Why Gamify? How to Use Game Dynamics to Make Learning More Fun

“What’s 4×8?” I casually asked my son after breakfast one morning.

“That’s easy, Mom.”

“So, what is it?” I asked.

“I don’t want to do this right now.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not part of my homework.”

My son eventually gave me the answer, but the painful experience was not the way I envisioned a quick little multiplication review after breakfast. In fact, I would call my attempt an epic failure (to use my son’s lingo).

My son could count by 4’s, but he didn’t have his multiplication facts memorized. I tried the old-fashioned flashcard technique and was met with resistance. I even loaded a multiplication app onto the iPad, but he still couldn’t answer my rapid fire questions. I needed a new strategy.

A few weeks later I came across Gabe Zichermann’s Ted Talk How Games Make Kids Smarter. This was my first introduction to Gamification. I got really excited about its potential applications for education. Gamification could make learning more fun and allow me to speak my son’s language at the same time.

What is Gamification?

In his book, Explore Like A Pirate, Michael Matera, defines gamification this way:

Gamification is applying the most motivational techniques of games to non-game settings, like classrooms.

Since my son would happily spend an entire morning playing Minecraft, I decided there must be something to this gamification idea. If I could somehow make memorizing times tables as engaging as ‘Rayman Adventures’ it would be a win-win situation.

Matera, a World History teacher, uses gamification in his 6th grade classroom. When an Amazon reviewer wrote that if he could put his son in any teacher’s class it would be Matera’s, I was convinced to read his book.

The human spirit awakens when we are inspired and challenged to confidently go beyond our limits. The power of play brings back the natural yearning that exists inside all of us to learn. — Michael Matera

Why Gamify?

When children play games they are using skills that are involved in building fluid intelligence and developing problem-solving abilities.

In her article, You Can Increase Your Intelligence: 5 Ways to Maximise Your Cognitive Potential, Andrea Kuszewski, a behaviour therapist and cognitive scientist, wrote about five elements involved with increasing fluid intelligence (your capacity to learn new information).

These five primary principles are:

  1. Seek novelty
  2. Challenge Yourself
  3. Think Creatively
  4. Do Things the Hard Way
  5. Network

By playing games, children are able to use all five of these principles at once. Therefore, gaming is a powerful, fun, and efficient way to promote fluid intelligence.

I was convinced. Now it was time to design a game to motivate my son.

Game Dynamics

First, I did a search for game dynamics. I found the following list to get me started:

  1. Create a Quest or Mission
  2. Assign point values to set tasks
  3. Include a time element
  4. Decide on Progression
  5. Allow unlocks for the completion of certain tasks
  6. Award Badges
  7. How to achieve an Epic Win!

Next, I had to apply these game dynamics to my own game design with memorizing multiplation facts as the objective.

Michael Matera mentions the importance of “fusing together the ideal amount of content, choice, and challenge” in game creation.

I knew I could spend days or even weeks trying to create the perfect quest for my son, but I have recently learned to let go of perfectionism and just get started. So I did.

I knew I could tweak my game as I went along and maybe even involve my children in its improvement.

I jotted down a few ideas and then presented them to my children one morning. I was definitely winging it.

The Mission

“Good morning warriors!” That got my sons’ attention.

“You are about to embark on a dangerous quest to defeat monsters, explore new territories, and race against time to find the Lariliean gemstones. Each gem will destroy a monster. If you deliver all 10 gems to Queen Alondra you will save Candyland.”

Yes, I know my quest was totally corny, but my children were intrigued.

My youngest wanted in on the action so I adapted the quest for him. He was supposed to practice reading the ‘tricky’ words his teacher sent home. I decided to give him 5 words to learn each week. He would get a gem when he could read them 3 days in a row.

The Reward (points, badges, in this case gems…)

I told my eldest he would ‘find’ a gem each time he passed a multiplication test. I pulled out some gems from my craft box to entice my son. Each gem was worth 100 points so my son needed to earn 1,000 point to save Candyland.

When he passed a timed multiplication test, I let him choose a gem. Then, we went online and looked at images of monsters. He got to choose which one he wanted to defeat. We printed it out and I let him decide how he wanted to vanquish the monster.

The Time Element

I gave my sons one week to complete each mission (e.g. one multiplication test or one set of 5 ‘tricky’ words). When they earned their gem they would unlock the next level (a harder multiplication test/5 new words).

Multiple Lives

Each of my sons started with 5 lives (5 chances to pass the test). If he ‘died’ on his first attempt he would practice and try again.


This was easy for the multiplication memorization. Ollie started with his 0’s and 1’s and progressed to his 2’s, 3’s, etc….The final goal was to complete a mixed multiplication task for an epic win!

With my youngest I chose the 50 most common sight words to read. For his epic win, he would need to read me all 50 words.


We are now in the middle of our quest. If given a choice, my sons would still prefer to play Minecraft, but I am pleased with the progress they have made. When my eldest completed his 8 times tables last week he was so proud of himself because he had to work so hard to pass.

Now I am off to do the parent homework Michael Matera set in his book, Explore Like a Pirate. Won’t my son be surprised when I ask him to show me how to play ‘Gods of Olympus’ this afternoon…

How To Hand Over More Responsibility To Your Children – The Calendar Routine

I gave a sigh of relief as I closed the door to my eldest’s room after kissing him goodnight.

It was finally me time. But not really.

I swept through the kitchen grabbing homework, snacks and water bottles and stuffing them into school bags. Then I rounded up my youngest’s swimming trunks and goggles for his lessons. Finally, I set the table for breakfast.

As I glanced into the living room I noticed my husband stretched out on the recliner watching his favorite TV program.

Something was wrong with this picture. My husband was already relaxing while I was still rushing around the house.

I entertained the idea of putting my husband to work, but knew he wouldn’t have a clue that my son needed to have his piano books ready for tomorrow.

Furthermore, it wasn’t really my husband’s responsibility. In fact, it wasn’t mine either!

If I wanted to raise my children to be self-sufficient adults I needed to hand over more responsibility to them.

As Harry Wong said the book, The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher:

The person who does the work is the only one who learns.

The Gradual Release of Responsibility

When I was a teacher I read the book, Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for The Gradual Release of Responsibility by Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey.

The premise of this model was to gradually move from the teacher doing a task/activity to the student doing it independently. The steps were “I Do It”, “We Do It”, “You Do It Together” (by collaborating with peers), and finally “You Do It Alone.”

If my goal was indeed to raise self-sufficient adults (and free up more time for myself in the process), I needed to find ways to give my children more responsibilities around the house. The Gradual Release of Responsibility model provided the perfect framework for doing this.

I decided to start by introducing a calendar routine so that my children would learn how to organize themselves to be ready for a new day, a skill that would serve them well into adulthood.

Introducing The Calendar Routine

I Do It

First, I modeled checking my own calendar each night in front of my children. I pointed out all of the appointments and activities listed on the new day’s calendar square.

Then I showed them how I put all of the supplies I need for the next day by the front door the night before.

I picked up this routine from She calls the area designated for supplies the “launch pad”. My children liked the idea of having a launch pad by our front door.

We Do It

Next, I pulled out a school calendar and hung it up in my eldest’s room.

Together, we wrote all of his activities for the month on it.

Then, we listed any supplies needed for the activities on the preceding day’s calendar square. To keep it simple we used abbreviations like HW for homework, H2O for water bottle and SN for snack.

Finally, I updated my son’s bedtime routine to include a “check the calendar” task.

My eldest and I did the calendar routine together for a month.

You Do It (Together)

For the “You Do It” step I asked my eldest to go through the calendar routine with his little brother.

Together they checked the calendar each night and put their supplies at the “launch pad”. I watched over the process, but my eldest was good about helping his little brother complete the routine. I knew he was ready to try it alone.

You Do It (Alone)

Now my eldest completes his calendar routine on his own. I just make sure we update the calendar each month and he takes care of the rest.

I will continue to support my 5-year-old’s routine for another year or so, but by then he will be a master of the process.

And tonight — I plan to join my husband on the sofa for a TV show when the children go to bed.

Best Christmas Cards To Make With Young Children

It’s that time of year again!  Time to spread Christmas cheer by sending a few Christmas cards to friends and family near and far…

I have spent the past few years searching for Christmas cards easy enough for preschoolers to make at home.  Here are my favourite cards to make with young children.  Even toddlers will be able to do a bit of sponge painting and printing on these cards.  My eldest enjoyed making the samples and printing a few for his teachers as well.

Fingerprint Christmas Lights

1. Fingerprint Christmas Lights

    Yes, it’s that easy.  Just pour some different coloured washable paint onto a paper plate or into a paint pot and let your child dip his/her fingers in the paint and stamp it onto a piece of construction paper folded in half.
    You can use a Sharpie to connect the “lights” when the paint dries.  Older children can do this step on their own.


2. Finger-printed Candy Cane

Fingerprint Candy Cane

Materials:  Green construction paper, red and white paint, and a sharpie

You just need red and white paint for this one.  You can draw a faint pencil outline of a candy cane for children to follow when they print on the paper if they need the guidance.

    For additional mathematical learning discuss the pattern you have made:  (red, white, red, white or A,B,A,B…)

3. Handprint Holly Leaves

Handprint Holly Leaves

Materials:  White construction paper, green and red paint, and a sharpie

    Paint your child’s hand green and press it twice upside down onto your construction paper card.  I like to have wet wipes on hand to get most of the paint off before we make our way to the sink to wash up.
    Paint a finger red and stamp it at the top of your holly to make the berries.

4. Hand-printed Reindeer

Handprint Reindeer

Materials:  Construction Paper, paint, googly eyes, red or black pom-pom

Paint your child’s hand brown (you can choose to paint 4 or all 5 fingers).  Then, press it onto your construction paper card.  When the paint dries, add googly eyes and a pom-pom nose.  Optional:  add red and green or red and white fingerprints around the reindeer for decoration.

5. Sponge-painted Christmas Trees

Sponge-painted Christmas Trees

Materials: Construction paper, paint, square sponge, circular sponge, sequins

I used a circular sponge to create one of these trees and a rectangular sponge to create the other.  You can use the rectangle sponge to print gifts under the tree as well. Decorate with sequins or make ornaments using a Q-tip dipped in paint.

Phonics for Active Kids

Phonics for Active Kids

Pointer Reading

When I was teaching elementary school I had a mantra: The person doing the work is the one doing the learning.

This idea came from Harry & Rosemary T. Wong’s classic book for new teachers,  The First Days of School.

I can’t tell you how many hours I wasted coloring, cutting, gluing and laminating really cute learning centers only to have children complete the activities in 5 minutes flat. Who was really doing the learning? Not the children.

Fast-forward several years. I’m now a busy mom of two active boys. I often have to remind myself to let go of my perfectionist tendencies and let them do the work.

When I wanted to help my eldest with reading at home, I did a Google search for ideas. I discovered pages and pages of adorable activities on Pinterest. When I visited the pages and took a closer look, I realized just how much parental preparation was involved.

I know better now. These great ideas involve a lot of work by parents with very little learning as a result. So, I have compiled a list of my top phonics activities for busy parents and active kids. The beauty of these activities is that you can reuse them for all kinds of learning from spelling practice and vocabulary development to memorizing math facts…the applications are endless.

Keep in mind the importance of novelty for active children as well. When they start getting bored, switch it up and try something new.

1.  Word Hunt    

Hiding Word

It’s a Monday after school. As soon as I unlock the front door my son dashes into the living room to find his phonics words. Why is he so eager to do phonics?

He’s excited because his task is to find the words of the week I have hidden around the living room. It’s like a game of hide-and-seek except he finds eight words instead of a person.

These eight words usually follow a phonics pattern I introduce every week or two (depending on how organized I am). Last week we worked on words in the -an word family (can, Dan, fan, Jan, man, pan, ran, tan….).

As my son seeks the hidden words I tell him if he is freezing, cold, warm, hot, hotter, or red hot chili pepper hot…Ay! Yay! Yay! He loves it.

When he finds a word, he reads it to me. Once he has located all of the words we stick them onto a large piece of construction paper and hang it on the refrigerator.

Preparation: 5 minutes                                                                                                                       

First, fold a piece of paper in half vertically. Then fold it in half horizontally two times so you have eight rectangles. Write 8 words on the paper and quickly cut them up. Hide them around a room in the house.

This is your chance to use all the scrap paper you save to be more environmentally-friendly only to have your children pull out a brand new sheet of paper for every project.

How This Activity Fits Into a Phonics Scheme?

 How does this activity fit into a phonics scheme for young children? A Word Hunt is good to do once a child knows his/her letter sounds. For more on introducing letters and sounds see this blog post:  Teaching Letters and Sounds To Young Children

My son has just started decoding (reading) short vowel words so I am focusing on word families first. By learning just one pattern your child can learn many words at the same time. I have included a chart of common word families at the bottom of this post.

If your child’s teacher assigns words each week, just hide these around the house.

2.  Finger Spell the words of the week.

Only use this for words that can be decoded (read) using sounds. This is a great activity for beginning readers and kinesthetic learners.

I start with c.v.c. words (consonant vowel consonant – e.g. cat). First, I say “cat”, then I make each sound and hold up one finger per sound (like I am counting to three).

Once I have all three fingers up and I have made each sound c-a-t, I then bring my fingers back together as I say the entire word again.

There are many variations of this. You can tap each finger with your other hand as you make the sounds or tap them on the table. Here is a good video of finger spelling in practice.

3.  Read a word, shoot a basket.

This is pretty self-explanatory. For an easy indoor activity (when it is wet or cold outside) you can use a crumpled up piece of paper and try to shoot it into a wastebasket.

Have your child read the word and then shoot a basket. You can make each basket worth 10 points. Keep score. Encourage your child to beat his/her score the next time you play. You can even take a step backward each time your child scores to make the activity more challenging. Play outside if you have a basketball net or just use a large trashcan and a real ball.

4.  Read a word, score a goal

 This is the same idea with a soccer ball and a goal. Do it at a park or at home and make your own goal with cones or even backpacks strategically placed on the lawn. You can set this up indoors and use a soft ball, too. If you are at a restaurant have your child read a word. If he reads it correctly he gets to flick a crumpled up napkin ball or candy wrapper ball through your finger goalposts.

5.  Write the words on a whiteboard

Once you kids are writing, have them write on different surfaces. Let them use dry erase pens to write on a whiteboard, or use sticks to write words in the sand. Go outside with the sidewalk chalk or even make the letters against a wall with a flashlight (torch) in a dark room. Have your child “write” a word on your back with his/her finger and you try to guess what it is.

6.  Use a pointer to “teach” the words to other family members.

 Have your child use a pointer to “point” at each word as he reads it to an audience (a play sword works well if you don’t have a pointer). My son uses his pointer to read the words hanging on the refrigerator after breakfast. These are the same words from the word hunt activity above so I don’t have to do any extra preparation.

7.  Read a Phonics Book to a family member or pet.

 I have printed up a few word family and cvc books from The Measured Mom website and my son reads these to me before bed. Or, we read his book from school.

If my son complains about reading I tell him I will read the book to him. When I read his book I proceed to get the words all muddled up. This makes him laugh and he usually ends up supplying the correct words after I read the wrong ones. This makes the reading experience more fun for him. I exaggerate the wrong words and come up with ever more ridiculous words that rhyme with the originals.

Another strategy to use for reluctant readers is to alternate reading the pages with them so they don’t feel like they have to read the entire book.

8.  Matching

 If you have the items at home, have your child find them and match them with the words on the kitchen table. You can read “bag” and then have your child find one somewhere in the house to put with the word. (Other examples include: ham: a piece of ham, yam: pull out your yam so your child can see what it looks like, etc.).

This is a great activity for vocabulary development and can be especially good for English Language Learners. We used to call this using realia (real objects for vocabulary development).

9. Phonics Hopscotch

 Use your sidewalk chalk to write a word in a column on the sidewalk. Put a large square around each letter with the entire word together at the end. Have you child hop on one foot making each letter sound when they land on it. When they reach the end, they can hop with both feet on the whole word as they read it. If you have children of different ages you can make a more complex gameboard with longer words for older children.

10. Ping-Pong Phonics

Use a sharpie to write some letters or words on ping-pong balls.

Float them in a water table (or bathtub). Children can then fish for words by pulling them out and reading them or pulling out some letters and trying to make words with them. This can be a fun way to liven up bathtime. Once they make a word have them try to toss the ping-pong balls in a floating bowl.

11.  Magnetic Letters

Magnetic Letters

Put some magnetic letters up on your refrigerator. Start by encouraging your child to make his/her name. You can then have them put together the words of the week with the magnets.

Sometimes, I leave a little message for my son on the refrigerator. This is a good way to get him wanting to read.

Beware if you have older children! You might start to find words like “poo” and “fart” on the refrigerator as well.

Ideas:  Let me know if any of these ideas worked for you or if you have any great ideas to add to this list.

*Here are some words families you may want to introduce to your children. Depending on how quickly they pick up reading you may only use some of these…

– am – it – et – ot -ut
– at – in – ed – og – un
– an – ig -em – ock – ub
– ag – ip – el – ud
– ad – ing – ep – uck
– ack – ick – eg – ump
– amp – ell – unk
– est











Best Halloween Crafts for Young Children

Best Halloween Crafts for Young Children

It’s my favourite time of year. The leaves are changing colours, the weather is getting cooler (now that I am in the U.K. and no longer living in California ;-), and pumpkin treats have made their appearance in all my favourite coffee shops. It’s almost Halloween!

There are so many cute Halloween crafts to do with young children.  I discovered several when I manned the craft table at our local toddler group.  Here is a list of my all-time favourites including links:

Masking Tape Mummy

Masking Tape Mummy






This is a cute and relatively mess-free craft:

Apple Print Pumpkins

Apple-printed Pumpkins

Just slice some apples in half.  Push a craft stick into the back of the apple to create a handle for your little one to hold. Then dip the apple stamp into orange paint to make pumpkin shapes on your paper.  When the pumpkin shapes dry, draw faces on them with a black sharpie.

Handprint Frankenstein

Paint your child’s palm green and four fingers black.  Then press your child’s hand onto a white piece of paper.  Add googly eyes and draw on some black plugs either side of the head.  This a cute keepsake to pull out every Halloween.

Q-Tip Skeleton

 This is a great craft for  older children and a good way to learn the names of the bones.  Sing “Dem Bones” as you do this craft with your kids.

For complete instructions of this crafts click on the following link:

Handprint Spider and Other Halloween Handprint Crafts

Here is another fun handprint craft for young children.  Paint their hands black, press them onto some construction paper and add googly eyes and a web when they dry.

Handprint Spider



Halloween Handprint Crafts

Here is a link for a more complete instructions for the Handprint Spider:

Footprint Ghosts

This is one of my favourite Halloween crafts.  I first did it with my eldest son when he was 18 months old.  I love looking at his little footprints every Halloween when I get out our old crafts to decorate the house.  Make sure you have some wet wipes handy to wipe the white paint off of little feet.  Trace your child’s hand and arm (up to the elbow) onto brown paper to make the tree.

Footprint Ghosts









“Where The Wild Things Are” Monster

Get a green paper bag or paint a brown bag green. Next, add some egg carton eyes, pasta piece nose, sharp fangs, horns, claws, and spots to create your own Halloween monster.

Make Your Own Monster







Spooky Cereal Boxes

Decorate cereal boxes to make some spooky touchy, feely containers for your next Halloween party.

Spooky Cereal Boxes
Frankenstein Boxes






Enjoy these Halloween crafts.  Let me know if you have others to recommend.

Happy Halloween!  

The Periodic Table Song: A Fun Way to Introduce Chemistry to Youngsters

The Periodic Table Song:  A Fun Way to Introduce Chemistry to Youngsters

High School Chemistry.  I was breezing along through high school until I hit chemistry. Suddenly, my teacher shared a large, unwieldy table full of abbreviations and numbers that meant absolutely nothing to me. It was like a foreign language. I was doing equations based on the table and I had no idea why…

I struggled because I had no background knowledge to help me. My entire academic experience up to that point had been devoid of chemistry. I vowed not to let this happen to my own children.

In the book Overcoming Textbook Fatigue  ReLeah Cossett Lent writes, “a person’s background knowledge, often called prior knowledge, is a collection of “abstracted residue” (Schallert, 2002, p. 557) that has been formed from all of life’s experiences…Background knowledge is an essential component in learning because it helps us make sense of new ideas and experiences.” Knowing that prior knowledge is critical for helping children understand new concepts, I set about finding a way to introduce chemistry to my own children.

Discovering AsapScience

When I read the book Creative Schools by Sir Ken Robinson (of Ted Talk fame) I was thrilled to discover the existence of AsapScience, a You Tube channel created by Canadian YouTubers Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown to make science appeal to teenagers in short, digestible videos. Each video asks a question that a teen might ask and then answers it with science.

The content of AsapScience is primarily geared for older students so be sure to preview it beforehand unless you are prepared to have a frank discussion about “Your Body During Sex” which I am not ready to have with my sons yet.

However, my children did like the video, “Could the Jedi Exist?” and they especially love The Periodic Table song and Science Wars song.

The Periodic Table Song

Not only is The Periodic Table Song catchy, but it also introduces the periodic table in a fun, palatable way. This song soon became a favorite in our house.

This summer I challenged my 7-year-old and myself to learn the first 20 elements of The Periodic Table Song. We played it after breakfast each morning and memorized one or two elements each day. I managed to memorize and retain about 16 of the elements and my son now sings the first 20. I swear I used to have a decent memory before I became a mom…

Simply memorizing facts and not applying them goes against my deep learning mantra, however my purpose with this challenge was simply to expose my son to the periodic table in a fun way at a young age. Hopefully, when he encounters the periodic table in high school he will be excited to work with something familiar.

The Periodic Table video relates several of the elements to common, every day items in the house. For example, Moffitt and Brown sing “sodium for salty times” while displaying a potato chip on the screen and they sing “fluorine for your pretty teeth” as they show a set of false teeth. Now my son is able to make connections between the elements, their abbreviations, and some things he is already familiar with from his world.

When we do fun, hands-on experiments I will now be able to link them back to the periodic table.

The Science Wars Song

My 4-year-old requests the Science Wars song regularly, primarily because the guy singing about math is dressed as Darth Vader, wields a ruler light saber, and sings his part to the tune of the Imperial March. My son is fascinated with Darth Vader so “math” is his favorite character from the song. If nothing else, I have given him a positive outlook on mathematics before he begins formal schooling 😉

I hope you find AsapScience as fun and useful as I have. Let me know if you have any engaging educational site recommendations.

Happy Science everyone!

The Read Aloud

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The Read Aloud

 I am convinced that the single best practice I ever adopted in the classroom was the after lunch read aloud. At the time I mainly did it to have a few minutes of peace after lunch. After all, afternoons were my least favorite time to teach because my energy levels were at their lowest and I felt more like curling up and taking a nap than engaging a room full of 20 to 30 children.

Although my aim was merely survival and a few minutes of quiet I now realize that sharing my love of reading good quality, highly engaging books probably benefitted my pupils more than all the hours of closely following the curriculum and prepping for tests ever did. Not only was I helping them develop vocabulary and critical thinking skills as we discussed the books I read, but I was also empowering them. When children are able to read with ease and enjoyment the world is their oyster. Anything they wish to learn is now accessible. They can teach themselves how to develop apps, how to cook, how to play an instrument, etc. All this knowledge is available online.

I can still recall all of the books my fourth grade teacher read to us after lunch. From Island of the Blue Dolphins to The Secret Garden she introduced me to new worlds. I loved when my own students hung on every word of Roald Dahl’s Witches or laughed aloud when Ramona finally pulled one of Susan’s boing-boing curls during a game of “Duck, Duck, Goose”. I was amazed to see my English Language Learners blossom and take an interest in reading as we worked through some of my favorite stories. Soon, my second graders were borrowing my Ramona books and comparing how many Magic Tree House books they had read. I don’t think I would have witnessed this enthusiasm for reading had it not been for the after lunch read aloud.

Now that I am a parent I continue this practice with my own children. Although my eldest is old enough to read for himself I still carve out time each night to read him a chapter from a book slightly above his independent reading level. After the craziness of the day, the quarreling, the timeouts, etc. our read aloud time allows us to reconnect and share a nice moment together before bed.

When my son was younger I managed to squeeze in many of my favorite read alouds. I knew as a boy he wouldn’t appreciate some of them when he was older so I fit them in before he developed strong opinions. Here is a list of the books I have read my son so far. I am also looking for great suggestions of books to read with my sons as they grow older because I know they won’t be interested in Nancy Drew or Sweet Valley High.

Favorite Read Aloud List:

  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (also The Trumpet of the Swan)
  • Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
  • The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series by Betty MacDonald
  • Witches, The B.F.G., Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Great Glass Elevator, James and the Giant Peach, The Twits all by Roald Dahl.
  • Mr. Stink by David Walliams
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  • The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
  • The Inheritance Cycle (Eragon) series by Christopher Paolini
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

We are in the middle of the Eragon series right now. My son chose this out of the bookcase. I didn’t know if it would be too hard for him to understand or not, but he seems to be enjoying it and is even able to make inferences about the past of some of the characters so we will continue. We are going to look into Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and The Gods of Asgard series next and hopefully I will be able to interest my son in The Hardy Boys, too.

Still Life Learning

shading practice
orchid sketch

Every other week my 7-year-old has a creative task to complete for homework.  This usually has something to do with a topic they are learning about in class. This spring the topic is plants and growing.

Ollie was asked to look carefully at a plant and draw what it looks like. Then, he had to label the plant parts he could identify.

It was a wet day in the U.K. so I asked if he would like to sketch one of my indoor plants. He chose the orchids.

Here is how I extended the learning of this assignment.

  1. I explained he was about to do a ‘still life’ drawing and defined the phrase.  Still Life – A collection of inanimate (non-living) objects arranged together in a specific way.
  2. We looked at a few famous still life painting like Apples and Grapes by Claude Monet, Vase With Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (I reminded him that we saw one of the Sunflowers paintings at the National Gallery in London to make the real life connection), Apples and Oranges by Paul Cezanne, and Vanitas by Pieter Claesz.
  3. I pulled up a few orchid sketches on Google images so my son could see the techniques artists use to make a 2-dimensional drawing appear 3-D.
  4. I introduced the concept of shading. My son loves to draw so he was really excited about this. We watched this inspiring YouTube video on shading:
  5. Next, I left my son to his orchid sketch.
  6. Ollie labeled the plant parts he knew.
  7. We used Google images to look at labeled plants and learn a couple of new plant parts to add to his sketch. We only added two new ones so he would remember them. I know he will learn more when he is older so I kept it simple and only introduced two new plant labels.

Starry, Starry Night Craft

Starry, Starry Night Craft for Children

This is a fun craft for all ages. Recreate Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting Starry, Starry Night by swirling washable paint around an aluminium foil surface with a Q-tip.


  • cardboard or card
  • aluminium foil
  • tape
  • washable paint (white, yellow, dark blue, light blue)
  • Q-tips


  1. Cover a piece of card with aluminium foil and tape it down in the back.
  2. Put out all of the colours of paint with a Q-tip in each colour.
  3. Have fun swirling and sliding the paint along the foil surface a la Van Gogh.


    My four-year-old decided to press another foil-covered cardboard piece on top of his painting to make two prints.  This looked nice as well (almost like a Monet Impressionist piece).
    *Remember to let your children follow their ideas however much they deviate from the original.  I like to have a go myself so I can create my own piece that really looks like Van Gogh. It is interesting to see what my children come up with when I give them the art materials and the idea. It is never what I expect and I guess this is the point of the activity.


Ode To Magnetic Tiles (Shapes)

Magnetic Tile Satellite

Ode To Magnetic Tiles

Oh Magnetic Tiles –

How much do I love thee?

You keep my son engaged,

So I can cook the tea.

Magnetic tiles are my current favorite toy in the house. Not only do they keep my two boys engaged for long periods of time, but they also provide wonderful learning opportunities.

Typically I rotate the toy boxes I bring down to the living room every 1 -2 weeks. I have now had the magnetic tiles out for a couple of months and I have been amazed how my sons’ creations have grown in complexity and sophistication. At I first I was delighted to see my 4-year old stick together a few tiles to make a flat 2-dimensional star. Next, he moved on to a simple cube followed by a pyramid. Now he is independently designing castles, churches, rockets, and even haunted houses. I love hearing the names he comes up with for some of his more unusual designs.

Making dinner is my least favourite time of the day.  My four-year-old is fussy, tired and wants my attention. I usually resort to plonking him in front of the T.V. so I don’t burn the contents of the frying pan. He has reached a point where he doesn’t want a televised babysitter anymore. The magnetic shape tiles came out just in time. He loves them! Now I am free to supervise my vegetables once again.

Here are some ways to extend the learning with magnetic tiles:

Extending the Learning:

If I want to extend the learning happening through magnetic tile play, I slyly introduce 2-D and 3-D shape names as we build. We discuss the properties of triangles, pentagons, hexagons, and the differences between squares and rectangles. My 7-year-old and I count the number of faces, sides, and vertices on the 3-D shapes as well.

Imaginary Play:

One day my son and I were playing with transformers. He suggested that we have a birthday party for Optimus Prime. I suggested we decorate for the party because I was tired of bashing transformers together (my son loves making all of his action figures fight). Out came the magnetic tiles. We made cubes for presents. William designed an interesting 3-D cake. Finally, we made pyramids for the party decorations. I realised then that I enjoy building with the magnetic tiles, too.

Keeping the Peace:

Through this process I have learnt two important lessons for keeping the peace. First, have lots of magnetic tiles. We asked for additional tiles for Christmas so the boys would have enough magnets to make their elaborate designs at the same time. Secondly, I quickly learned to take pictures of their favourite creations before William, my four-year-old, decided to flatten them with a body slam, WWF-style.