new for us friday: gem jars 2.0

gem jars 2.0 for managing kids behavior and allowance at home

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gem jars 2.0 behaivor and allowance management at home

This New For Us Friday I’m sharing a new and improved version of one of the best things we’ve ever invited into our home: gem jars.

We introduced Maddy, Owen, and Cora to gem jars about two years ago, and it was perfect way to monitor–and manage–behavior for our family for a good long time.  Gem Jars play on positive behavior; instead reacting to our kids’ negative behavior by yelling, screaming, crying, or punishing–gem jars require a major shift in focus.

Instead, we rewarded positive behavior.  And it was great for our then 6, 4, and 3 year olds.

We threw a gem in a person’s jar any time we ‘caught’ Maddy, Owen, or Cora:

  • playing nicely with pets
  • being first-time listeners
  • sharing toys
  • keeping a clean room
  • brushing teeth and washing face without being asked
  • flushing toilet and washing hands with soap without being asked (gulp)
  • using good manners
  • waiting patiently to talk and not interrupting others
  • being extra kind and loving toward each other
  • telling the truth
  • saying “I’m sorry” without being asked
  • being extra helpful to others. . . you name it.

The idea is that the rewarding, noticing, validating of positive behavior will make that behavior the natural choice.  And in time, it will become one big, happy habit.  A perpetual Nicefest.

But as the kids got older and we knew we were ready to welcome a weekly allowance into the mix, my husband and I brainstormed, chatted, and thought our way through adopting a system we knew worked–gem jars–but using it in a new and improved way.gem jars 2.0 for family behavior and allowance

  our Gem Jars 2.0

Here’s the skinny. . .

  • Gem Jars 2.0: Maddy, Owen, and Cora have been asking for an allowance for months and months now, but my husband and I just couldn’t seem to find a system that worked for us.

We wanted something easy.  Seriously.  Easy.

gem jars 2.0 for family behavior and allowance


This parenting gig is hard enough with homework, down time, cleaning, family time, discipline, friends, school, sports, spouse time, work time, and extra-curricular activities that we knew one more thing could literally send us both over the edge.

And we knew that for a good year and a half the Gem Jars worked wonders for us.

Admittedly, we slowed down on them at the end of last summer because I was working, my husband was working, and we were just. . . plain. . . tired.   And in order for things like the Gem Jars to work–like any discipline system–consistency is key.   Consistent we were for a good long time, but we were ready for something new.

gem jars 2.0 for family behavior and allowance

So we pulled out the old Spend, Save, and Give Jars–a method that we have used for organizing the kids’ money–and we decided to move forward with Gem Jars, 2.0.

I said, Okay, you guys have been waiting for an allowance for months and months and months now, and Dad and I have been trying to figure out the best way of doing allowance for everyone. Finally we think we have a way.  We’re going to use Gem Jars.  But we’re going to use them in a slightly different way than we have been using them. 

We were sitting on the floor in our craft room, with the Gem Jars emptied and the kids’ Spend, Save, and Give jars all around us.

Here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to start each week with 20 gems in everyone’s jar. And from here on out, each gem is worth ten cents. So if each gem is worth ten cents and you’ll have twenty gems in your jar, how much money will you have at the beginning of each week?

gem jars 2.0 for family behavior and allowance

First, we re-organized the Spend, Save, and Give jars. . .

gem jars 2.0 for family behavior and allowance

. . . and then we counted the week’s worth of gems.

Everyone was quiet.

I said, Okay, so everyone find twenty gems from the family gem jar.  They lined up twenty gems.  And count by 10’s.

Before I finished giving them instructions, Maddy and Owen called out, We’ll have two dollars! We’ll start with two dollars!

My husband went on to explain:   Yes, so you’ll automatically earn two dollars each week for doing your jobs around the house–making your bed, keeping your room clean, setting the table, and picking up just like you’re expected to do.

gem jars 2.0 for family behavior and allowance

gem jars 2.0 for family behavior and allowance

Owen counts his end-of-the-week gems.


Then throughout the week, you’ll have the chance to earn extra gems–by helping Mommy or me, by being especially kind to each other, to doing some extra things we ask you or that we notice you do.   And each Sunday night we’ll get back together and we’ll count your gems.  And that’s it. 

I went on: We’ll divide whatever money you earn for the week into three parts–half you can put in your spend jar, and the other half we’ll divide evenly into your save and give jars. 

But here’s the catch: just like our gem jars, you can earn extra gems by doing great things and making good choices, but you can also lose gems by not making good choices.  And this time, if you lose gems, you lose your allowance.  Make sense?

gem jars 2.0 for family behavior and allowance

It did, and they were game.

We decided that just for kicks we’d keep track of how much each person earned–not to make anyone feel bad but just to keep track in case any questions arose down the road.  So that’s what we did. We gave each child cold, hard cash for the amount of gems in each person’s jar.

We organized the money they already had in their jars–which had kind of become a mess after being inconsistent with it for a bit of time.  We counted the money they had, and we divided it roughly the way we explained above: 50% in spend; 25% in save; 25% in give.  Maybe it’s not the best breakdown, but it’s what we decided on for now.

And though we know it is a work in progress–as is much of parenting and teaching–we do hope to stay consistent with this game plan for as long as it works.  And when it stops working, we’ll reevaluate and go from there.

gem jars 2.0 for family behavior and allowance

the gem jars may look the same. . . but they’re bigger and better

A happy, happy New For Us Friday it was today because we actually took the time to re-vamp something we love and organize something we’ve wanted to for quite some time.  I feel good about it, my husband feels good about it, and the kids feel great about it.

I love the idea that we begin the week by assuming the best, most positive outcome: that Maddy, Owen, and Cora will make the right choices and will keep the $2.00 they earn by being cool kids and by doing their expected jobs around the house.

I love that it monitors behavior by giving us the flexibility to reward good–or poor–choices.   I love that it works for all three kids, and the kids see a tangible reward for their work.  I love that we’re finally revisiting the idea of helping the kids to learn about money and money-saving.

And I love that this system requires no paper, no charting, nothing major. It’s easy.   We just need to have cash on hand each Sunday, which isn’t that hard but will definitely be something I need to remember in order to help this whole process work well. I know that.

And for the last few weeks, it’s worked for us.  Three cheers for Gem Jars 2.0 and here’s to hoping we have a long and lasting relationship!

Any ideas? Suggestions? Lessons learned or things to share? Please do tell–we need all the help we can get, and I know there are experts out there!!


fyi: affiliate links are used in this post

quick trick: showing love

give flowers 12

Lately, my tiny Cora has been a little, teeny, tiny bit on the tough side.teach kids to show love

We’re back on a regular diet for her, after our gluten-free spring and summer, thanks to the advice of a pediactric GI specialist.  In order for any testing to be done–and accurate–Cora needed a minimum of four months on ‘regular’ foods.

So we’re four months in at this point and waiting to talk about next steps.

Until then, she’s been hot. And cold.  Short-tempered. Quick and loud one minute, loving and cuddly the next minute.

We’re not sure how much is related to her stomach discomfort and how much points to genetics. But I’ve read and read and read some more about how to handle bossy children, what to do when kids are strong-willed, and how to parent appropriately when one kiddo seems to control the temperature of the house.give flowers, showing love

Over and over and over again, I’m finding that creating distinct boundaries is huge.

I’m finding that recognizing and identifying children’s feelings is huge.

I’m finding that continuing to shower those kiddos with love is huge.  Even though it’s sometimes really, really hard.

And right about now, when the winter doldrums are setting in and we are all in need of some sun and warmth and happy places, the bickering and short tempers have been a-rockin’ over here.  We needed some help, and I was starting with my tiny one.

Here’s the skinny:

  • Quick Trick– Showing Love With Flowers:  So this Quick Trick is my first deliberate attempt to throw in a little love over here, as corny as that sounds.

give flowers, showing love

We are all big fans of flowers–flowers for any and all occasion.  Flowers for no occasion.

And we’re big fans of surprises.

So when Cora and I were at the grocery store the other day, she said, Mommy! Let’s get some flowers! and that was all I needed to hear in order to give me a simple–but meaningful–way to start the soon-to-be lovefest under our roof.

give flowers, showing love

Cora prepared her vases!

give flowers, showing love

I said, Oh my gosh, Cora! That’s a super idea. But if we’re going to get flowers, who should we give them to?  It’s totally cool to get flowers for yourself–but these flowers are going to be special. Let’s make them Surprise Flowers.

Maddy! Owen! exploded out of her mouth immediately, which I thought was so amazing since only an hour before she was bickering with them at breakfast.  And Daddy! And Brady! she continued.

Perfect. You pick the color, and we’ll surprise everyone when we get home.  You are a sweet and loving girl, Cora. Maddy and Owen are lucky to have a sister like you.

So she smiled the entire way through the grocery store. And occasionally she smelled the pink flowers she decided on.

When we got home, I pulled out some tiny vases, and I grabbed a mix of ribbons. 

You choose the best ribbon for each vase, I told her. Make sure that each ribbon you choose is perfect for each person you’re giving it to.

She counted carefully how many vases we would need and how many ribbons we would need.  And then she made her choices.


give flowers, showing love

Cora counted how many flowers and vases she would need.

We left the groceries in bags on the floor while we filled each vase and cut flowers–she was that excited.  I tied the ribbons onto vases, and Cora placed the flowers carefully into each vase.

And then she started her travels around the house, putting a pretty pink flower in a super-special vase in each person’s room, skipping along the way.


give flowers, showing love, owen room

A flower for Owen’s room. . .

give flowers, showing love, maddy room

. . . and a flower for Maddy’s room (while she stopped to point out a baby Cora).

And she put a flower in the powder room (because everyone will see it there!), in my room, and in her own room.

Literally, all day long, she was tip-toeing and dancing, and skipping around the house; she was that excited for Maddy and Owen to come home, and she was that excited for her dad to come home. It was wonderful.

Instead of dragging her feet up the hill to school, she ran ahead, calling to me that I wasn’t quick enough.  And she waited at the doors for Owen and Maddy to come out of the building, saying Maddy! Owen! There’s a surprise for you at home!!give flowers, showing love, cora room

Everyone ran into the house, dropped their backpacks, tore off their shoes, and followed Cora to their rooms.

Momentarily, the bickering stopped. Everyone was smiling. It didn’t matter that the surprise was a single carnation–they could tell that the vases were different, that the ribbons were special.

And I really, truly believe that everyone likes to get surprise flowers for no occasion–even the little guys.


It was a sweet way for my tiny one to fill her heart–and her siblings’ hearts–with a little love.  Buying carnations certainly does not break the bank.  They may be the least expensive flower out there, but they’re beautiful nonetheless.  Especially when you’re not expecting one.

And who doesn’t love surprise flowers in their bedroom?

So that’s it–a little, tiny Quick Trick that reminds me of our Neighborhood Notes and that I hope hope hope will be repeated without my prompting.  And I hope hope hope it will remind my littles of how good it feels to be nice and do sweet things for others.

Only time will tell.

best of teach mama countdown: #3 shoe-tying

shoelace box 13

shoe-tying tipsTeaching some kids how to tie their shoes is so not easy, it’s not even funny.

While one child may teach herself how to do it, for another child, it may take time and time and time again for her to actually learn how to tie those shoelaces on her own.

Maddy was a great example of the former, while Owen, is a perfect example of the latter.  Cora will be a big question mark, since so far, she has expressed zero interest in learning how to tie her shoes.

There are still days, after school, when we bust out the ole Shoelace Box during homework time so that the O-Man can tie, untie, re-tie, untie, re-tie, and untie until he seems to get it. But then the next morning, inevitably, he runs into a wall when it comes to tying his sneaks.

Like many things, shoe-tying continues to be a work in progress.

But clearly, with the popularity of our Shoelace Box our how to teach kids to tie their shoes post, shoe-tying is a challenge for many.  This post comes in at #3–again, not for the amount of tweets and facebook likes, but essentially for the sheer number of hits it gets from searches, pins, and shares.

Here’s the skinny . . .

shoe-tying tips how to teach kids to tie their shoes

For many preschoolers and early elementary students, learning how to tie their shoes takes a simultaneous jiving of both fine motor skill readiness and cognitive readiness. Learning how to tie shoes takes a huge heap of concentration, and kiddos must be at a developmental stage where they are able to try, fail, try again, fail again, and re-try until it finally clicks.  That’s the hard part.

Oh, and they have to want to learn how to do it. If they don’t want to do it, forgettabout it. . .


. . . I grabbed a small cardboard box, a shoe box, and I gathered tons of ribbon and string from our ribbon bag.

I made several holes on the box: three sets of two holes, one inch apart on the top and two sets of holes on each side. . .


And if you want to read about our successes–and what we learned that really helped–head over to the original post!

Tomorrow: teach mama’s top 10 all-time best countdown, #2.

best of teach mama countdown: #8 — gem jars


gem jarsBeing a parent is a totally rewarding, completely fun, and continually changing job, but yes, it’s sometimes crazy, difficult, challenging, and frustrating.

No two days are ever the same, and what begins as a great morning for one kiddo can be a rocky, awful, stressful one for another.

It’s the hardest J-O-B I ever signed up for, and I sometimes laugh recalling that I once thought that having kids would be easier than teaching English to 140 ninth and tenth graders.

It is the greatest joy, however, watching your little ones learn and grow, and that is a fact. I am grateful every day for Maddy, Owen, and Cora, though not a day goes by when I don’t learn something myself thanks to these three little ones.

But one thing that has helped us keep our parenting sanity is managing our home in some of the same ways my husband and I managed our classrooms way back when.  Not always perfect, mind you, and a constant work in progress, using teeny, tiny little gems has really made a difference.

This post has yielded the most personal emails to me than any other, so I thought it was worth sharing. It’s a definite top 10.

And though it requires some serious thinking, the effects of playing on positive behavior versus reacting to negative behavior are well worth the ‘gems’.

Here we go. . .

  • teach mama’s top 10 all-time best countdown, #8: Gem Jars


gem jarsGem Jars — helping parents keep their sanity, one day at a time.

Our Gem Jars are just that–glass jars I picked up (on sale) at the craft store and from our recycle bin, and the ‘gems’ are those clear glass beads that we love over here and have used time and time again as bingo markers.

I bought black letter stickers so I could put each family member’s name on a jar. Maddy, Owen, and Cora each have a jar, and there’s even one for Mom, Dad, and Brady.

The deal with the Gem Jars is simple, and it’s one that’s been supported by research over and over and over again: rewarding positive behavior.

Read more about Gem Jars . . .

Tomorrow: teach mama’s top 10 all-time best countdown, #7.

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

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

magazine activities: creative, crafty, sneaky-learning fun

magazines for fun and learning |

We are huge magazine fans over here. magazines for fun and learning |

We love finding them in the mailbox, reading them, playing detective with them, crafting with them, and learning with them.

When they arrive in the day’s mail, it’s like a getting a little gift, just for you.  And when we sit down to read a magazine, it never feels like a chore; my kids–all of them–really love the freedom to flip through the pages, finding what interests them and moving past the ‘boring’ stuff.

And when I give my kids the ‘go’ to use our magazines to cut, rip, tape, and use for anything they want, they always seem game.

There are tons of creative, crafty, and fun ways to throw in some sneaky learning using magazines, but I’ve grabbed  a few of my favorites to highlight because this time of year we always seem to end up with an over-abundance of magazines, mailers, and catalogs coming in each day. 

So if you do, too, then set some aside to use for some fun learning when the snow comes in January, February, and March. . .

Here’s the skinny:

  • Magazine Story Starters: I love having ‘idea cards’ on hand for anything, especially writing, drawing, or storytelling prompts.

So if Maddy, Owen, and Cora are rammy, bored, or cranky, sometimes I’ll ask them to work on our Story Starters.

Story Starters are–very simply–interesting, thought-provoking, funny, beautiful, or unusual pictures on index cards.  And they’re kept together in one happy place, together, for times when we need to kick-start our ideas.


creative crafty magazine activities for kids, magazine story startersMaddy cuts some interesting animal photos. . .

creative crafty magazine activities for kids

. . . and Cora found a vacuum?

creative crafty magazine activities for kids

Our Story Starter cards–thought-provoking, fun, unusual–and great to have on hand.

We usually just flip through the magazines, chatting and cutting pictures as we go.  And we glue them onto cards. That’s it. Simple, fun, and gets the creative juices going.

abc books, creative crafty magazine activities for kids

  • Alphabet Books: I loved creating Alphabet Books with my students as a way to really make the letters of the alphabet come alive.

Maddy, Owen, and Cora started them a while back and only recently rediscovered them–only to find that the books were not completely finished.

Alphabet Books are books that children create and personalize.

That’s it. The good, old-fashioned ABC book with ‘Aa’ on the left page and pictures of a-words on the right side. Magazines are perfect for Alphabet Books because kids have so many photos at their fingertips.


creative crafty magazine activities for kidsAlphabet Books are a fun and personal way to bring the letters of the alphabet to life.

creative crafty magazine activities for kids Mini Me Collages rock the house.

We used magazines to cut out pictures of anything and everything that reminded them of themselves–objects they loved, colors they adored, foods they’d eat any day of the week, and places they dreamed of visiting.  But they had to be tiny because the Mini Me collages had to fit on their tiny Everyday Name Books.

And in my house, tiny = fun.  Mini = magical. So I try to stick with the stuff that works.


  • Magazine Hunt: Magazine Hunts are fun, sneaky ways of getting kids to ‘play’ with magazines, paying close attention to the text features that make magazines unique and different than other genres.


creative crafty magazine activities for kidsCora works on her magazine hunt. . .

creative crafty magazine activities for kids. . . following the prompt on the Magazine Hunt cards.

The idea of a Magazine Hunt is simply to use a magazine–old or new, it doesn’t matter–along with the set of Magazine Hunt cards to ‘hunt’ for specific parts of the magazine.  Not only do Magazine Hunts get kids to look at magazines in slightly different ways, but they also make reading a magazine a much more active process.

My kids really love ’em.  Which means I do, too.

I have always loved magazines–as a child and even now as an adult–there’s something special about flipping through a magazine, reading the articles, and enjoying the photos, grabbing bits of this and that in a short sitting that I think some people (like my kids and I) really dig.  I’m always looking for new ways to use mag’s since we have so many around here; if you are, too, please check out the Magazine Creative Challenge.

A handful of my buddies are participating, and we’d love for you to join us! Please check out the participants’ Challenge posts and then link up your own!

Creative Ccreative crafty magazine activities for kidshallenge: Magazine Participants:

Child Central Station , kids in the studioTeach MamaThe Imagination Tree,Childhood101Teach Preschoolhands on as we growArtful ParentPaint Cut PasteA Mom With A Lesson PlanToddler ApprovedKiwi CrateArt 4 Little Hands,  Red Ted ArtThe Chocolate Muffin Tree,  Imagination Soup,Michelles Charm WorldMessy PreschoolersTinker LabMommy LabsPutti Prapancha, sunhats and wellie boots

Many thanks to Rachelle Doorley of TinkerLab for organizing and hosting this Challenge (and many others!).

quick trick: how to take great holiday photos

tiny prints--studio leticia

how to take great holiday photosThis holiday-inspired Quick Trick is a little somethin’ for the moms and dads out there who strive for that perfect holiday family photo that they may–or may not–choose to use on their holiday cards.

Everyone has a different take on holiday cards–whether to send them or not, when to send them, and what the cards and photo should look like.

As much as I love and yearn for that color-coordinated, whole-family-smiling and looking at the camera shot, I know those photos take work. They take preparation and thought on the part of the wardrobe designer (usually Mom), they take planning and careful scheduling (usually thanks to Mom), they take great-photographer research (again, usually Mom), and they take proper and perfect alignment of the stars (obviously, thanks to Mom’s incessant pre-photo shoot prayers).

I do not have that kind of time, patience, or drive.

However, I do wholeheartedly admire (and envy) those who do have that kind of time, patience, and drive.

But I will admit, that as a keeper of all holiday cards, I do just truly appreciate everyone who sends them–no matter the pose–because the kids and I really, truly love pulling them out once in a while to see all of our buddies.

And though it’s not the pose that really matters (we all know it’s the thought that counts!), we all do want halfway decent photos for our holiday cards.

I had the opportunity to spend some time at a Tiny Prints holiday event, held at Mary Gardella’s Love Life Images studio here in Maryland, where I learned a thing or two (or ten!) about taking great holiday photos. I am eager to share them with everyone.  And though not everyone is able to visit Mary’s amazing studio to have holiday photos taken, everyone will be able to take a little something away as far as holiday photo-shoot tips are concerned because this Quick Trick is all about how to take great holiday photos.


tiny prints, how to take great holiday photosMy sweet friend Stephanie of MinkyMoo with her adorable, squeezable Huck

Here’s the skinny:

  • How to take great holiday-time family photos: I personally find that imperfect, casual, non-holidayish holiday family photos are my favorite for my family’s holiday cards. And I’m not just saying that because I have declared myself a perfect-family-holiday photo failure.

Something is probably wrong with me that I get the biggest chuckle out of seeing a photo with a crying kid, a lopsided ponytail, or a mom with a tired, exasperated look on her face (while she’s standing in front of a lighted Christmas tree, mind you). I am also a lover of the summertime photos on holiday cards, photos that show one kid on the baseball field and another in her swimmies, or an entire family on a camping trip.

At the Tiny Prints holiday event a few weeks back, we were lucky to be in the presence of not one but two incredible photographers who shared their secrets to taking great holiday photos.

Here are a few holiday-photo shoot tips, straight from the pro’s:

“My photo philosophy for taking great portraits is to be discreet and most importantly, patient! Engage the child in an activity that will bring out their little personalities (reading a favorite book, coloring/painting, singing songs, sitting up, belly time, dancing, tickling, furniture surfing, taking a bath, picking flowers, etc..). Look for the moments that make you smile. These are amazing times of growth and change in your child’s life. It’s so fun as a parent to witness the moments happen, it’s even more precious to capture the moments for a lifetime.” –Mary Gardella of Love Life Images

Mary shares her professional tips and advice about how to best prepare your kids for a portrait session, and everyone should check it out. Mary is also offering a great deal called Fabulous Fridays at her studio in Maryland. Feel free to check out her site to learn more.

My fancy-schmancy slideshow from the Tiny Prints holiday event:

And Tiny Prints has brought in so many incredible designs in their 2011 holiday line of cards and Christmas cards, it’s amazing.

This year, we went with a fun summery photo of Maddy, Owen, and Cora in a canoe on our Williamsburg, VA weekend. The Joyful Highlights card was perfect for it, and I’m hoping that friends and family like it.  Actually, I don’t really care if they love it. I  love it because though it was 110 degrees out that afternoon, the looks on the kids’ faces–big smiles, fancy straw hats on the girls (and Owen’s baseball hat pulled down too low), pink cheeks and sweaty hair and all–are priceless to me.

Here’s to a happy holiday season for everyone, and best wishes for a holiday photo that you love!


fyi: This is a totally unsponsored post, and the opinions and ideas are my own. I was given free holiday cards from Tiny Prints as a gift for sharing information about this event and for being a part of their holiday cards campaign, and I am grateful to the amazing Mary for taking headshots of all the bloggers at this evening’s event. Many thanks to both Tiny Prints and Love Life Images for our pre-holiday gifts!

quick trick: have a. . . placemat party!

placemat party 6

Every. Single. Day.

We’re rocking a Placemat Party over here. how to have a placemat party

At breakfast. At lunch. And at dinners at the kitchen table (because the kitchen table is so less fancy than our totally fancy-schmancy dinner table).

It’s a seriously awesome party–reading, counting, talking about the states or dinosaurs or sea creatures or letters.

This happy Friday Quick Trick is pretty simple, really. It’s a Placemat Party that every parent can host with very little effort.

Here’s the skinny:

  • Placemat Party: Okay, so it’s not really a party. It’s just breakfast. Or lunch or dinner. With cool placemats in the mix.

I have always used mealtime as a perfect opportunity for some sneaky-learning, and really that’s the premise here. I just use placemats to direct the learning as much as I can.

When Maddy, Owen, and Cora had begun arguing about who sat where at breakfast, I decided to throw a little wrench in their plan. I couldn’t handle starting our day this way, as the arguments soon escalated into much more than a seat decision.  And because they all came down to the kitchen at different times, I really couldn’t have the person whose day it was choose, because what did I do for the second guy down?

how to have a placemat party

Some days they read about dinosaurs. . .

So I pulled out some of our placemats–some old, and some new ones I picked up at our local toy store–and I began mixing them up each day.

I put a new placemat at each seat every single day. The only rule is that whoever gets there first can choose where they want to sit, and there’s no arguing. Period. When and if an argument starts, that person gets a plain-jane placemat.  Nothing fun, nothing fancy, nothing exciting. Boring.


how to have a placemat party

. . . and some days they talk multiplication.

how to have a placemat party

And surprisingly, Maddy, Owen, and Cora started moving a little bit faster in the morning; they each wanted to be the first one to make it down to breakfast and the first one to choose a placemat.

Some placemats are letter-focused, some are math-focused, some are science focused, and some are just plain silly.  I’ve collected them over the years–free giveaways at grocery stores, on the dollar racks at department stores, and at our toy store. They take up next to no room, and they clean up with a quick wipe.

It’s just like cereal box reading or milk carton reading; the placemats become their environmental print, and the kids can’t help but read while they eat–I say, Why not?


I am totally and completely aware that this Placemat Par-tay may only last for a few weeks, until Maddy, Owen, and Cora grow tired of my placemat rotation, but I’ll take it for as long as it works.  It’s all about keeping things fresh, trying something new, and keeping a few tricks in my parenting back pocket.

Just another Quick Trick that may or may not help your kiddos–happy reading (and eating!)!

the fancy brush–avoiding tangled hair and tearful mornings

fancy brushes for no more tangles |

This Quick Trick is a little bit funny to me.fancy brushes for no more tangles |

It’s not about how to make the school year a success. It’s not about how to teach kids to tie their shoes. And it’s not about how to use magnetic letters or how to keep kids busy in line or how we force game-playing manners upon our troops.

I honestly thought I’d never write anything like this.

I never thought I’d need little-girl tangley long-hair trick–my girls always had cute short cuts, easy to style and easy to brush.

But times are a-changin’, so here it is.

I totally stole this one from one of my incredibly smart pals, tweaked it a little, and made it my own.

Here’s the silky-smooth skinny:

  • The Fancy Brush–Avoiding Tangled Hair and Tearful Mornings: My girls finally have hair that touches their shoulders, looooong, luxurious hair that blows when they walk and that bounces in their ponytails.  Long hair that they love and have begged me to never cut.

Personally, I’m a fan of cute bobs in little girls, short hair that can be washed and dries quickly, hair that doesn’t require a swim cap in the summer or no-more-tangle spray after showers.

My thought is that if we can avoid a bump in the road (knots in long hair), then let’s take try a different route (short hair).  But for my two sweets, short hair is not their current choice. So I’m trying to step back a bit, let them make more choices, and let them learn a little along the way.


fancy brushes for no more tangles | teachmama.comHow much more fancy can a brush get, really?

I can’t stand the knotty hair battle. It seems to happen every morning, when the girls come running to me with a hairbrush and ponytail holder, asking for piggies or a pony or a braid.

So when my pal was telling me that she, too couldn’t stand the knotty hair battle so she made a deal with her girls: they brushed first, and they brushed out the knots; whatever was left was for Mom to handle, no complaints, no tears, or no ponytail.

no more tangles

fancy brushes for no more tangles |

I liked it.

But I knew Maddy and Cora wouldn’t buy it without a little sugar, so when I saw fancy brushes on sale a few weeks ago, I let them each pick one out.

You may each choose a fancy brush, I said.  But there’s one condition: you use this fancy brush to take out all of the knots in your hair every single day.  You brush first, and then I brush your hair and style it.  And the minute there are tears from me brushing your hair too hard or hurting you by brushing through knots, I take the brush and we cut your hair. Comprende?

I will not put ponies in your hair if you are going to be crying each morning. I won’t do it. It’s not fair to me, to Owen, or to Brady to listen to this first thing in the morning. So from this point forward, if you want long hair, you handle the knots like big girls.

And that’s it. Only a few days in, but we’ve been tangle-free each morning. Woot! Huuuuuge thanks to my pal Sandy for the inspiration!

Just a little, silly Quick Trick for handling tangley hair.  Here’s to hoping we’re over the worst of our knots. . .

fun with food: learning in the kitchen with kids


Over the last few years, we’ve had a ton of fun with food over here. 

I love food, my kids love food, my husband loves food, and we all really love trying new things and making meals together.

Little do my kiddos know that every time they don their aprons in the kitchen with me, they’re secretly working on their reading, math, science, and so many more important skills while they’re looking at recipes, measuring ingredients, and watching their creation come to life. It’s fun for them, and it’s fun for me.

If parents and teachers can handle a little bit more of a mess and prescribe themselves a extra dose of patience (some can, and some cannot–I totally get that!), toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged children–kids of all ages–can all benefit by helping in the kitchen.

Kids don’t even realize they’re learning when they’re cooking.  They just think they’re having fun with food!

Here are a few of the ways we have fun with food over here (and sneak in a little bit of learning in the kitchen!):

  • Counting & Sorting: When little ones are interested in something, we’ve got to use it to our teaching advantage, whether it’s sports or crafts or cooking. My youngest always wants to help me prepare dinner, so that’s when I sneak in some counting, sorting, and color-learning!

My tiny Cora loves helping prepare food  in the kitchen,

whether it’s cutting or counting or learning about parts of a whole.


  • Conducting Experiments: Science in the kitchen? Absolutely!

Kids can learn so much with a little guidance and some direction. . . and with leftover candy, there’s no telling what they can do!

Ice-cream in a bag? Yes–Ziplock Ice-cream was SO much fun!!

They can conduct experiments on Halloween candy. . .

. . . and they can even ‘paint’ with candy!


experimenting with leftover candy canes


  • Reading:  We have followed dozens of recipes that I’ve modified or made more kid-friendly.  With larger print, pictures, and clearly defined steps, kids can really work their early literacy skills while having fun with food!


Cookie baking. . .

and rhubarb pie-making gave us reason to do some recipe-reading, along with tons of other foods!


  • Trying New Things: New textures, new tastes, new smells, and new sounds, food is a super-awesome way to introduce new things to our little ones!


You got it– kolhrabi. It’s awesome.

 Star Fruit— a lot more pretty than kohlrabi and a tad bit sweeter.

But Cora was beaming when she mastered making pancit for the first time!

Chopsticks, colors, and sorting = FUN with candy

  • Learning Shapes: With some red licorice and shape cards, my kids loved learning their shapes!

super sweet shape snacks


  • Celebrating Holidays: Along with great crafts and games and family traditions, holidays also provide yet another reason to have some fun with food!

 These Spooky Ghosts rocked our Halloween party–

. . . like our fake fingers, eyeballs, and boogies!

  • Creating Patterns: Patterning in crafts or cooking help our kiddos with math and critical thinking skills.

Veggie kabob patterns were a bit more healthy —

  but my kiddos totally ‘hearted’ playing with patterns using candy message hearts!


  • Researching: Having fun with food also means doing a little bit of research sometimes.

We researched to learn what kind of apples an apple tree produced,

and how to open our first coconut (among many other New For Us Friday foods!).


  • Using Imaginations: When they’re given the ‘go’, kids never cease to amaze me with what they can created, and the same thing goes for creating in the kitchen!

Maddy and Owen stretched their brains to create Cora’s bumblebee cupcakes!

And we all had a ‘splash’ creating Owen’s pool party cupcakes, too!

 Candy Sushi took the cake at Maddy’s birthday party!


  • Showing Love for Pets:  Our Brady is quite the spoiled pooch–with our attempt at homemade dog treats, my kids not only had fun in the kitchen, they showed their furry brother how much they love him!

Brady loved his homemade dog treats–fun with food for dogs, not humans. (But we all tried them!)

And that’s about it for the Fun with Food round-up!

I am grateful to have been invited by my pal Deborah, of Teach Preschool, to participate in her ABC Round-Up, part of her celebration for reaching 20,000 Facebook likes. WHEW, right?  She’s just that awesome, as is her blog. Thank you, Deborah for all you do to promote early learning in fun, hands-on, and worthwhile ways!! Congrats!

quick trick: keeping kids busy in line

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This Quick Trick is one of those that works only when I use it only occasionally. It’s one that helps every so often to distract Maddy, Owen, and Cora from the actual task at hand–waiting in line.

Whether it’s at the grocery store, at Costco, or the bank, time in line can be brutal for little ones (and okay, let’s admit it–their over-tired parents).

The errands that once took 15 minutes sans kids often takes an hour with little ones in tow, and on days when there’s more than one stop, even the most simple errands can be brutal unless we plan ahead. And everyone knows that’s not always possible.

So while shopping last week for a new loaf pan for our Zucchini Bread, I desperately needed to pull out some tricks for passing time in the long line. Here’s what we did:

  • Find Your (*insert body part*) First: Sounds crazy, a little questionable, maybe even a little inappropriate for passing time in line, but it works for my kids and it teaches them–or reminds them, in some cases–of the parts of their body.

Usually if there’s a half dozen people in front of me and tons of enticing impulse items on the shelves from me to the check-out, I’ll say, Okay, let’s see who really knows the parts of their body. . . find your ankle bone!

And if the items on the shelves aren’t too awesome, if the stars are aligned, and if the kids are listening, they’ll turn to me and really quickly touch their ankle bones. Or they’ll turn and look at me with complete and utter confusion, look at whoever found the said ankle bone and copy that person.

Sure–Maddy and Owen (and Cora mostly) know the major parts of their bodies–the kids are 6, 5, and 3 for goodness’ sakes. But I use the time in line to make sure they know some not-so-obvious parts, the parts that aren’t part of a catchy kids’ song.

I’ve had them ‘find’ the following body parts (and I always throw in some easies along with the toughies just to keep up morale!):

  • ankle, ankle bone
  • elbow
  • thigh
  • calf
  • eyebrow
  • eyelash
  • cheekbone
  • chin
  • earlobe
  • nostril
  • wrist
  • elbow
  • funny bone
  • knee cap
  • nape
  • cuticle
  • biceps, triceps
  • jaw, jawbone
  • joint
  • knuckle

I’ve found that they like to show me they know the ‘tough’ ones and they like to learn new words for parts they already know. I haven’t hit them with ‘gluteus maximus’ yet, but I can imagine the giggles when I do. . .

And that’s that. An easy, spur-of-the-moment Quick Trick that takes no planning, little time, even less brain power, so that we (I) can actually make it from the line to checkout with some of semblance of sanity.

This list is hardly extensive. If you have a suggestion for a part I should add, let me know! Thanks and happy waiting in line!