DIY Vision Therapy: It Is Possible!

When Pookie was three-and-a-half, he started putting letters together to make words.  Though I was surprised–he still only recognized less than half of the alphabet–I hauled out my early-reading materials and prepared for him to progress. Only he didn’t.  At first I assumed it was a readiness issue; he was very young, after all, and though his siblings also learned to read young, perhaps the fact that he couldn’t remember all of his letters was holding him back.  But after a full year with no progress, I began to wonder if there was more going on.  After all, ‘Love’s childhood medical records indicated that he had received vision therapy for tracking issues.

After receiving several recommendations for a particular optometrist, I called and made an appointment.  I had been warned that it would be pricey, but $250 (sans vision insurance) for a 75-minute-long, in-depth assessment that included a retinal scan didn’t seem too shocking.  The first appointment confirmed my suspicion–there were a few issues that deserved more attention.  A second appointment (another $350) involved another hour of interactive assessments for my little guy while I was provided with information on vision therapy and was told to expect a price tag of $3-4,000 for six months of treatment.  At the hour-long follow-up appointment (included in the cost, thankfully), the optometrist gave us a report on the testing that had been done and how our son had performed.  It was very thorough and helpful, and most of what she said made a lot of sense with what I had observed.

Then came the bombshell: the cost was going to be $6,400 for 34 weekly, 45-minute therapy appointments (plus one or two additional progress assessments).  Reeling from the unexpected price hike, ‘Love and I walked out with heavy hearts.  We had been braced to pay $500 a month for treatment we thought would have long-term benefits for our son; this amount would have been a stretch, but it was attainable.  Finding an extra $750 a month, however, was simply out of the question.  But how could we walk away from something that would help our child succeed in life? Continue reading

Earth’s Layers Cake: The Low-Tech, DIY Version

cakeMy kids wanted to study volcanoes.  I was totally uninspired by volcanoes, but I thought I’d run with it, perhaps expanding the study to include plate tectonics and the rock cycle so we’d have a bit more to talk about.  While I was searching for inspiration, I ran across the idea of having a cake to show Earth’s layers.  “Great!” thought I.  “Sign me up and show me how!”  (I’m a sucker for anything edible–particularly if it’s sweet!)  Unfortunately, everyone doing this project seemed to have round bakeware–cake pop molds of varying sizes, round-bottomed oven-safe mixing bowls.  Not I.  And, since I am disinclined to shell out that kind of money for the props to make one cool snack, I thought I’d look for my own way.

My creation doesn’t have perfectly-nested spheres (in fact, the outer core seems to spike into the mantle in a couple of places!), but it definitely has the layers, and–most important of all–it got the point across and thrilled my kids.  In case you want to try it, here’s what I did:

Supplies: White or yellow cake mix/recipe, chocolate frosting, white frosting, food coloring, multiple bowls for separating/mixing colors, two 8″ or 9″ round cake pans, large spoons, two cookie cutters (round is ideal–I didn’t have round), cake decorating set

1. I used a generic white cake mix (yellow would be fine, too–I use the yolks, so mine isn’t truly white).  After mixing the ingredients, I separated the mix into three bowls: a small one that I colored yellow, a medium one that I colored orange, and a large one that I colored reddish.  Make sure the mix is pretty colorful, since the color will be less concentrated once the cake poofs up during baking.  (Too much food coloring tastes bitter, though, so don’t go overboard.)

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2. First, I placed a cookie cutter in the center of each pan.  The first one I filled with a dollop of yellow (inner core).  I spooned pink (mantle) around the edges of that pan and filled the space between with orange (outer core).  In the second pan, I filled the cookie cutter with orange (outer core–to cover the inner core from the first pan) and poured pink (mantle) all around it, reserving a small amount of the pink for the next step.

 

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3. Then I removed the cookie cutters, covered the dollop of outer core in the second pan with a layer of mantle, and popped both pans in the oven.  (The first pan–with all three layers–had less batter, but both seemed to cook fine.)

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4. When the cake was out of the oven and cool, I used a small amount of runny white frosting (I warmed mine to make it thinner) to glue the layers together.  The three-colored layer went on the bottom, capped by the layer that’s mostly mantle.  Make sure the little bit of outer core is on the bottom of the top layer–you wouldn’t want to have your mantle and outer core reversed!  Next, I used a very thin layer of chocolate frosting to represent the lithosphere.

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5. This gray represented the solid rock of the crust.  I wanted to make it clear that even the oceans have crust beneath them.  Yes, I know the crust is included in the lithosphere, but the Red Cross/PBS material (more on that later) we’re using talks of them separately, so I just followed their lead.  I used really runny frosting so I could make a very thin layer.  (After all, this is already the second frosting layer, and I still had more to go!)  The generic brand frosting I use wins for runniness!  My gray, FYI, is made from a red/green mixture.  If I remember right, it was two red drops and three green.

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6. Time to add the thicker continental crust parts and fill the oceans!  This time I thickened the frosting slightly with about a cup of confectioner’s sugar to the tub.  I wanted it just stiff enough to hold some texture, but still soft enough to spread in a thin layer.  Since we’re also studying the Middle Ages right now, I decided to do a rough map of Europe.  (Very rough.)  I rarely use the frosting tips as intended; I used the star tip loosely for a textured water look, but for the land I just did a rough outline with a tip and then spread the green around with my knife.)

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The finished product!  Of course, you can’t really tell how many layers of frosting went into this (except when eating it!), but if the kids watch or help, they’ll get every detail of the process.  And the finished result was enough to spark their glee, so I’d consider this one a win!

 

12 DIY activities for emerging readers (plus three free online resources!)

Little Pookie surprised me the other day by walking up to his letter cards on the wall (as mentioned in my literacy activities for pre-readers) and pointing to “c” then “o” then “t”–which were not posted in that order on the wall—and saying their sounds. When I asked him what that made, he said, “Cot! Like I had at Grandma’s!” While my older two did this same thing—spontaneously sounding out words—it took me off guard coming from Pookie because he STILL can’t tell all his letters apart. (I know, he’s barely three-and-a-half, but the older two had them down by two or two-and-a-half!) Nonetheless, since he has pleased-ly been looking for words to sound out since then, I guess it’s time to haul out my early literacy activities. In honor of this auspicious occasion (what’s more exciting than your kids learning something new and difficult?!), here’s my go-to list of activities for early readers–in no particular order.  I hope someone finds them useful!

  1. Word Bingo – I made my own bingo cards with simple—and similar-looking—words. Including words like “pen,” “pin,” “hen,” “win,” “hat,” “hit,” etc. forces new readers to look closely at each letter of the word, ensuring that they are not simply guessing based on beginning or ending sounds or the shape of the word. And who doesn’t like playing Bingo?  I’ve made four sample PDF WordO Boards you can download–two with simple, three-letter words, one with initial blends and one with ending blends.  (By using the “cover all” rule, you can practice more words, and they won’t notice if you make the card 4×4 for a shorter game.  Otherwise, lengthen your traditional row/column based game by making your board 7×7.)
  2. Surprise Words – Early readers are typically thrilled with their new ability, eager to display their prowess. I’ve had great success at encouraging their skill by leaving words around the house for them. A pair of words spelled on the fridge with their letter magnets has a seemingly irresistible pull, drawing the new reader over to puzzle out their meaning.
  3. Word Families – This was a little silly, but it was fun. I paged through some magazines and cut out people, arranging them into families of various sizes. I then glued each person onto an index card and wrote a simple word on each card. Each family had one word ending (or “rime”), so the kids could match the families based on which words rhymed. (Matching rimes rhyme!) For example, the “At” family had hat, cat, fat, bat, and sat in it. The “Ig” family consisted of pig, big, and wig. Matching the words to their families allowed the kids to see that words that were spelled the same often sounded the same and also allowed them to work on their fluency at reading common letter combinations.
  4. Name Match – Hunt around your house for a variety of small objects with easy-to-sound-out names: a cup, a hat, a pen, a doll, a toy dog or cat… Write the name of each object on a piece of paper, and see if your child can match the object to its name.
  5. Spelling Stories – This is a fun activity to do if you have letter blocks or magnets. I would start to tell the kids a story, stopping every sentence or two to spell out a new word for them to read. So, for example, a story might begin like this:

    Once upon a time there was a [spell out “cat” for child to read]. Now this [point to “cat” again] was a black-and-white stripey [point to “cat”] whose name was [spell out “Sam”]. One day our [cat] friend named [Sam] was going for a walk in his neighborhood. It was a lovely spring day, and he was enjoying the warm air and the smell of damp earth. Suddenly, in the middle of the sidewalk, [Sam] spied something. It was small and [spell out “red”].

    You get the idea. The more suspenseful or silly the story, the more eager your readers will be to participate, so keep the comedy going and the intrigue high!

  6. If you're not feeling artsy, use clipart and print your puzzles on cardstock.

    If you’re not feeling artsy, use clipart and print your puzzles on cardstock.

    Spelling Puzzles – I owe this idea to the authors of Reading Reflex, a book I happened to get from the library as my older kids were learning to read. They suggested creating word puzzles. I used blank index cards laid horizontally. I wrote each word, spacing the phonemes so they could be cut apart. On each card, I also had a picture to match the word. Then, I cut the card so the picture was on one slice, and each phoneme had its own slice. Using the picture as their clue, my kids were able to assemble the matching word by sounding it out. Be careful that your words are decodable for early readers! You can begin simply, with three-letter words, and progress to words with beginning and ending blends (like “clap” or even “plant”).

  7. Word Building Games – Drawn from a vaguely-remembered activity I assisted with as a fourth grade classroom aide during college, this word building helps kids to focus on each sound of a word. In order to play, you create a list of words that are all one letter different. Then, gather your necessary letters and tell your child the first word. After that, make sure they only change one letter—don’t let them build from scratch! Leaving the word intact forces kids to distinguish the precise difference from one word to the next. If you want to add difficulty, you can have them add a fourth letter to their words or change two letters at a time.
  8. Partner Reading – For early readers, the act of reading is exhausting. Each letter must be translated into a sound, each sound remembered as the next one is added, and the whole string of sounds blended together to create a meaningful word. That’s a lot of effort! For this reason, my early readers delighted in partner reading. As I read aloud to them, I would choose a word or two per page that could be easily decoded. Even contributing “and” or “it” to the story can be satisfying for newbies; as a child becomes a stronger reader, he can be in charge of every “the” in the story, or simply assigned to more and more words per page. This method also serves to eliminate the need for early-readers, which my kids (and I) found stilted and painfully boring.
  9. Add magnets to make this a fun fridge activity or take it on-the-go with a magnetic tray!

    Add magnets to make this a fun fridge activity or take it on-the-go with a magnetic tray!

    Spelling Cards – I made a series of cards with a picture on one side and a corresponding word on the back (on cardstock, so the word doesn’t show through!). My kids enjoyed trying to puzzle out how to spell each of the words with letter magnets, checking themselves by looking at the back of the card. Once again, I started with simple three-letter words and increased the difficulty as they became more adept.  I’ll have to see if I can find the file to upload for this one…

  10. Treasure Hunts – This was definitely a kid favorite—they still enjoy treasure hunts! If you haven’t ever done one, it’s simple: Select a treasure to hide. (Ours was often our afternoon snack, but anything will do.) Hide your treasure, and then hide a clue to finding the treasure. Hide another clue and another…and then give your child the last clue you write. So, for example, you give your child a clue that says, “On Sue’s bed.” On her bed, Sue finds a paper that says, “In the tub.” In the tub is a paper which says, “On the T.V.” There she finds a clue that reads, “In a pan.” Finally, she discovers her treat inside a pan in the kitchen cupboard. These are great for rainy days, especially if you make sure to keep the kids running to opposite sides of the house (or upstairs, then down, then back up) with their clues. As your kids get better at this, you can make more complicated clues or find more devious hiding spots to increase the challenge.
  11. Labels – As your reader gains more competence at sounding things out, you can increase their reading vocabulary and phonic knowledge by posting labels on things around your house. “Lamp” may be a fairly simple word to sound out, but lots of words—like “light” or “knife” or “coat”–can spark helpful conversations about how letters work together, giving your kids a boost into more complex phonics. Besides, the more words your child has puzzled out and sees regularly, the more words they will be able to read easily in stories.
  12. Internet Resources – The internet has a wealth of resources on every topic, but here are a few of my favorite freebies for use with kids at the beginning of their reading journey.
    • Starfall – While this website has a plethora of varied content (and at a surprisingly reasonable rate), the learn-to-read material is available for free. After you have mastered the individual letter sounds (doable via interactive animations and short games for each letter on one portion of the site), you can move on to the phonics section. There, short, animated phonics storybooks, games, and songs gradually teach more phonemes. These were too intense for my kids at the very beginning (Reading four words per page for five pages in a row!? Whew, exhausting!), but may work better for older (or more patient? More motivated?) readers. Even so, my kids enjoyed some of the more difficult stories once they were more competent readers, and they have silly seasonal stories with fun interactive features. In addition, the site has more content for kids who are at higher levels of reading competence.
    • Progressive Phonics – This website has dozens of truly silly leveled readers, available for free download. Begin with the Alphabetti books for a young reader still working to distinguish every letter, or start with the Phonics Beginner books if your child is already confident in all their letters and sounds. The best part of these books (besides the stories that will have your kids giggling) is the fact that they are made for partner reading, with kids reading only the big, red words on each page—perfect for beginners! Many of these books also have matching downloadable activities, if you’re looking to extend the lesson.
    • Teach Your Monster to Read – This super-cutely-animated website—free of charge via the Usborne Foundation—is perfect for your just-learning reader. Letter sounds are taught via games—your customized monster has to herd sheep into the correct pen or choose the correct letter for each sound to rescue the princess. From there, you move on to sounding out simple words. While the super-sensitive mouse in-game and the fact that each activity has to be repeated three times (with slight variation) to move on were initial deterrents, the gradual addition of more game options and the fun animations kept my kids going. One minor drawback here is the British accent of the narrator. This might cause confusion for some (For example, “o” ends up sounding more like “aw” than the American standard “ah”), but my kids adjusted okay. (Perhaps it’s because we’ve had to get used to wrapping our ears around southern accents!)

hands-on history: ancient mesopotamia – sumer

As we wade through history, I’m doing my best at a regional/chronological progression—a bit like a mastery-spiral approach.  I’m attempting to spend several lessons exploring one particular period of a culture, then circling around to see what surrounding cultures were doing at the same time.  After we circle around a region for a while, touching on the same cultures again and again over time, we can take a break to jump to far-flung regions of the world and see how they were developing during the same time span.  It sounds logical, right?  Well, we’ll see how it goes.

After learning about prehistoric humans and the transition to farming and city life, we moved on to study ancient Sumer.  Here were the highlights of our study:

  • Overview
    • We got an overview of Sumerian life and historic contributions by reading in our Usborne Ancient History Encyclopedia.  This University of Chicago interactive website also provides a fun look at life in Ancient Mesopotamia and how archaeologists work.
    • We did some map work and pondered the many contributions of Sumerians using this mom-made worksheet: First Civilization -Sumer.
    • We read Ludmila Zeman’s illustrated version of Gilgamesh to get a glimpse into the lives and beliefs of folks in ancient Sumer.
  • Ziggurats
    Our ziggurats were very colorful!

    Our ziggurats were very colorful!

    • We did some ziggurat research and reading, primarily by wandering around this website.
    • We pondered ziggurat construction using wooden blocks to show how a ziggurat looked.  We also talked about how cities gradually became raised tells (or tels, as I always saw it before now).
    • We made our own ziggurats out of card stock. If you want to do the same, you’ll need some graduated squares.  (I used my paper cutter to make squares of 8, 6, 4, and 2 inches.  You’ll need to use two sheets of standard-size paper.)  Your budding ruler-user can make a line ¾ inch from the edge of each side.  You’ll slit each corner and fold on the lines to make a ¾ inch high square platform.  (You may want to make your top layer only ½ inch high–like the one on the left–to make the folding easier.)  My kids chose to decorate their papers first—colorful ziggurats are much more exciting.  We simply used tape to hold the corners together and secure one layer to the next.  If you wanted to be really detailed you could add a pair of stair-stringers–only upside-down, fitted into the steps of the ziggurat–with a piece across them to create a ramp on which to draw a gazillion tiny steps going up the side.
  • Cuneiform
    • We read about cuneiform. I did a bunch of cuneiform research and condensed my findings into kid-sized bites.  (You can enjoy the fruit of my labor via the link below this section.)  For our first round, we read about cuneiform and inspected the examples of how it changed over time.
    • The kids thought it was pretty fun to translate the cuneiform message.

      The kids thought it was pretty fun to translate the cuneiform message.

      We translated cuneiform. I used a cuneiform-style alphabet I found online (on this teacher’s blog) to make a page for the kids to decode.  (This is also included in the PDF packet linked below.  The message reads: “Cuneiform means wedge shaped.  The Sumerians invented writing.”)  To make this a bit simpler because my kids are young, I had each of them decode half of the message.  They thought they were pretty cool, “translating” cuneiform symbols to read the message.

    • We wrote our own cuneiform. Using the cuneiform alphabet sheet from the last activity, each of the kids wrote their name in cuneiform.  Then I had each of them pick three words to depict, creating their own cuneiform-style symbols.  They drew a simple image for each word, changed it to all lines and wedges, turned it sideways, and further simplified it, imitating the real changes to cuneiform writing.  (The worksheet we used is also included in the link below.)
    • Our finished clay tablets and our very-authentic-looking stylus

      Our finished clay tablets and our very-authentic-looking stylus

      We made clay tablets. I was going to have the kids dig up clay in the yard for uber-authenticity, but it happened to be thunderstorming when we got to this lesson, so thankfully I had air-dry clay as a backup.  Since we were also unable to look for sticks to use as styluses, I substituted those no-roll triangle-shaped crayons, which worked respectably.  Each kid chose one or two cuneiform symbols to inscribe on their clay tablet.  It’s harder than it looks to get those lines and wedges—the kids had a hard time remembering to make sure the point of the crayon was down rather than the flat side and understanding how to press the crayon down to make a line without squashing the whole crayon into the clay.  They practiced once or twice before making the final product.

Here’s a PDF of my packet for Cuneiform–background reading, translation, and invention.

the myth of the responsibility chart

A while back, I had the brilliant idea of crafting responsibility charts for my kids.  I was getting frustrated with doing little tasks that my children could easily do for themselves—putting their dirty clothes down the laundry chute at the end of the day, for example, or cleaning up the cascade of books in front of the bookcase.  A responsibility chart sounded like a brilliant solution to my woes.

After doing some pricing and finding nothing to meet my specific needs or price point (uber cheap!), I hunted around online for ideas.  I settled on this one from Spoonful.com—in part because it used materials that I already happened to have around the house, and in part because it didn’t have any markers or magnets that could mysteriously disappear, rendering the chart useless. ResponsibilityChart

My kids are young, so I made their responsibilities minimal.  Every day they need to put their jammies under their pillows when they get dressed, clear their dishes after every meal, clean up their toys and books at the end of the day, and put their dirty laundry down the chute.  Mommy’s problems were solved…or so I thought.

The first three days were great.  The kids were so pumped about their charts that they remembered all their responsibilities, gleefully sliding that straw from “To Do” to “Done!”  On days four and five, they would remind each other about their responsibilities…and Mommy would occasionally need to point to the charts when neither big kid seemed to remember.

On day six, the realization struck.  Those responsibility charts?  They’re really for Mommy.  After all, I SHOULD have been reminding them to clean up after themselves all along.  Isn’t that my job as a Mom?  To teach them the skills they’ll need as they grow and to help them develop into responsible human beings?  At barely-five and almost-four, my kids aren’t always going to behave responsibly.  They’re going to jump on the couch, forget to say “thank you”, paint their little brother’s hair, try to hog all the train tracks…  But that’s where I come in.  At the beginning, my guidance has to be perpetual; gradually, I can step back and let them take the lead, nudging them when they forget or fail.

Here’s the thing about being a Mom: it’s endless.  I think that’s both the most rewarding and the most daunting part of it.  If I start slacking off in my vigilance, neglecting to remind them to be polite or clean up after themselves, then they start to slip.  If the good habits aren’t perpetually reinforced, they seem less important.  So those responsibility charts?  The kids never touch them anymore.  But that’s okay; they’ve served their purpose for Mommy.

a thrifty thought for thursday: painting with kids

Once upon a time, someone gave us some paint.  It was a set of those little plastic pots, the ones that come all linked together with flip-down lids so you can re-use the paint.  My kids, unfortunately, felt honor-bound to use all the paint in one crafty session.  Even if they hadn’t been so determined, their paint-use skills would have dictated that future projects would involve only slightly-varying shades of gray, since they dip and re-dip their paint brushes with no thought to color preservation.

While this paint did not last us long, it sure was a big hit.  I took a trip to Michael’s to see if I could find something more preschool-friendly.  No luck.  No luck at JoAnne, either.  Rather than simply repeating our past folly and going through paint like it’s going out of style, I decided to get creative with wooden paint-mixing sticks, milk caps, and some hot glue.  Here’s the result:

Paint Tray

My 2.5 year old’s painting station post-craft time

I then purchased a bulk pack of tempera paint (much cheaper!), which I dole in small measure into my makeshift paint trays.  After the kids are done making a mess, I rinse ‘em off and store them for next time.  My sister-in-law, hearing about my project, decided that her disposable contact lens containers would be even better paint wells, so she used those—brilliant!  (If only I still bothered to wear contacts!)  At any rate, our milk lids are colorful and they do the job, allowing us to paint multiple times and still maintain color integrity.

On a side note, using Daddy’s old t-shirts for smocks has worked pretty well for us as long as we pull up our sleeves and make sure the extra section of neck-hole hangs to the back.  (Now if only I could get my daughter to stop painting her face…)

What creative ways have you saved money on kid supplies or adapted to your kids’ needs?

the great laundry soap dilemma

Periodically, I go on a statistics binge.  I record how many servings I actually get out of a box of Goldfish crackers (their estimated serving size is about what I give out for a large-ish snack), how many servings I can get out of an average-sized bag of grapes (I average about nine), and even how long a bar of soap lasts in the shower (Irish Spring lasts us about two weeks).

Washing machineA while back, before I had a time-consuming infant, I experimented with making my own laundry soap.  Being not-so-adventurous (and also not having a gigantic bucket handy), I opted to make the dry variety.  I found it agonizingly slow and blistering to grate the necessary laundry bar soap (Zote was by far worse than Fels-Naptha); after making three batches, I began wondering if it was worth all the effort.

An internet search for cost estimates of homemade dry laundry soap have it pegged (most often) between $.05 and $.07 per load.  Having made my own a few times, I did a cost-estimate and found that (depending whether I could find Fels-Naptha or was stuck with Zote), my cost was about the same as those folks online.  While name-brand detergents are generally pretty pricey, I could get a generic jug of 100-load laundry soap for $5.00 on sale—just as cheap as the homemade stuff.  Since I was at the near-bursting point of pregnancy when my homemade soap ran out, I bought the stuff from the store.

But after I got the stuff home, curiosity got the best of me.  I plunked a sheet of paper and a pen on top of my washer, and I started slapping down a hash mark for each load of laundry I did with that liquid soap, just as I had done with my homemade powder.

Now here I must pause to confess that I am cheaper than all get-out: if my washer is chock-full of stained baby gear, I fill my HE washer’s soap dispenser to the “Normal” line.  If that baby is just running sheets or is slightly less than super-full, I fill the dispenser to a titch below the “Normal” line.  Yep, I’m that cheap.

This detail makes what I’m about to say all the more remarkable.  I bought a jug of laundry detergent labeled “100 loads”.  If there were enough light in my laundry room, I would now be able to see the bottom of that jug, though it’s not quite gone yet.  So far I have done 49 loads of laundry.  (Remember, I’m not even filling the cup to the “Normal” line.)  That puts my total cost per load much closer to $.10 rather than the anticipated $.05.

Now comes my agony.  If I recall correctly, it took me at least a half-hour to grate the bar of laundry soap into usable form.  I have a food processor, but since I use that to prep baby food (or will again soon) I don’t want it all soap-coated.  So.  How much wallet-savings is my time worth?