Nov 21, 2014

Free Art History Curriculum: Mary Cassatt

One of Cassatt's most famous paintings is "The Child's Bath"
Mary Cassatt: b. May 22, 1844 in Allegheeny City, Pennsylvania (find it on the map) d. June 14, 1926 at Ch√Ęteau de Beaufresne, near Paris (find it on the globe)

Style: Impressionist

See some of Cassatt's most famous paintings. (You may also view her complete works here.)

Be sure to give your child plenty of time to study each work of art. Ask: Mary Cassatt is the first woman artist we've studied. Why do you think there are fewer famous women artists than there are men? What were some of Cassatt's favorite subjects? Why do you think she painted so many children? What do you feel when you look at Cassatt's paintings? What do you think the people in her paintings are feeling? What do you notice about Cassatt's use of brush strokes, color, and light?

* Biography of Mary Cassatt
* Another bio of Cassatt
* National Gallery of Art: Mary Cassatt
* Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, c. 1880, by Degas. (Degas and Cassatt were friends. What does Degas' pastel tell you about his thoughts on Cassatt?)
* Coloring page: The Boating Party (see also)
* Coloring page: Young Mother Sewing
* Coloring page: Susan on Balcony Holding a Dog
* Coloring page: The Family
* Video: Mary Cassatt: American Impressionist
* Video: The Boating Party
* Activity: Monoprinting (also called monotypes), like Cassatt (also here)
* Activity: Mary Cassatt hats
* Activity: Painting mothers and children

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

Nov 19, 2014

The Right Way to Wash Dishes by Hand

When it comes to housekeeping, I hesitate to say one way is wrong while another is right - because, really, what's "right" is what works for you. However, when we move into our tiny house motorhome, for the first time in my life, I won't have a dishwasher. Sure, I've hand washed stray pots and dishes now and then, but I've never had to rely entirely on hand washing. And since no one ever taught me how to hand wash dishes, I knew I needed to research the "proper" way to do it. And if I'm not sure of the "right" way to wash dishes by hand, I feel pretty certain some of my readers don't, either.

First, a couple of notes:

* Consider putting dirty dishes in a plastic tub, instead of the sink. This way the sink is always available for dish washing - or whatever else it's needed for.

* Do dishes after every meal or snack. The sooner you wash the dishes, the easier they are to wash. Besides, nobody likes to see a sink full of dishes waiting to be washed.

How to Wash Dishes by Hand

1. Scrape food off the plates and into the compost bin or garbage.

2. Sanitize the sink.It's one of the germiest spots in the kitchen. Soap and water work okay, but a little bleach or ammonia really gets things much cleaner. Sometimes I'll spray the sink with Windex (which contains ammonia), walk away for several minutes, then rinse.

3. Fill the sink with hot, soapy water. It's smart to put a rubber mat or plastic tub in the sink, to protect glasses and plates from breaking. Use the hottest water you can stand, but don't burn yourself. Rubber gloves make it possible to use hotter water - and protect your skin from drying out due to soap and hot water. By the way, don't fill the sink or tub all the way up, because the water level will rise once the dishes go in.

4. Start washing. There are at least two schools of thought on what to wash first. Some believe that things that touch the mouth (utensils and glasses) should be washed first, since the water will be hotter and cleaner. Others simply wash things from cleanest to dirtiest. Certainly pots and pans should be washed last, because they dirty the water quickly. Also, some people like to use a brush to clean dishes - others prefer a scrubby cloth or sponge. I like Scotch Bright scrub sponges because one side is rough but don't scratch surfaces. Ideally, whatever you use should be easy to disinfect. (For example, you can microwave sponges or wash cloths.)

To wash: Place the item in the hot, soapy water and scrub it while it's underwater. Lift up from the water to examine it. Scrub again, as needed.

5.  Rinse with hot water as you go. If you have a double sink, run the rinse water in that. If not, just run it into the soapy water. Avoid letting the water run in between dishes, since this wastes water and money. If your dishes tend to look spotted after drying, fill a large bowl or tub with water - plus a splash of white vinegar; rinse the dishes in this. (Dump out and refresh as needed.)

6. Drain the tub or sink, if at any time the water seems too dirty. Refill with hot, soapy water.

7. Dry. There are two ways to deal with wet dishes. Some people place them on a dish drying rack; you may wish to place a rimmed tray (like a baking sheet) beneath it, to contain the water that drips off the dishes. Other people prefer to dry dishes as they go, using a good, cotton dish towel. (I find "flour sack" towels work best.) This method is less likely to leave dishes looking spotted.

Want more tips? Check out 10 Ways to Make Washing Dishes Less Miserable

Nov 17, 2014

Practicing Thankfulness

I wish I could report that fixing up the motorhome is going smoothly and well. But no - not so much. I have started, though, and that's something. I'm working in the bedroom, which is at the back of the bus, and the lightest and brightest room. But before I can paint, I have to prep all the woodwork. There's a lot of it - and it's really dirty. I'm not exaggerating when I say I'm cleaning one side of a 14 inch cabinet door for 15 - 20 minutes before it's clean. (And yep, I'm using a good TSP cleaner.)

As I scrub and scrub and scrub - often in uncomfortable positions, due to the small size of the room - I'm focusing on two things. One: Even though this is the most tedious and difficult cleaning job I've ever done in my life, at least I'll know it will be really clean when I'm through. And two: Instead of focusing on how hard the job is, I'm focusing on what I like about our tiny house.

It occurs to me that this last part is a good reminder for any homemaker. Because I've met women who live almost literally in shacks and women who live in what I consider nearly-mansions, and all of them can point to things they hate about their homes. It's not emotionally or spiritually healthy for us to focus on what we hate about our homes - so making a concerted effort to think about and thank God for what we have is a good thing.

So, I find myself talking with God as I clean, thanking him that I currently have two homes: One that's keeping us currently cozy and will hopefully soon sell and get us started on our new homestead, and one that will shelter us in the near future.

I also thank him for a tiny motorhome house with:

* Real wood cabinets. Sure, the finish is pretty worn out, but think how nice they'll be once they are painted.

* A sunny, comfortable bedroom. There are three large windows in this room, and the closet doors are mirrored, so there's plenty of light and cheer here. And, unlike a lot of RV bedrooms, there's actually room to climb out of bed and use the restroom without disturbing my husband. (Or vice versa.) Score!

* A bathtub. It's not huge, but it's there.

The bedroom.
* A gas stove. It keeps the motorhome nice and warm, and it looks like a real fire. I like the ambiance!

* New flooring. And it's not carpet! I think it will be easy to care for, and I'm grateful.

* Lots of storage.

* A gas stovetop. I've never used one, so I'm thankful for the chance to give one a try.

I'm also thankful for a husband who is pretty much letting me do what I want with the motorhome, without complaint. (Yes, he was a little shocked I wanted to paint the real wood, but he didn't argue with me. And when I ordered some bedding only to have it be a different color from what it looked like online, he didn't complain when I returned it and ordered a rather feminine, flowered set instead.)

And so I keep scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing. And soon (I hope) I'll be sanding, sanding, sanding - then painting, painting, painting...and I'll only have the bedroom done. But I'm trying to see all this work as a great opportunity to practice thankfulness and give God his due credit.

Nov 12, 2014

Cheap, Easy, Effective Stain Removal

Last month, my daughter accidentally dripped the filling of a bean burrito onto her favorite sweater. I washed it almost immediately, but the stain didn't come out. So I used my long-time stain removal method (soaking it in Oxiclean overnight), but it didn't come out. I re-soaked it overnight...still nothing. Then I tried spraying it with stain remover spray and let it sit overnight again. But the stain just wouldn't go away.

I was afraid we were going to have to throw out the sweater - but then I happened upon this article on Pinterest. It claimed that Fels-Naptha, a soap commonly used in homemade laundry detergent, was something of a miracle stain remover. Since I can buy Fels-Naptha for .97 cents at Walmart, I decided to give it a try.

It worked! The procedure was very simple and quick - and now I have a new, much cheaper stain removal method!

How to Remove Stains with Fels-Naptha:

1. Lay the stained fabric on a flat surface that won't be damaged by water. Fels-Naptha can be used on any fabric you can wash at home. To be extra safe, it's a good idea to test it in an inconspicuous spot on the garment.

2. Dampen the stain with water.

3. Rub the bar of Fels-Naptha onto the stain.

4. Rinse. If the stain is gone, launder as usual. If not, repeat step 3 and 4. Viola! The stain is gone!

Nov 10, 2014

The Tiny House Movement Comes to...Our Motorhome

I have big, scary (to me) news: We're moving into a "tiny house."

You may have heard about tiny houses before; they've been the topic of many magazine articles, books, and documentaries - all of which seem to feature absolutely gorgeous houses of about 400 sq. ft. or less, with cute little lofts and really clever pull out tables and hidden drawers. Yeah, they are cool. But our tiny house won't be like that. Our tiny house is...a motorhome. This one, in fact.

When my husband first proposed the idea of living full time in a motorhome, I admit it - I cried and said, "I don't want to talk to you about this right now. I need to go talk to Jesus!" For years, I've thought the tiny house movement was interesting. But I also always thought, "Maybe when the kids grow up. I can't imagine living in a tiny house with two young children."

But my husband's thoughts were persuasive. If we could move into a motor home - at least for a little while - our living expenses would drop dramatically. And that would let us save more money for our dreamed-for homestead. Which we could then possibly pay for in cash.

Even so, it's tough for me to think of moving into about180 sq. ft. when my current home's kitchen is already frustratingly small. Still, millions of humans live in places at least as small as a motorhome. But after years of living in a house that's been in disrepair, I want to live someplace reasonably pretty. Motor homes are many things, but most are definitely not pretty.

Nonetheless, I told my hubby to go ahead and look at some motorhomes on Craigslist, and I'd pray and think on it some more. Almost instantly, he found a deal that seemed to come from God. It was a high end motorhome - albeit from the 1980s - at a ridiculously low price. (Much lower than any tiny house I've seen. Did you know tiny houses generally cost $200 - $400 per sq. ft., or $23,000 on average?) Why was this motorhome priced so low? Turned out, the engine wasn't working right. We actually think the seller believed the motorhome required a new engine, though he never came out and said that. But my husband is an extremely talented mechanic, and he knew the fix was an easy one - no new engine required. We bought the motorhome, even though I hadn't seen the inside.

The day my husband showed me the inside of the motor home, I cried again. I hated it. Really hated it. It was so ugly. And there was no place for the children! There was only one bed - and not even a kitchenette for eating or doing schoolwork. And did I mention that the one thing I'd told my husband the motor home had to have was permanent bedding for the kids? Sigh.

But I continued praying, and kept hearing, "Be anxious for nothing." So I tried to breathe. And I remembered that if I wanted to, I could tell my husband, "No way. We aren't doing this and that's that," and he would  acquiesce.

But instead, I started looking for ideas on how to cram our family of four into a 180 sq. ft. motorhome. Accidentally, I ran into RV makeovers on Pinterest. Amazing RV makeovers. This made me feel better. Although I didn't want to throw a bunch of money into our motorhome, I was beginning to see that, with a lot of work, I could make the thing more homey, bright, and cheery. Others live with so much less. Surely this is do-able.

So now the motorhome is working well, and I'm scheming about how to put beds and an eating area into it. I've figured out a way I think I can live with the strange lavender/power blue tile, tub, and bathroom sink. And last weekend, I started cleaning the filthy cabinetry in preparation for painting them. (I spent 3 1/2 hours cleaning the cabinetry on just one side of the bedroom.)

Yes, I'm concerned about privacy. Not just about the type you're thinking about, but also the type that introverts require (there are three of them in our family). I'm concerned about the fact that anyone who stirs early in the morning is going to wake us all up...and I'm already so sleep deprived. BUT God is working on me. Stretching me. This is do-able. Sometimes I can even laugh about this; I'm starting to call it my mid-life crisis.

It's not what I dreamed of. But it will certainly be an adventure.

And as we prepare the motorhome for full time living, and as we learn to live there, you can be sure I'll keep you updated. This tiny house thing. It's more than a trend.

Nov 7, 2014

Free Art History Curriculum: Thomas Gainsborough

One of Gainsborough's most famous paintings is "Blue Boy."
Thomas Gainsborough: b. May 14, 1727 in Sudbury, England (find it on the globe) d. August 2, 1788 in London, England (find it on the globe)

Style: Romanticism

See some of Gainsborough's most famous paintings. (You can also see most of Gainsborough's works here.)

Be sure to give your child plenty of time to study each work of art. Ask: If you had to guess, what would you say was Gainsborough's favorite thing to paint? (Answer: Landscapes.) How does he use color and light? Does his painting remind you of any other artists we've studied? Look closely at some of Gainsborough's portraits. What can you tell about the people he painted? What are they feeling? What kind of people are they?

* Biography of Thomas Gainsborough
* A shorter bio of Gainsborough
* Coloring page: Blue Boy (there's a more detailed version here)
* Coloring page: M Mm Andrews
* Interactive site: Learning about Landscapes
* Activity: Drawing a Landscape
* Activity: Choose Your Own Landscape
* Activity: Portrait Helps (use these blank faces to make your own portraits)
* Activity: Make an articulated manikin (useful in portraiture)
* Activity: Draw Emotion
* Video: Artists and their Self Portraits

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

Nov 3, 2014

Toys That Have Endured

Are you thinking about Christmas gifts yet? I am...and as I look around our house, I realize that even though most of the things my children have received as gifts haven't endured, some gifts certainly have. My children play with them over and over again.And I'm betting yours will, too.


I don't think I've ever met a kid who doesn't like train sets. But by far the best train set for children is, in my opinion, Geotrax. Why? It's easy to put together, the tracks don't fall apart easily (yet they are still not hard to take the tracks apart), it's durable, the remote controls are simple to use - and it's just plain fun! We started out with a basic set purchased at a toy store, then added additional tracks that I found used on Ebay. All the Geotrax stuff is interchangeable, which is another excellent feature.

Pattern Blocks Puzzle

At my house, puzzles generally get put together once or twice, and then my kids aren't interested in them any more. But this puzzle set is something both my children continue to use. When young, my kids use the picture boards that come with the set. Later, they use the blocks to create their own designs. I've even used this set for homeschooling - to teach geometric shapes and for symmetry lessons.

Wooden Blocks

If my kids could only have one toy, I'd make it a set of blocks. Toddlers love them. Gradeschoolers love them. Even tweens love them!


This classic building toy is a must have for any child who likes to build and create. At this point, we've stuck mainly to the larger style Duplo blocks (the ones just one size down from "regular" Legos); this seems a bit more manageable when pick-up time comes along.

Magna Doodle

My kids love Magna Doodles, even though they have plenty of access to paper, pencils, crayons, and pens. The cool thing is, Magna Doodles require none of these, and are perfect for taking in the car, to doctor's offices, or on road trips. My kids have literally worn theirs out after years and years of use!

Felt Calendar

Both my kids learned their days of the week, months of the year, seasons, years, and more about numbers by using a felt "calendar." There's something about the set up of this thing that kids love! (TIP: I used simple songs to teach the days of the week and the months of the year alongside our felt calendar. My preference is "There are Seven Days a Week" sung to the tune of  "Clementine" and "These are Twelve Months of the Year" sung to the tune of "Ten Little Indians.")


Of all the toys my kids use for pretend play, puppets are the most enduring. We have finger puppets, hand puppets, and even a simple marionette we found in a thrift store. They get used nearly every day, by both children.

Be sure to also check out our family's favorite board and card games.

Oct 29, 2014

Stuffed Winter Squash Recipe

Winter squash is a wonderful thing. It's filling and packed with good nutrients; it's easy to grow; it's prolific; and it keeps for a long time without freezing, canning, or dehydrating (just keep it in a relatively cool location). But because I did not grow up eating any type of squash, I've been working on trying every variety I can find. (Hint: Try farm stands for better variety than grocery stores offer.) From there, I can determine which variety I want to grow in next year's garden.

There are lots of ways to eat winter squash, but it's pretty hard to beat eating it stuffed. And here's a simple, easy recipe that works with any type of winter squash. (I happened to use it with carnival squash, which has a very mild flavor.)

Stuffed Winter Squash Recipe

1 medium sized squash (like butternut, delicata, or carnival squash)
1-2 teaspoons butter, melted
Garlic powder
2 bacon strips
1/2 small onion, diced
1/2 lb. ground beef
4 oz. fresh baby spinach
1 garlic clove, minced

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

2. Cut the squash in half. Some winter squash, like butternut, are easy to cut open carefully with a sharp knife. Others, like the relentless tough-skinned hubbard are really, really difficult to cut open. (But the hard outer skin is part of what makes winter squash store so well.) For toughies, carefully use a hatchet or powered saw to cut the squash in half.

Removing the seeds and "slop."
3. Scoop out the stringy inner part of the squash, along with the seeds. (But be sure to save the seeds! They are highly nutritious and easy to roast for a yummy treat. Learn how to roast squash seeds here.) Place the squash, cut side up, on a rimmed baking tray.

4. Brush melted butter all over the "meat" of the squash. Season with a little garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Place in the preheated oven and bake for about one hour. (Larger squash will take longer to bake; smaller will be ready in a shorter amount of time.) You'll know the squash is ready when it is fork tender.

Freshly roasted carnival squash.
5. In a skillet placed over medium heat, cook the bacon. Transfer to paper towels and set aside.

6. Pour all but about 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings out of the skillet. Add the onion and saute until golden brown. Transfer the onion to a small bowl with a slotted spoon; set aside.

7. Add the ground beef to the skillet and cook until no longer pink. Return the onion to the pan. Add the garlic and season with salt and pepper. Add the spinach. Cook, stirring often, until the spinach is wilted.

8. Spoon the beef stuffing into the cavities of the squash. Sprinkle crumbled bacon on top. Serve.