Thursday, June 19, 2014

Travel Tips: Audio Options

We love books, so listening to books and stories has been a great pastime at home and on trips.  Before our firstborn was old enough to read, he would listen to audiobooks during his daily quiet time.  Here are some great resources for listening to stories that will entertain and stimulate the imagination.    

  1. Libraries - Most libraries have online access to Overdrive where you can check out audiobooks, ebooks and even stream movies.  
  2. Storynory  - This is a site full of stories you can listen to online or easily download to a mp3 player, tablet or smartphone.
  3. - This is a huge resource for audiobooks.  You can try it for free before subscribing.
  4. Adventures in Odyssey - Focus on the Family has been recording these stories for years and continue to make new CDs.
  5. The Pond - These are stories for children that my husband even enjoys because of the humor.
  6. Amazon - You can buy CDs, mp3s and download apps for free audiobooks.
  7. LibriVox - This is a site with free and paid audiobook options.  There is a LibriVox app.

We borrow many books from the library or download them for free online.  We also buy some and watch for audiobook sales.  Here are some of our personal favorite stories* that can be obtained through the sources listed above: 

  1. The Harry Potter series  - We have borrowed the CDs from libraries.  These are a favorite of our whole family.  The reader has a wonderful English accent. 
  2. A Maze of Mysteries 

    *Please note that every family and child is different regarding what material they can handle at what age.  By listening together we are able to discuss the behavior and choices of characters and point out themes and lessons.  Personally, I believe books, whether read or listened to, are interpreted based on the knowledge, experience and exposure of the reader.  So, though I will let my children listen to Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, I will not let them watch movies that interpret those books through the eyes of adults.  As a family we are okay with exposing our children to views that differ from our own and use it as a learning experience.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Travel Tips: Fun Games

Playing games is a great way to pass the time on a long trip.  Here are some ideas for fun, easy games to play that don't require the use of any electronic devices.

1.  Alphabet Naming Game  This is an easy activity that my kids often do on their own and I have tried it out on other kids and adults as well with good responses.  It's really simple and requires NO supplies.  First, pick a category.  A few examples:  animals, super heroes, movies, TV shows, fictional characters, song titles and books.  Second, beginning with letter A everyone tries to think of something or someone in the category that starts with the letter A.  The goal is for everyone in the vehicle to come up with a name before we move on to the next letter.  We will help each other, especially the little ones who don't always pick for the right letter.  Third, after each person names something for the letter, we move on to the next letter and work through the entire alphabet.  Some letters are more difficult or impossible to find several answers, but we try and then move on.  It's a great game for children and adults and has endless variations.  It can be played anywhere, including standing in line at DisneyWorld or sitting in a restaurant.  You could also play it like Scattergories and have everyone write down the word for each letter and then go through the alphabet and award points for each answer that was not repeated by someone else.  Then points could be added up and you would have a winner.

2.  Clue  If your children are old enough to read and write they can play a form of Clue in the car.  If you wish, you can bring the sheets from Clue along or make up names of characters, places and weapons.  If you want to make the game less violent-sounding, you can say the person ate the cake and instead of weapons list beverages that they may have drunk when eating the cake.  Once the choices (4-6) for three categories are chosen then one person secretly picks the character, place and weapon/beverage.  Then everyone else playing takes turns naming one from each category and asking if any of them are correct.  The person who has chosen tells them how many are correct, but not which ones.  If none of them are correct, then everyone listening can cross off those choices and focus on the other options.  If they say 1 or 2 are correct out of the 3, then they have to try to narrow down which ones are correct.  This can be challenging, but it only requires paper and pencils.    

3.  Alphabet Sign Game  I remember playing this game for hours on family trips when I was young.  I remember hoping I would see a Dairy Queen or a No Passing Zone sign, so I could find a Q or a Z before everyone else.  This game depends on being in an area where there are billboards or businesses or it will be very slow and boring.  However, it is a very simple game.  Starting with A and ending with Z everyone in the vehicle is trying to be the first to spot the letters of the alphabet in order on signs, license plates or anything outside of the vehicle.  You may want to add the rule that the word also has to be named so the same letter doesn't get used by several people.  Each letter seen can only be used by one person.  So if there is only one Dairy Queen sign and three people who need a Q, only the first person who calls it out gets to use it and the other two have to wait for the next sign with a Q on it.

4.  Travel Scavenger Hunt  A couple years ago I found a card game for this that made it easy for all ages to play because it didn't require reading.  But, you could create the game yourself as well.  One way to play would be to create a list and everyone tries to find the same things, much like the Alphabet Sign Game above.  Another way to play would be to give everyone different things to watch for and whoever checks off their list first wins.  Travel Bingo is a similar game that you can buy or print off free sheets.

5.  Quiz Games  When my husband drives he often wants to do something that stimulates his brain.  Listening to music or audiobooks can make a driver tired after awhile, so I will often ask him trivia questions or make up games using a road atlas book.  These same activities can include the kids or be for adults only.  A simple trivia game is bringing along cards from a game like Trivial Pursuit and seeing how many questions the person can answer correctly on each card.  My husband likes sports so I have also picked up inexpensive sports trivia books and quizzed him from those books.  We have used the Road Atlas to quiz on state facts like state birds, nicknames, capitols, etc.  We have bid on the number of cities we can name in a state and the person with the highest bid has to try to name them accurately.  We have guessed population sizes of cities or tried to order the states from largest to smallest in area.  It takes a little creativity and some time looking through the Road Atlas to see what information it contains, but you can learn a lot while also having fun.

6.  Alphabet Memory Game  This is another of my favorites from childhood.  "I'm going on a trip and I'm taking a/an... A__________, B__________, C__________, ...."  One by one you go around the vehicle in the same order, say the opening phrase and name an item that you will take while also naming all the other items that have already been chosen.  Whoever winds up with Z has to name 25 items plus their final item to end the game.  This is great for young and old!  This is good for memory development and creativity.  You could also vary it by choosing a category for the items or setting a size limit.

I hope these game ideas will give you something to try on your next trip.  If you have any other ideas or want to give feedback after trying any of these games, feel free to comment below!  As always, have fun learning as you go!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Travel Tips: In The Car With Kids


With four children ages 5 to 13, we have traveled thousands of miles over the last 13 years with children in tow.  All of our children have traveled since they were babies and have learned to enjoy the journey, for the most part.  As summer begins and families make plans to go on trips, here are some tips and tricks that have worked for our family.  Feel free to share additional tips in the comment section too!

1.  Pack plenty of snacks and drinks.  Offer small snacks frequently to keep kids from getting grumpy from hunger.  We usually mix in special treats along with healthy fruits and veggies.  We only offer water to drink.  Caffeinated beverages for children or adults can lead to more frequent bathroom breaks.

2.  Plan and bring a variety of activity choices.  As our children get older they are able to help plan and bring items that will keep them occupied.  If your children can read and don't get carsick doing that, bring books, Kindles, etc. to enjoy.  For younger children, board books like this one can be enjoyable for them to look through as well as books like this where they have to try to spot certain items on each page.  Other activity choices include coloring, drawing, writing, playing with a couple favorite action figures or cheap dollar store toys, making things with craft items like pipe cleaners, playing travel games, singing, listening to audiobooks or music, video games and movies.  By varying activities throughout the trip, it helps to break up the monotony and make time feel like it is moving.

3.  Schedule frequent stops.  I could travel from college to home (6 hours) without stopping.  That was before kids.  Whether it's bathroom breaks, fuel or food stops, or just needing to get out of that small space, plan to stop every couple hours.  It doesn't have to be long, but it's good for our bodies and our sanity. This also fits nicely with #2.

4.  Allow rest/quiet time.  When our children napped every day, we tried to stick to that schedule while traveling in our vehicle.  When it was nap time, we would put away other activities, make sure they had their blanket, stuffed animal and neck pillow and declare it was nap time and ignore them.  Okay, maybe we didn't exactly ignore them.  But we did try to limit our interactions with them and just continue to remind them it was time for them to sleep.  They were not always willing participants in this activity, but the more we did it, the easier it got for everyone.  Now that they are older, we institute our normal quiet time and that means they can read, look at books, draw or do calm, quiet activities by themselves for a period of time.  This gives them a break from electronics and a break from talking or interacting with others.  It's not a you-cannot-open-your-mouth-at-all quiet time, but just a time to enjoy an individual activity while Dad and Mom get to, hopefully, carry on a conversation with less interruptions.  If this sounds daunting, start small and set a timer.

5.  Plan fun "interruptions."  On one cross-country trip my husband downloaded a song for each state.  Example, "Sweet Home Alabama" for, you guessed it, Alabama.  When we crossed the state line, he would interrupt whatever we were doing to play crank the song and we would celebrate our progress.  Be creative and plan something fun to do at unexpected points in the journey.  Maybe it's singing a favorite song on the hour to help your little ones understand time IS passing.  Or have everyone answer a silly question at each 100 miles of the journey.  Remember, variety is the spice of life!

6.  Schedule learning time.  This may be easier for my children because not only am I their Mom, but I am also their teacher.  However, I think you can make it part of your normal travel experience as well.  Whether it is workbooks, educational CDs (I love this history series), puzzle books, or a travel book you made, providing an educational activity is just good for their developing minds.  Our children have colored pictures of the states that included the state's bird, flower, and flag.

7.  Debrief.  I love taking informal surveys of my family and others, so I will often ask everyone to share what they liked best from the day, what their favorite activity was, two things they learned at the last stop, or anything to get them to think over the day and share about their experience.  There are no wrong answers in this activity and if it turns out they despised everything about the day then you can address that as well.

8.  Play games.  I will give more ideas in another post, but the point is to interact with each other and have fun.  It may mean buying a travel bingo game and marking off things they see or using the alphabet to remember all the crazy things you will take on a trip.  These games should need minimal preparation and provide another break from electronics.

9.  Enjoy 21st century electronics.  I love technology and think that it can have its place on a trip without taking over.  The big thing is setting boundaries ahead of time.  I have also found that it is better to use movies, video games, tablets, etc. less at the beginning of a trip when everyone is excited, so that as you near the end of the journey and everyone is sick of riding, you can pop in a movie or hand out the Kindle Fires, iPads or phone and not feel guilty.  Also, with Redbox locations throughout the U.S. you can mix up by renting a DVD at one and dropping it off later down the road.

10.  "Deputize" your older children.  No, they do not need to put the younger ones in jail when they cry or whine, but they can be your backseat helpers and be enlisted to help entertain, feed and communicate for their younger siblings. Being able to give a baby a bottle so you can keep driving can be a huge blessing and make your oldest feel like a valuable part of the family.  They can also hand toys to your little ones and let you know if the baby is crying because they just spit up or because their stuffed animal fell on the floor.  Make a big deal about them being your helper and "pay" them with accolades, high fives, stickers, etc. for a job well done.

11.  Stimulate their brains.  This applies to the kids and the driver, but keeping the brain stimulated will keep the driver awake and keep boredom at bay.  Besides the other things mentioned, we have found bringing quiz books, cards from Trivial Pursuit games (buy cheap at a local thrift store), or an atlas can get people thinking and guessing. (I realize most people don't buy paper road atlases anymore, but they can be very interesting and helpful for showing kids where you are and where you are going.)  Grab cheap cards from a teacher supply store or even Target and hand the card to the one who guesses correctly. Award the winner with choosing the next movie, song or place to eat. 

12.  Adjust your attitude.  This may seem silly or unimportant, but it is crucial to a successful car ride.  If the adults in the vehicle are positive and excited, it will rub off on the children.  We joke that I love to rope my husband, children, friends and strangers into things by simply convincing them that "it will be fun and they will like it."  Conversely, if you are grumpy or dreading the journey, you may create a carload of grumpy people before you leave your driveway.  So, check your attitude and prepare to see even the travel as part of the grand adventure!

Whether you are looking forward to traveling this summer or dreading it, be encouraged.  You don't have to be an expert or have all the latest gadgets, games or toys.  Spending concentrated time with your family outside of your normal routine is good for all of you.  Every trip is an opportunity to grow and learn, through the good and the bad.  So, take a deep breath, put in as much preparation as fits your personality and then GO!

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Monday, June 9, 2014

Sheldon Lake State Park

Here are some photos from a recent visit to Sheldon Lake State Park.  It is a former fish hatchery.  There are some short trails, an 82-foot observation tower with an elevator, and ponds for family fishing.  It is also FREE admission for all ages!  It's on the East side of Houston off Beltway 8.  It's a small state park that gives you a nice break from the hustle and bustle of city living.  Take a picnic lunch and go exploring.

Two of the former fish hatchery ponds.

A 1/2 mile trail goes past the ponds.

They have restrooms and some educational areas.

There's a small botanical garden.

Various bones and shells were set out for the kids to inspect.

Found some large leg bones!

For Directions:
Sheldon Lake State Park
15315 Beaumont Hwy, Houston, TX ‎ 

Friday, May 23, 2014

FREE Summer Activities in Houston

Since moving to Houston three years ago, this is one of my favorite places to go in Houston.  They offer children's performances at 11 AM throughout the summer and early fall.  Evening performances for families and adults are also offered and you can get tickets for the seats or bring a blanket and sit on the lawn.  The Shakespeare Festival in August is one of my favorites and it's been a great way to introduce my older children to live performances of the Bard's plays.

Their summer reading program is coming soon!  Summer reading programs are always a great way to encourage your kids to read during the summer months.  Plus, the library offers special programs during the week in their air conditioned locations.

This was the first library system we joined when we moved to Houston and their summer reading program is our favorite.  You can enter everything online and then visit the library for your rewards.  They also offer great rewards.  In past years, we have received free tickets for an Astros game and free children's tickets for the circus and the Houston Rockets. 

Just print off the form for each of your children and fill it out with your child's reading times and when they take it in to a Half Price Books, they will receive Bookworm Bucks which is like a gift card.  My children loved this last year.  They read in June and July and received $5 Bookworm Bucks each month to use to buy books, magazines and stuffed animals.  They are also holding a Storytime on Sunday, June 8 at 2:00PM to kick off the summer!

For every 8 books your child reads they can earn a free book from Barnes and Noble's selection.  Just print off their reading journal and get started!  There's even a free guide for teachers to encourage their students to read over the summer.

What better activity for the summer than a boat ride?  The Port of Houston offers a free 90-minute tour of the port on a 95 foot boat with indoor and outdoor seating for 90 people.  It's a great way to see the large ships that come into the port and enjoy the breeze off the water.  They even give you a small complimentary soda or bottled water at the halfway point.  You are not allowed to bring food or beverages on the tour.  Follow the link to get more information and to make your reservation.  Note:  There are no tours on Monday and Tuesday and you must make reservations ahead of time online.

Do you need a place for your kids to walk, but you don't want to be out in the heat?  Then why not take them on a hiking adventure through the 6 miles of tunnels that make up the Houston Downtown Tunnel system.  The tunnels are busiest during the lunch hour, but if you go later in the afternoon after many of the restaurants have closed, you will find much smaller crowds.  With stores and restaurants as well as access to lots of buildings, it's a fun way to explore the downtown area and not worry about children running out in traffic.  

More Free Fun Downtown

While Downtown, you may also want to explore Sam Houston Park.  The Heritage Society maintains ten historic buildings that you can pay to tour.  Their museum gallery is always free and has a replica general store with hands on activities for the kids.  They also have free parking.

Discovery Green is also a fun place to play and you can cool off in the fountains.  Check their calendar for special events.  You can also ride the free GreenLink buses to get a riding tour of the downtown area and get tired kids back to the car.

My children's favorite Houston Public Library branch is the large Central Library downtown.  It is next to City Hall and close to Sam Houston Park.  The ground floor of City Hall now houses the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau and its Visitors Center.  I plan on going to City Hall soon to explore.  I have been told they have a free 10-minute film about the area. 

While trying to survive a Houston summer, it is always good to find fun places to go that are free and out of the heat.  Checking out some of the museums is a great way to keep learning and exploring, while enjoying air conditioning.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Summer Movies For Cheap (Or FREE!)

Summer Movies

If your kids are like mine, they have probably seen most of the movies being offered for cheap or free at theaters across the country this summer.  However, if you want a cool break and a chance to enjoy movies your kids love on the big screen again, it's a great opportunity.  But, don't just look up theaters where you live.  If you are traveling anywhere this summer you might want to see if there will be any participating theaters near your vacation destination.  It would be a cheap outing and a chance to hang out with the locals.

Regal Cinemas is continuing their $1 summer movies.  They are offering them for 9 weeks at 10 AM on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Click on the picture to find a theater in your area and check the start date.  Insider Tip:  If you have a Regal Crown Club card, show it when you purchase tickets and on TUESDAYS you will receive a coupon for a $2 small popcorn which you can upgrade to a large for $2 more. That's a savings of $4.25 and you may get a free refill of the large. They are also handing out passport booklets to get stamped for each movie you see. If you see 8, then the 9th one is free!

WeekTitleRatingStart Time
1Hotel TransylvaniaPG10am
1The Smurfs 2PG10am
2Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2PG10am
2The Pirates: Band of MisfitsPG10am
3Arthur ChristmasPG10am
3Despicable Me 2PG10am
4The Lego MoviePG10am
4Free BirdsPG10am
5Adventures of TinTinPG10am
5Rise of the GuardiansPG10am
6Kung Fu Panda 2PG10am
6Madagascar 3PG10am
7The CroodsPG10am
8Walking with DinosaursPG10am
9Mr. Peabody & ShermanPG10am
9Rio 2G10am

Santikos Theaters has 8 locations in Texas.  They are once again offering a FREE movie each week on Tuesday and Wednesday at 10 AM.  They will run for 6 weeks.  Update (6/4): Here is the new list of movies for this summer.  

Cinemark is offering $1 movies every Wednesday at 10 AM.  You can also purchase tickets to all 10 movies for $5 in advance. 

Harkins Theaters are located in AZ, CA, CO, OK and TX.  They are offering 10 movies for $6 throughout the summer or $2 per movie, as seating allows.  Their movies begin at 9:45 AM.

Bow Tie Cinemas is offering FREE movies at their theaters in CT, MD, NJ, NY and VA.  Their 9 weeks of movies begins June 24 and 25 with showings every Tuesday and Wednesday at 10 AM.

Cobb Theatres are located in FL, AL, CO, GA, and VA.  They are offering 8 weeks of FREE movies.  Follow the link to the main website and then click on your location to find the link to the schedule.  It appears they are offering viewings on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10 AM.

Carmike Cinemas are offering summer movies for kidsThey are located in 38 states and the movies, schedule and cost varies by location. 

Marquee Cinemas in WV, FL, VA, KY, NC, NY, PA, NJ, and CT offered summer movies last year.  They do not currently have anything listed, but hopefully that will change.

Premiere Cinemas are offering summer movies on Wednesdays.  Find your location through the link for specific details.

Malco Theatres are offering $2 movies on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10 AM from June 3 - July 30.  They have locations in TN, AR, KY and MS.

UltraStar Cinemas in CA and AZ offer 50¢ summer kids movies that vary by location.

Dickinson Theatres are located in AR, AZ, KS, MO, NE, OK and TX.  Click on the theater near you and then click on the Summer Vacation Movie link for the flyer for that cinema.  Some are free and some are $1.

AmStar Cinemas has locations in AL, FL, GA, KY, NC, and SC.  They will have movies on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10 AM.  For $3.50 they offer a box of popcorn and kid's soda with the ticket.

Marcus Theatres are in WI, IL, IA, MN, NE, ND, and OH.  They are showing $2 movies at 10 AM on Sundays, Mondays, and Wednesdays from June 15 - August 13.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is offering Alamo Kids Camp with free summer movies their various locations in Austin.  Currently, they do not have anything listed for their Houston and Katy locations.  

Showcase Cinemas in NY, NJ, RI, CT, MA and OH are offering Bookworm Wednesdays at some of their locations this summer.  They have a downloadable book report that each child fills out (It's short.) and brings with them to view the movie for free.     

Muller Family Theatres in MN are offering free summer movies at their 8 locations.

Georgia Theatre Company has locations in FL, SC, VA and GA.  They are offering $1 movies on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 AM.

Portage Theatres in Portage, WI will be showing summer movies for kids on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays throughout the summer for 50¢ per person.  Update (6/8):  The Summer Family Movie Series begins June 17th!  Check the website for the list of movies.

Studio Movie Grill is offering 13 weeks of summer movies for kids.  They have upped their price to $2 per person this summer, but it may be worth the splurge.  Their seating is very comfortable and if you order any drinks, including free water, they will bring refills at the touch of a button.

AMC Theatres- In case you noticed their absence on this list, it is because they stopped offering free or cheap summer kids' movies in 2010.