New York Times bestselling author, slow cooking expert and mommy blogger next door
  • Subscribe to newsletter
  • Follow me on Pinterest
  • Follow me on Twitter
  • Become a fan on Facebook
  • Follow me on Google Plus

Totally Together

I’m a Closet Homeschooler (teaching kids at home even if they go to school)

July 9, 2015 by · 31 Comments 



games and activities to do with your kids over the summer to keep their little brains active and juicy!

What is “Closet HomeSchooling”?

When I was pregnant with my first (10 years ago), I informed my husband, Adam, that I “reserved the right to homeschool.” He was (skeptically) agreeable, so I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about homeschooling in case the day ever came when I felt that I could do a better job teaching the kids than our local school.

We now have three little girls: 9 1/2, 6 1/2 and age sixteen months. We’ve moved a few times since I “staked my claim” to homeschool ten years ago, and now live in a very good school district.

so my kids go to public school (the baby is home, of course).

The children are happy, and are thriving. They continue to excel in class and are all naturally inquisitive and have a thirst for learning. I’m happy with a lot that the school provides, but continue to supplement at home as much as I can. I try to be “around” the school a lot, which allows me  opportunity to see firsthand behavior issues, and the time wasted moving from activities or lessons. I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing–it’s just something I’m very aware of. Adam says I’m keeping score. Maybe I am!

I’m greatly looking forward to having the kids home with me when school lets out (8 days!). No matter how involved I am in the school, during the school year, Adam and I are not in charge. The teacher is. I wish I could say this doesn’t bother me, but I’d be lying. The school calendar dominates our day to day life, and I’m looking forward to getting a more natural flow to our days.

It’s Pretty Much “After-School” Homeschooling

I have gotten a few emails in the past week or so asking what activities I do with my children during the summer. My oldest is going to attend a 2-week enrichment program (3 hours a day), [updated, 6/1: just got an email that the program has been canceled due to lack of funds/enrollment. NOT HAPPY. ] and my 6 year old will attend a gymnastics class twice a week. I’ll probably throw in a week of swim lessons, and we’re hoping to get a sponsor for a late-summer book tour to Albuquerque, and will visit the Grand Canyon.

Otherwise, our days will be pretty loose— park trips, library visits, and playdates. The television will be turned off for the day by 10am, and the kids will have free range of the art supplies, books, games, and the back yard.

will they fight?


will I lose my temper (more than I should)?

Y.O.U. B.E.T.C.H.A.

will they complain that they’re bored?

W.I.T.H.O.U.T. A. D.O.U.B.T.

I can not wait.

Beat Summer Brain-Drain with these "totally not boring" activities and workbooks.

Beat Summer Brain-Drain with these “totally not boring” activities and workbooks.

Resources shown above, and what I use in our (closet) homeschooling curriculum:

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons — I taught my big kids to read with this book. It’s actually not shown in the above picture because I lent it to our neighbor to use with her 3-year-old. I do not use the writing exercises at all. At the end of the 100 lessons, your child will be reading on a 2nd grade level. I started just for fun at around age 3 1/2 with my girls. I followed the lessons in order, but didn’t have a set time frame. If the kids wanted to sit with me and practice, we did. We would go months without even opening the book, but sometimes we’d do 4 lessons in a day. They each finished the book in it’s entirety before entering first grade.

BOB Books. — I’ve put these books away until the baby is ready. Warning: they tear easily! These are fun, whimsical books that teach reading both through phonics and memorization. I actually think it’s mostly from memorization, but many disagree. Empowers young children that they can read an “entire book.”

Brain Quest decks — we have at least a dozen of these decks. I love giving them as gifts, and love receiving them! I toss a deck into the diaper bag to pull out at restaurants when we anticipate a long wait, I use them in waiting rooms, in the car when waiting for music lessons to dismiss, etc. I keep a basket on the shelf on the end table and the kids pull them out when they’ve got some time to kill.

Brain Quest Workbooks — we were given a few of these, and the kids use them, but there’s definitely a workbook feel. I keep them “out” and sometimes they’ll do a page or two on their own, but mostly they are used for playing school with playdates.

Summer Bridge — I bought a set of these a few summers ago mostly to pacify myself that the kids were on the right track and their brains weren’t turning to mush. I’ve since relaxed a bit on worksheets, but if you are a person who likes order and want the confidence of knowing the kids are *actually* learning or your kids like completing worksheets this is a good summer project.

Never Bored books — Mazes, word searches, brain teasers, coloring pages, etc. My kids like these better than traditional workbooks. I would recommend buying up an age group for a bit of a challenge. Some of the activities require scissors and glue.

The Story of the World series, by Susan Wise Bauer — This series of books is written by the same author of The Well-Trained Mind. We only have the first book and are only a third of the way through. It starts with Ancient Times: Earliest Nomads to the Last Roman Emperor. The book is written in story form, and is written from a secular perspective.

The Daring Book for Girls and The Dangerous Book for Boys — We have both of these books. Practical guide to pretty much anything: letter writing, fire building, camping, tying a variety of knots, how to be a good friend, proper restaurant manners. These aren’t books to be read cover to cover, but used as a reference guide. I like to give these as gifts.

The Little House on the Prairie books — I have girls, so I’m not sure how well this series would fare in a house full of boys. I read this series outloud to my big girls, starting when my oldest was 6 (I skipped over some of the Laura and Alfonso stuff). Reading this series outloud was hands-down the best history lesson my kids have ever had (thus far. they are still quite young!). We refer to “Laura and Mary” quite often in our house, and apply the knowledge of this time period to other history lessons to provide perspective. I plan on rereading the series in a year or so to refresh all of our memories.

I Can Draw books and Pocket Doodle books — My first grader loves to draw and doodle, and will happily work for hours creating and recreating animal or people pictures. These are the easiest-to-understand for little kids drawing guides I’ve found.

Soduku Unifex game — If you’ve never played soduku, or are intimidated by it, this is a FANTASTIC way to learn the game– for little kids and for grown ups! This is a one-player game, and once the fundamentals are learned, soduku is a solitary game enjoyed throughout your whole life. Math, reasoning, strategy, and spacial awareness are all key aspects of this game. The box says ages 7 and up. My kids enjoyed playing (with help) at age five.

We play a lot of board games! These are our family-favorite board games. 

Use an Ironing Board to Create a Homemade Standing Desk

February 13, 2013 by · 9 Comments 

DIY standing des out of a ironing board

How to Make a Standing Desk out an Ironing Board

For the last week or so, I’ve been using an ironing board as a desk. I wish I was smart enough to have thought of this as a DIY alternative to a standing desk — but I’m not. It just sort of happened.

I’ve wanted a standing desk for a while —  I’ve scoured pinterest and DIY sites for ideas, have looked at websites advertising these type of desks (WAY expensive), and even have sent Adam links to how to make them at home using cheap wood and laminate.

So I put this idea on hold.

But then last week happened, and we each had different work trips to go on, and we had unexpected company, and the ironing board that I set up in the corner of the master bedroom got left up. And the computer armoire where I plug everything in at night (my current work desk is the kitchen table, but we have a computer cabinet where we hide everything at night so the “work day” is over by dinner time) got a bit cluttered so I needed another flat surface for charging the laptop.

And I used the ironing board.

And then left it on the ironing board while I was answering email in the morning, and even used it as a table for the last slow cooker recipe I photographed —- and although it’s not the prettiest thing in the world to keep up in the master bedroom, it might very well might be the most practical thing I’ve ever come up with. :-)

What I like about standing versus sitting:

* I’m burning calories — there are studies that prove that standing exerts more energy than sitting
* I’m naturally stepping or swaying while I work — my pedometer (this is the one that I LOVE, and it’s cheap!) is showing that I’ve added a good 2000-3000 steps to my day with very little effort on my part
* I am now finally ergonomic. Since I’ve never owned a desk chair, my table to chair to floor ratio (don’t even know if that’s the actual terminology, but I’m going to assume you know what I’m talking about…) hasn’t ever been proper. I’m exactly 5 feet, so there are very few chairs that allow my feet to sit flat on the floor the way they are supposed to. And our dining chairs are a bit large in the seat, so my knees are at a funny angle if I lean all the way back, which causes me to perch on the edge of the chair while I write, causing my shoulders to slump. With the ironing  board, it’s adjustable, so I can raise the keyboard to the actual right spot for my eyeline and shoulders/wrists.
* BUT. My wrists aren’t supported, I know. Honestly, I’ve never had supported wrists or elbows, so that’s not an issue for me,  but I can see how it would be for others.
* The other really big benefit is that I’m not spending as much time on the computer. It’s just not as comfortable to stand at an ironing board and read gossip sites, or twitter, or online news as it is to curl up with the laptop on the bed or couch. But that is something I need to work on, personally, anyway. I waste a lot of time on frivolous Internet surfing, and my time could honestly be better spent sticking to my to-do list and goals.

                  (this might actually be the biggest benefit)

So there you go! Super simple (and actually kind of stupid) brilliant idea!

update to Family Game Night

July 20, 2011 by · 9 Comments 


I seem to be getting gutsier in my old age. A month or so ago I wrote about starting a Family Game night tradition in your house, and listed some of our own family favorites. Kim and I talked in the comment section about how it would be neat to have a lending library of family-friendly games at school or in the community, and I really liked that idea.

So I emailed Hasbro.

and they sent two HUGE boxes of games— 50 in all — for the school.

I couldn’t be happier.

Thank you, Hasbro.

I need to make some sort of checklist for checking out the games, and figure out where I’m going to house them. I may need to work out of the back of the van if I can’t find an empty cabinet somewhere! The girls (and their friends) are making inventory lists for each board game, and are putting the little pieces into separated ziplocks. So far the biggest hit game has been “girl talk” which has been deemed the BEST SLUMBER PARTY GAME ever. I haven’t looked over the cards very carefully, so I’m not sure exactly how appropriate the content is, but the boxes say ages 8 and up. I’ve noticed a lot of walking backwards and duck quacking…

I’ve been trying to figure out how our PTA can give back to the school for a while (without spending any money, since there ISN’T ANY), and having a lending game library will be a huge help. We just lost our biggest “free” fundraising effort–the Amazon Affiliates account, because of the new California tax laws. This is a big blow to our school, and I am looking into ways to replace that income. If anyone has any ideas (we have Scrip, and need to campaign big time this year to get more people involved) I’d love to hear them. I really liked the Amazon thing because it was such easy money and parents didn’t feel nickled and dimed—

I’ve got six weeks to figure it out.


In the mean time, I’m going to enjoy the last month or so of summer vacation and soak every bit of it up that I can. I love having everyone home—even though it means I’m in constant fire-fighter mode.

things are going well for you?


Starting a Family Game Night

June 6, 2011 by · 25 Comments 

We play a lot of games in our house. This is a photo of the family game shelves in the garage. The board games and puzzles are accessible to the big kids, but out of reach from the baby. I try to maintain a “one or two games in the house at a time” rule, to limit lost or damaged pieces.

Since my kids vary in ages (9, 6, and seventeen months), we have quite a few to choose from– but truly only play a handful on a regular basis. I always thought it would be a good idea to have a way to rent board games. Or a lending library. This might be neat to set up in schools, or through your church or neighborhood— something free the whole family can enjoy that promotes togetherness.

If you’re new to playing board/card games with your children, do not expect everyone to have fun and get along perfectly. This is real life. Go with the flow, and try not to be a dictator. Rules are important, but good sportsmanship is a much more valuable lesson to learn. I’m okay with bending rules or getting new cards/scrabble pieces to keep a game moving along and to retain interest, but the family needs to agree. Anything sneaky is cheating, and that’s not okay.

It’s not about winning or losing. It’s how you play the game. — Grantland Rice

words to live by!

Preschool Games (no reading required):

Candyland— this is THE classic preschool board game. This game teaches the “luck of the draw,” taking turns, and color recognition. Ages 2.5 or so and up–child needs to be able to not flip the board, and understand taking turns.

Chutes and Ladders— the other classic preschool board game. This game has a spinner, and is a great way to introduce numbers. Try to just enjoy and not turn each play into a math lesson. Let the math come naturally— learning is best when it’s not forced, anyway! ages 4 and up.

Memory— this simple matching game is fun for all ages. If you have very young children, start with only 5-10 pairs, then build up. When I taught preschool, I started the little ones right around age 18 months. You’ll be surprised at how quickly small guys figure it out!

HyperDash— great indoor game on a rainy day, or outdoor game to let a pack of kids run off some energy. The ages on the box says for ages 7 and up, but I think that recommendation is completely out-of-whack. There are batteries, but this is a fantastic preschool game–I’d say for ages 3 and up.

Connect Four–a large version of tic-tac-toe, Connect Four is appropriate for ages 4 and over, and I still really enjoy playing with the kids. This is a good way to teach planning-ahead and strategy– important skills for more advanced games.

Go Fish, Uno, Old Maid, Crazy Eights (you can usually find these games at your local Dollar Store)– great classic card games to toss in the diaper bag, beach bag, to keep in the glove compartment, etc. You can customize the games for smaller children by limiting the amount of cards in play. Although the Uno deck says for ages 7 and up, I taught a group of 4-year-olds who picked the game up quite quickly.

Jengafamily building game, or a solo game. It’s kind of tricky to rebuild the stack for small children, but lots of fun to knock down, or to watch mom or dad “mess up” and knock the tower over.

Young School-Aged children (but still fun for older kids/adults!)

Battleship — beginning strategy game, teaches graph/cooordinates-reading. 2 player game, ages 6 and up (looks like Amazon doesn’t carry the regular vs.; you’ll need to look locally).

Bananagrams— introduction to scrabble; no scoring needed. Easier to play on the run than scrabble, and feels more organic (although we do play a fair amount of scrabble).

Apples to Apples Jr. — we love this game for building vocabulary, and for just a great family game. Children need to be able to read/sound out words. Ages 6 1/2 or 7 or so and up. GREAT game for a large group, family gathering with all ages, etc.

Boggle — fun, quick family game. Builds vocabulary, promotes reading/word-making. ages 6 and up or so. Fun for adults—Adam and I get quite competitive with Boggle.

Yahtzee — Great math skills game. This game also sets up the framework to play poker, which is a valuable skill, right? :-) (gotta be better than Liar’s Dice… at least…)

Older Elementary-aged children to adult

Clue — the new version has added a few more rooms and weapons, and “intrigue” cards. Our family ignores the intrigue cards, and plays the classic way– we just try to solve the crime. If you’re playing with teenagers or an adults-only game, you might want to use the intrigue cards. This game is best with 3 or more players.

Blokus — Remember the old Game Boy game, Tetris? (there’s probably an app for that now, huh?) Blokus is a boardgame version of Tetris. Players use geometric blocks to build board presence and block players. Teaches spatial awareness, logic, and strategy. The game works the best with 4 players, although you can play with 2 or 3.

Carcassonne My friend, Kelly, from The Spunky Coconut told me about this game, and we’ve been playing it every couple days ever since. My kids cheat too much when they play on their own— I’d recommend having an adult involved. This is our current favorite, and when/if we outgrow this game, there are add-ons available. Great way to introduce more advanced games like Risk (which we own, but I still haven’t figured out!).

Cranium Family — This family game combines classics like pictionary, charades, and name that song in an entertaining (and not too challenging) way. (PS. Amazon is listing this for $57 right now, which is absurd. I have no idea why.)

These are our current favorites, but I’m ALWAYS on the lookout for great new games. If you have any other suggestions for me to keep an eye out for, please let me know!