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Family Baking Tradition
Every holiday season I love watching holiday bake-offs. All the bakers are so creative and skilled. Even though I don't have a tenth of their abilities, they often inspire me to make some tasty holiday treats. When the holiday season comes around, so does my desire for pies, cookies, fudge, and other hallmark Christmas creations.
Holiday baking is a way for me to spend time with my kids and share something fun with them. It has become a tradition of ours. I don't know about my kids, but I would feel like something is missing if we didn't bake some cookies together this Christmas!
New, Healthier Tradition
While I love our baking tradition, this year I'm starting a new tradition. I want my kids to have healthy and balanced diets, so we're going to make some guilt-free (on my part) winter creations. We'll still make cookies this year, but we'll also sprinkle in some fun, edible winter art that we can share with each other and our guests.
Here is a list of fun, edible things you can create with your children. I believe you can still have fun and build memories...but with a healthier twist.
Create a Christmas Tree With Fruit
This is great as a snack or an after-dinner dessert. Since there are few ingredients and simple directions, your children can invite friends over to make this with them.
For step-by-step instructions and ingredients, see Create a Christmas Tree With Fruit.
Build Mini-Penguin Appetizers
My son is in love with arctic animals. Using mozzarella balls, carrots, and black olives, this is the perfect craft for us! We can also read a book about penguins and do the Penguin Anatomy Diagram afterwards.
For step-by-step instructions and ingredients, check out Build Mini-Penguin Appetizers.
Create a Santa Face with Fruit
If you celebrate Christmas, I'm sure your children are counting down the days until December 25th. Imagine visions of sugarplums and Santa dancing in their heads! On a day leading up to Christmas, let your children take that image of Santa's face and create some fruit art.
For step-by-step instructions and ingredients, check out Create a Santa Face With Fruit.
Make a Healthy Snowman Breakfast
Breakfast doesn't have to be the same old cereal or eggs. Wake up and create a fun, healthy snowman out of yogurt, berries, and wheat or corn flakes!
For step-by-step instructions and ingredients check out Make a Healthy Snowman Breakfast.
Create a Christmas Wreath Salad
Most of the food art I've shared has some sugar, but making a wreath out of salad can be a great way to get some veggies in your child's diet. After enjoying their salad, they can even color in their own wreath with the Color and Make a Christmas Wreath worksheet.
For step-by-step instructions and ingredients, check out Create a Christmas Wreath Salad.
Enjoy making memories—and tasty treats—with your children this holiday season!
The day after Thanksgiving, I woke up to a street filled with lit-up houses and stores decked in red and green. So what did my family do? Brought out our winter holiday box, of course! Raising kids in a multi-faith household, we celebrate a lot of holidays and spend a lot of time reading holiday related books. This year, my kids are fascinated with all things Hanukkah. I've already spent the past few days immersed in children's Hanukkah picture books, so I decided to find some hands-on activities to extend their learning and enjoyment. Here is a list of my top Hanukkah picks from Education.com for the preschool through second grade grade set.
Preschool and Kindergarten
- Hanukkah Menorah Shape Collage: In this simple art project, your child will get to practice shape identification while making their very own menorah. For younger children, consider cutting out the shapes in advance and inviting them to place them on their paper. With older kids, this is a great way for them to practice their fine motor skills as they draw and cut out their own shapes.
- Maccabee Shield: My 3-year-old has been captivated by the story of Hanukkah this year, in particular the battle over the temple. This activity provides the perfect way for your child to act out the story of Hanukkah with their very own Maccabee shield, using materials you likely have laying around the house.
- Magnetic Menorah: With the addition of magnet strips (I was able to find some at my local art store) your child can not only make, but "light" their own menorah! This is the perfect activity to practice counting skills as your child lights their candles each night of Hanukkah.
- Alphabet Block Menorah: This is a great activity if you have leftover alphabet blocks, but you can also pick up a low-cost set from the store. This can be a fun activity to do with a younger child--they can work on letter identification and counting skills--or with an older child. they can follow the directions and practice gluing and setting the menorah up.
First and Second Grade
- Tzedakah Box: I love this activity not only because it allows for open-ended creativity with common materials, but because it encourages the act of giving to others with a tzedakah box. In my house, we suggested several places to donate to, and my older child chose the local SPCA. Each time he gets money as a gift or allowance, he puts half in the tzedakah box.
- Hanukkah Gift Bags: This activity introduces your child to a wonderful craft--sewing! They will get to learn a new skill, use their creativity, and then share their finished creations with family and friends. So dig out a needle and thread and get creating.
- Make a Clay Dreidel: Is your child already singing the "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel..." song on repeat? Encourage your child to make their very own clay dreidel in this fun and easy activity. When finished, they can practice writing Hebrew letters to finish their dreidel. Consider picking up some chocolate gelt to sweeten the games that will follow!
- Menorah Light Chart: This activity adds some math and science data collection to your candle-lighting ceremony each night of Hanukkah. Introduce your child to graphing as you create a candle graph together and use it to collect data about the length of time each candle burns during Hanukkah. This activity could be extended to include predictions from the whole family!
Here are additional resources to make the most of the holiday:
This Hanukkah, I hope you consider these activities when thinking about how to celebrate (or introduce) the festival of lights to your children!
It's December and that means my family is gearing up for Hanukkah and Christmas, plus several birthdays—which means there's a lot of talk about presents. Every year at this time I think about how we can limit the focus on "stuff" and shift the focus away from "stuff" and toward quality time with family and friends during the month of December.
Don't get me wrong: I'm the first to admit that I love getting and giving presents. But I also know how gifts can start to overshadow everything else about a holiday experience, which ultimately misses the important (and teachable) point that relationships are more important than "stuff." So here are some ideas that we have tried to refocus our expectations around holiday gift-giving.
I've unsuccessfully tried to put the kibosh on presents entirely, so instead have tried to re-envision what a "gift" might look like. Quality time as a family (or one-on-one) is a great present to give to your child, family, or friends. This might look like a special trip to your favorite coffee shop to drink hot chocolate and eat a cookie. It could be a family game night, or a special outing as a group or with an individual (I recently took my 3.5-year-old on a "date" to see his first play, and we had a blast!). One family re-imagined gift-giving to the adults in their family using a brilliant family presentation idea that combined the concept of family time over the holidays with the gift of time and knowledge.
My extended family often does a Secret Santa each year; while still giving a gift, it allows for more thoughtful gift-giving within a specific budget and/or parameters. If we do give gifts (which let's be honest, we usually do) I like to make as many as possible. By making gifts, the focus is on the experience of creation and thinking about others vs. shopping and consumerism. Handmade gifts such as cookies, baking mixes, handmade soap or candles, or even framed children's art make thoughtful gifts to family and friends. Consider details as well—can you make your own unique wrapping paper? Use wrapping paper or fabric wrapping to highlight family traditions or unique talents (dying fabric, sewing, painting, drawing, etc.) to share with others.
Think about the parts of a holiday that are really special to you and consider what exactly makes them special. As a child, I loved my birthday not because of presents, but because I could choose all of our meals for the day and help make them. As a parent, I get excited when I see holiday lights going up in the neighborhood and plan a family walk to look at the different light displays—bonus if we bring hot chocolate and cookies on our walk.
Think about the greater community and small ways you and your child can contribute to others' happiness. Can you make food for others? What about adopting another family for the holidays? Consider volunteering at a senior center by doing art projects or singing. One of my favorite memories as a child is singing terribly off-key at our local senior center—they didn't seem to mind! Consider starting new traditions such as making special meals or dishes for different holidays, singing songs, reading specific stories (we always read The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve), making wishes and sending them up using wish paper, or going on an overnight trip somewhere special to celebrate. The key here is making the holiday more about shared experiences instead of physical presents.
Over the past several years I have gotten involved in the Buy Nothing Project, which emphasizes a free gift-giving economy. I've joined several local neighborhood groups and have really enjoyed giving away items or offering services to my neighbors. Giving freely and without expectation of a trade or even knowing someone has been a great way to model kindness to my children. Using this concept, I encourage my kids to give things to others (toys not being played with, desserts that we make, etc.).
Another way to re-gift items is to give friends or family members things that they might enjoy that you no longer need or use. One of my favorite presents to receive was an adorable jumpsuit my younger sister re-gifted to me from her closet. Finally, consider local homeless shelters or areas of need in your community. Do you have extra warm layers that have been outgrown and are not being used to offer to others? Children understand the concept of helping others at a young age, and instilling a sense of kindness and generosity in your child early is a wonderful gift to them—and those in the community.
It can get easy to fall into the "more equals better" trap when it comes to giving holiday presents—believe me, I know! This year, consider the lasting impact of your gifts and how they will be received throughout the whole year, not just on a specific holiday. Sit down with your family and think through the parts of a holiday that you each love, and build your gift-giving ideas around those elements and see where it takes you.
Have I got a joke for you!
A SQL Query walks into a restaurant. It walks up to two tables and says, "May I join you?"
For those of you who did not run out and share this joke immediately on social media, read on.
"SQL" stands for Structured Query Language. It's the computer language that programmers use to retrieve and organize databases.
True story: When I worked for a school district, I shared this joke with my IT Department repeatedly for years (admittedly, to less and less laughs each time). I also use it as my opener at every educational technology conference I've ever presented to, and it totally kills. (Taps microphone: "Is this thing on?") After possibly the 50th time of delivering this gem, my then-Chief Technology Officer said to me, "You have no idea what that joke means, do you?"
"Of course I do!" I protested, indignation evident. (That was kind of a lie.)
But it did prompt me, over the course of a weekend, to take a SQL class online. This class opened my little world up to the utter beauty of coding. After that class, I became an expert in programming and am now making millions on the side creating apps.
Haha, not really.
That said, I really did take the class, and I really did learn how to use SQL, and I really did eventually learn what that joke meant. While it did not launch me into a lucrative career in computer science, it gave me something almost as important: I got a glimpse into the structure of programming languages and truly understood, as a mom and an educator, why it is such a crucial skill for kids to have.
December 9-15 is Computer Science Education Week, and also when this year's Hour of Code event will take place. Hour of Code is an initiative that provides everything a child needs to do a self-guided coding lesson for one hour. The Hour of Code site offers tutorials that make coding more accessible and understandable for all. Since then, it's taken off around in schools around the world.
In honor of this week, I wanted to write an article for parents to dispel the idea that coding is only for engineering majors, or only for older kids. Indeed, coding can help our kids develop important life skills like perseverance, grit, creativity, and critical thinking.
However, as is evidenced by my anecdote above, I recognize that I am not the foremost authority on the matter. So I decided to do what I do when I have any computer problem: I called tech support.
Graham McNicoll is the Chief Technology Officer at Education.com and has been with us for over 10 years. He’s also the genius behind our Coding with Roly games. Graham told me he's always been obsessed with understanding how things work, and began writing code in 2nd grade. Like other super-brilliant tech people I know, he got his start programming simple (and later, much more complex) games on the equipment he had available, equipment that our kids would laugh about today. He even went so far as to program text-based games on his TI calculator.
Coding Fosters Growth Mindset
I am a huge proponent of providing continual opportunities for kids to fail, go back and reflect, modify, and try again. Kids have a natural disposition to want to find out how the world works, and things like programming offer up a real-world way to explore the world and test theories. When I asked Graham about coding and thought processes, this is what he said:
"To me, programming is largely about creative problem-solving. Coding helped me learn that even the hardest problems can be solved, if you're able to think logically and decompose them into smaller, solvable pieces. I've learned to keep the mindset that when I dig into a problem or subject [and discover] that it's almost always not as hard as it appears. That the best way to get somewhere is to start. It really doesn't matter if you're starting in exactly the right place -- the key is to start."
Programming also helped Graham get over a feeling of impostor syndrome. "Everyone suffers from impostor syndrome to some degree," he told me. "We are not doing anyone any favors by making it seem hard, or something which only smart people do. It's really not that hard, though it took me many years to dive in and start figuring out how things work.”
Coding Teaches Creative Problem-Solving
College and the workforce seem light-years away to those of us with young kids, and we can only guess at what the future holds for schools with the advancement of technology. That said, it's a pretty sure bet that students with the ability to think through problems and devise creative solutions to those problems will have better career opportunities than those who don't.
So how, as parents, can we foster this type of thinking?
"Ultimately teaching children how to learn, how to solve problems, and how to have perseverance, will be the most important skill for an uncertain and ever changing future," Graham told me. "Programming is one way to do this. I would suggest it's a good way too. Just like learning what multiplication is, is far more important than memorizing your times tables, programming is learning how to do creative problem solving in a discrete environment with known rules."
Even though I am a champion of programming in schools, through this interview I discovered I was still predisposed to thinking that coding reinforces skills like logical reasoning, precision, and mathematical thinking. But Graham reminded me that coding is so much more.
"One should think of it as a creative act. Just like creating art, you start with raw materials, some constraints, and you end up with something new. If we can realize that programming lives very much in the intersection of math, logic and art, we can appeal to far more kids than if we think of it as a technical discipline."
I think this is an even better moment for a mic drop than my SQL joke. But you are all still welcome to use it if you ever need to impress anyone. I won’t tell.
Getting together over the holidays can be fun and magical, but it can easily turn stressful if you have children who have sensory challenges, dietary needs, or social skill differences. They can also experience additional anxiety in large groups of people or in unfamiliar places. When our family members do not have experience raising a child with special needs--or they don't have special needs themselves--it’s easy for them to brush off the accommodations needed for everyone to enjoy these gatherings.
Growing up, my brother and I had various needs that had to be considered to make family gatherings enjoyable for us. Fried foods and dairy caused me to have extreme stomach cramps that made me double over in pain. Heavy perfumes and artificial scents from candles caused my brother to get terrible headaches and feel exhausted. We both had high anxiety that worsened with the unrealistic expectations that some of our grown-up relatives put into place at family gatherings. Some of the expectations included: sitting for long periods of time, engaging in small talk, being expected to explain why you can't eat the cheesecake for the millionth time, and lots of people invading your personal space.
As first-time parents, my husband and I have recognized that our three-year-old daughter gets overstimulated in certain situations. Too many people or unclear expectations and transitions can cause her to go into fits of crying. Too much sugar and not enough protein also causes major meltdowns and makes afternoon nap nearly impossible. She also doesn't like to be hugged or touched by unfamiliar adults. (Who does?)
Thankfully, because of my own experiences with anxiety and sensory differences as a child, as well as my background in special education, my husband and I have figured out simple ways to support our daughter so we can make the most out of family gatherings.
If you're traveling to a family member's house this holiday season, here are some tips for how you can support your child. If you are expecting a child with special needs at your house, you may want to share this post with the child's parent(s) and offer your support.
Be clear about your child's needs. When our children are young, it's important that the grown-ups in their lives advocate for what they need to enjoy family gatherings. Although it seems like something that would come as second nature for family members, it can be difficult to talk about these topics if they respond with comments like, "Oh, a little cheese never hurt anyone" or "You need to stop catering to your child all the time." These comments can make us question our parenting skills, feel like an inconvenience, and feel hesitant about speaking up.
Here are a few conversation starters you can use to reframe the conversation to elicit a positive response:
- "Hi ________ (insert family member's name). We are so excited to see you this Sunday. I wanted to reach out to let you know in advance that we will bring our own food for ______ (insert child’s name). As you know, she can't have dairy or gluten, so to make it easier for everyone, and so everyone else can eat more, we are going to bring some of her favorite dishes!"
- "Hi ________ (insert family member's name). As you know, naptime is really important for ________ (insert child's name). To make it easier for us to stay longer, it would be great if we could dedicate a quiet area in the house so we can go there if ________ (insert child's name) is feeling overwhelmed or if they are ready for a nap." Prepping for the gathering in advance can also go a long way to ensuring your child does well. Plan ahead. When we plan ahead, I always feel calmer and more able to relax and enjoy family gatherings. I can rest assured knowing that I've done my best to set my child up for success. Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Bring your own dish. If you know your child will only eat a certain brand of gluten-free macaroni and cheese, bring it instead of expecting a family member to make it.
- Pack comforts from home. Fill a bag with all the items you need for quiet time or naptime. This includes technology, such as devices to play quiet games when your child is overwhelmed, as well as their favorite music to listen to during quiet time or nap time.
- Gather your child's preferred toys. If your child has some favorite toys that will support them in enjoying the family gathering, pack them. Make it clear to other children at the gathering that these toys are special toys from home, and they are not for sharing. Head to your local dollar store to pick up some items you can share with all the children, or make a huge batch of play dough to share. If your child is not playing with their toys, leave them out of sight (and out of the minds of other children) by keeping them in a bag.
Value your child's communication preference. Can you remember being forced to sit on the laps of family members you barely knew as a child? Value your child's communication preference by printing out Communication Cards and allowing your child to choose how they want to greet their family members. Not only will you prevent a meltdown, but you'll also show your child that their voice matters.
Stick to a schedule. Create a visual schedule to support your child in knowing what's coming and when. Seeing the day laid out in a visual way can support your child in feeling more comfortable with the unknowns and see when familiar activities they enjoy (e.g., time on a device, playing with a preferred toy, or opening presents) are coming up. Try your best to stick to the schedule so they feel confident knowing what to expect. Refer to the schedule throughout the day.
Listen to your child. Although the simplest, this might be the most important tip in this blog. Always listen to your child. If they come to you and are ready to go, see if you can involve them in heading to the designated quiet area for some independent play (e.g. a game on a device, looking at books, or playing with figurines). If your child has a meltdown from being overstimulated and needs support to calm down, use these Calm Down Cards to help them deal with big feelings. We can be proactive by listening to our children and their needs. Not only will this make your child feel valued, but they will also feel safe enough to come to you in the future if they begin to notice that they aren't feeling well. You can be their safe haven.
Bring books that promote inclusivity. Gather a few books to read with your child and the other children at the gathering. These books can support children in understanding how different kids need different things to live happy and healthy lives.
When we talk about our differences, we de-stigmatize them. Here are few ideas to get started:
- Benny Doesn't Like to Be Hugged by Zetta Elliot: This gentle story teaches kids the importance of friends accepting each other for who they are.
- Noah the Narwhal: A Tale of Downs and Ups by Judith Klausner: Written by a woman living with an invisible disability, Noah the Narwhal is here to remind us (and the people who love us) that being valued and loved are just as constant as any chronic condition.
- Eating Gluten Free With Emily by Bonne J. Kruszka: Written by the mother of a child with celiac disease, who also has the disease herself, this book offers a reassuring look at celiac disease in language that a child can easily understand.
- Charlotte and the Quiet Place by Deborah Sosin: Some children are highly sensitive to sounds or may have sensory processing disorder. This book shows how Charlotte learns and practices mindful breathing on her own and experiences the beauty of silence. If you are a parent, teacher, or caretaker of a highly active or sensitive child, you need to read this book!
These suggestions will help you maximize your holiday fun while minimizing your child's discomfort and anxiety. What are some other ways you support your child and yourself during the holidays?
Resources to Support You and Your Child: