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!)

Monday, November 7, 2016

Crochet Starter Kit or Gift Set for Beginners

Have you been thinking about learning to crochet?  No????  Oh!  I get it - it's because you already know how ;)

Well then, maybe you know someone else who'd like to learn?  The holidays are a perfect opportunity to put together a gift set for yourself or for any beginning crocheter!  

I remember when a friend told me she wanted to learn and asked me what she would need to get started crocheting.  You don't need a lot, but it certainly can help to have a little guidance.  So here's what I would include in a "Starter Kit" for someone who'd like to learn how to crochet.

It took me a while to find the hooks that I LOVE, but I now they are what I recommend to everyone, even beginners.  Maybe especially beginners.
My favorite crochet hooks are the Clover Amour Hooks, with grippy handles.  The handles feel fabulous while working, not slippery, or too skinny to hold.  And they are a bit longer than many other handles so you have better control over them since they fit in your hand better... I think :)

If you're a veteran crocheter, just do yourself a favor and go buy the 10-size set now!

But for the purposes of a starter kit, I recommend the size H/5.oo mm hook or the size J/6.oo mm hook.

It is best to learn to crochet with an acrylic yarn that isn't too slippery... but isn't too scratchy either.  For beginners, I think Lion Brand Vanna's Choice yarn is a great place to start.  It's a great yarn - soft, easy to use, great colors - and it meets my not-slippery, not-too-scratchy recommendation.  

I recommend a lighter color yarn for learning because it's easier to see individual stitches.  The Vanna's Choice line has many colors, so you'll probably have a hard time picking just one :)

(3) a tapestry needle

A large-eye needles is necessary for weaving in the ends of your project (the yarn tails that hang from your work at the beginning and end of a piece, and any place you changed color).  I find steel needles work much better than plastic ones, and recommend a set like this...

Stitch markers may not be a necessity for a beginner, but they can be very useful when learning to count stitches in a row or count rows themselves.  These stitch markers are inexpensive and easy to use (they close like a safety pin so they won't easily fall out of your work) ...

(5)  how-to materials, tutorials, and guides

In addition to the essential tools, a beginner may also need some learning materials if there is no handy friend/teacher nearby :)

Some learn best with a physical book, with pictures and descriptions.  Although I haven't seen this book firsthand, I previewed several books on Amazon and this one looks like a great beginners tool to me.  I think it would be a wonderful addition to a starter crochet kit/gift :)

Some may prefer the audio-visual approach, in which case I have two words for you:

There are a gazillion learn-to-crochet tutorials on youtube.  You may just have to jump in to one or two to see if they're suited to you.  Some may go to slow or too fast.  Or maybe you need a left-handed tutorial.  Poke around, I guarantee you'll find one that you can learn from.  I previewed this tutorial and it was well done :)

And don't forget about Pinterest for pictorial instructions on how to do basic stitches as well as charts of common abbreviations, and instructions on how to read a pattern.  If you were preparing a gift set, you certainly could print out and laminate some of these to include <3

So, what do you think?  What other tools, materials, or information would you include in a gift set for a beginner crocheter???  I'd love to hear about it in the comments.  

You may also like:

Friday, November 4, 2016

Memory Work ( or "How I Once was Lost But Now am Found")

The other day one of my big kids quizzed me, "Mom, what's the capital of Oregon?"  

I was silent and then, "Ummmm..."   I didn't know.  

James was passing nearby and I heard him say in a singsong voice, "Salem, Oregon!"  

James is not yet three ;)  

Scenes like this are rather common around here.  Geography songs are the memory work du jour.  They are nearly all we listen to in the car, and if we're all home it's a good bet that someone is somewhere humming the countries of Equatorial Africa, or the state capitals on the eastern border of the US, or some other such nerdy song.  During "school" time, the bigger kids are practicing map identification while they sing.  In addition to geography lists and map work, we also incorporate memorization into other lessons - math, Latin, grammar, and poetry.  

If you had asked my opinion on the importance of memorization back when I had just started homeschooling, I would have scoffed at the idea.  I would have said, "What a dreary way to spend learning time.  I want my children to be immersed in interesting ideas, beautiful art and literature, I want them to experience things, and I want their horizons to broaden and their imaginations to soar.  I do not want them to be bogged down with the dreary work of memorization.  I don't want them to lose their joy in learning with the drudgery of rote practice and recitations."

I myself do not recall having to memorize much of anything in school beyond what was necessary for an upcoming test - facts, dates, vocabulary words, etc... that were "memorized" and promptly forgotten after I aced a test.  I still do not have all of the multiplication facts up to 9 memorized (though teaching multiplication has helped me master a handful more than I knew a few years ago.)    I remember struggling to memorize the Act of Contrition when I was preparing for my First Reconciliation,  but even that was lost to me, as I had to learn another one later in life.  I recall having to memorize only one poem in all my schooling - I was a freshman in high school, and I recited something from Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology in front of the class.  I have no recollection of which poem it was, and even a brief glance through the table of contents today couldn't jog my memory.   

Having no experience with the concept of memorizing facts, lists,  charts, speeches, or poems as a student, I could not possibly anticipate that I would ever inflict that horror on my own kiddos.  But then my oldest started first grade at home while also attending tutoring at a study center that follows a Classical curriculum.  And when you're a kiddo in the "grammar" stage of a classical ed program, you memorize things.  It's what you do.

One day early in the year, Aaron's homework was "practice reciting the list of prepositions."  Wha?????  I sort of rolled my eyes, and asked him if he knew any prepositions.  You can imagine my surprise when he did.  In fact, he recited about half of the extensive list in the text book.  "How did you do that???"  He told me they went through the list two or three times a couple times a day.  Interesting...

Later that year Aaron's class was required to memorize the Gettysburg Address.  I was NOT on board.  He couldn't even read the Gettysburg Address, how was he going to recite it??  First graders should not be expected to know such things.  Well, homework is homework, and my mom ended up finding a wonderful reading of the Address on-line and put the file onto a cd for us.  It was read slowly and dramatically with beautiful music in the background.  We listened to it a few times every time we got into the car.  Within two or three weeks, Aaron had memorized the Gettysburg Address.  So had I.  And so had my six- and three-year old.    My three year old could recite the Gettysburg Address.  I was blown away.  Granted, they had very little understanding of the meaning or significance of what they were reciting, and they certainly had no idea why I would cry every time I heard it, but it was in their mental stores.    

At that point I got excited about what my kids were capable of learning.  As the years went by and they learned all the Presidents of the United States, skip counting by every number up to 10, all the states in the Union, and poems by significant poets, I was excited about all that I was learning too.  I have a master's degree in American history, and even I couldn't have listed all the Presidents in chronological order or the states in alphabetical order until my kids learned them set to catchy tunes.   (Incidentally, I'm so very grateful that I've been given the opportunity to practice memory work along side them, even this late in the game :) )  

It wasn't until Aaron was in about third grade that I began to appreciate the rationale behind the emphasis on memorization in classical education.  Memory work is not about how many useless facts and disjointed speeches, chants, and poems can be crammed into a little brain.  The purpose of classical education is to foster wisom utilizing the three (natural) phases of learning in the trivium.  The first of these is the grammar stage, in which young minds (up to about 6th grade) are remarkably capable of extensive memorization.  A grammar student memorizes all sorts of chants, songs, and sayings which provide the foundation for the other stages - the logic, or dialectic stage in which naturally argumentative early-adolescents begin to draw upon this base of knowledge to make connections and draw conclusions, and the rhetoric stage, in which students learn to dialogue and persuade by honing their speaking and writing skills.  

Memorization is so integral in the grammar stage because mastering information is more suited to the young brain than processing or using that information.  With this understanding, it's easy to see why a first or second grader would learn a list of 49 prepositions even though that child may not understand what a preposition is or how to use one yet.   The point is, is that when he does learn what it is and how to use it, he will already have a mental store of prepositions at his disposal.  Similarly, that child has the ability to  memorize and chant the first person personal pronouns in Latin even though he or she still hasn't plumbed the nuanced depths of first person personal pronouns in English. The how and why will be introduced to them later as their minds are matured and better suited to that information.  

From what I've read (and experienced in my own school experience) modern day educators tend to shy away from good ol' fashioned memorization in favor of more on-trend educational methods.  A book that I read (and loved) a few years ago addressed this.  In Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Anthony Esolen wrote, " 'We don't teach rote memorization,' say our educators today, raising their chins in pride.  'We prefer to teach critical thinking.  We prefer to tap into the imagination.' "  Sounds pretty familiar, right?
Esolen argues, however, that critical thinking and the imagination can not take shape without the "skeleton" that memorization provides the mind.  A child that doesn't have the multiplication tables at her fingertips can not hope to enjoy the puzzles of higher math.  How can an adult hope to deliver a persuasive or informative speech to fellow students, the PTA, a potential employer, or hopeful clients if he hasn't memorized and practiced any of the Great Speeches?  One who cannot identify the exact (or even general) location of a particular country on a map may miss the significance of a news item on that nation or might struggle in the future to appreciate music or food from that geographical area or culture.  A student who never memorized Jabberwocky, The Tyger, or other classics of Western poetry might be oblivious to clever literary references he encounters in college lectures, editorial columns, or even late night TV.   He may struggle to produce verses of his own without the benefit of "hearing" the vocabulary, rhythm, and language patterns of the great poets in his mind.  (I wrote a bit about the importance of poetry memorization here.)  

When applied properly, memory work in the areas of grammar, math, poetry and literature, geography, and even history, will not hinder critical thinking and imagination, but will provide a foundation for further education, exploration, understanding, and expression. 

For now, when I beg my toddler to sing to me of the countries of the former USSR, it's mostly just because it's overwhelmingly cute.  Nothing compares to hearing him say things like Tajikistan and Kyrghystan.  But when my older kids practice their poems or skip counting, when they rattle off Latin declension chants, and when they continuously review rules of using pronouns and list of prepositions, I know that they're growing their brains in an important way.   Far from dulling their minds, the skill of memorization, the discipline required to improve it, and the foundation of information they are building by doing so, have the capacity to support their educational, personal, and spiritual development into the future. I'm confident that intentional memory work is helping my kids create a mental structure that will serve and delight them (God willing!) for the rest of their livelong days.  

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Here are some links you may be interested in:

Here's a post where I talk about some of the audio resources we use for memorization:

Here are two posts about our Popcorn and Poetry Night, where kids and adults get to share poems (kids have to do it from memory ;) )

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