making the most of holiday clean-up

sensory box

holiday clean-upThe holidays have rushed in and rushed out over here, and despite a 7+ hour ride home from Pennsylvania and two people down over three days with the stomach bug, we had an amazing season.

And now that we’re home and trying–desperately–to reclaim our home and have a little fun, rather than throwing the kids in front of the tv or wii for the next few days, my husband and I really feel it’s important to use this time with our little ones as best as we can, appreciating this fleeting time while our kiddos are young and actually want to hang out with us.

Over the years, we’ve done a bit of this and that to make the most of holiday clean-up, so I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of the ways we try to sneak in some learning and family fun over holiday break.

Rather than just ball it all up and toss it in the trash, take a second to use what you’ve got!

Here’s the skinny:

backyard bird food, making the most of holiday clean-up

making the most of holiday clean-up, gift wrap bow funCut, cut, cut that wrapping paper!

  • Use Wrapping Paper (and Bows!):  Even the teeniest pieces of holiday wrapping paper can be saved and used for fine-motor practice for the little ones.  Grab a folder or a gallon ziplock bag and keep some pieces of the paper for kids to cut during the long winter months.

And bows, ribbons, and gift-wrapping fancies are so fun to use for decorating dollhouses, racetracks, or for just about anything. Or let the kids tear apart some of the bows for more fine-motor practice.

Check out my friend Allie’s Gift Wrap Pattern Sorting game–so fun and so easy!–but super for kiddos!


making the most of holiday clean-up, candy cane experimentsCandy Canes = F.U.N


  • Keep the Candy Canes for Science Fun: We always end up with a ton of candy canes at the end of the season, and I’m not sure why. But last year we rocked it out in the kitchen, playing with candy canes in ways we had never imagined.

I totally cannot wait to play with candy canes again this year–we’ve got a few fun ideas up our sleeves!

making the most of holiday clean-up, sensory boxSensory Box = F.U.N!

  • Use those Cardboard Boxes!! Though they are sometimes tricky to keep because of their size, cardboard boxes of any size can be so fun for kids–especially when their parents show them cool ways of using them.

It can be as simple as turning a boring box into a Sensory Box or a little bit more involved and turning a shoe box into a Shoelace Box.

Or check out the amazing Rachelle of TinkerLab’s Cardboard Box Creative Challenge for a ton of awesome ways of using cardboard boxes, or head over to crazy-creative Valerie’s Frugal Family Fun Cardboard Cafe for some totally fabulous ideas.


There’s no better time than the present to teach–and practice!game-playing etiquette. It may sound corny, it may take time, but our kiddos cannot grow up to be sore losers, right? Time to shake hands, offer up a good luck, and start playing!


And that’s it! Happy post-holiday clean-up, my friends!!

what to do with holiday cards (hint: don’t throw them away!)

what to do with holiday cards (hint: don't throw them away!)

post contains affiliate links



what to do with holiday cards |

We’re huge fans of holiday cards around here.

Actually, we’re huge fans of all types of cards.  We love to use them for cutting practice, arts and crafts, and even Valentines cards.

But the cards that my kiddos seem to look forward to most are the cards with pictures of our friends’ and family members’ funny faces on them. During December, Maddy, Owen, and Cora race to the mailbox every single day, and then they race to see who can open the white envelopes first, and then they race to see if they can identify the sender.

It’s fun. And we are grateful for every single card we receive, for every friend and family member we have.

We put each one on our big white pantry in the kitchen and look at them each time we walk by. But then we take down the photos, shove them in a box, and we very rarely see them again.

So this Quick Trick is something new I’m trying–something that I know my kids will enjoy because I know they love these cards.

Here’s the skinny:

  • What to do with Holiday Cards: I’m talking about the photo cards here. I have a happy place for all of our other cards, and that’s the Card Box.

what to do with holiday cards |



what to do with holiday cards

what to do with holiday cards |

holiday cards. . . ready for a new home


what to do with holiday cards

Each holiday card ‘book’ is connected to a metal circle clip.

All of the cards that come into this house end up there.

But the photo cards ended up in a box up in the closet that never seemed to make it down often enough. Granted, when it did, the kids were occupied and interested; it’s like looking though all of their best buddies’ photo albums.what to do with holiday cards

This year, however, I did something new.

Instead of taking the cards off of the pantry and putting them into the ‘holiday card box’ waaaaay up in the closet, I punched holes in the corner of each card, clipped them together with a silver circle clip, and made them a brand new home.

And I did the same thing with each year’s cards, from 2011 all the way back as far as I could.

I put our own family’s holiday card on top of each ‘book’, and I was finished.

what to do with holiday cards

 holiday cards’ new home: above our cards for cutting

I left the cards out on the table for the afternoon and next morning, and Maddy, Owen, and Cora must have flipped through them a dozen times each.  They’re not the most sturdy little clips, and if they flip too quickly the cards will tear, but with reminders to be gentle, the cards were okay.

I think now that the cards are in a more central location–right in our craft room–we’ll see them more often.  Plus, it’s like having an extra photo album to look through whenever we want.  And if ever we need a quick reminder as to how to spell that long-lost third cousin twice removed’s name, the card will be right there.

what to do with holiday cards |

And that’s it. Just a teeny little Quick Trick to make use of those holiday cards that we spend so much time choosing, to keep our kids connected with friends and family, and to help keep us all a little more organized!

Here’s to a happy, healthy 2012 to everyone!


Tiny Prints - Holiday Offer
More about holiday photos here:

get kids involved in choosing holiday cards | teachmama.combusy mom trick for making yearly photo books |
Want a few more holiday-inspired gift ideas or activities? Check out: 

Tiny Prints - Holiday Offer

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our easy, affordable new year family traditions

new years family interview (4)

new year family traditions, family interviewsMy husband and I have never really been fans of New Year’s Eve.

We’re the furthest thing from night owls, so staying up late is not easy–or that much fun for us.

New Year’s means that the long-awaited holidays are over (boo) and that family has come and gone (wah) and that there’s a lot of cleaning, reorganizing, and refocusing ahead (ack).

With kiddos in the picture, New Year’s has always been hard to explain–since little ones barely understand the year’s cycle, the ball dropping, or the passing of time.  And the thought of keeping our kids up until midnight is something that I just cannot even begin to entertain.

So instead of focusing on midnight. Or going out. Or getting fancied-up and crazy, we’ve made New Year’s a fairly (okay, totally) tame, low-key family-oriented event.  And we focus on new beginnings, fresh starts, and the exciting adventure ahead instead of mourning the loss of the holidays and the year past.

Here’s the skinny:

  • Easy, Memorable New Year Family Traditions: For us, it’s about setting traditions–easy, affordable, and memorable traditions–ones that we are excited to keep and ones we look forward to seeing each year.  Traditions that are easily adaptable and traditions that are flexible enough to adjust to our little family’s needs.


new year family traditions, new years shakersNew Year’s Shakers

  • New Year’s Shakers: We make these with supplies we have on hand–beads, ribbon, and some tiny containers we save from the recycle bin.  Or we use paper rolls with the ends stapled.  Or we use leftover noisemakers from the year’s birthday parties.  Either way, we have something that we can make some noise with–so that we can hoot and holler and welcome in the New Year, even if it’s only 9 o’clock.

new year family traditions, new years family interview

New Year’s Family Interview

  • New Year’s Family Interview: We keep them in a blue binder, and every year we use the same basic template. (The New Year’s Family Interview can be downloaded here if you want to get in on the fun!).  With a few basic questions, it doesn’t take long, but we all love looking back on how our answers have changed over the year, and I particularly love seeing how their handwriting changes.

new year family traditions, shirley templesWe’re crazy. We do fondue and fancy drinks on New Year’s.

  • Fondue & Fancy Drinks: We bust out the ole fondue pots and dipping sauces and meat, shrimp, veggies, and cheese, along with some sternos and toasting glasses, and we eat fondue and drink sparkling cider or Shirley Temples.  It’s fancy.  Usually we’re all in sweats, so it’s all good.  And the kids (and we!) love it.

new year family traditions, holiday scratch offsI (gulp) forgot the Scratch-Off’s on Christmas.  So they’re going to be for New Year’s.

(And huge thanks to Karen for putting my tickets on fancy paper after I left–how awesome is she??!)

  • New Year’s Scratch-Off Tickets: I totally and completely forgot to add the Scratch-off’s we spent so much time making to the kids’ gift piles this year, but I’m not worried. Instead, I’m planning to wrap them up and present them to Maddy, Owen, and Cora after our New Year’s Eve dinner.  I’m betting that they’ll be able to focus on them that much more–and I think it’ll be a super addition to our New Year’s traditions!
  • New Year’s Day dinner: Pork and sauerkraut. There hasn’t been a year that we didn’t make the ole Pennsylvania Dutch good luck meal of pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day.  And I’ll make it every single year.  Because what if I don’t? Who wants to test their luck that way? Certainly not I.  Everyone knows that pigs move forward to forage for their food, unlike those lazy cows (who stand still) or the chicken (who moves backwards), and you better believe we’re all about moving forward in the new year.

And that’s it for us–any New Year’s traditions that your family celebrates? I’d love to hear them!

Here’s to a happy, healthy 2012 to everyone!

More super-fun ways to ring in New Year’s can be found here there and everywhere, I’m sure, but some of my favorites include Valerie’s 5 Kid-Friendly Crafts and Activities for New Year’s or Heather’s video adaptation of the New Year’s Family Interview on HowDoesShe?  SO fun!

family playing cards: take ’em, make ’em, then play!

family playing cards

family playing cards

A few years ago, I burned the midnight oil way too close to the finish line, in an attempt to create Family Playing Cards for Maddy, Owen, and Cora.

And though I made the work harder than it needed to be, it was well worth it.

The kids have used the cards steadily for the last two years, playing games, using them as ‘cheaters’ when they made cards, wrote notes, and developed stories with their family as the main characters.

This year, I utilized my sweet, sweet laptop a little more–and I called in the resources of a good pal–so my work was a little easier. So with a little help from my friends, I created family playing cards for my kiddos, adding new cousins and Brady.

But I also made a set for our niece and nephews, and I’m hoping that they have as much fun learning our names as we have had learning theirs.

So before your friends and family hit the high road for home, and the holidays are officially over, my suggestion for you, my friends, is this: grab your camera, make everyone stand against a light-colored wall, and take their photos.

Then use the template here to create your own set of Family Playing Cards for your nieces, nephews, cousins, and little loved ones sometime this year.  And don’t forget to make a set for your own crew.

I’m betting everyone will be glad you did.

Here’s the skinny:

I took photos of my family members at Thanksgiving this year, making them totally uncomfortable by standing against a white wall in my in-law’s basement.

family playing cards sheets

family playing cards sheetsFamily Playing Cards, ready to be cut and sorted by family


Then I saved them on my computer under ‘family cards’ so that they’d all be in one happy place.

And the family members’ photos that I forgot to take at Thanksgiving, I either grabbed them the next time I saw them and took a shot or two, or I begged them to send me photos via email. And if they didn’t–or couldn’t–I either searched my own photo archives or did some Facebook-photo searching until I found one that worked.  It was much easier than I thought it’d be.

I then added the photos to the Family Playing Cards template, which you can download here as a Word Doc or a pdf.  Download and save it to your desktop as a Word Doc, then add names and add photos yourself.

Or, download Family Playing Cards as a pdf, print it out, and cut and paste photos old-school style. Both ways work.

I then saved a set of Family Playing Cards for each family I was making–adjusting names as necessary (Mommy to Aunt Amy; Daddy to Uncle Brent, etc).  Then I printed the Family Playing cards on cardstock and cut them out.


family playing cards sheetsFamily Playing Cards, arranged by family

family playing cards sheets

family playing cards

fun boxes for the Family Playing Cards

Last time I made these, I used clear contact paper as a protector for the cards, and though it was more labor-intensive, it worked fine.

This year, one of my girlfriends offered to laminate the cards for me. I took her up on the offer and plan to buy her dinner next time we’re out. It was an incredible time-saver, and she saved me hours and hours and hours. And lots of contact paper.

Once the cards were laminated, I cut the cards out, and arranged them into families to make sure I had everyone.

Then I added ‘Family Cards’ stickers to a tiny plastic box from Ikea with a few little ‘xoxo’s’ on the side.

family playing cards sheets

family playing cards

I included the rules to Memory, Go Fish!, and Old Maid, along with a few blank cards in each box, and we were good to go! The gift was ready.

Though we use the cards in a ton of ways, I know I haven’t written them about each and every time we’ve used them.

But here are just a few totally fun ways that kiddos can use Family Playing Cards for some sneaky, at-home learning. . .

For the little guys:

  • pick out the girls and the boys
  • sort the cards by adults and children
  • find their brothers and sisters, pets, and parents
  • pick out their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins
  • organize the cards by family
  • play Memory with only a few cards–one family at a time–or with only males or females
  • play Go Fish! with only a few cards–one family at a time–or with only males or females
  • practice writing their own names by copying the card
  • play ‘find the match’ by hiding one card and having the child search for the person’s partner (Mommy & Daddy; Grandma & Grandpa; Nanny & Pap, etc)

For the slightly bigger kiddos:

  • find family members whose names begin with the same letter (or sound)
  • find family members whose names end with the same letter (or sound)
  • sort the names by shortest name to longest name
  • use magnetic letters to build names
  • talk about which names rhyme or sound alike
  • write around the room by placing the cards in different spots around the room
  • play Memory, Go Fish!, or Old Maid with the whole deck

For the bigger kiddos:

  • talk about syllables, sorting by one-syllable names and on up
  • sort the cards alphabetically
  • talk about last names (though they are not on our cards)
  • talk about larger relationships (that daddy’s brother is actually Uncle Jeff, which makes Aunt Jenn Mommy’s sister-in-law)
  • use the cards for name writing practice
  • play Family Bingo with the cards, using the Blank Bingo board and having kids write in family names
  • use the cards for paint bag writing or Jell-o writing
  • use the cards for Wiggly writing or window writing

There are tons of ways to use them– have fun, and hope they enjoy!

last minute treats: fancy, festive chocolate pretzels

fancy, festive pretzels

fancy-festive chocolate pretzelsLast week, the kids and I celebrated our annual Cookie Baking Day–something we all look forward to in the month of December.

On the morning of our Cookie Baking Day, we carry on as usual.  I drag everyone out of bed, cheerlead them through bed-making, dressing, teeth-brushing, and the relocation from bedroom to breakfast table.

But everything changes once they hit the Advent Calendar where they read the day’s adventure: Bake, Bake, Bake!


It’s a learn-at-home, apron-wearing day filled with measuring, mixing, sifting, rolling, chilling, cutting, unwrapping, decorating, tasting, testing, and baking, baking, baking!

We usually cover a handful of the same cookies each year, but we also try to add a new one or two to the mix to keep things fresh.  This year, we added Fancy, Festive Chocolate Pretzels to our plan.

Here’s the skinny:

An easy, quick, kid-friendly copy of the Fancy, Festive Chocolate Pretzels is here to download as a pdf. Happy holidays!


festive chocolate pretzels, cookies, unwrapping candyMy three little bakers love, love, love to unwrap kisses.


Sometimes they’re called Belly Buttons (like Cora’s preschool teacher calls them), sometimes they’re called Pretzel Turtles (when a Rollo is melted on the pretzel and a pecan is placed on top), and sometimes they’re called Candy Pretzels.

No matter the name, there’s one thing for sure: these fancy-ish, festive, chocolate pretzels are totally awesome.

And I think they’re perfect to add to holiday cookie trays or to use as little teacher or hostess gifts because they’re so fun, so fancy, and so festive.

Though simple, Fancy, Festive Chocolate Pretzels  do take a bit of trial and error with figuring out baking (melting) time  and determining how many you can do in one batch.  Once you figure out the baking time and batch size that works for you, you’re ready to go.

festive chocolate pretzelsThe pretzels are ready for kisses. . .

Once aprons were on, Maddy, Owen, and Cora each took a bag of kisses and started unwrapping–a super fine motor practice for little fingers. And as soon as they were finished unwrapping, they placed a ton of snap pretzels on a cookie sheet.

I started out by asking them to count out 20 or 30 to the tray, but soon hands were flying and there were zillions of pretzels–way more than 20.  But it’s a great opportunity for kids to do some counting–by putting the same number of pretzels in each row, or by counting as they unwrap the kisses.

This tray is a bit over-ambitious, I must admit. Only if you have eight hands willing and able to add toppers to the melted kisses should you attempt this many at a time. Otherwise, add 20 or so to a tray until you figure out how long to keep them in the oven.

festive chocolate pretzels. . . and more kisses. . .


festive chocolate pretzels . . . and the kisses are ready for melting.

Once the pretzels are on the tray, it’s time to add the kisses.

We assigned each person to a type of kiss, and that person placed a kiss on a pretzel.festive chocolate pretzels

I try to keep regular Hershey’s Kisses on one tray and ‘special’ ones on another because the Hugs, peppermint, and filled kisses melt much more quickly. If they’re both on one tray, melting time will be tricky.

You want the kisses melted just enough that you can place a topper–an M & M, a peanut, cashew, or piece of candy cane–on top so it sticks.  If the kisses aren’t melted enough, they’ll be too tall; if they’re melted too much, the chocolate will turn to liquid and squeeze through the pretzel which makes a huge mess.

(The ones on the right are a super example of too-melty. They tasted great, but they ended up on our ‘ugly’ basket.)

And one thing we’ve found is that it’s best to test the ‘melt’ while the tray is still in the oven, and it has to be done carefully. If you remove the tray from the oven and then put it back in, the chocolate gets all cracked and funny.

Once the kisses are melted properly, the fun really begins!

It’s important to have each kiddo prepare a pile of ‘toppers’ so that everything is ready and to stand at a safe distance from the warm tray.  Once the tray is on the counter, toppers can carefully be added to kisses.


festive chocolate pretzelsour happy, pretty fancy, festive chocolate pretzels


Toppers can be anything.  We’ve used:festive chocolate pretzels

  • another pretzel to make a sandwich
  • plain M & M’s–(with letters facing down)
  • special M & M’s: peanut, peanut butter, mint, pretzel
  • nuts: peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts,
  • candy cane pieces
  • junior mints
  • marshmallows

To sneak in a bit o’ learning is very easy. Kids can:

  • add a certain number of each topper (5 peanuts, 5 M & M’s, 5 candy canes, etc)
  • make patterns with their toppers
  • add certain colors of M & M’s
  • stretch their imagination and add unique toppers
  • count their finished pretzels by 2’s, 5’s, or 10’s, depending on the number in each rowcookie baking day

I know it’s sometimes all we can do to get kids in the kitchen and not have an anxiety attack as we watch a huge mess unfold in front of our eyes, but the kitchen is a super place for sneaky learning, and most kids love being there.  With parents.  Playing with candy.

And on Cookie-Baking Day especially, when I hit Maddy, Owen, and Cora with the challenge of counting how many kisses they’ve unwrapped or to count the number of pretzels we’ve made by 2’s or 5’s, they’re usually game.   Perhaps it’s because they’re on a sugar high. Or perhaps it’s because they just don’t even know it’s ‘work’.  Or perhaps it’s because they’ll do just about anything over a pile of chocolate pretzels.

So take a deep breath, help yourself to a kiss or two (or 10!), and have fun where you are, despite the mess.

And that’s it! My goal was to have our Cookie-Baking Day Recipe Book ready for this season, but between the colds we’ve been hit hard with this month, it couldn’t happen. But it will. . . hold on tight!  Until then, enjoy Festive, Fancy Chocolate Pretzels with your little ones!

Just a little Cookie-Baking Day thanks to my mom. My amazing mom held a Cookie Baking Day each holiday season for us when we were growing up, and we loved it. My three sisters and I looked forward to this day even when we were in high school.  I knew it would be a tradition I’d carry on with my kiddos, and I’m just so very thankful for my crazy-creative mom who made things fun, exciting, and awesome for us.

teacher gifts: creative group holiday gifts

Banner room mom

teacher gifts: creative group holiday presentsThis is a guest post by my friends at Volunteer Spot, just in time for the holidays and especially for those Room Parents who are scrambling last-minute to get things together for teachers (ahem, like me. . . ).


A Tisket, A Tasket – “Teacher Gifts” in a Basket!

Delivering a delightful group surprise to the special teacher in your child’s life is as simple as a thoughtful basket of goodies!  Filled with treats tailored to his or her favorite pastime or geared towards providing a relaxing evening, themed gift baskets are the thoughtful way to say Thank You this holiday season.

Be creative! Use one of these Ten Terrific Basket Themes (or come up with your own)!

  • Movie Night!  Grab a couple fun DVDs, add a pack or two of microwavable popcorn, frozen Jr. Mints and 2 bottles of cream soda to create the perfect movie night!  Top off with a gift certificate to the movies! (Label it, “Stay In or Go Out?”)
  • Spa Day!  Gift certificates for a massage, manicure, pedicure, or haircut with bath bubbles, a loofa, body wash and candles provides a super relaxing and enjoyable gift.
  • De-clutter!  Organizational notepads for grocery lists and menu planning, or personal schedulers and lesson planners look great wrapped up with a gift card on top!

creative holiday teach gifts, classroom party ideas volunteerspot

  • Cozy Night In!  Treat the teacher with a basketful of warm goodies including gourmet hot chocolate, teas, and cider with a personalized mug.  Top off with warm and fuzzy mittens and a scarf!
  • School supplies!   Ask each student’s family to donate one or two small items which are running low in the classroom: pencils, markers, glue, stickers, tissue, hand sanitizer, table wipes, etc.  Gift card donations from office supply and craft stores can also help with classroom supplies. Parents who can’t afford to donate can participate by cutting coupons for frequented retailers.
  • Get your read on!  Ask the other teachers in the same grade, and you are bound to find what your child’s teacher likes to read.  Gather donations for a magazine subscription, or fill the basket with a couple best-sellers, a personalized bookmark, and a gift card to the local bookstore.
  • Music Mania!  Find out your teacher’s favorite band or simply the type of music they enjoy and get tickets to a local show.   Include a gift card for downloading music, a cd, or concert dvd.  *Have the class sing a holiday song on a recordable card which can be given to the teacher with their basket.
  • Hey Sports Fans!  Ifyour teacher is wild about their favorite team, organize a basket with tickets to a game, favorite player jerseys or other sports memorabilia, pennant banner for the classroom, and a holiday ornament with the team logo.
  • Let’s get cookin’!  Ready-to-make cookies and muffins-in-a-jar, family recipes submitted from each student and their family (hole-punched and bound together with ribbon), a gift card to a specialty grocery store, and measuring spoons or a personalized apron (think class handprints) will spice up any kitchen!
  • Caffeinated?  We know most of our teachers aren’t making it day in and day out off pure adrenaline.  Wrap up a gift card to a coffee or tea shop with biscotti or tea cookies, chocolate covered espresso beans, and specialty coffee or tea.  Top off with a personalized craft mug – think thumbprints on a glazed mug you bake.

More Teacher Gift ideas in VolunteerSpot’s free e-book!

creative holiday teacher gifts

It’s easy when you use VolunteerSpotfree online sign up sheets allow you to request (via email) all the perfect items for your ultimate group gift.  Either ask for donations of small amounts of cash to combine, or request specific items for donation to your gift basket. Volunteers can even sign up from their cell phone or mobile device.

creative holiday teacher gifts, basket of giftsAnd to up the ante on the memorable factor, personalize your gift baskets with unique items from students:

  • Include personal Thank You notes from students or class parents
  • Hand-made booklets of student drawings and writings can be bound and included with any basket
  • A behind-the-scenes photo album or class picture is a sweet way to make your gift “memorable”
  • Holiday cards signed by each student, or recorded with students singing or saying “Thank You Mr/Mrs. . .” are a real treat
  • Have a tech-whiz handy?  Make a quick movie of students and parents saying Thank You & Happy Holidays – include a little note in your gift basket for the teacher to “check their email”

Teachers are worth a bushel of cheer during the holidays!  Get creative – make their winter break shine and show your group’s appreciation, all in one basket!

creative holiday teacher gifts

Written by Jessica Young. 

Jessica Young is VolunteerSpot’s social media specialist.  When she’s not blogging, tweeting and being socially savvy, Jess coaches volunteer leaders in getting the most out of VolunteerSpot’s free and easy online volunteer coordination tool. Jess lives in Asheville, NC.

homemade scratch-off tickets (fun stocking stuffers!)

DIY scratch off tickets

post contains affiliate links



DIY scratch off tickets |


It’s been a busy few days–weeks!–with our December birthday and work and school and holiday festivities, but I’m totally over the moon excited to share something fun and completely new-for-me.

And on Christmas, when Maddy, Owen, and Cora open up their stockings, they’ll find something totally new-for-them: Homemade Scratch-off tickets!

These scratch-off tickets are filled with tons of fun activities that we can do as a family–kind of like the Mother’s Day and Father’s Day ticket books— but for the kids.

This is an especially easy, fun, and unusual New For Us Friday that I really think has a ton of potential–not only can these scratch-offs be used for holiday stockings, but they can be used for class parties, birthday party goodie-bags, fund-raisers, and just about anything.

I. Love. It.

I’m totally Scratch-off Ticket Happy.  I cannot wait to make more.

Here’s the skinny:

  • Homemade Scratch-off Tickets: My crafty friend Karen found this idea on Pinterest, and the crazy and creative gal she is, she took the idea and ran with it.

homemade scratch-off ticketsour scratch-off workspace

She invited a few of our close buddies over for a night of gift-wrapping, wine-drinking, cookie-and-pizza-eating, and scratch-off-making.  And it was just what the doctor ordered for a few harried moms during holiday time.

homemade scratch-off ticketsmagical scratch-off mixture: one part dish soap + two parts silver paint


Surprisingly, these Scratch-off tickets are totally easy to make.  All you need is some silver metallic (acrylic)  craft paint, some dish soap, clear contact paper, and craft paper or cardstock.

I asked my girlfriends for some ticket ideas, then I created some scratch off tickets |

Our ideas include:

  • dinner of your choice
  • breakfast date with Daddy
  • dinner date with Mommy
  • pick your seat at the table for one month
  • pick your seat in the car for one month
  • in charge of Family Game Night
  • choose the night’s dessert
  • visit park or playground of your choice

Our Scratch-off Tickets (with our ideas included) can be downloaded as a pdf here: scratch off tickets OURS |

The Blank Scratch-off Tickets can be downloaded as a pdf here: scratch off tickets |

(If you choose to share this idea, which we hope you do, please link to this post instead of the attachment page! Thank you!)

Either way works!  And the kids will just be happy grabbing a coin, scratching it off, and finding the surprise inside!

homemade scratch-off ticketsSome of our scratch-offs, ready for painting. . .

homemade scratch-off tickets. . . and some scratch-offs partially painted.

I printed out the Scratch-off Tickets and brought them to Karen’s.  She had everything we needed for a night of Scratch-off creating ready for us.

A few of my friends cut apart their tickets and mounted them on pretty holiday paper (I did not–I’m clearly one of the lazy crafters of our group–plus I was busy cutting apart the Family Memory Cards I’m making for my nieces and nephews. . . ).


homemade scratch-off ticketsWe painted scratch-offs. . .

homemade scratch-off tickets

. . . and we painted more scratch-offs.

And after they glued the tickets to the fancy paper, all we did was place a small square of clear contact paper over the part of the ticket we wanted to cover.

The magical scratch-off mixture is simple: it’s one part dish soap and two parts silver metallic acrylic paint.  

We put about two coats of magical scratch-off paint on top of the clear contact paper, and we let it dry. That’s it! So fun and easy.

homemade scratch-off tickets

The finished scratch-offs look so pretty on fancy paper!

homemade scratch-off tickets

I’m going to try to find a shiny, new coin to throw in the bottom of stockings so the kids have something to use to scratch off their tickets.  Cannot wait!

One thing we noticed however, when we tried the scratch-off ourselves, was that the grey didn’t flake off like the scratch-off tickets we know.  Instead, this mix kind of moved to the side and got clumpy–but it was fine.   Maybe they were still not completely dry and they will flake away when the kids use them.  I personally don’t care all that much because they worked.

For those with super-nice houses, though, perhaps having a few paper towels or napkins close by may ease your nerves.  For those of you like me, whose houses are already a mess and in kid-mode, let the scratch-off fun begin, right there in the mess of holiday wrap, bows, and tissue paper.


And that’s it! Hopefully the kids will like this New For Us addition to their stockings.  I know that we’ll all love the time spent cashing them in, and it’ll be so interesting to see who ‘cashes’ their tickets in first and how the kids keep them safe.

Happy Scratch-off making!!

Many, many thanks to my pal Karen for this fun evening, for finding this activity, and for having everything ready for us to make Scratch-offs.  And huuuuge thanks to Summer, from More Designs Please, for sharing this homemade scratch-off idea on her awesome and beautiful blog.  Many thanks to Pinterest for bringing us all together!

Want a few more holiday-inspired gift ideas or activities? Check out: 


fyi: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Forever and always I recommend only products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”  For more information, please see teachmama media, llc. disclosure policy

holiday time fun-fact lunchbox notes

holiday time fun fact lunchbox notes

post contains affiliate links




holiday time fun fact lunchbox notes | teachmama.comI said yesterday, my kids have taken to the Christmas around the World, and I am so totally over the moon about it.

They’re batty over a non-fiction text!

They want to read it! They talk about it–even when I’m not there!

I’d be crazy if I didn’t try to do some sort of extension with it, right?

But it’s an insanely busy time of the year. And despite our ever-looming, always-watching, Elf on the Shelf, Maddy, Owen, and Cora aren’t up for much more ‘extension’ than baking cookies or making holiday gifts for grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

So I couldn’t really run with this opportunity much more than I did, even if I wanted to.

But I did do something–something that got Owen and Maddy smiling at lunch and asking me questions after school.

Here’s the skinny:

I grabbed some Christmas around the World-inspired facts and threw them on simple note templates, and that’s it.

holiday time fun fact lunchbox notes |

Holiday Time Fun-Fact Lunchbox Notes = Lunchtime F-U-N


If you want to share in the Holiday Time Fun-Fact Lunchbox Notes fun and festivities, go right ahead! (Just please link to this post instead of the attachment page!)

holiday time fun fact lunchbox notes |

Happy holidays! The pdf is here to download: holiday fun fact lunchbox notes


Really, they consist of some quick–intriguing–facts about Christmas in Germany, Mexico, China, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Sweden, Russia, and Australia, along with a few facts about the meaning of Christmas. Quick, easy, and fun.  Just little bit of information about how Christmas is celebrated in these places.  That’s it.

holiday time fun fact lunchbox notes |

holiday time fun fact lunchbox notes |

And maybe, just maybe, reading these facts at lunch will inspire Maddy, Owen, or Cora to share the exciting bits of Christmas info with their classmates, make those exciting bits of Christmas facts stick in their brain just a little bit longer, or put a smile on their face when they think of all the times we read the book together here at home.

For kiddos who haven’t read this book, reading these facts can still be cool and interesting and fun. Because I’m not sure about other families, but we don’t talk too much about Christmas in other countries, so facts about how others celebrate just may be. . . well, short enough to entice interest, intriguing, inviting, and exciting.

holiday time fun fact lunchbox notes |

And I’ve just been writing a quick ‘xoxo love Mom’ or ‘Isn’t that cool?’ love you! Mom’ on the bottom of the note before I throw it in the lunch bag.

So that’s it. Just a quick and sneaky way I’m throwing in a little bit o’ learning and fun when I can, where I can.

Cheers, and happy lunchbox note reading!


Want a few more holiday-inspired learning ideas? Check out: 



holiday fun facts and lunchbox joke notes |

fyi: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Forever and always I recommend only products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”  For more information, please see teachmama media, llc. disclosure policy

learning during read-alouds: non-fiction that WORKS

making nonfiction work for kids

post contains affiliate links



making nonfiction work for kids |


The first few times Owen had media at school this year, he came home with the most random books.

His first book was an Arthur book that we already have here at home.  Then he came home with a non-fiction book about Chihuahuas.

The next week, he picked yet another book that we have here at home.  Then came another from the same dog series as before about this time about labradoodles, which makes some sense because we have a labradoodle ourselves. But the following week, when he pulled a book from the same dog series about collies, I thought it was time for a media-book intervention.

It would be one thing if he was genuinely interested in dogs and read these books he chose, but the books sat in his backpack for a day or two and then he brought them back to school.

If he was going to spend one period a week at the media center–which I know is packed with some really incredible books–he was going to make it work for him.

And in the process of getting Owen to use his media time more wisely, we all learned a little about making non-fiction books work for us.

Here’s the skinny:

  • Non-fiction books that work: Non-fiction texts are texts that are real, true, and factual; fiction texts are stories created by an author which are not real, true, or factual.

Most of us reach for fiction when it comes to reading aloud with our kids, and it makes perfect sense–fiction is often easier to read and follow for because we are more familiar with the genre. Period.

making nonfiction work for kids | teachmama.comthe non-fiction book that stole their hearts

But as our little ones get older, it’s important that we begin to pull out some non-fiction books to read as well. Today, we’re really lucky in that many of the best publishers for children are making a concerted effort to add non-fiction titles to their lists. These books are far from what we may perceive non-fiction to be; they’re far from boring, plain, and sterile and are instead filled with photographs, colorful captions, and are written in an age-appropriate voice.

So a few weeks ago, I said, Okay, Owen, you have media today. What are you going to look for today?

learning during read-alouds: non-fiction that WORKS

Through big bites of cereal: Um, I don’t know.

What do you feel like reading?

Um, I don’t really know.

Is there anything you want to read about or learn about?

Through more big bites of cereal: Um, I don’t really know.

Okay, how about you search for a book that I think you’ll like if your teacher can help you find it?  How about a book about how people celebrate Christmas in other countries? I’m curious about how people celebrate around the world.  Maybe it will be interesting.

Um, I don’t know. . .

Hours later, Owen bounded out of the school building waving to me and screaming Mommy! I found an awesome book!! As he unpacked his backpack in the middle of school dismissal, he dug through his folders and pulled out a book. Look! It’s Christmas Around the World! I love it!

And that was just the beginning. He’s taken the book out of the school library for two straight weeks, but it doesn’t sit safely in his backpack, waiting to return to the shelves.

learning during read-alouds: non-fiction that WORKSmap? check.

learning during read-alouds: non-fiction that WORKS


He reads this book all. the. time.

He hides this book under the covers of his bed so he can find it at bedtime every night. My husband or I have read this book with the kids probably a dozen times.

I wondered, as I read it for the tenth time and as Maddy, Owen, and Cora raced to point out the countries they could identify using the colors on the map key, What is it about this book that my kids have gone nutty for it? Why do they love it so much? What’s the formula for a non-fiction text that works, and how–and where–can I find another one?

making nonfiction work for kids |

making nonfiction work for kids |

As we read, we do a few things–not every single thing, every single time, because I love to mix it up:

  • We give choices. We sometimes allow each kiddo to choose one chapter–one country–to read about. I think they like the ‘ownership’ and choice.
  • We make connections.  Between what we do and what people in other countries do.  Between what their friends do and what we do.
  • We ask questions. Sometimes I’ll ask them, and sometimes they ask them.
  • I do think alouds. Hmmm, so in Sweden the oldest daughter dresses up as St. Lucia. I wonder how the other kids feel about that? In Australia they go to the beach for Christmas picnic? Wow. That would be so different for us!
  • We do ‘quizzes’. With identifying countries on the map, with fun facts about Christmas, with tongue twisters.
  • We talk about text features. We use the table of contents to locate chapters, and we talk about the new-for-us words from other languages in italics. We chat about the map and the map key.

So I did some reading and I did some researching, and it seems as though this book that Owen picked up–with the help of his mom and with the help of his school media specialist–almost 100% fits the bill for a ‘great’ informational text for young readers.

From March 2008’s The Reading Teacher, I found an article by Kathy E. Stephens, “A Quick Guide for Selecting Great Informational Books for Young Children,” and Christmas around the World almost completely, perfectly qualifies as ‘great’.

learning during read-alouds: non-fiction that WORKSthe checklist: Kathy E. Stephens’ formula for great informational books for kids

I like this checklist because it’s easy. I like it because it’s to the point. And I like it because it touches on elements I hadn’t considered, like the title being ‘short enough to entice interest’ or the ‘intriguing facts’ or the ‘inviting’ photographs and illustrations.  It makes total sense to me.

And if you want to download this super-awesome list: nonfiction checklist for young readers

Christmas around the World, by Emily Kelly and illustrated by Joni Oeltjenbrums, is an On My Own: Holidays book by Lerner Books. It’s a quick trip around the world with stops in Mexico, Austrailia, Lebanon, Germany, and more, where readers learn a little bit about how each country celebrates Christmas.

learning during read-alouds: non-fiction that WORKS

It’s written at about a 2-3rd grade level (Guided Reading N) , so it works well as a read-aloud for both Maddy and Owen and for Cora with extra support.  It has the typical non-fiction text features, like a table of contents, chapter titles, illustrations and color-coded map, but I do wish it included an index and some actual photographs with captions.  There’s even a few Christmas jokes and Christmas tongue twisters thrown in at the end, and I’m sure that they love those, too. In fact, I know they do.

I also know that for Maddy, Owen, and Cora, the awesomeness of this non-fiction text had a lot to do with timing.  It’s almost Christmas.  They’re interested in Christmas.  They’re all about Christmas.  And Christmas is probably just about all they have thought about for the last 45 days, and it’s probably all they will think about for the next 13 days.

It’s all working to make the non-fiction read-aloud a smashing success, and I’ll take it. 

I’m hoping that we can replicate this non-fiction love with another book in the near future, since now I’m pretty sure I’ve got the formula for a definite hit. And that’s it for some sneaky learning during read-alouds for now. More from the learning during read-alouds series next week!

Many thanks to the following sources for information and guidance in writing this post:

  • Gill, S. R. (2009), What Teachers Need to Know About the “New” Nonfiction. The Reading Teacher, 63: 260–267. doi: 10.1598/RT.63.4.1
  • Kurkjian, C., Livingston, N. and Cobb, V. (2006), Inquiring Minds Want to Learn: The Info on Nonfiction and Informational Series Books. The Reading Teacher, 60: 86–96. doi: 10.1598/RT.60.1.10
  • Lerner Publishing, Inc.
  • Palmer, R. G. and Stewart, R. A. (2005), Models for Using Nonfiction in the Primary Grades. The Reading Teacher, 58: 426–434. doi: 10.1598/RT.58.5.2



Want a few more holiday-inspired learning ideas? Check out: 



fyi: affiliate links are used in this post

new for us friday: gaylord national ICE! (& why you should go)

gaylord national event ice move it move it

gaylord national ICEThis New For Us Friday, I’m totally excited to share something that I wish every family was able to do, even during this busy time of year.

It’s a New For Us Friday that my family experienced last weekend, and it was seriously so. much. fun.

It was something that we talked about all week long; it was something that the kids told everyone they saw on Monday morning.

It’s something that I’ve wanted to check out for quite some time, but I wasn’t sure the kids were quite old enough (they were!), I wasn’t sure my family could afford it (we could!), and I wasn’t sure it was worth the time during the busy holiday season (it totally was!).

It’s the Gaylord National Resort’s Christmas on the Potomac, and it’s awesome.

Here’s the skinny on why you should pack yourself up and head on over asap:

  • Gaylord National’s Christmas on the Potomac: The first time I saw the Gaylord National itself was for Blogalicious this year, and I told my husband that I’d do anything and everything I could to return.  The facilities are fabulous. It’s gorgeous. It’s majestic.

So I knew that all dressed up for Christmas, this place would be beyond incredible.


gaylord national ICEHow cute is that little house?

And it was.

I really think that there’s something here for every family, no matter the budget.  And it can be agaylord national ICE hotel super-cool new-for-you, little-bit-of-holiday something if you want to throw in some sneaky holiday-time learning on the side.  Or it could be a super-cool new-for-you, little-bit-of-a-getaway if you want to visit the place after January 8, when the happy holiday stuff will be gone.

The Gaylord National is a quick car trip from most of the DC Metro area and beyond, and they offer some (completely impressive) specials for couples and families–some of which include discounted tickets to events and exhibits. (I’m seriously considering planning a little weekend vay-cay for my family next year or a springtime getaway with my husband for our anniversary!) 

And there is a ton more to Gaylord National and the ‘Christmas on the Potomac’ than just the ICE! exhibit that everyone talks about.  A whole lot more.

We barely scratched the surface during the afternoon we were there, but we did get a good taste of the holiday awesomeness that is the ‘Capital of Christmas’ on our nearby Potomac.

Check out our photos from the afternoon:

We loved:

  • The Decorations. Beautiful. Breath-taking. Magical.  Two million lights.  Choreographed to music.  Totally free for anyone. And not only is the hotel lobby and gardens beautiful (and right on the water), but the atrium is fab. And there’s a 60-foot tall Christmas tree inside, hanging from the ceiling.gaylord national ICE
  • The Atrium and Gardens. It’s like a little village, and Maddy, Owen, and Cora begged us to let them live there so they could play hide-and-seek every day of their lives. Little stores, restaurants, a fun fountain, and Christmas decos all around. Loved it.
  • DreamWorks Character Passport. We were able to meet Shrek! Puss in Boots! Kung Fu Panda! Our Madagascar friends! The workers are so helpful and so patient, and they gently moved each group from character to character, kindly dealing with tons of kids and parents who were over-excited and juggling strollers, coats, and cameras.
  • Puss in Boots Scavenger Hunt.  Right. Up. Our. Alley. Loved it. Maddy, Owen, and Cora did this hunt in about 20-30 minutes, but they really had a blast. The hunt involves reading ten clues and either figuring out the answer or hunting in the indoor gardens for the answer.  It got us reading, thinking, moving, and searching. And my kids were the perfect ages for it–4-8 years–but I think even kids who are a bit older would enjoy it. It was clever. And there’s a prize at the end.
  • ICE! Merry Madagascar: So fun. So totally cool–actually, cold. Freezing cold, actually, but still so totally fun. I’m glad we went this year, when Cora was four; I’m not sure she would have been able to hang as long as she did if she were much younger, but I could be wrong.  ICE! begins with a short movie about how the exhibit is created, which I truly appreciated. Everyone in our group was glued to the screen–kids and parents alike. It’s all new for so many of us, and it’s really interesting.  We learned:

-there are 2 million pounds of ice used to create ICE!

40 artisans travel from Harbin, China to carve ICE!

ICE! consists of 5,000 400-pound blocks of ice

-the average temperature inside the attraction is 9 degrees (brrrrr!)

-it takes 30 days to carve the ice and build the attraction

-and so many other interesting facts about ice, the exhibit, and how they do it.

It ends with a walk through the exhibit which was full of our frozen Madagscar friends and which followed the Merry Madagascar story which my kids had just coincidentally watched several times since Thanksgiving thanks to Nanny.  And the slide. Oh, the two-story ice slide. So fun. Not at all scary and not at all the wet and freezing nightmare I expected. It was beautiful. Lighted. And our fun blue parkas were our sleds.

gaylord national ICEthe view from the bottom of the ice slide

 Next time, we want to check out:

  • The Ice Skating Rink: Too much for our kids after our long day of walking, meeting characters, eating cookies and green ogre milk, and meandering through ICE!, we plan to return to ice rink some time after the holidays for some skating and fun.
  • Brunch with Santa: a big buffet. With the big guy in red.
  • Brightest Star Fountain Show: We saw the fountain, we heard the music, but apparently there’s a show every night where the water dances to holiday music. SofunIwouldtotallykeepmykidsup.
  • Tree Lighting: That huge tree is lit in a big way, and it’s supposed to be awesome at night.  Our kids were running on steam by sunset, so we decided to table the lighting ceremony and spare everyone a scary scene.
  • Gingy’s Gingerbread Decorating: In this cute little gingerbread house, cute little kids can make cute little gingerbread houses that they can take home. And there’s a cute little gingerbread boy–Gingy–who walks around while kids are decorating. So fun.
  • Train Rides: We totally missed this, and I’m not sure how or why. But we are going to stalk the train next time, and we’re gonna ride it.
  • ShrekFeast: In one of the restaurants, families can eat, drink, and be merry with Shrek and his friends. And there’s a magic fountain with chocolate bubbling over, and guests can solve riddles (we love riddles!) and puzzles (we love puzzles!) to earn ogre ears. F-U-N.

**Please note: Some of the above activities are available to hotel guests only, and some are open to the public. Please see site for more specific information and pricing.

Essentially, we loved it. And we cannot wait to return.  Our return we hope will be for a little bit longer than five hours, and perhaps when we have a chance to check out more of the hotel, relax in an atrium-view room, explore more of the kids’ activities, try out the spa or heated pool, walk around the gorgeous National Harbor, or take a water taxi to Old Town Alexandria or Georgetown.

gaylord national ICE slidethe view from the top of the ice slide

And when we return, we’ll keep in mind some advice that was passed on to me by a good pal (but which I totally and completely forgot about until we were already there): bring the same color scarf for your whole family and tie the scarf around your neck when you’re visiting ICE!  Everyone’s wearing blue parkas–and yes, they fit comfortably over your winter coat–but it’s very easy to lose your kids in a sea of blue coats. Having the same color scarf would prevent that.gaylord national ice event sign

I also searched high and low for information on what to wear to ICE! as I knew the Gaylord National was kind of fancy-ish but that ICE! had, well, a lot of ice and a huge ice slide. We all wore jeans, warm socks, sneakers or boots (Uggs–not snow boots), and long sleeves.  And we brought hats, gloves, and scarves for ICE!, and we were fine.  We’ll do the same next time.

Everyone lasted about an hour, and we all slid down the ice slide about 20 million times.  It was really comfortable for the first 45-50 minutes, and then the cold set in and Cora stopped wanting to slide and started wanting to leave, and eventually everyone followed suit.

Hopefully visiting the Gaylord National’s Christmas on the Potomac will become a holiday tradition for us, as it was a really, really enjoyable ‘break’ from our holiday norm.


fyi: Many thanks to my crazy-cool friends at MomzShare and my brand-new crazy-cool friends at Gaylord National for inviting my family and me to a special Blogger Family Event at Gaylord National’s ICE!.  We received tickets to ICE! and to several events at the Gaylord in exchange for writing about our experiences.  This is an unsponsored post, and my opinions here–as always–are my own, influenced only by my three little Merry Madagascar-ICE!-sliding-cookie-eating-ogre-milk-drinking-kiddos.

quick and easy math game: strike it out!

strike it out

strike it out I’m always on the hunt for ways to make math more fun over here, especially since math is not my forte.

So when Maddy came home with ‘play game with someone’ as her assignment one day a few weeks ago, I was all for it.

Mommy! I get to play a game for homework tonight! Let’s start it right away!!

Music. To. My. Ears.

And the more we played, the more I loved it. And the more we played, the more Owen wanted in on the fun and the more my husband wanted in on the fun.  (And I’m betting if there were jewels or glitter somehow involved, I could rope Cora in as well.)

Here’s the skinny:

  • Quick and Easy Math Game–Strike it Out: It’s called ‘Strike it Out’ but if you ask me, it’s far from a strikeout. Quick, easy, and a game to be played anywhere, even on the fly? Love it.

The premise is simple: players use the numbers on a number line to try to prevent their opponent from being able to make a move, and moves are made by creating addition or subtraction problems using the available numbers.

easy math game strike it out

1.  Start by drawing a number line from 0-20 like this:

easy math game strike it out 

2.  The first player chooses a number on the number line and crosses it out.   The same player then chooses a second number and crosses that out, too. Finally, he or she circles the sum or difference of the two numbers and writes down the calculation.

easy math game strike it out3. The second player must start by crossing off the number that player one has just circled.  He or she then chooses another number to cross out and then circles a third number which is the sum or difference of the two crossed-off numbers.  Player two also writes down the calculation.

easy math game strike it out

4.  Play continues in this way with each player starting with the number that has just been circled. For example, player one could then have a turn which would leave the game looking like this:

easy math game strike it out

easy math game strike it out

yes! there’s a typo: 20-4= 16 *yikes!*

5. The winner of the game is the player who stops his or her opponent from making a move.

Huge thanks to the 2nd grade team at our elementary school for ‘giving’ us this game!  I love, love, love it, and it’s become a sneaky way to get Maddy and Owen playing with numbers and practicing addition and subtraction.  These teachers are incredible, and we are so thankful.


If you want Strike it Out as a quick and easy printable (with a few blank number lines to use!), it’s here as a pdf: Strike it Out!

Nothing like a game like this to play while waiting in lines, at doctor’s offices, restaurants, or the like!