Kid-friendly science with Grandpa

We made a quick trip to Wisconsin last month for my dad’s 60th birthday and one of the highlights was a visit to his lab. Jax was thrilled to help with some experiments and is still talking about them. My dad also gave us some ideas of experiments we can do ourselves with common household staples, so the fun continues!

Animal GalleryLooking at a very large crab on display in the halls of the biology building.


Experiment #1: Dry Ice. What happens to it in water? Is the smokey stuff hot or cold?IMG_5695

Adding warm water made even more vapor.



IMG_5638Watching the stirring machine.

Jax left the lab with his very own flask and a couple of plastic test tubes. Here are some experiments we’ve been able to do right here in our kitchen:

Fizzy Whizzy!: Add vinegar to baking soda and watch what happens.
Which one floats?: Pour olive oil into a flask and then add water. Which liquid is on top? Put the top on, flip it over, and see if it stays that way. This was a huge hit, and got Jax thinking about other liquids to try. He is thinking like a scientist!

This board on Pinterest has many more exciting and elaborate experiments to try, too.


Resources for Preschool French Learning

When I was pregnant and living in Paris, I stocked up on all sorts of books and toys for baby Jax. Now that he is four and a half, and Ben is nearing two, I am finding a gap between these basic board books and the materials I’d like to use for French learning at the preschool level. While I daydream about stuffing suitcases with inexpensive used books and DVD’s during our next trip to Paris, there are, in fact, many media resources available to us here in the States, often without expensive shipping fees and always cheaper than a plane ticket across the Atlantic.

What follows is a list of what I’ve found to be useful and accessible, but please feel free to comment if you have more to add to the list!

I was surprised to find that sells reasonably-priced books entirely in French with free shipping. The selection isn’t very extensive, but it’s not bad for a beginning library. You need to carefully read the descriptions, however, as some books are “bilingual,” meaning that the story is told with French on one side of the page and English on the other. If you want to avoid slipping into English translation, these choices would not be ideal. But certain families may find that this works well (or even better) for them, so do know that they are around! Below are some French versions of familiar favorites (by Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, and company), but also some French characters, like T’choupi, who is the star of a charming little series for preschoolers. T’choupi goes to school, rides a bike, makes a snowman, doesn’t want to share, etc. These are almost all under fifteen dollars (most are priced around ten) and did I mention they ship for free? Pas mal du tout!

Amazon also sells this wonderful imagier published by Usborne. While its title, First Thousand Words in French, is in English, every page is entirely in French, and the illustrations are charmingly detailed scenes with little labeled drawings surrounding them. This was a thoughtful gift from one of my French dissertation advisors and is one of my go-to word books. If you can get your hands on this great ten-dollar book (it seems to be out of stock from time to time), grab it!


And for older ones, or for bedtime, don’t pass over Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic. (psst… it only costs about seven bucks!)


When it comes to magazines, you can periodically check your local international press vendor, as I did for two years on my commute to Manhattan (there is a French section at the news seller in Grand Central), but something much easier and less complicated is to simply subscribe. It seemed like this option would be unreliable, given the fact that magazine subscriptions are usually national affaires and you’d have to pay a lot of extra shipping (and would they actually show up? who knew?). But I am happy to report that I have had great success with the publishing house Milan.

ToupieChanson13-page1-400x510A month ago I subscribed to Toupie Chansons, which is a CD and magazine combination published quarterly. At 114 euros (including international shipping), it is expensive, but this is a high-quality product for kids of all ages and the first issue arrived in a week. Because each edition follows a theme (animals, kings and queens, spring), the dozen or so songs on the CD range from familiar (Sur le Pont d’Avignon) to the more obscure. The accompanying magazine has the lyrics and music for all of the songs, a corresponding coloring activity for each song, and additional activities and learning pages in the back (all about the drumset, for example). A feature I haven’t used as much as I could is the instrumental track which follows each song on the CD. Jax and I sing our own version of the simplest songs, but it’s something I’d like to use more. A word of wisdom, however: be sure you back up these expensive music tracks! I have them all as mp3’s and we use the CD’s in the car. It’s somehow still surprising how scratched they get with use. Also note that, although I subscribed only to Toupie Chansons, I also receive the monthly Toupie magazine, recommended for ages 3-6 years and filled with short stories, poems, stickers, matching and “what’s different?” activities, and more. I am so pleased with these magazines, and feel this was a great investment. We will use and reuse these songs and stories over the years.

Music and Videos
Speaking of music, this may be the easiest form of media (aside from websites) to get your hands on. The albums below are all available as digital downloads or as CD’s with free shipping, and are ones we use in our family and recommend.

And as for video, the Little Pim series is really the only language learning series marketed as such that I’d recommend. They follow the learning philosophy of immersion and repetition, and use real language structures, which are simple but mimic real-life usage.


But there are a lot of free options for French videos, too. We often watch Trotro and Barbapapa cartoons on YouTube (search for “Trotro francais” and “Barbapapa francais”). Netflix has hundreds of classic French films for adults (and teens), but also The Red Balloon, a sweet story that appeals to children as young as three. While not very language-rich, the movie is a French classic with a few words and many beautiful views of 1950s Paris.

Remember that virtually any toy or game can be played with in any language, as long as there is minimal text and the people playing with it are using only the target language. Candy Land can be used to teach colors, dominos to teach numbers, a toy barn with animals to make animal noises, play food for eating, drinking, and cooking vocabulary. But sometimes the goal is simply exposure to text. Or if you, the parent, are also a language learner, sometimes it takes more guidance. For this, I’d recommend the following toys and games, which are ones we use or at least similar to ones we do.

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 1.41.45 PMAnd my personal favorite, a French calendar from Nature et Découvertes. We bought ours at one of their stores in Paris, but it looks like you can order this one online. We have been trying to start our French playgroup with the calendar, to talk about the seasons, numbers, and some minimal vocabulary (“une fleur”…) Plus, this is cute playroom or kids’ room décor.


French is much more than France!
This is so important to remember, especially in North America. We live a half-day’s drive from Montréal, and yet so many of the French materials we have cross the Atlantic. A friend who runs a French immersion school suggests the following:

Éditions Scholastic: the French language branch of the familiar Scholastic publishing house, this one is geared to the Québecois market.
Amazon Canada: search Books, then narrow on the left column by “French Books” and then “Jeunesse.” There are over 20,000 titles!

And don’t forget to search etsy and ebay for French books and other treasures. Where have you been finding all things French these days?


I use affiliate links for The suggestions are my own opinions, however, and all other links are commission-free.

The kids’ room was clean this one time

While we’re on the decorating kick, how about a couple of shots of the kids’ room? It was all organized for about five minutes, so I took photos.

This room started out purple, which wasn’t really a problem, except that some of the paint on the exterior walls was beginning to chip. When we had the whole house repainted in January, we decided to switch it to a fun aqua color, which I think goes better with all of the baby and kids’ stuff we have. It’s bright and cheerful for little ones, but I could also see this color growing with them to some sort of surfer theme or what-have-you. This is a lighter version of the color I painted the closet last summer.

The toy storage cubbies are from Target (now discontinued, sadly – a more pricey but great-looking alternative are Via Boxes.) We lugged the ottoman from Fez, Morocco way back in 2004 (you buy it unstuffed and stuff it with newspapers when you get home). Jax’s “pirate treasure box” holds little cars and toys he doesn’t want Ben to get into.

A lot of these things ?? like the balloon and Eiffel Tower watercolors I painted ?? we’ve had since our apartment days in the city.

The print above is from a schedule for the Nouveau Casino, a hip music club in the Oberkampf section of Paris. Our friend Corry (who we lived with in Paris for a year) used it to wrap a gift for Jax, and I knew it would look great as wall décor. I cut it to size and put it in an album frame purchased at Michael’s.

That latch-hook rug dates from my childhood: my wonderful Granddad and Granny made it for me when I was 3 or 4.

For more details on creating the fort bed, check out this post. Since this will be the boys’ shared room, eventually Jax will be up top and Ben on the bottom. Since the bottom “bunk” is simply a mattress on the floor, we can transition him to this bed relatively early. Even the top bunk is pretty low to the ground, so Jax could technically sleep up there ?? although he prefers the bottom. Realistically, he would most prefer being in our bed (a bit crowded with Ben in there most of the night). We love that we can lay down next to him and read stories as he goes to sleep. He comes into our room every morning around 5 or 6 to sleep another hour or two. He is sweet.

Those front-facing “bookshelves” are the ubiquitous Ikea Bekvam spice racks (four bucks each), attached with screws to the armoire. Along with the clip-on reading light, they are the perfect solution to reading in bed on the top bunk.

This awesome piece of art was a shower gift for Ben created by my college roommate, Michelle. I love it.

A new dress-up area with a collection of French children’s books on the shelf. The hooks are also useful for hanging outfits the night before preschool and daycare, to make our mornings a tad less hectic.

And there you have it! This room definitely gets crazy messy, but because everything has a home, it’s pretty easy to put toys and books back where they belong. Now we just need to get a certain 3-year-old into the habit of doing so…

Halloween Festivities & Kid Crafts

We’re getting excited for trick-or-treating tonight! But the festivities have been going on for a couple of weeks. Highlights:

Halloween fun at friend Vivian’s second birthday.

Pumpkin-carving party last Saturday

A ghost craft Jax and I did last night:

I asked if he wanted to glue black “eyes” on, and he enthusiastically asked for several, attaching them to the bottom.

Jax made this cute spiderweb at preschool.

The two of us made this bat last night. Tracing around his hands is something Jax loves to do, and he practiced cutting to make the border.


We had a wonderful time celebrating Jax’s second birthday at Muscoot Farm. Over a dozen other kids along with their parents joined in the fun. Since my talented sister, Monica, was in town, as well as my mom, the baker extraordinaire, we went a little crazy with the crafts and decor. Some people go to the gym or watch movies. Us? we stay up until midnight gluing felt to make a farm scene and devising ways of creating frosting of varying shades of brown “dirt.” Poor Jax.

Here are the craftastic highlights!

The invitation (created in minutes on using a July 4th template):

First, we had a craft table set up where the kids glued fuzzy balls of various colors to sheep silhouettes cut out of cereal boxes. We also had paper glasses to embellish with feathers.

Then it was time for the pre-lunch hayride!

We kept lunch simple by ordering party heros from the local Italian deli. Twelve feet of sandwich, three feet each of four kinds. Even 40 people couldn’t get through half of the sandwich slices. Now we know.

{Sources: animal plates, recycled plastic plates, wooden silverware, recycled napkins}

The cake:

Yes, there is a huge problem of scale here. Where you see the little tractor was supposed to be a wooden “2” in place of a candle. I forgot the number and we had to improvise. Cake Wrecks here we come!

We tried to have many activity options for all the kids. In addition to the craft table, I made a farm scene out of felt, with removable animals the kids could rearrange.

Of course, we also had a mini farmer’s market. It turned out to be a hit with the kids to grab a market bag and “shop”:

I made the canvas market bags out of a drop-cloth I bought at the hardware store and some ribbon from the craft store. I made 16 in all, but with one drop cloth probably could have made another 16. They are really, really easy to make using these instructions. The most time-consuming part was attaching the handles, and I think that was because I went overboard reinforcing them. I would estimate they took about 8-10 minutes each.

Inside each favor bag was a little wooden tractor from Etsy seller TnTWoods, which is based in Wisconsin and wonderful to work with (we created a custom order of 16 toy tractors.)

Highlights from the festivities:

…and a very happy birthday boy!

Party Planning for our Toddler

In these couple of semi-less-hectic weeks before the semester begins I’ve decided to plan Jax’s second birthday party. Last year’s theme worked out well for a baby who was mainly interested in things that moved and were brightly colored. This year, Jax has provided us with so much inspiration, since he is old enough to express his likes/obsessions. So what is he into these days?

~Farm animals: The noises they make, the hay and grass they eat, the fields they hang out in.

~Barns: He is exceptionally excited about the barn-shaped tool shed our neighbors have in their backyard.

~Gumby: Who would’ve thought? We tried to make it to age 2 without any TV, but I know I’m not the only parent who’s had to accept that The Plan doesn’t always work out in reality. Sometimes keeping the kid safely away from boiling water and hot oil in the kitchen takes priority. Why Gumby though? Of all the kid shows on Hulu, this is the one that stuck. “I want to watch Gumby and Pokey” is the evening dinner-prep hour request.

~The Farmer’s Market: For the past couple of weeks, every other sentence that comes out of Jax’s mouth is “I going the farmer’s market.” Literally. He’ll be playing with his firetruck and have the little fireman say “I going the farmer’s market. See you ater.” He’ll have the baby pig tell the daddy pig that he’s “going the farmer’s market.” When asked for specifics, Jax tells us he’s going to get cucumbers and tomatoes. It’s crazy sweet.

~Garbage Trucks: This has been an obsession since April, when Grandpa Ron took Jax out onto the balcony of their Florida condo to see the garbage truck collect the garbage. His passion for “wabage” and garbage trucks hasn’t waned. When we go out for ice cream, I swear the most exciting part for him is throwing away everybody’s napkins.

~Tractors: When we were in Ohio in June Jax got to play with Seth’s matchbox cars from when he was growing up. There is a tractor in the collection and it’s a favorite. Keeping it in my purse has made certain outings a tad more manageable.

So given these interests, and the fact that there will be other children there with parents who may not have introduced them to Gumby yet, and who may not find it socially acceptable to spend two hours pretending to throw away napkins, can you guess what the theme will be?

Heritage Crafts Day at Van Cortlandt Manor

The rain couldn’t keep us from having a picnic by the river and then checking out the Heritage Crafts day at Van Cortlandt Manor. The event showcased crafts like dying wool, making butter, working with tin, blacksmithing, and open air cooking. It seems all we do each weekend is visit some sort of historic farm or museum! When you’ve got a toddler who gets excited about a haystack, and you’ve got a membership to Historic Hudson Valley, it’s really a no-brainer.

Walking down the hill to the picnic grounds.

Throwing stones into the river.

The blacksmith demonstration.

Was the sausage in the foreground there as decor or was it their lunch?

Playing the triangle.

Abercrombie & Fitch pose.

Jax interrupted his run to the hay to point out the “airplane sky” he probably thought didn’t fit in with the 17th-century surroundings.

New favorite game: jumping or falling down objects or stairs to be caught. He’s very trusting!

Home-made Finger Paint

I’ve made my own playdough before and it is a really easy project. But finger paint seemed so much more difficult! I don’t know why. If you have the patience to stand over a stove for 15-20 minutes stirring, then you can make the stuff. It’s just about time and having corn starch in the cupboard. Sheesh.

Three recipes can be found here. I used the first one, which was basically: combine 1/2 cup cornstarch, 2 cups water, 1/2 tsp salt and 2 tbsp sugar in a pan and stir over medium-low heat for about 15-20 minutes, until it becomes a thick, almost gelatinous substance. Let it cool completely, then divide into jars and add food coloring. We made three colors using 15 drops of yellow, 15 of red, and 10 of blue.

Then we took it outside along with a bunch of brushes and a big piece of cardboard (white on one side!) and tried it out. It was a huge hit! Bonus: it washes right off and seems to clean easily from clothing, too.

Memorial Day Weekend: Baby Animals Day at Muscoot Farm

For weeks I had my calendar marked on May 30th: Baby Animals Day! I couldn’t let Jax miss the excitement of good ol’ farm-themed fun. Plus, the visit is entirely free and is about 15 minutes away. He and I went with our friend Amanda and her now 4-month-old. While still too young to make all the animal sounds, I think the baby found the surroundings quite stimulating, especially the shady trees and the quite vocal cows!

In addition to a gathering of several historic farm buildings housing many animals, Muscoot Farm is also the site of a Sunday farmer’s market, so we hit that up first while the little ones napped. Then it was on to the stables and fields.

These lambs were only two weeks old.

Still too tired to check out the Jacob sheep.

When Jax woke from his nap he was delighted to discover himself surrounded by cows.

But he was quite apprehensive about petting the chick and kept a safe distance.

He wouldn’t get any closer to the duckling, either.

The  chicks were on the left and the ducklings on the right and he stood in this corner looking back and forth, pointing and saying “chicken, duck.”

And then, the mother of all farm birds: a gigantic turkey.

You can never stare at a tractor too long when you’ve only ever seen one in a book.

{Try to spot him pointing at the bottom of the video window.}

We saw cows get milked and remarked upon how the milking machines use the same mechanism as a human breast pump. I guess we’re all mammals.

We went back to look at the sheep and poney, which Jax had missed as he slept.

Jacob sheep, meet Jacob.

We went for a second round at the farmer’s market to pick up some dairy products and raisin bread. Jax tried the milk and bread immediately, but mostly had fun just ripping it apart.

Good-bye for now. We are sure to be back to watch the baby animals as they grow!