December 3, 2014

Favorite Series Books for Early Readers

As a teacher and a parent, I'm always on the look out for good books. These beginning chapter book series are some of my kids' favorites!

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There's a magical moment in a child's life when reading clicks! Suddenly they just get it, and their reading takes off. This can happen anywhere between Kindergarten and Third grade. This is the time when kids love reading easy chapter books and especially love reading stories about favorite characters. Series are very popular at this age. Kids don't seem to mind that plot elements are incredibly similar and predictable. In fact, that's what makes them so great for young kids. The predictability factor helps in their fluency and builds confidence.

If you're like me, you love giving books as gifts. These series books are some of my children's favorites (and I've read them too). Any one or set of these books would make a great gift for birthday or holiday. Affiliate links are provided for your convenience. They link back to amazon so you can read more about the series if you're interested.

What can I say about this porcine wonder? I love the Mercy Watson books. They have great colorful pictures and silly stories. The large text and lots of pictures make it very accessible to early readers. The hardbound books and chapters make children feel grown up for reading chapter books. We love these!

Captain Awesome
This is a fun new series for early readers. The print is large and there are lots of pictures. The stories are clever and funny. And with a name like "Captain Awesome" you know it's going to be good. 

My Weirder School
This is a newer series and one that my kids love! Even Maren who is way beyond this level enjoys reading them. 

Judy has been a favorite around here for a long time. She's spunky and kids will relate to her moodiness. But she also is able to figure out how to get around her moods which is great for the kids to read about. 

My boys (and girl) have enjoyed reading about Judy's younger brother Stink. The words are big and the chapters short which make for good reading for young kids.

Kung Pow Chicken
Do I even need to say anything? Doesn't the title speak for itself? Crime fighting ninja chickens. Yup. That's a winner in this family.

Galaxy Zack 3-pack: Hello, Nebulon!; Journey to Juno; The Prehistoric Planet

Galaxy Zack
A new series I haven't yet read, but my kids have enjoyed. Sorry for the lame review. I hear they're good. 

Magic Tree House books
Magic Tree House are classic books for a reason. One thing I especially love about them is the positive brother/sister relationship portrayed. We need more books where kids are kind and polite to each other! Jack and Annie go on fun adventures and the kids learn things. Maren and Joshua used to go around yelling "Mt. Vesuvius" after they read the "Vacation under a Volcano" book and that always made me laugh. There are also "research guides" you can buy that have more information about each topic. My kids have liked those as well. 

The Rainbow Magic Fairies
There are a million of these books (well, not really, but it seems like it.) Maren LOVED reading every single one of them. They are very predictable, but that helps make reading them easier.

This is the series Christopher is currently interested in. Maren read and liked them too. They are fun early reader fantasy books for kids who like that sort of thing. 

There's something about mysteries at this age - kids just love them. This series about three friends solving mysteries is great. There are other series by the same author and in the same format that my kids have liked - The calendar mysteries, and the the capitol mysteries come to mind. 

This funny little girl has spunk. Maren loved reading about her adventures. 

Andrew Lost
These books are great for kids who love science. Each book takes Andrew on a new science adventure, discovering new things. They are similar in difficulty to the Magic Tree House books.

These books will always hold a special place in my heart. This was the first series Maren devoured as a child and she used to love to pretend she had a photographic memory like Cam. She'd close her eyes and tell me to quiz her about what was in the room. It was extremely cute. Kids love these mysteries and how Cam is able to solve them. 

The Littles

The Littles
Fun stories about little people living in your walls! These are great classic books my kids have loved. 

Beast Quest #1: Ferno the Fire Dragon

Beast Quest
Joshua and Christopher have both loved these books. Honestly, I was surprised because parts are scary and my kids don't do scary very well. There's another series about the same land I've stayed away from because I've read reviews that they were gory, but these ones are good. The idea is that there are several beasts around the land who are being controlled through magic collars and a boy goes on a quest to free them from the collars and save the land. 

Bailey School Kids
These are popular with the kids. Any stories about school actually seem to do well, and a school where the teachers may be magical or mythical beings? Definitely high interest there.

Everyone loves Flat Stanley! These books are classics and a great place to start for kids beginning chapter books. Christopher and I started reading these together last year, and he liked them so much he wanted to just read them on his own rather than wait for me to read them with him. I call that a win!
Zack Files
This is one of the series I have not read any of, but my kids like them. 

I know, I know. Some people CAN'T STAND Junie B., and I get that. But personally I just love her. She makes me laugh. Just as long as none of my children try to behave like Junie. Maren loved these books, but she didn't read them on her own. We read them aloud to her, and it was a great bonding experience. We laughed together, but we were also able to talk about what wrong choices Junie B. was making and what she should've done. Christopher can't get past the first chapter of these books. He has a hard time with suspense caused by kids doing wrong things. He gets too nervous for them and the consequences. So clearly, not for everyone, but it was Maren's favorite so I included them. Just be warned. 

Notebook of Doom
The titles of these books are very appealing to my boys. Doom! Aghh! Christopher says they are good.

There was a time when Joshua devoured every Encyclopedia Brown book he could find. Again, it's that mystery thing. These are great books for kids on the older end.

There are LOTS of series out there for the beginning-to-read-chapter-book child, and it can be hard to sort through them all. I hope this list of our favorites has helped as you try to find books that will be your child's favorites. What ones that you loved would you add to the list?

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.


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