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College Ready: sharing what I’ve already learned (part two)

17 Aug

We spent one full day and shopped til we dropped, hitting three major stores to get the bulk of what we needed. We scored deal after deal.

Earlier this week I shared Part One of my College Ready posts. I don’t know it all, I don’t even know as much as other people know, but in a short time, I’ve learned a lot that I can at least share out. Those who need to know can add it to what they’ve learned, save it for later when they need it, or toss it.

Here’s what I’ve learned: college is expensive, and college needs are expensive. We hear a lot about tuition, room and board, and books all being expensive, but what people don’t really talk much about is the huge expense of getting a student ready to live on campus. Not everyone lives on campus, but if your student is going to, start early saving some money for dorm expenses if you can, and start saving coupons and watching for deals. Get those deals when you can and put them aside if you have to. Shopping for something big like this is like a sport. You need a strategy. Here is our strategy.

Many people know that Bed Bath & Beyond prides themselves in being a go-to for college dorm shopping. (And no, I don’t make any commission off of these posts from them.) When you tour dorms there are often BB&B advertisements in the rooms which have been outfitted by the local store, and you see their ads often on social media, television and in print. Their coupons arrive in the mail regularly: 20% off one item, $5 off your total purchase over $15 and $10 off your total purchase over $30. You can even order all of your dorm room supplies online and have them shipped to the local BB&B near your school so that you can pick them up when you arrive for move-in day.

My advice is simple: save every single coupon. Don’t ever throw them away. They have expiration dates on them but they don’t actually expire. They¬† will accept them forever, and they let you use more than one per shopping trip. Take every single one of them with you if you choose to shop at BB&B for college dorm needs. More importantly, save every coupon to every store that you get during this shopping time and make the most of the deals that pop up as you see them. You may not realize you need something and you don’t want to throw away a good deal.

We opted to first use any store gift cards our daughter had received as graduation gifts towards her college shopping needs. We advised her to save any visa gift cards for books, since we had a little bit of money put away for shopping already, and to save any Amazon gift cards as well, unless we found something cheaper on Amazon (which we didn’t).¬† We would combine any gift cards with coupons and then after exhausting that option, we’d use the money I’d put aside from January to June with coupons next. This would not touch the money in her savings account at all, which would be saved for when she was living at school.

She had the most in gift cards at BB&B, then at Target, and although we did not have a gift card to At Home, it was my birthday in August and I’d received a “15% off your whole purchase” coupon. She signed up for their loyalty program and received a “10% off your whole purchase” coupon too, but we didn’t need it. Additionally, we visited Five Below, where everything is $5 or less, and looked to see what we could get there since she had a small gift card there and they have some cute dorm decor items. We planned to save our trip to Walmart for last because although it’s slightly cheaper than Target or BB&B, we would be paying entirely out of pocket with no coupons or gift cards at all, and it ended up being cheaper for us to shop with gift cards and coupons first, exhausting all of those before Walmart.

You can make money-saving magic happen with your coupons if you’re strategic.

Just in our BB&B shopping alone, we saved $100 in coupons (we used a total of 14 coupons in two visits, six one time and eight the next time, and we have some left if we need them) and we used $150 in gift cards, only paying $165 out of pocket total-and only on the second trip-the first trip was totally free. We got the bulk of what we needed there, from a comforter set to all of the under the bed, next to the bed and above the bed storage items. We also got a few decorative items there. We saved $21 at the At Home Store with my birthday coupon, and used $30 in Target gift cards before paying anything out of pocket at either store.

Since we don’t know if we’re 100% correct in everything we’re getting, we are saving every receipt. At BB&B they also told us to save all the packaging for returns as well. A good friend once said to me, “You know, it is possible to over-shop,” and I can totally see how that can happen. There is SO MUCH out there and there are so many suggestions of “must haves.” I tried to look at several lists and compare them to each other, and to listen to other people’s advice as well as knowing what we already had or didn’t have before we shopped. If I saw something come up on every single list and it matched up with what other people told me we’d need, it definitely went on to our list as well. If it was something we already had at home and could spare, we tried not to duplicate. We looked at her room layout to see what we thought would fit, and where. Some things just seemed over the top, or extra. We tried to balance having some cute decor items with having the more functional items first and foremost. Some nice-to-haves are okay, but the must-haves had to come first. We were lucky too, that a friend gave us her daughter’s memory foam mattress pad, which everyone now calls a “must have,” but which is very expensive. (Those didn’t exist when I went to school, I had a foam egg crate topper.) I found this type of shopping to be very similar to when we outfitted our RV for the first time. Function was first and foremost, space-saving was key, and money-saving was of the utmost importance.

So now, we wrap up, picking up the last few little things over the next week or so and then start to pack up and move on out. We’ll see how well we did once she moves in; how on the mark we were, what we still might need or what needs to be returned. Keeping our fingers crossed that we are more on the mark than off!

Fingers crossed…

 

 

Missing in action, but for good reasons!

4 Aug

We spent two weeks camping at the beginning of the summer, and enjoying sunsets like this one every night.

Hello and happy August!

Yes, I know it’s August.

And yes, I know I haven’t posted a blog post in a very long time, and I am here to say that although I have been MIA for a while, it’s been for good reasons and that we are all well!

When school ended at the end of June, we had one week and then we were very lucky to head almost immediately into two weeks of vacation for the first two weeks of July. We took the camper to a state campground right here in our very own state for a much-needed Staycation. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, nor could the location. We had an amazing time enjoying each other, our friends and the treasure that is our home state. So often we feel the need to go away to get away, and although we technically did go away, it was only about a half hour away, but yet we felt as if we were away-away.

We spent two very relaxing weeks reading, resting and getting our energy back from a busy school year, but also getting ourselves ready for a huge kitchen renovation project ahead.

In the meantime, we were getting ourselves ready for a huge project that we’d be in the thick of once we were home from our two weeks. We were going to be finishing up a kitchen renovation project that we started, somewhat unexpectedly, last February 2016.

Our old kitchen was out-dated and in need of pretty much everything.

As a family who does a whole lot of cooking, we have always been frustrated that we had a pretty small, closed in, cramped and out-dated kitchen. In February 2016 we were given a generous gift: all new appliances. We were so excited when they arrived, and we could not wait to use them all. Our old dishwasher hadn’t worked in a couple of years, our old fridge no longer made ice or dispensed water on the door, and our old stove didn’t cook things properly or consistently.

When the delivery guy from the store brought in our new appliances, he commented that the layout of our kitchen, with the stove and fridge so close together, was odd and not usually recommended. The layout had always been this way since the house was built in 1976, and we really had no other options than the way it was, so he put the new ones just as the old ones had been.

What could possibly happen?

What could possibly go wrong?

Within weeks, our new stove was melting the side of our new fridge.

Panic set in as we realized we had to quickly fix the situation. We opted to do a partial renovation of our kitchen last year in order to remedy the problem as best we could at the time. So last April we ripped out one set of cabinets and counter tops and ripped out five layers of flooring in order to move our fridge into a new spot. It meant getting a new tile floor (which we also needed badly) and putting up some new wall covering, and painting. Once we did all of that, we put in some temporary cabinets and a temporary counter top where the fridge used to be and then stopped where we were and took more than a year “off” to regroup, save some money and ready ourselves for the rest of the project.

This always-cluttered back counter and cabinet space would soon be a new home for our new fridge.

This summer our focus was taking down a wall to knee wall height in order to open up our kitchen and dining area a bit, and replacing all of the rest of the kitchen cabinets and counter tops.

We took out a wall to open up our space significantly.

In order to keep costs down, we did all of the demolition ourselves and assembled our kitchen cabinets ourselves too, rather than having our contractor or the cabinet store do any of it for us. I use the words “we” and “us” quite liberally, since I wasn’t the one actually doing a lot of the manual labor. I did my part, emptying and later re-loading the kitchen, and helped with demolition and assembly in any way I could. Even the kids helped out with demolition, happy to put a hammer to a wall and put a hole through it with permission.

As I type this post, we are about 3/4 of the way done. Our demolition was started before we went camping and finished when we returned, and our contractor arrived the very next week to do the work we couldn’t do on our own. That one week was a bit chaotic, although not nearly as bad as I imagined it would be.

Our kitchen was a mix of old and new for more than a year before we continued with our renovation project this summer, knocking down a wall and taking out the rest of the old cabinets.

Now, we are down to waiting for our new counter tops and sink to arrive so that we can stop doing dishes in our bathroom sink and tub.

We still have a lot to do, and I am sure we will be finishing up this project for quite a while, with a tile backsplash still to go in and touch up painting still to be done on the walls and ceiling, but it’ll be more complete than it’s been in a long time, and for that, I am thankful.

Below are some photos of where we are at right now as we are awaiting the arrival of our granite counters and our kitchen sink this weekend.

I will end my post with a promise that I will eventually post again soon, but it may be a little while longer until I do. At least for now, while you wait, you know what I’m doing instead!

A new home for the refrigerator solved our melting problem.

Looking in from the dining room, which we can do now that the wall is gone.

 

 

 

We can hardly remember what it looked like when the wall was there.

Cave Tools Pigtail Food Flipper: a great new tool for summer grilling

30 Jun

We’ll be taking these with us to the campground this summer!

It’s officially summer! Summer means so many things, but one thing it means for us is grilling. Another thing it means for us is camping.When we camp, we grill! Therefore, I was very excited when Cave Tools asked me to try out another one of their fabulous products. I have reviewed several of their other grilling tools and have yet to be disappointed.

The Pigtail Food Flippers arrived on our doorstep just as we were creating our menu for a week’s worth of meals, and we put steaks right on the menu so we could try out our new tool. We would be grilling at home, but soon we will be camping and we’ll be grilling over a campfire. These new tools, a pair of two-one longer and one shorter-seemed to be perfect for all the grilling we do. Although we were doing steaks on this particular night, the tools are great for so many other things, including bacon, chicken, hot dogs and ribs, just to name a few ideas.

The Pigtail Food Flipper was great for grilling steaks, but it has many other uses as well.

When I asked my husband what he liked about the new Pigtail Food Flippers versus using a spatula, a fork or tongs, he said that the shape of the hook which made for easy flipping.

“I liked the way the hook was shaped,” he said. “All you had to do was hook the meat and flip it rather than trying to get a spatula underneath. I also liked that it came in two sizes, I didn’t have to use a big one for a small piece of meat and I won’t have to use a small one for a big piece.”

The tool was super-easy to clean because they’re dishwasher safe, and to store, which is a big plus for a small kitchen. Additionally, the handles fit well into the palm of your hand, much more comfortable than the flat form of a spatula.

You can find this great new tool set in two places and it’s very affordable. It’s on Amazon here, and on the Cave Tools website here. If you choose to order from the Cave Tools site, there is a great 15% off discount available by entering the coupon code PIGTAIL15 at checkout.

As we pack up for camping, we’ll be including our Pigtail Flippers, and I encourage you to check them out too!

 

***I was given a free product in order to do this review. However, all thoughts and opinions are my own.***

 

Budget-friendly camping tips from The Penny Hoarder

24 May

Camping on a budget can make you a very happy camper!

It’s the end of May, Memorial Day weekend is just days away. I can almost taste the summertime…if it would just stop raining! We had some hot, 100 degree days last week, and the flip flops and tank tops were out, the sun shining, kids playing in the yard, I could see the lazy days of summer just ahead.

If summertime includes camping for you, as it does for us, you’ll be happy to read the most recent post from The Penny Hoarder’s site, “Get the Vacation You’ve Been Craving on a Budget: Go Camping.” The post contains six tips for budget-friendly travel through camping.

If you’ve been a fan of The Whole Bag of Chips recently, then you know that we purchased a new-to-us camper in 2015 and used it to travel in a budget-friendly manner over the past couple of years, touring the country in 2015 and touring NYC this past spring. We also traveled to Mystic, CT and to Meredith, NH as well as hanging out by the beaches here in the Ocean State in 2015, 2016 and again this coming summer in 2017. Having our own camper is thousands of dollars cheaper than renting a beach house in New England for a week every summer.

I was so thrilled when Lisa Rowan, writer for The Penny Hoarder, reached out to me for some tips to include in their camping post. The only thing that makes me happier than being able to do things because of the fact that we budget, is to be able to help others achieve their own goals by doing things on a budget as well. Stretching a dollar has helped us to achieve so many things, including all of the recent travel that we’ve been doing.

So if you are wishing you could do more traveling, but just don’t have the means, be sure to read the above post, or check out my travel pages #crosscountryadventure2015 and #thecowartstakemanhattan2017 for some tips and tricks for traveling and camping on a budget.

Fun Friday: “The Cowarts take Manhattan” and what was for dinner

5 May

April was incredibly busy, and here is the rest of why!

Last week in my What’s for Dinner Wednesday post, I promised you that I would share more of what had been keeping me from posting recently and I also promised you some weekly meal inspiration with a twist. Today’s Fun Friday post is all of those things wrapped in one.

As you’ll see in this week’s Cranston Herald feature article, we took a whirlwind trip to New York City and the surrounding areas, including Jersey City, Hoboken and Brooklyn, just to name a few. It started out as a college tours trip primarily, but because we had never taken any of the kids to NYC, and because they all wanted to visit so badly, we decided to try to make it a mini family vacation, on the cheap rather than one adult taking one child to New York and everyone else staying home.

Super cheap.

We accomplished that goal by using our camper, although very early in the camping season, and despite the fact that we wouldn’t have a ton of time for prepping for the trip due to work obligations and the Easter weekend. One of the ways that we made it work was by eating many of our meals in and only eating a few special things out, as we visited the city. We had extra money and we could’ve spent it all on eating out, but we didn’t want to. We opted instead to choose a couple of extra-special eating adventures and to choose a couple of extra-special sightseeing adventures too, giving ourselves the best of both worlds.

Our camper has a full kitchen with a microwave, oven and stove as well as a refrigerator, freezer and pantry. Therefore, we could plan meals as extensive or as simple as we wished. We decided to go simple. We knew we’d be out a great deal of the time and the last thing we wanted to do was come home and spend an hour and a half cooking. We also knew that simple meant cheap, and if our meals were inexpensive, that was more money we could throw into our travel budget from our normal grocery budget.

Because the weekend before the trip was Easter (an expensive, busy weekend in itself), we did have some leeway in our meals leading up to the trip and we were not eating at home on Easter Sunday. Therefore, my list of meals starts with Monday, the first night we arrived at Liberty Harbor RV Park and Marina. Here’s what we ate while we were away:

TWO WEEKS OF MEALS

Monday: Quesadillas (extras became lunch the next day) with Spanish rice and corn. We also had chips and salsa for appetizers when we arrived because it had been a five hour ride and we’d eaten lunch in the car earlier in the day.

Tuesday: Chicken burgers and hot dogs, fresh sugar snap peas, sauteed.

Wednesday: Macaroni with Chicken Parmesan, (chicken cooked in the cast iron skillet). Today we also used some of our spending money to have treats at Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, the original bake shop featured on the TV show, “Cake Boss.”

Breakfast on Wednesday morning: Carlo’s Bakery sweet treats

 

Very inexpensive, delicious and a fun end to our trip to NYC!

Thursday: We opted to eat out that night, experiencing NY Style Pizza, $1 a slice, in Times Square at 2 Bros. Pizza. DELICIOUS.

Friday: We were home again by Friday night and we had French Toast for dinner. Breakfast for dinner is fast and easy and a good meal to make when you get home. It was a breakfast option we never used on the trip so we had all the ingredients ready to go.

For the second week of our two week cycle, we tried to choose meals that were still inexpensive and that used some things we had at home already

Saturday: Homemade chicken and rice soup (perfect for what ended up being a cold, rainy, raw day)

Sunday: Pork Chops and homemade applesauce (I brought applesauce to dinner on Easter Sunday, so I made a triple batch that day, freezing one batch for our trip. We never used that meal on the trip, so we had it Sunday night instead.)

Monday: Zucchini shrimp Scampi (recently featured in this blog post)

Tuesday: Taco Bake (recipe here)

Wednesday: Chicken, Broccoli and Pasta

Thursday: Leftovers

Friday: Pizza

Fun Friday: Ideas for a fun camping-themed birthday party

31 Mar

My daughter started planning her camping-themed party months ago and this shirt was a gift from one of her sisters to wear that night.

We are campers.

We have camped across the country for weeks on end, we are one Eagle Scout and four Girl Scouts. We definitely know camping and we love it. Therefore, many months ago during the winter, when my youngest daughter asked for a camping-themed birthday for her party this spring, I was excited. It was something we hadn’t done before as a birthday party theme, and although as our kids get older their parties get much smaller, it was a fun theme for any sized party, and one that was relatively easy and very inexpensive to plan, especially for a small group.

The Taco in a Bag meal even includes some veggies, if they choose to take the lettuce and tomatoes as their toppings.

This daughter also happens to be the daughter that has to follow a gluten free diet, so that makes planning meals somewhat more challenging, but for this party, it was relatively easy. As Girl Scouts, one of the favorite camping meals is Tacos in a Bag. As a family, we have a favorite summer taco salad which is similar to this one from Tasty Points. Tacos in a Bag is the best of both worlds if you’re a kid. To make them, you take individual packs of Doritos (which are now gluten free), the kids crush them up while they are in the bag, and then they layer their desired taco fixings in the order in which they want them, eating them right out of the bag. Be sure to either use a homemade taco seasoning mix or one that is gluten free. The brand we used was McCormick and was gluten free, and we prefer to use ground turkey rather than ground beef. To be on the safe side, I also grabbed a regular-sized bag of Doritos to have on hand for extras in case I needed them. I did not, so we have them to use here at home when needed.

I already had these on hand, so the recipe I found was perfect!

Initially, she thought of S’mores as her dessert of choice, but I hesitated, as I was recently having some trouble finding gluten-free graham crackers, even though I knew we’d had them before. I needed a different plan in case I couldn’t find them again in time for the party. Oddly enough, one afternoon, a recipe came across my Facebook newsfeed for this vegan, gluten free recipe for S’Mores cupcakes. Although we are not vegan, this recipe from Pickles and Honey provided me with just the inspiration I needed to formulate a plan to make my own S’Mores cupcakes for the party.

I already had graham cracker crumbs on hand that were gluten free and I had plenty left. To create my cupcakes, I filled two muffin trays with paper liners and sprayed the liners with nonstick cooking spray. I put about a teaspoon of the crumbs in the bottom of half the paper liners and left half without, in case anyone didn’t think they liked the graham cracker crumb idea. I used a gluten free Funfetti cake mix to fill the liners with batter and cooked them according to the package directions. To keep track of which were which, I used two different patterns of liners, one for each kind of cupcake. The white liners had crumbs at the bottom and the green did not.

My most favorite camping party idea. Thanks to Pickles and Honey for the initial inspiration!!

Although I normally make my own frosting, and I had one in mind that I had planned to use for the party, the day of the party came quickly and it was a busy one. When I was out picking up last minute things for that night, I saw a container of pre-made frosting, realized I could save myself some unnecessary stress and some time by just using that for the kids. I had planned on letting them frost their own cupcakes (sharing one little bowl of frosting between two kids) while I got ready to roast their marshmallows over my gas stove burner. The pre-made frosting would be just fine for our purposes.

When it came time for dessert, these cupcakes were a huge hit and I was so excited as to how they came out. I used a low, back burner and skewers to roast one marshmallow at a time, and I did them myself, rather than letting the kids do them for this first time around. The cupcakes went quickly, both varieties, and at the end of the night there were just a few left over and a little bit of frosting to keep in the fridge for them.

When your sister gives you glue, glue and more glue for your birthday, you have plenty to spare for a little party slime-making.

For the rest of the party, we had two crafts. First off, they made the currently very popular DIY slime, since my oldest daughter had given her sister several bottles of glue as part of her gift, and I’d been sure to restock all the food coloring, baking soda and corn starch we might need, depending on the DIY recipe they used.

I had also asked a summer camping friend who was going to be at the party if she wouldn’t mind teaching all of the kids to make friendship bracelets. While we were together this past summer at the local campground, she’d done a really great job teaching all our kids how to make the bracelets, and we had all the materials here. We just needed her expertise. I even picked up safety pins so that they could pin them to their sleeping bags or pillows and work on them while they were camped out in our living room watching a movie.

For our movie choice, we opted to show the old 1960’s version of “The Parent Trap,” which has some summer camp and family camping scenes in it. We had found it on Netflix ahead of time. We also had the remake recorded here at home, but we felt that the older version was one that the kids might not have seen before. We thought that if there was time the next morning, or if they wanted to at night, they could watch the newer version instead of or in addition to the older one, but they never did. They got a kick out of the older movie and had not seen it before.

All in all, it was a great night, with a fun group of kids and this is a party theme I’d highly recommend for those who are camping fans. It got us looking ahead to our camping days this coming summer, which will be here before we know it, and we’ll be having S’mores and campfires outside, and making friendship bracelets all summer long.

 

Monday Musings: What exactly did we create?

17 Oct
Did we dream it or did we do it?

Did we dream it or did we do it?

Recently we had a conversation in our family that has really stuck with me. At the time, it left me a tiny bit unsettled, sad yet happy, longing yet not, and questioning a few things. I had been thinking on it and thinking on it, mulling it over in my mind for quite some time, and hesitating whether or not to publish a blog post about it or not. Last week I watched a video which confirmed that yes, I did want to publish this post. I encourage you to watch this video from beginning to end. It is well worth your time. Thank you to the Attleboro High School students who spent many hours of time on such an important topic.

In the meantime, here is my post.

****

It was summertime.

We were all together and we had the occasion to find ourselves in a warehouse. There was an event there and we were attending, but the event only used a small part of the available space. It was a big, open warehouse, a different experience than warehouse shopping, like at BJ’s or Costco or Sam’s Club. The walls were black, the floors were black, it was an exciting open space, big and empty: seemingly like a giant blank canvas.

As we walked through the space, we marveled at the vast openness of it; it almost encouraged you to run wild, to yell out loud to hear your voice echo in the space, but we didn’t do that. We walked and we talked.

“What if?” Some one of us said it. I truly don’t remember who.

But I do remember what followed next.

“What if we lived here?! What if this was our house?!”

“I’d want a big space to dance!”

“A huge kitchen for cooking!”

“An art studio!”

“A stage!”

“A room filled with books on all the walls!”

“A sewing room with tons of space for fabrics!”

“A place for a 3D printer and doing science experiments!”

“A music room for playing piano and instruments!”

“A photography studio!”

And on, and on and on.

We laughed and talked and called out ideas to each other as we designed our new home. In real life, we live in a regular-sized house, like regular people do, and sometimes (okay, many times) it seems too small for all of us, but we always pride ourselves in being creative with our space, always finding ways to make it fit our needs at the time of our lives that we’re in. We’re comfortable with making changes as our needs change, and that’s just what we’ve always done. We make it work for us.

But this, this imaginary blank canvas of a home, it was exciting to think about for a few minutes as we walked through it and out, out into the bright sunshine of the outdoors and towards our car.

Once we got in the car, the conversation was over and we moved on to the next thing, back to real life and back to summer and then eventually back to school and work.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it though. As two educators, we’d always imagined starting our own school. Hands-on, experiential learning is our thing. As parents we have fostered that passion in our kids too.

In my mind I pondered the conversation. What did we really imagine? Was it our imaginary house in a huge open space, or had we created the school of our dreams?

And really, the school of our kids’ dreams?

It made me a little bit sad. Sad at first, because most likely we won’t ever get to open up our own school in that warehouse with all of the hands-on learning experiences. Sad second, because in reality, so much of what our kids called out as the things they’d love to be surrounded by on a daily basis, is so much of what’s been removed from traditional public schools as the years go by. I am very thankful that our school district offers a stellar option for high school students through a regional career and technical school which is located on one of our city’s high school campuses, but I know that not everyone has that option everywhere, and that the guaranteed hands-on, engaging education that’s found in a career and tech program is only for high school students, at least in our neck of the woods. I’m also happy to see instrumental music education returning to our elementary schools here, after having been gone for so long thanks to budget woes which are not unique to just our area.

That said, so much of what I used to see in schools as I covered story after story, is no longer done as teachers have said that they have run out of time to do the types of things they used to do. As more testing and seat-work move in, more hands-on experiences and creativity move out. Sometimes, if schools specialize in the arts, they leave out the sciences. As they specialize in science and technology, they lose focus on the arts-things like theater, music, visual and performing arts. That makes me sad. Home economics, cooking, sewing and fashion, wood and textile design…don’t even get me started. In so many places, although not everywhere, these areas of study, these life and career skills that students need the minute they are out in the world on their own, are gone. It is so much so that on a recent college tour, we were even told of basic cooking classes that are offered to college students getting ready to live on their own who don’t possess those types of basic independent living skills.

But yet despite my sadness, I soon had an awesome realization, and ultimately it made me happy and it made me proud.

No, we didn’t open our school (at least not yet), we don’t have a giant home and we definitely don’t have a school-sized budget. But that said, all of those things that our kids dreamed of having in their space, they dream of because they have experienced them. As they’ve grown we’ve designed our open spaces in our home to be spaces that foster creative play, learning and hands-on experiences. Whether it was dress-up and school, arts and crafts, or library and kitchen imaginary play spaces in our basement when they were little, or lessons in things like sewing, dance, music, theater and art as they got older, they’ve been able to be exposed to so many things and have had the time and the opportunity to explore and experience them all. Books have always lived on shelves in every bedroom, under pillows with flashlights and book lights. Play-doh, paint, glue and glitter have always been regular staples in our craft supplies. We have had a garden in our backyard almost every summer since our kids were young. As they grew, the books, spaces and activities grew and changed with them, and the play kitchen space became cooking with us in the real kitchen space, a passion of ours that they all share.

When learning experiences were offered in our city or nearby cities and towns for free, we exposed them to them, while enrolling them in regular lessons for some of the things they loved whenever we were able to. They’ve always been exposed to things that interest them and spark their creativity: free workshops on 3D printing or stop-motion animation at the library, free reading events and encounters with famous authors at the State House, science experiments in our kitchen, lots of opportunities for great experiences through the Girl Scouts like photography lessons and outdoor camping trips, for example.

As teens and tweens they now have a sewing machine in every bedroom. We have paint and canvases, fabric, easels and musical instruments in our home, and so many books. We cook together and they cook independently. As I look around in this instant, there are sketch books sitting out right now, out in the open here in our living room, awaiting the next burst of inspiration, and there’s a draft of someone’s book on my laptop, a dress form with an almost-finished dress on it in a bedroom down the hall.

So as sad as I was that I know we probably won’t ever have our school, and sad for what many students won’t ever have because it’s lost from so many schools and out of reach for many family budgets, after much thought, I was ultimately happy and proud. I felt that if these were the things our kids wanted in their imaginary home, or maybe in their vision of the ultimate perfect school, and if we’d somehow managed to dedicate ourselves to being able to provide them all for them over the years in our own home, in their own real lives, then we’d done a good job of teaching in a hands-on, experiential way. We have succeeded in fostering a love of hands-on learning, of reading and of writing, a passion for the arts and for the sciences, and we’ve given them life-long skills they need to be successful when they are living independently. As we now tour colleges and see the hands-on experiential learning that is taking place there, we see too, that it is the desired outcome for secondary education over any standardized test, and we know we have prepared our kids well for this type of learning which will later transcend into the jobs of the future. Colleges look for students who have experienced true learning, not the one-sided delivery of a curriculum or the passing of a test or of dozens of tests. Employers look for a well-rounded problem solver and critical thinker with a wide variety of skills in their repertoire, not just someone who can ace a test.

Although my mulling over of this conversation was initially one tinged with sadness for what wasn’t or what will never be, it is ultimately one that makes me smile. We had a dream, we had a goal, and in essence we did it and we did it for those students who matter to us most of all: our own. We did it in a small space and on a tiny budget and we continue to do it each and every day. We have always sacrificed a lot, often, and in so many other areas, but we are our children’s first teachers, they are our ultimate legacy, and hopefully when they leave our nest, they’ll be able to continue to live a life filled with a passion for hands-on learning and experiencing life to its fullest.

 

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