike in the woods, spot deer and wild turkeys, splash in the creek, and swing from hanging vines.  But I'm grateful that I don't labor under the false pretense that a happy, playful, and creative childhood can only happen in the country.  I can say confidently from experience, parents can give their children the benefits of a free range childhood right from their own small patch of urban backyard!  

How about you?  What are your tips and thoughts on "free range childhood" for kids in traditional urban (and even suburban) environments?  

Monday, July 10, 2017

5 Reasons to Try Audible This Summer (and 40% off if you sign up!!)

(This post contains affiliate links.  If you sign up for Audible through your Amazon 
Prime account, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.  Thank you!)

We obviously do a a decent amount of reading physical books around here, but we're big audio book fans as well.  I still get the occasional book-on-CD from the library, but in the past year or so we've gravitated more and more toward Audible.  It's by far, my favorite resource for quality audio lit.  

I'm so grateful that my mom clued me in to this amazing library.  I believe it's a must-have for book lovers, literary families, and homeschooling families.  In case you're not familiar with Amazon's Audible feature, I'd like to give you five great reasons why you should sign up now!  

(1) New Audible users (existing Amazon Prime members) 
get their first 6 months at 40% off!!!!
Click here for the discount on a new Audible gold account :) 

What exactly is Audible?  It's a monthly subscription to audio books.  Your monthly payment (see above link for discount!!) buys you credits to use towards any audio book in the audio library.  You also have the option of buying titles outright (it makes sense to do this for books that cost less than the monthly subscription.  See my link to a great list at the end of this post.)  Once you buy a title, it is yours for good.  You can listen to it on your phone or other device.  When you're done listening, you can remove it from the device to conserve storage space, but it remains in your library for the next time you want to use it!   

(2) Audible is tops for convenient, on-the-go literary entertainment.

One of the first things I do before we leave on a car trip (long road trip, or short day trip) is stock up on audio books.  I know from experience that it's asking for trouble to bring library books-on-CD on vacations out of state or on day trips to the local park or beach.  Audible to the rescue!  There's no losing CD's in the bowels of the van, no changing discs while trying to drive, no worry that gritty sand will ruin library property.  With Audible, just plug in to your car's audio system, and go!

Related - Even though library CD's are "free," they were not-so-free when my kids have inadvertently scratched or broken a couple.  It really stinks to buy a brand new copy of Prince Caspian and Little House in the Big Woods and then just hand it over to the librarian with a sheepish apology.....   In hindsight, I wish I would have just spent that money on an Audible edition in the first place.

(3) Listening to audio books in the car significantly reduces sibling squabbling.

I have conducted many scientific experiments and this is a proven fact - listening to audio books in the car nearly wipes out sibling car-ride squabbling.  Everyone is too wrapped up in the story to worry about who's breathing on them or who's eyes glanced in their direction.

(4) Audio books can occasionally free up the usually enthusiastic Read-Aloud mom.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm in favor of Mom (or Dad, or Grandma, or older sibling, or babysitter... you get the idea) sitting down with a book in hand and a bunch of kids on her lap and reading out loud.  I do this a lot.  And I love it.  Having a service like Audible does not replace read aloud time in our home.  However, of you're like me and want to expose your kids to lots of great stories and a variety of authors and genres, and if your kids are like my kids and they looooove to listen to stories....  sometimes a tired out mom just can't keep up.  Audible provides a healthy and much needed break for me when my read-aloud mojo is waning.  You'll appreciate the break too!  

Additionally, when I listen to an audio book along side my family, I feel like more like a fellow consumer of entertainment (as opposed to the provider ;) )  It's fun to belly laugh or gasp in anticipation along with the rest of the listening crowd.  It's enjoyable to let someone else do the voices for a change.  It's a different kind of "reading" experience.  And I like it :) 

(5) Audio books can help reduce screen time.

This is big for us, especially as we're having a daytime TV free summer.  I had been in the habit of putting on Netflix for a rainy afternoon or for when a couple kids were sick.  But we've broken out of that habit and most everyone chooses audio books during a lull in the day.  We definitely do the old-fashion family gathered around the radio thing.  I keep a bin of quiet activities (puzzles, coloring, arranging activities, etc...) in the living room and they're available for the kids to use while listening to stories.  This summer we've been listening to Swallows and Amazons,  Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (just my big boys), and  The Cottage at Bantry Bay.  And I've got plenty more lined up for when those are done because Audible recently had a great sale on titles for kids and I stocked up :)  

So are you convinced yet?  How about a trial?  Don't forget - click here to sign up!

Wondering what you should order first??  There are two things that stand out to me because we all agree listening to them is better than reading aloud.  The first is A Bear Called Paddington because Stephen Fry reading it is just *perfection.*  He nails the dry humor of ridiculous situations.  But he's British, so...   And the second is the series The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place.   Katherine Kellgren does the best voices and howling and it's infinitely more enjoyable to listen to her do those things than attempt them myself!  

Looking for more ideas??  Here are two posts from the archives you can check out --

(I checked the old links -- nearly all the prices are still the same, and some are cheaper now!)

This is an old list.  I still recommend everything on it, but we sure have added A LOT more to our list since then :)


Our Summer Author/Illustrator Binges:

     Sarah Stewart and David Small
     Brian Wildsmith
     Jim Arnosky 
     Dahlov Ipcar 


(Listening to A Little Princess)

(listening to Mr. Midshipman Hornblower)

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Summer Reading Challenge (and Book Lists!)

Hi!  If you're new here, welcome!
If you're an old friend, I'm so glad you're back!
If you've ever read this blog before, you know how much I love
recommending good books, and you know I only recommend things
I feel very strongly about -- in a good way!  I only provide links to 
products and books that I heartily endorse.  This post is no different.
If you click on a link and purchase something from Amazon, I get a
*small* commission at no extra cost to you, 
so that I can keep my kids reading more good stuff
through the the summer and all year.
THANK YOU, from all my family and me :)

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There are very few things that could drag me up out of a major blogging slump... but if anything can do it, it's the chance to talk about kids' books :) :) :) 

We always try to do lots of extra read-alouds in the summertime --- I fondly remember a few summer's ago when I read The Jungle Book and an abridged Moby Dick outside in the yard while the kids drank copious amounts of lemonade while they lounged and listened.  Last summer's big excitement was introducing the boys to Tolkien, listening to The Hobbit in the afternoons while the little kids rested.  I think it was last summer too, that we all laughed and laughed at Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (I always read that one at lunch time.)  

Again, I have a list of read-alouds ready for this summer (I already started Heidi with the girls <3 ) and a list of audio books we'll get from the library or Audible.

But I knew that this summer I also wanted to get my three oldest kids doing even more silent reading than we usually do.  Between the library, Amazon, and our own book shelves, I pulled together a stack of books for each child from which each can choose his or her "Challenge material."  I'm a bit of a literary control freak, so I keep a pretty tight rein on what they read.  I picked about 8 books for each kid, and they can pick from that stack.  

The "Challenge" is really just a reward plan.  For every book they finish they get to pick their own personal box of whatever cereal they want from Aldi.  This is painful for me (because sugar) but they're feeling motivated!  And at the end of the summer, if they've read four or five (?) books, they get a one-on-one date with Mom or Dad.  Mini golf or bowling, maybe?  (I know they'll pick Dad, but I just put my name in there for equal opportunity purposes.)   

So here are the stacks I pulled together ---

For Aaron --

The Shadow of His Wings   a graphic novel of the life of Fr. Gereon Goldmann, by Max Temesou

Old Yeller , Fred Gipson

The Chestertons and the Golden Key, Nancy Carpentier Brown (I chose this because he's read and loved Brown's Fr. Brown readers.  I highly recommend those also!)

St Benedict: Hero of the Hills, Mary Fabyan Windeatt

St. Paul the Apostle: the Story of the Apostle to the Gentiles, Mary Fabyan Windeatt

McCracken and the Lost Island, Mark Adderly (hooray for more Catholic adventure tales!)

Travels With Gannon and Wyatt: Hawaii, Patty Wheeler (the most recent in the series, Aaron has read the others)

Shepherds to the Rescue, Maria Grace Detano, FSP (Gospel Time Trekkers series. This is the first book, so we're checking it out.  I don't know much about the series.)

For Dominic -- (Wow.  This was a tricky list to put together, but I love my Dominic and I loved this challenge!  Dominic has always been a struggling reader, though he has been working with an Orton-Gillingham tutor since Nov and has improved a ton!  But moms with kids who read far above or far below their grade level know how hard it is to find books that your child is able to read, with content to match his maturity level. I had to stretch a bit above his reading level and a bit behind to find a stack of books that I think will grab Dominic's attention and that he'll be able to work through this summer.)

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, Alice Dalgliesh (This is such a fun book, and it's only $2.49 on Amazon right now.  You should check it out!)  

Logan Pryce Makes a Mess (Tales from Maple Ridge), Grace Gilmore 

Ranger in Time: Rescue on the Oregon Trail, Kate Messner (Seriously?!?  A time traveling golden retriever!!  It's historical fiction with man's best friend.  It's got to be good!)  

The Secret Soldier: The Story of Deborah Sampson, Ann McGovern 

The Sword in the Tree, Clyde Robert Bulla

My Father's Dragon, Ruth Stiles Gannett

26 Fairmount Avenue, Tomie DePaola  (we have the whole series, so hopefully this will be the first of many (all!) that he'll read)

Race the Wild: Rain Forest Relay, Kristin Earhart (another first book of a fun series)

For Ruth --

Nate the Great, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat 

The Adventures of Sophie Mouse: a New Friend, Poppy Green 

Amelia Bedelia, Peggy Parish (Ruth got a box set of these for her Birthday, so I'm guessing/hoping she'll read a few of them :) )

Any books from my favorites series for early readers - Mouse and Mole (Wong Herbert Yee), Dodsworth (Tim Egan), Billy and Blaze (C.W. Anderson.  Not entirely sure she's ready for these yet, but we'll try), Frog and Toad (Arnold Lobel), Zelda and Ivy (Laura McGee Kvasnosk), Iris and Walter (Elissa Haden Guest)

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the Summer Reading Challenge is a roaring success.  I'll try to keep you posted.  And maybe I'll even be back here in a few days to give you the low-down on our read-alouds, audio books, and more :)  

Join the conversation -- I loooove getting book recommendations for kids so comment with your best ones.  What are your kids reading these days??  

You Might Also Like --

(the picture books we cannot live without!)

Also check our four favorite author/illustrators:

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Little Ones and The Joy of Giving (Our Dollar Tree Christmas Tradition)

My mom is writing this one, folks!  Isn't that fun?!?!?!  This will be a real treat for you since she doesn't overuse ????s and !!!!s as I do, but instead expresses herself perfectly with proper English usage and minimal, appropriate punctuation ;)  Her name is Elaine and she's my favorite <3 

A handful of years ago, my mom took my children to the Dollar store a week or two before Christmas, and it's become a sort of tradition since.  The kid looks forward to their shopping day every year - they get one-on-one time with their grandmother and they get to browse a store that has something for everyone and choose carefully selected gifts for their siblings and parents.....

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We all know that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), and of course we want our children to embrace that teaching. You know they love to put the envelope or the money in the collection plate on Sunday. But even when you explain what that’s all about, it’s not really their decision to give.  So many moms and dads and teachers are helping children of all ages create hand-made gifts and this is absolutely wonderful. Having received more than my fair share of macaroni necklaces, woven baskets, hoops filled with cross stitch, and a two-foot Eiffel Tower made completely of Legos ©, I have seen the joy on the little givers faces when I am genuinely enthusiastic about the wonderfulness of the gift (and I STILL have several of those macaroni necklaces). Enthusiasm is key. One Christmas, many decades ago, a little guy in our house unwrapped a bag of plastic soldiers. Using his best manners, he exclaimed “I love this!” Then, “What is it?”

Hoping to spread that kind of joy around, for the past few years I’ve made several trips to the dollar store – each time with a young person – to shop. The first year, we made four trips to the store in a two hour period and I got some strange looks from the cashier.  Early on, there was a good deal of guidance necessary - “I don’t think you can give your little brother a multi-function tool that includes several knives”. It gets easier every year, and this year I was especially pleased that the children began asking at the beginning of December about our shopping trip. Guidance is still necessary, and sometimes has to be quite firm – “We aren’t going to get anyone a (Barbie) doll.”  A good deal of thought goes into the final choices. We tested a jeep and a Humvee to see which would go farther with one good push. We talked about the relative value of large and small spatulas for making pancakes. We discussed a younger sibling’s preference for alligators over dinosaurs. And we had a lot of fun imaging how much the other kids would like the gifts chosen. Several were chosen with the idea that this was something that could be played together (finger football, for example), making it even more fun.

This year we added a new wrinkle. Our parish is collecting household items for refugees that are settling in our area. Each child brought the gold coins that were found in the shoes left at the fireplace on the eve of Saint Nicolas’ feast day and bought two items from the list – soap, shampoo, sponges, toothpaste, kitchen cleaners. This past Sunday, they put the contributions that they had chosen into the box at the back of the Church.

Later this week we’ll have a gift wrapping party, and we’ll talk more about how lucky we are that we can give gifts to mom and dad and brothers and sisters. And on Christmas day, both receivers and givers will be blessed.

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As I have been on the receiving end of the this gifting tradition for the last several years, I can attest to the joy that the kids experience when they give me (or their dad, or sibling) that perfect gift.  While the price certainly is right at Dollar Tree, I think it's the variety that makes it the perfect shopping destination for little ones.  Where else can you buy a coffee mug for your mom, duct tape for your dad (always much appreciated!), bubble bath soap for the toddler, Star Wars pencils for your brother, and sparkly hair bows for your sister.  It truly is the perfect place for kids to choose meaningful gifts that communicate "I chose this with you in mind... and I love you!"

May you all be abundantly blessed these few days of Advent and 
may you have a very merry Christmas!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Handicrafts for Kids to Enjoy on Cozy Winter Evenings (Prior Parent Skill Not Necessary!)

The cooler weather we've been having in the evenings makes me want to gather in the living room with my family and just enjoy being together.  It's also that time of the year when I encourage my children to start working on handmade Christmas gifts for family.  The other evening my older kids and I were cheerily gathered in front of a fire sewing and crafting.  I felt like everything was perfect and it reminded me of this post I wrote a couple years ago.  It's ok, you can go check it out... it's short :) 

We all take so much enjoyment in being together on cozy evenings - pajamas on, usually in front of a fire, reading books, playing games, listening to music, and crafting.

That last one is important to me!  Since I enjoy handcrafts so much, it's something I want to encourage my kids in as well.  I've been especially encouraged by reading the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason, which places importance on handcrafts.  Mason encouraged parents to give children the materials and instruction to learn specific skills and to intentionally create pieces that are beautiful and useful - think the opposite of the tissue paper and marshmallow crafts today's Kindergartner's bring home :)  While my kids do their share of tissue paper and glue stick projects (the kind of stuff I dispose of when they're asleep at night and I can sneak to the garbage bin unimpeded...), I also try to teach them skills so that they have the ability to create beautiful and useful items that I don't want to get rid of!  

One of the benefits of teaching kids a handicraft is that they often end up with a product that they're proud of and that they are delighted to see in use around their home (or are excited to give as a gift!)  

Here is a list of craft supplies that I always keep on hand for my kids.  These are the types of handicrafts that don't require a parent to have previously mastered a skill ( crocheting. Believe me, I've tried to teach my kids how to crochet, but it hasn't stuck...)  If you're interested in learning a new skill, perhaps it would be enjoyable to do so along side your child!  But these are primarily projects you can set your child to after a cursory look through the  instructions.  Any of these would be great to give as Christmas gifts or to purchase now and use for making Christmas gifts :)  (note: these are also the type of projects to work on in the living room, in front of the fire!  So no glue, perler beeds, paint, etc... )

C'mon.  This is a childhood staple!  If your kitchen doesn't have a couple of these in use, you're missing out ;)
My kids have used two kinds of looms/loops, and based on experience, I highly recommend the Harrisville metal looms and cotton loops.  The colors of the cotton loops are beautiful, and although slightly more expensive than the neon nylon ones, they make a much lovelier finished product.  The cotton pot holders are larger and thicker and, quite frankly, prettier.
If your kiddo already has experience with the traditional 7"x7" loom, perhaps she'd want to try out the larger, 10" loom.  I confess, I'd like one of these in my home, because they make amazing potholders.  They're a nice big size, perfect for large soup pots or casserole dishes on the table.
Finally, if you have a child that would love to turn a potholder into a real piece of art, check out this book!

Clover Pompom and Tassel Makers

Ok, I confess, I'm in love with making pompoms and tassels these days, so it's a little tricky to let my kids use my tools... but I do :)
These Clover tools are easy for kids to use, and my older three often do projects on their own with them.  They have made pretty pompom flowers, garlands, and Christmas tree ornaments with them.  
Clover sells several sizes of pompom makers, but I recommend the "Large" and "Small" sets for kids (as opposed to the XL and XS ones).  The tassel makers come in "Large" and "Small" but each one makes a handful of sizes.  
These, plus a few inexpensive skeins of craft yarn, will be enough for lots and lots of pretty projects!

Darice Knitting Looms

I have no idea how to do traditional knitting, but my kids sure can crank out hats on these knitting looms!  I really like this set of four sizes. I don't think we've ever used the smallest one, but the other sizes are perfect for baby, kid, and adult- size hats.  So basically, your kiddos could make Christmas gifts for literally everyone on your list this year :)
If you'll have more than one child loom knitting at once, you'll want to purchase an extra looming hook for each child.
For these looms, chunky yarn works best and makes hats without gaps in the weave.  I recommend Bernat Softee Chunky yarn for an inexpensive option (LOTS of colors available!), Lion Brand Heartlad Thick and Quick Yarn for a premium soft acrylic option, and Lion Brand Wool-Ease Thick and Quick for a warm, wool blend option.
If hats aren't your thing, how about starting out a little smaller with this little flower loom kit for making accessories, garlands, and even embellishments for handmade Christmas cards.
My oldest son has got this handicraft down very well and has expressed interest in some other types of looms. We've looked at these oblong looms, a sock loom, and various books and websites on improving loom knitting technique.  It's really a skill that can grow and last as kids get older. 

Sew Cute Needlepoint Kits

These kits come with everything needed for a child to complete a cute needlepoint project from start to finish, including a pattern-stamped plastic sheet, yarn, needle, and frame.  With simple instructions and easy patterns, these kits are great for beginning sewers.  There are several options, like the sundae above, a horse, dog, cat, owl, flower, and rainbow.  They're not all "girly" :)

DIY Embroidery Kit

I don't know any fancy embroidery stitches or techniques, but I can do a simple running stitch and back stitch.  My kids enjoy "embroidery" because it can be entirely imaginative, or you can create your own "pattern" to sew pretty much anything you want.

To build an embroidery "kit" for my kids, I inculde:

embroidery hoops (4" hoops are good for little hands and 6" are good for 'medium' hands)

craft felt (I use felt for the little kids because it's "forgiving" if you have to pull out mistakes and because you can get packs of lots of different colors.  Use green for a background for flowers, or blue as a sky background for balloons!)  

craft thread (This is different from embroidery floss, and in my opinion, is better for little kids.  It doesn't not have strands that can separate like floss does, so it makes it easier for kids to thread needles and use the thread on their own.  Older children may be able to separate and use strands of embroidery floss, but so far we've just used this craft thread.)

larger-style embroidery needles  (For kids, you'll want to use a needle that's a bit longer and thicker and has an eye big enough that they can eventually learn to thread on their own.) 

craft buttons (I included these because my kids have combined embroidery and applique designs with buttons - buttons for the centers of flowers, or as holly berries, etc...)

Looking for some specific sewing project ideas?  Here a couple things that my kids have worked on and I recommend :)  

Button-Flower Wall Hanging

No-sew fleece blanket kits

One of my daughters is going to be working on some no-sew fleece pillows for Christmas this year.  This is a fun option for young kids who know how to tie a knot - you end up with a soft and fluffy blanket in the end!  There are tons of patterns and styles, but I included links to these two which seemed fun for kids :) 

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What kind of crafts do your kids enjoy?  Or how does your family like to spend cozy winter evenings together?  I'm just loving the fireside nights we've already had and am looking forward to another many more these next several months!

(Lots of Amazon affiliate links.  If you buy something,  many thanks!)
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