Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Toddler 101: Learning the Alphabet


Note: this is not a sponsored post - I borrowed this DVD from the public library and was not compensated in any way :)

At around 2.5 years old, C had long known the alphabet song and had started expressing interest in identifying letters ("what letter is that?"); however, he had NO patience to sit still while I tried to draw letters and teach him their names.  At first I chalked it up to him not really being ready, but he continued to ask me what letters were on signs, book covers, and labels.  

Somehow I came across the Leapfrog Letter Factory DVD while browsing Amazon one day and started reading reviews; there were SO many positive reviews that claimed their toddlers had learned to identify all the letters of the alphabet, as well as their sounds, purely from watching the DVD.  We are SUPER strict about C's screen time (exception: on airplanes, anything goes) - most weeks he he has absolutely no TV or iPad time, but we occasionally let him watch an episode of Daniel Tiger or Bubble Guppies (like when he gets his hair cut).  I wasn't a huge fan of the idea of him "learning" from a DVD, but I discovered our public library had a copy of the DVD and figured it was worth checking it out from the library for free.

The storyline of the movie is cute - the "letter factory" is where letters go to learn their sounds, and in the factory there is a room for each letter of the alphabet where the letters learn what to say ("the A says 'aaaah').  C LOVED the DVD - he laughs hysterically in the "I" room when the "icky" pen explodes.  As soon as it's over, he begs to watch it again.  As suggested by many of the Amazon reviews, we did let him watch the 30-minute DVD repeatedly for 1-2 weeks - I'm talking 4-5 times a week, which is WAY more screen time than he has ever had before, but I wanted to see if the content of the DVD would sink in (this is also when we painted the walls in his big boy room, so it was a great 30-minute distraction that I didn't feel totally guilty about). 

I was SHOCKED at how quickly he picked up on the material; after a couple of weeks of frequent watching, he could identify all of the (uppercase) letters of the alphabet by sight and also knew their "sound".  It has now been several weeks since he's watched the DVD, and he seems to have retained the material - he can still name all their letters and their sounds, and is so proud of himself when he can tell us the letters in a book title.  This DVD was a much faster (and for him, more enjoyable) way to learn the alphabet than me trying to teach it to him.  I initially checked it out (and renewed several times) from the library, but since it has been so effective and is only $7 on Amazon, I think it is worth the investment!

The one limitation with the DVD (if you can have complaints about a 2.5 year old knowing the alphabet and corresponding sounds) is that it focuses on uppercase letters only, so he still cannot recognize any of the lowercase letters which look different from their uppercase counterparts (b, d, e, g, h, q, r, etc.)  

Now that he is so comfortable with uppercase letters, I bought some Crayola ABC flashcards at Dollar Tree which have both the uppercase and lowercase letter on one side, and a picture starting with that letter on the opposite side.  (I couldn't find them new on Amazon, but here's what they look like -- and it appears they're available through some Amazon third party sellers if you can't find them at your local Dollar Tree.)  I punched a hole in the top corner of each card, mixed up the order, and put them on a binder ring so we can keep track of them and flip through them to practice letters.  Since he already knows the uppercase letters, he is much more eager about doing the flash card approach than he was pre-Letter Factory.  With them contained on the binder ring, they are easy to stash in my purse to occupy C while we wait at the doctor or at a restaurant.

All kids learn in different ways and at different stages/ages, but this has worked really well for us!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Homemade Acai Smoothie Bowl Recipe

I am super late to the acai bowl game - having had my first one at a local restaurant this weekend - but now they're all I can think about!  B had never even heard of acai bowls, which are basically a thick smoothie in a bowl, with toppings, eaten with a spoon.  Even though they're a glorified smoothie, something about eating it with a spoon instead of drinking it through a straw (as well as the fact that the toppings require chewing) makes it much more satisfying and filling.  I love that they're full of healthy ingredients, too!  I made my own homemade version for breakfast on Sunday, and they were just as good as the restaurant version - even my 3-year-old happily devoured 3 servings of "purple ice cream!"

You will need a strong blender for this recipe - I have a Vitamix, which is totally worth the hefty price tag for the use we get out of it making margaritas, homemade baby food purees, hummus, soups, and now, acai bowls :)  Look for a certified refurbished or open box Vitamix on Amazon to save some money!

Homemade Acai Smoothie Bowls

Serves: 1


Ingredients:

1 3.5-oz packet frozen unsweetened acai puree (this comes in a 4-pack for $4.49 at Trader Joe's in the frozen fruit section.  You can also find it at Whole Foods or online from Amazon, shipped in dry ice)
1 banana, cut into chunks and frozen (can also use a non-frozen banana, but the end result won't be quite as thick)
5-6 frozen strawberries 
1/2 cup milk of your choice (you can use cashew or almond milk for a vegan alternative; I used regular milk because that's what we had)
1-2 tablespoons peanut butter (I use Laura Scudder's peanut butter, which has no added sugar)


Toppings:
Granola (I used Trader Joe's Pecan Praline Granola)
Shredded coconut (I used Trader Joe's sweetened shredded coconut)
Chopped fruit (strawberries, bananas, mango, blueberries, etc.)
Chia seeds (I was out but these would be good sprinkled on top!)

Run the frozen acai puree packet under hot water for 15-30 seconds to thaw it enough to break into large chunks.  Put the first 5 ingredients (acai puree, banana, strawberries, milk, and peanut butter) in a strong blender and blend on high until smooth.  The texture should be thicker than a smoothie, but thinner than ice cream - add more milk if necessary to achieve the appropriate texture.  Pour into a bowl and add your choice of toppings.

Interested in more breakfast recipes? Check them out here!


Friday, August 11, 2017

Friday Favorites: Things to Do with Toddlers and Preschoolers in Dallas

Woohoo, it's Friday!!  I'm linking up with MomfessionalsGrace and Love, and A Little Bit of Everything to share our FAVORITE toddler-friendly activities and destinations in Dallas!  
I am always in search of free or cheap things to do with my toddler - especially on days when it is cold, rainy, or super hot outside, since he gets bored easily at home; even when the weather is nice, we are frequent visitors of our local parks/playgrounds and splash pads, but those run their course and lose entertainment value if done everyday. So many kids' activities in Dallas are PRICEY - Little Gym, Kindermusik, and the like - that I'm not willing to pay for them very frequently. 

Here are some activities we've personally tried and enjoyed with our toddler.  Lots of them are either completely free or free for kids age 2 and under, so get busy while the admission is still free!  These are generally listed from least expensive (i.e., free) to most expensive.  I'd love suggestions on other ideas!


INDOOR PLAY OPTIONS:

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Galleria Play Area (free)

Of all the malls in Dallas, the play area at the Galleria is my favorite.  It is enclosed with only one entrance/exit, it is large enough to provide at least an hour of entertainment, everything is made of foam so it's safe for littles, and best of all, it's FREE.  The play area is appropriate for kiddos from walking age up to the max height limit (42").  There are plenty of things to climb on and slide down, including a fake Jeep, boat, and hollow log.  The play area is located on the 3rd floor of the Galleria near Nordstrom; I've found it's best to park on the first floor of the Orange parking garage outside Nordstrom and Belk (enter off Alpha); from the mall entrance, you can take the elevator (if you have a stroller) or the escalator straight to the 3rd floor.  The Galleria doors open at 7 AM Monday-Saturday (9 AM on Sunday); to beat the crowd, get there early (before the stores open at 10 AM) because it gets progressively more crowded after 10 AM.  Once you've had enough playing, you can walk around the mall or grab lunch and watch the ice skaters.

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Prestonwood KidZone (Free)

This is a bit out of the way in Plano, but for free entertainment it is worth the drive!  Prestonwood Baptist Church has an indoor, enclosed, FREE kids' playground, and you don't need to be a member to visit.  You do need to check in to the KIDZ welcome desk, and shoes are required in the play area.  Food and drink (including water) are prohibited, but there is a huge lobby just outside where you can take kiddos to eat their snack or drink.  The playground is appropriate for kiddos from walking age up to the max age (10 years).  Think of a McDonald's or Chick-fil-A play place on steroids - lots of foam-padded things to climb and slides to slide down.  If you enter the church through the main entrance, the play area is to your right. 

The hours of the KidZone are:
Mondays: 9:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Tuesdays: 9:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Wednesdays: 9:00 a.m.–6:15 p.m.
Thursdays: 9:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Fridays: 9:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m.
The weekend hours are super limited and not worth it unless you're already there for a church service.

For younger kiddos, there is a second play area near the church's cafeteria.  From the main entrance, you will go to your left; the main hallway will dead-end into the cafeteria, and the small play area is on your left.  There doesn't appear to be a check-in process for this area.


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Watermark Tree Fort (Free)

The Watermark tree fort is another great indoor free entertainment option!  There are tons of stairs and bridges for littles to explore in this two-story tree fort.  The tree fort is enclosed by glass from the church lobby/coffee shop area, although we found that there are several places were kiddos can exit the tree fort on the second floor and roam around the church's hallways - so keep an eye on your kiddos to make sure they don't wander off on the 2nd floor!  The tree fort is appropriate for kids who can climb stairs; younger kids will probably be bored, although there are 2 small slides for younger kids.  If you enter the church through the main entrance, the tree fort is to the right, behind the coffee shop and seating area.  You do not have to sign in to use the tree fort. 

The hours of the tree fort are:


  • Sunday: 8:00 - 8:45 am and 12:30 - 4:15 pm (Closes before 9:00 am and 5:00 pm service)
  • Monday: 9:00 am - 6:00 pm (Closes before re:generation)
  • Tuesday: 9:00 am - 6:00 pm (Closes before the Porch)
  • Wednesday: 1:00 pm - 6:00 pm (Closed in the morning for Women's Bible Study)
  • Thursday: 9:00 am - 6:00 pm (Closes before Women's Bible Study)
  • Friday: 9:00 am - 6:00 pm
  • Saturday: 9:00 am - 2:00 pm

  • Dallas Public Library Toddler Storytime (Free)

    Several branches of the Dallas Public Library offer toddler/preschool storytime in the library's small auditorium.  At the ones we've attended, there is a 30-minute librarian-led session that includes reading 1-2 children's stories and singing several children's songs (with hand motions/shakers, similar to Kindermusik).  After the 30-minute program, several bins of blocks and other small toys were brought out for another 30 minutes of free play.  You do not have to register or sign in to attend, although sometimes the parking lot gets pretty full and it can be hard to find a place to park!  The storytime is appropriate for any age of toddler or preschooler.  Afterwards, you can extend the outing by reading books or playing with the puzzles in the library's children's area.

    To check storytimes at your local branch, use the library's event calendar and search for "Preschool" and "Infant &Toddler" Age Groups.



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    Bookmarks at Northpark Mall (Free)

    The Dallas Public Library has a storefront in Northpark Mall and has several infant, toddler, and preschool-appropriate free events each week, including infant-friendly Baby Basics Storytime and toddler Storytime Serendipity.  The most convenient parking is in the surface lot off Park Lane between Macy's and Nordstrom.  Enter at the main mall entrance between Macy's and Nordstrom, and the Bookmarks storefront is directly ahead on the right-hand side next to the restaurant La Duni.  The free events are held in the Bookmarks storefront or in the open atrium area by the escalator.  You do not have to register or sign in to attend.  Check the calendar of events here.



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    Dallas Rec Center Preschool Open Gym ($2+)

    The City of Dallas recreation centers have toddler/preschool open gym times each week; during open gym, bounce houses and various toys/balls/foam climbing shapes are brought into the rec center's main gymnasium for toddlers and preschoolers to play.  Each rec center has a slightly different setup in terms of the number/type of bounce houses and toys available.  Open gym is appropriate for kiddos who can walk and older.  Most of the ones I've been to (Campbell Green, Lake Highlands North, and Ridgewood rec centers) have a $2/child admission fee; I know the Walnut Hill open gym is more expensive due to the addition of trampolines to the entertainment offered.  You will need to check in and pay the admission fee at the rec center's main desk

    To check open gym times at your local rec center, select your rec center from the list and check the event calendar.  Open gym may appear under multiple names, such as "preschool fun time" or "mom and me gym".


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    Lake Highlands North Rec Center Wildcat Fun Zone ($3)

    In addition to preschool open gym times in the main gym (see above), the Lake Highlands North rec center has an additional fun zone for kiddos.  It has a climbing structure similar to what you'd find in a McDonald's or Chick-fil-A (except cleaner!)  Admission is $3 for ages 6 months - 5 years, which you pay at the rec center's main desk.  You purchase admission for one of several 1.5 hours time blocks throughout the day:

    Monday – Thursday
    9:00am -10:30am
    11:00am -12:30pm
    3:00pm - 4:30pm
    5:00pm - 6:30pm


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    Monster Yogurt (free with purchase of frozen yogurt)

    This is similar to the play area at a McDonald's or Chick-fil-A, but comes in handy when it's not meal-time so a trip to one of those places would be awkward.  It's one of those self-serve frozen yogurt places with a million flavors and toppings, and there is an indoor play area for the kids to play in.  There are 2 Dallas locations, in Richardson (Coit/Campbell) and Casa Linda.

    Hours:
    Monday-Saturday 11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
    Sunday 12:00 PM - 9:00 PM


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    Jump Street ($5 ages 3 and under)

    For kiddos 3 years old and younger, Jump Street (Dallas) has a toddler area ("Earthquake Zone") for $4.99 per child.  The Earthquake Zone has 3 big trampolines to jump on (with rubber balls to throw/bounce), as well as a bounce house with slide.  It doesn't sound like a lot, but it provides 1-1.5 hours of entertainment for my 2.5 year old.  This activity is most appropriate for 2-3 year olds who have the balance to jump on a trampoline.

    Jump Street's hours at the Dallas location are:
    Sunday: 10am - 9pm
    Monday: 10am - 9pm
    Tuesday: 10am - 9pm
    Wednesday: 10am - 9pm
    Thursday: 10am - 9pm
    Friday: 10am - 11pm
    Saturday: 10am - 11pm




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    Children's Aquarium at Fair Park ($8 adults / $6 kids ages 3-11 / free 2 and under)

    The Children's Aquarium at Fair Park is a smaller aquarium that is manageable for a toddler's attention span.  It is also much less expensive than the Dallas World Aquarium downtown - $8 per adult, $6 for ages 3-11, and free for ages 2 and under.  There are a number of tanks inside with various fish, sharks, turtles, and lizards, and our favorite part, the outdoor (but covered) Stingray Bay, where there are giant open-air tanks of sharks and stingrays.

    The aquarium's hours are:
    9:00 AM - 4:30 PM, 7 days a week


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    Play Street Museum ($11 ages 1-8)

    Play Street Museum qualifies at expensive entertainment in my book - definitely not something we'd do weekly, due to the $11 cost per child ages 1-8 - but it is SO much fun.  There are 3 locations in the Dallas area - Plano, McKinney, and Frisco, and each location has a different theme, with different activities.  It's a drive from Dallas to any of them, but my toddler is entertained for 2-3 hours there, so I think it's worth it on occasion.  The $11 admission includes a wooden token for a snack or drink, which I let my child redeem on our way out (since you can't eat the snack inside the play area).  There are tons of options for pretend and dress-up play, such as a grocery store, play kitchen, and other areas that go along with each museum location's theme (e.g., Airstream trailer, campfire, fishing canoe, and cabins for the Great Outdoors-themed Plano location).  Ages 1-8 are the target for the museum, although I think it is probably most appropriate for kiddos aged 2-5 (who are in the prime of "pretend play").

    Play Street's hours are:
    9:00 AM - 5:00 PM, Monday-Friday
    Unfortunately, they're closed on the weekends for private parties.


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    Frontiers of Flight Museum ($10 adults / $7 kids ages 3-17 / free 2 and under)

    This museum is fun for any airplane lover - my son loved it!  After you enter, there is a big exhibit hall to the left with lots of historic airplanes; to the right, there is a kids' area with play airplanes and a play air traffic control tower they can climb in.  There is also another exhibit hall (The Heart of our History) that has 2 life-size Southwest 737 aircraft that you can go inside.  There is a small snack area with tables and chairs across from the kids' area for snack time!

    The museum's hours are:
    Monday-Saturday: 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM
    Sunday: 1:00 PM - 5:00 PM


    OUTDOOR PLAY OPTIONS:

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    Dallas Arboretum Children's Adventure Garden ($3 in addition to Arboretum admission)

    The Rory Meyers Children's Adventure Garden at the Dallas Arboretum is great when the weather is nice (since it's all outdoors).  There are activities for all ages from walking age up.  The First Adventure area (to the left after entering the Children's Garden) is great for younger kiddos, with 2 areas to splash in (bring waterproof shoes and a change of clothes!), a small hedge maze, a small slide, and lots of things to explore.  Older kids will appreciate the T. Boone Pickens Pure Energy area with water, solar, and wind-powered hands-on activities, and the Walk in the Clouds "tree house".  There are activities scheduled throughout the day, including storytime, crafts, and skits; the volunteer at the entrance to the Children's Adventure Garden will give you an overview of the schedule and a map when you enter.  The Children's Adventure Garden is stroller-friendly, with ramps available to access each area of the garden.  Note that (for whatever reason) wagons are not permitted.  Since you can bring your own food and drink into the Arboretum, it is perfect for a picnic after playing.

    Admission is very reasonable if you are a member of the Arboretum; each membership level comes with a set number of free admissions to the Children's Adventure Garden (and free admission to the Arboretum and free parking); additional admission is $3 per individual age 3 or up.  If you are not a member, admission is pricey - general Arboretum admission is $15 for adults (ages 13+), $10 for children (ages 3-12), and free for children 2 and under.  Parking is an additional $15 (or $8 if you pre-pay online).  On top of that, admission to the Children's Adventure Garden (designated by a wristband) is an additional $3 for each child or adult age 3 and up. 

    Each City of Dallas Rec Center receives a number of free Arboretum tickets each quarter, which are distributed first-come, first-serve (you can get up to 4 tickets).  These tickets cover free general Arboretum admission and parking, so you would only have to pay for the additional $3 admission to the Children's Adventure Garden.  These run out quickly (and the timing of when they are distributed is irregular), so it's best to call your local rec center to inquire about the availability of free Arboretum tickets before driving there. 

    The Children's Garden is most easily accessed from the Arboretum parking garage; there is an underground tunnel that goes under Garland Road so you don't have to cross the street to get there.  It is quite a hike from the Arboretum's main parking lot!

    Note that the Children's Garden is closed for maintenance during January and February each year.

    The Arbortum hours are:
    9:00 AM - 5:00 PM, 7 days a week


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    Dallas Arboretum - Main Garden ($15 adults 13+ / $10 kids 3-12 / free 2 and under, or free for members)

    The main gardens of the Dallas Arboretum are also a great place to visit when the weather is nice.  We visited all the time when our son was an infant, since it was a scenic place to walk around with the stroller and then lay out a picnic blanket for lunch.  The Arboretum's seasonal exhibits - Dallas Blooms (tulips) in the spring and the pumpkin patch in the fall - make for great photos, and the Thursday night concert series (Cool Thursdays) are family-friendly for all ages!  In addition, during the spring and fall, the Arboretum has Mommy & Me Mondays and Tiny Tot Tuesdays on Mondays and Tuesdays from 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM in the Pecan Grove, during which there is face painting, Kindermusik (12:00-12:30 PM), and a petting zoo.  During the summer, these same activities are offered during Family Fun Fridays from 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM on Fridays.

    See above for hours and pricing.



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    Dallas Zoo ($15 adults ages 12+ / $12 kids 3-11 / free 2 and under, or free for members)

    The Dallas Zoo is so fun - we started taking our son when he was 18 months old and went about once a month all year!  Kids 2 and under are free, adults (12+) are $15, and kids 3-11 are $12.  Parking is an additional $8 (free for members).  Admission is cheaper ($7) during December through February "Penguin Days".  It only takes a couple of visits for a membership to pay for itself.  The parking fills up quickly (as does the zoo itself), so we usually try to arrive right when it opens. 

    There are two main sections to the zoo - Zoo North (to the right from the main entrance) and the Wilds of Africa (to the left from the main entrance).  The "big" zoo animals (think lions, zebras, elephants, gorillas, giraffes) are in the Wilds of Africa, so we usually go to that side first.  There is a Children's Zoo in the Zoo North side that has a petting area (sheep and goats) and farm animals for the kids to see, as well as a small  playground.  You can bring food and drink into the zoo, so bring your own snacks (or a picnic lunch) to save some money!  The entire zoo is stroller or wagon friendly, and you will probably want one due to all the walking. 

    The monorail ("Adventure Safari) at the zoo is an additional $5 per person (free vouchers are included with a zoo membership) but totally worth doing every once in a while!  I thought it would be a gimmicky ride, but the monorail actually takes you past many exhibits and animals that you do not get to see otherwise (they are not accessible on foot). 

    The zoo's hours are:
    9:00 AM - 4:00 PM, 7 days a week



    What are some other fun activities for toddlers?  Some things I want to try out this year are:
    - Hope Park in Frisco (free)
    - Allan Shivers park/playground at the Dallas Scottish Rite Hospital (free)
    - Open gym (Express Cheer) at the Walnut Hill Rec center ($5 ages 4 and under)
    - Rosemeade Rainforest Aquatic Complex in Carrollton ($9 weekday / $10 weekend for non-residents age 2+)
    - Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney (tickets vary by season; $9-11 adults 13+ / $6-8 kids ages 3-12)
    - The Playdate Co. in Richardson ($10.50 for kid and $8.50 for siblings)
    - Dallas Children's Theater (tickets vary)
    - The Perot Museum of Nature and Science ($19 adults 18+ / $12 kids ages 2-17)