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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Cyber Monday Sale!

Yippee! It's time for a sale! TeachersPayTeachers is having a site-wide sale on December 1st and 2nd for Cyber Monday, and you can get 28% off every item in my store with the code TPTCYBER. I've got a couple of things I'm super excited about as both a seller and a buyer:

1. My Japanese lesson set bundle

Have you seen the new bundle in my store? These folk song lessons are a labor of love- all of the songs are my favorites from my childhood in Japan, and each one comes with native speaker recordings, sheet music, slides and printables to add instruments or teach musical concepts from the song, and facts about Japan. They have everything you need to incorporate them into your lessons or do a stand-alone unit on songs from Japan. Each of them is available separately as well, but you get all 3 for 20% off with the bundle, and you will get all my future Japanese song sets for free!

And don't forget about my organizing sheets and planner sets. This is a great time to get organized so that you are ready for January! These planning sheets for the new national music standards have been a great way for me to organize my long-range planning around the new standards.

2. Christmas Freeze Dance and Creative Movement from Tracy King

Christmas Freeze Dance and Creative Movement

I have these in my cart and ready to go- I need something new and fresh for dance breaks in my classes in the lead-up to winter break! My students have been getting more and more antsy as standardized testing takes over their learning. They come to my room ready to move, so we have been doing a lot of dance breaks :) These sets are a great twist on dancing games and also help them expand their movement repertoire. Love it!

3. Emotions - Posters and Writing Worksheet from ARTrageous Fun

EMOTIONS - Posters and Writing Worksheet

With all of the behavior issues we have had at our school the last couple of years, we have been really pushing emotional literacy. One of the concepts I want to emphasize more this year is performing with expression- I really want to help students experience the ways they can express their feelings through music. These visual aids for feelings will be a great way to talk about a range of emotions and use them in my lessons (I'll have to share more about my ideas for this after I've tried it out in my classes... wink wink!). 

I'm also linking up with Amy Abbott on Music a la Abbott- check out the linky party to see more great resources for music teachers to add to your cart for the sale!

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Happy Shopping :)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Teacher Tuesday: organized concert prep

Well, it's that time of year again. While others are starting to get that warm fuzzy feeling as they anticipate the holiday season, music teachers around the world are hunkering down, trying to visualize 500 children walking on and off the stage in various configurations while holding props and percussion instruments without dropping anything, making large noises, or falling off the stage. Concert season!

While there's no way around some amount of pandemonium *cough* I mean flurry of activity, thinking through everything in advance and planning out as much as possible has made a huge difference in my concert season stress level.

Here are some of the things I do to stay organized, and a general timeline for when I do them. I have done everything from "informance"-type presentations of class material, to formal ensemble performances, and full-scale musical productions. The basic ideas for how I prepare have been the same.

1. Date, time, venue, and repertoire
I try to have the dates, times, and venues for all of my performances set and on the calendar before the school year begins. I'd much rather have the other events planned around my concert than the other way around, and it makes the rest of my planning much easier when I know what my timeline is.

I also pick out my repertoire/material/script before the school year begins, or at least before the semester when I will be teaching it begins. Again, having the repertoire picked out ahead of time makes all the rest of my planning so much easier. I have often had to make adjustments to my choices after I start teaching (and either realize the material is too easy or too hard), but it is easier to make changes to a plan than to have no plan at all!

2. Long-range teaching plan
Once I know the date of the concert and the material I need the performers to learn, I can plan backwards to see when I need to start focused rehearsals on the material. Going backwards from the performance, I add a dress rehearsal and 2 more "run-through" rehearsals. That gives me a little buffer to work with, but also gives the students time to make sure everything is memorized and work out the logistics of performing (like bowing and transitioning between groups or songs). From there I plan out each rehearsal backwards to get to that end goal to find my starting point.

3. Logistics planning
This is where the planning depends greatly on the type of performance. When I am planning a full-scale musical, there are a lot of logistics that need to be worked out as close to the start of the school year as possible: costumes, acting rehearsals, set and prop pieces, sound and lighting tech, etc. For ensemble or class performances, the logistics tend to be much simpler and I start planning out the logistics a few weeks after I have started teaching the material- usually 2-3 months before the performance.

No matter what I'm planning for, though, I am a big fan of writing everything down. I organize all of my information into categories and keep it in my planner:

(I've put these performance planning sheets in my TpT store if you are interested!)

Some of the things I make sure to plan include sound and lighting needs, the written program (if there is one), costumes or dress code, publicity, stage setup and flow (transitions are key!), and people to contact. Which brings me to my next point...

4. People to contact
One of the most important things I have learned from experience is that if something goes wrong, it is usually because I did not communicate enough with the right people about the right information. With all the coordinating I am doing myself, it's easy to forget that other people don't have instant access to all the information swirling around in my brain, and it's often hard to keep track of whom I have told what. Add in the complexity that comes with the blessing of various helpers- whether from parents, staff members, or the community- and communication becomes an even greater challenge.

I always include two things in my performance planning to help me keep track of communication: a list of contact information for anyone helping with the performance, and what their role is (costume sewing, sound tech, moving risers out of storage etc), and a checklist of who I need to contact and the basic information I need to communicate. As the performance gets closer, I can go through my checklist every now and then to see if there is anyone I need to email or talk to that week. It has really helped cut down on communication gaps and helped me get more people on board with supporting the program because they feel more connected to the process.

I think that's it! Whew! After all that planning, all that's left to do is ride the wave... :D Best of luck to all my colleagues entering the performance season! Share your tips for staying sane in the comments below!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Mommy Monday: DIY toddler toys- magnet board

With the holidays fast approaching, stores and websites are filled with the best new toys for kids in every age group. Although there are some pretty nifty ones out there, including a few that are on my list to get my girls this Christmas, often the simple things we make end up being the favorites for our children. 

One of those favorites that I made for the girls is a fairly simple one to make: a magnet board.

All you need is some kind of flat piece of metal, adhesive magnet sheets, and a printer. I was planning to use cookie sheets as the boards, but saw these cute ones on clearance at JoAnne's Fabrics and knew they would be perfect! No extra work painting or anything and I have instant cute! :) For the magnets, I tried to think of all the things my girls like the most- favorite animals, food, etc. The result is a pretty random collection of clipart, but they absolutely love having all their favorite things! I also included a picture of each of their faces.

I actually made these to take on a long car ride we had this summer, so I used a couple of my reusable snack bags as pouches to hold each child's magnets. They are the perfect size and it worked well for the car. 

It is such a simple thing but the girls pull their magnet boards out a lot. They love making up silly stories with the different magnets, or even making patterns on the board with the different foods, animals, and other categories. 

The great thing about this toy is that you can add to it over the seasons- I am planning to make magnets of the different characters from the nativity story for them to play with before Christmas. As their interests change, it's easy to add different magnets as well. 

If you missed it, I wrote a post a few weeks ago about another toy I made for my kids- the busy box- which has also been a big hit. Happy playing!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Teacher Tuesday: small percussion storage

Welcome back to Teacher Tuesday! If you saw my classroom tour from the beginning of the school year, you will remember with great rejoicing my wonderful open shelving in my classroom:

While I know most do not have such extensive open shelving in their elementary music classrooms, I want to talk a little bit about some general tips to keep in mind when storing small percussion instruments, which will hopefully be applicable to many teachers in different classroom settings.

So first, let's take a closer look at the shelves in question:

Hmm, not exactly pretty, huh? That's OK. I'll fix that someday with stylish, matching containers. It's on my to-do list (groan). Moving on...

1. Keep larger sets of instruments together in open boxes and baskets.

Keeping sets of instruments, like rhythm sticks and shakers, together is probably common sense. But I think it is important to keep them in open containers, even if you don't have them on open shelves. It's much faster to take out and put away when you're using them in class, students can see what is in each container and how they are stored to put them back, and you can find the right container more quickly too.

2. Keep the instruments used most often by your youngest students at their height.

I used to be more obsessive about sorting instruments by type (metals, woods etc) on my shelves, but I am now a firm believer in organizing things to allow maximum student independence. Think about the instruments that are used most often by your kindergartners (or whatever youngest grade you teach) and put those instruments just below their line of sight where they can easily reach them. I think it is so important to teach students how to take out and put away instruments on their own, so the more you can leave things where they are and have students go get them right from their storage location themselves, the better.

3. Keep those really tempting but less-used instruments out of reach.

This is especially important with open shelving, but no matter where you are keeping your instruments, if you are wanting to foster independence and have students getting out and putting away instruments themselves, you are going to have to protect some of the more fragile instruments. I keep my box of really small percussion, as well as my gong and wind chimes, at the back of the shelf where students can't get to them on their own.

4. Keep everything needed to play the instruments together.

Keep the beaters with the triangles, the sticks with the guiros, and the mallets with the temple blocks. I used to keep all the beaters/unpitched percussion mallets etc together in one container, but that makes the process of getting set up and cleaned up from playing much slower. Keep everything a student needs to play each instrument together so they only have to go to one place to get everything they need.

5. Let students be responsible for their instruments!

Students will never learn how to carefully and properly pick up, carry, and store instruments if they never do it themselves. Encourage independence by storing instruments in view (as space allows) and organize them to streamline the process of helping students find and put back the instruments properly. Yes, it does require more monitoring when idle hands can more easily reach them as well, but it is an important lesson to learn and one that will encourage a community of respect in your classroom as well.

**Update: I've come up with some specific solutions for storing those really pesky but commonly-used instruments that have made a huge difference in my classroom: click here to see my hand drum solution, and click here to see my solution for triangles.**

What are your tips for organizing and storing instruments in the classroom? Leave a comment below! If you want more tips and lesson ideas for other instruments like ukulele, recorder, xylophones, keyboards, and more, head to this post:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Mommy Monday: budget-friendly temporary gallery wall

Gallery walls are a wonderful way to display a collection of photos. I especially love the ones that show family pictures- I think it is a wonderful way to celebrate family. I think it is especially great for children to see pictures of themselves and their family members prominently displayed. It gives a sense of the centrality of those people to their every-day lives.

My problem: I'm a renter. While I normally am a huge fan of command strips as an alternative to nail holes, a gallery wall would take a WHOLE LOT of command strips! So for my small gallery wall I turned to my other go-to: washi tape.

There are so many advantages to sticking your photos directly on the wall with washi tape for a gallery wall effect:

  1. Cheap. You can buy a good roll of washi tape for under $2. I've been using the same 3 rolls of washi tape for a couple of years, on a myriad of projects, and I'm not even close to running out.
  2. Stylish. Because you can mix and match different patterns and colors of washi tape, you can instantly get that eclectic/stylish feel with no effort!
  3. Adjustable. You can peel and stick washi tape many times without losing stickiness (I don't know why. it's the magic of washi.), so if you're not sure what arrangement you will like, just try it and then move things around.
  4. Fast. Just think of how much faster it is to tape a picture to the wall than to put it in the frame and then mount the frame!
  5. Safe. No worries about a kid knocking a frame off the wall!
I recently re-did our gallery wall to include more pictures of extended family. Before I had more pictures of the girls as infants, mostly because I can't get enough of them, but now that the girls can remember their great-grandparents from a visit a month ago it's nice to have those photos to help them remember their relatives and reinforce their importance in our lives.

Have you tried hanging photos with washi tape yet? If you haven't, go do it! Now! ;)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Linkup: Tech Talk Tuesday (DIY Interactive Whiteboard tutorial)

Today I'm linking up with Shelley Tomich at Pitch Hill to share a tech tip with you. I've included the link to the link-up at the bottom of this post, so don't forget to check out all the other fantastic tech tips over there! This tech tip is one that I have shared on this blog before, but is so awesome that is bears repeating: how to make your own interactive whiteboard system for under $50.

Today I'm sharing a tutorial on my biggest school project last year: my DIY interactive whiteboard (aka SmartBoard, Promethean Board etc). I know it sounds crazy to make your own interactive whiteboard, but trust me, it's not nearly as techy and complicated as it sounds, and get this: if you have a projector, this thing will only cost you $50!! That's a lot less than the astronomical amount it would cost you to get a name-brand SmartBoard or other pre-made interactive whiteboard. So it's definitely worth the sweat equity to get it going.

1 Wii Remote (like this one)- around $20
1 Infrared Pen (like this one)- $20-$30 depending on the type you choose
Wiimote Whiteboard software (like this one)- free
Computer with bluetooth capability (or you can get a bluetooth dongle here)
Projector (preferably mounted, but not required)

1. Make sure you have a projector and a space on which to project an image. It can be a regular whiteboard, a projector screen, or even a wall (which is what I used- and actually prefer).

Because my walls are pretty old and yucky, I bought some white contact paper and black painter's tape at Home Depot and put it up on the wall where the projected image goes. It is a nice touch that helps define the space for the students, and it makes it easier to see because you can't see the chipped paint on the wall, but it is definitely not necessary.

If possible, make sure the projector is mounted- and if you can't do that, get it as stable and immovable as possible. The less it moves the better. Connect your computer to your projector.

2. Buy a Wii remote and IR (infrared) pen. Use the links above or you can shop around for your favorite type. There are tons of different pens you can get here, as well as several other online options. You could even make your own pen if you wanted, but no need to dive into that unless you are really up for an adventure! :)

3. Download the correct version of the free software onto your computer to match your operating system. If you want to explore all the software versions available, you can check out this site, but I recommend sticking with the one already mentioned.

4. Open bluetooth on your computer. Open the back of the Wii remote (where you put in the batteries) and push the red button until you see the Wii remote appear under the list of bluetooth items on your computer. Your remote is now connected to your computer.

5. Open the Wiimote software you downloaded. Hold down the 1 and 2 buttons on the front of the Wii remote at the same time. You may see some text scrolling in a new window- this is good. Keep holding the buttons. When you see a blue bar appear towards the top of the Wiimote software window showing the battery level, you are successfully connected and can stop holding the buttons.

6. Turn on your projector. Set your Wii remote up somewhere where the black end can "see" the whole projected image- this is the tricky part. You can tape it to the projector, set it on a table, or use a mic stand to point it towards the image. It needs to be far enough away to get the whole screen but close enough to be able to "see" the IR pen. I used a mic stand for several months and ended up mounting it to the ceiling like this:

If you want to use this setup you will need to buy a mount like this. For me it was worth it because of the way my room is set up (sky lights: great for natural lighting, not so great for projector installation), but most people will probably find it easiest to stick it on to the projector itself. Keep in mind that the Wii remote can "see" about 45 degrees on either side.

*You can check to see how much of the screen the Wii remote is "seeing" by clicking on the IR camera monitor and then making the window full screen. Click around in all corners of the screen to see if a dot shows up when you click.

7. Click "calibrate" in the Wiimote software. You will see a bulls-eye on the left top corner of the screen. Click on the center of the bulls-eye with your IR pen. If your remote is positioned correctly, you will see a green check mark. Yay! Now do the same thing in the new bulls-eye that has now appeared on the top left side. You will then do the two bottom corners. If you get green checks in all 4 corners, you are all set to use your board! It is very important that you are careful to click as close to the center of each bulls-eye as possible. The further off your points are here, the more your calibration will be off when you try to do something on your new interactive whiteboard. Take your time! If it's not working, play around some more with the Wii remote positioning. You also need to make sure you aren't blocking the Wii remote from seeing the IR pen with your body. Make sure you stand to the side while you click.

Extras (I use but aren't necessary):
Contact paper/ painter's tape
Gator mount for ceiling or desktops for Wii remote (like this one)
Rechargeable battery pack for Wii remote (available here for $12.99)
Smart Notebook (available here- they have free trials) or other interactive whiteboard software

Getting your own interactive whiteboard definitely takes some trial and error but it is SO WORTH IT. There are so many benefits to having an interactive system in the elementary music classroom, but so few schools that provide their music rooms with the funds to buy a pre-made one. I hope that I can help inspire more music teachers to give it a shot- please let me know if you need any help along the way!

I hope you enjoyed this post. Now go check out the other awesome tips for technology in the music room (including lots of great tips for iPads!) by heading over to the Tech Talk Tuesday linkup:


Teacher Tuesday: recorder karate part 2- belt storage

Welcome back to Teacher Tuesday! Earlier this year I shared my current system for organizing and storing the students' sheet music for the Recorder Karate program. I've included the link to that post at the end of this one so you can read more about it if you're interested. Today's post is about my new recorder belt storage solution!

Last year I started using loom bands as my "belts" and it was the best.decision.ever. No more cutting little pieces of yarn, no more tying things onto hundreds of recorders, no more running out to the store early in the morning because you didn't know your yellow yarn was almost gone. So much easier. The only tiny problem:

This whole loom band thing happened in the middle of the school year last year, just as I was getting ready to start the program, so I didn't have time to get everything as organized as I would have liked. I went through the whole year last year with the loom bands in the flimsy little plastic bags in which they were packaged, and kept them all corralled in a tissue box with the top cut off (yep.). Not the best way to have quick and easy access to the belt I need when a student completes a test, and not the easiest thing for me to carry around when I am listening to students play for their tests.

Enter the pill box.

Some of you may have seen my Mommy Monday post on how I store my kids' hair elastics:

It wasn't until I wrote that blog post that I made the connection to storing my recorder belt storage- those hair elastics are basically the same thing as the loom bands I use at school! (And this is precisely why I break the "first rule of blogging" and blog about two topics- home and school- because I find so many connections between the two! If nothing else, blogging about both has already helped me come up with great ideas myself!)

At first I was thinking about having 2 of the same round pill boxes that I used for the hair elastics, but I quickly realized that those would also be cumbersome to carry around when I am testing. The next idea I had was to get one of those giant ones with multiple boxes for every day of the week, but I didn't really want something that big. When I was at the drug store, looking for something else, I came across this and realized it was exactly what I needed:

It's so much smaller. It only has 8 compartments, but I really don't need to carry around the white belts because I have my students earn that first belt as a class before I turn them loose on the rest of the belts. Now I have something that fits easily in my pocket, and gives me easy access to whichever color I need:

I'm able to fit about 20 of each color comfortably in this container. I am keeping the rest of the bands in the same tissue box and will replenish in between classes as needed. 

If you want to read about how I organize the sheet music for recorder karate, head on over to this post:

How do you organize your belts for recorder karate? Share your ideas in the comments or head on over to my facebook page to join the conversation there!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mommy Monday: getting toddlers to eat leftovers- the ice cube tray

I'm sure I'm not the only parent with kids who don't like leftovers. And to be honest, I understand- I remember hating leftovers as a kid. My least favorite meals were when my mom would announce that it was "clean out the fridge day" and she would pull out all the different little leftover things from earlier in the week, sandwich bread, produce that needed to be eaten before it went bad, etc, and told us to take what we wanted. You would think that would be fun to pick different things to eat... But no, I thought it was the worst.

So imagine my surprise when my toddlers had the same reaction to my same meal plan! They really do not like having the same thing twice in one week. Unless it is hot dogs. But those are never left over (because why would you leave hot dogs uneaten?). I digress...

Last week I got off my normal meal plan routine because one of the girls was sick. So I got to the end of the week and realized I had a half-eaten bag of spinach, two untouched bell peppers, and some other random things that I was going to have to throw away soon. Also I had been too tired to prepare anything for dinner before I left for work (yeah OK I guess that was the bigger problem). So I decided to try something I had been meaning to do for a while: 

That's right folks, it's an ice cube tray! Luckily I had just emptied three trays of ice and had the trays sitting clean and empty on my counter already. I had seen this idea for a party a long time ago on Pinterest:

toddler lunch in ice cube tray

It was one of those ideas that I thought, "yeah, that would be really cute if I had hours to sit and chop stuff up and arrange into cute and colorful trays for my kids' party... *sigh*", pinned, and moved on. But if all I'm doing is cleaning out the fridge with random bits and pieces, I figured why not?!?

It was actually a lot of fun to put together. The girls loved helping me pull out anything and everything from the fridge and pantry, and picking out where to put each item on their tray. By the time we finished (took us about 15 minutes total to get them ready) they couldn't wait to dig in! The whole time we were eating they would look around their tray, giggle with excitement, and pick a new item to stuff in their mouth. It was hilarious!

In case you're interested, these are the things that ended up going in our trays: banana slices, spinach leaves, tortilla, cheerios, frozen peas, frozen blueberries, goldfish crackers, canned corn, canned black beans, sliced deli ham, mixed nuts, sweet potato, shredded cheese, yellow bell pepper, and hot dog. Both girls finished most of their dinner.

I think we will be doing this again soon- the girls are still talking about it several days later! What do you do to get your kids to eat leftovers? Share your ideas in the comments!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Teacher Tuesday: organizing recordings

Welcome back to Teacher Tuesday! Today I want to talk about how I keep up with all the different recordings I use in my classes throughout the year. There are all the CD's from the district textbook series, tried-and-true CD's I have for movement and other lessons, songs for musical games, recordings of my piano accompaniments for choir and more! Some I use for more than one lesson in more than one grade level, others I only use occasionally, and some I use every year for one very specific lesson.

There are many different ways to organize recordings as a music teacher, but I think the best way to keep track of all the different recordings from multiple sources is to store them digitally and keep all the sound files in one central location (such as iTunes). Over the years I have found some excellent recordings that I still use that are on cassettes, CD's, email attachments, and YouTube videos. It is impossible to keep track of that many different sources and remember where you have what. By converting everything to a digital sound file and storing them all in one place, you at least know where to look when you need to find that one song!

Once you get everything into one centralized, digital location, how you choose to organize your tracks will depend on how you teach and how your brain works. After going through several different organizational systems in iTunes over the last few years, this is the one that seems to work best for me, but you will need to think through and try out some different systems to find the one that best fits your needs.

Basically, I have found that I usually don't have a problem remembering what the track is that I need when I am planning. My main need is having the tracks organized for the day's lessons so that I don't have to hunt for the right track in between (or in the middle of) classes. I use playlists within iTunes that look like this:

Basically I have an ever-evolving playlist for every class I teach. There is one for each grade level, one for each choir, and a few extras for special events (music in our schools month, kindergarten graduation/celebration, townwide/all-district ensemble etc). I also keep one list called "party", where I keep any track I find that works well for music games. Any time the occasion arises, it is nice to have a variety of upbeat songs to choose from that I know will be appropriate. Often I'll let a student choose from the list themselves!

For each class playlist, I store only the tracks I currently need for the lesson I am teaching that day. When the tracks I need change for that class, I delete the old ones and add the new ones in by searching in my master music list in iTunes.

You can probably tell what we are working on in 3rd grade right now! Usually there are only 2 or 3 tracks at most in a class playlist, and I can put the tracks in the order that I will need them in the lesson so I don't have to search for the right track in the middle of class.

I have been using this system for the last 2-3 years and have found that this is what works for me. I know others like to tag different tracks with the concepts they can teach (in playlists or something else), or keep all the tracks for a particular unit in one playlist that doesn't change.

How do you keep track of all of the recordings you need for your music classes? Tell me your ideas in the comments!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Mommy Monday: DIY toddler toys- busy box

Today I want to share something I made for my 2-year-old kids (and several other friends of similar age) a while back. My hope is to communicate that a) busy parents with tight budgets and schedules can make legitimately fun, developmentally appropriate, Pinterest worthy playthings for their children, b) sometimes the stuff you can make for them is better than the toys you can buy, and c) you don't have to be a gifted crafter to do this stuff.

I will admit that creative projects like this are really fun for me. I had seen the idea of "busy bags" on Pinterest with tons of cute, simple ideas to keep toddlers busy/happy/quiet, and knew I wanted to do something like that for my own children. When two friends with kids around the same age as my twins announced they were having a baby, I knew this would be a perfect gift to make for their toddlers to keep them occupied while they deal with the baby.

Tip 1: Plan to make the same thing for several people at once

I realized quickly that the supplies you generally need for these kinds of projects are most cost-effective and readily-available in larger quantities than you would ever need to make just one. For me, having two other families to give to was a good opportunity. I've also heard of having a busy bag exchange, just like a cookie exchange, where each participant makes the same thing for the number of families participating and walks away with a whole assortment of activities from each person.

Without further ado, I present my "busy box":

That's right, folks. I stuck a piece of construction paper on the lid of an old shoebox. I used only shoeboxes that had the lid attached to the bottom of the box in some way. I figured the fewer parts to find on a cluttered floor the better. I wrote the child's name on each one- it makes it so much more special for the child when they see their own name on it!

Most of the ideas online called these "busy bags", and the items were kept in ziploc bags. I decided I wanted something a little more special and neat-looking than a see-through bag- so far I am happy with my choice. The box is also easier than a ziploc for toddlers to close themselves.

Tip 2: Put all the materials in one, easy-to-open-and-store container

Inside the busy box:

Now let's talk about the goodies inside! I looked at a lot of ideas on Pinterest and blogs and loved many of them, but was hoping to get more bang for my buck than most of the ones I saw online- I wanted something that my kids could creatively use for a variety of activities, not just one.

Tip 3: Make things that can be used in multiple ways

First we have the felt pockets:

I found some sheets of felt on sale and got six colors (for whatever reason the purple looks like dark blue in the pictures... sorry about that). I am NOT a sewer, but I was able to sew a straight line on each side with my mother's sewing machine to create a pocket in which to sort items. I also drew around the outside of shapes and letters that I cut out of the same felt and drew around them with a sharpie on the front of each pocket to create something like a puzzle.

The rest of the materials are smaller pieces- pom-pom balls, craft sticks, and felt cutouts- all in the same colors as the felt pockets.

The ideas kind of grew as I was putting everything together- I had not thought of putting the shapes and letters that I had in the cutouts on the craft sticks until I had finished everything else and was testing out different ways to play with them. I have 3 sticks in each color- one with the corresponding letter, one with the shape, and one blank. There are also 3 balls in each color.

Tip 4: Include kid-friendly directions 

The last thing I have in the box is a set of laminated cards with pictures of the different ways the items can be combined to make different games. I probably wouldn't have done this if I was just making it for my own kids, but since I was making them for friends as well I decided it would be a good idea to share some of the ideas I had for how to use what I had put together. Obviously part of the point is to just allow kids to explore and use the items creatively however they want, but the direction cards actually seem to make it feel more like a "real game" for my children- they like to pick out one of the cards and seem to think of it like a challenge. Again for mostly for my friends, I also wrote out directions for each idea on the back so that the parent could explain to the kids how to use it if they wanted.

So in all, I bought 6 pieces of felt, a set of pom-pom balls, and a set of craft sticks. I drew the shapes and letters on the sticks and pockets, sewed the pockets, took pictures of everything and made the direction cards on the computer to print, and cut out the shapes and letters. Pretty low-cost and not too difficult!

What are your favorite materials to have on hand for toddlers to play with? Have you made any of these busy bags? Leave your ideas in the comments- I'd love to hear them!