Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Wonder of Words -- "The Phantom Tollbooth" by Norton Juster

 Several years ago, The Phantom Toolbooth, by Norton Juster, was a read-aloud in our homeschool.  My son and I found it to be a delightful story.  Much of the book is made up of plays on words . . . and there is an underlying plot, where a boy travels on a quest to bring "rhyme and reason" (two princesses) back to the kingdom.

     It almost seems to be an "Alice in Wonderland" type of story, because the boy travels to some very unusual places, meeting with a whole cast of interesting characters.  He is accompanied, for most of his journey, by a dog named "Tock," who keeps time by carrying a huge clock that is built into his side.

     Although this is a children's book, as an adult I've found it very enjoyable to read-- and have recently been reading it through a second time-- just for myself, and just for fun.

     If you read this story, here are just a few of the characters you will encounter:  The Spelling Bee (a giant bee who is always spelling things), the "Which" (whose job had formerly been to choose words), Chroma the Great, conductor of color (who directs an orchestra which plays music and simultaneously causes the colors to come into the world, at dawn).  There are many more characters, and intriguing events, in this book-- and it is highly recommended as either a read-aloud or a read-to-yourself book, that will enliven the imagination and take its readers on an enchanting adventure.

     And if my opinion could use some bolstering, here is a quote from the New York Times, that says what I've been trying to say so far in this post:
     "Most books advertised for 'readers of all ages' fail to keep their promise.  But Norton Juster's amazing fantasy has something wonderful for anybody old enough to relish the allegorical wisdom of Alice in Wonderland and the pointed whimsey of The Wizard of Oz."

     So there you have it -- and I hope you will consider The Phantom Toolbooth as one of your next novels to read; it is surely a "novel" read . . .

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Winter Art Project: Drawing Winter Birds

Birds can be an interesting subject to draw; and in the winter time, items such as leafless tree branches/trees, or evergreen boughs, can also be part of the picture.

In a recent art project with 4th grade children, their assignment was to draw a winter bird, along with some kind of tree branch or tree.  They sketched in pencil, then colored the picture with crayons.

There were some printed pages they could look at, to see different types of winter birds and basic bird shapes.

Here is what the birds shapes page looks like; I made these drawings by looking at bird photographs:

And here are the photo pages we used:

Using these pages as a reference, the children made a variety of bird pictures with various backgrounds, such as a city scene (Central Park in New York, including the Statue of Liberty off in the distance), birds in a yard, bird perched on an evergreen bush, etc.

If you would like to download these bird drawing reference pages, they are available on Gentle Shepherd's website on the freebies page--

Here are some example drawings; the bird on the left is an imaginary type; the ones on the right are wrens.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Plaster Pictures

"Fresco" means "fresh," and in art a fresco is a wall painting, usually painted directly on wet plaster.  The paint will actually seep in and become part of the plaster.

Here is a fun way to try out painting on fresh plaster.  All you need is some plaster of Paris, water, some plastic plates, and some paints.

Mix up the plaster and water according to the proportions given on the package, then pour it into the plates. If you'd like to have a hanging hole in the plaster, shortly after pouring you can put a small (about 1 ") tubular piece cut from a plastic straw into the plaster, leaving it there while the plaster is firming.  It takes about 30 minutes for it to get fairly firm, ready to be painted on.  Just before painting, remove the straw tube-- which will leave a small hole.

Tempera paints can be used, but be sure to use a fairly undiluted paint-- because the plaster will absorb some of the paint, the design will tend to fade; you may want to put on a second coat of paint.

Using acrylic paint will result in brighter colors (less fading).

Here are some designs I made, using tempera paint:

I experimented with making some indentations in the plaster, also-- the design on the right has markings made with the end of a spool pressed onto the plaster, and the other two pictures had some lines made by "drawing" with a plastic straw (using something heavier, like a popsicle stick, didn't work well-- it went right through the plaster, tearing it).

Here are some plaster pictures by students in the 4th grade glass I was doing this project with:

Once the plaster is dry, it's easy to take it out of the plastic plate.  (Please note: don't try to do this project using paper plates; paper tends to bond with the plaster instead of resisting it.)

It takes several days for the plaster to completely dry; in the meantime it is especially fragile-- so the pictures need to be set somewhere that they will not be disturbed.

This was a fun project; next time, I'd like to experiment with making different picture shapes-- maybe rectangular or square, depending on what kinds of plastic plates or containers I can find, to pour into.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Finger Puppet Pattern Set -- Dog, Cat, Rabbit

There is another pattern set up at Gentle Shepherd; it is for making finger puppets.  These are very easy to sew; they can be sewn on the sewing machine or by hand, and have a small amount of embroidery for the face.

These animal puppets are different than many other finger puppets, because they have arms and legs.

They would be a fun stocking stuffer item for Christmas, or could be a sewing project for an older child.

Here is what they look like when finished:

Any color of felt can be used.  Here are some in white and tan colors:

The pattern set is available at Gentle Shepherd's website: 

It is also available at my educational materials Etsy shop, along with some already sewn felt items:

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Tale of 3 10-bead Abacuses

     The abacus is a wonderful math tool.  After trying numerous math manipulatives in our homeschool (pennies, Cuisenaire Rods, plastic interlinking cubes, etc.) we settled on "beads on a wire (or string)" as our very favorite.

     There is something satisfying about pushing the beads along a string or wire -- and besides, with an abacus, all the little pieces stay in the abacus-- not ending up scattered on the floor, in a crawling baby's mouth, or finding their way to unusual locations all around the house.

     Although the abacus was originally a Chinese counting system that is a bit more complex than the ten rows of ten beads that we've used, the term "abacus" has been borrowed to describe the simpler type, also.

     We used a 100-bead abacus for kids in K-2nd grade.  And for preschoolers, we found that offering a 10-bead abacus was just right; they might know how to count much higher, but when adding and subtracting they were using just numbers up to 10.  And giving them a 10-bead abacus made doing their math activities so easy, successful, and enjoyable.

     There are many versions of the 100-bead abacus available in stores, but it can be difficult to find one that is only 10-beads.

     The first one we used was a homemade abacus, made with a metal coat hanger.

     We used this type for many years (with several of our preschoolers), and the kids loved it! It was a little bit tricky to make, but very sturdy and worked great.  This abacus has very large wooden beads (the type used by preschoolers for stringing).  Instructions for how to assemble a coat hanger abacus are given in Gentle Shepherd's Preschool Math: Number Tiles (also there are lots of different work pages in this ebook, to be printed out and used with "number tiles" for simple adding and subtracting).

     In a recent journey online, I came across a unique type of wooden abacus.  This one can be 10-bead, or 20-bead, or 30-bead, or . . .  up to 100-bead.  The individual 10 bead sections are stackable, so they can be used in any combination or individually.  This looks like a great option for a preschool, and/or early elementary abacus.  It is sold by

     For more info take a look at this blog post about it:

       And here is a third 10-bead idea.  This handmade abacus uses string instead of wire or wood, for the beads to slide on.  It is a sewn abacus, made using felt and string-- with the type of wooden beads used for macrame.  These felt and string abacuses can be found in my Etsy shop, Allthetimelearning.  One advantage to this soft abacus is that it can be folded or rolled up-- so it would be easy to travel with, tucked away in a bag or even in a purse.

       You may find ideas for other types of abacuses to make-- for example, using cereal loops on a string or building a very large version using rings from a baby's plastic stacking toy . . .  but no matter which version is used, the abacus is a learning tool that is very useful and helps kids learn math in one more way; besides thinking and seeing, they are also touching the beads.  Using the tactile sense is especially helpful for kinesthetic learners, but also can make doing math problems easier and more fun for any young learner.

       If you're looking for a joyful math experience for young children, give the 10-bead abacus a try!

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Here is a felt project I've been working on lately.  It is a dinosaur play set-- several kinds of dinosaurs, with a volcano and lava.

The lava is in loose pieces, so it can be arranged when playing . . .

Here are the individual dinosaurs -- a long-necked purple one

a bright green stegosaurus

a  flying pterodactl

and two blue tyrannosauruses

They are made with a double layer of felt-- so can be held and played with, as well as using on a felt board (or anywhere-- on a blanket, rug, tablecloth, etc.).

This is a set for kids who like playing with dinosaurs!

Here is my Etsy listing: 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Picasso Project -- Fragmented Faces

This drawing project can be a great way to introduce the idea of cubism; we did it when also reading about Pablo Picasso and looking at some of his works.  The children's biography we especially liked using was Pablo Picasso, by Linda Lowery; it was a book at the library.

Here is what a finished picture looks like. This is an example I made, using felt pens and crayon.

We decided to not make self-portraits, or to draw each other, but just to make random face pictures.  This one doesn't have hair, but it can also be put in by making some sections around the head . . . 

Here are some students' finished pictures:

Making these complex pictures was pretty simple-- here are some instructions:

Start by using pencil-- make a large oval shape for the head.  Then, make a side, profile view line going down the front of the face.  Then draw in the lips.  Next, make eyes-- keep in mind that they don't have to be aligned exactly like normal eyes are, and one could be drawn from a side-view angle.

Then add ears, and a hair section, if wanted.  Now make two large curving lines right over the face.  Add in a couple of straight lines, breaking the face (and hair) up into more fragments.

If needed, erase any unwanted lines-- especially where extremely small fragments have formed; you want the fragmented parts to be fairly large.

Then go over all these lines with a black felt pen.

The next step, using colored felt pens, is to make some line designs, dots, etc. in some of the fragments, and to fill in others with solid color, always having different colors in adjoining fragments.

After all the felt pen coloring is completed, you can add in some fill with crayon; putting crayon in over the felt pen designs in some of the fragments will help create more warmth and richness in the finished picture.

Here is another example drawing made entirely with felt pen (no crayon); you can see that having high contrast areas (colored felt pen and white paper) throughout is less pleasing to look at.

Here are a some more finished student pictures:

This was a fun exploration of cubism; the kids (third graders) seemed to enjoy the freedom of making all kinds of colors and patterns, and the results were amazing!