summer fun for older kids: tabletop surprises

summer fun for older kids: tabletop surprises

summer fun for older kids: tabletop surprises

I say it’s ‘summer fun for older kids’ only because my kids are no longer toddlers or preschoolers–they’re big-time elementary schoolers.

They know what they want, and they’ve been totally digging our tabletop surprises.

It’s hard for me to believe that my kids are really ‘big kids’, but they really are.  Maddy is a rising 5th grader, Owen’s a rising 3rd grader, and Cora is (gasp!) starting 2nd grade in the fall. 

No more babies, toddlers, or preschoolers. No more Kindergarten anxiety. Now we’re all into chapter books, writing stories, and mastering math facts.

We’re also now moving quickly toward school-mode and even did our back-to-school shopping on Monday, after the kids and I shopped, charted, and searched for the best prices around.  And though our week this week was broken by a trip to Nanny and Pap’s house, we did manage to keep up with our tabletop surprises, even if we rocked some mazes in the car en route.

Here’s the skinny. . .

  • Summer Fun for Older Kids–Tabletop Surprises:

A quickie re-cap of the week. Be sure to follow us on instagram as we share our daily adventures!


back-to-school shopping! having the kids figure out the BEST place for deals and steals = real-world math at its finest! #tabletopsurprises #summer #timeisflying #backtoschool


art! and playing with some of the coolest museum websites around! #tabletopsurprises #summer #familyfun #art




mazes, mazes, mazes! #tabletopsuprises #summer #familyfun




a free ticket to get dirty in the summer #tabletopsuprises #summer #freeplay #play




slow start to our day but we’re getting there. . .rainy, gray day will hopefully be brighter with our own watercolor rainbows #tabletopsuprises #summer #creativekids #momsofinstagram #familyfun


Check out all the fun we’re having this summer! 

Follow along on Instagram and leave YOUR user name in the comments so we can follow YOUR #tabletopsurprises adventures!


Want the skinny on #tabletopsurprises? Wonder what in the world I’m talking about?

Check it out:

tabletop surprise email promo 400



backyard camping and reading under the stars: summer reading at its best

reading under the stars

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reading under the stars | teachmama.comSummer is in full swing, and what better way to really rock it out in the summertime than by camping?

Not for real camping, my friends–I’m talking backyard camping.

In my book, backyard camping counts. Especially if you’re not all that much of an outdoorsy family.

We have been talking about backyard camping for awhile now, so I decided to surprise the kids with a tent.  Not a huge tent, but a 6-person, easy-to-assemble, totally affordable tent.

Because we really rocked it out with our spring break trip to Disneyland, we are laying low this summer, and no biggie beach trip means that we’ve got to be creative with our summertime fun.

So creative we were.

We set up the tent, made some s’mores, and did some reading under the stars until we . . . decided to come back in the house and sleep in our beds.

It’s hard really roughing it with backyard camping.

Here’s the skinny. . .

  • Backyard Camping and Reading Under the Stars–Summer Reading at its Best:

We invited some friends over during the afternoon for a playdate and a tent set-up. They loved it. Playing in the tent was a huge hit for the whole neighborhood crew.


backyard camping and reading under the stars: summer reading at its best

backyard camping and reading under the stars: summer reading at its best


The afternoon was spent playing in the tent, so really the kids spent the greater part of the day excited about our ‘camp out’.

They played campout. They had snacks in the tent. They played games in the tent. After dinner, at about 6:30pm, Maddy, Owen, and Cora brought sleeping bags and pillows into the tent along with their EVEREADY® flashlights, lovies and books.


backyard camping and reading under the stars: summer reading at its best


They knew that part of the reason we were doing our serious backyard campout was because we wanted to have a chance to read under the stars, just like the Scholastic Read Under the Stars summer reading challenge they were doing.

Really, the reading’s been happening all summer. It was the camping that was totally new.


backyard camping and reading under the stars: summer reading at its best


We had s’mores. We danced a little. We were ready for a campout.

We were all cozy in the tent, teeth brushed, dirty feet tucked into sleeping bags, listening to the crickets and the owls and the distant barking dogs when all heck broke loose.


backyard camping and reading under the stars: summer reading at its best

The chaos began.

The storm had arrived.

The tides were a’ changing.

backyard camping and reading under the stars: summer reading at its best

backyard camping and reading under the stars: summer reading at its best


Cora started crying because the Maddy was too close to her and because the window panel was hanging down by her arm and it wouldn’t stay tucked into the wall.

And then Maddy started getting angry because Cora was not being nice.  And so when Cora yelled, I WANT TO GO SLEEP IN MY BEEEEEDDDDD! Maddy said she wanted to sleep in her own bed, too.

And then Owen said, I want to go inside to sleep too. I don’t want to sleep out here anymore.


backyard camping and reading under the stars: summer reading at its best


And so yep.

At 9pm, right after my husband had put his feet up and settled comfortably into a show and a snack, thinking his family was out back sleeping peacefully and that he had a quiet house to himself, the troops came marching in.

Sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, flashlights, and books in tow, and a lonely tent out back.

Poor confused Brady was happy to have his family in the house again.  Cora was happy, Maddy was happy, Owen was happy, and I was happy. Back in the cool air conditioning, dirty feet in their own beds, flashlights on and open books in hands.

And? The kids spent the entire next day in the tent.

And what I realized is that we’re not failures or big losers for trying the backyard camping thing and not actually following through; we are winners for trying it. Right? I mean, we came close, didn’t we? We kind of had the experience and maybe we’ll try it again?

I don’t know. The cool thing? The kids were reading. Books and summer reading was a natural part of our attempted backyard campout, so that’s what counts.

reading under the stars



Huge and happy thanks to Scholastic for always coming up with cool themes and ideas for their Summer Reading Challenge and for partnering with us for this post series. This year’s Summer Reading theme is Reading Under the Stars, and is powered by EVEREADY®, the maker of batteries and flashlights, to encourage families to discover new and fun ways to explore reading outside this summer.



fyi: I am happy to share my experience with our backyard campout as part of a sponsored campaign.  As always, my opinions are all my own, influenced only by my experience as a parent and educator and by my three little kinda-campers and summertime readers.

Affiliate links are used within.

let kids learn on their own time: tabletop surprises

let kids learn on their own time: #tabletopsurprises |

let kids learn on their own time tabletop surprises

We just finished week number six of our ten week tabletop surprises — a simple but clever way we encourage our kids to learn on their own time.

Tabletop Surprises are just that: invitations to learn, play, create, invent, and think–on their own time. 

Little fun activities just waiting for someone to come along and try ‘em out.

Here’s what we did this week.  A little bit o’ math, a little bit of reading, a little bit of writing, and a bit of critical thinking.

Pretty fun.  But next week? Even better.

No kidding.

Here’s the skinny. . .

  • Let Kids Learn on Their Own Time–Tabletop Surprises:



magnets + pipe cleaners + paper clips + vases = FUN #tabletopsurprises #summer #familyfun #science #keepthembusy #momsofinstagram




my crew will love this one! ( and the parents win on Thursday night!) #kidsinthekitchen #cooking #foodiefamily #food #tabletopsurprises #summer



back by popular demand: brain teasers. want ’em? head to the blog. click on #tabletopsurprises #summer #brainteasers #brainy #sofun #teachmama #printables #familyfun



poem reading. poem writing. offline. online. #tabletopsurprises #summer #familyfun #writing #readingrocks




math challenge problemos about baseball and chocolate, thanks to @nctm #tabletopsurprises #summer #math #smart #familyfun



Check out all the fun we’re having this summer! 

Follow along on Instagram and leave YOUR user name in the comments so we can follow YOUR #tabletopsurprises adventures!

Want the skinny on #tabletopsurprises? Wonder what in the world I’m talking about?

Check it out:

tabletop surprise email promo 400


fyi: #spon: I am in a partnership with Intel. Through this partnership I gain access to content, product, or other forms of value.

kid craft sale: supporting young entrepreneurs (with Astrobrights giveaway!)

kid craft sale: supporting young entrepreneurs (with Astrobrights giveaway!)

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kid craft sale: supporting young entrepreneurs

We have always supported our kids’ learning here at home; in fact, that’s the very reason was started!

Big on learning in the every day, we’ve always done what we could to find cool opportunities for learning in the here and now.  Fun learning in everyday events.  Really doing what we can to be in the moment and roll with the adventures as they unfold.

So this weekend, we hosted an impromptu Kid Craft Sale.

No joke.

What started as Maddy and I learning how to make the brightest and most beautiful origami cranes, somehow morphed into Cora teaching us how to make fans. And then Cora’s fan-making turned into a Fan Sale which then morphed into a candy, iced-tea, and ribbon barrette sale.

And then with neighbors jumping in on the kid craft sale fun, the day took a whole new and exciting turn.

It’s about encouraging our creative kids and supporting young entrepreneurs, right?

And you can do the same–thanks to a rockstar giveaway: a customized package of Astrobrights Papers (you’ll love them!) and a $50 Office Depot gift card. Yay!

Summer fun, here. We. Come!

Here’s the skinny. . .

  • Kid Craft Sale–Supporting Young Entrepreneurs: I’m thrilled that the folks from Astrobrights hooked us up with a boatload of gorgeous, insanely bright and beautiful paper because that’s how this whole thing started.

The minute we opened our box of papers, Maddy declared, Mom I totally want to use this paper for origami. 

I said, That’s cool, Maddy, but first we need to learn how to do origami.

So that’s what we did.

support and encourage creative kids  teachama .png


support and encourage creative kids  teachama cranes.png

support and encourage creative kids  teachama


Maddy did a bit of research on our little Acer C720P Chromebook and found an awesome how-to site for making origami cranes.

She and I step-by-step folded our Rocket Red paper into a cool crane. (We did a lot of pausing and rewinding along the way.)

They were not easy, and we were pretty much just happy making one each. We’ll revisit origami again this summer is the plan!


support and encourage creative kids  teachama crane.png


Then Cora jumped off of her swing and decided she wanted in. But she didn’t want to make a crane–that took too long.

She wanted to make some fans.

So she showed us how to make the ultimate fan, and then she said she was going to sell them.  In our front yard.  Today.

support and encourage creative kids  teachama fans.pngsupport and encourage creative kids  teachama fans.png

support and encourage creative kids  teachama fans.png

She got to work.

Cora made signs advertising her Fan Sale and set prices for each fan.  She knew she wanted small fans and mini fans and super mini fans.

(Minis are perfect for dolls, you know.)

support and encourage creative kids  teacham


She assembled her money jar, her tray for her fans, and a tin that held all of her fans. And Maddy and I even let her sell our two origami cranes.

We dragged three chairs to the front yard–one for Cora, one for me, and one for the fans. And then we waited.


support and encourage creative kids  teachama fans.png

support and encourage creative kids  teachama fans.png

support and encourage creative kids  teachama fans.png

Meanwhile, Maddy and Owen pulled a table out to the curb along with iced tea, Maddy’s barrettes, and candy. They, too, made signs, set prices (though admittedly they were quite high. . . ), and they waited.

Before we knew it, a few neighbor kids joined in on the fun, and we waited together.

They flagged down passing cars, called to neighbor friends who were watering flowers or cutting the grass, and surprisingly, both sale tables made about $3.00, thanks to a few generous friends.

support and encourage creative kids  teachama fans.png

support and encourage creative kids  teachama fans.png

support and encourage creative kids  teachama fans.png


Bottom line? Our kids were outdoors, using their brains, getting all crafty and creative, and having fun.

And all I had to do to support my young entrepreneurs was encourage them to go with their ideas, carry a few chairs out, make a few fans, and remind them to use their manners before and after sales.

So fun.


Please note: Though we all want to support young entrepreneurs, it was brought to my attention that in some areas of the country, kids have been fined for having Lemonade Stands. Holy moly. Please do a bit of research before you go this route; a $500 fine is pretty hefty if you ask me.



GIVEAWAY: A customized package of Astrobrights paper and a $50 Office Depot gift card.

Do you want to win your own customized package of Astrobrights paper and a $50 Office Depot gift card??!  Yes, yes you do.


Please use the Rafflecopter widget below to throw your name in the hat:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

By entering this giveaway, you are demonstrating your understanding of and compliance with theOfficial Sweepstakes Rules.

This giveaway ends Friday, June 20, 2014 at midnight ET and is open to folks here in the US only. Winner will be chosen by ‘Rafflecopter’ and will be notified on or around 06/20/14.  Winner must respond within three (3) days of notification or forfeit the prize, in which case an alternate winner will be selected.  All Official Sweepstakes Rules apply.


But wait. There’s another giveaway coming! #ColorizeYourClassroom Contest

  • Astrobrights is helping teachers in every state get started with a Back to School #ColorizeYourClassroom contest!
  • The skinny: Teachers share a photo of how they colorize their classroom on the Astrobrights facebook page from July 7-September 12. Winners will have Astrobrights Colorize their Classroom all year long! One winner per state plus a Grand Prize winner will be awarded. 
  • Find all of the details here:

fyi: This is a sponsored post but as always, my opinions are all my own, influenced only by my personal experience as a parent and educator–and, of course, my three little crafty-crafters.

Affiliate links are used for Acer C720P Chromebook.

summer activities for thinking, curious, and creative kids: tabletop surprises calendar

summer activities for thinking, curious, and creative kids tabletop surprises calendar

summer activities for thinking, curious, and creative kids tabletop surprises calendar promo.

I have been working and working and working and working and working on this calendar for weeks now, and I’m finally ready to share it. Woot.  No really. Woooot!

In fact, I’m so happy I’m literally dancing around the living room.

Why? I just mapped out the bones of our summer.

Ten weeks.

Ten weeks full of summer activities for thinking, curious, and creative kids.  It’s our tabletop surprises calendar, and Maddy, Owen, and Cora will totally dig it.

We’ll still start out the summer by making Summer Fun Cards so that we are sure to remember to fit in everything we love to do during the long summer months, but then we’ll rock out the #tabletopsurprises.

This year, my kids are 10, 8, and 7 years old. They’re getting older, but they still love games. They love to create. They love to play with the old standbys that we’re too busy for during the school year but that they look forward to in summer months.

They still have playdates. They still hold my hand. They still want hugs.  (Most days.)

So I’m milking this for as long as I can. Though learned the hard way last summer that because they’re getting older, we’re not all on the same schedule. Where I once used preschool mornings or rest time hours for games and learning, now we’re not on as strict a schedule.

I have an early riser and I have a night owl. And I have one kiddo whose mood is dictated by the weather, by the day of the week, or by the direction of the wind. So I’ve got to be flexible.

All I know is that what really, truly worked for us last summer was Tabletop Surprises because the activities ‘fit’ into our daily schedule. The kids headed to the table when they felt like it, sometime throughout the day.

And every day was kind of like Christmas because there was a surprise Every. Single. Day.

So we’re rockin’ them again this year.

Here’s the skinny. . .

  • Summer Activities for Thinking, Curious, and Creative Kids–Tabletop Surprises Calendar:

What are Tabletop Surprises? Tabletop Surprises are invitations to learn, play, create, invent, and think–on their own time. 

Little fun activities just waiting for someone to come along and try ‘em out.

tabletop surprise 2014 a summer of fun and learning from

this year’s tabletop surprises calendar 2014, ready to download

How to I get the kids to actually sit down and do the activities?  A few ways:

1. The activities are fun and they want to do them;

2. At any given time, on any given day, I have been known to toss a few gems into the gem jars of people who have been spotted doing the activity. Not every day, but some days.

3.  I’ll join them. Kids–I truly believe–like to hang out with their parents. Especially if their parents are kinda cool or funny or at least act like they’re cool or funny. I like to hang out with my kids, so when they sit, if I can, I’ll join them. 

tabletop surprises calendar 2014

What are the ideas and what makes them so fun?

Simple. They’re hands-on. They’re cool. They’re creative and crafty. They’re unusual. They’re familiar. They’re old and they’re new. They’re digital and battery-free. They’re indoors and outdoors.  

It’s a mix, and that keeps them going. And it’s only ten weeks. That gives us one week for vacation and one week to totally pound out math packets and summer school assignments.

I’m busy. I don’t have time for this. 

Yes. You. Do.  I’ve got every single thing you need right here. Ten weeks.  Links to resources and everything.  Just print out a few things, gather supplies the night before and set it out so it’s all there when the kids wake up.  They’ll do it when they’re able. 

In fact, I’ve so got this covered, that if you subscribe to via email (only a few emails a week–full of awesome for you and your kids!) you’ll have access to every single thing you need for the entire ten weeks. Every link. Every printable. Bam. 

tabletop surprise 2014 a summer of fun and learning from

Cool. So now what?

  1. Print out the calendar: tabletop surprises calendar 2014
  2. Subscribe to via email. 
  3. Download the Tabletop Surprise Resource Guide (you’ll get it when you confirm your subscription, yo!). 
  4. Give your kids the skinny on Tabletop Surprises. 
  5. Start learning, playing, creating, inventing, and thinking alongside your kiddos!
  6. And? Share your #tabletopsurprises via instagram or twitter  just for fun.
  7. Have the summer of your dreams. Well. . .

tabletop surprise email promo

Give me a look at this stuff. 

Sure. Check out last year’s Tabletop Surprises to get an idea about what we’re doing: 

Or check out some fun ideas from a our Smart Summer Challenge a few summers back.

Here’s to an awesome summer filled with fun learning and memory-making!

independent learning, poetry and play: tabletop surprises

tabletop surprises week 5

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learn and play independently tabletop surprises
The greatest thing about tabletop surprises is that they afford my kids the opportunity for some seriously fun independent learning in cool and creative ways.

Because learning–especially in the summer–should be fun, right?


This week, we traveled a bit to hang with our familia in the Keystone State, so we only rocked our tabletop surprises four days this week.  And Friday? Our boy celebrated his big numero ocho cumpleanos. So we made our tabletop surprise especially for Owen.

We added a little bit of math, a little bit of reading, a little bit of critical thinking, and a whole lot of on-their-own-time kinda fun.

Here’s the skinny. . .

  • Independent Learning, Poetry, and Play– Tabletop Surprises:

tabletop surprises mealtime math madness

  • Mealtime Math Madness with Melissa & Doug Math Fact Placemats: This tabletop surprise moved from the work room table to our kitchen table–and it stayed there pretty much all week long.

I’ve always been a fan of mealtime learning, placemat parties, and using the many hours spent at the breakfast table for newspaper reading, sneaky learning, personal discovery, and more.

learning fun placemats tabletop surprise

learning fun placemats tabletop surprise

So when I found this sweet line of fun, wipe-off placemats from Melissa & Doug, I wanted to dance.   Really. Like running man al kinda dance.

We have tried the Alphabet & Numbers set, the Advanced Skills set, the Basic Skills set, and the Math Skills set. We haven’t tried the Fun Skills set (my poor, poor kids).

What I love about these sets is that though the problems are not mixed randomly, my hope is that kids will see patterns in the answers that will help them down the road. I don’t know. I can hope though.

learning fun placemats tabletop surprise

Love the wipe off crayons that are super easy to write with and bright enough to see. Love that there’s one mat each for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division and the answers are on the back of each. So if the kids aren’t up for writing, then at least they can eat and stare at the answers. Maybe the answers will sear into their brains if they look at them long enough. . .


tabletop surprises day poems

  • Poems–Memorizing & Reciting:  I love poems for so many reasons, but for kids, poems can be a super way of working on reading skills.

Check out how we rocked some serious poetry this week: Reading, Reciting, and Memorizing Poems

Fluency, memorization, and recitation are three big open doors when it comes to poetry, not to mention the creativity, writing skills, language play, critical thinking, and comprehension strategies you can practice.



tabletop surprises day shopping

  • Back-t0-School Shopping & Lists: Our family totally digs Back-to-School shopping, and it’s a tradition to kinda ‘do it up’ every year.

We’ve had the kids use their own school supply shopping lists from day one, and each year I do a little something to support Maddy, Owen, and Cora in their reading and management of their personal lists.

This year, I put them to work even before we arrived at the store.

back to school price shopping tabletop surprise

back to school price shopping tabletop surprise


I printed out supply lists from the school website, and I let them go.

Owen in particular had a great time trying to figure out the best places to buy Skylanders most inexpensively, and once he figured that out, he spent a few minutes plowing through his list.

The challenge was having them incorporate the coupons I had on the table–that involved some serious math practice.

Though this tabletop surprise required more support than I had anticipated, it was worth it. Now we have our back-to-school shopping plan outline for the weekend.


tabletop surprises day free electronics

  • Free Electronics:  Really, for Owen’s birthday, all he wanted was a free day for electronics.

So that’s what we gave him.

Free reign of the Wii, the Nintendo DS, the LeapFrog LeapPad, the LeapFrog GS, the iPad, and the iPad mini, and my boy was in hog heaven. The best gift I could have given him, he said.

No Game Time Tickets. No timers. Nothin’.

I had to do a lot of deep breathing to ease my anxiety over my kids’ brain cells being zapped by the second, but surprisingly, they didn’t spend all day on electronics. tabletop surprises buttonJust a whole lot of it.   Gulp.



Stay on top of the Tabletop Surprises by checking out the past few weeks if you’ve missed them:

Or check out some fun ideas from a our Smart Summer Challenge a few summers back.


fyi: affiliate links included in this post

reading, reciting, and memorizing poems

memorizing and reciting poems

post contains affiliate links


reading, reciting, and memorizing poems


For our tabletop surprise today, we rocked some major poetry.

Knowing that poetry reading is sometimes less intimidating than reading other texts and knowing that right now my Owen really isn’t into reading anything that doesn’t have the word ‘Skylanders‘ in it, I needed to think outside the box.

My kids usually dig poetry, and they have been digging the flexibility of our tabletop surprises and they totally dig getting in front of a few people and hamming it up.

So today? We did some reading, reciting, and memorizing of poems.

Here’s the skinny. . .

  • Reading, Reciting, and Memorizing Poems: That’s it.

That’s what we did.

reading, reciting, and memorizing poems

I put a handful of poetry books on the table, with a note that said:


1. Find a poem (or tw0!) that you love

2. Practice reading it over and over and over

3. Can you memorize it?

4. Read it to our family tonight!

And I let ’em at it.

I set out some of our favorite poetry books:

reading, reciting, and memorizing poems

We talked about ways to memorize things:

  • copying it over and over
  • reading it repeatedly
  • reading it line by line, and remembering it by sentences
  • recording yourself reading it and listening to it over and over
  • committing it to memory by one or two lines, and adding as you go

 But the emphasis was not on memorizing–that was only if they wanted to.  The emphasis was on reading the poem in the absolute best way you possibly could. To really ‘own’ the poem like it was your very own.


reading, reciting, and memorizing poems

No nursery rhyme books today. We went big. Or kind of.

The only rule was that everyone had to find a poem that had as many lines as his or her age.

That way, no one could grab a 2-liner and call it a day.  They had a total blast challenging me to find a poem with as many lines as my age, but we finally agreed that I could put a few together to add up to all of my years.

Whatever it takes, right?

reading, reciting, and memorizing poems

Cora carried her book around for most of the morning, reading and reading and reading her chosen poem.

Sometimes she’d read it silently, but most times she demanded that someone watch her and listen. Most of us gladly obliged.

When my husband got home from work, even he practiced a few poems.

And after dinner, we had our poetry recitation!

Maddy was the only gal who memorized hers. And proudly wore the Harry Potter robe she’s been sporting for the last week.  Owen copied his onto a connected stretch of Post-it Notes, and Cora read hers from the book.

reading, reciting, and memorizing poems

We clapped, hooted, and hollered when someone was finished, and we tried to give them meaningful praise for what they did well: You read that in a way that sounded just like you were talking! Excellent phrasing–we could really understand that long poem better when you read it that way! You said each word so clearly! No WAY you memorized that 10-line poem! Way to use your brain!

It was totally fun. So we’ll definitely do it again before summer’s end.

Excuse me while I head out to read some more poetry. . .


Why should we do this with our kids? Because teeny, little poetry packs a big punch. That’s why.

Lyndsay A. Gurnee, of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute says that “the use of poetry in the classroom is the best way to reach out to learners of different academic levels by activating the imagination of each individual student” and that is absolutely the reason I tried it with my crew (Gurnee, Lyndsay A.  Motivating Reluctant Readers Through Poetry, Yale University: Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 8.6.13).

More on why poetry rocks:

Check out:

  • Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades because even though the poems may be a higher level for elementary school kids, I truly believe the concepts and methods for approaching the poems can be adapted for younger readers.


fyi: affiliate links are included in this post

try someting new: fishing with kids

try something new fishing

Maybe every other family in the world has tried fishing, but ours has not.try something new fishing

That is, until this week.

Now? We’re like total fishermen. Fishers of men.

Fisherwomen. Fisherkids. Give us a rod, a worm, and we’re in it. Big time.

This week, the kids and I tried something totally new-for-us, completely exciting, and really . . . simple.

We fished.

I went fishing with kids. Fifteen kids to be exact.  And a bunch of moms. 

I’m not that crazy.

But when you’re baiting and casting and waiting and reeling, fifteen kids seems more like a hundred.  It’s all good. It was a super summertime activity.

Along with a group of fun friends, we took a county class at a local park, and together we learned how to fish.

And the really crazy thing is that I had no idea that this beautiful park and lake even existed (less than ten minutes from my home) or that these cool family-friendly courses even existed or that if you have a small group and want to form your own class, you can simply call and form your own.

try something new fishing

baby turtle — came to check out the newbie fisherpeople

I’m betting that it’s the same in most areas, and all it takes is a look at the local recreation department’s website.

Here’s the skinny. . .

  • Try Something New– Fishing With Kids: Really, I had no idea that our county parks and recreation department even offered courses like this. If I did, I would have started this madness a while ago.

My girlfriend called and arranged this adventure, and it involved paddle boating and a private fishing lesson for fifteen.

try something new fishing

Our instructor taught us how to cut the worm for hooks. . .

try something new fishing

 . . . and then carefully unlatch the hook before casting.

We learned about how to bait the hook, how to cast, and then how to reel our catch in.

But most importantly, we learned that fishing takes a whole lot of patience.

try something new fishing

try something new fishing

But after a while, we got lucky!

Some of us did, anyway. Maddy, Owen, and Cora came close to grabbing one, but didn’t score a catch.

Our friends did, though, and they told us how pokey the fish scales felt–and how surprised they were that they weren’t smooth and slippery.


try something new fishing

try something new fishing

It. Was. Awesome.

No, I’m not a fan of the worm part, I’ll be honest. But fishing for the first time with my kids–and their buddies–was a lot of fun.

It reminded me a few things:

  • that there are so many incredible learning opportunities so close to home;
  • that it is so important it is to spend time with other moms and kids;
  • that there are a boatload of hidden treasures right under our noses;
  • that it’s good to get out of your comfort zone every now and again;

try something new fishing

  • that learning new skills is good for the soul (casting? it was hard for me, I’ll admit. . . );
  • that engaging in family activities that require patience is muy importante in our immediate gratification lifestyle;
  • that being outside in a beautiful location makes us all so happy and refreshed.

And really? That’s it.

Super fun new-for-us summertime learning in a totally new-for-us location.

Want a few new activities for your family to try?  Check out our New For Us Friday posts and follow our neat-o, fun, new things for us to try board!

And tell me in the comments–have you tried fishing? How’d it go for you?

math, literacy, and creative summer learning: tabletop surprises

math, literacy, and creative summer learning: tabletop surprises

math, literacy, and creative summer learning: tabletop surprises

We’re week three into our tabletop surprises, and this week, we rocked some sneaky math, literacy, and creative thinking.

The kids woke up to some easy activities and ones that required more thinking—and two that required more movement. Sign language was one of the week’s activities.

The basis for tabletop surprises is just to let Maddy, Owen, and Cora find their own time to do these little activities that sneak in a little bit o’ learning and fun into their days.

They take all of five seconds to set up and prepare, and it’s a whole lot of pulling from resources that are around the house—from our own focused learning at home, or from my previous classroom teaching experience.

Fun stuff.

Here’s the skinny . . .

  • Math, Literacy, And Creative Summer Learning– Tabletop Surprises:   Set up and then go. That’s it.

We’re three weeks in. Here we go!

tabletop surprises sudoku

  • Sudoku: That’s right. Sudoku is hard. Number sense and critical thinking and logic all wrapped up into one pretty, griddy package.

Sudoku puzzles are logic-based number puzzles.

I found mine on KrazyDad, where I found the mazes a few weeks back.  Free. Tons of them. So worth checking out. I totally heart KrazyDad.

sudoku  tabletop surprises

sudoku  tabletop surprises

I printed some Easy ones for Monday’s tabletop surprises.   Even some of  Easy level ones were tough for the kids.

I’ll definitely throw Sudoku  in the mix again before the end of the summer because the puzzles were that hard for the kids. I’m not sure how we hadn’t tried them before, but Sudoku was on my mind from the cool outdoor Sudoku on this year’s we teach: summertime learning eBook.

Maddy, Owen, and Cora solved the Kid ones quickly—and they should have. They were super easy. But the Easy ones really challenged them. I think I need to learn more about how to solve them, some of the tricks and logic strategies myself, and then I’ll give them the skinny before trying this activity again.

My plan? To read up on the Sudoku Space site which has a pretty detailed explanation behind the puzzles.

tabletop surprises sign language cover

  • Learning With Sign language: I got these great sign language cards from a friend who moved a few years ago, and every so often I pull them out for the kids.

For our tabletop surprise on Tuesday, I simply gave them the following challenge:

1. Put the cards in ABC order.

2. Learn your name in sign language.

3. Learn two more words of your choice in sign language.

4. Show me what you’ve learned!

sign language cards  tabletop surprises

sign language cards  tabletop surprises

Owen ran with it and impressed Maddy, Cora, and I while we ate breakfast. He’s my early bird and usually gets his tabletop challenges finished before the girls finish breakfast.

Maddy and Cora move a little later, usually tackling the challenge after lunch or late afternoon.

Consensus was they liked this one.

Want to give it a go? Download and print one of the free sign language cards from the ASL site or these little sign language alphabet printables from abcteach.

tabletop surprises day money

I think the problem was that I didn’t have a lot of money out for them to play with—we didn’t have a ton of coins to actually play with or fill the coin wrappers. I get it. It’d be hard to spend time counting coins and then not actually have $2 in nickels to fill a wrapper completely.

Anyway, it was out on Wednesday, and they enjoyed sorting the coins from the non-coins (Chuck-E-Cheese tokens, foreign coins, random small, coin-like objects).  I think you can grab coin wrappers at any bank (at least you could a while back), or you can find them very inexpensive on Amazon.

tabletop surprises letter writing

  • Letter Writing: The other day, Cora received a little ‘hello’ note from one of her classmates, and it reminded me of how much kids—mine, especially—enjoy getting mail.

So on Thursday, I put out some note paper, pens, and envelopes and a little note that said:

Send a little ‘hello’ to

-Nana! -Cousins! -Grandparents!  -Friends!

tabletop surprises letter writing

tabletop surprises letter writing

letter writing tabletop surprises - 4

What got them stuck was the envelope and how to address it properly.  I made a little sample, and it helped a bit.  Spelling their cousins’ names? Also tough.

Clearly we need to do more practice here or at least I should update our Family Playing cards.  I’ll add it to my list.

I just liked how this got Maddy, Owen, and Cora thinking, writing, and sending a little love.  We need to do it more often, for sure.

tabletop surprises descriptive writing

  • Descriptive Writing: Inspired by our Stop, Observe, and Write activity from last summer’s Everyday Journals, I threw a card from the Everyday Journals on a clipboard along with some journals and notebooks.

We had breakfast out on the back porch, and then the kids took some time to find a quiet spot and write.

descriptive writing tabletop surprises -

descriptive writing tabletop surprises -

It was quick, it was easy, and my hope was that they would be able to tune into what they saw, heard, smelled, felt, and maybe even tasted as they sat, listened, and wrote.

The key? Modeling. You sit and write with them, sharing what you wrote so that they hear what descriptive writing sounds like.

And that’s it. Just an average, thoughtful, summer week.  And along with some trips to the pool and nearby parks, some errands and chores, it was a pretty sweet week.  Though it’s crazy, and I’m behind on all of my work, emails, and cleaning, I am thankful and blessed.

Stay on top of the Tabletop Surprises by checking out the past few weeks if you’ve missed them:

Or check out some fun ideas from a our Smart Summer Challenge a few summers back.

how to make the most of a day trip to museum, farm, or amusement park

make the most of family day trips

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make the most of family day trips


Now that our swim and dive seasons are officially over, it’s time for a few good family day trips. And our close proximity to Washington, DC, Baltimore, and Annapolis mean that we have a boatload of day trip options at our fingertips.

My friends at Melissa and Doug have been focusing on travel all summer in their Traveling With Kids: Tips & Tricks series. It’s been a riot to follow, but now I’m ready to do some traveling myself!

No matter where you live,  there’s bound to be some nearby mini-road trips for your family to enjoy, and there’s no better time than summer to put on your adventure boots.  Or flip-flops.

Perhaps it’s a nearby farm, museum, or historic building.  Even exploring a new-for-you town or sporting event can be a great day trip.  If you’re close to a bigger city, visitors’ centers, newspapers, or local family blogs can give you a good starting point.

When Maddy, Owen, and Cora were tiny, my ‘job’ for our local MOMS Club was to organize tours of local businesses.  With only a quick call to the manager or owner, we were given super-fun, behind-the-scenes looks at bakeries, flower shops, recycling centers, farms, ice-cream shops, and more–all within a 5-mile radius!

It was a blast.

Here’s the skinny. . .

  •  How to Make the Most of a Day Trip to the Museum, Farm or Amusement Park: No matter where you choose to go, day trips are ideal for sneaking in some fun learning before, during, and after the adventure.

day trip learning before

Before the trip: Before the trip can mean before you even get in the car or it can mean time in the car. Either way, there’s fun learning to be had!


  • Doing pre-event research. Visit the farm, museum, or city website, and find some kid-friendly resources. Many sites have ‘Before You Go’ sections that help to prepare young children for their visit. Print out maps, view photos, and let your child in on the fun!  It’s about activating schema–getting brains ready for the learning they’ll be doing by talking about what they already know about a topic. Once they get to the location, children can more easily connect what they know to what they’re learning!
  • Using travel time. Time in the car (or on the bus, metro, or train) is great time for learning.  Try traditional travel games like the License Plate Game, Flip to Win Hangman, or Travel Bingo.  Or try The Box Girls Travel Sets like we’ve done in the past.
  • Checking out these 7 Pre-Trip Educational Adventures by my friend Zina of Let’s Lasso the Moon.
  • Downloading the Road Trip Mini-Mag from Melissa & Doug and Highlights

day trip during event

During the trip: Sometimes it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by excitement on a day excursion, but taking time to focus on the learning opportunities can help kids to slow down and really appreciate where the adventure!


  • Asking for information.  When you arrive, ask for brochures, fliers, maps, or free resources for families. Most often, locations are happy to share what they’ve created, and you can use them as a guide for the day, as well as for follow-up at home.
  • Attending on-site events.  If there are demonstrations, shows, or hands-on events for children, definitely attend them! Allowing kids to experience the location in a multi-sensory way will help them to remember, appreciate, and enjoy the learning.
  • Finding beauty.  Take time to point out beautiful art, buildings, signs, animals, or displays.  Though we, as adults, think that kids will naturally notice these things, often they will not unless we bring it to their attention. It’s as simple as: Wow! Look at the feathers on that peacock! The blues, greens, and purples shine in the sunlight! or Can you even believe how huge this building is? It seems to reach the sky!
  • Incorporating their strengths. If your child loves math, make a point of counting the butterflies you see. If she is a scientist at heart, be sure to make connections between experiments she’s conducted at home and what you see today. Loves geography? Talk about where you are and where you’re going in relation to other places he’s been.
  • Reading environmental print. Read signs, labels, descriptions. Read posters, pamphlets, and anything printed in and around the area. It all counts, and it all helps build reading skills!

day trip after the trip

how to make the most of a day trip to museum, farm, or amusement park: before, during, and after activities


After the trip: Keep the energy going even when you get home. Even if it’s the day after your adventure, taking some time for reflection and follow-up is totally worth your time.


  • Making Day Trip Art.  Free time to create art based on the day’s adventure is a fabulous way of allowing kids to wrap up the experience and talk about what they learned.  Ask kids to sit down, and together, brainstorm some of the event’s highlights.  Talk about what you all loved and didn’t love, and then let them go!  With a few stickers (try the Alphabet and Numbers stickers and Pink Sticker Collection) and drawings on the Melissa and Doug Picture Frame Pad every little drawing looks like a masterpiece.

how to make the most of a day trip to museum, farm, or amusement park: before, during, and after activities


how to make the most of a day trip to museum, farm, or amusement park: before, during, and after activities


how to make the most of a day trip to museum, farm, or amusement park: before, during, and after activities

Talk about what you all loved and didn't love, and then let them go!  With a few stickers (try the Alphabet and Numbers stickers and Pink Sticker Collection) and drawings on the Melissa and Doug Picture Frame Pad every little drawing looks like a masterpiece.

I totally heart the works of art Maddy, Owen, and Cora created after a recent trip to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  We saw bones–big bones!–belonging to some really big animals.  And we saw a rockin’ iMax movie on Surfing and Waves.  Clearly they were some of my kids’ favorites.

 With a little bit of planning and a tiny bit of prep, you can really sneak in learning before, during, and after any day trip–no matter where you choose to go.  These few tips will surely help you maximize learning–and fun!–not to mention create memories to last a lifetime!

melissa & doug BA badge 2013


fyi: I wrote this post as part of the Melissa & Doug Blog Ambassador program.   Melissa & Doug has long created rockstar products that nurture creativity and thought in our children, which is why I am so proud to be a part of this program.


Affiliate links are used in this post.


learn and play independently: tabletop surprises week 2

tabletop surprises week two

post contains affiliate links


tabletop surprises week two


One rockin thing about tabletop surprises is that kids can learn and play independently. On their own time, when they’re up for it.

And that flexibility has been huge for us since our summer swim and dive schedule has been totally crazy for the last few weeks.

Another cool thing about creating these open invitations for exploration is that tabletop surprises allow: one day something free and crafty, another day something that is a little more thought-provoking and complex, an activity that requires a bit more time.

Survey says that these are a big win for us so far.

If the kids are game, I’m game.

This week, we used some math and reading skills, played with water and worked those fine motor skills.

Here’s the skinny. . .

  • Learn and Play Independently–Tabletop Surprises Week 2:

tabletop surprises button

Quick refresher: Tabletop Surprises are fun learning or creative thinking opportunities for the kids on our craft room table. Just sitting there.  Waiting for someone to come along and try ‘em out.  Open invitations to play.

Here’s what we did this week. . .

tabletop surprises mad minute math

math facts fun pens tabletop surprises -

  • Mad Minute Math Facts with Crazy Pens:  I am a huge fan of crazy pens. Added to anything, any sort of work, crazy pens up the fun factor by like a million percent. At least in my book.

So Mad Minute Math facts, paired with crazy pens– our bumblebee pens, some fun flip flop ones, and other crazy pens, were a pretty decent hit for the kids this week.

math facts fun pens tabletop surprises -

math facts fun pens tabletop surprises - 2

I use Mad Practice Sheet –a free website where you can put in any parameters you want, and the mad minute practice sheet is ready for you to print immediately. Love. It.

I printed several double-digit addition sheets, some single digit addition and subtraction, some multiplication, and some money problems. All free.

tabletop surprises day water fun

tabletop surprises day water

  • Indoor Water Fun:  My kids love playing with water, so all I did today was set up a few trays with–you got it–water.

I raided our small recycle bin and added some recyclables–small yogurt cups, play-doh ones, spice containers, and tiny glasses–that were clean and were waiting for a fun opportunity like this to arise.

I brought out some syringes that we’ve used before, and we were good to go. Ready to roll.

Added them to the tray, poured a little h2o in the big container, and that was it.  The novelty of playing with water in the house–in the craft room–where we normally have a no snacks, no drink rule made this activity especially fun for the kids.

tabletop surprises day magazine hunt cover

  • Magazine Reading & Magazine Hunt: Magazines are a great way to sneak in some meaningful reading time when you don’t have a whole lot of time to spare.

So I put out a bunch of magazines we had around the house–ones that my kids subscribe to or that we picked up along the way.

Along with the magazines, I had the Magazine Hunt cards out so that Maddy, Owen, and Cora could grab a card, hunt for what it asked for, and be on their merry way.  I think Maddy just grabbed a magazine and hit the couch.  Owen and Cora might have tried a card or two. Either way? Fun.

abletop surprises day puzzles

puzzle morning tabletop surprises

  • Puzzles, puzzles, puzzles: Simple. We were running crazy on Thursday, so three puzzles did the trick.

Only three: a 100 piece dinosaur puzzle, Melissa & Doug Construction Puzzle Set, and the Alphabet Giraffe puzzle.

puzzle morning tabletop surprises

puzzle morning tabletop surprises

puzzle morning tabletop surprises

These are puzzles that were small enough to fit on the table and were ones that we’ve had for a while. Old favorites.

Though the 100-piece didn’t get finished, the other ones were done and re-done throughout the day.

I think we found the Alphabet Giraffe puzzle at a yard sale years ago; the best $1.00 I ever spent because Maddy, Owen, and Cora have played with this for years and years and years.

 tabletop surprises day stencils

  • Stencils: We haven’t used stencils in forEVER.

So when I put these out on the table, I thought that either the kids would love them or totally ignore them.  They really did both.  Owen and Cora loved them and Maddy ignored them.

But I’m leaving them out over the weekend in case they feel stencil-inclined on Saturday or Sunday.

tabletop surprises day stencils
tabletop surprises day stencils

What I think drove the kids to the table, maybe even more than the stencils, was the cool paper I sent the stencils out with: frame paper from Melissa & Doug. Very fun–big sheets with a different frame on each page so that a masterpiece looks like a framed work of art even if it’s a simple stencil drawing.

That’s it–just a fun bit o’ learning for the week. . . got lots of cool stuff in store for the upcoming week because swim and dive are over!

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