Creative Arts

Art Class Analysis: What to Look for if Your Kid Wants a Career in Art

Art classes are fun for many kids, but if your child is expressing an interest in making a career of his craft, he might benefit from something more structured and serious. How can a parent know which courses are most likely to teach the techniques and philosophies that can help kids build an impressive portfolio? One ActivityHero provider shares tips to help parents find the right fit for their art-minded offspring.

By Haley Burress


You’ve spotted the signs: Those little clues that make you wonder if your child may be destined for a future in the fine arts. Your child’s notebooks may be covered in cartoons or illuminated by illustrations. Perhaps your daughter maxes out your credit card at the local art supply store. Or maybe your son spends endless hours manipulating modeling clay, creating unique characters to star in his stop-motion videos. Or maybe your child has come right out and said he or she wants to go to art school after graduation. Besides praising and supporting your child’s decision, how can you foster creativity and ensure there are plenty of strong pieces in his or her portfolio? Finding an art studio that offers advanced classes, as well as inspiring mentors, can be your saving grace. CD Hullinger, owner at CD’s Kids Art Studio, loves when a family brings in “a brave child who is ready to make a commitment to pursuing creativity, art, and passion.” Here are a few things she says parents should look for when seeking a studio to call “home.”

Compare Art Class Options Near You Now >>

Take a Tour of the Space

When it comes to choosing a studio that will guide and inspire your serious artist, first and second impressions matter, so don’t sign up your child until you both pay a visit. Hullinger also encourages parents and prospective students to sit in on classes to see if the location is a good creative fit.

Ask About the Mix of Classes

Make sure that the studio offers space dedicated to your child’s preferred medium, as well as spaces devoted to trying out new things. After all, creatives are often inspired by other media, and your child may want to branch out and try something new for a semester.

Also check to see if technology is available for pursuits such as computer animation, game design and anime, but don’t shrug off good old-fashioned canvas and paint. A well-rounded studio experience will offer a nice mix of both traditional and modern media..

Finally, determine if your studio of choice has a series of classes that are focused on building a portfolio and resume for your child. Portfolios are important whether your child chooses to go to art school or become a working artist upon finishing high school.

Studios and instructors should also offer some classes, or at least mentor sessions, that teach teens how to interview for college programs, how to deal with rejection, and how to get plugged in with local creatives.

Find Out if “Open Studio Time” Is Offered

When visiting the studio, ask if your child will have access to “open studio time” (time when they are permitted to work in the studio during non-class-time). Open studio time provides additional opportunities for students to grow and to create in the company of other artists. It’s also helpful if your child chooses a medium such as pottery or silk screening, for which you don’t have equipment at home.

Count the Number of Instructors

Look for an art studio that features more than one instructor, advises Hullinger — or, even better, one that features more than one instructor in each class. It’s important for young artists to be introduced to a variety of personalities, passions, media, and experiences. Each instructor will have something unique to teach your child. Also, having multiple instructors in each class means more individualized attention and guidance for your child.

Check the Instructors’ Resumes

The instructors at your studio of choice should be passionate artists themselves. Look for a studio that features artists who are well-known, have won awards, or are respected in the art community. It isn’t necessary that instructors tout major credentials or advanced degrees, as many successful artists pursue their craft without attending college.

Finally, confirm that there are instructors who are well-versed in and passionate about the medium that your child wishes to explore. It can be particularly helpful to learn from instructors who have real-world (not just classroom) experience with that medium and have secured paid commissions related to it.

Look for a Personal Connection

Take a close look at the personality of the instructors as well as their interest in your child. Instructors should be educators and mentors for their students, offering up life experiences that the kids can learn from. It is through these instructors that your child can start to develop roots and connections within the local community of artists and creatives. Networking is a crucial component of the artist life, and your child is never too young to start building a foundation of mentors and network connections.

Try Something New Now and Then

Even if you have a favorite studio that is a great fit for your child, consider attending a different location once in a while. In fact, Hullinger recommends exploring courses in an art studio in an entirely new city. She suggests that parents consider heading out of town with their child for a few weeks to seek instruction in a locale that offers a bustling creative community. Some ideas: Head to Chicago for a summer class, or fly to New York City for Fashion Week. Not only is this a great life experience, it also allows your children to cast a wider net for connections, which can come in handy when they are searching for an internship or job.

Looking at art studios for your serious artist can be intimidating, especially if you aren’t exactly the creative type. But as long as you find a studio that is engaging and inspiring — with instructors who have the desire to mentor young students — your child will be in good hands.

Take a Look at Art Schools with Classes Starting Soon!

Start your search right here with ActivityHero to find studios and art classes in your area.


5 WORST Ways to Get Kids to Practice Music

You’re diligently paying for weekly music lessons, but your kid’s instrument sits idle during the days in between. Whyyyy!!!? Here, one expert shares the most common mistakes among parents (even the most well-intentioned) — and what you should do instead.

By Haley Burress

Do your children resist practicing their musical instrument at home, or do practice sessions end up with frustration (yours) and tears (your child’s)? You aren’t alone. Instrument practice is a lot like homework — it can feel tedious at times, and children don’t always see immediate results of their practice, which can make it seem pointless. But practice isn’t pointless, says Sharon Kenney, Director of Marketing and Communications at Community School of Music and Arts (CSMA). And time spent with the instrument each day can lead to consistent improvement in foundational skills, as well as in character traits like persistence and the patience required when dealing with delayed gratification.

If you are struggling to get your child to practice their instrument daily, you might be approaching it the wrong way. Here are the top five mistakes that Kenny says many well-meaning parents make and what to do instead to encourage musical practice at home.

Mistake 1: You chose the instrument or musical style for them.

Kids are more likely to enjoy their musical experience if they are allowed to choose their own instrument and musical style. Sure, you may have had dreams of playing piano duets with your child, but if your kiddo loves the saxophone instead, let him give it a try. The same holds true for musical styles; your jazz-loving daughter might never want to be a classical flautist. So let her explore her love for jazz. When encouraged to make their own choices, your children are more likely to welcome practice and develop a love for music in general.

Find Music Classes Near You Now >>

Mistake 2: You don’t schedule practice time.

Kenney encourages parents to schedule musical practice time into the family calendar. Just like homework, music practice shows the greatest results when done daily, and the teachers at CSMA recommend at least 15 to 30 minutes of practice time each day for children starting out with their instrument. Without a scheduled time in the family rhythm, practice will likely get pushed out of the day entirely. And don’t let your child convince you that band practice at school counts as his practice time, says Kenney, individual practice at home is the key to getting better and seeing results.

Mistake 3: You refuse to be flexible.

With all that scheduling of practice time, parents should also remember to be flexible and read their child. If your child is not concentrating during music practice or seems to be extra frustrated, take a moment to assess the situation. Will some outside play time help burn off the extra energy, or will a snack help improve concentration? Practice should be an overall good experience, and if that time is often ending in tears or screaming, your child will end up hating his musical instrument.

Mistake 4: You hover during practice times. A lot.

Practice time is not the best time for parents to sit and watch over their children. As with homework, it is wise to be readily available for help or to stay in touch with your child’s experience, but let your child work independently. Praise them when you hear something great or when you know that they are working hard. Encourage them to keep going if you feel them getting frustrated. But unless they request help, let them practice on their own. Kenny reminds parents to pay attention to the feedback that your child needs to succeed and stay on course. “You know your kids best — if they like to work independently and without help from adults, let them do so. In contrast, give a little extra help to children that require more of a hands-on approach.”


Mistake 5: There isn’t a consequence for not practicing.

Daily practice shouldn’t be optional at your home, and there should be consequences for skipping practice sessions. Kenney recommends establishing a family routine that includes both homework and music practice before evening screen time. If you aren’t sure if you child is practicing as he should be, his music instructor will be able to tell. Be sure to communicate and share expectations with your child and with your child’s instructor so that everyone is working toward the same goal.

Remember: Parents Need to “Practice” Patience, Too

When your child resists music practice at home, try to manage your frustration. Some pushback from kids is normal. However, with a few additions to your family schedule and some minor modifications to your practice-time philosophy, you should be able to decrease the whining within just a few weeks. Even better, your child will start to see the slow and steady results after consistent daily practices, which will benefit him in the music world and well beyond. Good luck!

This Will Be Music to Your Ears

Now it’s easier than ever to find a new music school for your child! ActivityHero offers thousands of listings, and we can show you the providers in your neck of the woods, along with their current class schedules.

Find Music Classes & Camps Near You Now >>


Everything is Awesome: Lego Activities

indoor kids activities obstacle courseIf you have a Lego lover, or even if you don’t, you can have some fun and creative activities with these everlasting bricks. These Lego activity ideas require minimal prep time and as long as you have Legos (or Duplos for the younger crowd) somewhere in your house, you are already halfway prepared. I pull out these ideas when my son is looking for something to do on a snow day or when I need a few minutes of quiet to take a deep breath or read a few chapters of my library book.

While these activities work great for kiddos alone, they really start to break the imagination barrier when you get the kids working in groups. You can try a few of these out for your next play date, Scout meeting, or even a Lego themed birthday party. Compete in teams or work in groups and then share the creations. No matter how you use these activities, you are sure to find some meaningful (and educational) time together. Let’s get started!

Problem Solving Situations
Lego 1
This one is my preschooler’s favorite and I love that it works his imagination and critical thinking. Before your group arrives (or while they are having a snack or playing in the other room), set up Lego figures in situations that require intervention. For example, figures trying to cross a shark infested river (like the photo), figures trying to climb a bookcase to retrieve a treasure, or figures trying to open a drawer. It doesn’t have to be a major production, so don’t worry if you can’t come up with a major storyline and situation. Instead, you are just giving your group the starting point.

Lego 2Let the kids know that they can create anything with their Legos to help the figures solve their problem. You’ll be surprised and impressed when you see them create creations from ladders to spaceships to help their figures solve the problem. Once they have created, give them time to talk about their ideas with the rest of the group.

Color Puzzles

The great thing about Legos is that you don’t need a lot of direction to get kids thinking differently or creatively. Try out a color puzzle with your group and see how they use the colors to make a new creation.

Lego 3Simply grab some crayons (make sure you only use colors that match your Lego stash) and make a pattern on a piece of paper. Then, ask your group to use the Legos to create something that matches the color instructions. They might have lots of questions at first, but simply let them build whatever they want. It just has to match the color puzzle that you laid out for them.

Lego Races

Pre-build a few creations to put at the end of the room. Tuck the pre-built creation into a shoebox so that it is not visible from anywhere else in the room. At the other side of the room, or the starting line, put a pile of Legos that includes pieces and colors that match the shoebox creations. Group children into teams, and let them know that their objective is to work together to build the project that is completed at the other side of the room. When you start the race, each child runs to the end of the room to look at the creation and comes back to the start line to start to create the finished product that he just saw. Once he places a few pieces, it is the next child’s turn to run down, take a look, and return to build on what they have started. Continue with this until the team thinks that they have built the exact replica of item in the shoebox.

When they think that they have it, I like to have them yell something silly like “Legopalooza” or “Happy birthday Johnny!”. Once they yell that they have it, you can inspect their creation. If it matches, they win and if it doesn’t match, they have to keep racing to figure it out.

Depending on the age and skill of your group, you can make the shoebox creations easy or more difficult to replicate. It is fun to watch the kids form a strategy and then adapt that course of action as the race continues. I love Lego races because it gives the brain and the body a good workout.

Start with a Book

indoor kids activities obstacle courseI’m always looking for ways to incorporate books into our home activities. I am an avid reader and, so far, so is my son. I think that the more we can get good literature into our day, the better and more imaginative our day is.

For this activity, you only need a good read-aloud book and a pile of Legos. Read the book to your group and then have them build something (individually or in groups) that is inspired by the book. Try not to give them ideas or any further direction and just watch where their imagination leads them. After they build, give them a chance to explain their creation to the group and how the book inspired it. Not only is this activity excellent for imagination, it is also great for comprehension, which is a major reading readiness skill.

These are just a few ways that you can breathe some life into your Lego activity sets. If you have Lego lovers that still can’t get enough, you might want to check out these awesome Lego Camps or Classes!


Kidizens Summer Camps: Leveraging the Love of LEGOs to Learn Civic Responsibility and Leadership

ActivityHero spoke with Prerana Vadiya, the CEO of Kidizens to learn more about their unique program.

How do LEGOs and being a mayor go together?  

At Kidizens’ Summer Camps, children (grades K-3 and 3-6) learn all about the civics and economics of managing and governing a city!  In a one or two week intensive, action-packed session, children partner up to create and run their own small civilization from TONS of LEGOs. As mayors, our campers have LOTS of responsibility and opportunities for leadership –they’ll be providing residents of their cities with EVERYTHING they need to stay safe, healthy, and happy! At the same time, the mayors will be managing natural disasters, solving everyday problems, dealing with budgetary crises, holding inter-city summits to work with neighboring cities, and handling animated court cases!

Our Kidizens team will present real-life lessons and necessary information on all topics and create newer challenges as well as opportunities for problem solving!


Do you have kids returning each year?

Kidizens’ Summer Camps have built upon the successes of previous camps and its established year long civics and real life social studies programs. Our summer camps have received tremendous parent endorsements and have become increasingly popular: many kids have returned for a second and third year. All the summer camps are run by experienced teachers and supported by dedicated volunteers.

Kidizens Summer Camps offered for grades K – 6 in Los Altos, Saratoga and Belmont, CA.


Celebrating Pi Day With Kids

March 14th is the perfect time to break out all things pie…or pi. You see, 3.14 is both pi and March 14. Even if math isn’t your strong subject, you can still celebrate this infinite number and add a little bit of extra fun into an otherwise ordinary day.

Here are a few ideas to get you started. Remember, you don’t have to do all of them to make your family feel extra special. I’m a big fan of taking something silly or different and finding easy ways to celebrate. Let’s get started!

Eat All the Pie

While you can certainly pick up a pie from your favorite store or bakery to enjoy for dessert, you can also get your child involved in making one from scratch. While I don’t make my own pie dough very often (holla for store bought crusts!), I do try to make my own filling. My 4 year old son loves helping Mama in the kitchen and pies are one of his specialities. When he is helping me make filling, he is learning how we use math to measure. He is also working on his excellent stirring skills.

Depending on what you are in the mood for, you can make this easy apple pie recipe or this chocolate meringue pie recipe. My little man loved making the meringue, but if that freaks you out or if you are running low on time, just pour some cooked chocolate pudding into the pie crust and add some whipped cream to the top once it has cooled. You will be a superstar and I will personally award you with the Mother Of the Year award.

And your Pi Day celebration does not just have to include dessert pie. Bake an egg casserole in a pie pan for breakfast pie, or make a shepherd’s pie for dinner. Listen, if you can put it in a pie pan, do it. It adds to the excitement and your kids will love watching you get creative in the kitchen.

Craft Pi

Get out your finger paints or watercolors and show your children what the pi symbol looks like. My preschooler loved learning this new symbol; it was fun for him to paint, sculpt with playdoh, and draw. Try glueing dry beans or craft pompoms to a piece of paper in the shape of the pi symbol. For extra credit, glue the pompoms at the bottom of a foil pie tin.

Quantify the Numbers

2015-03-06 13.03.36.jpg

While I wasn’t going to give my preschooler a full lesson on the quantity of pi and how it works, I did involve some fun activities that revolved around pi. First, I told him that pi had to do with circles. We took a walk and tried to point out and find as many circles on our walk as we could. Give this a try, and see if you can find more than 10, more than 20, or more than 30 circles on your walk or adventure.

Next, explain that the numbers in pi are 3, 1 and 4. Then, try to find clusters of things that have 3, 1 and 4 things in them. Four grapes on his plate at lunch, one cardinal on the bird feeder outside, three kids playing at the library. It is a fun game that you can play together throughout the day. Plus, it is great practice on quantifying numbers, which is a math readiness skill that he will use in elementary school.

Finally, with all this talk of circles, this might be a good time to introduce the Venn Diagram to  your child. Try two intersecting circles and give your child an age and skill appropriate task. For us, we counted how many superhero toys in his books wore red, wore blue, and wore red/blue. I didn’t know if this would go over well or not, but it was a hit! We ended up doing more diagrams that involved color combinations of superheroes; it kept us busy for quite awhile before Daddy came home for the evening.

No matter how you decide to bring a little Pi(e) into your life this month, I think you will find yourself with a new family tradition on your hands.

Parenting Resources

Grow Without the Dirt – Gardening Indoors With Kids

With spring on the horizon, most of us start to plan our garden. At least here in my Chicago suburban home, planning our summer garden is one of the ways that our family survives the final push of winter weather. I can make it through any random April (or May!) snowstorm if I know that gardening is just a few weeks away. Gardening indoors with kids is one of the first steps to get them excited about summer!

We’ve started our plants indoors this year, and have watched our seeds grow steadily. Jackson, our preschooler, has always enjoyed helping out with gardening tasks but this year he is into it tenfold. I’ve been looking for ways to harness and expand his enthusiasm, but simply don’t have the living space to add one more seedling to our home. Enter our very own form of hydroponics, or growing living things without dirt.

Besides being a fun science experiment, learning to grow things without dirt has given him more plants to check on each day. He thinks it is awesome that he can grow plants in dirt, in water, and in other mediums entirely. Here are a few ideas to get you and your little gardener started.

Start an Avocado Adventure

While I might be the only person who doesn’t love guacamole, I do love that you can start an avocado tree in your home with just a few toothpicks and a glass of water. The next time that you are at the grocery store with your child, pick out an avocado together. Talk about where he thinks avocados come from – a bush, a tree, etc. Avocados do indeed come from trees and you can start one together.

After you use your avocado, save and rinse the pit. Pierce it with 3 or 4 toothpicks so that it can “hang” in a glass half full of water. Keep the pointy side as the top. Now, you wait. It might take up to eight weeks to see things really start to happen, but if you and your family can have the patience, your avocado pit will start to sprout roots.

If you live in appropriate weather, you can plant your sprouted pit. About 10 years later, your tree will start giving you avocados. If you don’t have that kind of time, just seeing the sprouting process right in your kitchen is enough to call this experiment a success.

Lettuce, Onions, and Leeks (Oh My!)

This spring and summer, our family is committed to working on reducing our kitchen waste. While we are good at using most of our ingredients up, I’ve already started our compost pile and am still looking for ways to decrease our household trash. Our dirtless plants fascination works great for this.

The next time you are chopping up green onions or leeks, don’t throw away the bottom part with the roots. Instead, toss them into a bit of water. Within no time at all, you will have new green onions and leeks to use for your next recipe. Be sure to rotate some new starter roots every few times so that you are getting good nutrients, but this is a fun way for your child to see how things grow. You can also use this technique with romaine lettuce and even fennel.

Hit the Pet Store

If you already have a fish tank at home, or a pond in your backyard, you might find your next aquatic plant adventure in your pet store. Our fish Blue now has a lovely aquatic plant in his tank, courtesy of the nice lady at our local pet store. We had fun “planting” it in his tank and I think that Blue is pleased with this recent upgrade.

If you have a pond as a landscape feature, you already have a gateway to water lilies and other aquatic plants. Get your child involved in choosing appropriate plants for the health of your pond, as well as “planting” them. It is a wonderful way of hands on learning.

If you aren’t sure if avocado pits and green onions are the way that you want to test out dirtless plants, or if your child is more advanced and ready to take something else on, you can dive more into hydroponics; or, find clear gel that you can grow root cuttings in. Get your child involved with you by visiting local garden centers or botanical garden locations that are local to you; gardening or nature camps are also a great place to get information.


Silly Superstitions to Celebrate With Kids

Whether or not you are superstitious yourself, you and your kiddos can probably name a few common superstitions. Beware of black cats crossing your path. Never walk under a ladder. Keep your eyes peeled for four leaf clovers. And for heavens sake, eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away. There are so many superstitions to celebrate with kids!

But sometimes celebrating silly superstitions is a hilarious way to connect with your kids. You can adapt our list of favorites to fit your preschooler or your Boy Scout troop. No matter how you celebrate, we can pretty much guarantee some funny conversations and time together as a family. Have fun!

Fun and Silly Superstitions to Celebrate With Kids

2015-02-07 12.11.01.jpg

Hoodie Hoo Day (February 20)

Did you know that everyone in the Northern Hemisphere should work together to scare winter away on February 20? If you didn’t know, maybe you’re the reason why my backyard is still covered in more than 20” of snow. This year, let’s work together to chase winter away by celebrating Hoodie Hoo Day. Here’s all you have to do: at noon on February 20th, open your front doors and head outside. Bang on pots and pans, all while yelling “hoodie hoo” loudly. Rumor has it, if everyone does it, winter will be frightened and head away quickly, leaving room for spring to come early. If your family isn’t around to yell at noon, we think that any time of day is a good time to celebrate. Add a little extra fun by doing something spring-like; try brushing the snow off the grill and making burgers, and plan your garden over dinner.

Mardi Gras King Cake (date varies)

Mardi Gras is a celebration that concludes on Fat Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent. There are plenty of fun Mardi Gras traditions that your family can get involved with each year right in your own living room, and the King Cake is one of our favorites. A King Cake is a New Orleans speciality, a sweet and braided pastry iced and sprinkled with Mardi Gras colors (yellow, purple, and green). Inside each King Cake is a small, plastic baby. You heard me – there’s a baby in the cake. Superstition tells us that whoever gets the baby will have good luck all year, and has to bring the King Cake to the Mardi Gras party the next year. Sometimes, the baby-finder is the King of all Mardi Gras celebrations that year.


Superstition dictates that horseshoes, when turned up and placed near a room, will keep nightmares away. If you have a kiddo who is needing a little extra bedtime confidence, we think that a quick craft project might be just the ticket. Grab a horseshoe (you don’t need to find a real one, a wooden one will do) and give it a fun makeover with paint, glitter, or anything else you have on hand. Hang it near the bedroom door upright – so that it looks like the letter U – and say so long to nightmares.

Friday the 13th

While you might have grown up with a creepy killer named Jason coming out on Friday the 13th, we think that you should turn this unique date into a silly day, not a scary one. Make a few traditions in your home for Friday the 13th days. Colorful pancakes (just add food coloring to the batter) or glowsticks at bathtime might be an interesting way to make this date a little extra special.

April Fool’s Day (April 1)

For many April Fool’s Day, my mom would wake me and my brother up by telling us there was a huge snowstorm overnight and we had a snow day. Then after she got us up and out of bed to look at the snow, she cackled and yelled “April Fool’s – gotcha!” We groaned every time, and she eased the pain by having a big breakfast ready for us, instead of our usual bowl of cereal. April Fool’s Day can bring an extra dose of silly into your family’s day. Have breakfast for dinner, or add a few jokes to your child’s lunch box.

Ring bells

It is common to ring church bells on wedding days or other celebrations. This ritual is steeped in history, starting out when bells were thought to scare away evil spirits. Every family needs a way to restart a bad day or shake off the sleepy days. How about keeping a bell in your kitchen or in your purse to pull out and ring when everyone just needs to calm down or smile. We think this could be a unique family tradition.


Wishing Stars

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight. Sounds like the perfect outdoor family activity to us! Gather up blankets, flashlights, and some snacks and head outside to watch for the first star you see. While you are out there, see if you can find common constellations. We especially love that you can find wishing stars no matter the season – while it would be the perfect summer evening activity, you can also bundle up and head out to the car in the wintertime to see the stars on a clear night. Happy wishing!

Winter Solstice (December 21)

Similar to Hoodie Hoo Day, but with a much longer history, people have gathered on the Winter Solstice for hundreds of years to encourage winter to leave. The shortest day of the year, people celebrate with bonfires and lighting candles. Sounds like the perfect excuse for a cozy family candlelight dinner to us.

May Day (May 1)

A tradition on May Day is to bring flowers to neighbors, ushering in the spring season. Typically, this is the only time that it is appropriate to “ding dong ditch”, or ring the doorbell and then run away. My son and I passed out flowers to neighbors last year on May Day and no one had heard of the tradition. I was surprised, as I used to make little paper baskets filled with dandelions for my neighbors growing up. Let’s bring back May Day traditions – it is fun, and your kiddos get the chance to love on their neighbors, which is always a good lesson.

Summer Solstice (June 20 or 21)

The longest day of the year, or Midsummer, is the perfect fun summer celebration. Make flower crowns, put flowers under your pillows for good dreams, eat strawberries, and stay up past bedtime. Enjoy the extra long daytime hours, and use the time to explain a bit about how the sun determines our seasons here on Earth.

After-School Activities

Family Friend Mardi Gras

Fat Tuesday can be a fun new tradition for your family to celebrate every year. You don’t need to bring the R-rated wildness into your living room, but you can certainly highlight the culture, music, and food of New Orleans into your home each year. Our family of three have been celebrating Mardi Gras every year since our son was born. We all look forward to it every year, and even though it is on a Tuesday, it is easy to pull a celebration together after a long work day.

Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, is the last day to indulge before the beginning of the Christian observance of Lent. Even if you aren’t giving up anything for Lent, or even if you aren’t Christian, consider celebrating Mardi Gras together as as family. Here are a few ideas on how to bring NOLA into your home this year.

The music

You simply cannot have Mardi Gras without music. Stream a Louis Armstrong station to start your jazz and scatting atmosphere. Depending on your child’s age, you can use this opportunity to talk about jazz vocabulary words and instruments (think scat, trumpet, trombone, syncopation, etc.), as well as talk about the instruments that they are hearing. Most importantly – and this is the part that cannot be skipped – dance. Dance around your living room, your kitchen, your bedroom. Play follow the leader and have everyone in your family take turns in leading the dance moves for the rest of the family. Pretend you are playing different instruments, call out the name – trumpet! drums! trombone! – and have everyone do their best interpretation. Teach your kiddos the song “When the Saints Go Marching In”, as this is a Mardi Gras staple.

2015-02-05 15.53.58.jpg

The culture

Mardi Gras, and New Orleans in general, has a fantastic culture. You can recreate the Big Easy right in your home by starting with the music and then adding a few fun details. First, everyone gets beads. Chances are, you already have a pile of beads sitting somewhere in your toy room, left over from birthday party favors or pirate pretend play. Pull those out and be sure everyone wears some. Add feathered masks which you can buy at the Dollar Store or make with paper plates, paint, glue, and a few decorative feathers.

Next, and this is my son’s favorite part, get out the umbrellas. You can certainly spend some time a few days prior decorating an inexpensive umbrella with paint or streamers. Or, you can just pull out the umbrellas you have, open them inside, and twirl them as you walk. My son thinks that his Lightning McQueen umbrella is the ultimate Mardi Gras accessory, even asking if he could pack it when we actually did fly down to NOLA for a friend’s wedding last year. New Orleans is known for its parades and Second Lines, so you simply have to crank up the music, twirl the umbrellas, and have a parade throughout your home and yard. Have everyone take turns leading the parade and sing along to the music.

Dollarphotoclub_39404959.jpgFinally, New Orleans culture is very welcoming to everyone. This year, our family will be taking our parade – Lightning McQueen umbrella and all – to our neighborhood, parading from house to house to drop off bags full of beads and our favorite Mardi Gras treat, the paczki.

The food

Now that we’re talking about paczkis, my stomach is growling for the most delicious part of our Mardi Gras family celebration – the food. Growing up in central Illinois, I never experienced the paczki, a Polish pastry that is like a donut except more spectacular. When I came to live in the Chicagoland suburbs and worked with many Polish nuns, I learned that you simply cannot have Fat Tuesday come and go without eating a paczki. We have already called ahead to our local bakery to order three dozen. We will decorate paper bags that I have already in my kitchen cabinet, toss a few beads and napkins inside, and then add a few paczkis too. Our neighbors are going to love us. Dollarphotoclub_62033821.jpg

While paczkis are more common in Chicago’s Fat Tuesday celebrations, you can’t go wrong with other New Orleans fare. You can order a King Cake from a New Orleans bakery to have shipped to your home, or if you don’t have time to do that, you can make cinnamon rolls (homemade or from the tube – no judgment here) and sprinkle purple, green and yellow sprinkles over the melted icing. I mean, I believe the children are our future, and I believe that we should teach them the way of the King Cake.

Finally, for dinner, you can’t go wrong with gumbo or jambalaya. There are plenty of versions of recipes online, from super simple and fast to more authentic and time consuming. There are even cooking camps that can teach kids’ how to make foods like this, see the Cooking Around the World Camp from A Little Yumminess. Not in the mood for gumbo or jambalaya (that’s crazy, but ok), add cajun seasoning to shrimp or salmon, along with some red beans and rice, and you are set to go. Finally, add to the festive atmosphere with cocktails – hurricanes for the adults. For the kids, add a few different juices and call it something fun like a Mardi Gras Mixer or a Big Easy Sipper.

Start small for your Mardi Gras celebration this year, and watch as it grows a bit bigger every year. Let the good times roll!

Creative Arts

Pantry Art

Looking for a rainy day or evening activity for your preschooler or kindergartener? We have a few ideas that will tap into your child’s inner artist, and that will work on fine motor skills. Even better, we made sure that each of these activities can be done with items that you probably already have hanging out in your kitchen pantry. Open up your cabinets and find out how you can turn something ordinary into something extraordinary, with the help of your kiddo.

Old School Pasta Jewelry

Let’s throw it back to the 1980s with a little pasta necklace action. I know it might seem a little boring or old school, but I’ve gotten out some leftover dry pasta and ribbon more times that I can count for my preschool son and it has been a hit every time. What I love about this particular activity is that you can change it up easily so that it feels like a new activity every time you pull it out.

2015-02-05 09.55.31.jpg

Today, my son and I colored the pasta by putting a splash of vinegar and food coloring drops into each bag. You can color almost anything (rice, pasta, etc.) this way – roughly 1 cup of pasta with a tablespoon of white vinegar and enough food coloring to give your little artist the desired color. Your child can do all of the pouring and measuring with your supervision, and can mix colors to experiment. Today, my son chose a red bag, a yellow bag, a green bag, and then a bag with every food coloring hue. Once he mixed that bag together, he declared that it was the pasta looked just like green beans and deemed it a good result.

Once you combine your vinegar, pasta, and food coloring, seal up the ziplock bag and do a mix of shaking and squishing to get the color incorporated. Your little one will love this part too. Dump the pasta onto paper towels and let it dry out for a few hours. Then, you are ready to string some sweet neck or wrist wear.

Grab twine, curling ribbon, pipe cleaners or even twist ties – whatever you have lying around – and have your child get to work stringing. Your child will not only be working on artistic expression, but his fine motor skills will be getting a major workout. Remember, fine motor skills come into play with pencil holding, writing and cutting. Introduce or practice pattern skills, or just set up the activity and see which direction your child takes it.2015-02-05 12.30.12.jpg

Don’t have pasta on hand? No worries. This activity is just as sweet with a few handfuls of cereal to string. There’s nothing old school about this retro activity. We’re betting your little one will love it!

Glue By Letter

This winter, we introduced my son to color by number sheets. He loved them, and was able to work independently on a sheet while I prepped dinner or checked my email. A few weeks ago, I was looking for something for us to do while we were trapped inside during a major snowstorm and decided that we could grab a few leftovers from our kitchen cabinets, a glue stick, and a piece of paper to make our own 3D glue-by-number art projects.2015-02-05 13.40.50.jpg

Today, we pulled out some dry red beans and dry lentils. He drew a picture for me and I drew a heart for him, and then we traded. “R” was for red beans and “W” was for the white lentils. Next, follow directions and glue the materials down. Once completed, admire and let dry.

You can do the draw and trade method like we did, or you can ditch the glue-by-number idea all together and just let your artist glue materials where they would like. You can use beans, lentils, leftover candy (perfect for after Halloween), extra colored pasta that you have leftover from necklaces, or anything else you can find. For extra fun, get your child involved in the hunt for materials in your cabinets. 2015-02-05 13.39.38.jpg

Marshmallow Painting

I’m not sure if it’s just me, but we almost always have leftover marshmallows sitting in our kitchen drawer. We buy a bag for s’mores or for hot cocoa, and since no one in our family likes to just munch on marshmallows, the leftovers just hang out and get stale. On another snowy day this month (we live in the Chicagoland suburbs where the term Chiberia is used to compare our weather to that of Siberia), my son pulled out the bag of marshmallows and wondered out loud what we could do with them.

Since we are certainly not going to eat them, we decided that marshmallows would make the perfect thing to paint with. A few drops of different colors of paint on a paper plate, a few marshmallows, and a long piece of butcher paper on our kitchen table were the perfect ingredients for a creative afternoon. While you can use the marshmallows as a stamp, my son had fun dragging the marshmallows along the paper like a paint brush as well. All marshmallows work – from the tiny ones for hot chocolate to the jumbo ones for s’mores. If your child isn’t too big on getting their hands messy, sticking a toothpick in the top of the marshmallow gives a safe place to grab and hold.

Friends, your preschooler doesn’t want the Pinterest perfect activities. He thinks it is awesome (and funny) when you use items from your kitchen in a different way. What will you try with the items in your pantry today?

If your child can’t get enough art, check out art camps near you.


Pet Shop Activities for Kids

Pet Shop Activities

Every mom, dad, and grandma needs a few activities that are always at the ready. Our pet shop scavenger hunt and math games are easy enough to pull out quickly when you are dying for a new idea, and can work well together or individually. Whether you use our pet shop activities for a rainy day, an afternoon outing when you are all stir crazy at home, or a fun activity to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon, we can guarantee that kiddos of all ages will love it. We bet that you never knew that a trip to your local pet store could fill an entire afternoon full of activities and learning opportunities. Don’t believe us? Keep on reading.

Scavenger Hunt

While heading to your local pet shop can be a nice break in a day on its own, adding a bit of excitement by whipping up a scavenger hunt can make a fun trip seem extraordinary. You can adapt your scavenger hunt to your child’s abilities, or what they are working on. Check out this one that I jotted down for my four year old son (don’t judge the drawing – this Mama isn’t an artist!). He can’t quite read yet, but looking for just “orange things” or “blue things” would be a combination of boring and overwhelming for him. Instead, I focused on specific animals. Before we headed out, I asked him if he knew what my drawings were of. He did (hooray!), and we were off. He thought it was hilarious that I had listed “Rudolph” as the final item, and was genuinely curious if we would see a shark.2015-01-19 09.44.59.jpg

You can adapt your scavenger hunt any way you please. I have done plenty of pet shop hunts where my son got to mark off items as he found them. However, today I wanted him to count how many he found so that we could use those numbers for math problems back at home. Armed with a pencil and his sheet, we headed to the pet shop to look for people, fish aquarium castles, snails, snakes and everything in between.

Your scavenger hunt might look like mine, or you might choose to write down letters and have your child find something that starts with each letter (B is for Beta Fish, T is for tadpole). This is a great adaptation for kids working on phonics skills. Older kids can ditch the pictures and read your list of things to find, and younger kids can look for colors. Our pet shop knows us by now and always wants to see the scavenger hunt we are working on when we walk in the door. Have some fun experimenting with what to include on your child’s hunt, and don’t worry if you’re an awful artist (like me).

Math Word Problems

Once we filled out our scavenger hunt, and got into a serious talk about turtles with one of the pet shop employees, we were ready to head home. After lunch, my son and I took out his scavenger hunt page and started to work on math. My guy is working on learning what (+) means, as well as (=). I decided to put those into practice with some scavenger hunt math problems.

Using the same, highly professional, drawings from his hunt sheet, I started making symbol math problems.

Orange fish + Crabs = People + Rudolphs =

My little guy loved it, and he was able to fill in the numbers. If the counts got too high for his fingers, we drew it out and he was able to count up the sum that way. I liked that we (surprise, gasp!) didn’t find any Rudolphs, as that was a wonderful way to introduce adding with zeros.

Depending on your little one, you can switch your symbol word problems to include subtraction, division, and multiplication. Or, for younger kids, simply counting to the number is excellent practice that teaches foundational math skills.

Other Follow Up

Once you are able to complete your scavenger hunt, be sure to talk about your experience together on the way home, and then again when you are at home. Ask your child’s favorite animal, something interesting that he learned, something that he was surprised about. Even better, have him recount your trip to someone else (give grandma a call). This way, you are able to hear him tell the story which gives you a unique perspective on what he remembers and enjoyed the most.

As for my guy, turtles were the highlight of the trip. Thanks to some certain amphibians of the teenage and ninja variety, turtles are a hot topic over here. After Daddy got home from work, we pulled up some information on Galapagos tortoises to read together. It didn’t take too many fun facts for us to all learn something new together. Letting our son sit on our lap while we googled images and information about the tortoises was teaching him skills for internet literacy, and letting him know that even mom and dad don’t know the answers to everything. Our quick search and reading time was a wonderful way to cap off our pet shop day. Then, it was off to bath time where the little guy insisted on two guests – turtles, of course.

Keeping Kids Active, Healthy + Engaged

We Heart Preschool Science: Valentine’s Day Edition

Here, 3 science projects for toddlers with a Valentine’s Day theme. Share some one-on-one time as you experiment with ice, water and an erupting volcano!

By Haley Burress

Preschoolers and younger elementary school kids are already great scientists. They are naturally curious about the world around them. They observe changes and want to know how things work. Plus, they are really good at asking questions. Lots and lots of questions. This February, embrace the chilly weather and your preschooler’s incessant “why” questions, and try out some of our science experiments. We love these because they are easy — and because you probably have everything you need in the house right now. Plus, these experiments have an extra-fun twist and are all Valentine’s Day themed. Try them out with your curious kiddo, and watch your day turn into an exciting and educational event.

Shop for toddler classes near you >>

Preschool Science Project #1: Valentine’s Freezers

2015-01-19 08.58.59.jpg

Teach your child about solids and liquids by letting them create some festive ice cubes. Here at my house, my 4-year-old son is really into talking about solids and liquids (we have this whole interpretive dance about each of the phases of matter), so this one was a no-brainer.

To start, we rounded up anything that he thought was related to Valentine’s Day and that we already had here at home. Anything we gathered had to be able to withstand being in water. He took his job of gathering items very seriously, and what I thought was just going to be a quick roundup ended up being a fun part of the activity. His treasures included a few festive beaded necklaces, a flower from the corsage he got me at our Mom-Son dance, some heart cookie cutters, and a dinosaur (red, of course).

2015-01-19 12.46.59.jpg

Next, we found small containers that would be our ice cube molds. This was easy enough, and I had plenty of small containers left from his homemade baby food days. I pulled out some food coloring from the cabinet, and he pulled his stool up to the kitchen sink. He filled up the containers with water; I let him decide how full he wanted them, as it’s his experiment and he loves to make the decisions. Next, he submerged his treasures in the water containers and added a few drops of food coloring to some of the containers as well. Since we live in blustery Chicagoland, we put the containers on a cookie sheet and set it right outside on our backyard table. If you live in an area where your temperatures get below freezing, definitely put your ice treasures outside to freeze, as it was fun checking on them through the window. (If not, your freezer will do the trick just as nicely.) After only a few hours, our ice was frozen solid.

A quick dip in warm water helped the ice blocks slide out easily, and we put them back on the cookie sheet to help contain the watery mess. Playing with the ice is great sensory play, and it is fun to peer inside the solid ice to see your treasure. My son liked experimenting on how to get the treasures out the quickest. He tried baths in a bowl of warm water, a hammer and a nail (with supervision, of course), and even salt. If you are doing this experiment, you definitely need to try out salt on at least one. Sprinkle some on an ice block and, after the salt sits for a minute or so, add a drop of food coloring to see what happens.

As he experimented and freed his treasures, we were able to talk about where he thought the water from the ice went, and other examples of things that turn from liquid to solid or vice versa. Kiddos up to the age of 8 will enjoy this simple activity, and it is interesting to see them make observations and hypotheses, as well as draw conclusions from what they have seen.

Shop for toddler classes near you >>

Preschool Science Project #2:

Water Walkers2015-01-19 09.22.13.jpg

Tease your child and tell them that you can get water to walk from one glass to another. They’ll be hooked and follow you right to the kitchen to set up this easy experiment. Fill a glass or two with water and add food coloring (Valentine’s colors, of course). Set the glass up on an overturned bowl and place an empty glass on the table near it. Cut a strip of paper towel and put one end in the water and the other end in the empty glass. That’s it — easy peasy.

The next part is all about observation. Watch the color climb up the paper towel and then down into the empty glass below. In a matter of time, the water has “walked” to the empty glass. Jazz things up a bit by having a glass with red water and a glass with blue water dripping into one common cup. What color will the water become as the waters mix?

Since this experiment is pretty easy, you can spend some extra time mixing up the variables and making theories of what will happen. Double up the paper towels or even try toilet paper. Try warm water versus cold water. Let your little scientist make the decisions, and try out what he wants. Part of the fun is trying new things together, even if the result doesn’t change.

Preschool Science Project #3: Homemade Volcanoes

My son could make a homemade volcano every day and never tire of it. We put a spin on this classic science experiment by watching what happened when a red volcano and a blue volcano erupted on the same cookie sheet.

Whether you choose to make your volcano out of clay, paper-mache, or in our case, old Play-Doh, you are winning. Sometimes we skip the volcano part entirely and just head straight to the eruption because that’s the best part anyway. But even if we skip the volcano part, we always add a scene on our cookie sheet. Sometimes Superman and the Justice League are right in the evil volcano path, and sometimes dinosaurs are minding their own business only a few inches away from the volcano. This pretend play is an important part of our volcano experimenting.

But back to the eruption. In a small container (we might use leftover Hard Rock Cafe shot glasses from college days), add a few spoonfuls of baking soda, a few drops of food coloring, and a squirt of dish soap. Once you are ready, start a countdown to add your eruption agent: a pour of white vinegar (maybe an ounce or so). Commence oooohs and aaaaahs and general happiness from your little scientist.

While you can certainly stop there, it is more fun to experiment with your variables again. What will happen if you leave out the dish soap? If you try baking powder instead of baking soda? If you add water instead of vinegar? This experimentation is where the learning happens.

You might be surprised when you glance at the clock and notice that one of these experiments has kept your kiddo engaged for over an hour. And you just might learn something new too. Everyone wins here, which is why we heart preschool science!

Shop for toddler classes near you >>