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Savvy Tips and tricks learned along the way...

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Since we've been homeschooling our kids, I've found some educational resources to enrich them and give them a well-rounded curriculum. Below are my reviews of many educational and S.T.E.A.M. gizmos, gadgets, and books I've collected and used.


written by my 8yo daughter

Bloxels is a system for kids to design their own video games. It comes with a board and little colored blocks that you can use to design parts of the game. Then you have to install the app on your device to program the video game.

You can make and design your own characters and game layout. You can also create obstacles and enemies for your game. I really enjoy testing the games Iíve made, exploring the possibilities, and playing with the board and the pieces.

There are a few things I donít like about Bloxels. One of them is that some areas of the program can be confusing. Another one is that it takes a long time to load the infinity wall. The last one is when I open the Bloxels app it goes back to the home screen.

Even though itís not a perfect system, it is still a fun and interesting experience. I would recommend it to anyone who likes to be creative and have fun.

Growing Crystals


Growing crystals is a fascinating activity for both kids and adults. It is really cool how a simple saturated "salt" solution can form beautiful crystals. For this, we bought the Crystal Growing Experimental Kit by 4M. It was pretty simple to do, the kit comes with all the containers and chemicals that you need, even a stirring and measuring spoon.

We started out by boiling 200mL (and yes our regular measuring cup thankfully has milliliter measurements) of water. Then we poured it into the mixing bowl included in the kit. We then poured one packet of the chemical "salt" into the hot water in the bowl. We mixed it for a while to dissolve the granulated chemical. By this time, the solution had cooled quite a bit. We then poured the solution into 2 medium hexagonal crystal-growing containers included in the kit. Then we added the colored "seed" chemicals into the hexagonal containers and let them set for a while.

Every couple few hours we checked the crystals. The blue solution seemed to grow the crystal quite quickly, within a day. And thankfully it was very visible. The purple solution was so dark that it has been difficult to see how the crystal has been growing. Finally, after a couple of days, and with a very bright flashlight shining onto it, we can start to make out some of the crystal growing inside.

It is pretty cool, and I would definitely recommend this kit if you want to grow some crystals.

Wake Me Up When September Ends


"Summer has come and passed..." - Green Day

The end of summer is sort of a crunch time for me. Seattle area rains all year long when its not summer. So in the last month of summer, I gotta get in my last few hikes, BBQs, dog walks, beach visits, and yard work in. Oh, how did I let the summer get away from me so fast!

Our daughter drew this scene depicting the end of summer, using colored pencil. Yes, I see that some trees have begun to turn. The grass is sort of dry and brown, with bits green here and there. We still have sun, as the rains haven't set in yet, but the sky is turning hazy. Luckily Fall is such a beautiful season, otherwise it would be utterly depressing to say goodbye to summer.

The kids are back in school, well homeschool, that is. For our daughter's 3rd grade curriculum this year, I found this new book called Complete Curriculum by Flash Kids. It is a hefty book, much bigger than the other workbooks I've used for homeschool in the past. More expensive, too.

At first glance, it looked a little dry and boring. But I got it anyway just to try something different. It looked pretty comprehensive, appeared to be well-organized and thorough. When school time came close, I looked further into it to see how we would attempt to progress through this book.

There are five subjects in the book: Reading, Spelling, Math, Language, and Writing. I used removable adhesive tabs to separate out the sections. Science, social studies, history, and other interesting topics are nicely interspersed throughout the book, especially in the reading section. Our daughter really enjoys the reading passages in this workbook.

I debated about whether to have her do one of two pages of each subject a day. I decided to start out with one, at least for the beginning of the school year, and see how that goes. She gets all five subjects done pretty quickly. There are colored illustrations in the book that are age-appropriate. They are not too bold and preschoolish, but they have just the right amount of color and detail in them for a 3rd grader.

I really like how the book is set up. There are units of learning in some of the subjects. In the Language section, there are units on nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech. They are nicely split up so that each page could be a day's work, or you could do more.

The Reading section is organized in two pages for each topic. Each page has a reading passage about the topic and some questions below. The second page contains another passage about the similar topic. I like how this type of extended reading of a topic has advanced her from the previous grade of just reading 1 separate topic per day. This introduces extended study of a particular topic, which becomes a more valuable skill in higher grades.

The Spelling section is really great, too. It begins with a solid foundation, the basics, which may seem redundant for a smart 3rd grader. Things like emphasizing spelling words with the long A sound and such really makes sure that these spelling skills are fortified into the student's learning.

The Math and Writing sections are also wonderful. I am glad that I chose the Complete Curriculum workbook. It is a great tool to begin the school year. I calculated that if she does one page per subject per day, there are about 120 days of school work in this workbook. With there being about 180 days of a normal school year, that would put me about 60 days short of curriculum.

But never fear, there is also a ton of test prep material in the back of the book, including exercises and practice tests. That'll keep her busy! I know she despises test prep stuff, but it is good to have these skills under your belt. In the past couple of years, I had purchased separate test prep workbooks. But this Flash Kids Complete Curriculum workbook has saved me the trouble.

And if these test prep pages don't eat up the last 60 days of school, I also purchased another, totally different, 3rd grade workbook. It is a fun type of workbook that she has used and liked in the past. It will serve as a nice end of the year review and summer curriculum.

Spray Marker

July 31, 2017

Our 5 year old son does not yet have the fine motor skills of our 7 year old daughter. So he is not quite ready for the SentoSphere Aquarellum kit that I wrote about below, that our 7yo loves. However, he found himself enjoying the Crayola Air Marker Sprayer. This particular art set allows him to spray "paint" all over a piece of paper in a haphazard fashion, creating random patterns and shapes. This art system is definitely up his alley, as he is a free-spirited artist that prefers no boundaries or guidelines (opposite of the Aquarellum method).

This Air Marker Sprayer is a plugin model that creates the air pressure at the push of button, leaving hands free to do the painting. The reason I mention this is because the first model we had was a manual marker airbrush kit that needed to be hand pumped to build up the pressure each time before spraying. This was a serious pain and depleted artistic time and energy.

The electric powered spray marker kit comes with several washable Crayola markers. But I definitely got more because depending on how prolific your little artist is, you can easily run out of "paint" fast. The kit also comes with some cool stencils of a dragon, fire, and other objects. But I have also used other stencils I had lying around the house.

I really like how the markers are washable. It makes clean up really simple with a babywipe. Otherwise, you can imagine how messy spray markers can get. When our son asked Santa for this for Christmas, he was a bit hesitant to "ok" it. He thought about me and the mess I would have to clean up. But as long as he is supervised, clean up has been quick and easy. But Santa did deliver, and our son was super stoked to receive it!

Beautiful Water Color Paintings Made Easy

July 31, 2017

Ever since we stopped taking art class together at an art studio, I've sometimes found myself at a loss of artsy things to do to continue art as part of our homeschool curriculum. Since I don't have the art know-how that our art teacher did, I have resorted to art kits that have instruction and proper materials for a really nice piece of artwork.

I found such a kit called SentoSphere Aquarellum. It is a really unique system for creating beautiful watercolor pieces. With the kit, you get a few sheets of special water color paper prepared for a certain picture. There is a wax coating around the object(s) in the picture and various details within the object(s). That way, when the student paints, the watercolor stays within the areas of detail in the picture. The wax around the objects in the picture prevents the watercolor from bleeding out all over the painting.

The instructions that come with the kit also teach the student how to blend colors, create new colors, how to do gradients, etc. The kit comes with watercolor paint, a paint brush, and the paintable watercolor papers with wax outlines. The watercolor paint is a bit diluted, unlike watercolor paint you normally get at art stores. This diluted watercolor paint makes it easier for the beginner to work with the paint. They can control the paint better. They don't have to worry about globs of paint that comes from a watercolor tube because the diluted paint is mixed consistently, at the same time as keeping it well-pigmented.

I think this is a great place to start for a student who wants to learn some water color techniques but still create a really fancy painting. We got our 7yo daughter the Fashion Design Magical Girls SentoSphere Aquarellum. She has enjoyed mixing colors and creating vibrant, multi-colored paintings of pretty characters with this kit. There are many Aquarellum kits with brightly colored paints and pictures for younger kids. There are other Aquarellum kits that are set up to create more realistic paintings of animals. Those are probably for older kids and adults.

Here are a couple of her creations with this kit


Updated 8/15/2017

She painted another one today. I especially like how she blended the brown into the blond hair to give it some dimension and interest. I also love how she created the purple gradient on the tights. Can I get some tights like that?

Spin the Paint Bottle

July 26, 2017

The Alex Toys Fantastic Spinner is a fun and unique little art gadget. Our 5 year old really enjoys it. The artwork that comes off of it is different every time. No two art pieces are exactly the same :-)

This allows him to get messy, dripping paint onto the paper inside the spinner. There is a hand operated squeezer that he can work at the same as squeezing paint onto the paper. So he can use this apparatus pretty independently, which is nice.

Once we ran out of the paint that came with it, I used some washable tempera paint that I had lying around from other art projects. However, I wouldn't recommend that. I am definitely going to get the Fantasic Spinner refill kit ASAP.

Using other paint means that you don't have the same consistency and you don't get as much spreading of the paint when it spins. Also, the paper doesn't dry properly. Not to mention that I never noticed my tempera paint have such a strong odor until it spins. Peeew! The Alex paint for the spinner doesn't seem to have a smell at all, which is awesome.

The Alex Fantastic Spinner refill kit is a very fair price IMO, I think around $5 on Amazon. It includes 4 new bottles of paint, with more folding cards, and paper that the original set came with. It's not an art kit that we use on a regular basis, but for the occasional use, it is fun, and the refills would be worth it. It is something different than just standard painting on paper. I think it is great for a kid that wants to do something a little wild and crazy when it comes to art.

We have made greeting cards out of these. You can cut the dried splattered art work and glue them on cardstock to get a unique-looking birthday card. They would also make really cute wall decorations if you frame them.

So go ahead, let your kid take some paint for a spin!

A Most Unique Workbook for 2nd Graders

July 24, 2017

I came across The Visual Guide to Second Grade and thought it might be a workbook that piques our daughter's interest. She loves reading about interesting facts having to do with science, health, history, and social studies. When I bought it, I found it to be a most incredible workbook for her. Not only did it contain diagrams, passages, and activities of all those interesting subjects she enjoys, it also integrated language arts and math into them!

I am constantly impressed by this book as she goes through it. The past several pages have been about the teeth, history of brushing teeth, names of teeth, how best to keep them clean, etc. There are also pages on money, history of presidents, weather, geography, you name it!

I am so glad I found this book. It is layed out really nicely to appeal to both the cerebral, logical kid as well as to the hands on creative kid. There are cut and paste activities as well as graphing and writing activities. This book has it all.

Though I would not use this as the sole workbook for the year, it is huge and contains so much good information that I would not be without it for the school year.

On Amazon, you can view pages inside the book and get a gist of the interesting topics it contains and the creative way it is layed out. This type of workbook is also available for other grades. Something to keep their knowledge well-rounded.

Piano Lessons at Home

I grew up taking piano lessons, using the Michael Aaron piano books. Started with the first one, yes, March of the Middle C Twins, if you remember that one. So naturally, I started our daughter on that book. She picked it up pretty quickly.

But one day, my dad came to visit. He has long taught piano, as well as guitar, drums, bass, and other instruments. He'd been using a new style piano book series called All-In-One Piano Lessons by Hal Leonard. I have never seen anything like it. What an amazing way for kids to learn piano these days. And for our daughter, who is so smart and self-driven, this book is self-teaching.

It has downloadable play-along tracks so the student can listen to the piece before playing it. It also comes with accompaniment tracks so the student can perform the piece along with the music when ready. This has been a great tool for both our daughter and son to learn piano. We record videos of them playing with the accompaniment track so their grandpa can hear and see their progress.

So far our daughter, at age 7 is almost done with her 2nd book (Book B). I feel bad because I haven't always been there by her side as she has progressed through the book. But that is the beauty of this book. Because of the audio tracks, you can help your child through this book even if you don't have much piano experience. The explanations in the book are simple and sufficient for learning notes and music theory.

Gravity Maze Falling Marble Logic Game

March 7, 2017

Our 7yo daughter got this Gravity Maze Falling Marble Logic Game as a gift for Valentine's Day. It is a really unique gift, totally different than the art sets she got for Christmas and the typical Monster High dolls she picks out.

This gets her thinking out of the box and can occupy her for a good while. There are 60 game cards, each with increasing difficulty of challenges. The challenge is to arrange the towers in a way that acheives the correct marble path shown in the challenge card.

Gravity Maze is a solitary game, which is great because it gives her something challenging that is age appropriate for her. She usually plays with her 5yo brother. But this gives her something she can do by herself to have a little break from her little brother.

This game is rated for ages 8 and up, but if you have a 6 or 7 year old who has patience and likes puzzles, this could be a really good gift for them!

Tracing Set for a 5yo

March 4, 2017

Trying to teach our 5-year-old son how to draw has been a bit challenging for both teacher and student. I attempt to teach him to draw using basic shapes, like circles and ovals. But it does take a lot of hand holding and coaching.

So I looked through his various art sets that he got for Christmas, and one special one caught my eye. Alex Toys makes a tracing box that comes with a light that projects an image to trace. I know tracing isn't the same as drawing, but I figured this way he can develop a steady hand and confidence in creating art.

Tracing drawings could also help build muscle memory that he can use with free-hand drawing later. Last of all, this art tool is fun and easy for him to use. There is minimal effort on my part for him to practice art. I can blog or grade my daughter's papers while he traces.

This tracing kit comes with a white tracing surface attached to a lid that houses the light. You get a few reels with images to trace as well as some slides with larger traceable scenes and characters. These slides/reels are inserted into the lid. When you turn it on, the image is projected onto the tracing surface. You place a piece of blank white paper on the tracing surface and trace the projected image. Turn off the light, and voila! Your child gets to marvel at the cute animal they "drew".

What makes this especially fun is that you can use a combination of slide and reel images to create a whole scene with different animals. We usually trace a landscape scene from a slide. Then find a reel that has characters to trace into the scene. One of my favorites is where he traced a volcano scene, and then traced two dinosaurs into the scene. He has so much fun picking out the scenes and the animals to go into them.

I do have one tip. Use rolled up tape or tacky putty between the paper and the tracing surface. This helps prevent a lot of frustration, keeping the paper in place during the tracing. It's a little trick we learned from the art studio where we used to take art classes. And yes, they had us do a lot of tracing on light boxes. We traced our sketches onto a clean sheet of art paper before colorizing the drawings.

There is a handy little storage compartment for the reels and slides just under the tracing surface. It's nice and keeps it all together. The tracing surface also rotates so you can use it in portrait or landscape orientation.

The Draw Like a Pro art set also comes with some paper, markers, and a pen. So you have everything you need to get started. The images on these slides and reels are simple outlines of scenes, animals, and some people. They are cartoonish figures, which makes them attractive to young children and easy to trace.

Drawing Book for a 7yo

March 1, 2017

Living in Washington State, art is a required subject for homeschooling. I'm no artist, so the kids and I took an art class at an art studio for a while, until we had to do some budget cuts. However, we still wanted to continue including drawing and colorizing in our homeschool curriculum. I found this book How to Draw People on Amazon and decided to give it a try. I also bought quite a few different art and drawing books, kits, etc. But this book stood out about the rest. At least for my 7 year old daughter.

This book takes you through a 4 step process for drawing a cartoonish figure of a person. I found it to be very similar to the method my daughter was learning in her expensive but amazing art class. The cartoonish people in this book are attractive to children and fairly easy for them to draw. There are many different characters, like a cowboy, policeman, baby, baseball player, and more.

This book also has a blank "practice" page right next to each 4 step diagram so your child can draw right in the book. No special paper necessary. You could easily grab this book and a pencil and take it anywhere to draw.

I really like the finished results my daughter has drawn with this book. She has found this book a lot less frustrating than other drawing books I purchased, which might be more for a little older kids or adults. She has also asked me to get another book like this, How to Draw Animals by the same author. She typically draws the character one day and colorizes it the next day.

It is a great place to start for a 7-ish year old to learn to draw. This book makes drawing fun and do-able for this age. It keeps the frustration down and builds confidence in drawing. Our daughter can do it independantly, without any help, which is a plus!

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