Monday, December 27, 2010

Monday Musings on the Creator in Me

In this season of gift giving, when we contemplate God's perfect gift of His Son, and strive to give a glimpse of the enormity of His Love by finding the "perfect gifts" for our dear ones, I've noticed a movement toward hand/home made gifts -- and I'm really drawn to that idea. I'm also drawn to creative ideas about how to show our children that we love them. Sally Clarkson often talks about back rubs accompanied by a batch of homemade cookies to stoke the fire of a warm relationship, and she has written on her blog about the power of life-giving words. I recently heard of another author that advocates writing personal letters to our children so that they have a tangible reminder of our words that can be referred to over and over again -- not a new concept by any means, but such a good idea that is easily forgotten in this technological age.

After perusing a couple of art books about making your own journals, I decided -- at the 11th hour -- that I was going to create a journal for my daughter (DD13) and fill it with a letter from me -- in time for Christmas :) (Ultimately, I'd like to make one for each of my children -- but I started too late to get them done as Christmas gifts.)

Based on the ideas that had sparked my interest in the library books about making journals, I started to gather materials from our stash. My eyes fell on some pink and black fabric, and I remembered my daughter creating an outfit using those colours -- so that became the base of my colour theme. There was a tin we've had for years, waiting for some new use, and some "old" art (decorated dominoes, impromptu watercolour paintings by DD8, one of my altered book pages), some screen, some foil tape, stickers, beads . . . and here are a few pages of the final result: (I've added the pink hearts and Christmas decorations in picnik to conceal most of my text.)

(The photo was printed -- rather unsuccessfully -- on a transparency.)
 The crinolin from the pink and black dress I used for my colour scheme became a layer to hide the cover page:

I accidentally cut through the edge of the hem of the fabric when I trimmed the page -- so I hid some text underneath and made it look like "I meant to do that;":

I've read in a few places about altering photos by sanding the background and painting/pasteling/markering over top -- so I played a bit with that on some very old photos of DD13, then glued/sewed them together back-to-back to make a page:

 I thought it would be fun to make a see-through page using the screen and foil tape:

 The background of the left page below was made (with permission) using one of DD8's paintings:

A few beads and bling, eyelets and wire for binding -- and voila! A keepsake that I hope will be a well-read reminder of my love for DD13. It wouldn't be a thing of beauty to every beholder, but it holds special meaning for DD13 and me.

Are there any creative ways you've found to express your love to someone special? Are there any homemade gifts that you've given -- or received -- that communicate your feelings in a creative way? I'd love to hear about them in a comment. Leave a link, too, if you have one!

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Monday Musings on the Creator in Me

Is the snow falling where you live? We've had a fair bit of the fluffy stuff, and the cold, dark days have got me feeling more and more inclined to burrow with a book, cozy and comfortable with just sitting. Being.

One of the books my hand reached for recently was Mark Buchanan's The Rest of God,  a text I've picked up often over the last year or so, but have never finished (so many books -- so little time!). And it got me thinking about seasons, and creativity, and rest.

The winter season is the time that animals are slowing down, their bodies resting and restoring strength for the more active seasons of spring and summer.

Title: Mother black bear and cubs, hibernating
Taken by: National Park Service
Uploaded by: Tim1357 from Wikimedia Commons
Free photo from

Branches bare, unburdened by the toil of keeping leaves alive, plants also go into rest mode.

And I find myself thinking that this season of winter has a purpose:

If God, after 6 days of Creation, took time to rest, should we not recognize our need to pause, peacefully, and be restored? Creativity and productivity are good. But they sap strength. God, the Giver of Great Gifts -- the Giver of the Greatest Gift that we celebrate this season -- calls us to quiet:

How will you ensure that your body, mind, and spirit have time to rest this season?

Friday, December 17, 2010

My Tiny Planets Website - Product Review

I received access to this product free of charge in exchange for an honest review. No other compensation was received.


When my oldest children were little, I remember them watching a show called "Bing and Bong" in which a big, furry, blob-like character would ride through space on a fuzzy, white couch with a little, white, alien-like creature by its side. The content of the show was not memorable (perhaps because the characters didn't talk, so when I was about my business, my brain wasn't innundated with the inanity that seems somewhat prevalent in children's shows, especially in the background of life's tasks -- but I digress!), though I remember the theme song was catchy and cute.
Do you recognize these guys?
 So, when I began reviewing the Tiny Planets website, my mind flashed back to those tender-aged times in our old house as I discovered that Bing and Bong, those mute space adventurers on the flying couch, are the stars of the site. My children themselves only have vague memories of the cuddly creatures, but they, too, remember the music. (As an aside -- the background music on the website is the first thing DD8 commented about, saying, "I like the music!")

According to the website, "Tiny Planets provides award-winning educational entertainment set in space exploration and discovery, inspiring creativity and critical thinking in youth ages 4 to 12. Tiny Planets features the cosmic adventures of Bing and Bong, two whimsical aliens who travel the Universe of Tiny Planets together on their gadget-loaded plush sofa. With Bing and Bong, children are encouraged to think for themselves, assume social responsibility, take care of our planet and learn about the mysteries of space." While my experience with the website would lead me to tone down that description a bit, it does provide some noteworthy resources.

As you can tell by the above screen shot, the website has a variety of things to offer. Access to some of it is free; to get to most of the good stuff, you need to purchase "keys." In order to keep such purchases in the hands of parents, a parent account must be set up, and children's accounts added. The cost is as follows: 10 keys $1.95, 25 keys $3.95, 85 keys $9.95, 250 keys $25.95, 600 keys $49.95. Once keys are used to purchase something, those items are yours forever. So, if you use keys to purchase one of the TV episodes, you may watch it as many times as you wish; if you purchase a book, it remains "purchased" and can be read as often as desired.

Children can explore and play independently once a "cadet" account has been established. This can be done by clicking the blue button that turns to green where it says "Create Your Kid Account Here."  In order to protect children's identities online, children may ONLY choose from a list of pre-created cadet names. This should be done before the parent account is created so that parents don't get confused and think that when they are creating their own account and adding their children that they should make up their children's cadet names. (Doing so will result in an infinite number of rejected cadet names, and thus extreme frustration. Ask me how I know.) Instructions on the website are quite clear -- you just have to make sure you read and follow them. They're not in your face, so sometimes it can be confusing. The Parent section should be consulted frequently -- cuz it's all laid out there. Watch for this arrow:

While I was initially unimpressed by the educational value of Tiny Planets, recently acquired access to all of its features has improved my opinion of it quite dramatically. Superficially, it looks like it's geared to gaming for little people. But digging deeper reveals some meaty material. For example,  with the assistance of some other alien adventurers like "Halley" and "Aurora," the "Mad Science" section offers some ideas for cool experiements that can be done in the comfort of your kitchen, like making plasma:

And the "Kid's [sic] Corner" offers some other fascinating challenges sure to tempt any child to learn about the world in which they live. How about making candy from crystals?

Or exploring motion with flying coins?
I like the fact that the additional adventurers have characters that bring dimension and context to the information offered by the website. For example, in a pre-school geography post called, "Let's Make Winter," reporter Halley tells a story of when she was a child longing for quiet winter activities while her siblings were jumping off roofs into snow banks. She created an art activity for herself, along with a way to preserve it from imminent doom with her boisterous siblings. She shares what she did, and explains how readers can do it themselves. This added relational quality makes the website more captivating and engaging than if a simple list of projects and activities was offered. It makes it easier to be drawn into the learning opportunities -- as further evidenced by this informative but light-hearted post, entitled "Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me Right Now -- Smack":

The disconcerting (to me, anyway) thing is that all of these wonderful learning opportunities for older children are hidden in the "What's New" section of the website, where as the "Learn" section houses a limited number of preschool "puzzles" (pdf. files) that are visually appealing, but are little more than glorified fill-in-the-blank pages. However, the "Lesson Plans" section is sufficiently impressive, as evidenced by these screen shots:

Clicking on each of the links in these sections takes you to detailed lesson plans, with learning objectives, activities, and games that are connected to Bing and Bong books and TV shows that are available on the site, as outlined here:

These lesson plans demand extensive parental involvement as the books have no audio component, so children who cannot read fluently will need assistance. But children who are taken by the Bing and Bong characters will love all the activities centred around these critters.

Children of all ages will enjoy the website in general IF they have extensive access to its features. Initially, my gaming son (DS11) was unimpressed. After less than half an hour, he actually asked if he could get off the computer. (Unheard of before!) Much of what he observed was "cheesy" and just your "basic arcade games" (though I did hear him exclaim, "Yay! I can blow things up! Awesome!" Gotta love that boy brain :{ ) DD8 was anxious to play, but found the extensive text (without audio renditions) difficult to navigate and soon lost interest. But once we had full access, it was more enjoyable for everyone, as evidenced by this scene (I had to get up to take the picture, but the three of us were all on Tiny Planets):

Even the kitty wanted to hang out with Bing and Bong (picture taken by DD8):

While we won't be incorporating the website into our daily routine, I do envision us using it beyond the due date of this review. DS4 has had little opportunity to try it yet, and I think he will enjoy the games, as well as the learning activities. I know that DD8 will be asking to return there, as well.

To read more reviews of Tiny Planets, check out what other TOS Crew members have written.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

More Dragonflies!

A few posts ago I mentioned that my dear friend Susan asked me to make some coasters and dragonflies (like the ones I'd given her) for her to give as a Christmas gift (my first commissioned art work!:). I already posted some pictures of the new coasters, but I thought I would share the outcome of my latest dragonfly creativity. Not knowing quite how to display or package them, I decided to use some live evergreen boughs. The dragonfly clips kind of got lost in the greenery, so I added some gold ribbon to set them off a bit. Here they are:

Now -- any thoughts on how these dragonflies, which are made from electrical alligator clips, might be used?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wits & Wagers Family - Product Review


North Star Games is a game-making company that claims to "[bring] friends and families together with fun, innovative party and family games" (North Star Games website). Having had the opportunity to review one of their games, Wits & Wagers Family, I'm inclined to agree!


Touted to be "The Most Award-Winning Party Game in History" (from game box), Wits & Wagers Family is an equal-footing, competetive game for ages 8+.

"How," you might ask, "can it be both 'equal-footing' and 'competetive'? How can an 8 year-old compete fairly with an adult?" The premise of the game is that teams are asked a question  (sometimes rather outlandish) to which a number is the answer. Each person or team records their guessed answer secretly on a mini white board, then when everyone has recorded a number, all answers are revealed and ordered numerically from lowest to highest.

Players then have the opportunity to modify their own opinion by voting for one or two numbers that they think could be correct, even if they're different from what they wrote down. They simply place two little markers (called "Meeples") on whichever answer(s) they think might be closest without going over the actual answer. Points are then scored for writing the closest correct number and guessing the closest correct answer. Because it's virtually impossible for anyone to be absolutely certain of all the answers, each player has as good a chance of guessing the correct answers as the other players. This makes the game both challenging and fun for everyone.

Our family played Wits & Wagers several times -- but not enough for DD8 and DS11. Both kept saying, "Let's play again!" Each round takes less than half an hour, so it is easy to fit a round in here and there -- and everywhere. (We carted the game around to a few places!) I can imagine modifying the game to a travel challenge in which family members simply take guesses at the answers without recording anything -- making it a simple trivia game to pass the time while driving.

Here's a small sampling of some of the questions we encountered in the game:
*How many different colors of Froot Loops are there?
*How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?
*How many feet across is a Major League Baseball pitching mound?
*How many total Disney Princesses are there?
*How many smaller cubes make up a Rubik's Cube?
*How many Nabisco Animal Crackers shapes are there?
*In days, how long did it take the Pilgrims to cross the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower?
*How many times does a honey bee flap its wings in 1 second?
*On average, how many new dinosaur species are discovered each year?
*How many explosions are there in the movie The Incredibles?
*In inches, how tall is the world's tallest dog?
*How many types of nuts come in a can of Planters Mixed Nuts?
*What percent of Americans say that pro football is their favorite sport?

I will say that DD13, who is the most avid reader and has a particular penchant for books of world records, seemed to have the best ability to make accurate guesses. But not even she could answer questions like, "In feet, how long is a Slinky when it is stretched out and laying flat?" Also, I did find that many of the questions relied on an extensive knowledge of popular American culture (including such things as Hannah Montana, Hollywood movies, and American landmarks, such as Disneyland) -- and not being American or hip with pop culture, we sometimes found ourselves saying, "Ya -- whatever" and losing interest more quickly than if the questions had been less culturally biased.

Nonetheless, we found Wits & Wagers to be a fun addition to our collection of family games, and are grateful for the opportunity to use and review it. We will enjoy it for years to come!

The game retails for about $19.99 and is available at popular toy stores, as well as the North Star Games website's games tab.

To view other TOS Review Crew reviews, click here.

This product was received free of charge in exchange for an honest review. No other compensation has been received.

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