Archive for Gift Giving

What to Do with Summer Vacation, Part 6: Subscription Reviews for Older Kids

Happy Monday!  How is your (restful?) summer working out?  As I mentioned last week, we’ve been blessed to be part of a homeschool charter school that allows us to use our funds on educational subscriptions as well as curriculum, classes, and field trips.  There are so many cool STEM- and art-themed subscription box kits out there, and my big kids have really enjoyed spending their Friday afternoons on box kit activities rather than other, formal curriculum.  They’re also a great way to keep boredom at bay this summer!

Like I said in Friday’s review, I didn’t receive any of these for free from the publishers.  It’s so hard to know how decent a subscription really is until you’ve bitten the bullet and committed, so I’ll share our family’s opinions of a few of the options out there.  My criteria: For kits for my 10 year old, I’d really rather that he be able to do the activities pretty much on his own.  His are more science-themed, and I know that it’s my worst subject.  Big props to projects that work like they’re supposed to.  Duds just reinforce my frustration with science that dates back to failed experiments and demonstrations in my own childhood.  Some people want their science projects to be able to last; in our house, we set up the experiment/demonstration, play with it a few times, and toss it.  So I can’t comment on how sturdy they are.  For art activities, I also like things that my son can do with minimal supervision, that are open ended yet teach him a new skill, and that have quality materials.

STEM Reads Book Club is heavy on the curated book content and light on the activity content.  For $40/month (or less depending on how many months you order), they send you two or more kids’ books (at least one nonfiction and one fiction) correlating to a STEM theme (space/astronauts/coding) and a treat that has to do with the theme (funny seeds to plant, astronaut ice cream, math dice, etc) as well as an ideas inspiration card with further suggested activities to explore the topic (supplies not included).  Essentially, this is a spendy and fun way to build your science/tech/engineering/math home library.  I really do like the look of these books (they’re not cheap dollar store junk), and since these are my weakest areas academically, I can use the professional help in selecting these.  The website says that these are intended for ages 4-8, but my 10 year old will definitely be poring over them, too.  I am pleased so far, and we’ll request this as a grandparent gift in the future.

Steve Spangler Science Club has a variety of STEM-themed subscriptions.  We chose Stem Lab, which has 4 or 5 activities for $20/month (all you need is included).  These are less building-oriented and more about observing and recording scientific phenomena.  In terms of directions, the cards are very clear and well-written.  These demonstrations have actually all worked for us–this is a huge deal for me!  Many of them can be done over and over, so if you were the type to save boxes and not pitch them, you’d really get your money’s worth with these.  My son says he remembers what he learned because the activities were pretty cool.  I think Steve Spangler gets the “wow factor” that helps get kids excited about science.  This is my favorite of the science ones we’ve tried and one I’d highly recommend for grandparents looking for subscription gift ideas.

Tinker Crates have been a hit with my 10 year old–he likes them just as much as the Spangler ones.  For $20/month, he’s sent a new STEM type project to build.  I like that he has done these all totally on his own–the directions are apparently very clear and easy to follow, and my son says what makes them the best are the pictures showing you exactly what you’re supposed to be doing/building.  All supplies (plus extras) are included, and while they are kindof fiddly, I don’t care about the lack of sturdiness because we will throw them away in a couple of days.  I would definitely not ever go to the trouble of picking up supplies to make a hydraulic claw, so he’s doing science-y crafts that he would not otherwise be doing.  I’ve seen online reviews mention that some folks have had broken or missing pieces.  We’ve never had that, but they are certainly lower budget projects that are not intended to last for months or years.  For the price, I don’t mind too much.  My son says he’s learned some science, but they’re mostly just fun.

Groovy Lab in a Box is a kit I just wanted to love.  For $30/month, they include supplies to do several STEM activities (heavier on the engineering/building side) for ages 8+.  The problem is that the instructions are brief and very open-ended, and last week my son asked me to cancel our subscription because he gets frustrated by them and needs a lot of help that I don’t have the time/expertise to give right now.  My 8 year old would not be able to do any of this on her own.  Even my engineer father-in-law had trouble figuring out what exactly they were supposed to be doing, and the experiment aspect is hard to do when you’re not even sure if you have set things up properly.  These epitomize all that I hate about science as it was taught to me all the way from grade school through college–be open ended and try things out yourself!  Except that you should be coming up with results that will demonstrate this scientific fact that you already know!  But do it with cheap tools that don’t really work!  For my temperament (and apparently my son’s, as well), it’s maddening to have so many open variables when I still have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing/learning (and when I’m trying to derive scientific principles using cheap homemade “equipment” that can be sent through the mail in a shoebox-sized box).  Perhaps true scientists would love that.  I’m probably a bad mom and destroying my childrens’ future because I want them to have more direction at this stage of their scientific journey.  Oh well.  We’ll stick to the above boxes and lots of nature journaling.  My son can’t articulate anything STEM-related that he’s learned from Groovy Lab, other than that with science you often can spend a lot of time on something and still have it not work.  I guess that is an important lesson, but I don’t feel the need to spend $30/month to teach him that.

And we’ve tried one art-related subscription, too!  I know there are some open-ended crafty-type kits out there, but two years ago, I emailed my sister-in-law (the professional artist who designed the art for our blog!) and asked her what quality art supplies we should order.  So we have Prismacolor colored pencils (that even my 4 year old uses), Pelikan watercolors, Winsor & Newton brushes, and Strathmore Watercolor Paper for special watercolor projects.  Wow, there is a difference when you use good art supplies!  I can never go back to Crayola.  We do a ton of open-ended art with these supplies, and two of the kids have taken art classes, as well.  So we’re kindof beyond the cheapo stuff we’d get in many kid kits.

So MarkyBox is a subscription with real art projects (for advanced kids or adults).  We got three huge boxes for $33 apiece that each had a pretty intense activity (plaster mold of your fist, paper marbling, tin printing) with everything you need included, plus pretty detailed directions.  My son loves art and tried these mainly on his own.  With minimal help from me, they turned out…okay.  They’re a fun introduction to real, “grown-up” art, but I’d definitely recommend them for an older kid or plan to be actively involved in every step of the process.

In the future, we’re looking forward to trying out a robotics or coding subscription.  Anyone have favorites they’d like to share with the rest of us?  Have you tried any of the ones here?


(The amazon links for the art supplies are affiliate links–if you purchase through them, we get a tiny percentage back to help fund our blog hosting fees.  The subscription links are not affiliate links–we get no kickback for sending you to any of their sites.)

Posted in Gift Giving, Homeschooling | 1 Comment

What to Do with Summer Vacation, Part 5: Subscription Reviews for Younger Kids

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but over the next couple of posts, I’m going to review all of the subscription boxes we’ve tried out this year (see yesterday for two cooking-themed ones that I recommend).  Subscription boxes are really big these days, and because our charter school lets us spend some of our educational funds on educational subscriptions, I’ve gone ahead and tried out a bunch of them. Like all kids, mine do get bored on long summer days, and I like having some activities I can throw at them and let them do.  We do plenty of free coloring, lego building, pretend play, and the like, so a box kit is our family’s answer to a formal summer camp.  The little kid boxes are also great for entertaining my littles while I’m trying to homeschool my big kids.

The problem is, while you can kinda see from a website what is included in a box, it’s hard to know until you handle it whether it is well-done or suited to your kids.  By then it’s too late, because you’re stuck with 6 or 12 months of the thing.  And when I search for reviews of these things online, they’re almost universally written by people who were sent a free box in exchange for a review.  They’re almost always glowing, and my experience definitely doesn’t match up with theirs.  So I’m not going to get a commission off of any of these things, and I’m going to tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly of each one.

Before I begin, let me say that for kits intended for preschool and lower elementary kids, I fully expect to be pretty hands-on with the activities.  Open-ended play and the ability to repeat are high on my wish list.  Kudos if they include all the supplies we need for the projects, not just a list telling me I can go find paint and bubble wrap and make a craft with them.  Pinterest can tell me that.  If I’m spending money on a box kit, I don’t want to have to run to Michael’s for supplies.

I’ll start with my favorite discovery of the past two years (pictured above)–Ivy Kids!  These amazing kits, aimed at preschool through about second grade, are themed around a quality children’s book and have over a dozen art and math and literacy activities inspired by the book.  I can’t tell you how much we love these kits.  As soon as one comes in the mail, all other activity in the home stops.  We immediately open it, read the book, and dive into the activities.  I have been really happy with the book selection thus far, and the activities are well-thought out and appeal to my 4, 6, and 8 year olds.  There’s always something involving paint, which they love, always some games (using various kinds of dice or matching cards, etc), usually a poster or two (we’ve learned about types of Australian animals, different 3-dimensional shapes, the life cycles of ladybugs, the difference between hedgehogs and porcupines, and the list goes on), and then lots of mathy games using different math manipulatives such as color tiles, geoboards, and the like.  Often there’s a stuffed animal or blow-up toy to go with the theme.  Everything, down to the glue, is included in the box, and for a mere $5/month, you can get double the craft supplies for another sibling.  Usually there’s enough of the paint or whatever for me to add in my own paper and have all the kids (and even some friends) do the art project (handprint/fingerprint trees, etc), as well.  On the inside cover of a box is a picture of all the activities, and there’s a full lesson plan (with scaffolding for older or younger kids) of each activity.  Essentially, it’s preschool or kindergarten in a box.  We have been getting one per month all year, and we still have tons of play left in most of the boxes.  At $39/month (with a slight discount for longer subscriptions), it is a steal.  I couldn’t go to the store and buy all the supplies myself for under $40, and the replay value of many of the activities is well worth it.  Yes, I could get on pinterest and string together lesson plans themed around a book, but these are so clearly-written and well done that I won’t bother.  Yes, this subscription is pricey, but it is well worth it.  I will continue to buy it until my youngest is 8, even if I no longer get to use my charter school funds on it. I will no longer buy any formal curriculum for preschool or K–this is enough, with our good old phonics book added in once they’re ready for that.  You can browse and purchase past boxes here, and I’d recommend just trying one out if you’re looking for some inside activities for your little ones this summer.

Moving to a total dud, Little Passports was one of those fun ideas I’ve wanted to try for years.  I think they’re one of the first subscription model kits out there, and I was so underwhelmed with them.  For $15/month plus shipping, you get a few pieces of paper, a junky toy, and a couple stickers to add to your around-the-world suitcase and map.  I like the idea of learning about geography through stories from different countries, but this concept was half-baked and too advanced (worksheet activity-wise) for my little kids but not enough content for my bigger kids.  We open it, read and look at it for 15 minutes, and are done.

For a better geography-themed kit, try Cultured Owl.  For $30 (with discount for multi-month packages), you get a booklet about the country (written to actually engage a second grader’s interest), a flag, a recipe from that country (usually for something that my kids really liked–fondue was a big hit!), and a few fun art projects inspired by that country (with all supplies included).  Unlike Little Passports, there are enough activities to keep kids occupied for a whole afternoon (or more), and I think my kids have actually retained information about each country.

Green Kids Crafts are little boxes arranged around a science type theme.  For $19.95/month (or $24.95 on amazon), you get several little art/craft activities that are honestly more display-oriented (eg, making a little model ocean in a bottle) than experiment- or skill-based.  My kids (mainly the K and 2nd grader) have enjoyed them, but to be honest, one Ivy Kids box has three or four times as many activities (many of which include reusable pieces) for just twice the price.  Green Kids boxes aren’t bad, but they only occupy my kids for an afternoon.

This summer, we just tried Compass Crate, $30/single box, or $25/month, with outdoor/adventure type themes.  Aesthetically, these really appeal to me, as does the fact that the company is run by two homeschooling moms with a combined 8 kids, so they totally “get” our family’s lifestyle and goals.  There are only three crafts (plus some little info cards), but they’re more open-ended (our most recent hiking/exploring box had us making a compass, decorating a walking stick, and decorating a nature journal–last month we made a flower press, which obviously we can still use).  Unlike the Green Kids crafts, which you do and then toss away, these crafts are intended to have you embrace the theme and use the things you’ve made to go have adventures.  So I love the idea, even though it’s pretty understated.  It’s easy to run with the inspiration and use their resources for my whole range of ages.  But again, if you just have little ones, I’d still pick Ivy Kids first to get the most bang for your buck.


Okay, I’m going to hold off on the big kid (8-12 range) boxes and do a separate post on those tomorrow!  Has your family tried any subscription boxes?

Posted in Gift Giving, Homeschooling | 3 Comments

Beyond Monopoly and Candyland: Fun Games for Kids

Everyone who comes to our house comments on our board game collection.  We have shelves and shelves of games, and they’re way better than the old, tired, endless games from our childhoods.  Some board games go in and out of print quickly, but here are a few of our favorites that you can buy right now!  (Or forward the link to grandparents who need Christmas gift ideas…)

e2s board games

Go Away, Monster! is the first game our kids play, starting at age 2.  Players take turns reaching into a bag to pick out pieces to complete their little bedroom scene: a bed, a teddy bear, picture, and lamp.  But beware!  There are monsters in roughly the same shapes!  If a player picks up a monster, they yell, “Go away, monster!” and throw it in the middle of the table.  It’s really simple, taking 5-10 minutes to play, but little kids learn taking turns and how to strategize to find the missing pieces they need.  My three year old loves it and wants to play every night.

Catan: Junior is a kid-friendly version of the grown-up Settlers of Catan, the resource-gathering, trading, and building game that was the gateway game into Euro-style games for many of us! Kids collect resources like goats and gold nuggets and wood to build more pirate lairs and pirate ships that will help them build more things and win the game. My kids started being able to play on their own at around age 6. The younger ones play on a team with a parent or big brother.

My First Carcassonne is another kid-version of a great grown-up tile laying game, Carcassonne. In the kid version, players take turns laying tiles, and if you create a road with end points, you get to put your little colored pieces on every matching child on the road. First player to use up all their pieces wins. My five year old can play this, and I like that more advanced players can “help” out younger players by placing tiles where the little ones will get points. It’s easy to make sure no one gets too far behind.

Battle Sheep is sortof a take on something like Chinese checkers. Everyone has a stack of sheep, and you want to be the one to lay out the most sheep on the board before spaces run out. There is strategy to cutting other players off and how many sheep to use in each stack, so my seven year old doesn’t do too well at it yet, but my nine year old loves it and could beat me at age 8! The pieces on this one are particularly nice quality, and it’s actually fun for grown-ups, too.

Sushi Go! is our family’s current favorite game. Perfect for big kids and adults, you’re trying to get the most points by collecting different sets of sushi. Everyone has a hand of cards, you pick one, then pass it to the player on the left. By the time it comes back to you, someone else might have played the card you really wanted, so you’re making new decisions with each turn. My seven year old won the game her first time playing, and our nine year old has been hanging with us for a while.

Forbidden Island is our family’s favorite “cooperative game,” where everyone works together for a common goal, similar to the grown-up co-op game Pandemic. Each player has a special skill, and we all work together to collect certain treasures before the island we’re on sinks. Lots of strategy, but since we’re all working together and discussing, our seven year old can easily play her own role. Our little girls prefer to play on our teams and help turn over the tiles that are under water or rescued.

Forbidden Desert is the sequel to Forbidden Island, and this time we’ve crash landed in a desert and have to find the missing parts of our plane before we die of thirst or get covered in sand.  The game dynamics are a little more complicated than in Forbidden Island, but players still work together using different skills (someone can hold extra water, another might be able to clear extra sand each turn).  Again, if playing with advanced players, my kids can play their own role starting around age 7, but it’s fun with all adults, too.

Ticket to Ride is an adult game that our 9 year old started playing with us this year.  You all have train routes you’re trying to build across the country, and you have to collect the right color of train cars to build each segment.  There’s a lot of strategy in where you build your roads (especially if someone else builds where you were wanting to go) and what you collect, but an advanced kid can handle it.  It’s also a pretty straight-forward game to play when friends or family come to visit.  And now there’s a kid version available (see below)!

Takenoko has to be the cutest concept of all the games we have. You’re trying to grow bamboo to feed hungry pandas, achieving goals for types of bamboo farms, size of bamboo stalks, and colors of bamboo collected.  You’re building out the board and collecting resources, and the cute little panda gets to move around the board.  Our son started playing with us at 8, but the girls just love sit on our laps and play on our team since the strategy involved is definitely more for older kids and adults.

Zooloretto is another big kid to adult game. This time, you’re building a zoo, so you’re trying to collect the right kinds of animals and put them in trucks that you’ll end up taking to put in your own zoo pens.  Other people can steal your trucks as you’re filling them, though, so there’s strategy in how full to fill a truck, when to take it, and what kinds of animals to collect (because you don’t want all animals that other people are trying to collect).

And Target is getting into the board game space with some exclusives.  We picked up a kids’ version of Ticket to Ride last time we were at the store, and the kids loved it!

Ticket to Ride: First Journey is a simplified version of the adult game, with shorter routes and easier goals. A perfect introduction to the game that our seven year old played easily and our five year old played with a bit of help.

Most of these links (except the Target one) are to Amazon, and if you click through our links, we’ll get a little percentage of commission to help cover the hosting fees for the website.  However!  If you have a local game store, please go there and support them.  They provide such an important resource to go touch and feel a game and discuss it with knowledgeable (and always geeky) staff.  We buy most of our games from Valhalla’s Gate in Columbia, Missouri while we’re on vacation.  The staff there have been invaluable in helping us find the right games for our kids’ ages and interests.  There are many great game stores around, and Barnes and Noble actually has an increasingly decent selection, so I usually go there to buy presents for birthday parties since we don’t have a designated game store nearby.  


Posted in Gift Giving | 3 Comments

Hidden Art Friday

ornaments E2S

I know it’s well after Christmas now, but I wanted to show you all the ornaments I made my husband this year!  I couldn’t show them off beforehand for obvious reasons.  Our tradition is to make each other handmade ornaments rather than buying a gift, and it’s always fun to see what the other has come up with.  This year, I took pictures of the kids against a light window, used PicMonkey to make the contrast all black and white, printed them off, and used them as a pattern to cut the kids’ profiles out of felt.  I was afraid a blanket stitch would efface the little details, so I just hot glued them onto another piece of felt which I sewed onto Christmas fabric backing.  It took me most of a day, but I am thrilled with the result!

I’m halfway through a month in the Midwest–spending time with my parents and my in-laws.  That means I’ve not been doing a ton of cooking or cleaning, my kids have been entertained by grandparents and uncles and aunts, and I’ve gotten to hang out with many dear friends from back home.  Other than the blizzards that radically changed our plans for this week (and cancelled a couple little road trips), it’s been great!  I’ve not had a ton of time online for obvious reasons, but here are a few links to explore…

I think a lot of us healthy-minded moms need to read this post on why Food is Not Your God.  In my neck of the woods, there’s a huge temptation to make Healthy Eating (in whatever iteration it might be) an idol.

I love that Auntie Leila has the same attitude about learning to cook that I do!  She says, “With the internet, I’m afraid that we’re just pinning recipes and wondering why our crockpot chicken is tasteless; and then buying the sexy cookbooks, which granted are adorable, and in general getting overwhelmed by the stark necessity of meals.”  If cooking/menu planning made its way into your new year’s resolutions, check out her post for more cookbook ideas (and revisit Elsa’s recommendations right here).

And to show you that I’m totally inconsistent in my healthy eating and quality cookbook snobbery, here are two cookie recipes I found via pinterest: Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars with a Salty Pretzel Crust (per commenter’s suggestions, I add 1/4 cup brown sugar to the crust to hold it together better).  Chocolate+salt=happy Emily.  And my sister-in-law is having to eat dairy-free, but we whipped up these Three Ingredient Peanut Butter Cookies one night, and they hit the spot!

Have a great weekend!

Posted in Gift Giving, Good Food, Hidden Art Fridays | 2 Comments
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