Reading Before 5 Years Old (What Did and Didn’t Work)

Posted by Carly Morgan

This post contains Amazon affiliate links.

We have two early readers in the house. Eva, the six year old, is comfortable with chapter books and just finished the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary. Calvin, the three year old soon to be four, can do Level 4 readers but prefers big picture books with a lot of rhyming. Both of them can read labels in the kitchen, instructions for toys, and the street signs in our neighborhood. Best of all, they can both read for an hour or more by themselves.

One of our big goals with parenting was to raise kids who loved books but our journey to reading was a little crazier than I thought it was going to be. Honestly, I think I complicated the process by buying into all of the chatter about how hard it is to get kids to read and, as a result, buying books and programs designed to make that process easier. I wasted a lot of money and time on things that were not fun and not helpful. I also stumbled into a few super helpful tricks along the way, so I thought I’d give you the hits and misses list.

Stuff that didn’t work:

1 /// Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. I’m going to get pushback for this one, I’m sure, because it is the go-to book that was recommended to me by about ten different people. So, you can take my experience with a grain of salt BUT this was the worst of the worst for us. Drills, repetition, and mindless exercises that will do nothing but bore and frustrate both of you. This book also has nothing to do with learning to love books. Blah. I sent it off to the thrift store within two months.

2 /// The BOB Books Series. This was another series that I bought because everyone was using them. Yes, I purchased all of them and no, they don’t work. While not as bad as the book mentioned above, the BOB books aren’t designed to make kids love books so the stories are boring and the skill level felt a little inconsistent. We tried them a few times but never got into them.

3 /// Leap TAG system. This is a really cool system that gives kids the power to read by themselves before they’re ready by using a pen that reads aloud when the kids touch the words. The system incorporates a ton of books and familiar characters (Disney, Suess, etc.) so I had high hopes for it. While it’s a lot of fun, my kids were pretty lazy about using it as a learning tool and ultimately went from mindlessly running the pen across the words without trying to read to reading the books without a pen. So I don’t recommend it as a go-to early reading tool but I would say it’s a pretty fun toy that did get them to enjoy books.

Stuff that did work:

1 /// Alphabet Dice. This was a complete accident. I was at the grocery store and wanted to grab a little something to surprise the kids so I picked up Campbell’s Alphabet Dice Game because I thought it was funny. I have no idea how you actually play the game but the dice themselves are the best tool for learning letter sounds and building small words. After practicing phonics, each kid started with “at” and then added the other letters to make rhyming worlds (cat, bat, sat, etc.) which was a great way to get them excited about sounding things out. As their reading skills progressed, we moved into using the dice to spell sight words, rolling the dice and writing words that start with that letter, and so on. We’re still finding ways to use them!

2 /// The Preschool Prep Collection. Another semi-accident here. This was a random Groupon purchase to use up some credit I had from referrals way back when and it became Eva’s favorite DVD set. I thought she was nuts because the production quality is low and it’s repetitive and there’s no story, but she loved these. Then, Calvin loved them even harder. They still ask to watch them. I don’t get it, but these DVDs were huge on teaching them phonic blends and sight words. Plus, they’re super chill so they aren’t annoying to have on in the background or during quiet time if you aren’t opposed to TV.

3 /// Having books absolutely everywhere. Finally, we stuffed books in all the places. Sure, we have bookshelves of books but we also have bins to flip through in the playroom, in their bedrooms, and in the living room. There are magazines in the kitchen to look at while waiting for food, waterproof books for bath time, pocket books in the diaper bag, and car organizers stuffed with books hanging in front of their car seats. (The ones meant for iPads work great for this.) And don’t forget a book light or two if you don’t mind them reading themselves to sleep.

It’s not the end of the world if kids don’t read early, but that extra boost definitely raises the chances that your kid will enjoy school. The way most kids are taught is so book-based that being a little behind in reading or feeling like reading is tiring in itself just adds stress on top of the exhaustion of learning everything else. Yes, Eva found parts of Kindergarten a little redundant, but I’d rather she struggle with boredom than with reading.

Plus, once kids can read on their own they become free to follow their own interests and find information out for themselves. Did you know that babies can taste with their cheeks or that the color in tornadoes is the dirt that the wind picks up? Learned that from my readers.

Popular Kid Subscription Services: Checking Out Bitsbox, Tinytivity, and Bookroo

Posted by Carly Morgan

Disclaimer: I received sample boxes from Bitsbox, Tinytivity, and Bookroo in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts below are my own.

Which childrens subscription service is worth it

Subscription boxes are the hot thing in parenting and homeschooling right now. As we’ve all gotten used to ordering things online and getting them in the mail (raise your hand if you love Amazon Prime!!), it seems like prices on kid subscriptions have gone down and quality has gone up. I used to be involved in a couple of subscription services when Eva was a baby and, not surprisingly, all of those services are now out of business because they didn’t really deliver for what you paid for them.

The good news is that in the last five years, it’s gotten pretty competitive out there and companies are really stretching to make sure that you’re happy with every delivery. So, I wanted to check out some of the most popular subscriptions that my friends are currently signed up for and found three that are definitely delivering bang for your buck!

Bitsbox, Tinytivity, and Bookroo are all monthly subscriptions for kids but they each deliver a very different product and they have their own quirks and perks. As you check out my reviews, see if you can guess which one we signed up for as soon as we opened our sample box…

Bookroo

Bookroo subscription review

Bookroo is a children’s book subscription service (be still my heart!) that delivers either two picture books or three board books each month. The books arrive gift wrapped with a little note that explains that month’s selection. I wasn’t sure how the quality would be since kid books definitely run the spectrum from Maurice Sendak to those stapled coloring books you get at the doctor’s office, but we were so pleased with the books we got!

Bookroo childrens book subscription service

Picture book subscription from Bookroo

I’ll review these books more in depth when I do my book reviews for March but the books are both darling hardcover picture books with really nice illustrations and smart stories. They are definitely heavy on pictures and light on text even though we didn’t choose the board book options, but I wouldn’t say that they were too easy. Eva reads at about a second grade level and both of these are a great pace for her – enough reading that she feels accomplished but not so much that she gets overwhelmed and forgets to check out the pictures.

Side note – I can’t speak for every month but the two we got were distributed from major publishing houses (Penguin and Candlewick Press). I don’t necessarily dislike self-published or small run children’s books per se, but I do think you’re taking more of a gamble with those if you purchase before you read so I was relieved that I recognized these two as coming from vetted, quality brands.

The friend who recommended this service to me is building up a quality picture book library for her daughter and wanted to keep it fresh by adding something new every month. She’s since given subscriptions as baby shower gifts which is such a cute idea because it’s unlikely that they end up with duplicate titles as you might if you buy the classics for baby on the way. I know we ended up with a few different copies of Goodnight Moon when Eva was born!

Winner: Best Children’s Subscription to Give as a Gift

 

Tinytivity

Tinytivity subscription revew

Tinytivity is a monthly subscription services that delivers complete craft kits right to your door. The crafts are themed to the season and designed to be done by the parent and child together with enough flexibility that kids of all abilities can still do them. For example, one of the crafts in the sample box we received involved painting a bird feeder and while I’m going to have Eva do it because she’ll meticulously decorate it, Calvin could have still had a good time with his messy three-year-old style.

Tinytivity craft subscription service

Tinytivity craft box for kids

Because we got a box themed for springtime, the craft above did contain seeds so that was an allergy problem for us that I hadn’t anticipated. The good news is that everything was packaged separately and very neatly so I just took the seeds away and Eva was able to enjoy the rest. This is something that we run into occasionally (we once got a nature exploration box filled with loose pine nuts – yikes!) but it’s probably not something that comes up very often with a craft subscription. The other craft has pressed flowers but that’s not likely to be a problem for us.

Tinytivity monthly craft box for kids

The thing about this subscription service is that it provides an opportunity for at least two moments where you can hang out with your kid without having to worry about planning and prepping a craft project. Prepping craft projects is kind of my nemesis. I have bags of craft supplies hanging out in closets because I always plan big things and then we never get around to actually doing them after I buy the supplies. With these crafts being easy, timely, contained, and prep free, we are much more likely to actually do them.

I should note that Calvin was most excited about the picture books when we opened them but this was the box that Eva was really excited about because she wanted to immediately get her little artist hands busy with the making. I don’t even know if a weekly craft subscription could keep up with that one!

Winner: Best for Grandparents, Babysitters, and Getting Right Into Making Fun Family Memories

 

Bitsbox

Bitsbox kids coding subscription review

Bitsbox is a monthly subscription designed to make kids love coding. Coding is inevitable and unavoidable for kids because it’s the new language they need to be fluent in to keep up with how fast tech is changing. Unfortunately, parents who are my age (shout out to those kids of the eighties!) are at a real disadvantage because we grew up typing but not coding. I didn’t even learn coding in college because it was something only fringe computer geeks were doing and ended up having to go back to take classes at my alma matter after I graduated from law school because by then basic HTML was a lot handier than anything I had learned in college the first time around.

My coding skills are rough around the edges and Kyle’s are basically non-existent so we need some way to start our kids on the coding path without having to lead them ourselves.

Each month, Bitsbox sends out a kit that contains a set of coding activites for kids. The box we received was the deluxe version of the first kit that you get so I was expecting something really basic like flashcards or a nice board book with the ABCs of coding in it and had to admit that I was a little overwhelmed when I pulled all of these brightly colored goodies out of the box:

Contents of the Bitsbox first subscription box

Once I figured out what everything was, though, it’s such a cute little kit! First off, you get an Apper Keeper (eighties kids??) that’s a little binder with a big pocket to hold all of your activity packs, trading cards, etc. You put the activity cards into the binder as you go and each card has a simple coding project that you do on the Bitsbox website to create apps that work on your tablet, phone, etc. So the coding is done on a computer but the product your kid creates can be used on your iPad, if that makes sense.

Bitsbox Apper Keeper

Bitsbox coding projects for kids

Bitsbox coding kids activities

The deluxe box also included a guide for parents, a fantastic sticker book, and some other goods like stickers and trading cards. I put the smaller goodies aside after I opened the box but when Kyle came home and saw the trading cards he was all over them. Each of the cards has its own coding project so there was even more to do than what we have in our binder. Note: the site and guide make it clear that parents don’t need to have any coding skills beyond basic computer savvy in order to help their kids with the projects. Hooray!

Contents of the Bitsbox coding subscription deluxe box

Bitsbox grownup guide

Paint by Sticker kid Zoo Animals

The age range starts at six years old but after looking everything over I’m not quite sure that Eva (turning six this Saturday!!!!!) is up for these activities yet. I think she’ll be there by early summer for sure so we might do a little coding bootcamp then when she has less going on. It’s also going to take that long for me to get the activities back from her father, who pounced on the trading card and activity binder combo and wanted to know exactly how soon we could get some more because obviously we need to fill the binder and collect all the cards. (Seriously, eighties kids! Up top!)

PS – they gave me a discount code so if you use CLEVERFOREVER you can take 20% off your Bitsbox subscription!

Winner: Best Subscription for Giving Kids Mad Skills You Don’t Have

Bitsbox coding lessons for children

 

Well, did you guess which one we signed up for? We’re strongly leaning toward getting all three eventually because it was a Goldilocks and the Three Bears situation with all of us getting excited about different boxes BUT the Bitsbox subscription was the one we started right away. The crazy thing is that we didn’t even start it for the kids – Kyle and I want Bitsbox! I wasn’t kidding when I said my coding skills are rough, even after a couple of college courses, because coding is overwhelming and boring when you learn it in a classroom. The Bitsbox subscription is a much more fun place to start and since Kyle is really starting at the beginning we figured it makes sense for us to get the subscription, use it ourselves, and then play with it with our kids after we have a binder full of coding projects for them to do. If they’re lucky, we might even share some of our trading cards with them. Well, the duplicates anyway.

As for the other two, I was really impressed and understood why I have friends with active subscriptions to these services. The only reason I’m hesitating is because we happen to have a huge library of picture books already, so I’m not building one like my friend is, and as I mentioned I have a ridiculous stash of unrealized craft projects hanging out in closets so I want to tackle a few more of those before starting a subscription. That being said, the kids were so excited and it’s not like books and crafts are something you can have too much of in childhood so we’ll see…

Math Game: Mental Blox by Learning Resources

Posted by Carly Morgan

Disclaimer: We received this game for free from Learning Resources so we could try it out. The thoughts and opinions below are my own.

Mental Blox from Learning Resources

Meet Mental Blox, the new 3-D puzzle game from Learning Resources. It’s another STEM toy full of lessons in math, construction, and engineering, and we have joyfully been playing it completely wrong and learning a ton as we go.

Mental Blox is the new math game from Learning Resources

Two things, first. One: my kids love this game and have killed a few hours playing with the pieces. Two: we have not successfully played this game according to the game instructions and I don’t see us successfully playing the game that way any time soon. So if you’re looking for the post that tells you how exactly to play this game…nope. Not here.

The basic idea is that there are geometrical solids in different colors and patterns and you build structures with them based on pictures that come on little cards. If you’d like to see all the game pieces, Eva did an unboxing where she checked it out. She also confidently tells you exactly how to play, which is not correct but you can see her having fun nonetheless:

The game is technically played with variations of teams trying to outbuild each other while people describe the structure or try to remember what the cards looked like, but that would mean that we would have to play competitively and that’s generally not a great idea in our house. Our kids are just at that age where the idea that someone is winning and someone is losing means someone is crying before long so we do a lot of cooperative play, as in us vs. the game instead of us vs. us.

Educational math game for little kids

Our way of playing has been really fun, though. Fun enough that I kind of think you should just play our way, but maybe that’s just me. The kids started by making all of the structures on the cards, moved on to reading the prompts on the cards (things like “add another shape in a different color”) and then turned it into a role playing game where they hide the shapes and one person “excavates” them and takes them to the builder who follows the blueprint to create the structure. The structures have also turned into buildings for driving cars around and roads/mountains for the cars to drive over and finally they just started making their own structures and using paper/crayons to draw their own cards.

Geometry and pattern based math game for homeschool

Math game using geometric solids

Like I said, all of that is not how you officially play the game but the pieces are fun and open-ended enough that the imagination play seems to be unlimited. Extra perk: because the game is team-based there are two of each geometrical solid so when they do build with them I can quickly solve any give-me-that arguments by dividing the set neatly in half and forcing them to trade peaceably if they need the others’ pieces. It also means I have two separate sets for any homeschool lessons we can incorporate these into.

Shapes for Kindergarten homeschool math lesson

Fun Kindergarten level math game

Home Education: What Exactly is a STEM Toy?

Posted by Carly Morgan

If you’ve done absolutely any research about home education or educational toys, you’ve come across this label: STEM. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and we all know that this is a good thing because that’s where the jobs are going to be and our kids need to be more competitive in the workforce. Plus, math and science are smart people things and we want our kids to have smart people things, right?

But do you really know what a STEM toy is? Is it strictly a toy that teaches you equations or can it be any toy with numbers? A telescope seems like a STEM toy (science!) but is a model of the solar system a STEM toy? What about a sticker book that has a picture of the solar system on it?

It turns out that a STEM toy is something that teaches kids how to apply the scientific method to everyday life. So it’s not enough to just show them science – they need to actually get involved and problem solve or create something new using science and math processes (think building, not reading). The toys lightly guide kids toward the kinds of occupations found in science, technology, engineering, and math fields but they make the “work” engaging so kids develop an interest on their own and associate those fields with having fun.

Love this idea.

I’m really hoping this trend sticks around because the kids have had a great reaction to the STEM toys we’ve intentionally mixed into our home education rotation so far. They’re very comfortable working with their hands and breaking down things that seem complicated at first until they can understand them, which is going to help them on so many levels!

We recently got the chance to have a sneak peek at a new STEM toy from Educational Insights called the Design and Drill Robot. It’s a construction toy that lets you use a screwdriver and some plastic bolts to design and assemble/disassemble a little robot friend. I was afraid it wouldn’t be enough to hold the kids’ attention because it didn’t have any other buttons or functions but it’s been a great way to keep Calvin occupied and he’s already gotten so much more comfortable using the screwdriver.

I’ve been filming the kids more because they’ve gotten so funny and Calvin and I made a video to share this robot toy with you guys. At one point I set the camera down because I had to go change the baby and it was so cute to come back and see how focused and happy he was just working away. Anything that keeps him that quiet and occupied while I’m changing diapers gets two big fat thumbs up from the mom.

If you want to see more of our homeschool videos and other toy/gear reviews, please subscribe to my YouTube channel so you don’t miss anything. As for the Design and Drill Robot, you can learn more about him (her?) right here on the Educational Insights website.

Homeschool Science: What is a Living Thing?

Posted by Carly Morgan

We’ve officially set aside Fridays for special homeschool outings now that the weather isn’t quite so snowy and the baby brother isn’t quite so brand new. Last Friday we braved the rain and went out to our local nature park, which ended up being quite lovely despite the chilly weather because nobody else was there! I’m working on turning the kids into little nature scientists and knew I wanted them to focus on one thing while we were out so before we left we all decided on the question of the day: “Is it a living thing?”

The idea of living things vs. non-living things was something I thought they’d pick up right away since it seems like such an obvious question for me, the mom. As it turned out, it’s not such an easy answer and they came up with mind-bending questions like whether or not water is living since it moves around or if leaves are alive by themselves or only alive as part of a whole tree.

To see if something was living, we checked for these key characteristics of living things:

We determined that water isn’t a living thing because it doesn’t eat. Leaves eat and grow, but not when they fall off the tree so leaves must only be living things as part of a living tree. The idea that trees eat made sense to them when we talked about the food coming into the roots from the ground, but when they asked how trees make waste I explained that trees give off oxygen and then Eva made the connection that oxygen was tree poop and we were all breathing tree poop and they thought that was hi-la-rious. (Yes, we straightened that out later.)

Lesson on living things

 

Homeschool lesson on living things and nonliving things

Homeschool learning about living things

It was a great late winter/early spring lesson because so many of the plants are deceptively dead-looking and that led to a lot of conversations about whether or not something was going to keep growing in the spring or if it would decompose and turn to dirt. I was surprised at how perceptive the kids were when they really got their brains working on sorting things out.

I can’t wait for springtime and the outings that come with it! I’m getting ready for some big time nature lessons and it’s been fun to start collecting the books and gear we’ll need. Here’s a peek:

 

Affiliate links – Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of the Natural World /// SainSmart Jr. Kids Bug Catchers and Viewer Microscope /// Toysmith Nature Kaleidoscope Kit /// Learning Resources Magnifier & Tweezers /// Toysmith Garden Root Viewer /// Moulin Roty Le Jardin Flower Press /// The Practical Naturalist /// CamelBak Kids Water Bottle /// Mountaintop Schoolbags for Kids

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