Thursday, December 30, 2010

Great Gifts for Toddlers and Preschoolers

I am a toy snob.  I'll admit it.  I like for toys to be creative, have a long shelf life, and be worth the space they take up.  Brennan and Cora got some cool toys for Christmas that I had never seen before or heard of, so I thought I would share in case you are looking for a cool gift for a child in your life.

This toy is awesome!!  The 40 brightly-colored blocks fit into a square wooden tray to make tons of beautiful patterns (pattern cards are included for kids to copy).  The blocks are made well and can be used for building and creating patterns across the floor, and the blocks are great forteaching spatial sense and fractions.  It's pretty, it's fun, and it teaches math concepts through play.  Pretty much perfect, in my mind.

Brennan gets tired after making just one or two patterns, but the sense of accomplishment he displays after completing an entire pattern by himself is priceless.  And it's a great toy for him to play at the kitchen counter while I'm cooking dinner, because he can do it by himself with minimal assistance.  I'm not sure that would be true for kids younger than him, and he does have really good spatial skills and ability to copy an example, so I would probably recommend this toy for most kids age 5 and up.  Younger kids could just play with the blocks, which would be great, too.  Oh, and this toy comes with a great carrying bag that fits the blocks and trays.  Bonus.

I really like the Zoob concept for a child who likes to build.  Brennan got the set above, which is Zoob Jr., but the concept is the same as regular Zoob (the pieces are just a tiny bit bigger and softer).  Here is  how their website describes Zoob:  

"ZOOB is an open-ended play system that is quick to learn and easy to use. Its ball & socket units easily snap, click, slide, and pop together to form creations that go far beyond stationary models. These tactile sensations enhance the enjoyment and play value, making children and adults feel compelled to touch, twist, and connect ZOOB units."

To be fair, Brennan doesn't love these yet.  He doesn't fully understand how to use them and still just likes to connect them end-to-end to make a long stick.  He does like to have us copy the example cards they include.  I do think he will grow with this toy and learn to love it as he gets older.  I think the pieces are really awesome.  They aren't as limiting as Legos and some of his other building pieces.  If you're looking for a great building toy for a child, it's worth checking out their website to see how much this toy can do.

It is crazy hard to find entertaining, engaging, worthwhile toys for a 15-month old.  We already own a bazillion books (and of course she got a few more), but Cora's favorite seems to be this $12 set of nesting buckets.

All of the little buckets nest inside the large bucket, which comes with four shapes and a shape sorting lid, and they also stack neatly on each other.  Cora is definitely in the "putting things in" phase.  She loves trying to fit the buckets inside each other, and when she tries to put a big bucket inside of a smaller one, she gets mad and yells.  It's pretty funny.

To prove that I don't just love mathematically-driven toys, here is a super cute one that my mom gave Cora:

This adorable puppy named Violet (by LeapFrog) makes me happy, and Cora loves it too.  Violet allows you to customize music and personalize learning with your child's name and favorite food, animal and color.  You just connect the puppy to a computer with a provided cable and input your child's information, and then the dog talks to you.

When we push the paw and she says, "Hi, Cora!" in that precious voice, all of us grin.  And when Violet says, "I love you, Cora," she sometimes gives Violet a big hug and kiss.  Too cute.  Violet also comes in a green boy version named Scout.  I think she will love this little puppy for a while, and I can see that a 2-year-old would love it even more.  It even teaches Cora how to spell her name!

In addition to building toys, Brennan got a big art box with a few unique things in it.

This Sticky Mosaics scene comes with sheets of little square tile stickers that go on a picture in a paint-by-number style.  Brennan got a race car and another kit with a monkey.  The cool thing that I discovered a little late is that each kit comes with a ton of extra stickers, so you can create a scene of your own, or, better yet, color copy the scene before starting it, which would give you extra bang for your buck.  (The picture above isn't accurate; the scenes have colored-in backgrounds, not white.)

Melissa and Doug makes some awesome art products.  Brennan got these great stickers (he has already owned these once, used them all, and requested more) and picture pages.  They are great for kids who love to draw and create.  Right now Brennan just wants to put a few stickers on each page of frames, which will be pretty costly in the end, so we'll have to teach him to only make special pictures on those pages.

The kids got a lot of other awesome stuff, but I just wanted to highlight a few things that I really like.  If you were to ask Brennan his favorite gift (I have asked him), he would tell you it was these pieces for his Thomas tracks:

And if you were to ask Cora... Yeah, you wouldn't get much because she can't talk.  But other than her stacking blocks, she'd would definitely choose her new shoes.

That's my girl.

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010: Making a House a Home

This has been quite a year for our family.  It was our first full year as a family of four, and it was also the year we built a new home and finally started a settled life here in Tennessee.  As I look back on this year, I feel incredibly grateful.  My heart is full to overflowing.

A few months ago I was listening to Pandora and a song called Invade came on.  I immediately stopped what I was doing to read all of the lyrics.  They were perfect - perfect for this year for our life and perfect to describe the cry of our hearts.  I really want to have the chorus of this song literally written on our walls, but in the mean time, I used the song to create a slide show of 2010 for our family.  I hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Our Christmas in Pictures

Merry Christmas!  We had a fabulous first Christmas in our new house.  I honestly think it was the most enjoyable Christmas morning I have ever had.  It is so wonderful to have two kids, both capable of having fun on such different levels!

I want to share photos of our Christmas, but I know that no one wants to look at a million pictures of my kids opening gifts.  Instead, I will try to share photos of a few of our traditions, memorable moments, and only a few present pictures thrown in for good measure.  :-)  The focus of this post is mostly my family, but I do have a few gifts of my own that I'll write about another time.  I need to put away all of the Christmas decorations to share pictures of anything house related. (And most of my gifts are related to our house... Imagine that!) 

Also, if you are a detail person like I am, please forgive the fact that these pictures aren't evenly spaced.  I messed up the formatting when I added captions, and I don't have the energy to keep trying to fix them tonight.

Making Pepparkakor (a traditional Swedish cookie)

Birthday cake for Jesus

Just wrap me up and put me under the tree

New pajamas on Christmas Eve

Heading out to see lights in our pj's on Christmas Eve
Claude's Christmas present to Jim
Cora got a chair of her very own!
Shoes and necklaces are a few of Cora's favorite things
It didn't take long for Cora to master unwrapping
What could this be??
First white Christmas in Nashville in seventeen years
This gift is a slam dunk!
Our little thinker

Remembering why we celebrate

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Events

We've been busy getting ready for Christmas around here, but this year I am doing things at a different pace.  I started shopping long before Thanksgiving so that things wouldn't feel so frantic.  It has been really nice, and this week we are staying home a lot, watching television, reading lots of books, and intentionally slowing down.  It is, as you know, extremely hard for me.  It is really good for all of us.

A few weeks ago Brennan had a Christmas program at school.  The kids made these sweatshirts with their handprints:

Then, on the 11th, Jim and I went to annual Lampo Christmas party.  It was as fun as ever.  The entertainment videos were hilarious, the food was delicious, the gifts were extravagant... It was truly awesome.

I was trying to get a picture of Jim and me, and Brennan couldn't stand to be left out.  We did finally got a shot of just the two of us.

It was a lot of fun to sit by my friend Rachel at the dinner.  Her husband Eric is Jim's team leader at work, and she and I have become good friends over the last year.  We share a common love for fashion, shopping, our kids, our husbands, Starbucks, and good food.  She's pregnant and due in the spring, and we enjoyed laughing throughout the night at her healthy appetite and tight pants.  She looked beautiful, had a pregnant glow, and wore her Stella and Dot well.

This past Friday I took the kids to Jim's work to see Santa.  Brennan continues to be afraid of adults in costume, so this was a perfect opportunity to see Cora with Santa without torturing Brennan.  (He stayed on the other side of the room from Santa, although he did play a bit with the less intimidating elves.)

Cora had such a blast it was nearly impossible to capture a decent picture of her.  She couldn't sit still, couldn't stop giggling, couldn't stop playing.  Our little girl is not shy.

There are only a few days left until Christmas, and then the new year will roll around.  I already have projects and plans for 2011.  As soon as we hit the new year I will paint the play room, help some friends with decorating projects, and reconnect with old friends... This quiet sitting around will come to an end soon enough, and I'll be back to my usual self.  Until then, I am going to have another cup of coffee in my pajamas.  :-)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Broken Hearts

Several months ago Jim and I agreed to host a community group at our house for the year.  About every two weeks we have a group of people come over to talk about God, life, and whatever else comes up.  When we were first given the list of people in our group, I laughed.  Three of the families in the group were pregnant, and one couple was expecting twins.  I joked that we were going to have our work cut out for us, caring for these families. 

The couple in our group who was expecting twins ended up having them months early.  They were in the NICU riding an incredibly emotional roller coaster for a long time, until the blessed day when they got to bring the boys home.  For a few weeks, this sweet family adjusted to life as a family of five.  Then, one of the babies got sick.  Really sick.  Thomas had a heart condition that worsened, and, after numerous surgeries and procedures, it became really clear that there was nothing else the family could do for him.  It was tragic.  It was nightmarish.  Really, there are no words strong enough to describe what it was like to get the call from Janna that Thomas was going to die that day.  I will never, ever forget that call.

Last Monday Jim and I went to a funeral that should never have been.  It was the first infant funeral I have ever been to, and I am begging God that it will be the last.  As I sat through the service, marveling at the family's strength and faith, I was struck by the fact that the last funeral I attended was my grandfather's.  He died at age 88, after living a long, full, and happy life.  It made Thomas's funeral even more unsettling.  It was so unfair.  It was so wrong.

John and Janna have been a pillar of strength and faith through these past many months.  They don't think they've done anything marvelous.  They don't want attention for their faith.  Janna has dutifully kept a blog of their experience, and deep down, I know she wishes that no one would read it and everyone would just go away.  But it doesn't work that way.  Their grieving has become public and their pain affects everyone.

And really, that's just the way God designed the church.  When one member is wounded, everyone hurts.  When someone is mourning, we all grieve alongside them.  It doesn't always work that way, but it should.  The times in the last five years when I have seen the church work the way God intended it, I have been astounded at what God's love looks - and feels - like, being poured out by others.  It is like nothing else.  I never, ever wish the kind of pain the McGregors have had to endure on anyone.  (I know God doesn't want that for us, either.)  I do, however, want for everyone who lives through that kind of pain to know the kind of love that I have seen poured out on the McGregor family.  I know it pleases our Lord.  And I know that John and Janna's desire, through all of their suffering, to see people come to Christ is what our faith is all about.  I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they will someday hear their God say, "Well done, good and faithful servants."

Thomas's broken heart has left many of us with broken hearts, as well.  I'm praying for God to heal and mend in a way that only He can.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

5 Adults, 3 Kids, 2 Cars, and a Patridge in a Pear Tree

We did not actually bring home a partridge.  And although I admit to knowing nothing about trees, I do know that our Christmas tree is not a pear tree.  I did, however, sort of did feel like the Partridge Family as we loaded up our vehicles to head to Volunteer Christmas Tree Farm for our annual tree-chopping excursion.  ("Come on, get happyyyy...")

This was the first time my mom and sister were able to go with us to chop down a tree, and it was fun including them in the adventure.  We also took along our friend's daughter, Alana, because Alana's infant brother, Thomas, has been in the hospital for weeks, having received several heart surgeries.  We knew Brennan would enjoy a playmate, and we wanted Alana to have some Christmas cheer.  She was the perfect addition to our big family!

Check out the sunshine!  Weather can really make or break the Christmas tree experience.  We had years in Texas when it was so warm it didn't feel like Christmas.  And, there were years, like last year, when it was so cold that the wind stung our eyes and we couldn't wait to get done.  ("Is that tree alive?  Okay, it's perfect. Cut it down!")


This year the weather was cool and crisp, but it wasn't nearly as cold as the forecasters had predicted. It was just cold enough to feel wintery but not so cold that we were miserable.  And the sunshine was glorious.

After lots of playing, racing, and frolicking (there is really no time as perfect to use the word "frolicking"), we finally settled down to the business of finding the right tree.

Brennan and Alana supervised as Jim cut the trunk...

And then we all stood by our conquest for a final shot.

While the tree got prepped for the drive home, the kids had candy canes, and the grownups had complimentary hot chocolate and spiced cider.

Despite the hideous lighting of my photo, I think our tree is beautiful.  I used to fret about themes, matching ornaments, perfectly cascading ribbon, and other crazy things I thought would make me a better housewife, decorator, or whatever.  I am now at peace saying it's our tree, it brings us joy, and I love it.

"A whole lotta lovin' is what (it is) bringing... (It) make(s) (me) happyyyyy..."  :-)
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