Chicago with Kids


We spent the beginning of September on a week long trip to Chicago. The excuse of sorts for travel was a pediatric conference I attended, but we turned that into a week long family vacation. Long car trips have reputations as being hellish experiences with kids. I have found that I (mostly) enjoy them. Yes, by the end of the day everyone is grumpy but many of our funniest memories are from long car trips. We pack up a stack of audiobooks, some not so healthy snacks and make sure to take plenty of quick breaks.


I wanted to post all different photos from my previous Chicago post but this one photo deserves a second post. On the way home I asked all three kids what were the top three things we did were. All three put the Mirror Maze at the Museum of Science and Industry at the top of the list. It was a great museum in general but the mirror maze was a unique experience for all of us.DSCN0893aI think I’ve shared this tip before, but many science museums and children’s museums offer reciprocal membership benefits. (Zoos and Aquariums also often offer the same thing). Before a trip, we will look for museums we might be interested in visiting and then look for another museum somewhere in the country to join that offers the best reciprocal benefits. It takes some research on H.’s part but it has gotten us some great deals at museums in several cities. In Chicago, we got free admission to the Museum of Science and Industry and to the Field Museum.


Another great deal to take advantage of if you are a Bank of America customer is the Museums on Us program, which offers free admission to participating museums around the country on the first weekend of the month. We were able to get free admission for all of us to the Art Institute of Chicago.


I would say our kids usually have mixed feelings about art museums. One hates them, one likes art but is just too active to want to look at anything for very long and one is fine as long as she can dance and sing in the middle of the gallery. Before this trip, a swim team friend recommended the books The 68 Rooms by Marianne Malone which tells the story of a boy and girl who shrink and have adventures inside the Thorn Rooms at the Art Institute. I think the kids would have been mildly interested in the rooms before listening to the audiobook, but having listened made seeing them so much more fun. In fact, they surprised me by enjoying it so much that they went back the next day while I was finishing my conference. The book served as the hook to get them to the museum. And then while they were there they happened to see so much more. The Thorn Rooms were voted one of their top attractions as well.


The third favorite attraction was more difficult and more variable. I think for H. it was taking a long bike ride along Lake Michigan. The kids enjoyed that as well, especially going down the sledding hill on bikes. We of course enjoyed the Crown Fountain in Millenium Park and the three kids got completely soaked. I think Ruth and I both picked the water taxi ride we took one night as one of our top three things. (Water taxi = cheap version of river boat tour.) We took one from downtown out to Chinatown to eat dinner one night and then came back at night when we could view the sparkling skyline at it’s finest. Navy Pier and the Ferris Wheel topped H’s list.


At the risk of being corny, I would say that all the things we saw and did were really the chocolate syrup on top. (Photo from Margie’s Candies, home of enormous sundaes and amazingly good caramel.) The real value of the trip was just being together. We are together a lot at home but there is always something special about being away on a vacation. All of the other distractions are gone and we can just enjoy each other. That was less true this trip as usual as I was at a conference part of each day. However, H. and the kids had adventures in the mornings on their own and we had the rest of the afternoon and evenings together. As our kids get older I’m reminded again and again how important these kids of concentrated times together are.

Previous Kids and Travel Posts:

Tips from a trip to Pittsburgh with a 2 yr old and a 4 yr old 
Tips from a long car trip to New Orleans with a 3 yr old, a 6 yr old and a 9 yr old (part 1)
And New Orleans, part 2
Niagara Falls and Toronto with Kids

A bump in the road.

Our summer started off with a bang. Or maybe I should use John’s words, a giant “kerplop”. David broke his right arm in two places on May 31st roller-blading. We’re at Day 17 of the awkward, heavy, itchy, hot and very very non-waterproof plaster splint. Breaking your dominant arm anytime is hard. Breaking it when you are eight years old and it’s summer is even harder. Breaking it when you are eight years old and your summer revolves around swim team and being at the pool all day is even harder than that. Breaking your arm when you are the kind of kid who spends most of every day outside climbing trees, roller-blading, skateboarding, biking, and generally running amuck may be the hardest of all. It’s been a tough start to the summer, to say the least.

David is usually not a kid who deals well with frustration or disappointment. All our kids have strengths and things they need to work on. David is generous to a fault; several times I have had to forbid him from buying his sister presents at the store. He is sensitive and empathetic. He is loving and kind. He is quite funny and often wise in a way that surprises me. He is a peace-maker and rarely selfish. But usually he is someone whose day can be undone by a missing Lego piece or a thoughtless word from a sibling. I think this might be because he has such a strong sense of fairness and kindness that he can’t understand when the world isn’t being fair and everyone isn’t being kind.

I said he usually has a hard time dealing with frustration. This has not been one of those times. He has consistently astonished me with how well he is handling this fairly major hurdle in his summer plans. The orthopedist had originally said he could get a waterproof cast last week but when we went in to the appointment felt like he needed one more week in the splint to ensure proper healing. David broke down very briefly and then kind of shook it off (a la Taylor Swift) and moved on.

I realized that, as a parent, I want the best for my kids. I told David that I would have broken my arm for him if I could and I would do anything in my power to have him not have to go through this. However, I see how this experience is molding his character in a way that is good and that I think will bear much fruit in the future. Seeing him go through this has made me see how my natural desire is to smooth over every bump in the road , to solve every puzzle, to ensure that they don’t have to deal with disappointments  big or small, to banish mean kids and unfair coaches and rainy days from their lives. I know of course that I can’t do those things and part of me knows I shouldn’t. But oh, how I want to. I’m learning that my job as a parent isn’t so much to smooth over those bumps but to cheer them on as they navigate their way around them. In reality, the best thing for my kids isn’t always the easy road.


Read Aloud Thursday: From the New Shelf

We read a lot of picture books, although less than we used to and less than I wish we did. Today I have to share a small, somewhat random sample of some recent finds from our library’s new shelf that we have enjoyed. The first, Penguins in Peril, finds a penguin the unwilling captive of three dastardly cats. The cats have spent all their money on movies instead of food and craft. They come up with a plan to perpetrate the most daring robbery of all time and get all the fishes they want. But first they need a secret weapon: the penguin. The penguin outwits them in the end and the cat’s plan is thwarted. A first book by Helen Hancocks, this one definitely takes a dry sense of humor to appreciate. The somewhat flat text and graphically simple illustrations have a certain plain-Jane charm. My kids liked it when reading it the first time but I haven’t seen them reading it again on their own or seeking it out for second or third readings.

On the other end of the spectrum from the conniving cats in Penguins in Peril, is Sarah Weeks’ Glamourpuss, the title character in what can best be described as the Fancy Nancy of the feline world. Glamourpuss is, well, glamorous. The most glamorous pet ever. But then Bluebell, a tiny toy dog, comes to visit. Bluebell wears fancy clothes: hoopskirts and tiaras and fruit-covered turbans. Bluebell dances and does tricks. Glamourpuss starts to doubt herself. Then however, Bluebell tears up all her fancy clothes and Glamourpuss realizes that maybe there is room for two fabulous pets in the same house. David Small’s (one of my favorite illustrators) humorous illustrations are a perfect paring for this quirky and sweet story.

And for my last offering, we go back to simple, at least in concept. Mac Barnett’s Telephone takes the game of telephone and imagines how it would go as played by birds on a wire. The concept is simple but the execution is picture perfect. The message gets more and more garbled. Illustrator Jen Corace’s birds tell a story of their own as each bird changes the message according to his own job or hobby.

One reason we don’t read as many picture books as I might like is that with older kids, we spend more time reading chapter books. Chapter books are great fun as well to read, and I love our nightly “special book” time. But I think too often parents think that once their kids are old enough to move on to reading “big books” that the time for picture books is over. I recently discovered that my sixth grader still reads every picture book I bring home from the library on his own. It makes me happy that he doesn’t feel too old to enjoy what some kids might feel are books just for little kids.

Stop by Hope is the Word for Read Aloud Thursday and share what you family is reading together.

Read Aloud Thursday: In Defense of the Series

Ruth and I just finished Beverly Cleary’s Ramona’s World, the last in the Ramona Quimby series. She was filled with excitement at finishing the series, not because she was glad it was over, but I think because she saw it as a celebration. We’ve had such a fun time sharing these books. I should add that even though I say Ruth and I read these together I should really say that all the kids listened to these. It was technically Ruth’s “special book” but the boys liked it just as much as she did.

The boys and I just finished Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and are starting the next in The Chronicles of Prydain series, The Black Cauldron. Somehow, I missed these as a kid but I’ve heard fantastic things about these fantasy novels and had them on my to be read list for years. We loved the story of Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper and his companions and are looking forward to the rest of the series.

In certain bookish and literary circles, the term “series” is almost a bad word. I’ve heard people bemoaning the fact that their kids will only read series books. The truth is that kids love series. And for good reason. A good series is comfortable, it’s like visiting the same friends over and over again. A really good series creates a new world for the reader and each new book in the series expands and defines that world a little more.

There is something to be said for reading books that are not part of a series and something to be said for reading books that are not comfortable. Kids need challenge, just like adults. And it’s true that not all series are created equal. However, both my boys really got pulled into reading through series (and not always all that high quality). And as a family, many of the most memorable read-alouds we’ve done have been part of a series. There is something wonderful about inhabiting another world all together for an extended period of time.

Great Series to Read-Aloud:

The Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
The Moffats by Eleanor Estes
Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley (We’re currently enjoying #4 as an audiobook in the car.)
The Frog Princess by E. D. Baker
Humphrey the Hamster books by Betty Birney
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
Narnia by C. S. Lewis
Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (Yes, they are long but one of my best memories with John is reading these together.)
Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace

I’m a little late to the party, but it’s not to late for you to stop by Hope is the Word for Read-Aloud Thursday. Be sure to share what you are reading aloud with your family!

Scenes from Luray Caverns


IMG_1632 IMG_1640 IMG_1709 IMG_1712It was homeschool week at Luray Caverns this week so we took advantage of the great rates and headed south for a field trip. It was a cold (and snowy!) first day of spring and part of me wanted to take advantage of the planned day off to just snuggle indoors and read and hibernate. Another part of me wanted to get stuff DONE. I have a list of cleaning and decluttering projects and blog topics and school planning that needs to be done and other projects to do and that part of me was very loudly telling me to stay home.

In the end, I listened to the third voice, the voice that said “Hey, didn’t you homeschool to take field trips and get out and have adventures with the kids?”. The same voice said “Haven’t you hibernated enough this winter?”

So we went. And it was tiring. But fun. The caverns are really beautiful, especially if you like rocks, which I do. And the garden maze we did at the end was surprisingly fun. The boys and Ruth and I separated into different teams. Let’s just say that the girls crushed the boys. Which may have had something to do with the fact that the boys’ approach was just to run up and down the various paths blindly while yelling “this way, no not this way, that way, no not that way, etc.”


Delicious Reads

Ruth and I just finished a unit on food for kindergarten. One of the favorite books we read was a new one by Emily Jenkins, A Fine Dessert. Jenkins follows four families over four hundred years making the same dessert: blackberry fool. Each family prepares the dessert following the same basic steps. The repetition in the text of the recipe and the similarities between the centuries (each child gets to lick the bowl) create continuity. However, the charm is in the differences. The first mother and daughter pair living in Lyme, England in 1710 use a whisk made out of twigs and cool their dessert in an ice pit in the hillside. The 2010 family (the only father and son pair in the book) live in San Diego and serve the dessert to a multicultural group of friends after preparing it with all the modern conveniences. Sophie Blackall’s delicately detailed illustrations draw the reader into each time period and further serve to tie the centuries together while also showing how clothing and housing and people have changed.

Pat Brisson’s Before We Eat: From Farm to Table is another new book about food. This
one take a less personal approach and looks instead at all the people who are involved in getting the food we eat on our table. There are farmers and ranchers, yes. But also, truck drivers and  grocery clerks and home cooks. The woodcut illustrations by Mary Azarian (illustrator of the Caldecott winning Snowflake Bentley) are beautiful and complement the simple text.


We also enjoyed looking through What the World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. This one is chock full of information but it was a bit too much for five year old Ruth. However, the photos were fascinating. The main interest for us was a photospread for each country showing a typical family and all the food they eat in a month. It was really eye-opening for my kids to see how much less processed food most of the world eats and to see how little some people have to eat in a week.

Other food themed books we recommend: 

Minette’s Feast by Susanna Reich
Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban
Cloudy with a Chance for Meatballs by Judi and Ronald Barrett
The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman
Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin
Pinkalicious by Victoria Kann
Time to Eat by Steve Jenkins




Snow Day Musings

IMG_7330Do you do school on snow days? That seems to be the question of the season in homeschooling circles. As we dig our way out from a snowfall of about 7 inches today (if you’re in Boston and reading this, you can stop laughing now), we had another day to consider this question. My approach is to really have no set approach. I carefully consider all the factors: time of year, amount of snow, how much other free time they have had lately, how much work needs to be done that week, how much I really want to just curl up on the couch with my own book. Just kidding on that last one. Sort of.

In all seriousness, it’s fairly situation dependent.

First snowfall of the winter? Probably mostly off for the day.
Just went on a field trip earlier in the week? Need to do work.
Great packing snow? Have fun kids.
Icy and not that much fun to play in? We’ll get more done because everything else is canceled!

What usually happens is that at least the basics get done. That’s math, some kind of reading depending on the kid and age level, piano and ideally Latin. Usually some kind of other learning happens too: videos, read-alouds. Often we do actually have more time because other things are canceled so we can get our normal amount of school done and still have plenty of time for play in the snow. The last two weeks we’ve had snow days on our normal co-op day, when we typically don’t do school. I plan by the week so they all know what they have to do for the week. I said we wouldn’t do extra school but gave them the option of working more one day and having a completely free day or spreading it out and having two lightish days.

The public schools here have had a lot of snow days recently, 10 since the beginning of January. Some of those have been days where it was icy and not really fun to be outside or where school was canceled for “extreme cold” (Go ahead and chuckle, Boston.) Those were certainly normal days of school for us. This time of year is one where I’m always extremely glad to be homeschooling. I like that snow doesn’t really have the power to disrupt our lives as much as if we went to school elsewhere. I like that we have the flexibility to take off if we want to (and we can take off for “extreme pretty weather” in April or October if we want) but also the ability to keep going if we want.

I recently had someone comment to me about how she would never be able to get her kids to focus on schoolwork if they were home. I tried to explain that for us, school is just part of life. I think that’s never more apparent than on snow days or sick days.