Aug 28, 2014

Free Art History Curriculum for Kids: Vincent Van Gogh

"Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh.
"Starry Night" is one of Van Gogh's most famous paintings.
Vincent Van Gogh: b. March 30, 1853 (Zundert, Netherlands- find it on the globe) - d. July 29, 1890 (Auvers-sur-Oise, France - find it on the globe) Question: How old was Van Gogh when he died?

Style: Post impressionist (learn more about post-impressionism here)

See some of Van Gogh's most famous paintings here.

Be sure to give your child plenty of time to study each work of art. Ask: What colors did Van Gogh favor? What kind of brush strokes does he use? What do his paintings make you feel?

* Short biography of Vincent Van Gogh
* Slightly longer and more detailed bio of Van Gogh 
* Article: Did Van Gogh's vision create his style of painting?
* Coloring page: "Starry Night"
* Coloring page: more detailed "Starry Night"
* Coloring page: "Room at Arles"
* Coloring page: "Sunflowers"
* Coloring page: "Self Portrait"
* Video: Art with Marti and Dada - Vincent Van Gogh
* Video: Van Gogh inspired art with oil pastels and watercolor
* Activity: Van Gogh inspired finger painting
* Activity: Van Gogh printable art book

Learn more about this free art history curriculum for kids, plus a list of all artists covered so far, by clicking here.

Aug 27, 2014

Introducing Free Art History Curriculum for Kids

When I was a girl, the grocery store my mother shopped at sometimes sold oddball items - including, for a time, lovely oversized books about famous artists. Fortunately for me, my mother was happy to buy me one of these books each time she shopped, and soon I had most of them. I used to pour over them and dream - and my life is richer for it.

There are a number of reasons I've wanted to include art history in our homeschool. Certainly I want to expose my children to lots of different types of art in order to spur their own creativity. But art is also an important piece of history. Every kid should be able to recognize famous works of art and know who painted them - and at least a little bit about the artist and the time period in which he or she created.

The great thing is, you don't need to buy curriculum in order to supplement your child's education with art! You'll want to have access to the artist's work; your library will probably have some books to help here - and it's also easy to find famous works of art online. (For example, to find famous paintings by Van Gogh, just Google "Van Gogh paintings" and click on the "images" link at the top of the page.)

There are also free videos, coloring pages, and other resources online that can be helpful. But mostly, you'll want to learn a bit about the artist, observe his or her style, and then let your kids try their hand at painting or drawing something similar. Let your children experiment - and don't be concerned if they decide to go off on their own creative tangent. For this, of course, you'll want a few art supplies - paper, crayons, and water colors will do, but also consider having pastels, colored pencils, finger paints, acrylic paints, and colored markers on hand.

Each week, I'll share with you great free resources for adding art history to your children's lives. For young kids, consider keeping their coloring pages/art projects in a folder, then staple them all together into a book at the end of the year. For older kids, consider having the student keep a notebook; each page would have the artist's name, some basic information about him or her, plus a sample of artwork. By the end of the year, your children will have an excellent "book" to browse through and be inspired by.

Currently Available Lessons (more coming every week!):

Vincent Van Gogh

Aug 25, 2014

Medicinal Uses for Vanilla Extract

According to Johns Hopkins University, 50 to 80% of American adults get cold sores; a study at the Louisiana State University Health Science Center found 98% of all adults carry the virus that causes them. So a great many people are seeking relief from these painful sores - even spending $24 or so for a tiny tube of medicine that reduces the length of time they'll have the sore by about 2 days. What most people don't know is there's a natural, very effective, much less expensive medicine for cold sores - and most people probably already have it in their house: Vanilla Extract.

Vanilla extract has bee used as medicine for thousands of years - and for a variety of ails. It is well worth keeping a bottle in your family's medicine cabinet:

To Reduce Inflammation

Vanilla extract has long been used on teething babies' gums and for temporary relief from toothaches. Scientists today know it as a good inflammation reducer - which is why some people even rub vanilla extract onto joints to reduce pain.

To Reduce Stomach Problems

Europeans often use vanilla extract for morning sickness - though, of course, it shouldn't be guzzled (!) since there is a small amount of alcohol in it. Be sure to ask your doctor how much is safe to take - and explain how much alcohol is in your particular vanilla extract (it can vary; read the bottle label for an exact amount). You can also make your own vanilla extract without alcohol. Usually a small amount is added to water, tea, or coffee to reduce nausea and stomach pains.

To Give the Brain a Boost

Scientists known that smelling vanilla is reduces stress - and once stress is removed, we all think more clearly. (Don't want to go around sniffing a bottle of vanilla extract? I don't blame you. try putting a little in your coffee, instead.) There is also even some indication vanilla extract may help alleviate depression - and relax you enough that you can fall asleep naturally.

For Antioxidants Action

Vanilla contains "vanillin" and "vaniillic acid," which a number of studies (including a 2007 study published in
the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry), found are mild antioxidants. That means they help remove damaging free radicals and toxins in the body known to lead to illness.

For Antibacterial Action

Vanillin is also antibacterial, which makes it helpful in treating acne and minor skin abrasions.

To Treat Headaches

The use of vanilla extract to treat headaches goes back to the times of the ancient Egyptians. Try adding 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract to 8 ounces of water.

For Cold Sores

It may be that the alcohol in vanilla extract is the primary reason it heals cold sores so quickly. Or maybe it's the inflammation-reducing properties of the extract - or something else scientists don't yet understand. But if you apply vanilla extract to a cold sore as soon as you notice it's first tingling sensations, it will heal several days faster. (Cold sores normally last 7 to 10 days; vanilla extract heals cold sores in 4 to 5 days, in my experience.) Apply it with a Q-tip, and use it as often as the cold sore bothers you - or at least 3 times a day. Be sure to immediately dispose of the Q-tip in the garbage, since the virus that causes cold sores is easy to catch.

Real vs. Imitation Vanilla

For the medicine cabinet, use only real, pure vanilla extract, which is made with vanilla beans and alcohol. Imitation vanilla extract does not have the healing properties of real vanilla. (But it's mostly false that secretions from beavers are used in making imitation vanilla.)

Aug 22, 2014

An Old Fashioned Trick for Measuring Butter, Peanut Butter, and More: Water Displacement

When I was a girl, cooking and baking alongside my mother, she taught me to measure shortening and margarine with a method seldom seen today. This, no doubt, is due in part to the fact that we now know how bad margarine and shortening are for us. But it's also due to the fact that most of our fats are packaged with measurements on them. Take, for example, a stick of butter, with its tablespoon and cup measurements printed on the wax paper covering it.

But there are still times I prefer the method my mother taught me (called the water displacement method). It's terrific for measuring homemade butter, or for all those smaller chunks of butter that end up in the fridge, or for measuring butter that no longer has its wrapping, or that was purchased in bulk, without measurements on the packaging. You can also use it to measure coconut oil (in it's solid state), peanut butter, or other solid nut butters. (This method won't work for runny nut butters.)

To use the water displacement method, fill a 2 cup liquid measuring cup with 1 cup of cold water. (It's important to use cold water so whatever you're measuring doesn't melt.) Now add whatever you are measuring to the cup, a bit at a time.

For instance, let's say you need 1/2 cup of butter. You've filled the measuring cup with 1 cup of cold water, and now you add butter until the water level reaches the 1 1/2 mark (as seen in the photo above). That means the measuring cup contains 1 cup of water AND 1/2 cup of butter.

Remove the butter, shaking off the water, and add it to your recipe. As an added bonus, this measuring method makes for easy clean up; little or no butter sticks to the measuring cup.

Tip: Be sure that whatever you're measuring is totally immersed in the water. If you're measuring a lot of an item (say, 1 cup or more), you'll need a larger measuring cup and more water - say 2 cups of water, instead of one.

Aug 20, 2014

The Easy Way to Make Butter

I had leftover cream from making buttercream cake frosting for my daughter's horse party, so this week, I did what I always do when I have extra heavy cream: I made butter.

When you imagine making butter, maybe you envision working hard with a butter churn. Or maybe you think of kids shaking a jar endlessly. Or maybe you picture big, stainless steel machines doing the work in a factory. But there's actually a very easy, quick way to make butter at home. The only "special" equipment you need is a mixer. (UPDATE 8-20-14: Several readers have asked if hand mixers will work for making butter. Yes, they will, though the process will probably take a bit longer. Also, you may use a food processor instead of a mixer.)

The Easy Way to Make Butter at Home:

1. Pour 16 oz.* of chilled heavy cream into the bowl of an electric mixer. Optionally, add ½ teaspoon of salt to help make the butter stay fresh longer. Mix on high. (The higher the mixer setting, the quicker you'll have butter. But setting the mixer too fast will make a mess of your kitchen!)

2. After about 2-5 minutes, depending upon how fast you're mixing, the cream will look thicker - like whipping cream. After another 1-3 minutes, it will look clumpy - kind of like white scrambled eggs; keep mixing, and within a minute or so the water will separate from the fat. This watery stuff is buttermilk.

3. Place a strainer (or a colander lined with cheesecloth of coffee filters) over a small bowl. Pour the contents of the mixer bowl into the strainer. The buttermilk will drain into the bowl below the strainer; use it for baking (or give it to the chickens as a special treat).

4. What's left in the strainer is butter. Place under cold, running water, then squeeze the butter into a ball and massage while continuing to let cold water run over it. When the water coming from below the strainer is clear, the butter is done.

* You can use more or less heavy cream, as you desire. Too much cream, though, will be difficult to mix. And if you use less cream, you'll also want to use less salt.

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Aug 18, 2014

Homeschooling Doesn't Need to Be Complicated!

When I was first planning to homeschool, I was overwhelmed. Totally overwhelmed - mostly by all the curriculum that was available. How could I even differentiate between them all? How on earth could I choose the best curriculum for my child? And how could afford them? Well, five years later, I've learned homeschooling doesn't have to be complicated - or expensive. In fact, I far prefer super simple, inexpensive curriculum because it allows us to explore a wide variety of topics more freely. And would it surprise you to learn I buy only one - sometimes two - textbooks each year? Here's how it works:

Once your child is reading and beginning to do math (adding and subtracting)*, the only textbook you really need to buy is a math book. We use older versions of Saxon, because it is widely considered the best, but really, you can use whatever math book you like.

Then, if your grade school child enjoys doing worksheets, you might consider buying one of those inexpensive, grade appropriate worksbooks sold to supplement public school curriculum, especially during the summer. Or you could just find the many thousands of free worksheets available online, and print them out as needed.

Other than that, you just need access to lots of books. They could be library books, or they could be books from thrift stores. (I highly recommend St. Vincent dePaul's for books.) You can also buy new, of course, but I find that's rarely necessary.

So we have math covered, and reading covered. And everything else - from science to history - is also covered in the books your child reads (and/or you read to your child). This requires a little bit of forethought on the part of the parent-teacher, but it works really well. Now add to that science experiments, writing (which can include writing prompts and copywork related to whatever subject the child is studying at the moment), crafts, and other hands on activities - which you can easily find online - and you're all set!

So to be clear, all you need is:

* A good math textbook for your child's appropriate grade
* Lots of reading books
* And, if you like, a cheap general workbook for your child's appropriate grade

You child's spelling words come from her reading materials. Her history/social studies, science, and other school subjects also come from reading books - and doing experimenter and crafts you find for free online. Her writing comes from copying from reading books (for example, last year my daughter kept a journal of the Bill of Rights, which she also memorized) and getting writing assignments or prompts.

It is SO simple, and very affordable.

Want a little more hand holding? If you're brand new to homeschooling, you might also want to invest in (used) copies of What Your...Needs to Know books by E.D. Hirsch. These offer a guideline for what your child could be learning each year. I use them to determine - generally - what sort of books I want my children to read each year - what type of science, history, and so on.

Like the idea of focusing on math, writing, and reading, but want more hand holding? I recommend The Robinson Curriculum. For $195, you'll get CDs with all the curriculum you need through high school (minus math books), including reading material. Add a good laser printer, and you're all set for years! Be sure to read the history of this curriculum, and how all six of the Robinson children taught themselves with it; it's hard not to be impressed!

* If your child isn't reading yet, consider a book like Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons or Mommy, Teach Me to Read!, plus some good phonic readers (like the Bob books) to get him started. As for math, preschoolers and kindergarteners need to learn to count to 100 (it's nice to use a number chart for this), focus on memorizing addition facts (up to 10 or 12), followed by subtraction facts (also up to 10 or 12), using flash cards. Also, check out my posts on Homeschool Preschool.

Aug 15, 2014

Treating Powdery Mildew with Vinegar

Powdery mildew is something I battle each year. At first, it looks like white, powdery spots on my squash, but gradually it turns leaves yellow, then dry and brown. Unfortunately, powdery mildew also drastically reduces the productivity of plants, so you'll have less food (or flowers) from them. Fortunately, there are easy organic ways to treat powdery mildew:

 * Choose plants that are resistant to powdery mildew.

* Water at the base of plants. Moisture on leaves encourages powdery mildew to appear. You can't control rain or humidity, but you can keep irrigation water off leaves.

* Consider preventative measures. If your plants get powdery mildew each year, consider treating them before you actually see signs of the disease.

* Treat at the first sign of powdery mildew. The quicker you respond, the more you'll be able to control powdery mildew.
A squash plant with powdery mildew. The leaf center front is badly affected. The leaves just above and to the side show classic beginning symptoms of powdery mildew. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
* Choose an organic form of control. I've blogged before about how ordinary milk does a great job of treating powdery mildew, but this year, I found vinegar works even better.

To use Vinegar to Treat Powdery Mildew:

1. Fill a clean spray bottle with 32 oz. of warm water.

2. Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar.* I've used both organic apple cider vinegar with the "mother" (like Braggs) and white distilled vinegar. I can't see a difference between them; both work equally well treating powder mildew on my plants.

3. Close the bottle and shake it.

4. Spray directly on plant leaves (both the tops and bottoms). Although I've never had any trouble with the vinegar mixture burning plants, some sensitive plants may react badly to the spray; therefore test first on one leaf, and check for damage the next day. After this initial test, spray affected plants every day for one week, then every other day from thereon.

Incidentally, vinegar is also the best aphid killer I've ever used.

* To mix a larger quantity, use 1 gallon of water with 2 - 3 tablespoons of vinegar.

Aug 13, 2014

A Horse Party with Cowgirls and Cowboys

My philosophy on parties is pretty simple. I don't want to spend much on decorations and other things that will just be thrown away after the party is over. Rather than drop money on that sort of thing, I'd rather put more creativity and time into the party. So when my daughter told me she'd like to have a horses, cowgirls, and cowboys theme for her birthday, I knew I wasn't going to hire pony rides or pay a bakery for a fancy cake. I knew I'd do the work myself - with my daughter's enthusiastic help.
(c) Bryan Valencia Photography

Our birthday parties are casual, family affairs, so I always send electronic invitations. I scoured the web looking at horse-related invitations, and chose elements from 3 - 4 invites to create my daughter's invitation in a photo editing software program that came with my computer. (If you don't have a photo editing program, you can use a free online service, like PicMonkey.) I found a photo of my daughter's favorite type of horse (Appaloosa) and with it, paired an Old West type font: "Cowboys and Cowgirls are WANTED to giddy up to the [last name]'s for a galloping good time celebrating [first name]'s birthday! [First name] is turning [age]!" I saved the invite as a .JPG and send it as an attachment in emails to our family.

The Cake
(c) Bryan Valencia Photography.

When I'm planning a birthday party, I always decide upon the cake first. In this case, I looked at images online - always hoping for cakes that look do-able for me, a mom without any training in baking. My daughter fell in love with this cake, which I found on Pinterest, and wanted an almost exact replica. Initially, I was nervous about all those piped roses, but looking at YouTube videos, I realized it was do-able with the right piping tip. It's a VERY easy technique. (Trust me; if I can do it, you can, too! I especially recommend watcing this video by Lori's Bakery and this one by Kitchen Adventures for how-tos.)

I made the cake in four 8 inch round layers, using a cake cardboard in between the second and third layers. (For more tips on assembling a layered cake, click here.) I made my own buttercream frosting; regular store bought frosting won't work.

Just before serving the cake, I added my daughter's favorite toy horse and a free printable pennant banner I found online. (To add letters to the pennant, I opened the .PDF and took a screen shot of the pennants, saving it as a .JPG. Then, using free image editing software, I added one letter to each pennant. I printed this, cut out the pennants, and folded them in half along the indicated fold lines. I used bamboo skewers and some silky string I had laying around to create the "holder" for the banner. To secure the pennants, I placed them over the string and glued the pointed ends of the paper together.

Other Food and Decorations
We normally keep our party food pretty simple: hamburgers and hot dogs, coleslaw, potato salad, and the like. This year, my husband did some pretty impressive barbecue. Whatever the case, I rarely find that trying to pair the food to the theme works; we have too many picky eaters!

This year, I also really kept the decorations to a minimum. We put up quite a few balloons (multi-color), and I bought plastic tablecloths (and matching plates and napkins) at the Dollar Tree, but otherwise, I stuck to using what we already had, including toy horses, a basket of apples (later used in a game), and generic happy birthday banners we use year after year. I also had all the games out and ready to use before the guests arrived, which added interest.

The Games
This is what the children played:
Pin the Tail on the Horse.
(c) Bryan Valencia Photography.
Pin the Tail on the Horse: My daughter loves this game, so we do some variation on it most years. I couldn't find a printable (or purchasable) pin the tail on the horse game that I liked, so I made one. Now, I'm not much of an artist, and a horse is way out of my artistic league, so instead of drawing a horse freehand, I found an online drawing of a horse and used BlockPoster's free website in order to print it out and enlarge it. I taped the pages together and traced the lines with a Sharpie pen to make them bolder and thicker. Then my daughter colored the horse and tails

Apple toss game.
Apple Toss: I found this idea on Pinterest - with a photo, but no working link. It's a bean bag toss, but instead of bags, we used some wild crabapples (which we later fed the chickens). First, I prepared the box; you'll find easy instructions here. Then I turned the Pinterest photo into a black and white image, using free photo editing software. And once again, I used BlockPoster's free service to enlarge the image. This time, I taped together the pages, taped them to a window, then taped a piece of poster board over the enlarged image. Using a pencil, I traced the horse's face onto the posterboard, then went over this with a Sharpie. My daughter colored the horse face to her liking. When she was done, I taped the poster board to the box and used an Exacto knife to cut out the horse's mouth.
Water Gun Target Practice Game. (c) Bryan Valencia Photography.
Water Gun Target Practice: I'd seen lots of ideas on how to add "target practice" to a cowboy/girl party online, but all of them were more complicated than I liked. My daughter came up with a simple solution: Draw targets on the fence using sidewalk chalk. I identified each target with a child's initials and gave each kid each a water gun. They could easily see if they were hitting the target and had fun trying to be the first one to wash it away with their squirt guns.

Feed Sack Race: Otherwise known as a potato sack race. I still had the gunny sacks left over from last year's Little House on the Prairie party, so I just called them "feed sacks" for the purposes of our horse party. This simple game always generates lots of laughter.
Lasso the Horse Game. (c) Bryan Valencia Photography.
Lasso the Horse: Again, I'd seen this game on Pinterest, but I wanted to simplify it so I wasn't buying a bunch of one-time-use things. I used my children's spring horse (but you could use a stick horse secured in a bale of straw, or a rocking horse) and a hoola hoop as the lasso. It was tougher than it looked!

Horseshoe Toss: We actually had to skip this game, but I do think it's a fun addition. I don't think plastic horseshoes would work very well (they don't have enough weight), and that was all I could find online for under $30. But a local store had a real metal set on sale for summer, so we lucked out. I've also seen people sew bean bags shaped like horseshoes, which makes the game more appropriate for younger kids.

Horse Pinata: My kids love pinatas, but I had a hard time finding anything but teeny horse pinatas. I ended up buying this small - but quite adequate - horse online. It held plenty of candy for 6 kids.

For more horse or cowboy/cowgirl party ideas, visit my Pinterest Horse Party Board.