November 17, 2014

Creative Christmas Letters

We write a creative Christmas letter to go out with our picture every year to let our family and friends know what's going on in our lives. Here are some ideas to help your Christmas letters stand out.

My mom is a very creative lady and every Christmas when we were growing up she would send out a cute Christmas letter to accompany our picture in a Christmas card. I have continued the tradition because I guess I just like to make life more complicated. . . . well actually I enjoy it. I enjoy thinking of a clever/cheesy/ridiculous way to share what's been going on in our lives.

Here are a bunch of creative ideas to help you write your Christmas card letter this year: 

1. Write a letter to santa

Write a letter for Santa asking for things that will help in your families activities from the year. For example "Dear Santa, This year Maren would really love a new violin; she's wearing hers out with all the performances and practicing!"

2. Write a haiku for each child

Seriously. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that's part of the fun of writing Cheesy Christmas letters. A Haiku (in case you don't remember from school) has a line of 5 syllables, then a line of 7 syllables, then a line of 5 syllables. And they're kind of fun to write. For example:

Joshua's Haiku:

piano playing
early morn' trumpet blowing
where are my earplugs?

3. Dictionary

We did this one a few years ago and people really liked it. Check out this post about our family dictionary. 

4. Newspaper

Make your family letter like a newspaper, with different sections for sports, education, politics, the Arts, and classifieds. A very fun way to present a card.

5. Doll family

Pretend your family is being packaged as a doll family. What sort of accessories would you come with? Check out our Doll Family Christmas Letter from a few years ago.

6. Cancelled Christmas letter

This was probably the easiest letter to write. We listed all the reasons our family was too busy to write a Christmas letter that year, and let people know it was cancelled. People really enjoyed it. Read the full Cancelled Christmas letter in this old post.

7. Candidates

During an election year, you can present your family as political candidates up for election. Check out our Candidates Christmas letter post from several years back.

8. Recipe

What makes  up your family? Write a recipe for each of your family members. Read more about this idea in our Recipe Christmas Card blog post from a few years ago.

9. Top 10 list

What are the top 10 things that happened to your family this year? Write about what's going on.

10. Multiple choice quiz

See how well your friends and family have been following your lives. Write up a clever multiple choice quiz just for fun. For example:

Christopher has recently started:

a. piano lessons
b. chewing with his mouth closed
c. reading voraciously
d. basketball
e. all of the above except b

11. Poetry form

Some of you might be clever enough to pull this off. I am not a great poet, but maybe I'll make Jason write one someday. I have a poetic family though. One year my brother Greg wrote a great poem for a family Christmas letter that makes me laugh. Here is a snippet of the beginning and end:

It's that time of year when the Smith's get together
And rattle their brains for the new Christmas letter
Marty said "Let's do a cross-word puzzle"
The rest said "That's stupid" and put on his muzzle
Fighting ensued until Liz bellowed "Stuff it,
We'll tell all our tales in trite rhyming couplets."
The stanza's aren't good, they're not worth five pence
They reek with abuse of artistic license
Read on for enlightenment all about us
Verbatim veracity of all last year's stuff.

(here there was a stanza on each of the family members)

Well that's about it for the Smith Family update
We hope this bad poem doesn't ruin your holiday
Have a good year, and please keep in touch
And feel good inside 'cause we love you so . . .
. . . next year we'll just send you a stupid crossword puzzle.

12. A Crossword puzzle

Of course, right? Give clues and let people fill in a crossword puzzle, because Marty's idea wasn't that stupid.

13. Family Holiday Songbook

One year when I was in college my mom called me and told me I was responsible for creating new words to a Christmas song for their Christmas letter that year. Each child was supposed to do their own. They compiled them in a "Smith Family Songbook" and mailed it out to friends. Crazy, huh? And actually, my youngest brother John got out of doing one and my mom just did it for him, because that's what happens when you're the baby of the family. I'd share mine as an example, but it's just a bit too embarrassing.

14. Police photos

Make a wanted poster. What "criminal activities" has your family been up to? For example:

Wanted: Nathan (5), for excessive laughing and cuteness, snitching fruit snacks, and reading above his age level. Take precaution when apprehending - suspect has fierce ninja moves and carries lots of swordlike objects.

15. Superhero Family

What super powers does your family have? What's the name of your Super Team? What heroic things have you done this year? What evil have you conquered? There's lots of possibilities with this one.

16. Year By The Numbers

Write a list of numbers and why they represent your family this year. For example:

2 - children at public school this year
5 - the number of teeth Christopher has lost
150 - the number of books Maren read this summer
etc . . .

17. Write it from the baby's/child's/pet's/neighbor's point of view

How would your baby/child/pet/neighbor describe your year?

That's all for now. I will add more as I think of them. I haven't put in the Christmas Letter I'm doing this year because I want it to be a surprise . . .

November 13, 2014

Best Toys for Creative Education

These toys are sure to inspire children's imagination and encourage their creativity!

this post contains affiliate links

When we talk about "learning toys" we usually think of things that teach kids about science or reading or math, but these imaginative and creative toys are an equally important part of education. Creativity is so important for our children. Creative children are able to approach a problem from different angles to find the best solution.  We need creative thinkers who put old things together in new ways to solve problems. Unfortunately our public schools emphasize memorizing facts to answer questions on tests.  It's up to us as parents to give our children opportunities at home to learn creativity.  Check out this article called Why Creative Education is Important for Kids for more about this important topic.

Creativity is learned through play. We need to protect their playtime and provide them with the right kind of toys. Look for toys that can be played with in more than one way, toys that encourage role playing, and toys that allow kids to make their own unique creations.

Here are links to some of our family's favorite creative toys on Amazon. These are affiliate links, so if you purchase through them a small amount will go to the blog without any extra cost to you. Amazon just pays me for referrals, but sometimes you can find better deals elsewhere so go ahead and shop around. I just give you the links so you can better see what I'm talking about.


Every child needs a good set of blocks! Or two or three!
Our favorites:

1. Magna-Tiles® Clear Colors 100 Piece Set
Expensive, but worth it! We love love love our Magna-tiles!

2. Melissa and Doug 60-Piece Standard Unit Blocks
My kids love these wood blocks. We have two sets. They can be stored in the wood box they come in. My kids build zoos and castles and ninja hideaways. Great blocks!

3. Melissa and Doug Deluxe Jumbo Cardboard Blocks (40 pc)
Well, we don't actually have these, but Grandma does, and the kids love playing with them! She has a bunch of sets and the kids will build houses and towers and knock them down. So fun!

4. MindWare KEVA Contraptions
We received this as a gift and the kids love building ramps for the balls to go down! Very fun set of blocks. 

Dolls and Such

By dolls I just mean "toys that have people for kids to act out life with", so don't think dolls are just for girls! My 3 boys all love acting out scenes with dolls (they just don't call them dolls). Here are some of our favorite "toys with people for acting out life":

1. KidKraft Chelsea Doll Cottage with Furniture
Maren loved her dollhouse. It's still in our attic because she just couldn't get rid of it. Occasionally we'll get it down and play with it. The boys play with it too when Maren's not looking. The dollhouse she had is no longer made (she's getting so old!) but this one looks good too. 

2. Playmobil Police Station
I love Playmobil toys! I always wanted some when I was little and I've bought my kids a bunch. Yes, the little pieces can be annoying, but the details are so fun! This is another product where you should check the official playmobil website before buying to make sure you are getting a good deal. It's hard to know if the price has been inflated because it's a retired set. My boys love the pirates and dragon castles and Maren loved all the fairytale sets.

I love Lego Duplo Bricks too. This is a toy that could go in the block category or the doll category. My kids love building with them, but then they also love playing with the Lego people too. You can read my post on Why Every Child Needs Lego Bricks for more suggestions on great sets to buy!

4. Fisher-Price Little People Fun Sounds Farm
Doesn't every kid need a Little People Farm? The design has changed over the years but this was always a favorite toy of my toddlers.

5. Imaginext City Center
We have lots of Imaginext! I mean LOTS! We have 2 castles, a fire station, a space station, helicopters, cars, etc . . . I am partial to the old sets because I think they were better made, and you can still find them on ebay or at yard sales, but the new sets are good too.

Dramatic Play

Role playing is one way kids make sense of the world around them. They act out what they've seen the people around them do. Role playing can also be used to teach kids how to respond in situations. These toys are great for encouraging kids creativity.

My son Joshua purchased this for himself one year and the kids have had lots of fun with it! They set up collection and delivery schedules and write mail to each other. A great buy for dramatic play!

2. Imaginarium Adventure Costume Trunk Set Viking, Pirate, King, Knight and Wizard
Imaginarium makes great dress up clothes! But apparently they're a Toys 'R Us thing so you can't buy many of them on Amazon. I linked up to this dress up set so you could see what I was talking about but you could probably get a better deal at the Toys 'R Us website. They make foam shields and swords that my boys love also, and Nathan has this really neat two sided knight/king costume with a cape that is pretty great.

3. Folkmanis Funky Chicken Hand Puppet
Folkmanis makes great puppets. I don't have this chicken puppet . . . yet . . . but I do have a lot of others. We have a knight puppet, a princess, a three headed dragon, a monkey, a swan, a mouse, a big furry dog, a monkey, a rabbit and did I mention I like puppets? You can buy a puppet theatre or make one yourself. Kids love making up and performing their plays. 

4. Learning Resources Teaching Cash Register
This is a great prop for role playing snack shop or store (and teaching about money)!

5. KidKraft Vintage Kitchen - White
My little boy loves pretending to make me food and I love pretending to eat it. We don't have this specific kitchen (we got ours at IKEA) but this looks like a good one too. We especially like the Melissa and Doug Felt Food - Sandwich Set to go with it. So much pretend fun to have!

Art Supplies

Giving kids opportunity to create and explore art is an important part of childhood. These are some of our favorite art essentials.

1. Melissa and Doug Deluxe Standing Easel
We have the easel from IKEA, but this is a good one too if you don't have an IKEA close to you. My kids love drawing on our easel, writing messages to each other and using it as a prop in pretend play.

2. Play-Doh Sweet Shoppe Frosting Fun Bakery Playset
We love playing with Play-Doh! We have a bucket full of cookie cutters, knives, and toys to play with. 

3. Do A Dot Art Marker Rainbow, 6-pack
These Dot Paint markers are a great way for toddlers and preschoolers to paint without too much mess. You can also buy painting books to go with them, such as this Colorful Critters Do-A-Dot Art Creative Activity Book.

4. ALEX Toys - Craft, Giant Art Jar, 170N
Sometimes you just need to give kids a bunch of supplies and let them go at it, with no end product in mind. Just let them create for the joy of it.


Puzzles require creative thinking and problem solving skills. Start kids doing puzzles when they're young and encourage them to keep trying when things get hard.

1. Melissa and Doug First Shapes Jumbo
Puzzles with large knobs are great for babies and toddlers. Find puzzles with simple shapes and familiar animals to start with.

2. Melissa and Doug Wooden Bear Family Dress-Up Puzzle
My kids always enjoyed these mix and match puzzles when they were little.

3. Jungle Juniors 24 Piece Floor Puzzle
These big floor puzzles are great for groups of kids to do together on the floor. My 4 year old liked to do them by himself too. 

Ravensburger makes great quality puzzles! We have been lucky to find several at yard sales. The kids do the puzzles over and over again. I love that they have these simple 35 piece puzzles for little kids. We also have several of the 60 to 200 piece puzzles and they are all great! And look! They even have a  Disney Frozen Puzzle !

Musical Instruments

Just like it's good to have a bunch of different art supplies around for the kids to explore, it's good to have lots of different musical instruments around for the kids. They will discover how different instruments sound together, and you might just need earplugs. Here are some great musical toys:

1. Hohner Kids Toddler Music Band
This set has a xylophone, drum, and shakers. Great for toddlers!

2. Melissa and Doug Band in a Box
For older kids, this set includes a tambourine, triangle, cymbals, maracas, and wood block. My kids have played with this set for years!!

3. Rhythm Band 13 Note Chromatic Handbells
This is a great set of bells for a budding musician. My kids love playing with the bells.

What kid doesn't love pounding on a keyboard? We are lucky enough to have a real piano, but this is a good alternative for something smaller.

We surprised Joshua with this guitar last year and he has loved it (he had just turned 9)! Great for older musicians.

I hope this list has given you some ideas of great gifts for encouraging creativity in your kids.

What are your favorite creative toys?

This post is part of the KBN gift guide. Hop over to What Do We Do All Day to see the different gift lists.

Follow Erica • What Do We Do All Day?'s board Gift Guides for Kids on Pinterest.

November 6, 2014

Lego and Lego Duplo Blocks Reviewed

Lego bricks are a great gift for kids. They inspire creativity and I'm going to tell you why every child should have some and what I think are the best sets to buy.

This post contains affiliate links

I must confess that I love Lego Duplo bricks. Love them. I have buckets full and I still want more. The saddest part is that my youngest is now big enough to want the little Lego bricks instead of the Duplos. But I still might buy some anyway . . . (I still need a Duplo chicken).

I bought Maren her first set of Duplo bricks when she was 18 months old. I had received a gift card from my mom to WalMart and I was so excited to buy some. I would build a square and she would get in the middle and laugh. Pretty soon she figured out how to snap them together and take them apart and then the fun began.

An impressive Duplo Train

A few reasons to love Duplo bricks:

1. They build up quickly, so it's easy to make impressive structures.

2. It's easy to find the piece you're looking for.

3. They are great for imaginative play. Kids can build their own houses and city buildings and play fire fighter and doctor and police and grocery store etc . . .

4. A lot of the sets lend themselves well to creating unique structures rather than there only being one right way to build.

5. Great re-sale value. These blocks last forever and you can sell them on ebay or at a yard sale and get good money for them. OR give them to a friend and make her day. OR save them for your grandkids. OR yourself.

Duplo blocks are not just for little kids. Start collecting sets while the kids are little and your big kids will still play with them, I promise. My kids know that asking me to help them build with Duplo is a sure way to get mommy to play with them.

Love this humongous house Joshua built, complete with garage and airplane landing strip

When my kids starting getting older they started wanting the little Lego bricks as well. I have fond memories of building houses with secret passageways and the like when I was a kid, so I was happy to oblige.

A few reasons to love Lego blocks:

1. They teach kids how to figure out and follow directions.

2. They help improve attention spans. I was amazed when my 7 old spent hours focused on building his Lego castle after his birthday last year.

3. They encourage creativity and pretend play (when you have the right kind of sets).

A couple drawbacks:

1. Many of the sets my boys seem to want seem to be "build one time" types of sets. My boys will build them and then if they break and get mixed in with other sets, the boys never build them again. This drives me crazy! All those pieces not getting used, and then my kids think they need new sets. Not going to happen.

2. All those little pieces are easily stepped on and easily lost.

But like I said, if you get the right kinds of sets Legos are great for creative thinking and playing. I prefer to buy sets that can be used and combined many ways, but we have a fair amount of branded sets from movies that get built only once because the kids are really drawn to those.

My favorite is when my kids build their own Lego houses and cars and airplanes and then play with each other, visiting each other's houses.

I know they are expensive, but you can usually find great deals around black friday or on ebay for large lots of random pieces. They are worth the investment. They give both boys and girls opportunities to engineer their own creations and keep kids' interest for a long time.

Some tips for buying for Christmas:

1. For those who don't have any Lego blocks yet, find sets that are full of generic blocks that can be used for lots of different things.

2. Don't forget the baseplates! Building houses and things is so much easier on a baseplate. We have 4 Duplo baseplates and sometimes I think we need more.

3. The people make it fun, so find sets that have people or buy the people separately. They sell surprise minifigure packs that my kids love and I usually put one or two in stockings or Easter baskets.

4. Check out the Lego Junior block sets for younger kids who want little Lego bricks like their older siblings. They are quick to build up so that if a parent is doing the building it doesn't take to long to rebuild if it gets broken. Nathan (5) loves his!

5. Don't think Lego Bricks are just for boys! Girls love them too (and not just the Lego Friends sets). Maren has always loved building with them and girls need the encouragement to build and create and engineer just as boys do.

Here are some links to great sets on Amazon. These are affiliate links, so if you purchase through them a small amount will go to me without any cost to you. Amazon just pays me for referrals. But I must say that sometimes you can find better deals elsewhere, especially on sets that are no longer made. Sometimes the prices are inflated, and it's hard to tell. You can check the official Lego store online to see if you are getting a good deal or not. I give you these links because it's easy to show you what I'm talking about, but feel free to buy elsewhere. Also ebay and yard sales are fantastic ways to build up your Lego brick collections.

Some favorite Duplo sets:

LEGO DUPLO My First Deluxe Box of Fun 10580 Building Toy
This looks like a great starter set with a couple people, a couple of animals, and pieces to build houses and cars. A great first set for your young kids!

DUPLO LEGO Ville 10525 Big Farm
This set has a CHICKEN! What more do you need? It also has other farm animals, fence, a tractor, a farmer, and pieces to build a barn. Great set! (you can send me the chicken if you don't want it.)

LEGO DUPLO Fire Station
This is a really cool Fire Station! We don't have this particular set (although my son just saw it and said he wanted it for Christmas) but we do have a little fire chief in a truck with a hose and the kids love pretending that a house catches fire and then the fireman comes to save the day. Fun times.

Lego Duplo 10505 Legoville Family House
This is one of my favorite sets! We didn't get this exact one (we got it YEARS ago) but we had something very similar. (our pieces were yellow instead of pink, which clearly is better) The large pieces are used over and over again to build a multitude of structures and we have a lot of fun with playing house.

LEGO Education DUPLO Large Building Plates Set 4570269
These baseplates are a must! It makes building so much easier for little kids. We have 4 and they all get used.

LEGO DUPLO Town Treasure Attack 10569 Building Toy
I'm so glad they're starting to make Duplo castle sets again! These are so fun. I actually bought some off of ebay because they didn't have any when I was looking for my son's birthday a couple of years ago. We got a dragon with ours.

Some favorite Lego sets: 

LEGO Juniors 10675 Police - The Big Escape
Nathan got several Lego Juniors sets for his birthday and has loved them! He loves this police set and the fire station set they sell. The boys have fun pretending with them.

LEGO City Police 60047 Police Station
This cool police set is next on his wish list, when he's a little older. 

LEGO Friends Olivia's House 3315
I understand the issues some people have with the "Friends" line Lego is making, but I think this set is pretty fun. My daughter has it and had a great time putting together the house, making the furniture and the cute little accessories and food items for the kitchen. It's a great set. We did, however, skip the beauty parlor set. We've just got to take a stand sometimes.

LEGO Kings Castle
I love this set. I've always loved the Lego castle sets, and this one is great! Christopher bought it with his birthday money last February and it's pretty neat. I personally think girls would love this set too, although it doesn't have any girl minifigures, which is too bad.

LEGO Education Brick Set 4579793 (884 Pieces)
This is just a set of plain bricks for building and creating. No instructions to follow, no people, but a great set for getting started.

LEGO Education Fairytale and Historic Minifigures Set 4598356 (227 Pieces, 22 Different Figures)
This is a really cool set of minifigures. It has mermaids, knights, a wizard, princess, etc . . . I'd like this set myself someday . . .

LEGO Green Building Plate (10" x 10")
Don't forget the baseplates!

You can find minifigure packs at Toys 'R Us or Target for about $4 each. They are more than that on Amazon. My kids like feeling around in the pack to try and guess which one it is before buying, which can take a long time . . .

But once I was able to score this totally awesome Lego chicken:

Now I just need to get a Duplo one . . .

This post is part of a great Blog hop! We've teamed up to bring you a giveaway for $125 cash to help with those Christmas expenses! Enter below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Hop on over to for more great toy reviews!


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