Monday Pep Talk No. 41

home|school|life magazine's Monday Pep Talk has lots of fun ideas for planning your homeschool week.

Need a little Monday morning pick-me-up to get the week going?


Sunday marks the 53rd anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and there’s no better way to appreciate one of the world’s best known speeches than by listening to the original recording.

Mark Pluto Demotion Day (August 24, 2006 was the date Pluto officially got knocked down from “planet” to “dwarf planet”) by watching NOVA’s “Chasing Pluto,” which includes information from the New Horizons flyover.

As pool season winds down, transform those pool noodles into backyard games fun.



It’s still gazpacho season!

Mix up your August grilling routine with coffee-crusted grilled pork chops.

Possibly your new favorite sandwich: Grilled cheese with zucchini, bacon, basil, and Gruyere



I discovered The Midnight Folk in childhood because it’s one of the books mentioned in Edward Eager’s Magic or Not? (I love Eager’s habit of paying in-the-text tribute to the authors he loves), and I’m so glad I did! This is a playful, charming fantasy story that deserves a spot on your shelf next to the Chronicles of Narnia or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.



Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.
— Andy Rooney



best-ever pina colada

Exercise Your Options: How to Homeschool Physical Education

Tips and ideas for homeschooling P.E./physical education

Active kids are smarter kids, found researchers at the University of Illinois. 

Nine- and ten-year-olds who got regular exercise not only performed better on memory tests than their less-fit peers, they also had bigger and more developed hippocampuses—on average, about 12 percent bigger. (The hippocampus is the deep-brain structure that plays a significant role in learning and remembering. Other studies have shown that adults who engage in regular exercise can actually experience hippocampus growth over time.) In other words, regular exercise can help your child’s brain work better. And while just playing outside is a perfectly acceptable way to get the recommended daily hour of activity, as your child hits the preteen years, you may want to consider a more structured fitness program. Why now? Research suggests these middle school years are the time when kids develop their life-long attitude toward physical fitness and when serious exercise-associated problems—like diabetes and heart disease—get started. Here are some tips for making everyday fitness part of your homeschool routine. 

Explore your local resources

You can find classes and teams through your parks and recreation department, through co-ops and classes, at fitness centers like YMCAs, and at community centers. These lower-cost options can be an affordable way to try different activities. 

Go old school

I was surprised that my kids didn’t know how to play classic recess games like Rover, Red Rover, hopscotch, and kickball, but they've never spent time on an elementary school playground. If your homeschool is on the small side, you may have to get a little creative with the rules to make it work, but the games you remember from your own childhood can be a lot of fun to revisit with your kids. 

Plan fitness field trips 

Rock climbing gyms, ice skating rinks, horseback riding stables, ropes courses, and archery centers make great field trips and give kids a chance to sample different kinds of sports. (Lots of these places also have homeschool days with discounted prices—always a plus.) 

Try something different 

Traditional schools may emphasize competitive sports like baseball and basketball, but homeschoolers have a lot more freedom to explore the possibilities. There are homeschool track teams, bowling leagues, fencing teams, golf leagues, tennis clubs, yoga classes, archery teams, martial arts programs, and more.


This was originally published in the summer 2014 issue of home | school | life.

Creating a Nature Kit for Outdoor Adventures

Tips for creating a nature kit for outdoor adventure #homeschool

For many families, “homeschool” is a misnomer—so much of our learning happens outside of the home. With the right materials, your family can make every trip out a chance to deepen learning, develop existing interests, and discover new ones. Some families fill a bag, and others fill the whole trunk. But when you lock the door behind you, what exactly do you bring?

It goes without saying that your family’s interests and the adventure ahead of you determine what you pack. The buckets and spades you take to a day at the beach may not be what you take to your local natural history museum. Nevertheless, there will be some items that you’ll want to take everywhere, and if you have them assembled and ready, you’re more likely to take them.

Some basics can make or break a trip. Spare clothes for children, if they are likely to get wet, waterproofs in the wet season, small bottles of sunscreen, and insect repellent and bite/sting cream during the drier months. You’ll need water and plenty of sustaining snacks. It helps to have a backpack to put it all in (children can share the load, appropriate to their size and age), but I know one family who takes it all in a basket on the hip, and another who pulls everything along in a wheeled trolley.

It’s a great idea to take some basic art supplies to record what you find and foster creativity on the go. Katie Pybus, who home educates her three children in the South of England, and has been blogging about it every day for the past four years, says that she never leaves home without a sketchbook for her youngest child, a keen drawer. If you’re not lucky enough to live near an art supply outlet like Katie, you could make sketchbooks by folding copier paper in half and stapling the fold. Bring along a pencil case filled with pencils, a sharpener, mini-ruler, crayons, markers, a glue stick, small scissors, and small roll of tape. If your children like to paint, a travel watercolor set makes the perfect pocket-sized paint palette, accompanied by waterbrushes (paintbrushes with a water reservoir in the handle). Having all of these small items assembled in one zipper-case has saved my bacon on more than one occasion when I’ve had to bolt out of the house at a moment’s notice.

It helps to have a backpack to put it all in, but I know one family who takes it all in a basket on the hip, and another who pulls everything along in a wheeled trolley.

If you’ll be spending the day outdoors, in addition to the right gear for the weather (and replacement gear for when socks get wet!), consider taking along a few light items to take your family’s learning even deeper. Very young children sometimes struggle to use binoculars, but a monocular is a lot easier to use and often cheaper and lighter to carry. A field guide for your area will help you identify flora and fauna, and you can keep a record of what you find with a camera or camera-phone. If you think you’ll be sitting down for a while, consider bringing a foldable sit-mat, but if you have a big family, an old shower-curtain makes the perfect water- and dirt-proof outdoor learning space. 

Dawn Suzette Smith, of the Mud Puddles to Meteors blog, and co-author of Whatever the Weather, recommends carrying a small tin container for collecting specimens—leaves, insects, lichen, feathers—whatever treasures your child finds can be popped into the tin for examination later. Luckily, even if you forget your tin, any secure container or baggie does the job. I’ve taken to collecting plastic hummus containers and juice bottles for my son’s collections. For a collector, anything will do. 

For the older child who loves the outdoors, a pocketknife and a length of rope can give great pleasure. Various kinds of pocketknives are on the market, from round-ended blades to clasp-less knives in leather sheathes. Once they know how to use a pocketknife safely, many children love to whittle and fashion walking sticks from twigs, and in an emergency, the tweezers are really handy for extracting thorns or splinters from little fingers. With a length of rope, you can make a tightrope between two trees to test your balance, play limbo, throw the rope over a sturdy branch to make a make-shift rope swing, or use it as a harness for a little tree-climbing. Or take a trip down memory lane and teach your children your childhood skipping songs and watch their eyebrows lift higher and higher as you demonstrate your skipping prowess.

Getting out of the house might be a great way of getting kids away from the TV or tablet, but don’t forget that those electronic devices can make excellent recording instruments. Most contain voice-recording software, so if your child can’t write yet, or is reluctant to, she can still take verbal notes on what your family is up to. The video footage and photographs your child takes can be brought home and spliced together to make a video of your trip out. For the naturalist, a photograph facilitates the identification and recording of species. Finally, photos can be printed and glued into a scrapbook—rather than only having snapshots of family vacations or holidays, you’ll have a priceless record of your day-to-day life as well. 

Speaking of scrapbooks, Dawn’s family has a neat idea for a homemade scrapbook kit for longer trips. She says,“Before leaving we create a small scrapbook that is held together with rings to easily add things we collect along the way. We keep our book in a bag filled with extra paper, a hole punch, glue dots, tape, markers, colored pencils and other supplies used to build our scrapbook as we go. After each stop we punch holes to add things like postcards or brochures to the book, we tape things like business cards and receipts to the pages, decorate borders and write a little something about the location.”

Dawn’s rustled-up kit is a fantastic way to create a really unique souvenir of a family trip, and one idea I’ll definitely be using this summer.

There are two things I never leave the house without: a small journal with a pen. Jotting down what we see and do, along with my children’s questions and observations, has been invaluable in helping me to bring their outdoor learning back to our homeschool. As their mentor, I don’t want to miss an opportunity to remind them of what we did, encourage detail in their narrations for daddy later, and help them remember the questions they asked. We once spent an entire afternoon trying to figure out the difference between crickets and grasshoppers after a previous day’s walk when the chirruping creatures had been leaping around us at our every step. 

Whatever you take, the right materials for your family’s outing can help you dive beneath the surface and immerse yourselves in your not-at-home school.  


This article was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of home | school | life as part of our big nature study feature. We’re reprinting it on the blog because (1) summer is a great time to have an outdoor kit handy, and (2) we really like it.

July Pep Talk

home|school|life magazine's Monday Pep Talk has lots of fun ideas for planning your homeschool week.

We’re taking a break from our weekly pep talks this summer, so for June and July, we’re hooking you up with an over-stuffed monthly pep talk instead. We’ll be back in August with our regular weekly pep talks.



July 4 is Independence Day, sure, but it’s also Sidewalk Egg Frying Day.

Celebrate Yellow Pig Day on July 17. I don’t totally understand this mathematician’s holiday (devised by two students studying the number 17), but any day that celebrates math, has its own songbook of Yellow Pig carols, and ends with a Yellow Pig cake is okay in my book.

What better way to celebrate Ice Cream Month than by making your own ice cream? Bonus: It’s a legitimate science experiment.

Video Games Day is July 8, and Suzanne’s got us all excited about checking out the Uncharted series, starring rakish adventurer Nathan Drake. (Add him to the list of people Nathan Fillion should be playing in a film adaptation.)

The easiest summer art project: Make sun prints.

Make a set of rock dominoes to play all summer. (River rocks are ideal for this, so collecting them is a great excuse to take a little river field trip.)

July is Picnic Month! I love the idea of painting a chess/checkers board on your picnic blanket for picnic gaming.

Make your own wooden stilts to get into the spirit of Walk on Stilts Day (July 27).

Celebrate Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day by making your own vuvuzela (a South African horn) out of recycled materials.

Get crafty on Thread the Needle Day (July 25) by making some easy-to-sew and completely adorable bean bags.



I love how versatile these (gluten-free!) farinata are. Think of them as chickpea pancakes, and top them generously with whatever looks good at the farmers market.

You don’t really need a recipe to make a rainbow cauliflower rice bowl, so experiment with whatever veg you have on hand.

Put a summertime twist on Taco Tuesday with chipotle quinoa sweet potato tacos.

Make a batch of freezer-ready mini pizzas on a quiet day, and you’ll have an emergency dinner/lunch/snack whenever you need it.

I want to make a batch of this pickle-brined fried chicken for our next family picnic.

Break out of your grilling rut with grilled sweet potatoes.

This Big Green Cobbler with leeks, gruyere, and split peas is like a vegetarian take on the best chicken pot pie you ever had.

Summer is all about salad for dinner—and this Thai grilled corn and peach quinoa salad looks like a great addition to your summer salad lineup.

Another dose of inspiration for your grilling menu: Soy-based chicken kebabs with sesame-citrus sprinkle.

Summer squash pizza with goat cheese and walnuts puts a seasonal spin on pizza night.




Seven Daughters and Seven Sons is a retelling of an Iranian folk tale, in which the fourth of seven daughters sets off to make her family’s fortune, disguised as a boy. I’m a sucker for a girl-powered fairy tale, so it’s no surprise I love this one.

Speaking of spunky girls, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is as fun to read aloud as the Lemony Snicket books: plenty of nefarious villains, dramatic plot twists, and, yes, two plucky heroines who must save themselves from an evil governess’s plot.


If you’re looking for laughs, get yourself a copy of Daniel Pinkwater’s Yobgorgle, Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario. I like to think of Pinkwater as the elementary school set’s Douglas Adams, and this zany tale of a boy who takes up monster hunting is a delightful example of why.

New York City’s pushcarts declare war on the trucks in The Pushcart War, creating hilarious city-wide chaos.




Education is a choice. We don’t become educated by watching television, and we don’t learn a whole lot having similar conversations with the same, safe people day after day. Our education comes from pushing up against boundaries, from taking risks that may seem at first to be overwhelming, and by persevering past the first disappointments or shortfalls until we reach a point at which actual learning takes place. Determination and perseverance are absolutely vital to developing a true education—rarely, if ever, do we learn the most valuable lessons in the first few steps of the journey.
— Tom Walsh



strawberry negroni popsicles

Outdoor Art for Summer: Making Sun Prints

How to make sun prints, a great outdoor art project for homeschoolers

Here in New England, after a long, cold winter, we just want to get outside when summer comes. Along with nature exploration, bike riding, beach trips, and good ol’ running around, we make art outside, too. Art doesn’t have to be saved as a rainy-day activity—in fact, for some of these activities, you need the sun. Keep your art habit going strong with this made-for-summer project.

Photo by: Amy Hood

Photo by: Amy Hood


Sun paper, which is treated to react to sunlight, seems magical. Anything placed on the surface of the paper blocks sunlight—thus, the reaction. The paper comes with directions and is simple to use. However, you don’t want to expose it before your items are arranged, so you need to arrange in a darker area and then carry it out to the sunlight—another great use for drawing boards! If you have a piece of glass or Plexiglas, layering that on top of your paper and items will prevent anything from blowing away while still allowing the sunlight to reach the paper. 

Once the paper pales, the reaction is complete. To “develop” the prints, you merely need to rinse them in water. Make sure the kids are involved with every part of this process, because it’s very cool to watch. When the paper is dry, you can leave your prints as complete compositions or use them in collage.

Variation: A product called Inkodye can be used to make fabric sun-sensitive. We haven’t played with it yet, but it’s on our summer list.


This project originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of home | school | life, along with a handful of other outdoor projects created by our wonderful art columnist Amy Hood. (You can pick up a copy in the store if you missed this issue.)

June Pep Talk

home|school|life magazine's Monday Pep Talk has lots of fun ideas for planning your homeschool week.

We’re taking a break from our weekly pep talks this summer, so for June and July, we’re hooking you up with an over-stuffed monthly pep talk instead.



Set up your telescope on June 3 to see Saturn at its brightest—with a decent telescope, you should be able to see some of the planet’s rings and moons.

June is Camping Month, so pitch a tent in your backyard for an outdoor sleepover. Make s’mores on the grill, put on a flashlight shadow puppet play, and do a little star-gazing. 

Take advantage of the sunshine and turn your nature walk into art by making sun prints.

Make sponge balls and have a backyard water battle.

Celebrate Maurice Sendak’s birthday on June 10 by watching Where the Wild Things Are and reading your favorite Sendak books. (I vote for the creepy, Labyrinth-ish Outside Over There.

Turn making lemonade into a fun science project.

Celebrate Drive-In Movie Day (June 6) by seeing a movie at a drive-in theater near you.

The Magna Carta was signed on June 15, 1215. Learn more about why this 13th century document still matters today by watching this video lecture from the James Otis Video Lecture collection.

I think we all know the best way to celebrate World Juggling Day (June 18). This video is a great tutorial for newbie jugglers.

To mark Log Cabin Day (on June 26), watch the documentary Alone in the Wilderness, a really fascinating account of a man who left the plugged-in world for the wilderness, building a log cabin and living off the land.



When you want to grill but are feeling a little burned out by the same-old dishes, try this linguine with grilled clams and bacon. It’s unexpected and delicious.

If you bought more eggplant than you know what to do with, serve these falafel-stuffed eggplants with tahini sauce and tomato relish.

When the thought of cooking is just too much but everybody is insisting on eating dinner anyway, this chicken and peaches platter requires assembly only.

Mix and match whatever’s in your fridge to make this leftover salads Nicoise.

Anything you serve for dinner will taste better with this arugula, potato, and green bean salad.

This tomato chèvre tart is delicious just out of the oven, but I’ve also been known to eat a cold slice right out of the fridge for breakfast.

If it’s sunny, cook these Thai peanut chicken thighs on the grill; if it’s not, pop them in the oven instead.

Feeling adventurous?  This chilled crab and shrimp ramen salad is a staple on restaurant menus all summer long in Japan.

This summer minestrone is easy to adapt—and a delicious way to stretch those first tiny garden harvests.

Also a great way to use that late spring produce: spring vegetable bibimbap.



I feel like book series and summer just go together, so for this list, I’m highlighting the first books in series I think make great readalouds—whether you stop after book one or keep going until the end.

Redwall (Redwall, Book 1)
By Brian Jacques
The Borrowers
By Mary Norton

Brian Jacques’ birthday is June 15, and Redwall makes the perfect summer series readaloud: epic adventure, talking animals, and plenty of irresistible characters.

Arietty, Pod, and Homily are just trying to live their lives in a way-too-big-for-them world in The Borrowers. I love the way this book blends matter-of-fact details (like peeling potatoes!) into a fantastic world.

You’ll be captivated by the adventures of Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran and his friends (an enchantress, a bard, a dwarf, and a, um, Gurgi) in The Book of Three, the first book in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.

Cara discovers a magical world full of dragons, dwarves, nightmares, and more when she heads Into the Land of the Unicorns.



Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the blue sky, is by no means waste of time.
— John Lubbock



bluenerry lavender vodka spritzer

Easy Nature Scavenger Hunts

Love this idea for spring homeschooling: Nature scavenger hunts! #homeschool

The weather in fall is pretty much perfect, so why not add a little nature study to your routine with one of these fun outdoor scavenger hunt ideas?


Children love treasure. Consider the whole outdoors your treasure chest, and turn them into little naturalists for the afternoon. Maybe they’ll even find something more interesting than what’s on the list.

  • Try this: Make a list of ten things you know your child can find around the house and yard. Give her the list and a little bag or container, and let her go on a hunt. Your list might be: a little seed, a flower, pinecone, big seed, red crayon, string, little ball, something purple, something blue, and a bug... a bug? Well, it depends on what kind of child you have.


The Number Game

Have lots of leaves and rocks in the yard? Use them to teach math. This game is great for kids who are learning their numbers.

  • Try this: Write the numbers 1 to 10 in chalk on the sidewalk. Put dots under the numbers to represent each amount—one dot under the number one, two dots under number two, and so forth. Now look for things around the yardand house to put on top of the dots: one toy car, two flowers, three leaves, four twigs, etc.


Venn Diagram

Sneak in more math with a Venn diagram. A Venn diagram is a visual way of sorting and comparing a group of things. Draw two or more circles and overlap them. Label each circle with one characteristic. If an object has that characteristic, it will go into the labeled circle. If it has two characteristics, it goes in the area where those two circles overlap. If it doesn’t have any of the characteristics, it goes outside the Venn diagram.

  • Try this: Draw three or four big, overlapping circles with chalk on the pavement and label them things like “brown,” “hard,” “curved,” etc. Let children search the yard for items with those characteristics, such as rocks, acorns, leaves, flowers, and twigs, and show them how they can be sorted. Bring a few small toys and items from inside the house to add even more fun.


This article was originally published in the summer 2014 issue of home/school/life.