Books We Are Using This Year
  • The Story of the World: Ancient Times (Vol. 1)
    The Story of the World: Ancient Times (Vol. 1)
    by Jeff West,S. Wise Bauer,Jeff (ILT) West, Susan Wise Bauer
  • Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding: A Science Curriculum for K-2
    Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding: A Science Curriculum for K-2
    by Bernard J Nebel PhD
  • Math-U-See Epsilon Student Kit (Complete Kit)
    Math-U-See Epsilon Student Kit (Complete Kit)
    by Steven P. Demme
  • First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind: Level 4 Instructor Guide (First Language Lessons) By Jessie Wise, Sara Buffington
    First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind: Level 4 Instructor Guide (First Language Lessons) By Jessie Wise, Sara Buffington
    by -Author-
  • Drawing With Children: A Creative Method for Adult Beginners, Too
    Drawing With Children: A Creative Method for Adult Beginners, Too
    by Mona Brookes
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Entries in reviews (9)


Carcassonne (review)

We've been happily playing Carcassonne for quite some time now and I've always meant to mention it here but kept forgotting. We picked it up last spring when we were looking for something new to do on vacation. Since it is recommended for ages 8-12 we thought it might remain a parent game for a while, but actually Calvin (at two months shy of five years old) took to it pretty quickly and we've been playing ever since. It is a family favorite, and we often get it out to play with friends, too.

The main premise behind Carcassonne is the building of a medieval map. Two or more players take turns drawing tiles (with roads, walled cities, monastaries, and fields) and using them to create the map. Each player has little wooden figures that they place on tiles of their choosing in order to own cities, roads, farms, or monastaries, thereby earning points. Points are kept on a small gameboard using an additional wooden figure.

For young children, simply creating the map is great fun, and the rules are easily alterred for varying degrees of difficulty. When we first started with Calvin we played it more as a cooperative "create a map" game. We introduced the rules and point system as he gained understanding of them. Since the game uses a combination of luck and strategy it can be played cooperatively, lightly, or competitively depending on the players and their skill set.

The basic original game consists of a number of sturdy cardboard tiles, wooden figures for up to five players, and a sturdy cardboard scoring board. It is enough for getting started and has a great replay value as is, but the company also sells expansion packs that are great either for adding depth to game via additional story lines (like dragons) and additional rules and strategies, or can be used simply to expand the map and make the game last longer. We have the original game along with The River, the Inns and Cathedrals and the Princess and Dragon expansion packs.


Young Scientist Series Kit 5: Solids, liquids, and gases (review)

The solids, liquids, and gases kit came in a box with the volcano kit I wrote about last summer. We used it this week alongside the BFSU section on, of course, solids, liquids, and gases, and the demonstrations suggested there. As a side note, I bought a selection of these kits when they went on sale for half price at and paid only $12 a piece for them. So far I'd give them a generally favorable review, but I wouldn't ever pay $24 for one.

Included in the kit:
Instruction booklet (with a section for the parent and one for the child)
popsicle stick
fiz tablets

Needed from the house:
water, bowls, cups, measuring cups and spoons
small glass bottle with narrow neck
soda water
corn starch
food coloring
baking soda

Instructions in the kit guide the user through observing raisins bouncing around in the soda water, using the vinegar and baking soda reaction to inflate the balloon, making a solid with corn starch, making "slime".

The good: we had fun with the kit. I handed Calvin the instruction booklet and we identified all the things we needed from the house and collected them, then he read through the instructions for each experiment and we tried almost all of them out (I didn't have corn starch). The experiments are fun—especially making "slime"— and I liked the "materials, methods, results, and conclusions" breakdown in the instruction booklet. Eventually he'll be writing those for himself, but seeing the process first is valuable.

The less good: After really enjoying his reading through the decently scientific insructions while we did the experiments/demonstrations, we realized that he'd been reading the "guide for parent, teacher, or supervising adult". The pages aimed at kids are less scientific, more cartoonish. The kid pages are still decent instructions, written as though a conversation with a bug, but Calvin and I preferred the parent instructions and will ignore the second half of the booklets from now on.

The disappointing: Every one of the experiments described and included can be found described in a variety of home chemistry and experiment books, while the list of what was included versus what was required additionally seemed random at best. I understand supplying the liquids, and also the bowls, utensils, etc., but if they're supplying the raisins, borax, and glue, why not supply sugar, food coloring, corn starch, and baking soda? Or how about supplying only the very rare oddities, like fiz tablets, and charging less for the kit?

Conclusion: I think I've said this before, but the only reason I would consider buying these kits again (at half price) is to have the instructions in a neat format (in the adult pages) that I can conveniently hand to Calvin and which we can write on and get messy, etc., etc. Plus there is something to be said for pulling out the box and having him get excited about what is coming up, but I assume that sooner rather than later he will be asking to experiment with household goods on his own, and then the kits will have done their job and become obsolete as a material good.

When we finished the kit I left Calvin at the counter with all the materials in reach and let him go to town, resulting in fizzy raisin and goop soup.


Antarctica Unit Study, by Evan-Moor Education (review)

I purchased this "complete" curriculum from Currclick as an e-book for $12.99 back in August. The download was smooth and easy and viewing the book as a pdf was no problem.

Subjects covered by the unit are:
• An introduction to geography as a study
• The basic use of a globe and more complex map skills
• Icebergs and glaciers
• The landforms of Antarctica
• The plants and animals of Antarctica (penguins in particular, and the food web)
• Exploration and explorers of Antarctica
• The people (research stations) on Antarctica
• Politics of Antarctica
• Pollution
• A brief overview of the Arctic for comparison

Worksheets and other printouts in the study include:
• short report forms
• a number of charts
• some question and answer forms
• trivia cards
• a crossword
• a word find
• a glossary
• a bibliography (to be filled out)
• comparison charts
• maps for marking and for reading
• a timeline
• a booklet to be cut out and assembled

I have been hesitant to use curriculum because I don't want to become reliant on it, because I was afraid they would all be formulaic (I was disappointed by what I felt was mindless busywork and jabber in the Amanda Bennett unit studies), and because mostly I try to follow Calvin's interests when we go "exploring". Having done this once, though, I'm likely to do it again with the right publisher. The Evan-Moor study had a handful of busy-work projects, but even these had some purpose, and mostly it was a number of open-ended worksheets. More importantly, this was not a collection of short readings with comprehension questions to reinforce learning. Instead, the unit provided short readings as a jumping off point, and any questions that were posed required additional research outside of what the unit provided.

The study is meant to be used in a classroom, and there  is plenty of material directed at the teacher suggesting ways to present material, but I didn't even read these pages. I did not follow the order of presentation, and I skipped over some of the sections completely. The great thing about the study is that it was completely bendable to our specific needs.

As a warning, the physical page numbers are not the pdf page numbers—the title and cover page are existent here in the pdf but not numbered in the physical book—so when printing specific pages be sure to add two to the desired page number. I found this out the hard way.


Exploding a volcano with The Magic Schoolbus (review)

I won't make this another review of another science kit, but since I was disappointed with the Young Scientist Club kit I should mention The Magic Schoolbus Erupting Volcanoes Kit left me happier (which is funny because I'm not big on those books). I also got this one on Zulily for a steal, but I think I paid $14, which is a much smaller discount than for the other kits, but the price difference was reflected in the quality. The kit included a poster and an instruction booklet, which was written to the "young scientist" (unlike the instructions in the Young Scientist Club kit which were to the parent). The information was good as it was laid out on the poster and explained in the booklet, but the booklet was also basically a quiz with the busy work of correctly placing answer stickers, and that we could have done without. It also came with a volcano shield, something that the Young Scientist Club volcano kit does not include, and which, if we'd had time, we would have happily created ourselves, but this was a fun shortcut to get us directly to exploding and erupting. It also came with eye protection (fun!) and in general the equipment felt of a better quality (albeit still of plastic, of course). And I guess that turned into a short review.

We actually did this a couple of days ago, just a day after the acids and bases. Calvin started with paint. I'd already told him that the exploding of his own volcano had more to do with art and chemistry than volcanoes, so he set right to the decorating part. The kit included water paint for this step, but it just didn't stick so I broke out the poster paints instead. since it was warped from being in the box we held it splayed into shape using a rock (which also got painted and is in our garden now :o)

The mere existence of the eye protection, and possibly the use of the word "explode", set Calvin a bit on edge. He suited right up, and on pouring the vinegar into the baking soda solution he jumped right back to watch from a safe distance. We ran several trials before deciding on the right combination of ingredients. I love that we weren't given a "recipe" but were urged to find our own by trial and error.

The kit came with red food dye for the ultimate lava look, but after the first one, when we ended up with red fingers and a slightly red driveway, we ran the trials without it. That made the final explosion more dramatic. Well, that and the fact that we did this all outside and just as we were finishing the thunderheads were rolling in and the sky was rumbling in the distance. Time to head inside.


Young Scientist Series: Acids and Bases (review) 

A couple of weeks ago Zulily had a sale on Young Scientist kits. Ca-ching! They were more than 50% off so I ordered several, but never having seen even one in real life before I wasn't sure what to expect. The kit I thought we'd open first was about volcanoes, but I mentioned to Calvin that the volcano kit would be art and chemical reactions more than about volcanoes and that we would learn more about the reaction in another kit. I asked him if he'd rather learn about the reaction before or after exploding his own volcano. He said before, and so that's what we did yesterday using The Young Scientist Series Set 4, Kit 12.

First I'll say we had a really good time. Calvin read the directions himself, and since there were a number of things needed that were not included in the kit he made a list and we ran to the store just down the street to collect them. We also made our own data table before getting started. Calvin recorded all the results in the table himself. The experiments included tasting several different substances, most of them acids (lemonade, lemon, vinegar, and cola), one base (baking soda), and one neutral (water), then testing them with blue and red litmus papers, pH paper, and red cabbage water. Some final steps included cleaning dirty pennies in cola (I can't believe people drink that stuff regularly), coating a nail in coper particles, and neutralizing an acid (the good old vinegar and baking soda trick). Calvin loved the whole process. In fact, the first thing he asked me this morning was if we could do another experiment.

My feelings about the kit, however, are mixed. It was nice to pull out a box and have the things we needed for the project, except that for this one we also had to make a store trip). And the instructions are concise, but they are written for an adult to read to a child, which I find irksome—if this is a kids kit the contents should be directed at "young scientist" not his mom. And then there's the quality. If I had paid the full $27 price tag I would have been hugely disappointed. Frankly, I would have felt that way if I'd paid the $22 Amazon sale price, but since I paid $12 on Zulily I'm only mildly annoyed. The equipment included is really cheap plastic and small in size, which might make sense for the use it will be getting, but not for that price. And of course the experiments are all throw-backs to any elementary school experience, which is also fine, but since they're pretty common sense I wonder at my sanity for having bought something I could have made myself. The cabbage water, for one, is a fun and easy no-instructions needed save the internet kind of experiment.

Acids are sour!

Litmus paper fun. cabbage test.

So for $12 I'm not upset that I bought the kit, but I am hoping that the remaining kits are more fulfilling.