Thursday, September 29, 2011

Changing Seasons

When I first moved to California from Connecticut six years ago, I felt like this place had no seasons. I take that back, I felt like it had only two seasons: warm and sunny (April through September) and cool and rainy (October through March). Since I lived for twenty-two years in a place that had four clearly defined seasons (COLD, warm, HOT/HUMID, cool), it was really difficult for me to adjust to two less-defined seasons. Over the last few years I've finally come to appreciate the small differences between the seasons here in California. I've noticed nuances that mark the beginning of fall, like cold mornings and the honking of geese in the early evening, and the sound of football games in my backyard at the high school behind us. 

One way that I've learned to mark the seasons is with the food I cook. Before I taught myself how to cook properly, I just made whatever sounded good at the moment. It usually wasn't very healthy, and usually had nothing to do with the season in which it was being made. In the few years, I've tried to prepare recipes that remind me of the season in which they are made. 

What this looks like is that our summer blueberry pancakes turn into autumn gingerbread pancakes. Summer quick-grilled veggies and grilled meat gives way to winter all-day stew and fresh bread. In the beginning of each of our (two) seasons, I'll go through my recipe binder and take out the old seasonal recipes and replace them with the new seasonal ones. I've been doing this for a few seasons now and each time it's so much fun to rediscover old favorite dishes that haven't been enjoyed in half a year.

While it's technically fall now, we're still having 90 degree days. I'm just waiting for 'real fall' to start. As soon as it's cool enough to leave the windows open and feel a cool breeze blow through the kitchen, I'm going to plug in our slow-cooker for the first time in months and make something hearty.

Irish Beef Stew

Some of my favorite seasonal recipes:
The pumpkin bread is my all-time favorite fall/winter thing to bake. I've baked this bread so much, I could probably do it from memory!

Christmas gingerbread pancakes: gingerbread pancakes with sprinkles and crushed candy cane. Truth be told, they don't look too good once they're flipped over, but the kids absolutely love that there's candy in their breakfast.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Preschool Week 3

I'm starting to realize that in the world of homeschooling, days and weeks must be flexible. There's rarely such a thing as a 'normal' day or week. Thankfully I scheduled one  day a week as a 'free' day, and we've been using that day to either catch up or to just relax and recover from a busy week.

 This week we listened to lots of Shel Silverstein poems and Dr. Seuss stories, both from books and on CDs in the car. Because of all the nonsense the boys have been hearing, they've been making up some really silly poems of their own. The only one I remembered to write down was one of Ben's:

Napkin a day
Napkin a day
Where are you,
Napkin a day?

Practicing reading with Bob books. We've been keeping our lessons to only 5 or 10 minutes long. After ten minutes he starts to get frustrated and antsy and he's simply done. But the more we do, the more excited he is the next time to read his Bob books. 

The boys learned to clean their bathroom. Ben is on mirror duty here. My goal is one day to be able to say "Hey boys, go clean your bathroom" and they go off and do it. Talk about a dream come true.

Mark and I had to go to the sheriff's office to get our fingerprints scanned as part of our foster care application. Before our appointment, we talked to the kids about fingerprints: what they looked like and how every person has a unique print. Then the boys and I made pictures with our fingerprints using our jumbo stamp pads. None of this was planned, by the way - I just made it up as we went along. Then it was time to go to the sheriff's office and the boys watched the big computer screen as we got our prints scanned. Community field trip: check.

Free play: brothers drawing pictures for each other and coloring them. Earlier in the day Tommy asked me to draw him a picture of a lion so he could color it. Then he got the idea to draw pictures for Ben so he could color them. 

Free play: The boys built this "machine" out of bits of things they found around the yard. It's hard to tell from the picture, but there's a sprinkler attached to a hose inside the overturned black bucket. There are ropes winding inside and  around all the different objects. I can't remember the purpose of this machine, but it sounded very complex from their explanation. 

Our field trip of the week: the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Here they're in the aviary watching the indoor 'sandy shore'.

Other things not pictured:
- Lunch picnic in our backyard on the grass. Laid on a blanket reading more Falling Up.
- Tommy was really into writing this week. He wrote a card for Mark's birthday (which isn't for another two months) and wrote signs for around the house. The funny thing about young children's writing is that they have no concept of spaces between words, so his sentences all run together. Must remember to work on that. :)
- We finally finished The Mouse and the Motorcycle and have moved on to James and the Giant Peach. I've been excited to read this with the boys because it was one of my favorite books as a child and was my 'gateway' book into the world of Roald Dahl.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Monterey Solo

This week I did something I've never done before: I took the boys on a day trip by myself. It's amazing to me that in almost five years of having children, I've never actually taken them anywhere far away on my own ('far away' by my definition is a drive one hour or longer). 

This has mainly been because Mark's job: it used to be that he had flexiblity during the week to occasionally do house projects or other chores, so we would often have our weekends completely free to do fun things together as a family. But in the past year or so, his job has changed so that he doesn't have time to do those things during the week, and we end up doing them on the weekend. Therefore, we have less free weekend time as a family to do fun day trips. 

Mark has been encouraging me for quite sometime to get out of the house with the kids to do day trips, but I've always disliked the thought of going somewhere fun without him. Not to mention that an extra pair of hands is always a good thing with a pair of energetic boys. 

Finally this week I summed up the courage to do a day trip by myself, so we went to Monterey. We visited the aquarium first and explored eels, penguins, puffins, and kelp. Then we got some lunch and hit the beach. We had a good time for the most part, but the day was not without its challenges: Tommy's attitude was very disagreeable and he was just all-around difficult most of the day. But he mellowed out once he was released onto the open sand. Then Ben cut his foot open at the beach and, being without a first aid kit, we had to scour downtown Monterey for a pharmacy to buy some Band-Aids and neosporin. An hour and $20 later, we were all patched up and had our hot cocoas* in hand and were headed in the general direction of Home, so the day ended on a pleasant note. On the way home Tommy remarked, "Mommy, this day has been really big." I couldn't agree more.

*Getting hot cocoa after visiting the beach is another tradition. Northern California beaches are so cold and overcast that we're usually chilled to the core after spending a few hours there. A hot cocoa really hits the spot.

 Breakfast at our favorite pre-adventure bagel shop. We usually come here right before we set off on a road trip, even if it's just an hour long.

Zebra eel 

Huge Sunfish. I think it was about the size of my car.

The kids love this water tank. It's a tunnel about ten feet tall. Every few seconds there's a huge wave that crashes down and startles the kids. Every single time.

Drawing at the beach with some burnt wood.


Obligatory beach kids-on-log photo

Friday, September 16, 2011

Preschool Week 2

It was a really busy week and I was feeling like we didn't do much in the way of preschool. Then I looked at the photos from my camera from the past week and realized that we actually did a lot of good things. Most of the activities the kids did were things they took upon themselves to do.

 Writing practice. Tommy decided to try to write his name ("Tommy Napp") and his brother's name ("Benge Napp") and most of the family's names ("Grampa Napp"). Can you tell they're spelled phonetically? Being a first-born perfectionist that he is, Tommy really wanted me to tell him how to spell each word. Sometimes I do tell him how to spell things, but more often I try to have him spell them for himself and praise his efforts, even if they're less-than-perfect.

 Paper craft. Glue + strips of construction paper = 30 minutes of peace and quiet.

Play and lunch with friends and cousins. 

Outside craft time with cousins.

 Brother playtime.

Sweeping out the chicken coop. 

Making pumpkin chocolate chip cookies. I had planned to go to the library and then the playground on Friday morning. But after our busy week, I just felt like staying home and hanging out with the kids. So we made cookies together.

And enjoyed them with a cup of milk.

Other things we did not pictured:
- The boys watched intently while Mark gave the goats vaccinations and trimmed their hooves. Fun, no?
- Played a few board games together throughout the week
- Had a few reading lessons with our Bob books. I've been putting off reading lessons because Tommy's attention span is so short. He can only sit and focus on sounding words out for about five minutes before he gets frustrated and "forgets" how to sound things out. So I'm going to aim to work on reading every day, even if it's only for five minutes. Hopefully each short lesson will build upon another and bring us closer to the goal of reading. 
- Lots of free play both in the house and outside
- Unfortunately, we didn't do as much read-aloud as I'd like. We're slowly working through The Mouse and the Motorcycle and Falling Up, as well as The Tales of Beatrix Potter.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Preschool Week 1

Each week I'll post a summary of what we've done for preschool. This will mostly be for my own record (remember the book of our blog that I print off at the end of every year that holds our family record?) Hopefully it will give some good ideas too.

Obligatory posed first-day-of-school photo.

Playing Zingo 1-2-3. I really like this game because it helps with both counting and reading. Plus it's just plain fun. Tommy really loved playing, but But got bored after a few turns because his counting skills aren't fast enough.

Free play: The boys constructed a "tree house" in the dining room. We had lunch and read aloud time under the yellow tent.

Letter practice: We traced in colored sand to practice writing letters. (I helped him with the B, but he did the T by himself).

Laundry time: Tommy did his laundry from start to finish. I was totally shocked and impressed that he folded everything and sorted it all into the right piles. He was so happy with himself.

Books we're reading this week:
Falling Up by Shel Silverstein
The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary
Big Truths for Little People by Susan Hunt & Richie Hunt
The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter (we're about 2/3 through the series)
Plus various picture books from the library

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Preschool At Home

Today begins our first year of homeschooling, for preschool. For the last year I've struggled with the decision of when to start kindergarten with Tommy, who will be turning 5 at the end of October. He seems really interested in learning how to read and write, so it seemed to me a good indication that we should start kindergarten material sooner. Over this past year, I've closely observed him to decide whether he would be ready to start K this fall. I watched how he played, how well he sat still, how well he listened to me and how he related with his peers. While he is very smart and is eager to learn to read and write, he just doesn't have a lot of the maturity that comes with learning K material. I also asked lots of different people (moms with young and older school-age children, older moms who are done home-schooling their children, and everyone in between) about their opinions of when a boy should start K. Ultimately we decided it would be best for Tommy to do preschool this year and kindergarten next fall.

So here we are. My preschool plan is based on my (currently rather loose) understanding of the Charlotte Mason method of homeschooling, which emphasizes lots of play, reading aloud, outdoor exploration, more play, and not very much sitting still and doing table work. Sounds great to me and exactly what Tommy needs right now.

The major elements of my preschool plan include:

A daily routine. This is basically the same routine we've had for about two years. I just put it down on paper so that I can stay accountable to it. Sometimes the routine goes out the window, like if we're visiting friends for most of the day. But it's always there for me to follow when I need to know what to do with my time.

Sixty minutes of read aloud per day. When I was first told that my kids should be getting sixty minutes of reading aloud per day for their ages, I was floored. At the time, I was barely getting in thirty minutes and couldn't imagine squeezing any more minutes of reading into the day. Finally I figured out that the best way I can fit in all that reading aloud is to break it up into smaller chunks throughout the day. Mealtimes are a great time to read aloud because I usually finish my food long before the kids do. Instead of leaving the table and doing dishes, I'll stay and read them a book. In just a few months we read through both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner in this way and we're currently two-thirds through the Beatrix Potter series. I'm working off several 'recommended reading lists' for children, including reading non-fiction books, poetry, chapter books, and picture books. For more information on why reading aloud is extremely important, check out The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease.

Bible time. Continue working through the catechism. Memorize scripture. Read directly from the Bible, as well as children's Bible stories. No matter what we have going on during the day, Bible time is always first, directly after breakfast and morning habits, and is non-negotiable.

Outdoor time. My kids are always playing outside within the confines of our yard, which is great. But they need lots more time out in nature, to play with sticks, ponder bugs, throw stones in a creek, and discover new types of flowers. One morning of our week is dedicated to being outdoors in a natural environment. Some places I plan to go with the boys is Uvas Canyon, Anderson Lake County Park, Henry Coe Park, tide pools, and the like. I have a feeling a once per week outing might be too much, but we can always scale back as we go.

Arts/Crafts. One morning a week is set aside for an art/craft project. I have a few books that have given me good ideas for art/craft projects for kids, such as Preschool Art by MaryAnn Kohl, Kids Create! by Laurie Carlson, and Cut-Paper-Play! by Sandi Henry. I also have a stockpile of open-ended craft supplies like construction paper, scissors, glue sticks, clay, watercolor paints, etc. While I'm grateful for all the art/craft ideas, quite honestly my favorite thing to do is simply to give the kids some basic supplies (like a huge piece of paper and some paint) and see what they come up with on their own. But I also realize that the directions-led art/craft projects give them ideas that they can use later on when they decide to do a craft on their own.

Personal habits. Something we've been working on for the past few months is training the boys to get ready for the day and get ready for bed on their own. They have a simple four-step chart that shows them each task they need to complete. They've gotten quite good at doing the whole process by themselves, but sometimes they do miss a step and need to be reminded (like brushing their teeth). I have to say that it's really awesome to just say, "Go do your four things!" and they go do it, instead of me having to stand over them saying, "Okay, now brush your teeth. Now wash your face. Now go get dressed."

Responsibilities (chores). I've already started training the boys in chores around the house. I recently read in a book that boys should be expected to do any job that they are physically strong enough, or smart enough, to do. It gives them a sense that they are doing "real work" and are important and needed in the family. Right now they're great at putting the dishes from the dishwasher away. (We bought unbreakable dish-ware and rearranged our dishes to the bottom cabinets. Whatever the boys can't reach to put away, they just leave on the counter.) They empty all the trash from the house on trash day and roll the cans out to the street. They're currently learning to clean their bathroom (Yay!) and folding laundry. Admittedly they sometimes complain about having to do chores around the house ("Mommy why do I have to do all this wooork?") But usually they are visibly proud of being able to do things they see as grown-up work. I praise them for being strong and helpful and make sure to tell them how great it is to have someone to help with the work of the home.

Food prep. One of my goals is to graduate boys from my house who know how to cook. They've already been helping me with food prep since they were old enough to stand on a stool. But I'm not always good about having a patient mindset with them when I'm rushing trying to get dinner ready, so I've built in to the day some time for them to help me with dinner. Lately I've been consciously giving them more responsibility in the kitchen, like allowing Tommy to cook eggs on the stove or letting Ben cut fruit with a butter-knife. As I see their knowledge and abilities grow, I plan to expand what I allow them to do in the kitchen. Having the kids help with food prep is also a great time to talk about things, particularly food. We talk about where it comes from, how it grows, and what is and is not healthy food for our bodies.

Free play. Last, but not least, there is lots of time for free play built in to each day. This is probably the most important part of their day, since it's the time where they incorporate everything they've learned into the activity they choose during their free time. They ride bikes in the backyard, visit chickens, play in the sandbox, and get into spats with their siblings (and learn to work it out).

You may also notice that there isn't any TV time built in to our day. For the last six months we've managed to live almost completely TV-free. Exceptions include an occasional Saturday morning when we parents aren't ready for kids bounding with energy at 7:00 am, or days when the kids are so sick they physically don't have the strength to play. The kids used to whine and beg to watch TV whenever they were bored. Now that we've been TV-free, they don't even think about it anymore and always find something else to do with their time, even if it's rolling around on the floor wrestling with each other. 

I plan to do some reading and writing activities with Tommy this year, which will most likely be in the afternoon after his quiet time and while Ben is still sleeping. This is usually a nice time we have together when I don't have anything to do around the house and he's mellow enough to sit still for ten to fifteen minutes. This is just long enough for some writing practice, reading aloud, or working on a puzzle together.

My plan isn't rigid and there is plenty of room for flexibility. I made it mostly for my own peace of mind so that I would have a plan of what I wanted to do with Tommy in this last year before he officially starts homeschooling. I owe a lot of thanks to a seasoned homeschooling mom who told me over and over that at four and five years old, kids just need to play. They don't need curriculums, workbooks, or desk work. So if all my boys do is play outside, take some nature walks, get their hands dirty with some paint, learn some chores around the house, and listen to me read a ton of books, I think we'll have quite a successful school year.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Learning Curve

We're now two weeks into our classes to get certified for foster parenting (PRIDE training). We've learned a lot in these past few weeks. One of the most important things we learned was that the foster care system is not an adoption agency. Our teacher actually said this on the first day of class. OopsWe went into this thinking that we would be focused on adopting, although it would be from a pool of foster children who normally are passed over by those seeking traditional domestic adoptions. We thought maybe we'd have a few kids for a few short stays of care, and then after a few months we'd find the child who would become our own. Wrong.

The way it actually works is that we could have a child for two years before parental rights are terminated. We could have a child for two years and then they get reunified with their birthparents. We could have a child for a few days and then they get reunified with their parents. Reunification happens in ninety percent of cases. And in that other ten percent where parental rights are terminated, it may not happen for a very long time, since the process of going through the courts is crazy circus act. So, foster care is not an adoption agency. 

Another major thing we learned, that really should be obvious, is that the foster care system's main objective is to reunify children with their birthparents. This means that a part of our job will be to take our foster child(ren) to visits with their parent(s), and we can even form relationships with the parents. For the first time this would put us into regular contact with people who are likely very different from us and need Christ's love.

The crazy thing is, we're okay with this. In a way we never would have predicted even a month ago, our hearts have made a 90 degree turn on a dime. We are content... no, excited... to become foster parents and welcome children into our home for whatever length of stay they need, even if it doesn't result in adoption. We still hope to adopt someday, and we hope that at some point a child will come along who could stay and become our own. But we're at peace with the fact that this may not happen for a long time. And in the meantime, God can use us to bless and nurture many kids (and even their parents) along the way.

To be completely honest, it's not all been selfless sunshine and rainbows over here. The fact that I'll likely never have another biological child is something that has been hitting me slowly over the past week. I've had moments were I become envious of those who are able to decide when and how many children they want. But in those moments, the Holy Spirit has been faithful to remind me of God's word, and the Lord has drawn me close to himself. In those moments, I am able to place all those cares on him and repent of my covetousness.

The Bible verse we've most often been turning to lately is this one:
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. James 1:5

We ask for your prayers, that God would give us wisdom along this path, and that he would use us for his purposes and his glory, and that he would align our hearts with his.