Story time is the best time of the day. Whether we're snuggled up on the couch or cozy in our pjs before bed, reading stories with my little ones is one of my favorite things to do. Everyone has a favorite book they remember from their childhood, and every day, parents and kids are discovering new classics of their own. There are many fabulous children's books out there, some of which everyone knows about and others we would have never discovered had my son not simply pulled a random book off a library shelf. I created this blog to share some of these wonderful stories with you. Think of it as a year's worth of the best children's books around, since no day should be without a great story. In the end, I hope we'll all have discovered at least a few new titles that will have made their way onto our list of family favorites. Enjoy!







Monday, December 17, 2012

The Christmas Wish

Like so many people, I am devastated by the Sandy Hook tragedy last week.  I can't seem to stop hugging my kids a little tighter and feeling truly blessed for having them with me, safe and sound, each minute that they are with me.  Yesterday, my son turned 5.  There was much to celebrate, and although he doesn't know it, I was even more emotional inside than I usually am on his birthday.  He knows nothing about the Newtown atrocity, and I hope he never has to know the fear, unanswerable questions, and indescribable sadness that so many children and families are experiencing right now.  Yesterday, we celebrated, sang, played, laughed, and loved as hard as we knew how.  It was perfect.

Today, I tried not to think about it all as my husband went off to his school to teach and I dropped my son off at preschool.  Not in a disrespectful way, of course -- my thoughts and love continuously go out the families of Newtown -- but in a "I have to hold myself together for my kids' sake" kind of way.  I did read the text from the President's address last night, and hid my tears from my daughter as she sat playing next to me.  I was, not surprisingly, very moved by his words, and felt the excerpt below was worth sharing:



Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around. With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves — our child — is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice. And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet, we also know that with that child's very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us; that we won't — that we can't always be there for them. They'll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments. And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.
And we know we can't do this by ourselves. It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize, no matter how much you love these kids, you can't do it by yourself. That this job of keeping our children safe, and teaching them well, is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community, and the help of a nation. And in that way, we come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we're counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we're all parents; that they're all our children.
This is our first task — caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right...
There's only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have — for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child's embrace — that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger — we know that's what matters. We know we're always doing right when we're taking care of them, when we're teaching them well, when we're showing acts of kindness. We don't go wrong when we do that.
So true, isn't it?
There is so much I could write or say this week, but it all feels a bit too deep and heavy for me to share on here.  Instead, I keep coming back to the message expressed in one of my favorite Christmas songs, "The Christmas Wish," from John Denver and the Muppets album, A Christmas Together.  It was one of my favorite albums as a child, and is usually the first Christmas music my kids and I listen to each year.  As a child, I always just enjoyed this song and thought it was pretty, but as an adult, in never fails to make me cry when I really stop and listen to the words.  I often sing it to my daughter at bedtime, and she affectionately calls it "the Kermit Christmas song."  Now, I really can't sing or listen to it without crying.  If you've never heard it, I encourage you to take a listen or read the lyrics below.
Wishing everyone, everywhere, a season filled with peace and love.

The Christmas Wish

From John Denver and the Muppets A Christmas Together
Words & Music by Dan Wheetman

I don't know if you believe in Christmas,
or if you have presents underneath a Christmas tree.
But if you believe in love,
that will be more than enough
for you to come and celebrate with me.
For I have held the precious gift that love brings,
even though I never saw a Christmas star.
I know there is a light,
I have felt it burn inside,
and I have seen it shining from afar.

Christmas is the time to come together,
a time to put all differences aside.
And I reach out my hand to the family of man
to share the joy I feel at Christmas time.

For the truth that binds us all together
I would like to say a simple prayer
that at this special time you will have true peace of mind
and love to last throughout the coming year.

And if you believe in love 
that will be more than enough
for peace to last throughout the coming year.
And peace on earth will last throughout the year.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kidpreneurs: Young Entrepreneurs with Big Ideas!



Originally posted on my "New to Review" page:  I've had this book for a few months now, but with the craziness that is life around here, it took me a while to get to reading it.  When I finally got a chance to pick it up and read it the other week, I was very impressed!  In Kidpreneurs, brothers Adam and Matthew Toren offer an excellent introduction to starting one's own business.  I had several front yard business ventures as a kid -- mainly selling lemonade and original artwork -- and for living on a dead-end street of only 10 houses, I did okay. (Or I just had really nice, sympathetic neighbors... which was probably the case.)  Still, if I had had this book, I might have really made a name for myself!  The Torens present aspiring Kidpreneurs with a thorough, thoughtful, comprehensive approach to starting their own business.  Best of all, their advice throughout is practical and realistic:  Start small but dream big.  Make a plan that you can stick to.  Ask your parents for help.  Advertise.  Create a budget and learn to manage your money well.  Don't promise more than you can deliver.  Learn from your mistakes.  Don't take rejections personally.  Take your business seriously, but always remember to have fun!  After all, that's what it is all about!

Kidpreneurs' first few chapters are dedicated to learning about business in general, how grown-ups earn money, and how to get started.  I love that there is an entire chapter featuring sample businesses such as babysitting, lawn care, and dog-walking so that readers can get ideas and see what that kind of business plan might entail.  Other chapters address how to make money on the internet (with the strong recommendation that this be done with parental assistance) or create a website, as well as how to have a green, eco-friendly business.  I especially love the short chapter dedicated to giving back to one's community.  The Torens include helpful websites along the way, too, setting kidpreneurs up with all kinds of resources that can help them launch a successful business.  They even provide a blank business plan at the end of the book so that kids can get started right away!  After reading this book, any aspiring entrepreneur will feel well-informed, inspired, and ready to get planning.  If you know a child who is serious about starting his or her own business, I highly recommend this book.

Interested in learning more or ordering a copy?  Visit www.kidpreneurs.org.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Fotoplay!


As you know, the purpose of my blog is to share awesome books with anyone who reads with children.  On my page entitled "Book Reviews," I invite new or aspiring authors to share their work with me with the hope that it might help them generate more of an audience for their work.  I make no guarantees that these books will make my list of "365," but I do promise to provide an honest review.  I know it is quite difficult to break into the world of publishing, so if I can help a worthy author spread the word about their book, I'm more than happy to help.

A few months back, I was contacted by M. J. Bronstein, author of Fotoplay!, who asked me if I might like to receive a copy of her book for review.  I checked out her website and was rather intrigued, so excitedly replied that I would.  Within a few days, her book arrived in my mailbox, and my son loved it from the start.  Fotoplay! not a story, but a book filled with 50 fun photo-based prompts that invite children to channel their inner artists and create fabulous works of art!  Each page contains different photographs and quirky prompts for inspiration -- cats who need hats, meerkats who need fancy outfits, an empty art gallery that needs filling, a tunnel that leads to a field full of butterflies.  Some of my son's creations appear here:


I love the way Fotoplay! invites children to use their imaginations and create fun works of art without the pressure of trying to figure out where to start.  My son is what I would call a reluctant artist.  He likes to draw -- sometimes -- but usually his art involves a few quick lines and scribbles and he is done.  If an artistic activity holds his attention for more than 5 minutes, I'm impressed.  When he first opened this book, he sat down with it for almost an hour, filling in the first half of the book in one sitting!  (I actually had to cut him off so that he didn't go through the whole thing in the first day he had it.)  Granted, his drawing still consisted of a lot of scribbles, but he was excited about doing it and loved the art he was creating.  And isn't that the whole point?  Fotoplay! got him excited about art in a wonderful way, and I just loved watching him create with this book.  I mean, doesn't this picture just explain it all?
If you're looking for a fun, interactive, creative book to share with an artist of any age, I encourage you to check out Fotoplay!  It's the kind of book I would have loved as a child, and I'm definitely going to have to get another copy for my daughter at some point. To read more about M.J. Bronstein's book and work, you can visit her website at www.inthisplayground.com.  She also has some free printables available on her site here, which I might just have to print out for myself to do sometime alongside my kids.  If you are interested in purchasing Fotoplay!, you can buy it on Amazon or by clicking the picture here:  


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Book Advent Calendar


I've seen this idea floating around the Pinteresphere, and just knew I had to do this with my kiddos this year.  I loved the few years where we had an advent calendar as a kid.  Usually, it was just one of the simple little cardboard ones with little chocolates inside for each day, but there was something so exciting about opening up that little door to see what tiny treat and picture lay inside.  I've thought about  how to make some kind of advent calendar for my own children, and this one seemed just perfect.

The idea is simple (and only slightly time-consuming, especially if you don't like wrapping presents):  Wrap up 25 books and place them in a pile.  Open up one "present" from the stack each day, and choose a special place to read it together.  They don't need to be new books, although they obviously can be.  I've decided to wrap 25 of our favorite Christmas and winter stories that we already have here in the house, along with a few that we recently got out of the library.  (I'm just making sure that the library books are some of the earlier ones we open.)   I am also including a few books that aren't seasonal in any way that I got at our last library book sale for $.25 a piece.  I figured I'd put a few of these in the pile, too, just to mix it up and so that we have a few new stories to open up and read.  I'm putting our favorite seasonal books towards the beginning of the calendar, and some I can't wrap up at all because my kids already insist on reading them daily.  (I've read the Grinch to my daughter at naptime and bedtime every day for almost a week now!)  There are so many ways this could be done, but since we're getting our tree today, I'm hoping to start our tradition by opening up a new book each night before bed and reading it snuggled up by the tree.  Here is a picture of our finished "calendar", along with some of the titles that we will be opening together over the next 25 days:



The Mitten by Jan Brett
Merry Christmas, Big Hungry Bear! by Don and Audrey Wood
Henry and Mudge and the Sparkle Days by Cynthia Rylant
The Night Before Christmas Lift-the-Flap Storybook based on the tale by Clement C. Moore
Spot's First Christmas by Eric Hill
Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton
If You Take a Mouse to the Movies by Laura Numeroff
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett
The Polar Bear Son by Lydia Dabcovich
Winter's Gift by Jane Monroe Donovan
Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson
Merry Christmas, Curious George by H.A. Rey
Toot & Puddle Let It Snow by Hollie Hobbie
Toot & Puddle I'll Be Home for Christmas by Hollie Hobbie
The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
Christmas in the Country by Cynthia Rylant
Santa Mouse by Michael Brown
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Day 182: Z is for Moose

I love finding books that make my children giggle hysterically.  They might not always make the best stories for bedtime, but they are usually some of our favorites.  When we received this book as a gift a few months ago, my son was immediately drawn in by the silly cover.  "Z is not for Moose!" he giggled.  "M is for moose!"  The first page we see upon opening the book shows a host of animals lined up, peeking out from under a curtain as if they are waiting behind stage for their performance to begin.  The title page shows the zebra as the referree, lining the animals up alphabetically, with the moose patiently waiting his turn in his place mid-way through the alphabet.  The story itself starts as most alphabet books do, with a simple picture for each letter:  "A is for apple.  B is for ball.  C is for cat."  But after only three letters, moose is getting anxious!  Isn't it his turn yet?  The zebra sends him back to wait his turn, but moose is impatient.  He barges in on several of the other letters, asking, "Now?  Now?"  When we finally get to L, moose can barely contain his excitement.  "Here it comes!" But wait!  M is for mouse??  The tantrum that follows is ridiculously silly (and oh-so-toddler like), and always has my kids in fits of giggles.  Zebra tries his best to control the situation, while moose attempts to finagle his way into the other letters' scenes before finally breaking down into tears.  With only one letter left, isn't it too late?  How can moose be in the book now?  The ending is a cute as the book is fun.  If you're looking for an ABC book to help teach your children the alphabet, you might want to keep looking.  But, if you're looking for a silly book that is bound to make your children laugh, Z is for Moose is a sure bet.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Day 181: Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee

Chris Van Dusen is one of our favorite authors.  The first book of his that we read was The Circus Ship, and we soon fell in love with several of this other stories, as well.  (A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee and If I Built a Car have both been featured on here in the past.)  Sometimes I worry about posting too many books by the same author, but when we love a book and read it as often as we read this one, I figure it is well worth sharing.  Chris Van Dusen is a fantastic author and illustrator whose rhymes place him among the ranks of masters like Dr. Seuss and whose illustrations always have a colorful, unique, retro feel to them.  We just love the Mr. Magee books, and I'm not kidding when I say that we have probably read this book 100 times since getting it as a gift last Christmas.  Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee is Van Dusen's first book, and was inspired by his desire to write a story about a boat that gets stuck in a tree.  It's silly and fun and my kids always enjoy reading it.

"Mr. Magee and his little dog Dee loved spending time in their boat on the sea.  So early one morning at 6:32, they made a decision.  That's just what they'd do... With plans for the day and enough lunch for three, they hopped in the car and drove down to the sea."  But their little outing quickly becomes a big adventure when a curious whale decides to play... and soon they are sailing high over the bay to the top of an island spruce!  The whole story is endlessly entertaining and makes a fabulous read aloud.  I don't know how well-known Van Dusen is outside of New England, but a great book is a great book no matter where you are! If you haven't yet discovered his wonderful work, look for his books the next time you are at the library.  If they make your children laugh and smile even half as much as they do mine, you are bound to love them.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Day 180: This First Thanksgiving Day

I love to find good seasonal or holiday books throughout the year, and this was a cute little story we found this year among the Thanksgiving titles at our local library.  Thanksgiving is one of my absolute favorite holidays, second only to Christmas.  I often feel incredibly grateful for many things in my life, but it's always nice to have a special occasion that reminds me to do just that.  It's usually a rather busy weekend spent visiting family here and there, but I love being able to spend time with so many people that I love.  My children are two and and four and a half now, and at their age, let's be honest:  Thanksgiving isn't really all that exciting.  Some day, I know that they, too, will get excited about seeing lots of family, watching football, and eating a delicious meal, but for now they just love having four "daddy days" in a row and getting to see some of their favorite relatives.  Like many parents, I've been looking for ways to help them grow to love the spirit of Thanksgiving and learn how we came to celebrate this holiday.  We've done turkey crafts, talked about different things for which we are thankful every day, and picked out a big turkey to donate to our local food pantry, but I was still looking for a good book about the history of Thanksgiving.  This First Thanksgiving Day does a nice job of introducing little readers to the story behind this special day.  It's a simple counting book that juxtaposes the daily lives of Pilgrim children and their Native American counterparts page by page until the groups are all seated together at the first Thanksgiving meal.  "1 dressed in linen, sitting in a tree, dreaming of the tall, strong ship on which he crossed the sea.  2 dressed in deerskin, gathering nuts below, giggling as they tiptoe by, too shy to say hello."  The illustrations are charming, and my little ones enjoy finding the turkey and rabbit that are hiding on many of the pages.  I also like that the story mentions Squanto and the Wampanoag by name, setting up further learning opportunities about some of our local New England history.  I'd say this book is best suited to children in the 2-6 age range.  It's cute, simple, and does a great job of introducing the story behind this celebrated American holiday.  We'll be sure to look for this one again at our library next November.

I wish you and your families and wonderful Thanksgiving, and no matter where you are, hope that you can be surrounded by those you love today.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Navigating the library: helpful hints for making the most of your library visit



  • Recently, a friend of mine e-mailed me seeking library guidance.  She likes to take her kids to the library regularly, but often feels as though she is just aimlessly looking and has trouble finding good books to bring home.  I wrote back to her with my self-admittedly nerdy approach, which in turn got us thinking that perhaps this might be a worthwhile blog topic.  Because let's face it: going to the children's section of the library is not exactly the quiet, peaceful, book-browsing experience that other patrons enjoy.  No, if your library experience is anything like mine, it usually involves frequent reminders to use library voices, putting countless books back on the shelves that have been pulled down by curious hands, and grabbing a few books here and there while peeking over the bookcases to make sure that your children are still playing calmly and not chasing each other through the rows of books. Don't get me wrong.  I love going to the library with my kids.  But given that a primary purpose of our visit is to actually come away with some great new books to read, it's not always easy.  

    So how does one successfully navigate a library, especially with little ones in tow?  There are many ways to do this, but I figured I'd share mine here in the event that my strategy might help others improve their library experience.  (Yes, I have a library strategy.  And a notebook.  And even a spreadsheet.  A bit over the top?  Perhaps.  But for me, it works.  Because hey, if it helps me avoid the "coming home from the library with 10 books only to realize I never want to read any of them again" syndrome, I'll do it.)

    Helpful hints for making the most of your library visit:

    1.  Keep a list.  I keep a running list of books I want to look for in a little notebook in my purse.  This way, when we go to one of our local libraries, I have a place to start.  Sometimes, I even look up the books I know I want to find on our library system's online catalog ahead of time to see which libraries have them in their collections.  (This is where my spreadsheet comes in.)  Then, I make a note of it in my book so I don't waste time looking for a book in a library that they don't even have.  For me, it's all about efficiency here.  

    2.  Get to know your library's set up.  One local library has a "staff picks" shelf, while another puts all of the new titles up on the top of the shelves with a red dot on the binding.  I love knowing just where to find any new books that they have gotten in recently.  Yet another local library has a featured shelf for seasonal titles, while another keeps them all sorted by holiday in the same section of the room (though not put out in separate displays.)  Every library is a little different, so if you're not sure where to find things, just ask your librarian.  Which brings me to my next piece of advice...

    3.  Ask your librarian!  She will probably be happy to suggest some of her favorites or some of the new titles in the collection.  This can be especially helpful if you're looking for books on a particular topic, such as the circus, dogs, construction trucks, dinosaurs, you name it.  

    4. Set a magic number.  Mine is 10.  I like to take out 10 books at a time so that I always know how many to look for when it's time to return them.  Of course, sometimes I have multiple books out from multiple libraries so that doesn't always work, but I try.  I usually try to bring home 5 or 6 that I know I want to read or have heard good things about, and let the kids pick out 4 or 5 of their own.  Usually the ones they pick aren't really worth reading more than once, but we have definitely found some real gems that way, too.  I want my kids to get excited about picking out their own library books (and they do), but at this point in their lives, they prefer to spend a bulk of their library time playing with the trains, puppets, and puzzles.  If we're alone we can sometimes sit and read some stories together, but if there are other kids there, too, they usually just want to play together.  My kids will pick out a book or two, run it over to me to put in our book bag, and then go back to playing some more.  When I choose some and they choose some, we usually can guarantee that we come home with at least a few books that we'll want to read again and again.

    5.  Speed read on site if possible.  Sometimes while my kids are playing at the library, I'll read through a few of the books we've chosen to see if they are any good before checking them out.  If they are not, I put them right back on the shelf.  Honestly, we don't have the space in our house for a bunch of library books that we're not going to read more than once.  And why risk paying overdue fines for a book that is just going to sit there anyway?  I've found that I can usually tell if a book is lousy pretty quickly.  And yes, sometimes I judge a book by it's cover (or at least, its illustrations.)  I feel badly saying that, but it's true.  

    6.  Find your favorite authors.  When I don't have my list with me or feel like being so specific, I just look for books by different authors that we always tend to love:  Mo Willems, Jane Yolen, Karma Wilson, Leo Lionni, Oliver Jeffers, Cynthia Rylant, Peter Brown... You can always ask your librarian which authors are her favorite, too.  

    Given the nature and purpose of my blog, I'm sure I go into a library with a different mission than the average person.  I'm looking for great books to read with my kids that I will then love enough to blog about and share with you.  But doesn't everyone go into a library hoping to come out with a great book?  Shouldn't that really be pretty easy?  That's how this whole blog came to be, really.  The shelves at the library are full of books, and yet it often seems as though the ones worth reading repeatedly are few and far between.  I hope this blog has helped you discover some wonderful new stories to read with your children, and that this post has given you some helpful hints for making the most of your library experience.  Happy reading!

    How do you make the most of your library visit?  Please feel free to share your ideas and helpful hints in the comments.  I'd love to hear them!


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Win a free library of books!


I'm not usually one to post things like this, but when an opportunity to win over $1000 of gorgeous books comes along, I can't help but share it with you!  Barefoot Books is sponsoring a Storytime Sweepstakes now through December 31st.  Each week, one winner will be selected from North America and Europe to win a $500 library of some of Barefoot's most beloved titles, while  another $500 library will be donated to the school or charity of the winner's choice.  Six weeks of the contest means there will be 12 winners in all.  How amazing is that?!  Now, I'm not usually the winning type when it comes to contests like this, but a girl can dream, can't she?  I can't even begin to describe how excited I would be to win this.  And to be able to donate a beautiful collection of books to my wonderful (and severely fund deprived) local library?  That would be fabulous.

If you're interested in learning more, here's how it works:

To enter, simply click on the picture above or the link provided here.  You will need to 'like' Barefoot Books on facebook and provide your email address.  I know, I know.  I tend to be skeptical of contests that ask for my email address, too, but seeing as I already like Barefoot Books on facebook and they have my email, I certainly have nothing to lose.  Besides, they give you the handy option to uncheck the box that says something to the effect of, "Please send me emails and updates about sales and special offers."   (I always uncheck that box.)  You can also earn additional entries by sharing the contest with friends.  The more you share, the more chances you have to win!

And the best part of all?  When you enter the sweepstakes, you get a unique, one-time coupon code for 30% off your next Barefoot Books order.  What's not to love about that?!

I can't wait to hear about the lucky winners of this incredible contest and hope that you and I are among them!  Good luck to all of you who enter!!


Full disclosure:  I am a Barefoot Books Ambassador, which means that I love these books so much that I decided to sign up to sell them to my friends, family, and neighbors.  Some people make a living selling Barefoot Books and have wonderful small businesses as a result, but that was never my intention when I signed on with Barefoot.  I simply thought it would be a fun little side project to do while I am a stay at home mom that would introduce my kids and me to some fabulous stories.  I loved the idea of sharing these books with other people who love reading with their children, and hoped to be able to connect and fundraise with some of my favorite community groups and organizations.  So far, I have organized fundraisers for my son's preschool and our town's local community farm, and donated a bunch of board books to one of my favorite literacy charities, Reach Out and Read.  I've also been able to help some friends and local families earn free books for their children by hosting book parties at their homes.  Overall, it's been wonderful.  Maybe someday, I'll actually make a tiny little profit off of my Barefoot endeavor, but for now, I'm happy getting a free book to read with my kids every now and then and helping others discover the beautiful world of Barefoot Books.  If you ever want to learn more about them, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email at 365gcb@gmail.com and I'd be happy to get back to you.




Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Day 179: Where's Spot?

As I looked at this story sitting next to the rocking chair in my daughter's room today, I thought, "What a great book.  It's amazing how much my kids continue to love this story.  I mean, really, do lift the flap books ever get old?  No signs of that here yet, anyway.  This should be on my holiday gift guide for sure.  I've written about Where's Spot? already, right?  Surely I have."  But lo and behold, when I checked the blog, I haven't yet featured this fabulous book.  I can't believe it!  So without further ado, let me just say that this is one children's classic that belongs on every baby's bookshelf.  If your children are anything like mine, they will enjoy Where's Spot? from their first few months through their first few years.  Spot has long been a favorite of both of my kids in plain old board book form, but add in the endless fun that is lifting the flaps and we've got a definite winner on our hands.  Its bright, simple illustrations and short text make it appealing to babies, while it's flaps call out to those little ones who are becoming more dextrous.  My little girl is two, and loves reading this book just as much now as she did over a year ago.  I probably couldn't even count the number of times we've read this story, but believe me when I say that opening the wardrobe doors and finding Steve the monkey hiding inside still brings a smile to her face every time.  My son is almost 5 and he still loves reading this book, too... only now it's because he can read it to his little sister all by himself.  So there you have it.  Where's Spot? is just an all-around great book.  I highly recommend the board book version if you can get it.  Ours is really quite sturdy, and even the flaps have held up well after much lifting.  This book makes a great baby or first birthday gift, or could even be a nice stocking stuffer for a little one's first Christmas.  I hope Spot brings as much joy and entertainment to your house as he has to ours!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Day 178: We're Sailing to Galapagos

I think if my son could go anywhere in the world, he might choose the Galapagos.  Home to some of the world's most unique wildlife, the Galapagos Islands are truly amazing.  We love exploring and learning about the world through Laurie Krebs' books, and this has been a favorite of ours since the very first time we read it.  We're Sailing to Galapagos, like so many of Krebs' stories, is bursting with fun information about this unique part of the world and the animals who live there.  Grazia Restelli's collage artwork is bold, colorful, and wonderfully intricate, and is the perfect accompaniment to Krebs' rollicking story.  Both of my children love everything about the book, and once again, my geography teacher self is always more than happy to read it with them.

As we sail across the sea to visit the Galapagos, we meet a different species on each day of the week:  "On Monday, giant tortoises, With weathered shells of green, Plod past us while they munch their lunch of vegetable cuisine."  Each day ends with the same chorus, too, for which I made up my own little rhythm and song:  "We're sailing to Galapagos, Galapagos, Galapagos, We're sailing to Galapagos, I wonder who we'll see."  You can also sing the each verse to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, but I prefer to simply read the part about the animals and then sing the chorus.  Either one works, of course, or if singing is not your thing than just reading it all aloud works fine, too!  Along the way, we meet albatrosses, black iguanas, lava crabs, blue-footed boobies, sea lions, and frigate birds... and the learning doesn't stop there!  The back of the book features fabulous write ups about the Islands themselves, Charles Darwin, and 11 other Galapagos species.  I absolutely love the way Krebs' books grow with children and are appealing to such a wide age range.  The sing-songy verses and colorful illustrations make her books engaging for toddlers, while the additional information at the back is perfect for curious, older adventurers.  Someday, perhaps, we might even be able to go to the Galapagos... but until then, we'll just keep enjoying fabulous books like this one and imagining that we are there.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The joys of reading aloud

Story time with my children is always one of my favorite times of day.  I've written about why I read to my kids before, but I've been thinking about it a lot more lately for some reason.  I think this is in part because, as a teacher, I think a lot about the current state of education in our country and around the world and the critical role that literacy -- especially early childhood literacy -- plays in our overall success.  I also have found myself feeling very grateful for many things lately, particularly my ability to stay home with my children and (hopefully) help them become compassionate, independent, curious citizens of our world.  The Thanksgiving season obviously makes me reflect on all that I am thankful for, but the recent election has me thinking about social responsibility and the influence that each of us has on shaping our collective future.  I truly believe that one person has the power to make a difference and change the world, and I'm not talking about the President here.  I'm talking about each of us.  Sure, there is a lot we can't control, but there is plenty that we can do to make our children's future better.  One of the best, easiest, and most valuable things we can do for our kids is read with them.  Reach Out and Read has a fabulous write up on the "Importance of Reading Aloud," which I will share here.   I read with my children for all of those reasons, and then some.  The educator in me reads to my kids because I love broadening their horizons and helping them acquire the language and literacy skills that will set them up for a lifetime of learning and success.  The parent in me simply loves any excuse to snuggle up and share a quiet moment with my kids.  But I got to thinking... What do other people love most about reading to their children?  Wouldn't it be a fun way to celebrate reading aloud by sharing a list of reasons here on the blog?  I posed the question to our followers in the facebook world and will share what they said below.  I would love to know your reasons, too.  Please feel free to share in the comments!

Our educational system obviously isn't perfect, and we have a long way to go if we are going to truly educate all children and enable them to reach their full potential.  I know the vital role that teachers play in doing this, but I also know that it is us, the parents, that have the most important job of all.  No one -- and I mean no one -- has the power to influence, inspire, teach, and empower our children as much as we do.  So read on, friends, read on.  You are making a bigger difference than you know.

By the way, I'm working on creating a section of this blog that features helpful literacy articles and information with the hope that it will be a useful resource for people looking to find ways to help their children learn to read and develop literacy skills.  Stay tuned, and in the meantime, enjoy our post dedicated to the simple joys of reading aloud!


What do YOU love most about reading with your children?

"The snuggles that come along with reading to the kids."
 ~ Shauna R.

"The vocabulary building.  I try to choose books that are a little ahead of what's recommended for their age so they often have to ask, "What does that mean?"  Another thing I love is how their imagination is sparked and the next day they'll pretend to be a character from the book 
and act out scenes they remember." 
 ~ Marleen M. 

"The quiet time with them as well as sharing stories from when I was growing up." 
~ Nina M. K.

"The cuddle time... the glances in between us as I am reading, the laughter..." 
~ Amy G. H.

"That no matter how difficult our day might have been, we want to read together at the end of it, and in the rare instances when she's not into it, we just make the effort to pick a book that suits the moment better, so that we can have those few minutes to end the day just right."  
~ Kristi W. K. 

"Listening to him tell the story through his own eyes (he can't read yet). 
He points out the pictures and tells the story." 
~ Marlene C. 

"Opportunities to talk about what we're reading." 
~ Kelly R.

"The closeness engendered by a shared experience, the opportunity to explore his imagined worlds and to share mine. I love the chance to spend quiet time together...and to invite conversations... In a group situation I love taking children on a journey that is shared yet unique for each of them. I relish the chance to invite them to see into the imaginary worlds of others and to know that all ideas are welcome. I enjoy the sense of the unknown with each new page..and of the familiar with old, comfy, safe favourites that allow prediction and the power of knowledge of what is to come .
~ Sharon C. 

"My son is three, so we read a lot of picture books. I love the way his eyes light up when we pull a favorite book off the shelf at the library, the way it takes him longer to choose books at bedtime than it does to pick out his clothes, the way he can't contain himself from blurting out the ending to a perfect story like "Where the Wild Things Are" ("and it was still hot!"). Book time = perfect family time."  
~ Sprout's Bookshelf

"I love that my11 year old don still wants me to read aloud to him! 
We still cuddle up in bed and share that beautiful time together!" 
~ Sarah R. 

"Quiet together time at the end of whatever kind of crazy day you've had. 
Rich vocabulary, fun rhymes, wonderful stories. 
A time when you're focused just on your child and the story on the page. Snuggles." 
~ Heather M. W.

" I love that we can both just BE for a bit together. No other distractions. 
Just living, learning, and reading together to reconnect."  
~ Katie D. M.

"I love their reactions and how much it makes them think. If we read a book and they're relating to it the next day ("that's like what happened with Clifford!"). . . 
getting that glimpse into how they perceive the world. That's the best." 
~ Beth Z. 






Friday, November 2, 2012

November is Picture Book Month!

I was so excited to learn that November is Picture Book Month!  As explained on the website, PictureBookMonth.com "features essays from 'Picture Book Champions,' thought leaders in the children's literature community." A different author or illustrator will share an essay each day about their take on the wonderful world of picture books.  I can't wait to follow along and hear what they have to say about one of my favorite things!

To learn more about Picture Book Month and join in the celebration, please visit their website or find them on facebook at www.facebook.com/picturebookmonth.  You can also follow them on twitter @picturebookmonth or by using the hashtag #picturebookmonth.

Enjoy, and happy reading!!

“Picture books are the connective tissue between a parent and a child. …you stop everything, snuggle up on the couch or the floor and share a story.” 
– John Rocco, 2012 Caldecott Honor Winner, from his Picture Book Month Essay



 





Saturday, October 27, 2012

Day 177: The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything

I'm always looking for fun seasonal or holiday books when we go to the library.  On a recent visit, I was simply running inside to get a specific dvd while my husband and kids waited in the car.  It was a gorgeous fall day and we were eager to explore a new hiking trail at a nearby preservation, so we didn't want to take the time for all of us to go inside.  As I quickly passed by the lovely display of Halloween books, I grabbed two without looking at anything more than their covers so that I'd have some new books for the kids to look at in the car.  The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything was one of them.

The first time I read it, I thought it was cute, but nothing worth blogging about it.  My kids really seemed to like it, though, and I listened as my husband read it to them again and they laughed and giggled their way through the story. That was two weeks ago, and my 2 year old daughter has asked to read this story at both naptime and bedtime every day since.  She can't get enough of it!  When she doesn't want to go upstairs for her nap, all I have to do is tell her that we can go up and read The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything and she says, "Okay!" and races up the stairs.  My son loves reading it, too, and he and my daughter both find it incredibly fun and silly.  A little old lady goes for a walk in the woods, and meets one haunted piece of clothing after another on her way home.  Two shoes that go "Clomp! Clomp!"  One pair of pants that goes "Wiggle! Wiggle!"  A shirt that goes "Shake! Shake!"  Two gloves that go "Clap! Clap!" One hat that goes "Nod! Nod!" and one pumpkin head that goes "Boo!  Boo!"  As the little old lady hurries home, the clothes and pumpkin follow her, making their silly noises all the while.  It's got a cute little ending, and the pictures manage to show that she is scared without being scary.  I'll admit that in some ways, this book does not meet all of my usual requirements for a blog-worthy book.  I wouldn't say that it is particularly well-written, but it is written in a way that is incredibly appealing to children.  The anticipation and repetition of the verses is always fun for them, and they just love wiggling and shaking and clapping along to the actions in the story.  This book would make a great preschool or kindergarten read-aloud for Halloween; you could even build your own scarecrow afterward for even more fun.  When a book earns as many reading requests as this one does, there is something special about it.

The more I read this story with my kids and see how it never fails to make them laugh and smile, the more I realize that this is a story worth sharing here.  I don't love it, but my kids do.  Sometimes, when it comes to what makes a great book, that is all that matters.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Day 176: Swimmy

After falling in love with Leo Lionni's classic story Frederick, I knew I had to read more of his books.  We've read a few others since then, and Swimmy is definitely among our favorites.  I was thrilled to find a copy at our local library's book sale recently, and both of my children request it frequently. Swimmy tells the story of a little fish who is different from all the rest.  After he finds himself all alone in the sea, Swimmy discovers some of the ocean's most magnificent and beautiful creatures.  "A medusa made of rainbow jelly... an eel whose tail was almost too far away to remember..." and sea anemones who look like "pink palm trees swaying in the wind."  Finally, Swimmy discovers another group of little fish and invites them to come out and explore the ocean with him.  When they are too scared to leave the safety of their crevice for fear of being eaten by bigger fish, Swimmy comes up with the perfect plan; one that empowers them all, while at the same time celebrating his uniqueness and individuality.  I don't want to give away the ending, but it's sweet, clever, and bound to feel empowering to young children.  Lionni's descriptions throughout the story are gorgeous, and I love the way his simple words are so vivid and rich in detail.  To me, Swimmy is about the importance of always being yourself, and the power one individual has to inspire others and bring about change.  At the same time, it's also about the collective power of teamwork; a wonderful reminder that we are far more influential together than we are on our own.  If you have not yet discovered the fabulous and beautiful works of Leo Lionni, be sure to look for them the next time you are at your local library.  Swimmy, among others, is a classic that is sure to delight you and your child.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Day 175: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I remember reading this story when I was a child, probably in elementary school sometime.  It's one of those classic childhood titles that I have always remembered, though admittedly more for the title itself than the actual story.  The library in our town has just one copy, the original 1972 publication, so every time we read it we can see how well loved it has been by children over the past 40 years.  The first time we read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, my son and daughter instantly loved it.  They have asked to read it several times a day since we checked it out last week, and even just now while I was trying to write this post, I had to stop and read it to my daughter because she saw the book on the table next to me.

If you're unfamiliar with the story, it's about a little boy who is having one of those days where nothing seems to go right.  From the minute he wakes up with gum in his hair, he can tell it's going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.  As they so often do when we wake up on the wrong side of the bed, things just keep getting worse and worse.  Alexander has to sit in the middle seat on the way to school.  His mom forgets to pack dessert in his lunch.  The shoe store is sold out of the shoes he wants, and he has to have lima beans with dinner.  His bath is too hot, he doesn't like his pajamas, and the cat wants to sleep with his brother, not him!  In an attempt to escape his problems, he even threatens to move to Australia, which my kids think is hilarious.  They also love the refrain about having a "terrible, horrible, no good, VERY BAD DAY!!" (especially when I read it so that it gets faster, louder, and more exasperated toward the end.)  My daughter always turns and smiles in anticipation when we get to those lines in the story.  I love the fact that in and of themselves, none of the things that happens to Alexander that day is really all that bad.  And had they occurred in isolation, he probably wouldn't have thought they were all that horrible, either.  But of course, as we all know, things always seem to snowball and get blown out of proportion on days like that.  I know I can certainly relate!  I also love the way the text is written in the rambling, exaggerated way that is so typical among frustrated or excited children (and adults, too, I suppose!)  It reminds me of Sam's rant in Leonardo the Terrible Monster, which is so much fun to read aloud!

It's no wonder that this book has been in print for 40 years now, for the message is one that rings true to children and adults, alike.  We all have days like Alexander, even in Australia, and this story helps bring a bit of humor and clarity to those seemingly miserable situations.  I think it's good for kids to see that sometimes the things we get so upset about really aren't that big of a deal.  It's important for them to know that we're all bound to have terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days, and that that's okay, because we can go to bed knowing that tomorrow is a new day and we can start fresh in the morning.  The next time you or your child is having a particularly tough day, try reading this story together.  Hopefully it will help cheer you up and bring a smile to your face.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Day 174: Not All Princesses Dress in Pink

I was never a girly girl.  I never owned a doll or wore dresses, and I certainly never pretended I was a princess.  I was much happier wearing my Gonzo football sweatshirt and running around playing outside.  I did have a Cabbage Patch Kid and played with My Little Ponies, but that's about as girly as I got.  I'm not sure I ever even owned anything pink, unless you count my neon pink attire of the 80s.  I eventually grew out of my tom-boy phase, but I still can't be bothered to wear make up and am more comfortable in sweats than a dress.  I now own plenty of skirts and like wearing the color pink, and love buying adorable little outfits for my daughter.  She loves pink and purple, and can it really be true that I have a daughter who loves to play with dolls?  She has dresses that she loves to wear in the summer, and every time she puts one on, she says, "I'm a princess!"  Sometimes she even gives a little twirl.  It's very cute. We've never watched the classic princess movies so I don't know if she really knows what the traditional princess looks like, but she knows that my husband calls her his little princess, so I think that's where she got it from.

But don't let her pink-wearing, doll-playing, occasional dress-twirling fool you.  My little girl loves playing with dinosaurs, cars and trucks, digging in the mud, and getting dirty.  And boy is she tough!  A lot of this has to do with having (and idolizing) an older brother, but part of me also thinks she is a little like I was in that way.  I love many of Jane Yolen's books, so when I heard about this one, I knew I had to check it out.  It sounded just like the kind of book my kids would love!  We brought it home from the library the other day and it was an instant hit.  "Not all princesses dress in pink.  Some play in bright red socks that stink, blue team jerseys that don't quite fit, accessorized with a baseball mitt, and a sparkly crown!"  I loved the message of the book the minute I read the title, and think it is an important one for all girls (and boys) to hear.  Princesses come in all shapes and sizes and have a variety of interests and talents.  They can build things with tools, splash in mud puddles, climb trees, or play sports, all while being powerful, strong, and beautiful.  Some of them might wear their sparkly crowns all the while, but others won't.  Either way, it doesn't matter.  Our daughters can grow up to be anything they want to be, and I hope that's a message that they will always take to heart.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Day 173: The Water Hole

Graeme Base is one of the most amazing children's illustrators I know.  His artwork is simply stunning, with beautiful, intricate detail that gives his drawings a truly magical feel.  We love Animalia, and recently found The Water Hole at our local library.  We brought it home because my son wants to read any book about animals, but mostly because I'm always fascinated by Base's illustrations.  I briefly flipped through the pages and noticed that it was a counting book, and that each page had a cut-out area for a watering hole which kept getting smaller and smaller as the book went on.  Cute, I thought.  A nice little counting book about animals (with gorgeous illustrations, of course.)  My son took to the book immediately and enjoyed looking at it throughout the afternoon, but it wasn't until the next day that I really sat down to read the book with him.  We've read it many times since, including for an hour together this morning, and each time we pick it up we discover new gems hidden within its pages.

This book is a classic example of a picture being worth a thousand words.  There are so many amazing things about this story that I really don't know where to begin.  You can tell just by looking at the cover illustration that the artwork in the book is incredible, but there is so much more to this wonderful book! Each page features wildlife from various parts of the world, such as India, Australia, South America, the Galapagos Islands, and the Himalayas.  Hidden within each drawing itself are a variety of other native creatures, whose silhouettes appear in the borders of each spread.  We love finding all of these hidden animals, and I am always blown away by the artistry and creativity involved in crafting such elaborate illustrations.  As more animals come to drink at the water hole (that's where the counting element comes in), the level of water gradually goes down... until there is none left!  By weaving in the themes of seasonal change and migration, Base creates wonderful opportunities for further learning and discussion within his pages, as well.  You can see why the geography teacher in me absolutely loves this book!

My son's favorite page is the one for Europe with all of the ladybugs, but I think my favorite is actually the one where, after the water hole has dried up, "All the animals went away."  This page features a beautifully eerie and desolate image of a barren land, with 10 extinct animals hidden within.  It is the least colorful image in the book, but is positively brilliant in every way.  I also love the page shortly thereafter where the rains come, forming shimmering puddles in the shapes of the earth's continents as the world slowly comes back to life.   Yes, I think it's safe to say we've added yet another book to our "Must own someday" list!

I suppose I've gone on enough about how fabulous a book I think this is, so I'll leave you with this tidbit from the author himself about the inspiration behind the story.  I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!  "The Water Hole was inspired by a four-week sight-seeing safari through Kenya and Tanzania.  I had in mind a simple story about the cycle of season on the African plains, but the idea gradually expanded to embrace other countries and their wildlife, in the process giving the central image of the water hole a certain metaphorical significance -- and, of course, providing me with the perfect excuse to draw lots of animals from other parts of the world, as well!"

Monday, October 1, 2012

Day 172: A Leaf Can Be...

We've reached that magical week in New England where, all of a sudden, I look around and realize that the leaves are turning vibrant shades of yellow, orange, and red.  I love summer as much as anyone, but fall is my favorite season.  It is the reason why I can't imagine living anywhere other than New England:  the crunch of leaves underfoot, cool days and even cooler nights, the crisp smell of the air, the crackle of the first fire in our fireplace.  I love experiencing four distinct seasons and seeing the natural world transform in all its wonder all around us... even when it means my husband and I spend hours raking thousands of oak leaves from our lawn.  Our kids are always more than happy to "help" us with this, jumping in and racing through the piles of leaves in a state of pure childhood bliss.  I raked our first official leaf pile today (solely for my son's jumping entertainment), and realized that it would be a perfect day to feature this wonderful book!

My children love nature, so when I saw this book on the "Staff Recommendation" shelf at the library a few weeks ago, I knew I had to bring it home.  Thank you, Fran the librarian, for introducing us to this beautiful story!  In A Leaf Can Be, author Laura Purdie Solas takes us on a "poetic exploration of leaves throughout the year," from the gently unfurling new leaves of spring, to the frost tipped leaves of winter.  In her lovely, lyrical way, Solas reminds us that leaves can be all kinds of things depending on the time and place:  "Sun taker.  Food maker...  Air cleaner.  Earth greener...  Wind rider.  Lake glider..."  And of course my son's favorite:  "Pile grower.  Hill glow-er."  The verses are simple but perfect, and Violeta Dabija's illustrations are gorgeous!  Her use of color and light magically brings the pages to life, and I always find myself stopping and staring at the pictures longer than usual before I turn to the next page.  We also love the additional information featured at the back of the book, which explains in more detail how leaves serve their many purposes highlighted throughout the story.  A Leaf Can Be... is a perfect book to share as part of a preschool or elementary nature unit, or simply to snuggle up and enjoy with your child at any time of year.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Day 171: Who Loves You, Baby?

This book might be one of the most well-loved, chewed-upon books in our entire house.  Who Loves You, Baby? is a great little board book for babies and toddlers, with cute, simple sayings and colorful illustrations.  Each page features a different animal that fits an endearing phrase:  "You are my little lamb... You are my funny bunny... You are my busy bee." The most entertaining part for little ones, of course, is the mirror that shows through the peek-a-boo window on each page that allows them to see themselves.  Mirrors and peek-a-boo windows are always fun on their own, but together they are even better!  Both of my children loved this book as babies and would ask to read it again and again.  Even now, at 2, my daughter loves reading it and looking at herself in the mirror on each page.  Usually, she will be the one to do the "reading" now, and I love how she always holds the mirror up so that she can see both of us when she gets to the last page.  This was always a go-to book for me when my little ones were getting restless in the car, or when we were going to be out and about and I wanted to stash a book for them in my purse, just in case.  (It's the perfect size for on-the-go!)  If you're looking for a fun book for your baby that is bound to provide him with hours of entertainment, we highly recommend this one.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Day 170: Wheels on the Bus

I just love listening to my daughter sing.  I wish there was a way to bottle up her sweet little voice and save it forever and ever.  Sure, I bust out the camcorder now and again in my best attempt to do so, but I know watching it years from now, I'll still miss her sitting in my lap, singing and clapping and dancing to the music.  She has really gotten into sing-alongs lately, and the Wheels on the Bus is one of her favorites.  As she requested to read and sing this book for the umpteenth time this week, I realized that I hadn't yet written about it here on the blog... So here it is!  I'm sure you know the tune to "The Wheels on the Bus," but if you don't, I promise it will be stuck in your head after just one listen.  Sometimes, with classic songs such as this one, I think it's a little silly to put it in book form -- I mean, can't you just sing the song on its own and have just as much fun? -- but there is something really engaging to little ones about reading along while you sing.  There are several book versions of the Wheels on the Bus, but this is the one that we have:  a sturdy little Raffi board book that I got at our local library book sale for $.25.  I've heard good things about some of the more interactive versions of the book where the wheels actually turn and the doors open and shut, but to be honest, I don't think those fun features would last more than a week in my house.  For now, the board book version is just perfect.  The illustrations are simple and colorful with a quaint European flair, and the music to the song appears at the back of the book.  Baby Beluga is another of our favorite "Raffi Songs to Read,"and both books get my two year old's ultimate seal of approval.

Animal Playtime!

As some of you might already know, my son is really into animals.  He can tell you about cool and unique creatures from every continent of the world, and has told me about all kinds of animals that I have never even heard of.  Colugos, hog-nosed bats, tarsiers, you name it.  We love his Animal Atlas, and I can honestly say that I have learned a lot reading it with him.  Don't you just love children's books that teach you something new, too?
The other day, it was disgustingly humid and swampy outside, so I was looking for things to do that would keep my children entertained inside.  My daughter requested play dough after breakfast, so I whipped up a batch of homemade "Pumpkin Spice Play Dough" (see recipe below), and she and my son set to work.  My son wandered off after half an hour or so (which is still pretty good for him), but my daughter sat there cutting and sculpting and creating for almost two hours.  I kid you not.  I kept debating whether or not to redirect her to something else, but she was so content and I just loved watching her experiment with everything that I just let her play on.  I jumped on the opportunity to clean my kitchen while they played, and came across a little plastic frog on the counter.  (Obviously.  Doesn't everyone have plastic frogs on their kitchen counter?  And tractor trailer trucks in their bathroom?)  I handed the frog to my daughter, who delightedly started hopping it all around and studying the tracks it made in the play dough.  My son heard her "ribbits" and came to see what she was doing.  Fortunately (and amazingly), I remembered that we had another whole collection of little hand-me-down plastic animals stored away upstairs.  Well, if those weren't the coolest, most exciting things my kids have played with in weeks, I don't know what was.  I'm not joking when I say that the combination of animals and play dough kept my kids entertained and playing for hours that day.  We're talking all morning, after lunch, and before and after dinner.  It was amazing!

They had so much fun and came up with so many creative ways to play with their animals and play dough that I thought I should share some of our "Animal Playtime" games with you.  Enjoy!

Guess That Footprint:
We love finding animal tracks when we are out and about exploring nature, so my son loved playing our own guessing game right here at home!  We took turns making the tracks and guessing which animal had left them. 
Fossil Finders:
After playing "Guess That Footprint" for a little while, I mentioned that some of the prints -- like that of the alligator whose body lies closer to the ground -- looked more like fossils than footprints.  With that, our game turned to "Fossil Finders."  I think my son liked this game even more than the first, but he had lots of fun playing both.  
                                     
(His zebra, cheetah, and alligator "fossils")
Animal Magic Squares:
My son loves doing a type of magic square puzzle on one of our dinosaur iPad apps (sometimes known as a "Fifteen puzzle.")  This puzzle consists of a 4x4 grid of 16 squares, where only one square of the puzzle is empty.  The other 15 squares contain pieces of a picture puzzle that has been shuffled up.  In order to solve it and finish the puzzle, the player must slide all of the pieces back to their proper location, one at a time, using the empty square.  The empty square strategically changes location around the board as the other pieces are moved back into their correct positions.  It's a little like chess, in that you sometimes have to think ahead a few moves to figure out how best to move your pieces.  (I feel like I'm not doing a very good job of explaining it.  It is much easier to understand if you can see it in action, so I'll try to explain a bit under the picture below.)  Anyway, as I was tending to my daughter and her activities at one point, I looked over to see my son setting up the animals and making up his own little version of a magic square puzzle.  "See," he said, "It's just like my dinosaur game!" He took two tigers and lined them up on opposite sides, then proceeded to slide the animals around until the two tigers were right next to each other.  I would have never thought to do that.  Don't you just love what those little minds can think up?
(The top four animals slide right one space starting with the cheetah, then the elephant slides down to where the tiger was, the other cheetah slides over, the tiger slides up, etc.  I'm not sure how he moved them from there, but after several moves, tiger one was a little bit closer to tiger two. 
A few more moves, and he was there!)



Animal Classification Game:
While my son was busy with his animal magic squares, I decided to set up another game for him to play.  I sorted the animals into two groups and, once he was ready to play something else, asked my him to figure out what the two groups had in common and how they were different from each other.  There were several possible answers with the setup I had, but the one I had in mind was carnivores vs. herbivores.  
                                     
I loved seeing what ideas my son had and how he sorted it out along the way.  At first he said, "Well, they all live in Africa... so that's not it.  And these ones all like to play in the mud... But I don't know if zebras really like to play in the mud.  (Pausing.)  (Thinking.)  These ones (the other group) all have fur... (Thinking.) But so does the zebra..." And so it went.  Eventually, he correctly observed that one group was all cats, and after I told him there was even something else they all had in common that had to do with what they ate, he figured it out.  He then set off sorting them by color, where they lived, their size... There are all kinds of fun possibilities!
                                     
Animals Around the World:
When he had moved on from our sorting game, my son went back to making footprints in the play dough.  As he was pressing on one bit of dough and shaping it a bit, he stopped, looked down, and said, "Hey!  This looks like Australia!" (And then he promptly broke off a little piece to be Tasmania down off the bottom.  That's my boy!)  We started to look around to see if we had any Australian animals in our little collection.  He decided to pretend that the black bear was a Tasmanian Devil, a little gray cat was a koala, an ostrich was an emu, and a skunk was a dingo.  He even tried to put some animals where they geographically belong, like the crocodile up in the north and a snake in the outback desert. 
While he set up Australia, I made a little play dough Africa.  He couldn't wait to set up his savanna, as we have a good number of African creatures in our plastic animal set.
He was so excited to put his pair of lemurs on Madagascar!
 Next up, South America!
(That orange cat is very versatile.  On Africa, it was a hyena.  On South America, it was an ocelot.  
The antelope there is posing as a llama.)
Above is our final set up, including tigers and elephants on India and one of his personal favorites, two orangutans on the island of Borneo.  (We have Wild Kratts to thank for that little tidbit of knowledge.)

Recommended Reading:
We have several books to thank for my son's fascination with and knowledge of so many of the world's animals.  As I mentioned above, the Animal Atlas is definitely his favorite, but these others are also fabulous:
Happy reading and playing!


Pumpkin Spice Play Dough: 
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 2 tablespoons cream of tartar
  • generous sprinkle of cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 cup water
  • orange food coloring (I've heard sugar-free kool-aid packets also work well for this)

Mix dry ingredients in a pan.  Add water and oil and mix well. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for two minutes or until the dough has formed into a big ball.  Remove from stove and knead for 5 minutes or so, adding food coloring or kool aid as you go.  Cool, play and enjoy!

Dough is best stored in a ziploc bag or covered plastic container.  

Thanks to Mommyfootprint for the dough recipe!


Another one of our favorite play dough recipes is here, if you prefer a no-cook version.  I highly recommend adding the food coloring to the water to help avoid staining your hands as you knead.  I also suggest adding a little bit of water at a time until you have the right consistency.  I added the whole two cups right away and ended up needing to add a lot more flour, oil, and salt to get it right.  Thanks, The Imagination Tree, for another great recipe!