Learning letter names and sounds

Whether you are homeschooling or have a young child at school, most of us will at some stage be helping our children learn their letter names and sounds. There are many different ways to do this, from rote learning with flash cards to games and hands on workjob style activities.

I use quite a few different methods depending on the child, their rate of learning and preferred learning style and the time I have available to teach them. One of the more hands-on approaches I have employed is an alphabet chart. Again, this is something I made way back in my Uni teacher training days that has been useful through 7 years of teaching and now has made it’s way to the third child in our family.

I do not introduce the letters for the first time using the chart – there are too many all at once and it is too overwhelming. We go through the alphabet one letter at a time, adding more as the child is ready. (I’ll post about this another time.) Once the child knows quite a few letter names and most sounds I introduce the pocket chart. It can be used in many different ways. Here are just a couple:

  • Matching lowercase letters to uppercase letters.
  • lucky dipping letter cards from a pillowslip, naming them, saying their sound and then sliding them into the correct pocket.
  • sorting small objects by their initial sound (first sound you hear when you say the word) into the correct pocket.
  • setting up a word bank system with picture and word cards that begin with each letter “filed” in each pocket for children to use during creative writing.
  • find the hidden toy games where the child checks the pockets for a hidden items and must name the letter and sound to be able to keep the item. (Just for the duration of the game though, although you could include a little treat surprise every now and then.)

These objects are one set I use for initial sound sorting.

A second set of objects for initial sound sorting.

To begin with, all alphabet chart work is done one-on-one with me, however once the child begins to grasp the concept of initial sounds, I give them a bag or box of objects to sort into the correct pocket as an independent activity. It is self-checking because there is never more than one object for each pocket so if they find one already there, they know they have made an error and can self correct.

If you are not able to sew a chart, you could make one using cardboard and add Velcro spots to attach the letter cards or large sturdy envelopes to act as pockets for the items. If you plan to use it for any length of time or with more than one sibling it would be worth taking the time to sew one up. It might be a nice project for Grandma perhaps??

Teaching Children To Read: Readers

It is very important to expose children to a wide variety of excellent quality literature from an early age. Way before a child can read, they will be able to appreciate a wonderful story and surprise you with their ability to concentrate and enjoy listening to a chapter or so at a time from quality chapter books that would otherwise be way above their reading level.

Those who are familiar with the Charlotte Mason style of education through living books will already be acquainted with the idea that children should be reading “twaddle free” literature that has not been “dumbed down” for children, but rather includes all the richness and fullness of the English language at it’s best.

Today I am listing the beginning readers that my children have enjoyed learning to read from because I do believe that there is a place for the more traditional first reading books or vocabulary controlled readers for beginning readers. Some parents are reluctant to use these because they do not fit into the “quality literature” category, however you need to be clear why you are using them. If they are your child’s only exposure to books then yes, they will not be getting the rich language experiences they need. However, if you are reading aloud or playing audio recordings of classic books and using readers in a structured fashion to teach word decoding and first reading skills, then they have a valuable purpose.

When children are learning to read they will often find it hard work and be easily discouraged with texts that are too difficult. With carefully levelled and graded readers, they will be able to see ongoing progression and experience success and that wonderful feeling of being able to say “I read it myself!” Once a good bank of sight words has been learnt, we go on from levelled readers to plowing through the many picture books in our collection. By the time we have exhausted them, the children are usually ready for easier chapter books and move gradually on to more general chapter books.

There are some beginning readers that are definitely better than others and the following are some of the best that we have used.

Bob Books First!Bob Books Set 3: Word FamiliesBob Books Set 2: Advancing Beginners

Bob Books Set 3: Word FamiliesBob Books Set 5: Long Vowels

Bob Books level 1 2 3 4 and 5  are a relatively cheap way to get a good set of beginning reading books. They have very plain line drawings with stories that have simple appeal. The difficulty increases in very small steps, unlike some early reading sets that jump very quickly from 3 letter words through to sight words, leaving some struggling readers behind. Each level is a boxed set of 12 reading books.

Little BearLittle Bear's VisitA Kiss for Little BearLittle Bear's FriendFather Bear Comes Home

Little Bear books have lots of basic sight words in simple stories that children actually want to read. Very appealing and most are presented in chapter book format to ease through the transition from picture books to chapter books. Level 1 in the “I Can Read” series is a good follow-on from the Bob Books.

Frog and Toad Are FriendsFrog and Toad TogetherFrog and Toad All YearDays with Frog and Toad

The Frog and Toad Series is another set of simple sight word books that have enough in the plot to keep children interested. Frog and Toad’s adventures together are engaging with a touch of humour. Level 2 in the I Can Read series is the next step up from the Little Bear books.

Amelia Bedelia

Amelia Bedelia and the rest of the series tell the story of a cheerful young lady who always seems to get things mixed up in a silly and humorous way. Level 2 in the I Can Read series. (I haven’t read all of these but we liked Amelia Bedelia.)

The Josefina Story Quilt

The Josefina story quilt tells the heartwarming tale of Josephina hen as she heads off with a family in a covered wagon. Level 3 in the I Can Read series.

Step into Reading Bravest Dog Ever

Balto tells the story of a sled dog who saves the day with his heroic trip through icy conditions bringing medicine to sick children and villagers. Level 3 in the I Can Read series.

Tornado

Tornado is a good beginner chapter book. More text but simple enough for children to move on with. It is the story of a dog who literally falls out of the sky during a tornado and becomes firm friends with a young boy. One slightly sad section that turns out happily in the end – I always warn my children about these sections as they tend to be quite sensitive to sad events in stories.

Courage of Sarah Noble

The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh is a Newbury honour book. An eight-year-old girl finds courage to go alone with her father to build a new home in the Connecticut wilderness and to stay with the Indians when her father goes back to bring the rest of the family.

The Velveteen Rabbit

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams is the story of a little boy’s stuffed rabbit and how he became real. Considered to be one of the classics by many and is stepping into longer chapter book reading.

Spoiled walls – bickering and sibling conflict

Bickering and nitpicking between siblings – it wears me down and spoils my day. I know they love each other, but some days the love is just not shining through. We all need long-term strategies that seek to address the underlying character issues in our children and must be constantly working on relationship building, loving God and each other and following the biblical mandates regarding speech, tone, building each other up and the like. There are times though, that a well-directed consequence is called for. I need consequences that I can consistently apply whether I am busy or not, repeat over and over, don’t require a heap of supervision and most of all, are effective in addressing the issue.

I recently sat the children down and had a little chat about the unkind speech that was being heard between them. We discussed how that made them feel, what we wanted our family to be like, read some relevant bible verses and then I made up my own little mini metaphor. I asked them to picture a freshly painted wall. How nice and crisp and fresh it looked and how pleasing it was to look at. I then asked them to picture the same wall with dirty fingerprints and food splashes all over it. We talked about how the dirt spoiled the wall in the same way that the unkind words spoiled their friendships.

I let that sink in for a moment or two before informing them that from now on, at the first sign of unkind speech or bickering, the offending child would be given a spray bottle and cleaning cloth to wash down a section of wall. As they cleaned, they can think about “washing” the dirt out of their relationship by replacing their unkind words with words that build others up.

It’s an instant consequence and is easy to enforce. The bickering siblings are separated for a while (which usually helps in itself) and something useful is getting done at the same time. I love it! The only problem is that the clean wall sections make the rest of the wall look even worse… Oh well, I’m sure there will be plenty more occasions that wall cleaning is called for.

Other posts you may like:

Getting dinner on the table

Highchair time at our house – 3 in a row!

I like to cook for fun. It’s enjoyable to potter around testing new recipes and trying them out on friends and family. I don’t so much enjoy having to get dinner on the table at short notice, with a bunch of hungry, cranky children getting on each other’s nerves as we battle through “arsenic hour” as I have heard it termed. So, how do I get a nutritious and delicious meal on the table on time every day that will please everyone from the baby, right up to Dad? Well, to tell the truth, that’s almost impossible – with 8 people sharing a meal on a nightly basis, someone is bound to disagree with the delicious part! However, let’s concentrate on the nutritious and “on time” part. We haven’t eaten cereal for dinner yet, although baked beans on toast is the equivalent as far as I’m concerned and we’ve had that a few times!

There are some practical ways that I have gone about structuring my days and time so as to make this touchy time of the day run smoothly and happily for all of us and still have a nice meal on the table. Strategies have changed over time, depending on the ages of the children and what time my husband is due home, but here are some of the ways we have structured the late afternoon period that have worked for us in the past.

Flexible routine. Having a routine running throughout the day makes a big difference at the end of the afternoon. If the children have spent too much time together, especially unstructured time, they will invariably be at each other by the end of the day. A good balance of time with me, with each other, time alone and indoor and outdoor time, all work together for a smooth afternoon. More on routines here.

Feeding toddlers and/or babies early. I prefer it when we all eat together, but there are seasons when that is just not viable. The was a time when 4.45pm was like a “switch” for my toddlers. Happy before, exceedingly cranky afterwards. My options were either to feed them a large afternoon tea earlier (and have problems at dinner with them not wanting to eat well) or to simply give them their main meal earlier. When the rest of the family came to the table they were given some finger food or perhaps fruit or dessert to enjoy with us before moving on to a highchair activity while we finished up. This allowed them to still be a part of the family, I could focus on feeding them and training table manners away from the family mealtime and enjoy my meal relatively peacefully later on.

Baths. Everyone preschool aged and under (i.e. all those who require my assistance during bath time) are all bathed around 4.30pm rather than after dinner when everyone is tired and likely to be fractious and uncooperative. Bath time is then an enjoyable experience for all and bedtimes are not held up if I am caught up feeding a baby or dealing with unexpected circumstances.

Table activities. For around half an hour before dinner, all the children do highchair activities (some ideas here, here, here and here ), table activities (some ideas here, here and here), mat time (some ideas here, here and here), puzzles or books. There is nobody roving about getting into trouble and plenty of interesting activities to do. I am then free to get the last-minute dinner preparations done.

Sibling time. Sometimes the youngest children are unable to play independently at this time and need someone with them. This is when I assign an older sibling to spend some time with the little ones, reading them a story, playing on the mat with them, helping them with a simple puzzle or something similar. The eldest enjoy the responsibility and it helps build positive sibling relationships. They do not resent this time because it is not something they are required to do throughout the day in a random way or for large blocks of time.

Menu plan. Having a plan of which meals I will be making throughout the week is so important. Getting to dinner time and realising the meat is still in the freezer and trying to come up with plan B on the spur of the moment is never a great way to have a smooth afternoon period. Knowing what I am going to cook means I am prepared and can plan ahead, often using a few spare minutes here and there throughout the day to get some prep work towards dinner done. More on menu planning here.

Night time preparation. While I am caring for babies, homeschooling and looking after several older siblings, trying to fit cooking in during the day can be very difficult. There are usually several months after the birth of a new child when I do all my meal preparation in the evenings. And I do mean all. I set out breakfast dishes and ingredients and cut up fruit, bake or pull out frozen or pantry snacks for morning tea. I do all the peeling, chopping, grating, salad making or whatever other prep is needed for lunch. Dinner meals are pulled out of the freezer, ingredients are put in the slow cooker and veggies are washed and chopped – even to the point of putting the veggies in a saucepan of water in the fridge. It sounds over the top but, especially with the twins, I just didn’t have a moment to spare during the day. Being able to pull the crock pot out of the fridge and flick it on at morning tea time, knowing there would be a hot meal ready by dinner, was such a blessing. Even when things were going pear-shaped, I could throw a saucepan full of veggies on the stove as I walked past. Older children could set out prepared lunch or morning tea for everyone to help themselves if I was caught up feeding.

At other times, I didn’t have to cook at night, I used the time immediately after breakfast to get the dinner made. Everyone is fresh in the morning and it was a good time to get the household chores and dinner preparations under way. Now that I have older children to homeschool, this time is used for our more difficult subjects that require the most concentration, so dinner making is not a possibility.

Instant meals. For days when, menu plan or not, I have nothing ready for dinner, all supplies are frozen solid and my mind is blank, I am endeavouring to build up a collection of meals that are very quick and easy, that use ingredients I can keep on hand in the pantry or freezer without them going off and throw together in a matter of minutes. My rice cooker fried rice is a family favourite and assuming I have prepared my ingredients earlier, can be thrown together in literally 3 minutes. I haven’t timed it yet but I’m going to!! Ideas for nearly instant meals and pantry mixes are here and here.

Shopping lists. As an extra tip, shopping lists are a must to make life run smoothly around here. I have a shopping list pad with a magnet back that lives on the fridge. As I notice we are running low on an item, I immediately jot it down on the list. When I make out the menu for the following week, or check through the monthly menu, I add the items we will need to the shopping list too, after checking through the pantry first to see if we have what I think we have. It stops the random buying of stuff we don’t need and the irritating need to continually run to the shops to pick up one or two items here and there because they have just run out or I thought we had some.

Now the kids are older, they often come and tell me if something has run out or ask for small items like lead refills for a click pencil that we would never in a million years remember to get when actually at the shops. I also have multiple copies of a printed shopping list hanging inside the pantry. This list is all the items I buy on a weekly basis. When we are actually ready to go to the shops, a quick look down the list to cross off what we don’t need and to add the odd ingredients from the fridge list saves time and means we should get everything we need.

Montessori inspired practical life tray activities for toddlers: Tong transfer

With a general category in mind such as “tong transfer” and a drawer full of useful bits and pieces I have collected over time, I now find it very easy to come up with new tray activities for table time, highchair time or mat time that will keep my toddlers developing new skills while they learn to focus and concentrate at the same time. (See here for a list of materials and equipment that might be useful for creating Montessori style tray activities.)

Simple two container transferring is a good starting point.

Using tongs is great preparation for writing and other skills that require fine motor control, helping to develop the hand muscles necessary for successful manipulation of writing implements.  All you need are tongs of some sort, 2 containers and something to transfer. Keep in mind that toddlers find it very difficult to manipulate tongs so look for small pairs that are not too stiff to close. Avoid those with a metal closing ring that slips down all the time – very frustrating! The best pair I have for beginners is a small set of ice tongs (see top photo) that I picked up at an op shop for 50 cents. Tea-bag tongs are also easy to squeeze and quite short. I found mine in a $2 shop.

Tonging activities link in well with other skills such as one-to-one correspondence. Plastic iceblock trays, egg cartons, chocolate trays or any other container with an obvious number of holes are ideal for this. Simply put, the child has to place one item in one hole. If there are any left over, or they run out before all the holes are filled, they are prompted by the empty space or left-over pieces to self-correct their work.

Flexible ice-block trays are an attractive material for children to work with. My girls LOVE this pink tray. (I should mention that it is the 6 and 4 year olds who clamour to do this one even though it is set out for the toddlers!)

Tea-bag tongs are easy for toddlers to manipulate.

Tonging is easily adapted to many other concepts, particularly mathematical skills. Beginning sorting with two simple categories is an easy way to combine the skill of tonging with a more challenging task for older toddlers and preschoolers. In the photo above, children sort the hair elastics into 2 separate colour piles; the first step along in learning the concept of sorting by colour.

Here we move to a slighlty more challenging activity with items to tong that require greater dexterity, 3 colours to sort and 3 bowls to match them to.

Attribute beads can be sorted more than one way and are quite difficult to pick up. They are a good challenge after simple tonging has been mastered.

Linking tonging to counting is fun for the preschooler and provides valuable practice of fine motor skills. Here the child tongs the correct amount of jewels into each segment of the dip plate. My 3 year old is pictured doing this activity in the photo at the top of this post. The counting side of things wasn’t too difficult for her to do even early on, but it was a test of her endurance and concentration skills to persevere with the tongs to complete all 10 segments.

Montessori inspired practical life: dry pouring tray activities for toddlers

If you are looking for inspiration for toddler tray activities, dry pouring is a great place to start. It is a practical life skill that is easily introduced in a simplified form and can be gradually made more challenging as your toddler progresses. Learning to pour liquids carefully and accurately is difficult for young children, so starting with a dry material is a more forgiving and easily mastered beginning. Giving children cups and containers to pour water in the bath develops the skill in a non-messy environment and dry pouring activities are great for mat time, highchair time or table time.

This is the first dry pouring experience I give my toddlers. Tipping the jewels out of the cup into a baking tin and collecting them up again is surprisingly absorbing and makes a satisfying racket as they do it. If you prefer a quieter option, try pompoms (see below), however I can guarantee the children will enjoy the jewels, beads, rocks or other noisy versions more!

Pouring from one container to another is the next step. Choose 2 containers of the same size, without handles. A set of straight-sided small tumbler type cups is best; something that is easily gripped in a toddler’s hand. Add small objects such as dried beans to pour from one to the other and change the containers and material to pour every so often to keep interest high.

Rice is one of the last materials to introduce. If you colour it, it is very attractive but it is almost guaranteed to spill and is not quite as easy to clean up. Toddlers need to be taught how to collect the spilt rice in one corner of the tray and carefully pour it back into the container.

I was able to find a cute mini dustpan and broom which I include with my rice pouring activities to clean up the spills which is a practical life skill in itself. Tape a square shape with masking tape in the centre of the tray and teach the children how to first sweep the rice into a little pile within the tape boundary before sweeping it into the dustpan.

Adding funnels to a dry pouring activity adds yet another dimension and when I have had simple pouring activities available for quite a while, I set up a combined scooping, pouring and funnelling tray for a  more complicated experience. After I have changed this around for a while, I then add teddies and other small animals or toys and turn it into more of a pretend play type activity. This allows a broader scope of play and promotes longer engagement by older toddlers and preschoolers.

Our treasure tree reward system

Character development is an ongoing focus in our house. We finished with the marble jar reward system several months ago now and the children have been asking for a while for a return to our praise plates (more on them another day.) Rather than go back to something we have already used, I decided to introduce a “treasure tree” which linked in very nicely with our reading of “The Treasure Tree” by John Trent.

Our treasure tree reward system.

The system is very simple. When the children demonstrate positive character traits they are given a leaf to stick onto the tree. Character qualities like unselfishness, kindness, generosity and the like are promoted and reinforced throughout the day. Flowers are given when all the children have displayed Godly character together. A great chart of character qualities including a definition and the opposite negative quality is available here.

All you need is a painted tree, a bunch of paper leaves, paper flowers and sticky dots or a glue stick to stick them on with. The dots allow us to keep track of how many leaves need to be earned to reach our family reward – once the dots are all used, the tree is full.

You may like to tie it in with scripture memory work and focus on bible verses relating to treasure such as Proverbs 7:1, Proverbs 15:6, Matthew 6:21 and Luke 6:45

For a full explanation of the difference between bribes, rewards and goal incentives please see my post on marble jars. We don’t always have a reward system operating, but we do use them every now and then when the tone of the household is becoming negative and the children are beginning to bicker.

Rewarding right behaviour is not enough though, we need to spend time teaching what Godly character looks like in action. We use bible study, good books, songs and discussions during morning circle time and discuss how we can display these qualities throughout the day. It’s one thing to talk about serving, showing kindness and loving others, it’s another thing to practice it!

The Treasure Tree

“The Treasure Tree” by John Trent is an introduction to the 4 personality types for children. It uses the 4 main characters of a lion (choleric), beaver (melancholic), golden retriever (phlegmatic) and otter (sanguine) to tell the story. The animals have to work together to overcome some obstacles and find the golden keys to reach their destination of the treasure tree.

The personality types are woven into the way the animals approach each situation and can begin to give your children an insight into why they each behave differently and help them to understand each other and get along a little bit better.

While no means a detailed overview of the personalities, it does provide a great springboard for discussion and helped us to lead into identifying personality and character strengths and weakness that each child needs to be aware of and work on.

The children loved it and asked for the next chapter every day, even though we were only reading from it once a week! I’m looking for something a little more meaty to go on with, but I would recommend this story as an enjoyable read-aloud and worthwhile discussion starter.

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Rainy day and wet weather indoor activities

Now that the wet weather has begun, there will be days when we are inside most of the day. Energetic children need some outlet and without outdoor time to let off steam, some energetic indoor activities are a must. That surplus energy has to go somewhere and that “somewhere” will not be good if we don’t channel it appropriately. Here are some ideas for winter days to keep a variety of ages well occupied and to help create a peaceful (although not necessarily quiet!) and productive atmosphere in your home.

Dressing up Pull out the dress-ups and let the creative juices fly. A mirror low enough for them to see themselves full length greatly enhances the joy of this activity and once dressed up many other imaginative play activities can follow. Stock your dress-up box with pretty, spangly, sparkly bright things for the girls, but don’t forget to cater for the boys as well. While commercial costumes are great, they somewhat limit creativity. Op shops are a great source for props and perhaps the best items are a selection of large fabric pieces that can be used for anything that takes the children’s fancy. Choose different fabric types, colours and textures to promote different kinds of pretend play. Eg. chiffon is good for veils, stiff netting for tutus, red satin for hero capes etc. Don’t forget to take photos of the wildest outfits. Keep them for their 21st birthday parties!

Some specific ideas are scarves, hats, shoes, belts, beads, bangles, gloves, handbags, crowns, wigs, men’s ties, workmen’s safety clothing, old dancing costumes, bridesmaid and flower girl dresses and a variety of men’s and ladies clothing. Cut clothing down to suit younger children (eg. shorten sleeves in a men’s jacket, cut off the length in a ladies nightie etc.)  Raid Mum and Dad’s and the Grandparents’ wardrobes for the brightest, most “out there” items that you will never wear again and chances are they will be a hit. Take the kids with you to an op shop, swap-meet or market and let them help you pick out the most interesting items they can find. They may surprise you with what they like.

Our Doctor’s surgery. Certain children prefer to be patients, rather than Doctors or Nurses!

Pretend play Dressing up links in beautifully with pretend play and there are so  many options available. The children may be able to come up with their own ideas but I find that if I offer a little structure to begin with, the play is more purposeful and has a sense of direction. That usually takes the form of setting out a selection of objects to suit a theme, rearranging the furniture with the children’s input and spending a few minutes getting play started by joining in. Often I will model a couple of ways to “pretend” with the objects I have provided which sparks off ideas of their own and I then leave them to it.

There was a lot of pirate related pretend play while we were reading Peter Pan. The old street directory got a great workout as the ship was navigated about.

Some of the play ideas we have set up are:

  • Washing day Strong card box with flap as lid, filled with shredded paper or cornstarch packing beans. Milk bottle lids glued on as nobs, empty washing powder box and scoop, dolls clothes to wash and string line and pegs to hang clothes out. Maybe even real soapy water in the kitchen, bathroom or laundry if you are game and don’t mind a little mess!
  • Doctor’s surgery (See photo above) Pillow slip coat (cut hole for head and two holes in sides for arms or use an old white business shirt), doctor’s bag, identity badges, bandages (strips of old fabric/sheets) film canisters, empty bottles and containers for medicine, old mattresses/dolls bedding for human or toy patients to sleep in, notepads, telephone books, appointment pads, clipboards, pencils and pens. A huge hit for my children is a supply of currants to use as sugar pills after reading the Little Golden Book “Nurse Nancy.”
  • Shopping centre Pretend food, household items, money, tray for cash register, shopping bags and baskets. Making their own pretend money and items to sell keeps them occupied for a while.
  • Beauty salon/hair dresser Old clean bottles, jars, empty make-up containers, cotton wool balls, brushes, combs, sheets, curlers, hand mirrors and stools or chairs. You may like to warn children that there will be no real cutting of hair under any circumstances!!
  • Office/post office Computer keyboard/typewriter, variety of papers, files, clipboards, pens, pencils, scissors, telephone, envelopes, contact paper “stamps”, cardboard box with slot and back flap for posting letters, calculators and mail bag.
  • Fix-it shop Play tools, safe real tools like screwdrivers, old electrical equipment with cords removed for tinkering with, Mecano or other construction sets.
  • Icecream shop Card cones, pompoms, cotton balls or small bouncy balls, icecream scoops, empty icecream containers, felt, cardboard or other pretend toppings, squeezy bottles, paper cups, spoons, small bowls, pretend money etc.
  • Shoe store Chairs and foot stools (could be just a box), lots of shoes and shoe boxes, mirror.
  • Restaurant/cafe Tea sets, pretend food (felt, wooden, plastic, salt dough or pictures from food junk mail glued onto paper plates), paper or thin card to make menus, pens and pads of paper to take orders, table cloths, napkins, place mats, coasters, empty clean food containers (cereal boxes, milk cartons, coffee jars etc.) vases, aprons, trays. Making salt dough or cutting and gluing pictures of food onto paper plates to make meals is an activity in itself.
  • Vet clinic or pet shop Stuffed animals, vet outfit and doctor’s kit (see doctor above), box cages/beds, collars, leads, bowls, brushes and blankets.
  • Florist Artificial flowers, a variety of vases and containers, ribbons, block of florists foam to stick stems into. (The grey foam crumbles less than the green.) Make your own flowers with popsticks and pattypans, paper cut-outs, small branches from the garden etc.
  • Car wash (Outdoor idea) Turn the hose on low and add buckets, sponges, suds, “polish” cloths and empty container. Use to clean ride-on cars, trikes and other outdoor toys.

Reading corners When we set up this little reading nook with child and teddy sized chairs, blankets, cushions, pillows, foot rests and crates of books, the children sat and read for hours! Books that they hadn’t had off the shelves in months caught their attention simply because they were put out in full view again and it was like re-discovering old friends. The netting is a mozzie net for a queen sized bed that I loved the idea of and never used in our bedroom because the ceilings were not high enough. It has served as a room divider for countless pretend play areas and the kids love it.

Puppet theatres Hand and finger puppets are easy to make using socks, paper bags, wooden spoons, toilet rolls, felt, fabric, wool, ribbons, stuffed toys and many other readily available items or widely available for purchase. Set up pairs of chairs, use a broom or mop handle to hang the front sheet on and let the creative juices flow. Have periods of rehearsal and performances with the rest of the family acting as the audience. Older children could even write scripts and cooperate together to act out stories or find scripted plays already written by surfing the net or borrow from the library. Video the performances and watch them again later for another rainy day activity.

Teddy Bear’s Picnics Everyone has dolls and teddies and when all the favourites are pulled out it makes for quite a crowd. Get out all the pretend food (see ideas under “restaurant” in pretend play above) and provide non-messy snacks like sultanas and Cornflakes for the kids to enjoy as well.

Sheet tents, cubbies and camping games Get out the sleeping bags, pillows, sheets, doonas, suitcases, backpacks, bags and torches and clean off the table for some fun tent making. Couch cushions and lounges also work well, as do chairs. Once the camping area is set up, packing the bags with tonnes of camping necessities will keep them occupied for quite a while. If you have real camping items like billies, folding chairs, 2 man tents etc. let the kids incorporate these into their games. Of course the next question will be “Can we sleep in our tent tonight Mum?”

Jumping mattresses It needs some planning to keep it safe, but some mattresses or piles of pillows and cushions on the floor in an open area and something stable to jump off is a great way to get rid of extra energy. Teach the kids how to do forwards and backwards rolls and award points for the most interesting jumping styles.     

Dancing and moving Don the dress-ups, put on some boppy music and get moving. Double the fun if Mum joins in and great exercise for you too. Play musical bobs, statues, follow-the-leader or other games to keep interest going.

Stocking balls You need a covered back veranda or patio for this but it is a great activity for all ages, particularly older boys. See instructions here.

Chalk boards and table activities Not for energy releasing, but when you’ve moved around a bit and want something quieter to do, here is a list of ideas to sit down and do at the table. Surf the net for unlimited art and craft ideas for older children.

Bubble-baths Plop the little ones in a nice deep hot bath and toss in some bath toys, containers, scoops, watering cans and cloths and let them tip and pour to their heart’s content. Set the older children up just outside the bathroom door and read aloud from a good book or listen to an audio book while you supervise the little ones from inside the bathroom. There are thousands of free audiobooks available to download from www.librivox.org (Be aware that most bubble-bath liquids have toxic substances in them. If you are going to use one, do your research and buy a product that is not harmful to your children, especially girls. The suds won’t be quite as good but their health is more important than good bubbles!)

Our pasta play sensory table.

Sensory trays Again, not a physical activity as such but so many ideas to use that will keep all ages going, however many are directed at the toddler and preschooler ages. It’s this age that I find harder to keep well occupied for lengthier time periods anyway, the older children are able to direct the use of their time much more productively. Heaps of ideas and a full explanation here.

101 (mostly) stay at home family night ideas

Dog and Bone newspaper hockey championships.


We are about to start another family night. Tonight the plan is for each family member to make their own pizza following a rousing game of Dog and Bone newspaper hockey, with perhaps a sock wrestle afterwards, depending on the state of the troops.

Family night for us is actually in the late afternoon so that we can do all our special things and still get the kids into bed at the usual time. It feels later than it is because we have done so much together before bedtime rolls around.

We have family night as part of a deliberate strategy to build family identity, foster unity and strengthen family ties. The old adage that “the family that plays together stays together” still applies and both quality and quantity time are important. With that in mind, here are lots of ideas to get you started.

  • dark hide and seek A variation on traditional hide and seek which is also lots of fun. Wait until the sun goes down and turn off all the lights in the house. Players move in pairs of one older and one younger family member which reassures those little ones who don’t like being alone in the dark. Hiders use torches to find their place to hide before switching them off, with older family members helping their younger partner to find a hiding place before hiding themselves.  Seeker pairs find by feel and peering about in the dark. It allows a wider variety of hiding places simply because in the dark you can be more exposed and still remain undiscovered. Works well as “Sardines” also – see further down the list for an explanation.
  • photo albums Children are fascinated by photos of themselves and love re-living family memories together. They also enjoy seeing their parents as children and hearing stories about them growing up. My children regularly ask us to tell them about our childhood and ask all sorts of questions about other family members too. Having a new baby and watching me photograph all his milestones prompts a heap of questions about themselves as babies and it is fun to go back through the albums I have created for each child to show them their own special milestones and events.
  • family shields Another way to build family identity is to create shields, banners and flags with mottos, goals, creeds and values that you want to cultivate and uphold as a family. There are lots of examples on the web and instructions on how to do these with ideas and examples of the kids of things you may like to include.
  • sleep-outs Whether it be in the back yard in a tent or cubby house or indoors in the loungeroom, a sleep-over is always heaps of fun. Combine it with fun food, story telling and games or any other family night ideas and you will have a memorable time together.
  • toast marshmallows It’s rare for us to have the opportunity, but a campfire cook-out is always very special, especially for boys! Toast marshmallow, roast damper and potatoes or BBQ over the camp fire for a great evening. Whether it be the real deal, combined with camping out, or simply an evening in the backyard with a gas burner, sitting about the fire is a great way to bring the family together.
  • late library run Once at the library, everyone heads off to find picture books that interest them and meet back together for a shared reading time. Older children can read their picture book to the family and choose a chapter book or two to take home for themselves. If you are game enough, the whole family can go in their PJ’s for some extra fun. The kids will love it and won’t be able to stop giggling at Mum and Dad in their pyjamas too. (Neither will the public, but I dare you to do it anyway!)
  • Duplo charades See here for instructions and ideas.
  • board games and card games Play in teams with older and younger pairs; younger children count squares, move counters and hold the cards while older family members deal with the strategy side of the game.
  •  dog and bone/newspaper hockey Split into 2 teams. Traditionally numbers are allocated so that a given pair (ie. number 1 from each team) comes to the middle when their number is called, however we play that a name from each team is called so that uneven ability matches can be evened out and uneven numbers of team members are not a problem. Each pair races to the middle (we crawl because we play in a combined space), grabs their newspaper bat and hits the ball towards their team goals while the other person attempts to do the same. See photo at top of article.
  • icecream run 50 cent cones from drive through at McDonalds are a bargain for us. Grab one each and head to a beach or somewhere with a view to eat them.
  • trampoline star-gazing On a clear night, take sleeping bags, pillows and blankets onto the tramp to watch the stars and find as many constellations, satellites, aeroplanes or falling stars as you can. Take some kind of treat to snack on while you do it and be prepared for littlies to be jumping all over you while you do it. Perhaps combine this with a good sock wrestle. (See below.)
  • sock wrestling Every family member puts on socks (the longer the better, but only one pair allowed!) The simple rules are that the last person left wearing a sock wins. You may like to confine the wrestling to a certain place or make it a fast paced, wide-ranging game that moves throughout the house. Ground-rules are necessary and older children must be taught how to look after the little ones and how to make it fun for them ie. NOT removing both their socks in the first 3 seconds of the game or handling them too roughly. We like to sock wrestle on the trampoline and Mum and Dad both enjoy the tussle. With little kids, we pretty much wrestle each other while they gang up on us to try to get our socks. It’s harder than you think but lots of fun. You can play that once you have no socks you are out of the game but we let the children continue regardless.
  • giant icecream Sundays Provide a stack of yummy ingredients and everyone helps to create one large masterpiece. All dig in with spoons to the same dish to enjoy the creation once complete. A large serving tray or similar works well.
  • feeling rich? Visit the local ice-skating or roller-skating rink, theme park, miniature golf, bowling, indoor playground centre or other attractions in your city.
  • fish and chips at the beach Summer is perfect for a fish and chip dinner and sandcastle competition or even a dip. If the budget is tight, take tomato sauce, mayo, and a loaf of fresh bread from home and just get a bulk lot of chips for chip buddies.
  • progressive dinner Follow clues to track down the entrée and enjoy it wherever you find it. More clues lead you to the main in a different part of the house and still more to an interesting location where dessert is waiting.
  • museums Museums are usually free and can be interesting. Find out what is on first and choose a couple of sections to visit that will appeal to the children. Don’t drag them through every single display and insist on reading every plaque or they will hate museums for ever! Many museums have sections especially designed for children and some even have hands-on displays and activities to do. Find out what they usually do for school class visits and ask for an activity pack or whatever they usually supply to the students.
  • sardines Another variation on hide-and-seek. One person hides and everyone searches. As each seeker finds the hider, they must join them in their hiding place until everyone is squashed in like sardines. The trick is not to hop in the hiding place when others are watching, but to wait until you are alone to join the hider.
  •  hiking/nature walks Head to the country, local lake or river or anywhere scenic for a nature walk. Take a kite, football, quoits, bocce or any other outdoor games to enjoy together. Enjoy a picnic along the way and perhaps have the children create their own trail mix to take with them before you leave home.
  • pick fruit or berries together Visit a fruit orchard or berry farm and pick tonnes of luscious fruit for jams or just to enjoy fresh off the tree. Have fun cooking it up into treats when you get home.
  • bake-off Choose you favourite biscuit and/or cake recipes and hold a bake-off. Pair older and younger participants. Take some of the delicious cakes and cookies to neighbours, visit someone who is sick in hospital or spend time visiting a retirement home.
  • art and craft night Find some simple craft activities the whole family can enjoy. Things that require mess and/or effort that you wouldn’t normally get around to. There are unlimited ideas available on the net.
  • make birthday, Christmas or special occasion gifts and cards
  • catch a bus or train to an area you don’t usually visit. Perhaps go to a cafe and let the children choose a special drink or snack.
  • indoor picnic or backyard picnic. Under the kitchen table, in the cubby, under or on the trampoline, in a sheet tent, at the local park, beach, bush area etc.
  • Go on a neighbourhood walk. See how many different kinds of plants and flowers you can identify. Prepare a list of items to spot along the way. Perhaps the kids can ride bikes while Mum and Dad walk.
  • tub of icecream  Swing past the supermarket for a tub of icecream. (Don’t forget the spoons.) Take it to the local park and let everyone grab a spoon and go for it. If you want to be more civilized, buy a pack of cones as well.
  • backwards dinner Start with dessert and work backwards. Tip: Don’t prepare a large main meal or entrée. Chances are the kids won’t get that far!
  • movie night Make caramel popcorn or another suitable movie style treat. Set up a snack stand and “sell” the treats and drinks for Monopoly money. Roll out the red carpet (bath mats, towels, sheet etc) and make pretend tickets for the kids to distribute. Darken the room and have ushers seat guests by torch-light. Set out doonas, pillows, beanbags and cushions. We watch very little TV on a day-to-day basis so a movie night is something special for the kids.
  • make your own pizza. Roll out the dough and top it with sauce. Set out a selection of toppings and let the kids choose their own. Don’t forget to make a dessert pizza too.

  • puzzle night Choose some difficult and some easy puzzles to work on as a family. For the younger kids, hide puzzle pieces around the room and have them search until they have completed the puzzle. Perhaps have a race against the grown-ups or older children to see who can complete theirs first.
  • watch home videos Most of us take home videos from time to time so sit down and enjoy watching them together. Kids love to see themselves on TV.
  • make home movies Sing songs, perform plays, read radio dramas, record favourite stories to make your own read-along audio tapes complete with sound effects, record video “letters” to friends or family who live a distance away, write scripts and act them out or try scripted funny home movies.
  • press flowers Go for a nature walk to collect flowers and sprigs of attractive leaves to press in home-made flower presses or in the pages of telephone books. A couple of weeks later, use them to make home-made cards for friends and family. Make sure children get permission before taking flowers from neighbours’ plants or trees.
  • Hold a gingerbread man decorating competition. Pre-make the dough and provide rolling pins, cutters, cutting boards, knives, toothpicks and the like. Lay out the icing and toppings for everyone to decorate to their heart’s content. Have several categories for winners (most interesting, most colourful, neatest, most appetising etc.) so that everyone can have a prize (eating the gingerbread man of course!)
  • obstacle course Use household items and equipment to set up an indoor or outdoor obstacle course and run time trials. Place time handicaps on older participants or have them do it running backwards etc.
  • old-fashioned games night Go bobbing for apples, play jacks, hopscotch and other traditional games.
  • scavenger hunt Collect all of the items on a written or pictorial list as quickly as possible.
  • treasure hunt Follow clues to get to the location for the next clue or look up bible verses to provide answers to questions that must be complete before the next clue is handed out. Don’t forget to have a “prize” at the end; perhaps a special snack to share together.
  • neighbourhood trivia hunt Spread out around the local area in teams with an older child or adult leading each one. Go to various locations to answer trivia questions once they arrive at the designated place. For example, “What colour is the letter box at number 10 James St?” or “How many trees are there in Mrs Jones’ front garden?”
  • playdough Pictionary Use suitable cards from Pictionary or create your own. One member from each team looks at the card and both race to create the object using playdough. The first team to guess what it is wins a point. Be sure to match abilities of team representatives for each round as evenly as possible.
  • visit the confectionary and chocolate isle at the local supermarket and let the children have the chocolate or lolly of their choice. When children are not regularly eating this kind of food it’s a big deal to do something like this. This can also be done in the lunchbox snack area with all those pre-packaged processed lunchbox snacks that I never buy my kids!
  • tower or castle building competition Use Duplo, Lego or whatever construction materials you have at home with a time limit for construction to take place.
  • Visit the local Bunnings, McDonalds or Ikea playground. Have a cone or sausage sizzle while you are there.
  • shopping centre adventure Ride on one of the merry-go-rounds you usually say no to before going into the supermarket and letting the kids choose items for lunch at the park afterwards (fresh rolls, packet of biscuits, snack cheese, sliced sandwich meat, yoghurt tub, mini chip packets or whatever takes their fancy and fits within your parameters.) Don’t forget to grab a cheap packet of  plastic spoons for those yoghurt pots – it’s very difficult to scoop out chocolate Yogo with your hands. (And yes, I am speaking from experience!)
  • $2 dollar shop Go to the local discount variety store and give each child $2 to spend.
  • op shopping Visit the local recycling boutique or secondhand store and give each child $3 to spend. The catch is, they lucky dip the name of a sibling or family member first and must choose something for them, rather than themselves. Supervision is required here for the younger ones. While my 4 year old daughter was sure my 8 year old son would LOVE a pair of pink sparkly shoes, I was not so convinced.
  • google playgrounds and parks in your city and visit one you have never been to before. We were introduced to a new one recently that was just 10 minutes from our house that we didn’t know was there and it was great!
  • charades Play in teams and dress-up in costumes and props from around the house.
  • bike rides Bike riding is always fun. Use tag-alongs, baby seats or toddler trailers for the littlies and take the bikes, scooters or skateboards to the local bike path, unused basketball or netball courts or just for a cycle around the local neighbourhood.
  • wet weather exploring Don wet weather gear, get out the gumboots and go for a rain walk, jumping in as many puddles as you can find along the way.
  • karaoke/Australian idol Rehearse and perform for a family concert. Organise a ticket booth and snack bar as for movie night. Video proceedings for a laugh later.
  • surprise lunch For those whose children are at school, a surprise pick up and special lunch at a nearby park or take-away venue will be a memorable treat. Collect Dad from work in his lunch hour and “kidnap” your school children. (With the teacher’s knowledge of course!)
  • breakfast dates Head out early before church or school for a family breakfast together. This also works well for one-on-one dates with Dad or Mum.
  • dress up Choose from the dress-up box or Mum and Dad’s wardrobe if you’re game. The kids will love it, especially the shoes. There’s just something about shoes! Have a photo session with everyone in crazy attire, followed by a disco dance session to boppy music with a couple of rounds of musical bobs and musical statues.
  • talent quest and family orchestra or marching band Singing, playing instruments, acting, skits, reciting a poem and telling jokes are all suitable for the talent quest. Finish off with a family orchestra – everyone grabs a percussion instrument and plays along to lively music while marching about the house.
  • cooperative drawing Cover the table with a huge roll of paper and everyone draws. Try blindfold drawing. Everyone closes their eyes to draw a picture and has a laugh at the results.
  • pamper night Give everyone face masks (yes, even Dad!), paint nails, give the girl’s “up do’s,” spike up the boys’ hair and get dressed-up in fancy clothes. Take family photos now that everyone looks so nice and go out somewhere to take advantage of everyone looking so good. The photos could be serious (set up lighting, use a tripod) or silly (weird clothes, expressions and poses.)
  • teddy bear’s picnic or tea party All stuffed animals and dolls must be dressed for the occasion. Make invitations and menus. Cook some tiny food treats to share.
  • tapas night Serve authentic Spanish tapas or just little plates of nibblies. We put out heaps and heaps of tiny plates from every tea set we own with 7 of everything on each plate – one per person. 7 strawberries, 7 meatballs, 7 apricots, 7 grapes,  7 finger sandwiches and on and on. Ours was just regular food but after you’ve eaten one block of cheese, 1 cherry tomato, 1 mini muffin and so on, it makes for quite a meal.
  • outdoor movie nights Check local guides over summer for sessions and go all out with a fancy picnic. Don’t forget the chairs and blankets – even on summer nights these events can get chilly.
  • beanbag wars (See here for instructions.)
  • spy missions  (I’ll post on this separately another day)
  • story telling Combine this with a sleep-over, star-gazing or other family night idea. Take turns adding one sentence at a time to the story. Play “Fortunately/Unfortunately” where each person adds on a small section of the story at a time, alternating between fortunately and unfortunately. (1st person: We were driving along in the car when unfortunately the tire blew. 2nd person: Fortunately we had a jack in the boot. 3rd person: Unfortunately the spare tyre was missing.)
  • ping-pong (table tennis), badminton or tennis championships Play round robin style games where everyone gets a go and rotation is fairly fast.
  • junk modelling Collect boxes, tubes, containers and decorative bibs and bobs of all kinds. Use them to create sculptures and amazing creations as a family. (If the creations are suitable, the children may like to keep them in their rooms for a few weeks to play with eg. castles, 10 story building etc.)
  • nobody’s birthday party Complete with cakes, party food and party games. Choose gifts and donate to a charity organisation.
  • puppet shows Set up pairs of chairs with sheets draped across as makeshift theatres. Use old socks, paper bags, bottles, wooden spoons or other simple items to make puppets. Use your puppets to rehearse and put on a puppet show for each other.

Well, there you have it; please share your ideas via a comment below – its always nice to glean a new idea from someone else!

The 3 times rule

My wonderful husband; the only adult who got in there with the kids on the black plastic water-slide at family camp.

I wrote some time ago about the 10 times rule for children. Today it’s the 3 times rule for husbands. At an Easter conference for families and leaders in ministry, the wives got together for an informal chat about ways to support our husbands. There were many ideas bandied around, most of which I had heard before. But one was new to me and worth passing on. It is very simple; the first time your husband does something that irritates, grates, you dislike or simply don’t want him to do for practical reasons, say nothing. The second times he repeats the action, say nothing. After the third occasion it is time to raise the subject – at an appropriate time. More on that in a minute.

Let me give you an example. I like my house to be fairly tidy but don’t knock myself out about it. With 6 children I’ve had to face the reality that it will never look like a display home. However, when I have cleaned up and it is looking good, the first bit of mess or clutter that is dumped really bothers me. My husband arrived home to a spotless kitchen and dining area (rare I know) and proceeded to kick his shoes off underneath the bench before heading outside to play with the children. My immediate impulse was to tell him (politely) not to leave his shoes there please, with the fear that he might start doing it regularly. When I stopped to think about it I had to concede that he usually doesn’t leave his shoes there and that this was a one-off occurrence. With that in mind, I said nothing.

If however, he began to kick them off there day after day it would be time to raise the matter. Now to the next important point; how to raise it. With my personality type, I tend to confront immediately and efficiently and solve what I see as the problem straight away. It is in fact often wiser to wait for a moment when you are free from conflict, both calm and relaxed and you have had time to think through the words you will use and how to phrase the problem so as to not sound negative, angry or like a nit-picking, nagging wife.

It may be that it is time to praise some of the things you do like about what your husband does, before starting on the things you don’t like. Next time you catch yourself about to jump in with a negative, stop and think. Is this the third time? You’ll be surprised at how many things can be left to slide by without comment, leaving only those that you really do need to talk about. Your husband will appreciate it.

[9] It is better to live in a corner of the housetop
than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.
(Proverbs 21:9 ESV)