Learning to Draw

Our theme for our posts for July is, loosely, homeschooling: learning at home.  Partly, we are talking about avoiding the summer slide, but we are also looking at how learning at home and outside of the classroom is important for broadening our kids’ horizons.  And, yes, we include our trip to LEGOLAND in the learning category!  You should have seen how the boys looked at each others’ car models and sought advice and inspiration from each other to make their cars faster.

One of my goals for myself and my kids this summer is to create more art.  I am powerfully drawn to art supply stores in a way that totally defies logic because I can’t draw!  All those gorgeous colours of markers, and here’s be barely able to draw a smiley face.

I’d like to change that.

Here are three sets of books that I have found really useful.

animalsEd Emberley’s illustration instruction is an outstanding place to start, not only because the method is so simple and fun but because results are so instant.  Seriously, no one can mess this up.  We have several of his books, but the web site is fun and useful, too.  It has printable sheets and animated instruction.  I really like the step-by-step method, but also how he includes ways to vary the basic image.  We own a copy of his Drawing Book of Animals, originally published in 1970.  It is dedicated to “the boy I was, the book I could not find.”  That broke my heart a little.  Well, your boys and girls can find both the book and the web site and can get busy making art right away.  His fingerprint illustrations are particularly fun, and they even incorporate literacy into the method: if you can write IVY LOU, you can draw an owl.


Another series I love is based on shapes.  Chris Hart has a whole line of illustration instruction books, but the ones I go to all the time are his very basic shape-based ones: Draw a Triangle/Circle/Square, Draw Anything.

drawAgain, the key to the success of these books is step-by-step instruction and instant gratification.  My son’s hockey team, whose logo was a deer, made it to the finals in their division a few years back.  For luck, I decided to give them all lucky underwear (inspiration from the coach, who had a pair) and I went to this book to find a super-simple image of a deer to draw onto the underwear.  Huge hit.

20Finally, I have fallen in love with a great series of books that encourage artists not only to make art but to find a style that suits them: the 20 Ways to Draw series from Quarry books.  The illustrations are a lot more advanced, but the books demonstrate various styles for illustrating the same object, from simple to more complicated.  There is no step-by-step instruction, but there is a lot of inspiration!



TMN-logo_Square1A reminder that voting is open for the best mom blog of 2014, for which we are thrilled to have been nominated.

Please head over to Toronto Mom Now and check out the other nominees.  You can vote for your favourite three.  Voting closes on Monday, July 14.


A Trial Run with a Dog

photoA few weeks back, I pondered if I was ready for a dog.  Eldest had come back from a dog sledding trip positively bursting to get a dog.  I did not say no; I suggested some further investigation was in order.

When his uncle and aunt had a baby a few weeks ago, Eldest suggested that, as a shower gift, he would look after their dog for a week.  I thought it a great plan: a chance to help out and a chance for a trial run with a dog.

Well, I am thrilled to report that Eldest knocked it out of the park.  He got up at 6 every morning this week to walk the dog.  He came straight home from school to walk him.  He fed him dinner promptly at 6.  He took him for an abundance of walks.  He lavished him with attention.  The dog slept in his room each night, so none of the rest of us had a moment of disturbed sleep.

All three boys are so happy to share his company.   The dog herds the youngest two to school, and he is reluctant to leave them there, staring longingly at the doors after the bell has gone.  There is much joy and rejoicing on the occasion of every reunion.  We went for a lovely long walk with him after dinner last night, and when Middlest gave me a dandelion clock to make a wish on, I wished for more nights exactly like that one.  I am extraordinarily proud of Eldest, who demonstrated absolute readiness to take on the responsibility of a dog.

His mother, however…..  His mother is.  Just.  Not.  Ready.

Even with Eldest’s excellent performance, and the abundance of joy in our house, and a dog with the friendliest, most relaxed temperament, I have found it so very draining to have another dependent living being on my radar.  I am on edge.  I feel like I have not been able to recharge my batteries all week.  I cannot really account for it based on how low stress a dog this is, but there is no arguing with the spike in my anxiety.  I had no idea I was so close to the edge of my limit, but the dog has shown me that this whole time that I have been operating with the sense that I am on top of things, I’m still basically a hair’s breadth from a meltdown.

It has been a huge disappointment to discover my limits this week, especially since Eldest did all we could reasonably require (and more) in terms of demonstrating his maturity and responsibility.

But this is what trial runs are for: exploring, experimenting, testing our limits.

The Pleasures of Handmade Chocolate

050I didn’t clue in on the second or third or fourth readings why my son was so fascinated with Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Apart from the fact that it’s a timeless, fabulous read that’s entertaining for both children and adults.  We were also loving the edition illustrated by Quentin Blake, whose whimsical drawings seem to perfectly complement Dahl’s outlandish tale.

But there was another reason, and that’s because my boy really wanted to make chocolate.  I was ever so slow to catch on to this.  When he first talked about being a chocolate maker and a chocolate inventor, I said sure, and got on with whatever critical task I was doing.

When he kept talking about making chocolate, I clued in that he actually wanted to try and I told him one of two things:  a) I didn’t know how or b) you can’t make chocolate.  I’d like to think I made the former claim, but I’m pretty sure I said the dumber latter thing.

At last, when the poor child was blue in the face with asking, I had a glittering eureka moment.  Why don’t I just look into it, I thought?  And promptly discovered that it is not only possible to make chocolate at home, but not difficult at all (unless you are starting truly from scratch with cocoa beans, which we weren’t).  Snapping out of my no-can-do trance, I remembered that I love making things in the kitchen at home with my boys and at last we got to work.

We did some research, read a bit, watched a few youtube videos.  There are lots of different recipes out there, but I wanted to make one with cocoa butter, because this seemed the most delicious and pure way.

The recipe I used (and I cannot for the life of me find the source, sorry) contained exactly four ingredients.

250 grams of cocoa butter (edible, some kinds are intended for body care)

8 Tbs of powdered milk

12 Tbs of cocoa

250 grams of icing sugar

(pinch of salt, optional)

The most difficult part of making the chocolate was getting some really good ingredients, and even that was just a run to the natural food store.  I splurged on raw organic cocoa butter and got some good cocoa powder, because with a recipe with four ingredients, the quality of these would seem to really matter.

We melted the cocoa butter in a makeshift double boiler, and blended it with the mixed dry ingredients.  And, um, that’s it.

Then we poured our chocolate mixture into a variety of silicone molds (maybe some chocolate bar molds should go on my son’s gift wishlist?  If you don’t have these, you could line a loaf pan or baking tray with a lip with parchment paper and break the chocolate into bark.  Spooning out the liquid chocolate was messy so we poured it first into a little milk jug which made pouring into the molds much easier.

We chilled them, popped them out of the molds and wrapped them in mason jars as we had a bunch of May birthdays to celebrate.  I read somewhere that handmade chocolates melt more easily than storebought, so we kept the presents refrigerated until time to give them.

The outcome?  It’s a lovely chocolate.  Not a true dark chocolate, but more dark than milk chocolate, partly because of the milk powder but especially because it was just sweet enough and no more.  It was strikingly similar to some very nice, very expensive handmade chocolate I sampled at a high end farmer’s market.  The texture of ours was a little grainy, which I can only attribute to the milk powder as the other dry ingredients are so fine.  There are lots of other recipes out there, and since it’s so easy and pleasurable and great for gift-giving, I can’t see why we won’t be doing this more and more.

It should come as no surprise that I was enamoured with the process entire.  With reading to my son a wonderful story and having it make a deep enough impression on both his imagination and sense of possibility that he’s spurred to try new things.  And that his energy moves me to try new things.  That I have the opportunity to stretch a little more a mind that I thought was already open to adventures in the kitchen with my kids.  That we get to create and taste and share really decadent and quite healthful treats.  I still can’t explain the blinders that delayed this handmade foray, but thank goodness for the persistent child who helped knock them away; it’s reason enough for me to love these chocolates completely.





Kids and Science: Experimenting with Ice, Salt and Colour


You may have heard mention around here that it’s been an intense winter… and we’re still in it.  Last week we got into the spirit of ice and did a melting experiment at home inspired by this from Jean at the Artful Parent.  You probably have everything you need in your home:  ice chunks (made from bowls and mugs of various sizes), salt, and food colouring or watercolour paints.  You’ll also need a tray with a lip to contain the melted ice – baking trays worked well for us.  It’s nice to have droppers to add the dyes/paints, although you could also just slowly pour some of the liquid from a teaspoon.

It’s an easy and fun project that beautifully demonstrates the melting action of salt when it comes into contact with ice.  When sprinkled on, the salt crystals will bore holes and crevices into the ice upon contact.  Adding food dyes (which we used) or watercolour paints to the salted ice illuminates these miniature pathways with colour.  The results were striking.





I think I can fairly say this is the most successful crafting project I’ve done with all three boys (7, 5 and 2) so far.  All three were completely engaged and, praise be!, my littlest could participate fully.  They love ice, just touching it, they enjoyed applying the salt, squeezing the drops of food dye from their little containers (each drop makes a dramatic difference), and using our own droppers to play around with the coloured water that pooled around the ice on the trays.


They stayed at it for a good, long while.  Toward the end, I was hanging around the kitchen island watching them work and waiting for them to finish); they needed no assistance or input from me.  It was a bit messy, and their sleeves were wet (my two year old’s shirt was pretty wet too), but it was easy to clean up.  It was well worth it, and really quite pretty.

And Canadian winter that we’re in, this ice project will probably reflect the weather outdoors for a few weeks yet…



“Simple Living” Isn’t Always Simple, But Worth It

145A holiday designed to honour everyone who matters in your life with individualized gifts and attentions is probably not going to be simple.  Not whether you buy presents at the mall, online, your local artisanal shop, or homemake everything.  Celebrating the many people, if you be so lucky, who make your life worthwhile can be many things – a challenge, and opportunity, necessary even – but simple it isn’t.  The couple of families I’ve seen who have successfully done this – say, by sitting around a fire and enjoying hot cocoa to its fullest with no need for more – are virtual ones (and I don’t mind telling you I’d like to get a peak into their non-online lives).

I try to practice “simple living” as it’s called, and I’m here to tell you that while it may be simple, it’s not necessarily easy or less work.  Around the holidays, for example, I almost always incorporate some homemade gifts into the stash, and I work quite hard to involve my young boys in this process.  This year one project of what my son has called the “elf factory” was making jars of peppermint hot cocoa.  They’re lovely, I think, and the boys worked hard measuring out the cocoa, crushing the candy canes, and layering the jars with chocolate chips and marshmallows.   They also spent a lot of time trying to write out the recipe instructions on the gift tags (made from their watercolour artwork), signing them, and punching holes in the little cards.

It might be a simple activity to describe, but it’s particularly easy to execute.  It’s not so simple buying all the ingredients and the jars in bulk and setting up a big enough work station.  It’s not simple to save the watercolour art through the year and retrieve it at Christmas, or to guide the writing of two boys at different stages.  It is positively, unremittingly not simple to engage a two year old while his older brothers get to do cool stuff that he can’t quite do.   And clean-up?  Not simple.

There may be people out there for whom this kind of activity is a cinch, regardless of how many kitchen items a toddler can throw around.  I’m not one of them.  I do it because I love it, because it makes the holidays feel a bit more heartfelt to me, because I want to keep the consumerism at bay, because it’s so important to me to make things with my boys, and because I hope the recipients of our gifts can somehow feel the care that went into making them.  (I’d also do anything to avoid going to a mall at this time of year.)  But it would be much, much easier for me to click a mouse a few times and buy presents in lieu of the ones we’re making, and as I can afford this, I am actually choosing to complicate my holidays by making presents with my children.

Simplifying, or slowing down, or mindful living, doesn’t necessarily mean doing less, it means doing less of what you don’t want so you can make more space for what you do want.  Sometimes what we want is messy and spills onto the floor.  I make gifts with my boys not because it’s simpler, but because I’ve decided it’s worth it, even if the dining table is covered with mason jars and there’s nowhere to eat for two weeks.  If at some point it gets too much, we won’t do it again when the next year rolls around.

But I hope we do.

Family Chess Night: The Gift of Experience

For Father’s Day this year, the kids and I gave Ted a Family Chess Night.

Little G plays a pawn game.

Little G plays a pawn game.

The two oldest had been selected for their school teams for the end-of-year chess tournaments, and with their successes we thought it would be fun to bring the competition home.  It took us until November to get the night booked, but it was well worth the wait.

You can tell they are related because they all hold their faces when they play.

You can tell they are related because they all hold their faces when they play.

We asked the kids’ wonderful chess coach from The Chess Institute of Canada to come and do a family night of chess fun for us all.  (And by “us” I mean “them” not “me”; I don’t play chess.  Yet?  This was designed to be a Dad and his boys kind of thing.)  I knew that it would be fun because I saw how my kids engaged with Yakos during chess club and during tournaments.  You could not hope to meet a more enthusiastic and supportive coach, and having presented him with the idea for a family night of chess, I was sure that he could plan activities that would work for the four chess players who live here.  He told us he was excited to have been asked, and he put together 90 minutes of games, puzzles, riddles, and a 3-on-1 match.  I observed, took photos, and reveled in seeing the boys compete with their dad for the family tournament points.

Yakos plays three against one.

Yakos plays three against one.

I love gifts that are experiences, and this was one of those experiences that made me grin from ear to ear all night.  Everyone had fun, everyone learned something new about chess, and we spent the evening together in a place that was not a hockey rink.  Good times!



Turnip Pickles – Seriously, They’re Good!


I don’t know much about lacto-fermentation or probiotics generally, except that they’re supposed to be good for you.  What I did know is that I had some little turnip things (not exactly sure what they were) that had been sitting in my crisper for months, hanging over from our winter CSA.  I can see why we grow these humble guys though – after much neglect, they were still as firm as when I got them.

Inspired by this post, I thought to try my hand at lacto-fermented turnips.  The recipe is for radishes, but I reasoned that turnips are a similar vegetable and substituted them.  You just need salt, water, and the veggies – no boiling, no canning – it really is so easy.

Some pickle recipes ask you to cut the veggies evenly using a mandoline, but I ignored these directions, and asked my favourite 5 year old slicer to do his best with the turnips.  He peeled and sliced away, working steadily and with concentration, until they were all done.  The pieces were not uniform, but I am here to declare that they were perfect all the same.

We dipped into the first jar after 48 hours (we let the other sit for 72 hours – unlike pickles canned in vinegar, lacto-fermented foods are alive, and will change with time).  I don’t know what to say except that they were completely delicious.  Like we ate the entire jar and then wanted some more delicious.  I learned later that the salty brine is healthy enough to drink, which is a good thing, because I kept taking slugs of it on the sly.  The universe is on your side when something so yummy is good for you!

The kids totally loved it, too.  Both jars were good, but I liked the crispness of the first jar a little better.  Or you could leave it for a couple of weeks and see, but I don’t see how we could ever wait that long.

There are some tired old turnips still in my fridge, and I may just try lacto-fermenting them too.  They represent a challenge to any culinary endeavour, but if there’s anything that can rescue them now, lacto-fermenting them into pickles must be it.

Love in an Envelope: Letter Writing for Kids

040Before I write this post, I have to tell you that I am biased about it, because there are few things I like more than getting a handwritten letter in the mail.  I’m sure this pleasure if a rarity for most people these days, and I count myself very lucky that I can remember the last time I received such a gift, which was about two years ago.

In this age of ten-second tweets and texts, the slow intention of a physical note can be a real gem, and I was plain excited when my six year old finished drawing a picture and then asked to mail it to his cousin.  I tried not to drop what I was doing to pull out an envelope.

My son is still working on his handwriting, and addressing the envelope – right down to making the letters small enough to fit – was work for him.   But he kept at it and finished the task.  I was delighted when he looked up, and asked to do more.

In the end, he drew four pictures and messages specifically for his cousins and a friend.  He addressed four envelopes, stamped them, and was the one who dropped them in the post box.

A few days later, I got two emails from my siblings, both saying how they and their kids were touched by the letters.  My sister-in-law said my brother brought the letters out at then end of a tiring and busy day, and it brought smiles to everyone.  We got a lunch invitation out of it from my sister.  Both families said the envelopes were kept, as that’s where so much of the effort of a burgeoning writer was found.

From this, I’ve determined that letter writing (or even mostly envelope writing, as the case was with us) is a wonderful way for children not just to practice their writing skills, but also to warm the hearts of the people around them.  Maybe the slowness of making those painstakingly printed letters somehow slows something down in the reader.  Whatever it is, something about it seems to feel good.  

My son’s birthday is around the corner, and topping the gift list from me is a homemade letter writing kit.  It will be a simple affair – a box with a lid, envelopes of different sizes, notepaper, writing utensils, and stamps – but the box will be infused with the special wish that lots of letters and love will flow out of it.


Knitting With A Boy

011My oldest is knitting!!

It started a few months ago, when his grade 1 class learned how to fingerknit.  And he has been fingerknitting little belts and strings in the car, at home, and even during a (long-ish) musical concert.  He’ll ask if he can knit, then go to the little wooden shelf where I keep my modest stash of yarn, and fingerknit away.  It’s marvelous.

He also asked me several months ago if he could do some knitting with two needles, and we tried.  It was a bit too tricky, and we shelved the project for another day.  And I confess that although he has asked me a few times since then to try knitting again, I’ve resisted, thinking it was still a bit too early to learn.

But I put it squarely on the table again, when I picked up the needles again myself a little while ago.  Also, my son’s class is moving to knitting with needles soon too.  This, and seeing me work, prompted him to ask again if he could learn to knit, and thank goodness I said yes.

Somehow, something seems to have shifted, and he is ready for it.  He works hard at his knitting, because it is a challenge for such young hands.  It’s not easy, but we are encouraged by all the little steps that show improvement, and I am amazed at how often he asks to knit.  (Like when I am buckling all three kids into the car, for example.)

When we were working on a first little project, the metal needles kept slipping.  I wondered aloud if we should try some bamboo needles, which might be less slippery.  My oldest was very excited about that, and we quickly determined to go to our local yarn shop to buy him some bamboo needles just the right size for him, and a skein of his own yarn.

My son was so keen on going that he helped develop a plan:  we could go while one of his younger brothers was in afternoon kindergarten and the other could be taken in the stroller and nap there.  Also, he said, we could knit there.

And I realized that every word he spoke was true.  My son has gone with me several times to the yarn shop, and seen the knitters who gather at its centre to knit together.  Never have I sat there to knit; I have always been with a child, and also felt a bit shy to join in, as the knitters were experienced and knew each other.

But now I was fortified by an eager companion.  We would go!

And we did, both of us doing something new, learning together.

And it was so nice.

The Benefits of Being a City Kid

027One of the benefits of being a city kid is that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that you may one day play in the big leagues.  Well, on the big league’s turf, anyway, which is what happened for my middlest son this weekend.  His house league team sold the most tickets to a Toronto Marlies Game, and their reward was to play their house league game on professional ice at the Ricoh Coliseum.  With his dad on the coaching bench, his mother in the front row, and his brothers watching and cheering his every play, our star player had one of his best games ever.  See that Goal #2?  That was his, along with three assists to help his team to a 5-3 win.  A beauty of a game that not only made me a proud mother but a proud city-dweller, too.