Curb the Summer Boredom

I joined the hosts of Fox6’s Real Milwaukee this morning to talk about adding a bit of flexible structure to the lazy days of summer. The producers have not linked to the resources I mentioned yet, so I wanted to publish a quick post to so you have what you need at your fingertips!

Click here to view the segment.

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Here are the links that will help you get started creating your own summer sanity saver (aka: Summer Binder):

Papers, Papers, Papers … Organizing strategies for school projects, papers and artwork

paper main

Aww, that hand-print painting your 3-year-old preschooler brought home is SO cute!  Seriously, the construction paper turkey, the one with the googly eyes, is a-dorable. And the first time she wrote her name, the handmade Mother’s Day card, and the red paper lantern she brought home after the pint-sized celebration of Chinese New Year … keepers. Add those preschool creations to all the super cute, amazingly smart and obligatory keepers your child will bring home from school over the next 12 years, and you’ll be swimming in piles of paper.

Piles of paper make me anxious. So, soon after my twins started preschool (they are now fourth graders), I started experimenting with ways to save the good stuff and discard the rest guilt free.

General School-Paper Management

Regardless of whether your child is in preschool or high school, you need to devise a way of managing all the paper that makes its way from your child’s backpack to your kitchen counter. Here’s my strategy:

Every School Day

Take care of anything needing a signature, money, etc. right away. If I don’t do it the day I see it, it risks getting lost or thrown in the trash (really). So I sign permission slips, seal field-trip money in envelopes, and place them safely back in the backpack ASAP for their return trip to school.

Add any important dates/times to the family calendar. After reading any newsletters, bulletins, etc., I add important dates and times to my Google calendar so I won’t drop the ball on any commitments (while it’s not a fool proof method, it sure increases my follow-through rate!) . Sometimes I hang the flyer on the fridge for an extra visual reminder, or I toss it in the recycling.

Sort papers, project and art into two piles: Toss and Keep. Immediately after unloading their backpacks, I sort the kids’ take-home assignments into ones that get recycled (and proceed to put them in the recycle bin)  and ones I’ll probably keep. I say probably because I allow myself the opportunity to trash it later if my “keep” pile gets too big (read on for those details).

I write the month and year on each “keeper” and stash my keep pile in a folder in an upper cabinet in my kitchen. This is convenient for me because it’s near where the kids unload their bags, and it’s easy for me to access. Where ever you keep yours, make sure its super easy to get to — otherwise those papers will just sit on your counter when you are in a hurry (and really, when aren’t we?).

Every Friday

Each Friday, go through your keep pile quickly and decide if there are any papers that no longer make the cut. Maybe a very similar assignment came home later in the week, so you decide to recycle Monday’s look-alike. I find that preschool and early elementary students bring home enough paper that doing a once over again on Fridays makes sense. However, as they’ve gotten older, my boys bring home less work, so I look through my keepers again when my folder starts getting thick — about every 2 or 3 weeks.

Every Quarter

If you’ve been diligent in reassessing your keep pile every few weeks, by the end of the quarter, you have a small stack of assignments that you plan to keep forever, or at least until your lil’ student gets married and you demand that all her bins full of keepsakes leave your attic and accompany her to her new abode.

Now’s the time to transfer the contents of your keep folder to their permanent home. There are lots of options when it comes to storing kids’ artwork, super-cute poems and clever creative writing assignments … here are some of my favorites.

School Keepsake Storage Solutions: Options for construction paper to loose leaf

I found that the method that worked best to store all these treasures changed as my boys transitioned from preschool into elementary school. While most of these solutions store school-related stuff, I also use them for swimming lesson certificates, violin awards and other extra-curricular keepsakes.

Preschool & Kindergarten

12x12 scrapbooking files hold large preschool masterpieces.

12×12 scrapbooking files hold large preschool masterpieces.

The youngest scholars bring home super-cute, and often awkwardly sized projects. My guys made 11×17 bound booklets of the seven continents, puffy Thanksgiving turkeys and framed pictures of their classmates. I needed a storage solution that would, well, organize these masterpieces (vs. a box where I stashed them in a big lump), while accommodating their size and shape.

Oversized Expanding File. A 12×12 expandable pocket file did the trick. I bought both of mine at Target, but this one on Amazon looks very similar. I fit everything I wanted to keep for six school-years worth of my twins’ little masterpieces. Wooden pilgrims to snowman thermometers – it’s all stuffed in these. I continued to use them for 1st and 2nd grade simply because I still had empty pockets. However, the binder method I describe next would have worked just as well for those early elementary years.

Older Grades

When the kids started bringing home fewer huge construction-paper art projects and cotton-ball themed crafts, I found that I no longer needed the large accordion file.

Sturdy binders smartly store big-kid work.

Sturdy binders smartly store big-kid work.

3-Ring Binder. A 3-inch 3-ring binder and a box of top-loading page protectors fits the bill for storing older kids’ school projects. Most of what my boys brought home from 1st grade and beyond was on standard 8.5×11 sheets of paper. I simply slip the project into a page protector that is secured in the binder. If I do get an over-sized sheet every now and then, I simply fold it, and into the page protector it goes. When I want to remember something in particular about an assignment, I write a note on a post-it, stick it on the paper, and secure it inside the page protector.

The first page of each grade displays a first-day-school-picture, and the last page holds their report cards, standardized test scores, and related items. While you can choose to use one page for each report card, etc., I simply use the page protector like a pocket and slip them in all together.

I love that the binder is sturdier and easier to store than the expandable file. I have a binder for each boy. At this point, our binders hold only 3rd grade mementos. If they continue to bring home similar amounts of “keepers,”  these binders should hold their papers through middle school, and maybe beyond.

Really Big Projects

Okay, so what do we do with the science fair projects and other monster-sized Nobel Peace Prize worthy achievements? If you have the space and want to store the actual project in your basement, garage or attic — more power to you. I don’t.

I take pictures of large projects and add them to our family's annual photobooks.

I take pictures of large projects and add them to our family’s annual photobooks.

Take a Picture. Literally. Take a picture of the diorama, life-sized paper-mache tiger, or whatever, then put the picture in your 3-ring binder with a description of the project. Or include the picture in your family photo album. If you’re super-techy,  use an app like Artkive. Take a picture, tag and organize it, and create a book or other keepsake right from the app — pretty cool.  Either way, the essence of the project is captured for eternity without taking up valuable real estate in your attic.

Experiment with these options and see what works best for you, your kids and your home. But whatever you do — control the paper, Momma! Having some sort of organizational strategy helps keep the chaos at bay while preserving keepsakes you and your kiddos will appreciate years down the road.

Jax-Proofing Our Abode: Baby proofing tips and tricks

Baby proofing mainA professional baby proofer (yes, they exist) once told me that if your wee one won’t die or be seriously injured as a consequence of not baby proofing something in your home, it’s not worth spending the money. So, that’s basically been my kid-proofing philosophy.  But even with that criteria, there are plenty of potential dangers lurking under your roof from which to protect Jr. And seeing as September is National Baby Safety Month, I thought it a prime opportunity to share some of my favorite baby-proofing products.

But keeping kids safe isn’t the only reason to baby proof your home. Children develop a greater sense of self-confidence and security if they can explore their home without hearing “no” every five seconds. Kids who are constantly told “don’t touch this” and “don’t open that” learn that curiosity is “bad”. Of course, this isn’t the intent of the parent. But, think about it. If every time you tried a new approach at work you were given the feedback that you shouldn’t to that, it’s an inconvenience to your boss, etc., you would stick to the way things were always done and stop thinking of new, innovative approaches. Children’s work is play, and an important part of play is exploring their environment. Giving them a safe home to explore within limits contributes to the development of creative, thinking kids.

So, when I baby proof something that doesn’t pose a life-threatening risk, it’s because I want to give Jax freedom without me having to hover over him so he doesn’t pull all the spices out of my spice cabinet 50 times a day (because he would if I let him, and putting them away would render me with little time to do anything else). Of course, teaching your little one to avoid a couple things (the DVD player buttons) is just fine. It’s when so many things are off limits that it begins to feel oppressive — I trust you get my drift.

Kitchen

Keep your kitchen safe from little explorers.

Keep your kitchen safe from little explorers.

Danger, danger! The kitchen probably poses the greatest danger to youngsters. And because you probably spend most of your time there, you little gal does too. Here are some of my favorite baby-proofing gadgets for the kitchen (all products are linked to Jax in the Box if we have it in stock, or Amazon.com if we don’t).

TotShield Stove Guard.  We have a gas stove with front knobs. I needed a solution that 1) prevented Jax from igniting the gas burners (turning the knobs), and 2) stopped him from reaching to touch the pretty, glowing blue flame when the burners are on. The TotShield has proven the perfect solution. It was a cinch to install, and easily removes when opening and closing the oven door. The downsides are: 1) it is large and prevents us from opening drawers directly next to the stove if the shield is shifted too far in one direction, 2) it’s a pain to wipe clean. But, it’s the only gadget I’ve tried that actually solves my two issues, so it’s a definite keeper and one that I would readily recommend.

Oven Lock. The lock prevents curious kids from opening a hot oven. Unless you plan to stand guard for the entire afternoon while your roast cooks, I highly suggest this investment.

Tot Lok Cabinet Locks. We had these in our Texas home and loved them, so we installed them when moving into our Wisconsin house. I like them because 1) you cannot see them when the cabinets are closed, 2)  children do not learn to open the cabinet unlike with spring-action locks, 3) they are easier to unlock than external sliding locks, and 4) you can deactivate the locks (without removing them) when you no longer need to secure the cabinet. However, we learned that they don’t work equally well on all cabinets and drawers. While they work beautifully on our cabinet doors, the drawers in our current home have thicker lips than our TX ones, so the standard Tot Lok magnet isn’t strong enough to unlatch the lock. So, we ended up using safety straps on our knife and “junk” (with super glue, tacks, wire cutters, etc.) drawers. Not beautiful, but they do the trick.

Securing the cabinets where you house your knives and cleaning supplies is a must. Beyond that, it’s up to you. When Jax was 12-18 mos. I also secured several cabinets that had glass bowls, jelly roll pans, etc., because I didn’t want to supervise him with these items when cooking. I left ones with plastic containers and pots and pans open. Now that he’s 21 months, I’ve disengaged the locks on the other cabinets (except cleaning supplies and knives). I’m fine with him moving around my bowls, measuring cups, cooling racks, etc. now that he has the control to hold them without dropping them. And if he does, well, so be it. I’ll just clean it up and move on. Just know yourself and the limits of your patience. If missing measuring cups and a broken glass bowl would drive you nuts, then keep the cabinet secure (and wait until you have baby #3).

Bathroom

Cabinets. Instead of locking my bathroom cabinet doors and drawers, I simply moved any cleaning supplies and other dangers up high. I

keep toilet paper, tissue boxes, and the like down low. But, lock your cabinets if you keep toilet bowl cleaner and other tempting toddler drinks under your sink.

The result of keeping certain things accessible to Jax while Mom's in the shower.

The result of keeping certain things accessible to Jax while Mom’s in the shower.

Toilet Seat Lid Lock. Young walkers are top heavy (big heads, little bodies) and can fall head first into the toilet when peering inside — I’m not kidding. And if you can picture that scene, you know that they probably can’t position themselves right-side up without assistance. Bottom line, an open toilet is a drowning hazard. Plus, Matchbox cars and sewer systems are poor bedfellows. Locking your toilets will likely save yourself a hefty bill from your plumber.

We’ve tried this fancier toilet seat lock, but it breaks easily. We went through two of them before we gave up and bought the Mommy’s Helper version.  While it is a hassle to clean, we find that it stands up to the abuse our family of five dishes out.

Keep little bodies and toys out of your toilet.

Keep little bodies and toys out of your toilet.

Baby’s Bedroom

Gear to keep baby safe and sound at night.

Gear to keep baby safe and sound at night.

Your little one is unsupervised the most in this room, so it’s important it’s safe. The place that houses the most danger is his crib.

Breathable Baby Bumper. You probably know that traditional crib bumpers, while cute and O’ so cozy looking, are dangerous. In fact their sale is outlawed in select US cities and states (like Chicago and Maryland) and in whole countries. Babies risk suffocation and toddlers use them as a step stool to climb out of the crib. Granted climbing isn’t all that risky, but suffocation is.

We chose not to use bumpers of any sort with our older twins. We had them in sleeping sacs, so the risk of legs getting caught in the rails was minimal. They didn’t use pacifiers, so we didn’t have the hassle of them falling to the ground.

But Jax uses a paci. In fact, we can see him on our video monitor wake at night, search for a paci, pop it in, and fall back asleep. Beautiful. When the paci’s (all three, four or five of them) would fall through the rails, he had nothing to sooth himself back to sleep. Upon noticing this problem, we quickly ran to the store and bought a Breathable Baby Bumper. Now we all sleep through the night (mostly).

Sleeping Bags. We think these are genius. I was first introduced to them by my best friend from the Netherlands more than 12 years ago, long before they were commonly available in the U.S. In fact, I ordered them from Europe when my twins were born because I couldn’t find cozy, warm ones here. Now, however, we have lots of options right here in the States.

Sleeping bags offer so many benefits: 1) Along with putting babies to sleep on their backs, they reduce the risk of SIDS, 2) They keep babies warm all night long because they can’t kick them off, and 3) They postpone toddlers’ ability to climb out of their cribs. It’s hard to lift your leg over the railing when you’re in a bag. Granted, one of my twins eventually did, but by that time he was almost three and plenty capable of landing safely.

Guardian Angel Window Guards. Young kids really do fall out of upper story windows. All it’ll take is a Google search and reading the heartbreaking stories to convince you that it’s well worth the time and expense to install window guards. We have them in both the twins’ and Jax’s second story rooms. They are expensive, so try to find them used (we did).

Tamper-Resistant Nightlight. Okay, this isn’t a life or death issue, but all my kids sleep with a night light. The trick is finding one that toddler’s can’t yank out of the socket. Safety 1st used to make one that screwed into the outlet and offered a swivel second outlet, but I can’t find it anywhere. So, this option is the next best thing. You still have to put an outlet plug into the second socket, but we love that it’s permanently fixed and that the light is operated via a sensor.

Other Danger Zones

Stairs. If you have babies or toddlers and stairs, you need gates. We like KidCo brand the best. We opted for a cheaper brand in our current

Top and bottom stair gates.

Top and bottom stair gates.

home, and, while they are just as safe, they are not as easy to use. Do not be tempted to use a pressure-mounted gate. They are easier to install to be sure, but they can come dislodged from the wall, and you and baby can trip over the floor bar.

If you have an oddly shaped stair opening, we love the Retract-A-Gate. It retracts into itself when not in use, and easily adapts to funky angles. The only downside is that you have to remember to extend it in order for it to keep your babe safe. Eight-year old twin brothers do not always remember to secure this type of gate. By the way, there are cheaper brands. We bought it for our patio stairs in the backyard. But is doesn’t offer the quality of Retract-A-Gate.

Lofts in second story homes (where you have a stair rail overlooking the first level) require a Banister Rail Guard. The clear material prevents the “we have a baby” look, while ensuring arms, legs, balls and other items stay on the second story.

Outlet Covers. You need to cover your outlets or toddlers carrying forks will try to

Swivel covers and power strip covers keep fingers and more out of sockets.

Swivel covers and power strip covers keep fingers and more out of sockets.

stick them in the holes, because toddlers try to stick everything into any available opening. There are outlet covers for just about any outlet situation you face. We love swivel covers because they keep tiny fingers out, but allow adults easy access to often-used outlets (say for vacuums). Let’s face it, outlet plugs are so good, they are often adult proof!  We love double touch outlet covers for things like lamps that are always plugged in. You don’t need ready access to these outlets, and you don’t want Jr. to unplug them. Similar, but larger, covers are available for appliances with adapter plugs.

We have power strips by our computer and TV areas. Power strip covers keep little fingers from exploring the super-cool looking plugs lined up on the power strips. They are expandable, and while a bit of a hassle to open and close (because, isn’t that the point?) we seldom have a need to dig inside.

Furniture Straps.  These easy-to-install straps ensure that heavy furniture doesn’t fall on top of curious, climbing toddlers. Imagine a 50+ lbs shelf or dresser falling on top of a 20 lbs baby – it happens more often than you think. Straps are inexpensive and an easy, preventative step to ensuring your tall furniture items stay upright.

So, there you have it. My must-have baby proofing items. I’ve field tested all of these (and plenty I haven’t listed and don’t make my cut). If you only have one kiddo, you might get away with monitoring his every move (but probably not). But, if you’re a mom to multiple kids, you know you can’t be always be there to prevent a disaster. Bread flour spilled all over the kitchen floor is one type of disaster, but a toddler falling through a second story window screen is quite another.

We’ve all heard moms of adults roll their eyes and comment that their kids are just fine, and they never did any baby proofing. In fact, they let Jr. sit on the floor boards while driving cross country. Well, they were lucky. There are hundreds of kids every year that aren’t.

A few dollars and a couple of hours can deliver piece of mind and prevent life threatening injury.

The Perfectly Imperfect Mom

Perfectly PerfectI’m a recovering perfectionist. When the fruits of my labors are lacking I feel guilt. Guilt and failure. Somewhere along the line I picked up the message that my value is directly correlated to my productivity. While my heartfelt belief is that my worth has nothing to do with how much I do or how well I do it, this battle rages in my head. Most days the battle is fairly short, but other days it exhausts me.

Lately the battle is taking up more energy than I care to give it. Like most moms, I wear what feels like a million hats and rarely do I have time to take one off before putting the next one on. The weight of wearing all these hats simultaneously can feel crushing. Add to that my expectation that everything I do be done completely and perfectly, and I continually set myself up for failure. While I struggle with this at some level most of the time, the exact frequency and intensity I’m experiencing now feels so familiar. It’s like an unwelcome visitor who is starting to stink. This is the same feeling I had about seven years ago when my twins were one.

The birth of a first baby rocks your world. Having two babies at the same time is an earthquake. While I was beyond thankful for such a blessing, the change the boys brought to our lives was overwhelming. My house no longer stayed clean. Who am I kidding?  It never got cleaned. I couldn’t keep up with the laundry. I rarely cooked for my husband and me. And the fury I sometimes felt at the end of the day when neither boy would nap and they were both screaming in my arms ran smack in the face of what I wanted to feel, and thought I should be feeling, if I were a good mom. For the first two years I felt like a total failure as a wife, and a pretty shabby mom.

But it got better. As the boys grew, I did too. I learned how to be more efficient in my housekeeping, and more importantly, lowered my expectations. The beds didn’t have to be made everyday, weeds in the lawn were acceptable (shoot — expected), and wear slippers in the house if you don’t want to feel the dirt on the tile floor. This balance gave me ample time to make amazing memories during Chase and Noah’s preschool years. This isn’t to say my perfectionism didn’t rear its ugly head anymore — I just got really good at keeping it in check.

And as they got older they needed me to hold their hands less often. They went to school and played in the back yard by themselves. Their independence allowed me to reinstate some of those old expectations, because I had the time and energy. My house was cleaner, laundry was routinely put away, I made bread and most everything else from scratch, I volunteered in the community, the list goes on.

It’s been 18 months since Jax was born, and I’m feeling like the crazy is back. More often than not my house looks like a train wreck. I’ve told the big boys on more than one occasion to just “dig your pants out of the dirty clothes.” Instead of “Hi, Honey, dinner’s ready” when Kevin walks through the door, it’s “Hi, can you hold the baby, set the table, put the carrots on the stove … ” I’m battling the crappy wife and mom guilt again.

I know the intensity of the crazy will pass as Jax gets a bit older. But I also know that adding a third kid to the mix means that there’s always going to be a bit of crazy, and that it’s going to be a long time before I can give every child and every task the attention I want to give it. Chase and Noah aren’t going to get as much of me as they once did, because Jax needs me too. And Jax is never going to get the attention Chase and Noah did when they were his age, because Chase and Noah very much still need their momma. My challenge lately is to accept “good enough”. I’m giving my all as a housekeeper, mom and wife. And my all has to be good enough.

It’s also helped to better understand why I need so much of what I do to be perfect and what to do about it. Here are my buckets.

When my house isn’t clean. If my house isn’t clean, organized and picked up, I feel out of control. When other parts of my life feel overwhelming, then my need for a perfectly clean house becomes more urgent. The problem is, of course, that those are precisely the times when I don’t have time to attend to my household chores. I keep myself in check by reminding myself that the house is driving me nuts because I feel out of control. Then I find ways to tackle the real issue that’s got a grip on me.

When I’m not giving the boys enough attention. I’m in a constant battle between feeling pulled to cook, clean, and in general “take care of stuff” and just hanging out with my kids. I used to be able to coax them into doing household tasks with me as a “fun” activity — those years have passed. In those moments when I just have to get something done (like dinner in the oven), I simply tell them they must wait. Waiting is part of life, and we can’t always get what we want when we want it. As long as this isn’t my standard response, I think learning that the world doesn’t stop because they want something is a necessary lesson. When I truly feel like I’ve pushed them aside more than I should have lately, but I still need to tackle other tasks, I ping pong between them both. I’ll do my task for 10 min, then play a game with the boys. I return to my task for 15 min, then read a few books to Jax. While nothing gets done quickly this way, everything is getting at least some of my attention.

When I yell at my kids. Gasp … yep, sometimes I yell. I don’t do it often, but every time I do I feel like a bad mom for a while. I’ve realized that I usually yell when the boys have done something that, deep down, makes me scared for their future. Like when they are acting ungrateful for all they have, I fear that they are going to turn out to be lazy and take the good things in life for granted. When they talk disrespectfully to me or Kevin, I fear they will disrespect their future bosses and wives. But sometimes I yell because their behavior has so frustrated and exhausted me that I have no energy to handle the situation more appropriately (because all parents know that it takes more energy to be calm and talk through disobedience, bad choices, etc. than to simply go off the handle). In both cases, I always go back to the boys and apologize for how I handled the situation. I ask forgiveness for yelling. We then talk through the circumstances that prompted me to yell and focus on that. Handling it in this way serves three purposes: 1) I model how to graciously admit my mistakes, 2) The boys learn that their behavior choices affect others (in this case mom’s emotions), 3) The core issue/behavior is addressed.

When I’ve neglected my husband. We’ve been married for almost 14 years, and I’ve learned that my perception of what a good wife is is different than Kevin’s. As a stay-at-home mom, I get caught up in thinking that I need to have dinner on the table when he gets home, clean laundry in his drawers, a spic-n-span house for him to relax in, in addition to nurturing our relationship in emotional and non-tangible ways. God so blessed me with Kevin because he continually tells me that, while things like dinner, laundry, etc. are nice, he doesn’t place a high value on those things. So this one is really a battle with myself — what I think a wife “should” do, and not what my husband needs and values. I’m learning that when trying to do all those tangible things stresses me out, it puts stress on him, which is the very opposite of what I want do as his wife.

Perfectionism will always be my battle. In addition to these coping strategies I do a lot of praying. My worth isn’t determined by what I do. In fact, nothing I do or don’t do could make me any less valuable. I know that, and through prayer this message is whispered in my ear when I need to hear it most. Every day I strive for perfectly imperfect. Not only is it attainable, but I figure I’m doing my future daughter-in-laws a favor. Yesterday, Noah told me I get more done in a day than the average woman does in a year. My boys’ wives don’t need that pressure, now do they.

1 Table 4 Ways

1 Table 4 Ways

I love creative uses of small spaces. Make it a multi-functional use, and I’m kind of in heaven. While we live in a moderately sized home, our main floor — what I consider our daytime living space, is a bit cramped. My challenge is to find ways to make the most of our nooks and crannies. I want these spaces to be 1) functional 2) aesthetically pleasing, and 3) honor both the adults and 3 kids that live here. (Check out this post of other ways we create Kid Spaces in Adult Places.) The way we use our train table is one of my favorite creative uses of the small space we have.

Soon after having Jax, our very good friend who has two older boys gifted us her KidKraft train table. Even when our 8-year old twins were Thomas the Train age and we were living in Texas, we didn’t have the luxury of enough play space to house a large train table. So our coffee table became our train table back then. The fact that we were given this train table (with two trundle drawers to boot!) was perfect because we had sold our mission style coffee table the summer before in hopes of finding a more modern style that better fit our current home. We never found the perfect modern piece, so this KidKraft  piece has been our coffee table since Jax was about 6-months old.

We’ve been using the table in creative ways for a while now, but now that almost 18-month old Jax is Thomas the Train age, we’ve only recently started using it to its full potential. I hope that our use of 1 table in 4 ways inspires you to get the most out of your train table (or coffee table — keep reading and I’ll tell you how!).

Train Table

Train Table

1. Train Table. The most obvious use of a train table is as, well, a train table. We mount our track down with semi-permanent two-sided tape when our kids are younger so they can play with it without the track coming apart. When they are older, we take the tape off so they can build their own Island of Sodor. We keep a bin full of trains in one of the trundle drawers for easy access. In case our big boys want to build some lengths of track, we keep lots of extra track in another bin. As “big” as our twins think they are, it melts my heart to see them having just as much fun with these toys as Jax.

Dry Erase Table2. Dry Erase Table. We only erected the Island of Sodor recently. Until then, our train table spent most of it’s time as a dry erase board. We simply bought some thrifty white hardwood panel  board from our local big box home improvement store (about $13), had the guys at the store cut it to the dimensions of our table, and “wala” — we had a dry erase board. We opt for Crayola Washable Dry Erase Markers because they are, well, washable.

Newsprint Table3. Paintable, Markerable, Colorable Mural. With the dry erase board inserted, wrap the top of the train table with newsprint, and you have a large space for painting, coloring and all things crafty. At this age, Jax loves dot a dot paint, markering with big, fat markers, and coloring with triangle crayons. I stalk Hobby Lobby after VBS season to grab the large 36″X100′ rolls on clearance.

Sensory Table4. Sensory Table. We love sensory tables around here. (see this post for directions on how to make your own sand/water/sensory table). We simply cut a piece of press board that fits into our train table, then routered holes to fit 5 smallish storage bins.  You can put just about anything in these bins. Right now, we have 1) balls in assorted textures, colors, and sizes 2) rice, 3) blocks in assorted textures, colors, and sizes, and 4) cotton and colored puff balls, and 5) oatmeal in our bins. I’ve also emptied the bins and played a game where Jax and I toss balls into them — the possibilities are almost endless. I only use sensory material that can be easily vacuumed up because this is indoors and atop a wool rug. We save the water and other irrevocably messy stuff for outside or in the basement.

We have our train table sitting in front of our couch (like a coffee table would be situated), and we have our couch kitty-corner in our living room. We have 3 “tops” for our table (the train, sensory press board, and dry erase board). The train top is our “default” top and spends the most time atop the table. When the dry erase board and sensory press board tops are not in use, we store them behind our couch (due to its corner placement, you can’t see what’s stored behind it — genius).

Have a coffee table but no train table? No problem! This was our situation when the twins were toddlers  My husband simply constructed a “topper” that slipped on top of the coffee table and had a lip that wouldn’t allow the trains, markers, etc. to roll off. The easiest way to do this is to cut a piece of press board the size of your table top, then cut base board to fit around the top. Nail the press board in the center of the each piece of base board so you have a “hat” to fit on top of your table. Half of the base board sits below your coffee table top, and half of the base board sits above the top to prevent anything on your table from rolling off. Then, cut a piece of particle board (or other suitable material) to fit inside your topper for your train table. Cut the dry erase board to fit inside your topper. While you won’t be able to construct a sensory table with this method (unless you are willing to cut holes into your coffee table top), you could cut an additional piece of particle board and paint with chalkboard paint and have a large chalkboard surface.

So there you have it: 1 table 4 ways. You know as well as I do that toddlers demand variety, and using our train table in this way delivers just that. It also prevents our whole living space from looking like Toys R Us.