Pragmatic Mom

January 23, 2010

Books for Brand New Readers

It’s so exciting when your child first begins to really read.  I don’t know why, but my kids all hit this milestone in January.  I know that it’s something that has been in the works  for a long time, but, like a bulb planted last Fall and laying nascent, the leaves have sprouted and the bud is finally in bloom!

My first had just turned 6-years-old in Kindergarten, the 2nd was 5 3/4-years-old in Kindergarten, and now my youngest is just starting to read at 5-years-old in Preschool.  There must be something about 4 months of academic exposure at school that coalesces  to explain the January timing.  I wanted to share some of the books that are great for the very newest of readers.  And might I add how much we hated the Bob series books — complete waste of money for us.  My kids thought the Bob books were so boring with absolutely no plot. Try these instead!  And please share your “a ha” moment when you realized your child can read and the book you read.

Sandra Boynton books.  There are so many good ones.  Here’s a few of our favorites that were the among the first books my kids read to me.

Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown.  Be sure to spot the mouse on every colored page. An enduring sweet classic.

Cat at Bat by Jon Buller.  Out of these books, this one is slightly harder but with a great story about sportsmanship.

Biscuit series by Alyssa Satin Capucilli.  My middle child loved these sweet and very simple stories.

Five Little Monkey series by Eileen Christelow.  A repetitive plot is a good thing for brand new readers and Eileen’s Five Little Monkeys never fail to please young ones.  I think kids can all relate to being naughty, little monkeys!

Hand, Hand, Fingers Thumb by Al Perkins.  Another classic that can be a full body, drumming experience.

Frogs in Clogs by Sheila White Samton.  A rhyming story with a very limited but rhyming vocabulary AND a plot.

The Good Bad Cat by John Sandford.

The Foot Book by Dr. Seuss.  I used to hold my toddler in my lap and make her feet match the book.  She thought it was hysterically funny.

Max’s Dragon Shirt by Rosemary Wells.  This might be the outlier book but my son says this is the first book he read.  It’s true; we were reading this book and I was thinking that he had memorized it because it’s one of his favorites and we own the entire series but he was actually sounding out the words.

Elephant and Piggie Series by Mo Willems.  My son and I love these books.  Mo Willems wonderful, expressive illustrations practically tell the story and his two starring characters have a lot of personality!  Here’s a few of our favorites.

January 16, 2010

Haiti and Teaching My Kids About Charity

A mom in my yoga class made a nice plea for donations yesterday.  Her cleaning lady is Haitian and her family in Haiti is, of course, personally devastated by the earthquake.  Yoga mom offered to run over and pick up any clothing and shoe donations from any of us and ship to Haiti.  She said that UPS was shipping free of charge for a while so she was rounding up donations all week.

I’ve been struggling with how to teach the concept of charity to my children.  We delivered a Thanksgiving meal this year, for the first time, to someone who needed it, and it was a really wonderful experience for us to appreciate all that we have.  I know I could be heartfelt at the dinner table that night to count our blessings.  My older girls seemed to get it and enjoy helping, but my 5-year-old boy mostly provided entertainment by zipping around their house and asking endless questions.  They didn’t seem to mind but I think he thought of this as a kind of adult playdate.  But his preschool has a Giving Tree each year and they ask us to teach our children by buying an item — this year shoes — and putting it on the tree.  Because the item must be new and money is an abstract idea to my son, I’ve never been quite comfortable with this.  I mean,  what does it mean for me to buy a pair of shoes and have him hang it?  Or take him to a store to pick out a pair of shoes to give and maybe experience a public meltdown if I don’t buy a matching pair for him (which he doesn’t need).  That doesn’t really work for me.  And why does the item HAVE to be new; if someone is really in need, why can’t gently used be ok?

So, my husband and I have been inundated with news of Haiti like everyone, and feeling pretty depressed about the whole thing.  We decided to talk to the kids to say that there is a this country that needs help because everyone has lost their home and everything in it.  If each person can take a brown paper grocery bag and fill it with clothes and shoes they don’t need or like, we can help a family just like us with our things.  The oldest who has a generous and sensitive heart had her bag filled in minutes.  The middle, who is our Material Girl, said that she had previously cleaned out her closet a few months ago to give stuff to her little cousin which is true.    She didn’t think she had any more to give.  I had to sweeten the deal by saying that I will take her shopping for a new shirt or two if she can clean out again.  The youngest took his bag and said that he could make it into clothes.  He did, just like the Paper Bag Princess, and wore it over his pajamas.  He went to his room to get started but  Prehistorica books on the top of his dresser distracted him and he started playing with then instead by having the pop-up dinosaurs battle the pop-up sea creatures.  Meanwhile, my Material Girl, was on her third bag. He did end up donating a bag of shoes and clothes because my husband and I cleaned out his room, but as we were loading the car, he tried to do a rescue mission for a pair of shoes that don’t even fit him.  Hmmm… he did not get it at all.  Material Girl was generous but had to be bribed; not sure if this was the lesson I wanted to teach.  Oh well!

We did have five full bags of  clothes, shoes and light jackets.  We had been holding on to some things for sentimental reasons … 3 matching light rain coats for mommy and kids, hand-knit sweaters, etc.  It was a good excuse to purge and purge hard and it felt really good to give.  We dropped off the stuff and received a really nice note from Yoga Mom who said that today her cleaning lady came and that she cried, moved by the generosity,  when she saw the 5 bags.  And yet, it really was nothing to us.

That Giving Tree will be up all month.  Every year I struggle with it … I want to help as much as the next person, but it never felt quite right.  I think I am right that 2-, 3-, and even 5-year-olds have difficulty relating to an abstract concept as charity.  This is after all, the years, when it is ALL ABOUT ME, ME, ME.   And having mom hand over money to buy something doesn’t reinforce the right message; in fact, it’s the wrong message:  Mom is a bank.  If my son had his own money to buy the shoes that would work for me.  But he’s struggling to dress himself every morning to earn a dollar  so that after 15 days he can buy that Ultimate Spy Watch he spied on my blog.  And so, maybe we expect too much, too early.   Maybe a child should be able to consistently dress themselves every morning before we expect him or her to understand what giving truly is.  I ask you, readers, what do you think?  What is the right age to teach charity and how did you do it?

And for anyone who heard about the wildly successful  text campaign to give $  to Haiti, I found the information at the Boston College Bookstore today.  To donate $10 to the American Red Cross towards relief for Haiti:

Text:  Haiti

Input:  90999

Here is a short-list, by no means exhaustive, of 4 organizations that are accepting donations; all of these groups have long-established development projects on the ground in Haiti.

Partners In Health

Partners In Health (, has been operating in the country since 1987, originally to deliver health care to the residents of Haiti’s mountainous Central Plateau region. PIH now also operates clinics in Port au Prince and other major Haitian cities. With hospitals and a highly trained medical staff in place,Partners In Health is already mobilizing resources and preparing plans to bring medical assistance and supplies to areas that have been hardest hit. Donations to help earthquake relief efforts will be quickly routed to the disaster.


MADRE ( has also worked in Haiti for many years, supporting community-based organizations, and has activated an emergency response through its partner organization, Zanmi Lasante Clinic. The doctors, nurses and community health workers there are working to bring medical assistance and supplies to areas that have been hardest hit. MADRE’s partners are expert at reaching those in crisis and stretching resources to meet the myriad needs facing Haitian women and families.

Doctors Without Borders

Teams from the group Doctors Without Borders ( were already working on medical projects in Haiti and have been treating victims of the quake since yesterday. Gifts to to the group’s new Haiti Earthquake Response (link below) will support emergency medical care for the men, women, and children affected by the earthquake in Haiti.


Despite heavy damages to its own offices in Port-au- Prince, the UN relief organization UNICEF is coordinating donations of things like blankets, toothpaste, canned food and other basic staples. Call 1-800-4UNICEF or go to for information.

January 15, 2010

Mind Your Manners! (Please…)

My husband grew up in a military family so manners was a really big deal and he has beautiful manners.  He’s not from the South, but he’s even got the Sir/Ma’am thing down.  Manner are so important to him, or rather, bad manners are so offensive to him, that I refer to him as the Manners Nazi.

I, on the other hand, was raised by parents a generation older than my peer’s parents.  My husband thinks I was raised by wolves.  Naturally, manners responsibility fell in his lap.  After he stayed home with our first, the outcome was so positive that I tried to emulate what he did.  And, as our children have venture off on independent play dates, sleepovers, and dinners at other people’s houses and country clubs, it become to us how important instilling manners at a VERY YOUNG age is.

We, as parents, notice when play dates come over and 1) say  “please,” “thank you” and “no, thank you” and 2) clear their dishes without being asked, and 3) make eye contact.  We also notice when play dates come over and 1) touch all the food on the communal platter before selecting their choice, 2) leave their dishes, 3) forget the “thank you” part of “no”.  We really want the former group hanging out at our house and we want our children to be close friends with those guys!

But, how does that happen?  What parenting did or did not happen in group two?  I’m not sure, but here’s what worked for us.

From birth through forever, although by 4-5 years old seems to penetrate the inner recesses of their brains:

  • Model polite language.  Talk to your baby before s/he is talking and ALWAYS say “please”, “thank you” and “no, thank you.”
  • As you child begins to talk, correct EVERY SINGLE INSTANCE that s/he fails to say “please”, “thank you” and “no, thank you.”
  • Give recognition every time your child says please, thank you and no, thank you.
  • Notice how others will give positive reinforcement for “please”, “thank you” and “no, thank you” because no one expects it in a 2, 3 or 4- year-old.
  • By age 5, this will become automatic.  Yay!  First phase is completed!

From age 3-5, teach your children to:

  • Clear their plate and utensils after every meal.  First to the general vicinity of the kitchen.  Then to the sink.  Finally, scrape plate and put in dishwasher.  (big help for mom!)
  • Make eye contact when you greet or thank someone.  Make eye contact in general when you converse.
  • If you have a son, teach him to hold the door for the ladies.
  • By age 5-7, this will become automatic.  Yay!  Second phase is completed!

From 2-10, talk about gratitude…

  • Thank the cook for every meal.  “Thank you Dad for this nice meal.”
  • Thank the mom, dad and birthday child for the nice party.  “Thank you for the nice party.”  “Goodbye and happy birthday.”
  • Say what you are thankful for…we don’t do this every meal, but we sometimes hold hands and go around the table.  The kids will sometimes say the funniest things so for comedy value alone, this is very worthwhile.  Yay!  Third phase is completed!  Your child has all the basics to function independently.  Sit back and let the parents tell you how wonderfully polite your child was at their house.  You deserve it.  Your work is not done (when is it ever done?), but the foundation has been laid and it’s a solid one!

Honestly, good manners is a simple as a consistent, please, thank you and no, thank you.  Isn’t that the first words we learn when we arrive in a foreign country?  Even before, “Where is the bathroom?”  It makes the world a nicer place and lubricates social interactions.  But the key is early education and consistency.

Thank you for reading!

P.S.  One unfortunate outcome of this training is that you will find that you will be unable to stop correcting anyone who fails to say, “please,” “thank you” and “no, thank you.”  You will correct your child’s play date friends.  You will correct your spouse.  You will correct complete strangers.  You have become…a Manners Nazi.

Here are some fun books about manners.  If you click on the book
, you can purchase at
.  Thank you!

January 13, 2010

Picking a Preschool – A Jaded View

I was at a playdate today and I ended up ranting and raving about my frustrations with my cooperative preschool.  Don’t get me wrong, my child is having a wonderful experience, but a cooperative preschool is an entire family experience and my piece of it, a.k.a. “administrative position” has been rather annoying.  I could just be me.  I think that I tend to get annoyed as I exit a preschool, and this is my last year of preschool…EVER!  And, maybe I’m just jaded.

There is something about preschool that makes you feel a little like a hostage because you are handing off your very small child into the great unknown.  This feeling is especially acute if you have to peel your crying child off your leg every morning and their favorite part of school is pick up.  So, I readily admit that I am a Jaded Preschool Parent.  Maybe that explains why I went through 4 preschools over the past  10 years.

If you are getting ready to pick a preschool for your darling, heed my advice.  Do not solely rely on word-of-mouth endorsements from moms you meet in the park or at mommy-and-me music class! Why?  Because it’s an unwritten mommy rule somewhere that everyone LOVES their preschool. I’m not sure why.  I think it’s partly based on anxiety… that this must be a great place because I’m dropping off my precious child for x many hours and I have no real idea of how it’s going because my child can’t articulate their feelings and thoughts that well yet.  Case in point, I moved my middle child because I suspected she was miserable.  It wasn’t just the difficult drop off that clued me in.  Yet the teachers and directors insisted that she was fine and happen even all day.  I did sneak around early to spy on her or peer in through a window but I just wasn’t sure.  It wasn’t until we hired an assistant teacher as an occasional babysitter who said that my daughter was COMPLETELY a different person at school versus home and not in a good way.  And yet, even a year or two later, we would drive by the old preschool and my daughter would say, “There’s my old school.  I love my old school.”  REALLY? But now, at age 7, she is able to articulate her experience and she told me the other night that she did NOT like it there and then listed all the reasons why.  It was surprising to me that it would take 4 or 5 years, like a victim of trama, to really get to the truth.

So…here’s my jaded view:

Daycare Pros:  great hours for working moms.  they will take infants.  the staff-to-child ratio can be low.

Daycare Cons:  Incredibly high staff turnover.  I experienced 50% staff turnover in my child’s classroom every 4 months!  And it was always the teacher she bonded with that left.  That was not acceptable to me so we switched to a preschool when she turned 2.9 years old  because that is when the preschool is licensed to take kids.

Nugget of Advice:  Yes, get on the waitlist early but don’t confuse a really, really long waitlist with an incredibly wonderful daycare.  And why you ask about staff turnover and the director tells you the length of time of a few of the staffers, ask about how many hires this past year. How old is the staff?  Do they have degrees in early child education?  Really young, just-out-of-college staff + low wages = high staff turnover.  Drop by unannounced to “make an appointment.”  Observe carefully before you ask for help…this is what really goes on.  Also, how soon until they notice you, a stranger, in their midst?

Preschool Pros:  The hours are more suited for what a child’s exposure to chaos should be so the day is shorter and the staff is not working incredibly long hours (ie underpaid & burnt out).  They tend to do annual contract with their staff so staff turnover is significantly lower.

Preschool Cons:  You generally have many, many options about how many days you want to attend.  This is great for spending one-on-one time with your child plus helps with the cost but you will find that your kids will not know some of the kids in their class. As in, I have no idea who you are.  I have never seen you before in my life.  This is because they might have one day of overlap.  Also, because the kids are not together on all the same days, the school can’t plan a structured academic curriculum.

Nuggest of Advice :  Ask about staff to child ratio.  Just because the school doesn’t go through a formal interviewing/rejecting process doesn’t mean you don’t have to make a good first impression!  Ask if any of the lead teachers are certified teachers for K-2.  Ask if the staff signs an annual contract.  Is there a summer program?  Do you need one?  Do you occasionally need an early drop off or late pick up? Can they accommodate that?  Have them explain their academic curriculum; there is no one right answer but understand if it’s play based or child-led or whatever the latest theory is? Is their foreign language exposure?  (Ok, maybe I am way into that but no one else cares).

Montesori Pros:  Now I confess that I have never attended Montessori so I am speaking for my many friends who have.  Generally, they all LOVE Montessori.  The families also tend to be more international.  The curriculum IS impressive.  Your darling will generally learn to read at age 3 and get exposure to a foreign language, typically Spanish.

Montessori Cons:  Tends to be expensive.  High staff to child ratio because of their education model.  Not a lot of interaction with kids of their own age and sex…maybe 2-3 in their class.  Must go every day at 8:30 a.m.; are you really ready for this schedule at age 2???  There are years ahead of you when you will have to do this.  Preschool of choice for high-powered moms…do you really need that kind of stress in your life?

Nugget of Advice:  If your child can not sit still on a very small square of carpet for at least 15 minutes at a stretch, then Montessori is not for you!  Don’t take the rejection personally “that the school regrets there is no space for your child.”  And also don’t read false hope in that message also!

Cooperative Preschool Pros:   You know exactly what happens every second of your child’s school day.  If you are not the parent helper, then your mom friend is.  You know who they play with, who cried, and who will likes what for snack.  The teacher are tip top…they have to be as they are supervised by the most critical of bosses (i.e. moms) during their work day.

Cooperative Preschool Cons:  You will volunteer umpteen hours to the school.  Your administrative job might not match your skills or worse the parent in charge of your committee  has no business being in charge…literally, no prior business experience being in charge but now they are.  Not always a good thing!  After several years of this, you will realize why Socialism was doomed to fail.  You will feel sucked dry.

Nugget of Advice:  In the beginning you will LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your school.  Do not think that your child’s wonderful experience is commensurate with the amount of time you volunteer.  It’s a long ride and YOU MUST PACE YOURSELF!  Do not undertake too much responsibility.  Under that kumbaya exterior lies the same snarky, sharky politics as any other organization.  Don’t drink too much of the Kool-Aide!

My final piece of advice is remembering my work friend, Diligent Mom, who LOVED, LOVED, LOVED her preschool.  She actually visited 22 of them.  I am sure there are 22 preschool options in my neck of the woods within a 20 minute commute, but I didn’t visit even half that– a 5 minute commute and good parking were items on my must-have list.  Well…that is why she LOVED, LOVED, LOVED her preschools and I do not.

January 2, 2010

Introducing Foreign Languages to Your Kids (Spanish and Mandarin Chinese)

I  find that learning a foreign language is very similar to dieting.  Changing my family’s lifestyle was key to successfully incorporating foreign language into my children’s hearts and minds.  Like dieting, crash diets (a.k.a. immersion) is wonderful in jump-starting foreign language acquisition however, without proper maintainance, it’s back to square one.  Again like dieting, there are times when I notice that great strides are being made, but there are also discouraging plateaus in which it seems like my children seem to be forgetting large chucks of what they used to know.  Fear not, just like the tortoise and the hare, perseverance will eventually win the race.

For my kids, I introduced Spanish very early in their lives.  We don’t speak a foreign language at home, so I started by creating  an after-school Spanish class at my first preschool by hiring an outside company to teach a class after school.  Then I found this great tutor from Berklee School of Music who was a native speaker and taught part-time .  My tutor who came to my house was much easier than recruiting a class full of kids!  Alas, my tutor didn’t want to commute to the suburbs when we moved.  My neighbor had spent years in Mexico and had a tutor which I promptly hired.  But, she was not confortable teaching small children and suddenly went AWOL.  Finally, we found a great tutor and have been with her for years and she’s become part of our family.  Yet, after many years of Spanish, I can’t say that my kids chatter amongst themselves in Spanish.  I have to coerce them to speak to the waiter at a Mexican restaurant and nudge them at the checkout line at the grocery store.  Still, the other night, the kids thought it would be fun to test their dad on his Spanish knowledge.  (He has never studied Spanish but knows a lot of words from growing up in California, and sadly, he is the only one in our family who can roll his r’s).  So, they fired off one word after another asking him to say it in Spanish and triumphantly correcting him.  It’s a start, I suppose.

Because we don’t speak a foreign language at home, I set modest goals for my children and my tutors:  focus on their accent.  They started so young (my oldest at 3, my middle at 1 and my youngest at birth) and have a native speaker that they are capable of acquiring a decent accent.  Their tutor speaks only Spanish to them, and only recently has grammar been introduced.

To increase their exposure to Spanish since their lesson is just once a week, I found a useful trick.  I only play DVDs in the car in a foreign language.  I figure that they watch plenty of TV at home, so when I got a new car with a built-in DVD player, I only stocked the car with foreign language DVDs.  Given the choice of no screen time, my kids usually opt for Plaza Sesamo which they don’t consider to be babyish because there is no Elmo.  I also found a great 3 DVD series of Spanish Language instruction for kids called Hola Amigos.  My youngest will request it.  We tried other methods;  Muzzy was a brain-overload.  It was entertaining for about 10 viewings but they didn’t seem to get anything out of it because there is just too much information.  But in order to absorb it, they would need to watch it a hundred more times but after 10 times they are sick of the storyline.   I noticed it’s now $24 on Amazon.  I think I paid close to $200.  For $24, I would say it’s worth it, but not for a penny more.

In terms of a class versus a tutor, I have to say that we have always had more success with a tutor AND we have even more success when each kid goes separately.  It’s more expensive that way, but it works better for us because my kids learn at different rates.  We had the same experience with Chinese; each of my kids has a separate turn with their tutor.  We tried to combine the two girls because they had been at the same Chineese school class for three years, but it just didn’t work.  The younger one got frustrated and was miserable.  Once they all had their own slots, they started to enjoy Chinese.  Imagine that!  They used to say that their favorite part of Chinese class was when they were picked up!  One day, when my children are world travelers, I have this fantasy that my kids will tell me how happy they are that they were forced to learn Spanish and Chinese when they were young.  I’ll keep you posted on that one when it happens!

These are the language DVDS that have worked for us.  If you are interested in purchasing them, click on the image to buy at

Plaza Sesamo series.  You can also check out at your local library, rent at Netflix, or DVR .  Other children’s TV shows are too advanced for beginners but these are perfect for beginners!

My kids actually enjoy this language DVD series:  Hola Amigos. The lessons are geared towards children and are the perfect length.

This was also a good DVD that my son loved when he was about 2 to 4 years old.  The DVD has familiar songs that captivate small children.  You can set it to play in Spanish with English subtitles.  The English is for the adult, but music is a great way to get small children to hear Spanish.  Because they know all the songs in English, I have a feeling they comprehend the Spanish is a magical, osmosis kind of way.

We also found that playing board games in Spanish was a fun way to practice Spanish.

My kids don’t play this DS game ($24.98) a ton, but my oldest said it was fun and she plays it on her own.

Zingo is a good one for beginners, preschool or elementary school age.

I bought a few of these DVDs, The Standard Deviants,  and they will be perfect for middle school students who study grammar.  They are fun to watch but too advanced for beginners or little kids.

I also tried out Professor Toto Spanish Language Kit.  At $199.00, it’s pricey and I don’t think it’s worth the full amount.  My youngest liked the vocabulary builder DVD that just has a bunch of nouns and verbs put into form sentences.  I’d recommend borrowing it from a friend or buying it used on ebay, but there are other DVDs are just as effective and much less expensive.  This was a little dry for my older two.

I know this sounds insane, but once my kids were on their way with Spanish, I figured that if I didn’t start Chinese soon, they’d have no hope in hell of getting the accent down.  My kids are a quarter Chinese so everyone always asks me why I started them in Spanish rather than an Asian language.  My answer is that Spanish is much easier than Chinese and easier to practice in the real world.  My oldest started Chinese at 5, my middle (off and on because she’d strike) at 3, and my youngest at around 4.  They actually like learning Chinese now because they love their tutor.  Sometimes it takes a few iterations to get it right, but it’s worth it!

I found these DVDs to be very useful.  The PBS show Ni Hao Kailan also has a little Chinese language built into each show.

We also have these DVDs.  My son likes them but the animation is very basic.  It was hard to find Mandarin Chinese DVDs for kids; if I had access to Sesame Street in Chinese I would not have purchased these but I use these to mix it up.

Here’s a DS game that we have not tried yet, but we plan to.  My kids occasionally play the Spanish version.

I have not tried Rosetta Stone but I’ve heard great things about it for adults who want to learn a foreign language but at $299 it’s pricey.  Here’s an article on Rosetta Stone, free online learning and iphone apps from


January 1, 2010

Favorite Counting Books

I trolled through a 4 foot stack of counting books to find these treasures.  Enjoy!

I Know Two Who Said Moo by Judith Barrett.  A counting and rhyming book with great vocabulary!  [ages 2-5]


Seashells by the Sea Shore by Marianne Collins Berkes.  A counting book that identifies different sea shells.  A must for anyone who regularly goes to the beach or for a little one that loves to collect shells.  [ages 2-7]

Doggies by Sandra Boynton.  If you love dogs, you’ll love this counting and barking book; emphasis on barking!  [ages 1-4]

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.  A wonderful, enduring classic!  [ages 0-6]

Eight Animals on the Town by Susan Middleton Elya.  A counting book with Spanish mixed in!  [ages 1-5]

Pigs from 1-10 by Arthur Geisert.  Numbers are hidden in beautiful black and white illustrations.  [ages 205]

 Ten Little Ladybugs by Melanie Gerth.  All my kids loved the 3-D ladybugs that appear on every page. [ages 0-4]

1 2 3 Moose by Andrea Helman.  A beautiful photographic counting book of the Pacific Northwest with great factoids.  [ages 2-5]

We All Went on Safari by Laura Krebs.  As you count through Tanzania with Maasai friends, you will also learn to Swahili!  [ages 3-6]

Come Out and Play:  Count Around the World in 5 Languages by Diane Law.  [ages 0-5]

Ten Apples Up on Top by Theo LeSieg.  Because this book rhymes and has a very limited word vocabulary of about 90 words, it’s also great for literacy!  [ages 2-5]

One Watermelon Seed by Celia Barker Lottridge.  A gardening counting book that is great because it also counts by 10’s to 100.  [ages 3-6]

Chicka, Chicka 123 by Bill Jr. Martin, Michael Sampson and Lois Ehlert.  Sequel to Chicka Chicka ABC, this book is perfect for a child learning to count to 100.  W use the front and back inside covers to count to 100, count by 10’s, and count by 5’s.  It’s also fun to point out patterns because the numbers are wonderfully color coded as in, hey look how all the numbers in this column end in the number 2!  [ages 2-7]

I Spy Two Eyes by Lucy Micklethwait.  You and your child will enjoy finding things in famous paintings.  [ages 3-5]

Icky Bugs Numbers 1 2 3 by Jerry Pallota.  Wonderful realistic bug illustrations plus counting 1 through 20 and even skip counting by 2’s.  [ages 3-6] 

The Handmade Counting Book by Laura Rankin.  Learn to count and sign!  [ages 2-5]

100 School Days by Anne Rockwell.  When my kids were in Kindergarten, their teacher tracked the 100th day of school and everyone brought in 100 objects in a bag to celebrate just like in this book.  It’s also a great book to count by 10’s to 100.  [ages 4-6]

Tails by Matthew Van Fleet.  My kids all loved this touch and feel book.  [ages 1-4]

Bunny Party by Rosemary Wells.  Max and Ruby have a party and the guest list keeps expanding.  This is a great book that sneaks in counting with a story.  It’s also fun to match the numbers with the guests.  [ages 1-5]

Max Counts His Chickens by Rosemary Wells.  Max and Ruby search for marshmallow chicks but Max is having trouble finding any.  Count the chicks as Ruby finds with and then match them to the number.  [ages 1-5]

Teeth, Tails and Tentacles by Christopher Wormell.  Gorgeously illustrated and, finally!, the number as a symbol and word!  [ages 0-4]

December 31, 2009

Public or Private School?

As my daughter nears middle school, my husband and I have started to wonder…public or private school?   Private school is not something we ever contemplated for our children.  We live in a great public school system and both of us graduated proudly from public school systems in California which were not as good as the school system we currently attend.

I attended an Ivy League college and my recollection, confirmed by others with a similar mediocre high school experience as mine, is that:

— It took me two years to catch up with classmates who went to good high schools.

–There are good public high schools and good private high schools and there are also mediocre private schools.  I only knew three other people from a Catholic high school who were going to college with me and they felt their high school was even worse than mine.

–What were some of the marked differences from the prep school/top public high school  kids and me ?  Foreign languages really stood out.   Despite meeting my foreign language requirement in high school, I tested into beginning French which was basically a remedial class with a dozen of us from bad public high schools and even worse accents.  Good high school = foreign language fluency, as in conversational or being able to read magazines in a foreign language.  Some kids had opportunity to study abroad in high school; not at my school!

Breadth of classes.  My friend from the Catholic High School was envious of a kid from Palo Alto High School (a great public high school) who had Asian History at her school.  I couldn’t believe that my friend from Stuyvesant High School (a magnet school in NYC that routinely sends two dozen kids to Harvard) had economics; micro AND macro!  And my freshman dorm pre-med friend who studied with the nuns in Cleveland really learned how to think, as in problem solve.  He tested into the advanced pre-med chemistry class.  I did not; at my high school, it was more about regurgitation than really understanding how to apply your knowledge…and no AP Chem class either!

I remember bitterly complaining with other like-kind kids and vowing that my kids will never have to play catch up when they go to college!  So my advice would be not so much public or private but how good is the school?  A great public school can kick the pants off a mediocre private school.  There is a list below from the Wall Street Journal about which schools successfully send the most kids off to top schools but if these schools are not an option, dig deep to find out:  1) Is there a study aboard program?  2) How many honor and AP classes are offered?  Look for a wide range of class offerings.  3) How many kids are fluent in one or more foreign languages?  What does the curriculum include?  Language labs?  Small class size?  Native speakers as instructors?  4) What are examples of kids being taught to problem solve versus regurgitate?  5) Finally, where the pedal hits the medal … what is your college placement record?  And the corollary, are you double counting the smart kids that got into multiple top colleges?  What schools are the kids actually ATTENDING.

OK, maybe college placement is getting a little ahead of ourselves.  I do think that it’s not necessarily Ivy League or Bust, but more about the right fit.  The same goes for public versus private school.

My O.B. who lives in the same city as me but at a different elementary school, puts public education into perspective.  She describes her oldest daughter as smart but not a genius, social to a fault, not academically inclined without being pushed, and not disruptive.  In short, to a teacher with 20 plus students, she’s invisible.  Couple that with two working parents who don’t have the time to be omnipresent volunteers at school meant that her daughter was getting no attention.  She switched her to private school by 2nd grade (but she was glad to have 3 years of free public education).  When her daughter got interested in boys, she switched her again to an all-girl school.  In contrast, she says two other doctors at her practice also attend the same elementary school and are having a great experience.  But the kicker…her partners have spouses that are  stay-at-home moms and volunteer like crazy at their school. 

My experience at public elementary school has been mixed and entirely dependent on the luck of the draw.  My middle daughter is having an amazing experience.  My oldest has had great years, medium years, and one god-awful year which, luckily, is not this year.  All in all, public school, with or without volunteering like crazy, has been a pretty good experience.

But, as middle school approaches, our parental anxieties start to heighten.  To be an informed consumer, I started to research private schools in our areas and, more importantly, studies on how children perform in public versus private school settings.  I found some very interesting and surprising results!

New York Times:  Public Schools Perform Near Private Ones in Study

But this is contradicted by a NAEP Study:                                                                                           
However, according to Science Daily:  Public Schools Outperform Private Schools in Math Instruction     
An article in the Christian Science Monitor found that “After accounting for students’ socioeconomic background, a new study shows public school children outperforming their private school peers on a federal math exam … When children of similar socioeconomic status were compared, the public school children scored higher.”
According to a University of Illinois study:  students in public schools learn as much or more math between kindergarten and fifth grade as similar students in private schools.  In their previous 2005 study, they found that public school students tested higher in math than their private school peers from similar social and economic backgrounds.  Their conclusion:   “school type alone doesn’t explain very much of why these scores vary … in truth, whether the school is public or private doesn’t seem to make that much difference.”
According to a CEP study (Center on Education Policy), private school students and public school students perform equally on achievement tests in math, reading, science, and history.  The one difference that CEP found between private schools and public schools involves SAT scores. According to the study, private school students have the edge on the SAT. The CEP notes that this could be because private schools tend to offer more test prep resources than do public schools. 
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in its annual National Compensation Survey,  public school teachers are paid 61% more per hour than private school teachers, on average nationwide. 
Here’s a balanced article:  Public Versus Private.  Which is Right for Your Child? 
Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s 2007 list of Top High Schools by placement at top colleges.
Not that this is necessarily the end goal, but here’s an interesting article by the Wall Street Journal on How To Get Into Harvard.
Our conclusion, though by no means complete, goes something like this:  it is going to cost about $105k to put one child through private middle school.  If that money gets parked in their 529B college fund, it will (hopefully) increase to equal about 2 years of graduate school.  So…wouldn’t it be more impactful on their lives to have graduate school paid for so they are not in debt?  Wouldn’t that be worth going to public middle school?  That is the million, or rather $105k, question we currently ponder.

December 13, 2009

Best Investment Toys (That Her Kids Played with for Years)

I have always lived in small spaces with my family.  Baby 1 lived in a 550 square foot, one bedroom apartment and two parents.  Baby 2 lived in an 1100 square foot condo with baby 1 and two parents.  Now my family of 5 lives in a small house.  Thus I find it necessary, as always,  to purge toys at least four times a year.  In fact,  as a rule, I tell my kids that for every incoming toy there must be an outgoing one. 

If I knew then what I know now, I would NOT have picked 80% of the toys that I bought.  Instead, I would have saved up for this short list of  toys.  Another idea is to have a wish list that close family friends and relatives contribute towards.  At the end of day, toys that stand the test of time are actually less expensive on a “cost per play” basis than a toy that gets purged within the year.

1) Pragmatic Mom’s Favorite Toy Kitchen

Hands down, I found that simpler is better.  This kitchen is more fun, more creative, more versatile and has great storage to boot.  Her favorite toy kitchen came used from a preschool but you can buy it new from Community Playthings (  Yes, it is crazy expensive but it lasts and lasts.  If I were to only buy one piece, I’d buy the stove ($225).  If you can get two pieces, the second piece I’d suggest is the sink. (

These toys really do last.  When I got our kitchen (stove, sink and hutch) from a preschool, the kitchen set  was probably at least  25 years old.  After a quick clean up, it was as good as new.  My kids played with it non-stop for 5 years, and then donated it to another preschool where it will have another 50 years of life, no doubt.

2) Pragmatic Mom’s Favorite Blocks

Again, Community Playthings is the “go to” source for large, heavy blocks that can be turned into anything your child imagines.  I bought two sets of blocks (hollow blocks and mini-hollow)  in lieu of putting her kids in camp six summers ago and the kids still play with these blocks now.  URL is:

I don’t own the unit blocks but her kids play with them non-stop at preschool.  They are great too.  

3) Pragmatic Mom’s Favorite Building Toy

Pragmatic Mom learned about these gems on a playdate:  Translucent Magna Tiles.  You can buy them online at amazon or find them in a local toy store.   They are pricey at around $120  for the 100 tile set, and sadly, 100 tiles isn’t quite enough.  Two sets are much more versatile.  But this toy is amazing.  The tiles snap together magnetically to create anything from a castle to a disco floor.  My preschool uses them with a light table so that kids can stack tiles to learn about combining colors.  That’s fun but a light table is NOT coming into my house!

Pragmatic Mom welcomes your ideas of investment toys that you thought were worth the money!

4) Cash register, $40.37.   We had to buy more play money and the yellow piece keeps getting lost that my kids still play with this!

5) Melissa and Doug cutting food box, $16.30.  My kids love this toy and we still have all the pieces after more than 4  years!

6) The plastic picnic food and the fruit and vegetable set all work really well with the kitchen set.  These sets  from Learning Resources cost about $22.99 each and were worth every penny!

7) My kids STILL are playing with the toy blender ($20.66)  and mixer ($20.85) but now they are mixing their own concoctions and drinking them. 

8) Razor Scooter ($28.50).  We have three and it never seems like we have enough especially when friends are over.  Just make sure everyone wears a helmet and label your scooters because ours always seem to get mixed up with our neighbors!  They come in different colors as well.

9)  iPod Touch ($179.99).  My girls received the iPod Nano last year for Christmas and I have to admit that it’s been well utilized all year.  They don’t mind watching movies on the small screen which meant we didn’t have to lug portable DVD players on vacation.  They want the iPod Touch…but we’re not upgrading just yet.

The gadget to the right of  the iPod is called the Cinemin Swivel Multimedia Pico Projector.  At $305, it’s pricey, but I put it next to the iPod because you use it with your iPod to project movies onto walls.  My middle daughter got it recently for Christmas, and she has been using it non-stop.  It’s a cool gadget, but expensive.

10) Nintendo DS ($149.99).  My girls had earned a DS a few years ago by completing a complete workbook during the summer (bribery works!).  Their little brother got one for his 4th birthday and our neighbor’s son, two years over, came running over after perusing our recycling bin saying, “he can’t have a DS yet; he’s too young!”  Be it as it may, my son does know how the use his DS.  My mom friend said her son loves the video feature in the new models. 

While my kids all like their DS and play on them frequently, they are not addicted to them.  They are much more addicted to TV.  I bought a few educational games like Spanish and a vocabulary game and just last night, my oldest was saying how much fun the Spanish game is.  Go figure!  We do have piles of DS games that they don’t seem to use anymore.  I hear that I can sell them or trade them in somewhere.  Here’s the link for that:

11) Mini Kick Scooter.  My sister in California gets the cool stuff.  She raves about this.  Similar to the Razor scooter but requires more balancing.  Goes about as fast as a Razor Scooter.  $80.

Best Math Workbooks for Home Supplementation

Pragmatic Mom finds that no matter how good your elementary school is, there is always a need to supplement your child’s math curriculum at home.  For some of my kids, they needed additional challenge that their school was not providing.  For another child, I found that she needed more individualized attention to really “get it.”  All of my kids benefited from additional math fact drills, and home supplementation helped me to understand how my child learns and exactly what each child needed additional practice on.

I find these math workbooks to be very helpful.  I like to start my kindergartener in a word problem book by Evan-Moore which emulates the Chicago Math program, Everyday Math.  I find that introducing word problems at an early age helps my kids get an intuitive feel for translating words into number sentences.  At this stage, most of the problems are adding or subtracting so word problem translation to number sentences is simpler.  Then, when my kids face word problems in 3rd grade, they are not scared of them.

I like to start my  kindergartener on the First Grade book usually the summer before 1st grade.  This is a really fun book that my kids all actually loved doing.  They generally would do about half the book during the summer and finish up by year-end.  We could do 1-3 weeks in a sitting with my child begging to do more.  Really!  True story!

Daily Word Problems:  Student Practice Books. Grade 1 for incoming Grade 1 summer practice.  Publisher:  Evan-Moor.  Also at Lakeshore Learning. I recommend using the incoming grade book for summer practice  (i.e. going into 4th grade summer, use 4th grade book). Click on image of book to buy through

I  have my kids doing these books as both summer supplementation and supplementation through the year.  I also recommend the Singapore Math curriculum for additional supplementation.  Singapore Math is the curriculum used in Singapore which ranks usually 1st or 2nd in the world in math test scores.   Once you see their system, it’s easy to understand why.  The concepts are presented in a VISUAL and easy-to-understand way.  There is also adequate drill for mastering concepts which Everyday Math does not have.

Singapore Versus U. S. Math:  We Lose.  Singaporean students rank 1st in the world in mathematics on the TIMS and U.S. students rank 16th. …

Here’s a link to a study that rates Singapore best in Math, Science for 7th & 8th graders:

Compare your city’s math scores to the rest of the worlds.  FYI, Singapore scored the highest.

This is an interesting article from the New York Times by Benedict Carey published on December 20, 2009, about how children are capable of learning math at a young age.  They note that some of these methods have been successful in overcoming dyslexia.   Here’s the link:

Pragmatic Mom understands that it’s a lot to get your child to do two different workbooks at home.  I suggest using just the Singapore Math Text Book which is in color and has some drill as well.  Because the Singapore Math curriculum is also in a different sequence than Everyday Math, you will need to pick and choose chapters that reflect what your child is learning.  Use the Singapore Math Text Book to explain a concept your child is confused about and then do the problems in that section.  Alternately, follow the curriculum to challenge your child who is bored with their math curriculum at school and go one grade ahead.

Pragmatic Mom recommends using the book number as correlated to your child’s grade even though the books state one grade lower than the number listed.  If you click on the book, it will take you to Amazon to purchase.

For preschool, 1 year before kindergarten.  Earlybird Kindergarten 1A and 1B.

For incoming Kindergarten.  Earlybird Kindergarten 2A and 2B.

For incoming 1st grade, Primary Mathematics 1A and 1B.

For incoming 2nd grade, Primary Mathematics Textbook 2A and 2B.

For incoming grade 3.

For incoming grade 4.  (It says on the book that this is for grade 5, but it correlates to grade 4 at my school).

For incoming grade 5.

December 10, 2009

Favorite ABC Books

I found that a great way to learn letters was to play games with magnetic letters.  I deconstructed various toys to create an “alphabet game” using squishy magnetic letters (but any magnetic letters in the shape of the letters will do) and a magnetic fishing pole.  My son (about 12 months old at the time) would fish letters out of a bucket and stick them on a magnetic board.  If he got them wrong, I’d find the correct letter and put up next to the letter.  We’d talk about how is it the same and how is it different.  Another variation would be to sort all the letters on the board by color and identify them (my letters were randomly in four colors).  Or try to make an alphabet train by putting the letters in order.  We’d play this game 3 or 4 times a week for about 5 to 10 minutes; always letting my son initiate the game, and ending it as soon as his interest waned.  It was a fun way to learn letters.  After my son learned upper case letters, we added in lower case letters.

These are our favorite alphabet books.  Ok, to be more correct, I didn’t mind reading these books incessantly to my child.  To purchase, click on the picture of the book to buy at

Maisy’s ABC (lift the flap, pull the tab) by Lucy Cousins.  The first children’s book we ever purchased and still a favorite!  Toddlers will love lifting the flaps and pulling the tabs. 






Robert Crowther’s Most Amazing Hide and Seek ABC Alphabet Book by Robert Crowthers.  The book completely lives up to its title!  My kids loved pulling the tabs and lifting the flaps!  This was the book responsible for teaching all my kids their letters.


A Was An Apple Pie by Etienne Delessert.  Finally, an alphabet book with both upper and lower case letters  plus beautiful illustrations, but beware, it will make you hungry for apple pie!






Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert.  I love Lois Ehlert’s gorgeous illustrations and hopefully this will encourage your children to eat their fruits and veggies!

The Absolutely Awful Alphabet by Mordecai Gerstein.  Chock full of SAT level adjectives to help build your child’s vocabulary!  For kids who love words.






A is for ? A Photographers’s Alphabet of Animals by Henry Horenstein.  You and your child will have fun guessing which animal from Horenstein’s wonderful photographs.






Chicka Chica Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr.   A fun rhyming book that is easy to memorize and chant all day long!






I Stink by Kate McMullen.  Pragmatic Mom’s neighbor with two small boys highly recommend this book.  [ages 3-7]





The Dinosaur Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta.  If your child is very interested in dinosaurs, this is a great book because each letter is about a dinosaur with a paragraph of interesting information to captivate both child and adult.





The Handmade Alphabet by Laura Rankin.  Learn the alphabet in sign language.






A Big and little Alphabet by Liz Rosenberg.  This is great because it shows lower case AND upper case letters.





Alligators All Around by Maurice Sendak.  We like to sing the story. 






Max’s ABC by Rosemary Wells.  Rosemary Wells creates a story out of the letters of the alphabet.  Pragmatic Mom’s son is especially fond of Max and Ruby.

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