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The Kindergarten Club

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There’s a “Welcome to Kindergarten” newsletter on my desk right now–saved even though I read it and already know everything it says. Scan over the wadded tissue next to it, the tape dispenser, the grocery list I’ll never remember to take with me, the pencil with the broken lead and the three bobby pins I pulled from my hair and left there last week, and you’ll find a small frame with a picture of Nella when she was born. Then and Now, connected by a string of little messes that somehow hold us together.

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I’d like you to know, for no particular reason, that before I started to type this, I played three songs that I drowned myself in the week she was born because, what the hell, she started kindergarten–let’s let ourselves get emotional.

A lot has changed over the past several years, and I’m happy to report I sent my second kid off to kindergarten in a far less helicopter mode than my first–like, I don’t know, maybe more one of those tourist helicopters that casually circles the Grand Canyon and shows the view rather than the Black Hawk that lands and storms the scene with IS SHE OKAY? IS SHE OKAY? IS SHE OKAY? I cried less. I had more to keep me busy. And I’ve been preparing for this one, proactively and purposefully, for a very long time. But this little milestone? Still huge. Still ever bit as emotional and consuming because how the hell else is it supposed to feel when you look at a teacher you only kinda know and pass off your beloved child–the one with a few more challenges than most–with a, “Oh hey, here’s a cooler with my heart on ice. Keep it beating for the next seven hours and then seven hours again tomorrow and then maybe another 180 days after that.”

In some way, I feel like I’ve been getting ready for this day since the day she was born–the release into the wild. It’s what I dreaded in the beginning–sending my baby who has a disability into the great big world of public education where kids who don’t know any better might shove her off because she doesn’t fit into the tiny world of what they know or, worse, make fun of her. Where teachers might not keep trying, where people’s ignorance about Down syndrome (hey, I had it too!) might create a condescending attitude that’s not going to help my child reach her potential, where label makers might put the wrong label on her, where the few boxes designated by policy makers as “Kinds of Students There Are” might not be appropriate for the kind of student she is–which is capable and funny and insightful and caring and full of so much possibility but might need more time and space and tools to show it. Dread isn’t really the word for this new start anymore because I’ve learned so much since she was born, and what we know we are now able to dream for our girl, no matter if she gets there or not, is so beautiful and paved by so much heart and soul from advocating families who’ve been doing this far longer than we have–it replaces dread with excitement and momentum and a deep passion for all that is possible.

Community helps. I call my friend Liz in Austin who’s sending her Ruby to kindergarten too. We compare first day notes, jitters and hopes. We volley ideas back and forth for when’s a good time to introduce conversations about differences to the class because we want them talked about appropriately rather than ignored and allowed to be otherwise interpreted; we want little kids’ natural curiosity and questions kindly welcomed; we want any “different” barriers that might make our kids feel even the teeniest bit alone addressed early; we want to create the community we desire.

Colette calls from San Diego this morning and tells me about her Dexter’s kindergarten plan, and we laugh and find solace in the fact that we’re both nervous–that we sense in each other that underneath all this game time focus, we’re brimming with emotions because we’re so desperately in love with these kids who surprised us, and we want anyone who meets them to learn what we have these past six years. “We’re the kindergarten club,” Colette says, and I want to hug her through the phone and not let go because I’m so glad I’m not alone.

I can tell you about all the scenarios I’ve thought up. I can tell you about the IEP meetings I’ve created in my head and the pretend speeches I’ve delivered to my friends when they offer to stand in as school district staff for practice–how those pretend speeches become so real, I stand up and deliver them preacher style, one hand on heart, one held to the heavens. I can tell you I worry about needs being met, resources available, living up to be what she needs me to be and one of my deepest fears which is probably one of your deepest fears for your kids too–and Dear God, let’s get this off our chests and let it go. I fear that there will be times when Nella feels swallowed by what makes her different–that there will be moments when every student around her “gets it” and she doesn’t, that she’ll retreat to the tiny cave of Alone we all run to from time to time when we feel overwhelmed by not fitting in–a “less than” cave–and that I won’t be there to see it in her eyes, to show up like I’m programmed to do to cheer her on, push her forward and remind her that her brain, her soul, her voice, her speed, her face, her talents, her art–it’s all so damn beautiful, just the way it is. And that all those things belong out in the open, to be celebrated in her classroom, in her school, in her community.

But I know she’s going to find ways to do that for herself. To follow the paths to more independence that her classmates and friends follow too. All of this is going to take time; we know that.

For now, we take the first steps required of us.

Nella has begun kindergarten in a general ed classroom at the same school Lainey attends–the same teacher Lainey had, in fact, and we hope this inclusive classroom situation continues for many years to come. We feel very thankful for her learning situation as of now and for the commitment of all those who work with her. As she grows and I continue to write in this space, I know her educational journey will grow and change as well. I will occasionally share parts of our journey that may be helpful or insightful for readers, but I won’t be sharing every detail, change and window into our unique experience and/or answer every question you may ask regarding her education as, for one, I respect the complex and important relationship between our family and our district, school and her educators.

I will tell you my favorite story from her first day though. I wanted her to sense as much peaceful energy as possible–to share our excitement for a new school and friends and experiences and yet to tame my own energy enough to keep her calm. Don’t make too big a deal of it. So I played the radio on the way to school, like any other day, and sank in to the peaceful quiet in the car, my school-bound babies visible in the rear view mirror–a little bit excited, a little bit nervous. And then I watched as Nella stretched her hand across the seat into her sister’s lap. “Lainey,” she whispered, “Hand.” Lainey took her hand without a word, and the two of them clasped all their worries and excitement together into one sister grip that could contain it all.

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And so I’ll do the same. I’m clasping all my worries and excitement for all our kids and their new beginnings right here into this space–into one sister grip that can contain it all. Put yours in too.

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The verdict is: So far, Nella loves school. Smiles when I drop her off, smiles when I pick her up.

“I think she was far more ready than we gave her credit for,” I tell Brett.

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As for Lainey, she’s chomping at the bit to pick out what Nella’s going to wear every day. “Can I be in charge of it all year?” she asks.
“Can Nella and I chime in too?” I answer.
“Deal.”

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All these years, all these little messes we’ve made it through. There is nowhere more promising to move than forward, as long it takes, as hard as it may be.

Thank you for coming with us.

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20 Summer Hacks for Moms

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The School Supply Pack order forms came home last week. If you don’t know what these are, let me enlighten you. Back in the days when Lainey started school–you know, when I signed all the folders with a designated folder-signing pen and not some dried-up capless marker I found in the cup holder of my car–I thought these little forms were joy suckers. They take all the fun out of school supply shopping and make it so everything your kid needs to start school the following year is shrink-wrapped, sitting on her desk the night of Meet the Teacher. Not for me, I thought. I enjoy the process of shopping for school supplies. I mean, who would want to miss out on the excitement of taking your kid to pick out notebooks? Or weaving your cart through aisles of rainbow folders and little boxes of golden pencils that beg to be sniffed? Who would want to skip the rite of passage of standing next to your child, watching him choose between glue sticks or glue bottles? I’ll tell you who…ME. I want to skip it. And I do now, every year, thanks to these blessed stress-relieving, time-saving angels called school supply pack order forms that I fill out, pay online and then–here’s the best part–forget about them. It took me two years of pushing through crowds to look for the marble purple wide-ruled composition notebook only to find it out of stock, or rummage through folders to hunt for the 2-pocket, 3-prong ones in seven different colors (non-existent, by the way) to offer that task up. Sure, we still end up buying a few extra things before school just for fun, but now there’s no pressure to beat the crowds and cart-block Miss Hoarded-the-Entire-Inventory-of-Orange-Pocket-Folders to snatch the last pack of Expo markers. In fact, come August, we casually hit the Back to School aisles just for laughs. Because frazzled crowds clawing through scattered piles of notebooks in search of red 70 count, non-perforated, wide-ruled ones is just funny. Bet you passed on the school supply pack because you just love the thrill of picking out your own pencils, didn’t you?

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I feel passionate enough about sharing the miracle of buying next year’s school supplies in advance that it got me thinking. There’re other tips out there for preserving summer and making it as easy and enjoyable as possible for moms, and these tips need to be shared. So I gathered some of my own tips and then hit up my friends and fellow moms who have journeyed this summering-with-kids path well. We ended up with a list of 20 hacks to help you brave the next few months. Plus, I went through and found some of my favorite summer photos in the archives and popped them in for some eye candy. My friends shared so many good tips, I feel like a better mom already. Ready? Here we go. I already told you #1.

1. Stock up on back to school needs at the beginning of summer and put it all away. We even go beyond the school supply pack list and restock everything that needs replacing at the beginning of the summer so we don’t have to think about it come August. This includes lunch packing supplies, water bottles, P.E. shoes and backpacks if needed. The only drawback is that Florida offers a tax-free week for clothing and school supplies right before school starts, but it’s worth it to me to get the basics out of the way so that we can fully enjoy our summer without feeling a flush of anxiety when the back-to-school signs emerge (you know, two weeks after school gets out) and we’re not ready to shift gears. We do save some clothes shopping for the end, but the necessities? Out of the way.

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2. Create your family summer bucket list together, and display it large for all to see to hold you accountable…with forgiving wiggle room, of course. (from my cousin Heather): “We have a fun family meeting at the beginning of summer and list all the stuff we want to do and put it on a sign somewhere (these giant wall Post-its work great); otherwise the summer just gets away from you, and you end up watching Netflix the whole time. We put little things like “go out for ice cream” on there and then dramatically cross it off along with the bigger things. “Go see a drive-in movie” was on there one year, and it was a pain to make it happen, but we never would have done it if it hadn’t been written down, and it ended up being so much fun.” (A couple years ago, I published these fun ways to make a summer bucket list.)

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3. I love this one from my sister: Forgive yourself before the summer begins for all the educational supplements you’re never going to get to. Oh, if I had a nickel for every failed summer high hope of “We’re going to start every day with math review.” Yeah, no. Sure, take a shot at it. Because you know you already bought the second grade readiness practice book. But be kind to yourself. I bring summer reading list books for everyone on our trips as well as some Pacon ruled handwriting paper for Nella, but the rest of those summer review lessons? We fold them in to our travels–sorting strawberries in number groups after we pick them, sounding out words on billboards as we pass them and adding uneven fractions as we double that recipe for saskatoon pie.

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4. Keep Solo cups and a permanent marker (to label) in the garage with a water cooler. When your kids are outside playing and ten neighbor kids join them, if you don’t have cold water accessible outside, it’s going to look a little something like Door slam, in. Door slam, out. Door slam, in. Door slam, out. And cups: Everywhere. On hot summer days, kids get thirsty–a lot. When Austyn and Brandyn were younger and had friends over all the time, we actually invested in an office water cooler for the garage that turned out to be the best thing ever. See also: drinking from the hose.

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3. Keep baby wipes by the door to wipe dirty bare feet. (from my neighbor Dede, the Heloise of homekeeping) We spend a lot of time barefoot outside which makes for very dirty feet. All that dirt comes right back inside, and if you don’t clean it right away, it’s gradually making your floors, rugs and furniture filthy. A box of baby wipes at the house entrance (laundry room, garage, front door) reminds kids to quickly wipe the bottoms of their feet before climbing on the couch with those filthy paws.

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4. Have a ready-to-go pool/lake/beach bag stashed for easy impromptu trips. (from my sister) “I used to have pool bags packed for my girls so whenever we went swimming spontaneously, it wasn’t an ordeal hunting for suits and goggles and beach towels and sunscreen. When we got home, I’d throw everything in the dryer and put it right back in the bags.”

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5. Perhaps my favorite tip of all, from my cousin Joann: “Hide in the shower with a box of Hostess cupcakes and pretend you don’t hear your kids when they’re running through the house yelling ‘MOMMMMMMM!!!!!” A comparable solution: my sister once took a box of wine out to her driveway and hid in her minivan.

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6. Here’s your summer survival kit. Ready? Sidewalk chalk (mix up the regular store bought stuff with this vivid drawing chalk for some amazing driveway art), bubbles, a jump rope, a sprinkler, water balloons, an inexpensive kite (love this classic rainbow one or this butterfly), sparklers and glow sticks.

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7. From my friend Katie. “Real paint brushes from Home Depot and buckets of water is one of my summer favorites. Little kids will paint with water for fucking ever.” End quote.

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8. Put summer to dos on little folds of paper in a mason jar, and let one kid pick one every other day. (from my friend Lindsey) “Some are outings like ‘go to the children’s museum’ or ‘go out for ice cream’ but others are simpler like ‘have a picnic in the yard’, ‘put on a fashion show’, ‘paint seashells’. The element of surprise is a big deal and helps stop the “what are we doing today?” question for the millionth time.”

I love this next one. Text to my friend Nici in Montana: “I’m working on collecting a list of summer hacks for moms. Any tips you have to include?”

She texts back, simply:

9. “Booze.”

A while later she did text back an addendum though: “I want to add to the booze statement that I stand behind 100%. We seem to always be hosting late, post-creek, spontaneous dinners at our house. Things that make it a snap: 100% let go of the inside mess and don’t apologize for it, make popcorn, have frozen veggie and fish burgers at the ready and keep booze on hand.”

A few more great ones from Nici:

10. Use a Dinner Bell! “We live in a hood where the kids run wild and free all day long. I have a big ol’ bell that I ring when I want my kids home. It is way more efficient than texting all the neighbors to see who has the pack, and it sure sounds better than me hollering across the valley.” I love this one so much because it would totally work for my dad’s cabin, so I found this bell we can nail to a tree for Bliss for summer.

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11. “A favorite for kids of all ages: outdoor play kitchen. Simply, it’s an outside surface with piles of thrifted kitchen utensils and access to dirt and other nature objects. They’ll spend hours making pies and soups and casseroles. Recently, we added herb shakers full of crushed up leaves, spent coffee grounds and dried petals, etc. Best part: no cleanup other than those muddy kid paws.”

12.  “Summer Camp Co Op. My friends and I have talked about crafting this one-week camp, and I hope this is the summer it happens! Five families, each family picks a theme and takes a day with all the kids. Boom.” We did a spin on this last year with our Camp Bliss day which was a full day dedicated to camp activities including a big camp lunch, archery, crafts and sack races. We even had shirts made for it, and the kids had a blast.

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13. “I save extra goggles, new cheap pool floats and glow sticks under our guest vanity for last minute pool get togethers for my son’s friends.” (from my friend Dede)

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14. Summer must: Always keep s’mores supplies on hand–marshmallows, graham crackers, chocolate bars and good sticks. Put them all in a box, let your kids decorate it, and call it the “S’More Box.” Refer only to the s’more supply kit as “The S’more Box” and treat it like the ark of the covenant. Also, an important word on s’mores. They make those fancy metal poker sticks with wood handles and all, but don’t use them. The metal gets too hot where the stick is inserted into the marshmallow which melts the marshmallow too much, widening the insertion hole to the point where the marshmallow hangs, prohibiting proper rotisserie techniques for an evenly browned crispy edge. Use regular long sticks you find in nature–keeps the marshmallows gripped. Want to get fancy this summer? Try Studio D.I.Y,’s tie dye unicorn s’mores.

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15. Make a summer car kit that never leaves your vehicle for spontaneous adventures. What goes in that bag? Sunscreen, bug spray, baby wipes, sunglasses, hats, hair ties, large Ziplocks (for wet clothes) and a blanket for picnics, parks and beaches.

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16. Lining up some summer BBQs with friends? I love this tip from my friend Katie: “I feed my kids at home before parties and BBQs so that I don’t have to worry about forcing them to make a plate at a BBQ that has some kale salad from Pinterest. Then my kids don’t eat every slice of watermelon just because they’re starving, and I can enjoy the party without chasing down kids to find something for them to eat.” Brilliant.

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More from Katie:

17. “I serve summer day meals on a platter. Slice two apples and drop a big glob of peanut butter. Add some crackers and string cheese, sandwiches cut in quarters, cinnamon toast, banana thirds, a pile of grapes–voila. Free for all lunch.”

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…and…

18. “Keep Dixie cups and a giant carton of Goldfish crackers on hand for hungry neighbor kids who’ve made your yard their main summer station.” That way, you’re not divvying out the individual packages of Pirate Booty you just bought for your upcoming road trip.

Which reminds me…

19. If you live in a neighborhood where all the kids, including yours, always end up at one house (you know, the one with the trampoline, pool, great swing set and club house), consider donating some bulk snacks to the mom who lives there. Most moms don’t turn down little kids who say they’re hungry. Help a sister out.

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20. Stock up on Old Navy flip flops. They come in all sizes (with back straps for the little tot sizes), tons of fun prints and at $3 a pop, you can buy ten pairs.

We’re armed and ready now, summer. Let’s do this.

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A Back to School Party

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Blame it on the Dollar Spot at Target. Or the fact that you can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the Sticker Obsession/Chalk Attraction/Chunky Pink Eraser Love out of the teacher (which is why I still write in D’Nealian, by the way). Whatever the case, our back-to-school enthusiasm met up with the back-to-school dollar treasure aisle and BOOM! A little celebration was born. See also: excuse to make cookies, we missed our friends, we had some apples to use up, kid parties make people smile.

The plan was low key party, treats and a big kid swim fest where moms catch up in between yelling “Careful!” and “Don’t run!” and “Dry off before you come in!” But it started pouring right when everyone arrived which brought us to Plan B-the trump card for everything in life: COZY FALL FEST. Dim the lights, burn candles, play the jazz greats. This advice works for every situation imaginable. Try it.

Witching hour madness? Dim the lights, burn candles, play the jazz greats.
Want to make out with your spouse like it’s your first date? Dim the lights, burn candles, play the jazz greats.
Company coming over in half an hour and you’re not ready? Dim the lights, burn candles, play the jazz greats.
Feel like everything’s falling apart and you don’t know where to begin to fix it? Dim the lights, burn candles, play the jazz greats.

See? Foolproof.

Quick note: I’ve been advised over the years by many wise homemakers/moms/family members that the best way to quickly clean up when you’re running behind is to grab a laundry basket and run through your house putting anything you don’t know what to do with in the basket. The idea–although it doesn’t always work out this way–is that you entirely clean out the basket later. Or leave it in a closet for two weeks, but who’s counting? Anyhoo, in a quick clean-up of my catch-all kitchen counter before the party, I did this impressive arm sweep across the entire length–like the counter was a windshield and my arm was a giant wiper. This collection of stuff avalanched into the basket, and I had to laugh when I looked down to watch The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up land with a thunk. I see your KonMari Method, and I raise you a Hampton ThrowShitInALaundryBasket Game Changer. Let’s just say the book may have inspired some new routines around here, but we still have work to do.

A few pictures from our Back to School celebration…

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For the Elmer’s container for the yogurt, I found a square glass canister at Target and cut and glued some orange construction paper to make the famous orange lid. I enlarged an Elmer’s School Glue label and edited it with a little Comic Sans font. You didn’t ask for my feelings on Comic Sans, but I will tell you anyway: belongs in a classroom or the Sunday funnies, and that’s it. I recall a college professor admonishing a room of soon-to-be professionals: “And don’t you DARE use Comic Sans on your resume.”

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Brushed up on my 7’s and 8’s Times Tables because I was a little rusty.

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We did a wafer/mini marshmallow version of the ever popular Pinterest cheesestick/Bugle pencil.

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The kids decorated their own cookies but I did a few samples for them. I’ve loved my buttercream frosting recipe but tried a new decorating frosting recipe that hardens/sticks/paints on much easier, and loved it. It has a little almond extract in it and tastes delicious.

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The kids loved the doughnut competition–a fun game for any party. String doughnuts and hang them high enough for a challenge (right above the nose) above two kids. They can’t use their hands and have to compete to see who can eat the doughnut off the string first.

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Turns out the sun did come out–as it always does–and the rest of the afternoon continued with summer-loving kids making waves before they take their wave-making game to the classroom.

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And now we swim.
And tonight?
Dim the lights, burn candles, play the jazz greats.