Category Archives: Best Gifts for Homeschoolers

Something Else to Buy Instead of Curriculum: Signing Time

It’s been a while since I wrote about Signing Time, but it occurred to me that I ought to mention it for new readers.

The Signing Time DVDs are a wonderful series of half-hour shows designed to teach American Sign Language (ASL) to children. Adults who happen to be in the room will find they can’t help but learn as well. The shows are delightful, with catchy songs, cute kids, and practical ASL vocabulary.

Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote about Signing Time two years ago:

It’s hard for me to imagine our lives without Signing Time. Rachel
Coleman, the creator, and her daughter Leah, who is deaf, and Leah’s
cousin Alex, who is hearing, are practically part of our family.
"Rachel says" and "Leah says" are regular utterances around here. When
Wonderboy watches the videos, he looks back and forth from me to
Rachel, or from his sisters to the children, in awed delight. His hands
soar through the air, mimicking his beloved Rachel. He understands the
spoken words "Signing Time" even without his hearing aids in. (This is significant. He probably hears something like "eye-ee-eye," but he sure knows what it means.)

Rachel’s songs have become my personal highway belt-it-out favorites
(along with Marie Bellet and Bruce Springsteen), because she *gets it*
so completely. Leah was a year old when her parents learned she was
deaf. Rachel’s family’s love and occupation is music, and my hat is off
to Rachel Coleman for finding a way to so beautifully combine her old
life with her new one. Next to the joy she has brought my children, my
favorite thing about Rachel Coleman is her honesty in lyrics. Her song,
"The Good," expresses my understanding of motherhood better than
anything I’ve ever written: "Maybe we won’t find easy, but baby we’ve found the good."

Lately, Wonderboy has been re-immersed in these DVDs, asking for them daily. They are the ONLY television show he has ever shown any interest in watching, ever. When his sisters watch other shows, even cartoons, Wonderboy pays no attention. But for Signing Time, he is always all eyes and ears.

He has learned a ton of vocabulary from them, including (just lately) words like "remember," "learn," and "smart." I wrote a post for Bonny Glen last night about what a big deal it is that he is now beginning to grasp abstract concepts (such as remember, learn, and smart!). I really think ST has a great deal to do with that.

Rilla (she is 15 months now) is also enchanted by ST and enchants the rest of us with her perfectly scrumptious signing…when she signs "More," her daddy is putty in her plump little hands.

I also think the DVDs spurred Beanie along the path to reading when she was four and five years old. The English words for each sign appear on the screen before the signs are demonstrated, and those were some of the first words she learned how to read.

The shows are now being aired on PBS, so you can check your listings to see if it’s playing in your area. But the DVDs are a worthy investment (and they make great gifts). (And no, I don’t get a commission on these materials! I just love them.)

The first three volumes are simpler, younger, than later editions. Volumes 4-6 are my family’s favorites, except for Wonderboy, who prefers, ironically, the "Welcome to School" disk.

I see on the website there are two new "Practice Time" DVDs—I haven’t seen those yet.

We seem to have lost Volume 11, "My Neighborhood," somewhere along the trail during our cross-country trip. I’m thinking about re-ordering it, because I know Wonderboy would be very into the whole police- officer-firefighter theme right now.

There is also a Signing Time blog and forum.    

Cookies and Books

Possibly the nicest things ever invented, no? Cookies and books? Here’s my contribution to Jenn’s Awesome Virtual Cookie Exchange: my Aunt Cindy’s Saucepan Cookies.

Aunt Cindy, for the record, is my great-aunt, and her real name is Cinderella. I am not kidding.

These yummy morsels aren’t really holiday cookies, but I love them, and they’re easy (no baking!), and with oatmeal and peanut butter as the main ingredients, you can eat them for sustenance while you’re making Christmas cookies.

I couldn’t actually find my copy of Aunt Cindy’s recipe (Hush! I just moved in!), but I googled "oatmeal peanut butter saucepan cookies" and found several identical recipes. This one is from (and I didn’t know that bit about making sure it boils hard for one minute, so aren’t you glad I Googled?):

No Bake Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies

There’s just one trick; you have to make sure that the
sugar mixture boils hard for at least one minute, otherwise the cookies
will be sugary instead of creamy.


  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup cocoa
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup peanut butter
  • 3 cups oatmeal


large saucepan, combine sugar, milk, cocoa, salt, and butter and mix
well. Bring to a boil and cover saucepan to allow steam to wash sugar
crystals down sides of pan. Boil mixture for 1 minute. Then remove from
heat and stir in peanut butter until smooth.

Add oatmeal and mix well.
Drop mixture by spoonfuls onto parchment lined baking sheets or Silpat
sheets.* Let cool until you can touch the mixture; then reshape the
cookies to make them more a ball shape. Let cool completely; store at
room temperature. You can also pour this mixture into a 9" square pan
that has been greased with unsalted butter, let cool, then cut into

*We always dropped ours onto waxed paper.

As for the books, I thought new readers might like a look at the "Books We Love" series I ran on Bonny Glen last year. Lots of gift ideas there, which ties in with the "Best Gifts for Homeschoolers" thing I’ve been doing.

Books We Love, Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

And don’t forget to drop by Jenn’s Journal for a list of all the other Cookie Exchange participants!

Yet More Gift Ideas

Continuing our best gifts for homeschoolers (or really any kid) series, here are a couple of big-hit items my kids have received on holidays past.

Settlers of Catan. Our favorite board game EVER. You play that you’re settlers in a strange land, using natural resources to build homes, villages, and cities. Sound dry? Not a bit. It’s absorbing, exciting, and addictive. There’s a Knights of Catan extension set, too.

WEDGiTS. These plastic stacking toys have been one of my most successful toy purchases ever. They’re popular with every single kid in my house, from the eleven-year-old on down. Wonderboy (almost three) plays with them all day long. They nest into pyramid shapes, or you can turn them on end and build tall structures and contraptions. We keep a large basket in the living room, and hardly a day passes that they don’t wind up taking over the rug. Timberdoodle used to have the best price—I haven’t compared lately as we’ve had our big set for several years now.


More Gift Ideas: Books on Drawing

In the comments yesterday, Faith of Dumb Ox Academy wrote:

Thanks Lissa! This is perfect timing. We have been doing ten minutes of
drawing at our Family school (or what the kids call Breakfast school).
My kids are very intimidated by drawing and all claim they can’t, so we
decided from now until Christmas we’d draw every morning for ten
minutes. These little exercises will fit perfectly into our new routine.

My kids have all enjoyed and been quite inspired by the I Can Draw series published by Usborne Books. Here’s an excerpt from a long piece about drawing books I wrote for Bonny Glen last year—

These are some drawing books my kids are nuts about. The Usborne
ones NEVER stay on the shelf; someone is always using one, it seems.
They’re also fond of the Draw Write Now series, but we’ve always
ignored the Write part. They just like the step-by-step instructions
for drawing things like the Statue of Liberty and buffalo. (We only
have a couple of them, but I’m assuming the others are just as good.)

I Can Draw Animals

I Can Draw People

I Can Crayon

On The Farm, Kids & Critters, Storybook Characters (Draw Write Now, Book 1)

Christopher Columbus, Autumn Harvest, The Weather (Draw Write Now, Book 2)

Native Americans, North America, The Pilgrims (Draw Write Now, Book 3)

The Polar Regions, The Arctic, The Antarctic (Draw Write Now, Book 4)

The United States, From Sea to Sea, Moving Forward (Draw Write Now, Book 5)

Animals & Habitats — On Land, Ponds & Rivers, Oceans (Draw Write Now, Book 6)

Animals of the World, Part 1: Tropical Forests, Northern Forests, Forests Down Under (Draw Write Now, Book 7)

Animals of the World, Part 2: Savannas, Grasslands, Mountains and Deserts (Draw Write Now, Book 8)

Mark Kistler’s Draw Squad

And these are two books that I’ve been using to improve my own
skills a little…I especially love the snippets of advice Claire
Walker Leslie gives for drawing trees, plants, birds, etc. She has a
knack for pointing out just the right way to approach the tricky bits
that don’t come naturally to me, like how to make a tree branch look
like it’s really curving out of a trunk.

Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You

The Usborne Complete Book of Drawing

There’s also a highly rated video program called Draw Today which I’ve got on my own Christmas wish list! Have any of you tried it out?

As for stuff with which to draw, I tackled that topic too on Bonny Glen a while back.

Another Gift Idea: Art Prints

Back to that art print post I mentioned yesterday. Like many homeschoolers, my family chooses an artist for picture study every couple of months. I usually pick out five or six paintings to use as wallpaper on our computer, which is located in a central area of the house. We talk about the artist, read a little about his or her life, look at where he falls in time. If I can get hold of a cheap calendar with prints of his work, we cut out the pictures and hang them up.

In this way we make the acquaintance of, oh, four or five artists a year. (At one point I was aiming for one artist a month, but then we had another baby and moved across country, yada yada yada.) And I was thinking how lovely it would be to commemorate each one by choosing our favorite work and having it framed, so that over the years we would grow a collection of paintings that mean something to our family.

We do have a couple of Carl Larsson prints framed (calendar pages, so the color quality isn’t perfect) and recently we picked up some Van Gogh prints when frames were on sale at Michael’s. It struck me that a wonderful way for other family members to be part of the fun of picture study would be to include the names of favorite art prints on holiday wish lists. A favorite Renoir on the wall is a delight in its own right, but a favorite Renoir from Grandma is even more special.

LOL—this is a very hard post to write—I keep worrying that it sounds like I’m dropping hints for my mother and mother-in-law. I’m speaking in a general sense, honestly! But of course both grandmas do ask me for gift ideas for the kids every year, and I think from now on I will start including some paintings on those lists.

The Artchive Poster Store is one good source of framed prints. Of course it’s much cheaper to just buy the print and watch for frame sales at Michael’s or Target.

Best Gifts for Homeschoolers

I just had a fun idea! I sat down to write a post about putting art prints on your Christmas list (I’ll get back to that later) when it struck me that I have a little theme going. Family memberships, art prints—I’m writing about great gift suggestions for grandparents and doting aunties. I don’t know about you, but in my family, our loved ones are always looking for ideas for presents the kids would really enjoy and use. And of course my list of fun educational stuff I’d like to have is always about a mile long.

So this week, let’s explore that topic. I’ve got a number of posts in mind, and if you’ve got a link to a post on the subject, send it along and I’ll do another big linky carnival post.


Rose says: Presents make me jump for joy!

(Photo by Kristen.)

Family Memberships = Awesome Education

My parents flew in from Denver last weekend to check out our new digs and enjoy the perfect weather with us. So much fun. On Monday, we all (except poor Scott, who had to work, sniff) went to the zoo. It was every bit as wonderful as I’ve heard. Who doesn’t love the San Diego Zoo?

We didn’t make it to the pandas because we spent so much time with the reptiles and monkeys. But that’s okay, because my fabulous parents bought us an annual membership for Christmas. For a family our size, the membership costs about as much as one and a half trips to the zoo. It comes with guest passes and other discounts, plus a zoo magazine. It’s a perfect arrangement: now we can drop in for an hour or two whenever we feel like it, without feeling pressured to see the whole thing in one swoop.

The first year we lived in Virginia, I bought a family membership to the Frontier Culture Museum, which was about 40 minutes from our house and five minutes from our church. I took the kids at least once a month, often dropping by for an hour on our way home from Sunday Mass. We got to know the costumed interpreters by name, and when new lambs were born that April, we got to cuddle them on our laps. Going by numbers, the membership paid for itself in two visits, but its real value to our family would be impossible to tally. My girls would don their bonnets (purchased at another living history museum* before we left Long Island) and make-believe their way through barnyards and thatched houses, having the time of their lives. They got to spin wool, card fleece, shell peas, and chase hoops. Best fifty dollars I ever spent.

The zoo membership promises to be just as much fun. We got a real treat on this first visit—we happened into one of the aviaries just as a zookeeper was beginning to feed the birds. She was carrying four or five little tubs of food: crickets, worms, peanuts. She’d cluck and call the birds by name, and they clustered round her in anticipation of their particular favorite tidbits. My girls clustered round, too, and the extremely kind zookeeper told them all about the birds. It was a glimpse behind the scenes, and we were thrilled.

When she finished, the zookeeper told us she was about to feed the flamingos, and did we want to come watch? You bet we did! She told us the best place to stand, and on our way to the prime spot, she opened her access door to the flamingo pool area and invited us to the threshold for a quick meet-and-greet with some of the birds. We were charmed by "Handsome," a flirty scarlet ibis who likes to stick close to his zookeeper friend. My kids can’t wait to go back to visit him. Our plan is to scope out when the feeding times are for all the different  animals, so we’ll know where to go whenever we drop in.

This year, when relatives ask you what the kids would like for Christmas, I highly recommend that you drop a hint for a membership to the zoo or museum or science center closest to you. Charlotte Mason encouraged mothers to take their children to the same park or woods on a regular basis, so that the place and its denizens would become familiar, and changes in season easier to observe. The same principle applies to places like museums and zoos!

*Readers of the Charlotte books may be interested to know that the hatmaker in Charlotte’s village was inspired by the hatmaker at Old Bethpage, the place where we got our bonnets. Bushy eyebrows and all!