Felt Play Mat

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Felt play mats are a great way to occupy the kids while you’re getting work done around the house or cooking dinner. Set out a large sheet of felt for each child, along with customizable mix-and-match pieces, and let the entertainment begin!

My original plan for this game was to set Travis up with a Medieval castle scene, but he wasn’t that interested. Instead, we recreated objects from his current favorite show, Fireman Sam.

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I let Travis decide which pieces he wanted, and cut them from corresponding felt colors – red firetrucks, yellow houses, green trees (“and we need brown trunks!” Travis made sure to add), blue water etc.

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Kids who are 5 and up should be able to cut out their own felt pieces, but Travis was excited just watching me to so!

Forgive my lack of artistic skills, but here was our mountain rescue center with a radio and “flares.”

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Once we had enough pieces, the play began! We had a little orange “fire” that could be moved around the scene, and his firetruck rushed in to the rescue.

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We decided we did need a few people, so added Playmobil figures.

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As he played, I added further shapes like a castle, a pond with fish, and a few more nature elements.

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Now he could mix and match games and create imaginative tales to his heart’s content!

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Forced Perspective Photos

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For kids who love playing with cameras and learning about photography, this nifty trick is a great way to sneak in learning with the fun. Stage photos with one object near the lens and one person far away for a lesson on perspective!

The idea is to show your child how something close to the lens looks giant, and something further away looks smaller. You can have lots of fun with this, holding up your child’s toys near the lens, and staging various scenes, as with Travis blowing up a giant balloon, above.

And here he is hoisting a whole helicopter!

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Here’s one that didn’t work quite so well, trying to push a police car out of the way:

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He got such a kick out of seeing the photos as we scrolled through after, and wanted a chance to try as well.

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I can’t say that his snaps with the Instax instant camera came out perfectly, but he sure had fun trying!

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What silly scenes will you capture to show perspective? Please share ideas in the comments!

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Creamy Tomato & Sausage Pasta

Sausage Pasta (1)This hearty pasta is a crowd-pleaser for grown-ups and kids alike. Weeknight dinners are solved, at least in this house!

Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces penne pasta
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 Tofurky Italian sausage links, finely chopped
  • 5 ounces baby spinach, chopped
  • 1 and 1/2 cups jarred marinara sauce
  • 1/4 cup plain non-dairy creamer
  1. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup cooking liquid, and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until browned.
  3. Add the baby spinach; cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until wilted.
  4. Stir in the marinara sauce and creamer. Bring to a simmer.
  5. Add the pasta and the reserved cooking water, tossing to combine.

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Moving Dollar Trick

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We always love to find new spins on our magnet play, so I thought Travis would enjoy the humor behind this little trick. It’s fun on any random afternoon… or file this one away for April Fools!

To set up, you’ll need two neodymium magnets, the small metal silver ones. I have no idea if our fridge magnets are actually neodymium, but they worked just fine! Tape one magnet onto a dollar bill.

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Tape the other to a piece of string; make sure to tape securely, as these magnets are strong.

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Now place your dollar on a table, and clip the magnets together underneath the tabletop. To fool any passer-by, ask them to pick up the dollar, then gently tug on the string to move it away from the other person’s hand. The key here is to tug gently or the magnets may pull apart from each other.

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Travis loved the trick! He had to move our dollar around the table in all directions and loved snapping the two magnets together again from underneath the table.

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We weren’t truly trying to trick anyone, so a piece of blue twine worked just fine. If you’re in it for the trick, make sure you use a clear-colored thread that will be nearly invisible, and act as casual as possible.

Either way, this is a neat method to show how strong magnetic attraction can be, even through a tabletop!

Pumpkin Emotion Learning Tool

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Okay, we probably should have made this jack o’ lantern-themed craft back in October, but it was still cute to play with here in February! With a lot of big preschooler emotions going on lately, the craft is a fantastic way to get talking about emotions, facial expressions, and sorting through the big feelings your kids might be feeling, no matter their age!

The first step is to upcycle an empty baby wipes container (the kind in a plastic bin), by covering it with orange felt.

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We tried using regular school glue, but waiting for it to dry proved too much for Travis, so I hot glued the felt on.

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Next, I set out craft sticks and asked him to help me brainstorm emotions. In addition to common ones (sad, happy), he said a few that made me laugh, like “when I’m waiting to play with Daddy’s camera stand.”

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Next, I cut shapes out of black felt to go with the emotions we had created, and set all the pieces out in front of him.

We put our craft sticks in the top of the wipe container, and pulled one out – “surprised” was the first.

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I asked Travis which mouth went with surprised, and so on. This turned into a great game not only for identifying the emotions we feel, but also what other people look like when they experience those emotions.

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And of course, it’s just fun to set up the pumpkin with silly faces.

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As a bonus, all of your craft sticks and felt pieces will store inside the wipe container when you’re done, ready for the next time you want to play.

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Yogurt Hearts

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This sweet idea from our February issue of Ranger Rick Jr. was just one way to eat hearts this Valentine’s Day. And of course you can make them any day you want to share some love!

I set up a plate with two heart-shaped cookie cutters, one large and one small, and a container of non-dairy yogurt – for the prettiest result, choose a red berry flavor like strawberry or raspberry.

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Travis was a great helper scooping the yogurt into the big heart, and I filled up the trickier small one.

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Put in the freezer for 2 hours, until firm. If you need to, run a little hot water around the cookie cutters to release your hearts.

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The middle of the heart stayed a little mushier, more like soft-serve ice cream, and we worked our way out to the more frozen edges.

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Yum!

 

Pizza Hearts and Sweet Stuffed Celery

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Here’s the perfect little lunch to put together for your kids this Valentine’s Day! Serve it at home, or pack it up for school; it travels easily in the compartments of a lunchbox.

For the deli slices, you can use a good vegan pepperoni (such as Yves Veggie) if your children like the taste. My son finds pepperoni too spicy, so I use milder deli slices from Field Roast, torn into small pieces.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound refrigerated pizza dough
  • 1/3 cup pizza sauce
  • 1/2 cup shredded Daiya mozzarella
  • 1 package vegan deli slices or pepperoni
  • Celery sticks
  • Non-dairy cream cheese
  • 1 red bell pepper
  1. To prepare the pizza hearts, divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, roll into a 14×7-inch rectangle. Spread the dough with half of the sauce, leaving a 1/2-inch border free of sauce along one long edge.
  2. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup cheese, and cut the rectangle into 10 strips. Top the strips evenly with half of the pepperoni or deli meat.
  3. Roll up two strips towards the unsauced end, leaving the end unrolled, and place next to each other on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Pinch the tips of the “heart” together to seal. Pizza Hearts (1)
  4. Repeat with the remaining strips, and then repeat steps 1 through 3 with the remaining half of the dough for 10 hearts total.
  5. Bake at 425 degrees F for 18 minutes, until cooked through.
  6. To prepare the stuffed celery, fill celery pieces with your favorite vegan cream cheese.
  7. Wash and core the bell pepper. Using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter, punch out heart shapes and top each celery piece with a heart.

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Hope your kids eat their heart out!

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Friendship Heart Necklace

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Here’s the final craft we’re putting together this Valentine’s Day, this time thinking of a few special friends. Even if it’s not Valentine’s, this is a great craft to ask your kids who their best friends are, and to talk about budding concepts of friendship and the emotions that go with it. Also, the idea of keeping half of something for yourself and giving the other half away was a bit novel for my preschooler, so I’m glad we did the activity!

First, we needed simply to have fun with clay! Travis has become quite adept at rolling clay between his hands to form a ball.

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From here, I showed him how to flatten the balls into discs, and I asked him how we might cut out a heart shape. You can just use cookie cutters, but Travis is very into his chisel tool, so we chiseled. It helped if I made the outline of a heart for him to follow, first.

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Next, chisel each heart in a zig-zag down the middle, so you have two halves for each one.

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Punch a hole into each heart piece near the top with a chisel or straw, then let the clay air-dry overnight.

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The next day, we decorated. First, Travis applied a coat of watercolor. He decided the jagged halves looked a bit like teeth, ha!

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Then we painted on a layer of tacky glue so he could adhere beads and confetti pieces. Glitter would be pretty, too.

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We had the perfect beads with letters on them that could be used for friends’ initials, a great find in the craft bin!

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I cut strands of colored twine for necklace strings, and then our friendship hearts were ready to be shared with good buddies.

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Early Explorers World Celebrations

 

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February was a great month to receive our World Celebrations kit from “Max and Mia” at Little Passports, since we could focus on a few big current events like Valentine’s Day and Lunar New Year. Meanwhile we learned lots about celebrations that occur throughout the year. Travis knows by now to expect stickers in his kit, and eagerly finds the spot for them on his map…

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….and loves each month’s flashlight adventures.

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As always, there were great preschool-appropriate activities and information in our booklet. We especially liked matching up New Years’ foods around the world with the right flag!

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Celebrations Craft:

Straight away, we put together the sweet little craft suggestion to teach about Dia de los Muertos: paper marigolds. Although not the right time of year, there’s never a wrong time to think about past loved ones. As we worked, we talked about how each flower was for a relative who wouldn’t be coming back. It turned into an unexpectedly beautiful way to teach Travis about a few of his ancestors.

To make the flowers, cut tissue paper into rectangles that are 8 inches long (they should be about 6 inches across). Travis loved helping with the ruler for this bit. Ideally you’ll have orange tissue paper, but yellow worked as variety so we could make more blooms.

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Layer 4 sheets of tissue paper together, and fold up accordion-style.

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Next, twist a green pipe cleaner securely around the center, pointing the “stem” downwards.

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To make the blossoms, round the edges of the tissue paper slightly with scissors, then fan out and carefully lift up each of the four layers.

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What a beautiful marigold!

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We kept going until we had a whole bouquet.

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Celebrations Science:

It’s a bit of a stretch to call the other booklet activity science, but cooking is a bit of chemistry after all. We made potato latkes, and as we cooked we talked a little bit about Hanukkah. Travis loved this recipe because he got to help with two very grown-up kitchen tools: the peeler and the grater.

First, peel a potato.

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Adults, cut an onion into quarters and remove the peel.

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Grate the potato and 1/4 of the onion, and place the grated veggies in a bowl; reserve the remaining onion for another use.

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Add 2 Ener-G eggs, a dash of salt, and a dash of black pepper to the bowl, stirring to combine.

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Heat a layer of canola oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and add the potato mixture in spoonfuls. Fry for 5 minutes, then turn over and cook an additional 3 to 4 minutes on the other side, until browned. Transfer to a plate to cool.

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Serve with applesauce. Travis was thrilled with our concoction. “I’ve been waiting for latkes!” he declared; it was priceless to see his excitement over something he hadn’t known existed prior to twenty minutes earlier.

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Celebrations Keepsake:

I appreciated how interactive this month’s keepsake was: crowns to color in with descriptions of the five different holidays depicted: Bastille Day, Lunar New Year, Diwali, Dia de los Muertos, and birthdays.

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One small gripe: we found that the provided colored pencils didn’t give very saturated color, and eventually just used crayons from home.

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Celebrations Field Trip:

I was so pleased we had this kit in February because it made the obvious field trip an outing to a Chinese New Year festival.

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Travis couldn’t get enough of the lion dance (we fed one a red envelope with green money inside for luck in the coming year) and the taiko drumming.

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Celebrations Further Activities:

As always, we couldn’t stop there, and took the kit up on the suggestions in the back of the booklet.

First, we finished coloring in our keepsake crowns and dubbed it a family celebration. Hmm, what holiday could we mark on a random Tuesday? Thanks to the arrival of Girl Scout cookies in the mail, we dubbed it Girl Scout Cookie Day!

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Everyone in the family colored a crown, grown-ups included.

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And then we dined on cookies. Yup, Thin Mints are vegan.

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And because we love music, we incorporated aspects of Panafest and turned it into a drumming and cookie-eating festival. Now we can celebrate Girl Scout Cookie Day as our special family day every year. What family holiday will you come up with?

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The booklet also suggested flipping through a calendar to learn more about world holidays. This proved a bit underwhelming for Travis, since he can’t read the words yet, and the names of the celebrations don’t mean much to him.

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So we supplemented with the Sticker Dolly Dressing Costumes Around the World from Usborne. Now he could learn a bit about some of the holidays in our calendar, and had a beautiful visual of the traditional clothes to match!

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We were having so much fun that we kept up the exploration by heading to the library, selecting books on Diwali, Carnival, Irish festivals, and more.

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A few weren’t in books so we continued the exploration online, including Waitangi Day, which we happened to look up on the exact day it’s celebrated!

Finally, we checked out Little Passport’s blog for a few fun holiday crafts. We considered making these lanterns for the annual Pingxi Lantern Festival in Taiwan, which will happen on March 2 this year.

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It was a bit too complicated a craft for Travis, other than dabbing some paint on wax paper, so I ended up making the lantern (see full instructions here).

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We loved the glowing final product once a battery-operated tealight was inside!

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Finally, just in time for Valentine’s, we tried out this traditional game from Denmark: write a Valentine’s poem or limerick, then send it to someone as a gaekkebrev, a “joking letter.”

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Instead of signing your name, make one dot for each letter of your name (I guided Travis’s hand for this to make sure we didn’t have too few or too many dots).

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Mail it off and see if your Valentine guesses who you are! If they do, you owe them an egg at Easter, so we’re stocking up on vegan chocolate eggs now.

Creative Crowns

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In our ongoing quest for the best kingly crown, Travis and I found this method – simple as can be, and no glue required!

First, cut a piece of contact paper long enough to wrap around your child’s head, and twice as wide as you want the final product to be; tape down to a work surface and peel the paper backing off only half of the sticky paper.

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I set Travis up with a variety of materials that he could adhere to the contact paper, using what we had in our craft bin: pipe cleaner pieces, yarn pieces, bits of construction paper and felt, and strips of decorative washi tape. Patterned fabric pieces and stickers would also be great for this craft!

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He set about arranging the items on the sticky paper. Ideally, the pieces will point upwards like the points of a crown, but Travis preferred some of his sideways instead.

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This was a great chance to talk about the difference between horizontal and vertical as he worked!

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Once Travis declared his crown finished, I removed the remaining paper backing and folded the sticky paper over on itself; he loved helping seal in the decorations.

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Simply use clear packing tape to fasten the crown into a circle, then let your child be king or queen for the day!

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