Monday, December 31, 2012

Teen Activities: The New Years Box

By Deborah Pace Rowley

Every January 1st, we spend part of the day opening and filling our New Year's Box.

Our New Year's Box is a battered old brown box covered with crossed out years from our past. It certainly isn't that attractive. If someone tried to help me move, they would probably be tempted to throw the New Year's Box in the trash. But if we had a fire, it would be one of the first things I would save. Let me explain.

I am not sure how the tradition of the New Year's Box got started but every year for the past 11 years, our family has selected items to put in the box that represent that past year. Tomorrow each member of our family will gather one or two small items that represent 2012. Then we will get out the items that represented 2011 and write down these items on the card that is included in the box.

It is a simple tradition that only takes us about 30 minutes but it has provided a fun time capsule for our growing family. It has helped us recorded significant milestones and it has helped us see the progress that we have made in the past.

Here are a few of my favorite entries on our card:
2011- Natalie broke her foot playing lacrosse (she put her cast in the box)
2010- Dad got braces (he put some elastics in the box)
2009- Shannon ran at Foot Locker Regionals for her cross country team (she put her race number in)
2008- Joseph grew almost a foot (he put his old high-water-pajamas in the box)
2007- Katie started kindergarten (she put her desk name plate in the box)
2006- We went to Disneyland (Melissa put a Disneyland souvenir in the box)
2005- We painted the yellow house (I put in a paint brush)

This year I am going to put in a small plastic frog into the box that represents "Puddle Wonderful Learning" because 2012 is the year that we started this blog. The blog has been a fun adventure with my sister and it made up a big part of my year. So that will be my contribution. It will be fun to see what everyone else will include. I can hardly wait!

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Elementary Activities: What I Tell My Children About Santa

By Deborah Pace Rowley

Katie turns the tradition of the snowman on its head!

And I do that same thing with the tradition of Santa Claus. How do I do that, you ask?
Well, I still believe in Santa Claus! That means my conversation with my kids about the big guy's reality is different than most Moms. Let me explain. (Spoiler Alert: If you are a kid reading this, ask your Mom or Dad if it is okay first!)

When my children are about ten years old and I can sense they are becoming skeptical, I tell them that they are now old enough to have a special talk with Mom on Christmas Eve after everyone has gone to bed. That usually gets them pretty excited and they wait anxiously for the moment when everyone is in bed and they can sneak out of bed for our "talk."

Then we sit down together and I tell them the story of the real Saint Nicholas. This is what I say:

"A long time ago there was a real man named Nicholas who went around doing good to others. He wanted people to remember Jesus so he did acts of service in Christ's name. One time he learned of a poor family that couldn't afford food. The father was considering selling his oldest daughter. Nicholas didn't want that to happen and so he threw a bag of money into their window. Once a year he would throw another bag of money in their window to help the family until all their daughters had grown up. This is where the tradition of giving gifts for Christ's birthday began.

After Nicholas died, he became a Saint in the Catholic church. People wanted to continue to give gifts in his honor for Christmas. Different people took a turn at becoming Saint Nicholas. People wrote stories about him and the stories grew and became more fun and creative with each retelling. He was given different names in different countries and in different stories such as Santa Claus and Kris Kringle and Father Christmas.

The stories about a jolly fat man with a sleigh and reindeer in the North Pole are just pretend. But Saint Nicholas is real. Even though I am a grown up, I still believe in Santa Claus. I believe in the magic that happens at Christmas time. I am so lucky that I get a turn to be Santa Claus on Christmas Eve for my kids but I think Saint Nicholas is still part of the celebration. I think he is going around doing good as an angel at Christmas time. Miracles happen every Christmas and I think Saint Nicholas is part of that. It feels different and special and I know that anything can happen. And now that you are old enough to know this secret, it is your turn to be Santa Claus."

My children's eyes get wide at this point and I hand them all the Christmas stockings. For this one special year, they get a turn to fill our Christmas stockings. I don't have specific stocking stuffers for each child but I let my 10 year old "choose" what goes in each stocking. They get to decide which color mittens or scarves each of their sibling gets and which coloring book or PEZ dispenser goes in each stocking. It is a thrill to see how excited they are to choose and how carefully they fill each stocking.

When they are done, I remind them that now they have been officially adopted in the Santa Claus club they can't tell anyone else what they know. I encourage them to watch for the magic and try to catch signs of Saint Nicholas around us. I also tell them that now that they are giving gifts in Saint Nicholas' name, they need to continue to do that every Christmas season. They won't be able to fill stockings again until they have kids of their own but they can do other things. They can put coins in the Salvation Army bucket. They can find ways to help and be kind to others all season long because that is what Saint Nicholas would do. Then I send them back to bed with a hug and a kiss and my husband and I get to finish setting out the rest of the gifts.

I have loved this conversation with each of my children. I think they have been excited rather than disillusioned or disappointed in learning the truth. And this is truly what I believe so I can have this conversation with an open heart and without guilt or regret. I know other Moms make a different decision on one side of the Santa Claus debate or the other but I wanted to share my tradition with you. Good luck in deciding what and when you want to tell your kids about Santa.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Preschool Activities: Planned Pretend Play after Christmas

By: Deborah Pace Rowley
One of the greatest things about my sister's preschool program is that she incorporates planned pretend play into her weekly curriculum. I am sure she will tell you more about how she does this in her upcoming posts for this school year. But I was recently going through some old photos and came across this picture of my daughters playing "Beauty Shop" with their dad.

I can't tell you how often this activity occurred or how patient my husband was with his three girly girls. Let's just say, he was super grateful to finally get a son! The great thing about this was that I hadn't even read the research that demonstrates how important this idea is for preschoolers. It was just something my girls came up with on their own.

They would usually set out a beauty salon sign and then each of them would take a different job for the day. One girl would do hair. Another girl would do nails. Meanwhile the third girl would apply lots of smelly lotions and creams to my husband's hands, face and arms. Mom would also get roped into participating although the end result wasn't nearly as fun!

A Beauty Shop isn't the only location where pretend play is effective. How about playing pretend school? Or a pretend dentist's office? Or a pretend pizza shop or grocery store?  I bet your kids got some fun pretend play items for Christmas this year. Could you help them to add to these store bought props with some props of their own that they find around the house? Tiff will talk more about how to help preschoolers plan their play beforehand. This planning is what makes award-winning preschools stand out. I know you will love her ideas to use in future play dates with your preschooler and their friends. Pedicure or facial or up-do with mega barrettes anyone?!!

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Teen Activities: Christmas Surprise!

By Deborah Pace Rowley

This Christmas has been especially magical because of the surprise we had planned for our flour youngest children. In September we had decided that we couldn't afford to fly our oldest daughter home for Christmas. She is going to school in Virginia and her grandparents are living in Ohio. The plan was that her grandparents would pick her up and she would spend Christmas with them. It seemed like a good plan.

Until November, when I realized that I couldn't possibly live without my oldest daughter at home for Christmas. It didn't matter what it cost, I needed her here. After all, I don't have that many more years with all my children under one roof. So I purchased the ticket and mortgaged the farm (figuratively speaking, of course!) The exciting part is that my husband and I didn't tell the rest of the family what we had done.

Just a week ago, I "pretended" to ship a package to Grandma and Grandpa's house with Melissa's Christmas presents. Then last Friday, her Dad picked her up at the airport and snuck her home. He then put her in a big box and let the kids unwrap her as an early Christmas present. This became the most amazing Mom moment ever! I just had to share the video below.


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Friday, December 21, 2012

Parenting Tips: The Mess is the Memory

By Deborah Pace Rowley

One of my favorite Christmas memories involves three clear glass jars shaped like Christmas trees. Every year my mom would fill the trees with candy and use them as a centerpiece on our kitchen table during the month of December. Every year my brothers and sister and I would sneak candy out of the jars. My mom started taping the jars closed to prevent the red and green M&Ms from mysteriously disappearing. This made the challenge even more fun! Could we sneak candy out the jars and replace the tape without Mom noticing? Keep in mind that these jars are clear and any missing candy is noticeable immediately whether or not you replace the tape!

My mom took all this in stride. She kept refilling the jars and re-taping the lids. I think she knew how much we enjoyed sneaking the candy. She couldn't just leave a bowl of candy out for everyone to take at will. It wouldn't have been the same. Of course, she would pretend disappointment at the constantly shrinking supply and chagrin that her taping efforts were so unsuccessful and she would fill the jars again. Even now, my siblings and I laugh when we see the glass Christmas tree jars. What a fun memory!  

Now I have a candy tradition in my own home but it doesn't involve taped jars. Our candy is set out openly in a wooden Christmas sleigh. What makes our candy special is the story behind them. Every year I have to purchase several tubs of Bob's red and white stripped mints to refill our sleigh all the month of December. We call our mints "Sabrina's Mints" because they were a favorite candy of my children's Aunt Sabrina. She would keep a stash stored in her bedroom to pull out every time her nieces and nephews visited around the holidays. Sabrina had a rare disease that left her confined in a wheelchair. (A wheelchair that my children loved to ride on.) Sabrina's birthday was December 23rd and she died before her 29th birthday. This year we have made a greater effort to eat only healthy foods but the kids insisted that we continue our tradition of Sabrina's mints. How could I refuse?

What do these stories have in common? They are part of a lesson I learned as a young mother when we were invited to the lavish home of one of my husband's clients. She had a gorgeously decorated living room and an ornate Christmas tree. On the couches were some Christmas pillows. This gracious host handed one of my children a Christmas pillow and said, "These are perfect for throwing. I got them for my grandchildren so they could throw them when I wasn't looking!" Then she winked. I was so surprised. Her home belonged in Better Homes and Gardens. Could it be that the magic of Christmas wasn't in how everything looked but in how these items brought us together and created playful and joyful memories?

Since that powerful lesson I have been more patient with how my children interact and play with our Christmas decorations. I love to watch my youngest daughter pull all our reindeer ornaments off the tree and play with them under its branches. All of her older siblings did the same thing. She is unknowingly carrying on a Rowley Christmas tradition.

Then there is Grandpa's miniature ski village that lights up at night. Who knew that tiny Polly Pocket dolls would fit so perfectly next to the houses and enliven the scene with their play? I love to watch Katie and now Cameron and Brooklyn gather around the village to play together. Yes, it is fragile. Yes, it might get broken. No, it wasn't made for that purpose. But I know that each time I get out this piece to decorate my future home I will remember. Katie will remember too and tell her children about this happy memory.

Even as I walked around my house to take these pictures, I had to refrain from resetting up my stuffed Nativity scene. The darn camels with their spindly legs just won't stay standing up and they really won't stay up when Anniston comes over to play with them.

I love how the first thing that she wants to do when she arrives is pick up our full-size baby Jesus and carry him around. Yes, sometimes we have to retrieve our baby from under the couch or down the stairs but I love the tender concern that she shows for the baby. It makes me smile and brings the Christmas spirit.

The title of this post is "the mess is the memory." Remember this as you clean up after your kids this holiday season, refill jars, rewrap presents and straighten the decorations for what seems like the hundredth time. Our Christmas decorations have value only if they make memories for our children. Hint: They won't do that just by being looked at.

Case in point: Our already munched on gingerbread house. :)

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Preschool Activities: Simple Soap Kids Can Make

By Deborah Pace Rowley

The students in my class have been busy making soap dishes and soap to give their parents for Christmas this year. (Sshhh! Don't give away the surprise!) I have been surprised at how simple and easy it is to make soap and how excited the children were about the process. I have labeled this a preschool activity because it is something a preschooler can easily do with adult supervision.

First, you will need some clear glycerin soap. I purchased a large bag at Hobby Lobby for $8.00. 32 oz. of glycerin did about ten soaps. Then you need a mold. I also purchased the mold at Hobby Lobby for $2.00. But I know you can also mold soap in muffin tins or other disposable containers.

Simply melt the bars of glycerin in the microwave in a microwave safe dish. I used a large glass measuring cup which made the glycerin easy to pour in the next step. Microwave on high at 30 second intervals. Stir in between. Add the fragrance of your choice. We used coconut but any scent would work.

We put small tropical fish in our soap but any small figurine or toy would be cute inside the soap. Place your figurine in the mold and pour the glycerin over the top. The glycerin will cool and harden in one hour. Then the soap is ready to pop out and put in a cute container for gift giving.

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Monday, December 17, 2012

In Loving Memory of the Children of Sandy Hook Elementary

Excerpt from the Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde
Illustrations by S. Saelig Gallagher
One winter morning the Giant looked out of his window as he was dressing. He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting.
Suddenly he rubbed his eyes in wonder, and looked and looked. It certainly was a marvelous sight. In the farthest corner of the garden was a tree quite covered with lovely white blossoms. Its branches were all golden, and silver fruit hung down from them and underneath it stood the little boy he had loved.
Downstairs ran the Giant in great joy, and out into the garden. He hastened across the grass, and came near to the child. And when he came quite close, his face grew red with anger, and he said, "Who hath dared to wound thee?" For on the palms of the child's hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two nails were on the little feet.

"Who hath dared to wound thee? cried the Giant. "Tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him." "Nay!" answered the child, "but these are the wounds of Love."
"Who art thou?" said the Giant, and a strange awe fell on him, and he knelt before the little child.

And the child smiled on the Giant, and said to him,"You let me play once in your garden. Today you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise."

And when the children ran in that afternoon, they found the Giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.

May the little children of Sandy Hook Elementary rest in Paradise and may their parents find comfort through the mercy and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. God bless you.

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Toddler Activities: The Elf on the Shelf

By Deborah Pace Rowley
It seems that the elf on the shelf is all the rage right now. Everywhere you look there are posts about how to create the perfect elf mischief. My sister-in-law called and told me that her kids were envious of their friends who had an visiting elf. So she dressed a doll in a red outfit, stuck her on the shelf, and christened her the "doll on the wall!"

Not everyone is a fan of the naughty elf, however. I read one blogger who argued that if your kids need an elf to control their behavior, you are not doing your job as a parent. I have to admit I found it somewhat ironic when I learned that the elf was able to get away with all the behavior he was supposedly reporting. There are opinions on both sides but I liked my sister's perspective. She is a great mom and a super preschool teacher. She knows lots of effective discipline techniques. But she admits that she appreciates the little extra help that her elf provides during the holiday season. Combine all the parties and the sweets, the anticipation and disrupted routines and kid's behavior can quickly become out of control.

If you are in need of some extra mom reinforcement, you do not need to have the "real" toy elf and book to start your own "elf" tradition. I have a laminated Waldo that moves around my classroom regularly and keeps everyone searching for his whereabouts before and after their school day. (Maybe Waldo is also spying on the kids during the day.... if I could only find someone he could report to!)

Below is our free printable ELF that you can use to hide around your home during this Christmas season. Print him out on cardstock or laminate him for extra durability. You will find that he is even more nimble when hiding than his stuffed counterpart. He can hide under and behind things where the real elf wouldn't fit and he can provide lots of learning opportunities as you give clues to his location. You could even sing Christmas songs louder or softer depending on your child's proximity to the elf. He can also be a powerful reminder that Santa is watching so "you better be good for goodness sake." And toddlers can use all the reminders that they can get!

Print out our cute Elf here.

P.S. Tiff wanted me to tell you that the Rudd elf just hides. He doesn't  engage in mischief or he would be sent packing. Also, he is not the elf that comes with the book as Tiff finds him really creepy looking!

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Friday, December 14, 2012

Elementary Activities: Learning to Set Limits

By Deborah Pace Rowley
I love this picture of my niece and nephew. Declan is almost as big as Anniston and it was so funny to see her try to "hold" her baby brother. He would start to tip over and pretty soon he was dragging Anniston down with him onto the couch. Looking at this picture makes me laugh but it also makes me think about Christmas. Sometimes it feels like Christmas has become this huge burden that Moms must struggle to carry around the entire month of December. There is never enough money or time to do it all and yet we run around making ourselves crazy as we attempt to accomplish the impossible. Then we wonder why we feel disappointed and deflated when the holiday ends.

I think one of the reasons that our children are so crazy around the holidays is that they pick up on the emotional energy and vibes their moms send out. This is why it is so critical to control our own emotional states. I think it is important to set limits around the holidays so that our children can learn how to set limits too. This is what is means to be self-disciplined and show self-control. If we can't do it, how are we going to teach our kids?

I was so impressed with my sister this year. She is teaching her children how to set limits. It started at the beginning of the month when they wrote Santa their Christmas letters. My sister told each child that Santa would be bringing them one special gift this year and the needed to think carefully about what they wanted. I was impressed with both Cameron and Brooklyn as they thought about what to ask for. No one was upset. No one begged for more. They learned a valuable lesson about choosing and weighing options. I know when Santa comes, they will be thrilled with the one item that they asked for.

I have tried to set limits for my children and for myself also. There are so many good things that we could be involved in and so many traditions that we could adopt. But we CAN'T do it all.  Every time I read about some other fun tradition or some other worthy cause, rather than feel guilty I remind myself of the limits I have placed on our Christmas celebration. Here is my list.

Each Christmas the Rowley family will:
Give our time in one meaningful act of service.
Give our money to one worthy cause.
Spend one evening in spiritual celebration of Christ's birth.
Spend one day in fun recreation together.
Keep alive one cherished tradition from our past.
Give simple gifts to our very close family and friends.
Give love in our actions, words, and smiles to everyone we meet.

Sometimes I am tempted to do much more but making this list has given me the freedom to do less and to feel good about it. At the end of December if we have accomplished these 7 things, our Christmas will have been a success. This is something that is manageable for me. This is something that I know that I can accomplish. This makes me feel more like Brooklyn, giving Anniston a great big kiss!

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Preschool Activities: My 10 Favorite Christmas Books

By Deborah Pace Rowley

Shortly after we were first married, I began my Christmas book collection. Now that collection numbers about 30 or 35 books and I add at least one book to the collection each Christmas. I love to gather my children around me to share a Christmas story each evening in December. I remember once when my three little girls were small. I had one on my lap and one on each side of me and we were reading a Christmas book. The lights of the Christmas tree were shining in the background, illuminating the pages of the book and the shiny faces of my daughters. I remember thinking, "This is what I dreamed motherhood would be like." It was one of those few magical moments when the reality of motherhood actually exceeded the fantasy I had enjoyed before my oldest was born!

These are my favorite books to read aloud to my children. If you haven't already started your own Christmas book tradition, here are some great stories to get you started. If you already have a Christmas book collection, I hope there is something new here for you to enjoy. It was hard to choose just 10 but I had Katie help me. We had to eliminate How the Grinch Stole Christmas! but we figured everyone knew about that classic already. I wish you could hear our Dad read that aloud each year. That is a real treat!

The Silver Packages is the sweet story about a Christmas train that comes to the Appalachian mountains each year. The portrayal of this poor community that receives so much from an anonymous benefactor makes me cry every year. I love the message of this little boy who grows up and gives back.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey is another tear-jerker. I love the miraculous transformation of this woodcarver as he works on a hand-carved nativity and learns to live again. 

The Tale of Tree Trees is a special book in our family. My husband read this story at the funeral of a dear friend who died of cancer at a young age. To me the message of this story is that even if our lives do not turn out the way we expect, the miracle is that through the power of Jesus Christ, they can become magnificent. 

On a lighter note, we love Santa Calls by William Joyce. It is the cutest story about the relationship between a brother and a sister. I love how they help each other to save Christmas and learn to value their friendship in the process. This is a great reminder if you have sibling rivalry in your home!

It wouldn't be Christmas without The Polar Express. I still want my twenty-year-old to be able to hear  Santa's sleigh bell and believe in the wonder and magic of Christmas. 

The Selfish Giant By Oscar Wilde may be a unique book to put on a Christmas list. It is typically seen as an Easter story but it is one of my children's favorite stories to read at Christmastime each year. There are many versions of this story that is rich in symbolism about Christ but we love this one illustrated by S. Saelig Gallagher. In this story, a picture really is worth a thousand words. The story of Jesus is not just about a baby in a manager. Here His story is told in all of its eternal significance. 

Auntie Calls is just for fun but it has a very timely message: It is better to give than to receive. 

The Last Straw is an original story about humility. You will never hear the expression, "The straw that broke the camel's back" in the same way again. I love the last page where the camel bows to the baby Jesus. 

Christmas Oranges is a beautiful story about sharing. It teaches us that the simplest acts of kindness can mean the most at Christmas time. 

The Miracle of the Wooden Shoes is special to us because it is the story of my grandfather Walter Seiter. It means so much to me, not because of the words that I wrote, but because of the words that I didn't write. On the morning this book went to press, I woke up in a panic. I knew that I had ended the book completely wrong. I hurriedly called my publisher who luckily told me that it wasn't too late to make some changes.

Originally I had ended the story with Walter's excitement to share some chocolate candy with his baby sister Erica who hadn't had chocolate before. This ending seems so incomplete to me now. The words that I was given enriched the story so much more. "Walter struggled to hold back tears as he looked at his family. Jesus Christ knew and loved them. This was the miracle, sweeter to Walter than all the chocolate in his wooden shoes."

May these books fill your home and hearts with the miracle of Christ's love and the wonder of his birth.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Toddler Activities: Santa's Pack

By Deborah Pace Rowley
"Santa's Pack" is another story that has been told and retold in the Pace family since I was small. Like "The Turkey with the Terrible Temper" it has been rewritten countless times and new illustrations have been added each time the old ones have worn out. I wish I could give the author of this sweet story credit and hope that somehow through the magic of the internet the original writer can be found.

I love this story because it teaches the importance of traditions. It builds on a toddler's growing understanding about holidays and colors and how one holiday leads to another throughout the year. But most of all, this story is just plain fun! The elves somehow manage to get the best of Santa Claus each time he brings a new pack for them to fill. Your toddler will love adding the contents to each pack at the appropriate time in the story and can even put up the correct color pack to begin with.
You can find the text of the story here. The free printable illustrations can be found here or by clicking on the sample illustration below. Make sure you laminate the illustrations for extra durability. Magnets would work great if using this story on a magnet board. You can also cut a slit in each pack above the black gather lines so that the contents will slip down just slightly inside the pack. We hope you will enjoy telling your toddler the story of "Santa's Pack" as much as we have.
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Friday, December 7, 2012

Elementary Activities: Christmas Mosaics

By: Deborah Pace Rowley
In my elementary school class, we have been learning about Ancient Rome. The students read about Roman Mosaics and then we recreated this artistic style in our class.
It was fun to see how engaged my students were in this project over several days. When you can find something that engages an active elementary-age child for more than 10 minutes, you know you have a winner!
If you are looking for a way to engage your older children while you finish up some Christmas wrapping or holiday baking, this project is for you. Simply choose a pattern from the many free patterns that we have provided here. Print one out. I had my students trace the pattern onto a plain piece of paper with light pencil first to eliminate the dark black outline. Then you can start cutting colored construction paper to fit your design. All you need is a glue stick to fix the "tiles" in place. You can see from the examples that some students cut very small shapes to fill their mosaics. Other students used larger shaped tiles. Whatever size you choose, the end product is simply beautiful. I think they would make great Christmas cards. All you would need to do is color copy the mosaic and turn it into the front cover of your own unique greeting.

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