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

What to Do with Summer Vacation, Part 4: Food

Okay, friends, after three days of talking, I want to spend a few days sharing some ideas and resources.  With the easy, breezy summer schedule, my kids’ tummies are suddenly on need-to-eat-nonstop mode.  We’ve talked about snacks on the blog before, so I just want to re-share a few of those posts, since it was four years ago:

Bethany’s Favorite Healthy Snacks

Emily’s Favorite Healthy Snacks (check out the comments section, too)

Anna’s Favorite Healthy Snacks

A Hidden Art Friday Round-up of fun snack ideas

And we do have a pinterest board dedicated to snacks.


And as a preview to what I’ll be talking about tomorrow, this year, I’ve gotten some new inspiration for cooking with my kids from a couple cooking-themed kids’ subscription boxes.  Raddish Kids has more dinner-themed recipes, while Kidstirs has a variety of meals and snacks.  Both are pricey, but if you have grandparents asking for gift ideas (or if you’re in a public school charter like ours that lets you spend your funds on educational subscriptions), I’d recommend checking them out.  Yes, my kids can cook in the kitchen with me any time, but the kit does the organizing work for you and feels more special.  Both kits are geared towards kids and have cute designs and fun little extras along with the recipes.  You have a shopping list, but the groceries themselves are not provided.  My kindergartner was the official recipient of both subscriptions, but her 8 year old sister often helps, her four year old sister watches, and her ten year old brother will sometimes lend a hand.  Here’s the lowdown on both (and I’m not sponsored by either, so I’m giving you my honest opinion):

Raddish Kids features three laminated, fold out recipes around a central theme each month.  Kits are $24 apiece with free shipping (with a slight discount if you get a 6- or 12- month subscription).  In the first kit, your child gets an apron, and each month, there’s a patch to sew on to show they’ve mastered those recipes.  Ingredients are fairly common, and directions are very clear.  I like that the pages fold out so that you can see the ingredient list and the directions all on one page without having to flip back and forth.  The back often features a special skill that your child can develop or gives you information about a particular ingredient.  There’s often a little activity to go with the theme (for Chinese month, we made little paper lanterns), and they always include one kitchen tool (which have all held up so far) to help with the recipes.  I have a fairly well-stocked kitchen, accessory-wise, but we do now have some new tools (like a dumpling press) that we didn’t have before and now use often.  Taste-wise, these recipes have almost universally been a hit with my kids, and only one was too bland for me.  They are truly from-scratch recipes, with no dumping cream-of-something soup over a chicken and calling it cooking.  Recently my daughter and I went through all 18 of the recipes we’d tried, and there were only two that we didn’t want to keep (one, a spaghetti sauce, was tossed only because we all prefer my husband’s family recipe, and the other, chicken tenders breaded with cornflakes, was fine but just not particularly better than my other baked chicken tender recipe).  A couple of them, including pork dumplings and beef stir-fry, were such big hits that they’re now in our regular meal rotation.  My girls made the blueberry muffins for breakfast this morning.  Also, the website has a wealth of resources of which we have only scratched the surface.  They are very homeschool-friendly, with lesson plans for many ages, they have a special American Heritage Girls badge kit, and they have adapted recipes for special diets available.  We only have a peanut allergy in our family, so we haven’t needed to adapt any of them, but it’s nice to know that we could if we had to.  The only con for me was that the recipe cards are hard to store, but I see that they now have a binder with pockets that we could get to slide the cards into if we wanted.

Kidstir also provides three recipes around a theme each month.  A single kit is $20 plus shipping, with a discount if you buy a multiple month subscription. There are only 12 kits available, so after a year, you’d just be getting repeat boxes, unlike Raddish kids, which creates new kits each month.  In the Kidstir box, you get two kid-sized cooking tools, and often they’ll include little decorative things (flag toothpicks for finger food, etc).  The recipe pages are not laminated, so you can’t just wipe spills clean, and the ingredients and recipes are scattered across a couple separate pieces of paper, forcing you to flip a page back and forth while cooking, which I dislike, but they’re already hole-punched to put into your binder, which has all the categories of a common cookbook.  I like that my daughter is literally building her cookbook each month, and it’ll be easy to add in additional recipes as she continues to spend time in the kitchen.  They also have educational pages and several online resources on the website.  My kids loved the “eat a rainbow” charts so much that I keep printing off more from the website so they can continue to keep track of their fruit and vegetable intake. Nutritionally, the recipes are healthy but not too healthy, if you know what I mean, and they’re pretty kid-friendly, not pushing them too far out of their comfort zone.  Last night we munched on kale chips that we made from one of their recipes, and that is a big deal, because five out of the six of us loathe kale in other forms.  Because a lot of them are snacks and not dinner recipes, we haven’t gotten around to making all of them yet, but my girls are definitely enthusiastic to try more.  I think these kits are really fine, but because I like the layout of Raddish better, I’d give a slight edge to Raddish.  I’m mean, if you’re up for spending $24 a month on cute cooking inspiration in the first place.

And of course, I’m a big fan of letting the kids browse my cookbooks for a fun-looking recipe and then trying it together!

What do you do about food with your family over the summer?

Posted in Good Food, Home Life | Leave a comment

What to Do with Summer Vacation, Part 3

Happy Wednesday!  This week, I’m tackling the reasons many moms dread summertime, and what we can do about it.  I’ve already talked about accepting that adjusting to a new routine can be bumpy and the need to get to the root of bratty behavior.  But I also think a lot of us just feel pressure to achieve a checklist of activities in order to win the “good mom” prize at the end of the summer.

My friends, we have to tune out the world’s ideas about summer break.  If we are home with our children, they simply don’t need to have a fully-scheduled summer.  I was really convinced of the value of not overscheduling my kids’ summer break when we read Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child a few years back.  Kids thrive when we leave them to their own devices to use their imagination.  Yesterday, my thirdborn breezed into my room, where I was sitting and desperately speed-prereading one of the four new books my big kids had picked up at the library that I hadn’t read before, and she told me that she and her sisters and the neighbor boys had just played “the best game ever!” Apparently they had set up a palace in someone’s garage, and each had described in minute detail the kind of room that they had in said palace.  Then they had adventures in the palace for the whole afternoon.  This is the kind of idyllic childhood summer vacation that we read about in Betsy-Tacy or Swallows and Amazons or The Moffats.

Unfortunately, there often aren’t neighbor kids to play with.  Since most moms around me work year-round, summer camp is the norm.  I spent the most miserable summer of my life in college working at a Camp Adventure in my hometown, and it was not really a camp (not a tent in sight) nor an adventure but rather big kid daycare.  Sure, we made lanyards and fished in an empty pond with hot dogs stuck on fishhooks and swam in the community pool twice a week, but there were no useful skills taught, no quality mentoring (because it was 11 campers to one college student leader), nothing that kids couldn’t do by themselves at home.  I’m sure most of the kids there never knew anything different, and I do realize that it was necessary for working parents to have their kids somewhere safe for the summer, but I came out of that summer determined never to send my own children to such a place.

Another huge summer commitment (more popular among the sahms around here because it’s often only for a half day) is the summer sports camp.  I used to sign my son up for one or two weeks of baseball or soccer camp every summer, buying into the idea that this would jump start his skills for the fall season.  He enjoyed them fine, but this summer, he didn’t want to do either, my daughter chose to pass on ballet camp, and my little girls don’t even want to do swimming lessons.  I spent several weeks this spring trying to convince them all to do something until I realized that I could just save myself a lot of money (four kids in sports gets pricey fast!) and stress if I let them just stay home, swim in our neighborhood pool, and run around on the mountainside with the neighbor kids.  My husband has plans to take them hiking, we’ll spend hundreds of hours at the pool, and since none of them are star athlete material, anyway, I don’t think they’re missing too much by eschewing formal sports for a few months.

Oh, and don’t forget all the catch-up or get-ahead schooling that the Tiger Moms among us have planned for our kids this summer. Kumon classes, extra workbooks (common core aligned, of course), and among homeschoolers, all the stuff we didn’t finish during the school year. I do have some schooly-type stuff that I want my kids to do each day, and I do want us to keep up with piano practice.  And we went to the library this weekend and loaded up on books about/set in Africa for our family summer reading program (we’re doing the Read the World one at Simple Homeschool).  So I’m not saying that we can’t do anything educational all summer, but it’s totally possible to keep our kids’ minds active through fun activities rather than dull ones.  One of my friends asked me a couple weeks back whether the language arts workbooks she’d gotten for her kids for the summer looked good, and I wrote back to tell her that honestly, I thought they’d get more out of just reading aloud/listening to audiobooks as a family while coloring (which is a more fun way to develop fine motor skills than writing in a workbook).  (More on that later!)

Phew!  After telling you all that, I want to assure you that if you WANT to send your kids off to VBS or soccer camp or even the cheesy parks and rec “adventure camp,” you’re not a bad mom.  Some kids absolutely thrive on going out and doing, doing, doing, and if that is your kid, go for it!  This post is mostly intended to reassure the moms who don’t particularly want to that they don’t NEED to do anything formal this summer.  I needed to have my homeschool mentor from our charter school tell me just that, so I’m passing along the message to you.  If running your kids to five different camps in a three week period is causing you stress, your kids don’t have to do all those activities.  Have a loose routine, read lots of books, get lots of sunshine, and enjoy your kids!  As a mom to a tween who is acting more moody and tweeny every week, I am so aware that my kids are growing up so fast, and I don’t want to waste our time together on stupid activities that the world tells me I need to have them do.  Those summer bucket lists on pinterest totally stress me out, and this summer, I’ve made the conscious choice to ignore them and just do interest-led activities with my crew.

What are you doing with your kids this summer? 


Posted in Home Life | Leave a comment

What to Do with Summer Vacation, Part 2

Hi, dear readers!  I’m taking advantage of our first week of summer break here to talk about the struggle many moms have in adjusting to summer vacation.  Yesterday I had a few thoughts on adjusting our family routine to summer mode.  Often, summer break is daunting because everything is disrupted, but that’s not the only reason many moms complain about summer.

If we’re dreading spending time with our little darlings because they’re little brats, we need to work on character formation, ours and theirs. Many wise parenting experts talk about the need to lean in to the child who is driving you crazy, because often she is the one who needs you the most right now.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, summer is a great time to do this.  If you need some encouragement or inspiration in this area, check out the What Have You podcast from Rachel Jankovic and Bekah Merkle the next time you have to sit and fold towels or something.  I need to re-listen to episode 13, where they talk about showing our kids what kind of people we want them to become by living it out ourselves.  I want my kids to have a servant’s heart, to be helpful and cheerful in their service to our family and others.  And in the podcast, Rachel says, “I need to be blessing my children at the same rate that I want them to be blessing people.”  This has been so convicting for me!  When a little person sticks a book in front of my face while I’m in the middle of writing a blog post (not that that has happened AT ALL in the past half hour), I can respond with frustration: “Not now!  I’m telling other people how to be good moms!” (ha!) Or I can respond with grace: “Okay, let me finish this thought, and we’ll sit down and read two stories in your Busytown storybook.  Then we’ll go find your sisters and see if you can play with them.”  The former response makes me a double hypocrite–to you all, and to my kids–and the second graciously shows my kids that yes, they are my priority, but adults do not always drop everything they’re doing to cater to every little whim.  If I respond with impatience to my kids, why should I expect them to respond graciously to me?  I’ve often commented that my kids are little reality checks in my progress of sanctification, showing me what the state of my heart really looks like.  These next 10 or 12 weeks are an opportunity for me to slow down and dig out the yucky things in my heart and my kids’ hearts and replace them with the fruit of the Spirit.  Now that’s a vision for this summer that I can get behind!

Do you struggle with bad behavior during the summer?  What has been your best technique for dealing with it?

Posted in Home Life, Parenting | Leave a comment
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