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

Real Housewives of E2S: 9:41 am

We had a free-for-all with the art supplies bin this morning. And it’s not even ten o’clock yet.

About the Real Housewives of E2S Project.


Posted in Real Housewives of E2S | Leave a comment

Real Housewives of E2S: 12:43 pm

This is what I’m doing today instead of reading A Cricket in Times Square aloud to my kids for our Friday book club. They’re listening to it via audiobook, and I’m trying desperately to catch up on my reading list. Yep, you read that right.  I’m not reading aloud to my kids today because I’m reading to myself.  This is today’s goal. I’ll be sitting in a doctor’s office all afternoon, so I’m bringing all four along.

Totally not overambitious when I tell you I’m halfway through three of them, right?  Top one for the blog, second for my own enjoyment/another E2S reunion discussion, next one is pre-reading for my 10 year old, last one is rereading because I already preread and okayed this series a couple years ago, but I need to refresh my mind in order to discuss it with him.  Our oldest two are at the stage where they don’t want to read any of the 150 books in our home that we’ve pre-read and approved.  They want to go to the library and get new ones!  I use a bunch of resources and book reviews to weed out lousy ones in the first place, but it’s important to me to be able to discuss the book together, particularly the ones that cover heavier subject matter (like WWII or just war theory, just to touch on today’s two kid books).  I love children’s/middle great lit, I really do, and I love sitting around with stacks of books to read and half a dozen started, but I am sooooo far behind, and even with 2-3 books a day, I think it will be impossible to catch up before we head out of town in five weeks.  Real housewives of E2S have too many books to read and too little time!

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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
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