Success: Kids, Lead the Way!

I’ve been living in a state of amazement the past few days. I’m sure that has something to do with snowmageddon, or Winter Storm Stella, which dropped record amounts of snow in my area. It’s no exaggeration to state we got close to three feet of snow within a 24-hour period. We’ve been digging, digging, digging. The cars are once again visible and the driveway is clear, and I can finally come in and warm myself by a fire. Stella was incredible, but my thoughts the last few days have been about my kids and their Odyssey of the Mind (OM) team, who just recently took first place in their regional competition on March 11.

My daughter is coloring; my son is gluing balsa wood. They are busy and independently self-directed for the moment, and I can write for the first time in a very long time. Life is hectic when you homeschool and coach an Odyssey of the Mind team. Our homeschool team is comprised of six members, a five-year-old still in PreK, two 2nd graders, two 3rd graders, and a 5th grader. My daughter is the youngest, and despite her age, she is quite a performer! Despite the eclectic age differences of our entire team, they worked well together and entered a division 1 (grades 3-5) competition in the Ready, Set, Balsa, Build problem… and won, beyond any of our expectations! They have earned the right to compete in the state tournament on April 8. It took me a few days to get over my disbelief, but now I think it’s time to be proud of what this team has accomplished.

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I won’t give many details, as it is against OM rules to share a team’s unique solution to a problem before world finals are over, but I can give you an overview of the problem they chose. Problem 4 this year is called Ready, Set, Balsa, Build. For this problem, teams were required to build a structure out of balsa wood and glue that can hold as much weight as possible. The structure must be at least 8” tall and it must weigh no more than 15 grams. The teams were also required to use certain sets of predetermined wood lengths and amounts (IE: six pieces of 2” long, two pieces of 8” long, etc.). The teams were also required to present a unique performance that dealt with the theme of precision. During that performance, the teams are required to build a large-scale replica of the balsa wood structure out of trash items, and one other creation of their choice.

Our team received high marks from the judges for all elements of their solution, and their structure was able to support every single weight that was available during the competition. Officially, their structure held 417.5 lbs. of combined weights that were placed during the 8-minute time limit. I have no idea what kind of weight limit is typical for division 1 teams, or what the record is. Most of the information out there is for division 2 and 3 teams. All I can say is that the structure our kids brought to competition this past Saturday far outperformed any of their test structures. Over the past several months leading up to the competition, our kids built many test structures before settling on a final design, and they used those test structures to practice choosing and placing weights, and also to get an idea of what weight limit they could expect. In fact, they expected the structure to break within the first half of the competition, and had even written dialogue for their team member who was placing the weights on the structure. I have to give the performers credit for improvising the last minute of their performance and ending it differently than expected. Even though some of them were caught a little off guard, they all handled it quite well!

Before I go any further, I need to say thank you to NYSOMA Region 21 for including us, as homeschoolers. Our own region would not. Everyone working to make this regional event a success was friendly and dedicated. The regional director is tireless and never once hesitated to answer any of my questions. I am in awe of the many volunteers who helped us register and the judges who volunteered many hours of time to train and officiate the competitions. Thanks is also due to the host school in Canajoharie for providing an amazing space for the competition and allowing the teams to use the classrooms as a home base for the day. We had such a good time, and are very thankful for the opportunity to be part of this community!

Odyssey of the Mind was a memorable part of my school days and I always knew that I wanted my children to have this type of creative problem-solving experience. The school district where we currently live does not participate in OM, so even if my kids were in traditional school, they would not have the opportunity. I began asking questions about forming a homeschooling team several years ago, and my region chose to ignore me completely. Last year, I reached out to OM on the state level and started to get some answers. Ultimately, I was directed to region 21 with the assurance that we would be welcomed. I remember hesitantly emailing the director, and not expecting a response. But to my surprise, I received an e-mail the very next day filled with welcoming words and excitement about our inclusion. From that moment on, we became the Homerkinds, the name we chose for our “district.”

Last year, our first Homerkinds team, an eccentric assembly of homeschooled kids ranging from 1st grade to 5th grade, competed and took third place for a problem in which they had to design and maneuver a vehicle. But after watching other teams compete in the balsa wood problem, they knew right away that that’s what they wanted to do the following year.

This year’s balsa wood problem was actually a perfect fit for our team. It seemed that there were elements suited to each member’s strengths. And for my third grade son, building is well within his wheelhouse. After testing the team’s first round of test structures, the team designated my son to be the primary builder of the competition structure. It didn’t seem to affect him when I told him that I too had once built a balsa wood structure for an Odyssey of the Mind competition…. And that it broke under the weight of only the crusher board! (The crusher board is a thick piece of wood that must go on top of the structure before any weights can be added.) Unlike me, however, my son has a slow and steady approach to building. I can’t watch him; I get impatient! He gets better with each structure, and learns from each mistake.

The spirit of Odyssey of the Mind is “…hands on for kids. Hands off for adults.” As homeschoolers, our kids have an advantage because they tend to be independent workers and thinkers to begin with. I think adults tend to underestimate the abilities of children. Many feel that children need to be guided and shown the “right” way to solve a problem. But OM doesn’t work that way. Children are the leaders, the thinkers, the solvers. It’s beautiful! One only has to eavesdrop on a group of children engrossed in their own game to appreciate how well they work together and how creative they can be as they embody different characters and personalities, devise rules of conduct, and interact with each other using various voices and dialogue. As homeschoolers, our kids tend to have more time and freedom to interact in this way without the strict oversight of adults. For OM, it’s our job as coaches to help facilitate an environment where this natural form of creativity can be directed toward specific problem criteria. And as homeschooling parents, there is definitely more time to do this.

Don’t get me wrong. There are moments when this freedom usurps productivity! Some days it’s like: Why can’t you just get that prop done??? You just took every box in the house and an entire roll of duck tape to build a 200 square foot elaborate Nerf fort and you can’t even apply a coat of paint on your prop!?!? I guess it’s all in how you define productivity.

Our children are often learning from real life experiences, and less from textbooks and other scripted sources of learning. Our days aren’t focused on preparing for tests, or following an ultra-rigid schedule. We have the freedom to shift our schedule around to accommodate a quick last minute spontaneous practice or an all day prop building session.

While we may not aid the kids in developing a solution to their OM problem (IE: we are not allowed to give them ideas or do any of the work), we may adapt our curriculum to strengthen certain concepts or advance certain skills, as long as our lessons aren’t directly related to telling the kids how to solve their OM problem. For example, for math we might take extra time focusing on measuring using a ruler and discussing fractions. We might research structural engineering and look at how it is employed in building various forms of architecture, bridges, or towers. We don’t shy away from discussing big terms like compression strength and tensile strength, and we encourage our kids to learn more about anything with which they are unfamiliar. Because real life is such a major component of our days, we might pause and reflect on the cell tower we just passed and why the builders were able to make it so tall. We might talk about the geometry of a bridge we just crossed and how it works to give the bridge such strength when carrying a load.

When our kids collected every sort of glue they could find in our houses, we turned their desire to find the strongest one into a science experiment that they led. They cut balsa wood into equal pieces and glued two pieces together butt to butt, using different glue for each one. We encouraged them to make predictions before testing these experiments. They took turns placing small weights in a basket hanging from the joint, and they recorded their findings to compare them scientifically! Through their own curiosity, they could make an informed decision what type of glue they would use! This type of curiosity became a fundamental guiding force throughout the journey to competition day.

While our kids were preparing themselves for regional competition, I found that I was plagued by the private thought: I hope they did that good enough. I remember thinking to myself it doesn’t look like this structure is going to be as good as the one he tested. I have no explanation for my thinking except that I tend to be a worrier!

Now they are preparing once again, this time for state competition. My son has decided to build a new structure as he feels the other may have been compromised by the weights even though it never broke. Our kids would like to rehearse some more because they felt they didn’t set up quickly enough. And spontaneous ALWAYS needs more practice. But now as they prepare, I find myself with different thoughts and more trust in their abilities. Now, I confidently think I know they will do just fine! I suppose I am learning and growing, just as much as the kids.

My son told me the yesterday as he was painstakingly gluing some of the first pieces for his new structure, “Mom, I actually don’t mind doing this. I’m really good at it, and I’m glad the team choose me to be the builder.”

I told him I was so proud of him.

He added, “I don’t deserve all the credit. I don’t do everything. My teammates deserve a lot of the credit for their hard work.”

He’s right.

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Dr. Megan Koschnick presents on the Developmentally Inappropriate Common Core–Video Released

This is a must-see video for any parent of an early elementary-aged child. Dr. Koschnick gives a clear presentation about the developmentally inappropriate nature of the Common Core State Standards from her background and expertise in child psychology and childhood development.

Dr. Megan Koschnick presents on the Developmentally Inappropriate Common Core–Video Released.

Please take the time to watch the video. This is something that concerns us all. We cannot, with good conscience, allow these terribly inappropriate practices to dominate our children’s development. Cognitively, our children are just not ready to process much of the new standards. They simply are not ready. You cannot drill information into the brain of a child if that brain just isn’t developed enough to deal with it. Dr. Koschnick uses the word “training” and she says that to accomplish what the standards outline, much time is going to be consumed and activities that are truly necessary for the proper development of our children will be edged out. But if you wait, until the brain is ready, until the child is ready, it happens at the right time in a much easier way, without much of the frustration.

The new standards are untested and not backed up with any research or evidence that they are going to successfully educate our children and leave a positive impact. They have me very concerned. In fact, my concern is so great that I chose to keep my 5-year-old son home from kindergarten. “Early childhood educators and child development experts were not involved in the development of the standards. And the standards were not explicitly tied to research,” presents Dr. Koschnick. Throughout her presentation, she reviews several of the Common Core’s specific standards and explains how developmentally ridiculous they are for that age group.

Studies have already revealed that children subjected to developmentally inappropriate classroom practices exhibit high levels of observable stress-related behaviors. I noticed a big change in my son last year after he started Pre-K. And I hear many stories from parents in my district that seem to support these studies. Dr. Koschnick hypothesizes based on her expertise in childhood development that the effects of inappropriate curriculum will include:

  • a loss of creativity
  • frustration
  • possibly conflict
  • a lot of tears

According to Dr. Koschnick, we’re starting very early with notions of conformity. We are teaching our children to care only about the notions and ideas of others, and to adjust their manner of being accordingly. And according to Dr. Koschnick, this is not only a bad idea, it is entirely detrimental to younger children in kindergarten and first grade, where it is developmentally appropriate for them to be practicing independence and seeing the world through egocentric eyes. This is the age for them to explore and create… and be proud of themselves doing it!

Dr. Koschnick says that teachers wear many hats; They are mentors, mothers, fathers, therapists, artists, scientists, etc. “But now after reading these standards, I’m afraid they’re going to have to wear another one. And that would be the hat of a magician.

I share Dr. Koschnick’s wariness over the lack of research behind the Common Core State Standards. With anything this important, there should be many citations. “Surely you’d think that the academic standards for a nation of children would be based on research… We demand that in other fields.”

On the long drive I thought of this…

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In the car for an hour and a half, I began to write old-school style!  With actual pen to actual paper, I started articulating thoughts that had been swimming around in my head for the past few days.  Writing is an excellent way to correlate seemingly disparate thoughts.  When I taught drawing to college freshman, I encouraged writing in their sketchbook-journal-idea books, as well as any working method to get those ideas out into the open.

My thoughts centered on school.  What was happening to our children’s education, and how it would really affect them down the road?  My son is in Pre-K and he has a real love-hate relationship with it.  I think about his educational future a lot and I’m filled with many typical parental worries.  But until recently, I never thought I would worry that school would ruin my child!  Yes, I worry that he’ll be ruined by a system that seems to be so homogenous and unappreciative of the beautiful qualities that make my son unique.  I am filled with worry and dread.  It consumes me.

Common Core Learning Standards are taking over education.  They were hastily adopted by New York State along with other state mandates, and schools and teachers are struggling to make big changes as quickly as possible.  The Common Core is said to close the gap, to put everybody on the same playing field.  I already see evidence of curriculum being scripted, a product for purchase from the shelves of large for-profit corporations like Pearson.  Although I will not argue against high standards, nor against every child being given equal opportunities for learning, I do have serious concerns about a curriculum that I see as becoming a “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching and learning.

I have a big problem with any “standard” that takes away an individual teacher’s unique voice.  Why should teachers be forced to “shift” their teaching practices to align to a system that narrows curriculum.  This is a prescription of content and method that serves only to prepare children to become good test-takers.  This kind of learning is superficial and based on rote “learning” (memorization) of materials just long enough to pass a test.  When the test is over, there is no incentive to retain the information.  Children are not connected to their own learning and they perceive no value in the materials outside of the test.

This type of test-driven education is heartless, passionless, and surely fosters a hatred for learning.  It leaves little time for child-centered learning, the type of learning that gives children an empowered sense of ownership over their own education and a sense of self-worth.  Project-based learning, child-led discussion, and learning to work & cooperate in groups are given little value in a system that prides test scores over the unique values that each student and teacher can bring to the experience.

Teaching and learning are too complex to be reduced to scripted curriculum and standardized assessments.  I recently heard a comment that was profoundly disturbing.   Our children are so coached into what they need to know to pass the test that when they encounter a question in an unfamiliar form, they fall apart.  This is a serious problem!  Our students are being led to believe that not only is there one correct answer to the question, but that there is indeed only one way of asking the question.  This does not create opportunities for students to think critically and creatively about a given problem.  They do not know how to appreciate or engage differing perspectives.  A conversation cannot be had when everyone says the same thing.

Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on creativity and a radical voice in changing the way we look at education, asks how can we claim to prepare students for a future that nobody can truly know anything about?

We are short-changing the next generation by not giving them the skills needed for an unpredictable future, namely skills such as creativity and adaptability.  How will our test-takers fare when they become young adults and must then compete with their peers who did have a balanced and engaging education?

We live in a world rich with information.  There is so much to learn, so much to discover.  Who should decide what gets taught and what doesn’t?  If we begin to appreciate the individual passions that drive each student and the way that they learn best, we can tailor an education that fits each student’s needs.  Perhaps there is a certain skill set that we must expect all of our children to know.  But to what extent?  And in a world where facts are so easily obtainable, perhaps we should focus our attention elsewhere.  Children that are inspired will take charge of their own knowledge.  The will want to learn.  They will love to learn.  And if we accept each child’s propensity to learn in a particular way or to be drawn to a particular subject, the world will be a richer place.  Rather than try to force everyone to adopt the same strengths, wouldn’t we be collectively stronger if we each added our own “strength?”

What would happen if all children were taught a particular lesson?  It was the same lesson, about the same thing.  It was given at the same time, whether or not the children were ready to learn it.  The focuses were all the same.  Someone had decided, you must know this, while that is not important.  In fact, when we test you on this, you must say it just so because if you do not you will be wrong.  A friend of mine recently called and described such a lesson.  Her sixth grade son was learning to calculate a tip.  At home he just didn’t get it and his mother (foolishly apparently) taught him another method.  Her son understood this method and could calculate the tip without effort.  But he was scared.  He knew he would be in trouble for not doing it the “correct” way.  Her mother wrote a note to the teacher explaining the situation.  The teacher replied, “you’re a great mother and it’s great that you take the time to help your son understand.  It’s wonderful that he gets it the way you taught it to him, but there’s one problem.  When your son takes the test and if he shows his work in that way, it will be marked wrong and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is cited by many as the point when standardized testing took a strong foothold in public education.  Enough years have passed and we are starting to see the results in young adults just entering college or the workplace.  In the documentary, Race to Nowhere, college professors are reporting students that exhibit a sense of entitlement; They want to know exactly what will be on the test, or a step-by-step on how they can achieve an ‘A’.  Employers are attesting to a similar lack of self-direction and independent thought; New employees are looking for constant guidance and imposed tasks.  One can’t really blame these young adults… their education has consisted of being told what to do and how to do it.

So why are we pushing even harder to implement a monoculture of education with Race To The Top (RTTT) and the new Common Core Learning Standards (1,2,3)?  It is naive to think that this will level the playing field.  We already know which schools are struggling.  But rather than provide resources and funds where they are needed, we’ve settled on a punitive system that is totalitarian in nature.  We know that peremptory threats and punitive measures will do nothing to address the socioeconomic issues that are often the real underlying reasons that keep students and schools from thriving.  I believe that this system will instead widen the divide between the Haves and the Have Nots.  If you make it a Race, there will inevitably be winners and losers.  And those who can afford the extra resources will surely come out on top–the books, the technology, the tutors, the tailored test-prep (because the Race is about the test), and other benefits that cost money.  And if financially strapped schools do manage to invest in this Race, at what expense will this occur?  Which extracurricular activities or valuable special programs will be cut?  How many good teachers will be fired or driven out by the madness?  How big will class size become, where students will have to compete for individual teacher attention?  How many local schools will be closed and their students forced elsewhere?

We live in a diverse land composed of many different cultures, values, and priorities!  Each one of us is a multi-faceted individual!  And we NEED this diversity emulated in the classroom, not crushed into unquestioning conformity.  Teaching is an art.  As no two students are alike, the same is true of teachers.  What they bring to the classroom is a unique reflection of who they are.  Experience and experiences, as well as personality, are all valuable traits that do and should affect what they have to offer in the classroom.  Teaching can and should ebb and flow as the teacher gains experience, as the types of students change, as knowledge is transferred from teacher to student and then reciprocated, as connections are made between disciplines, as the world changes, and as new evidence is uncovered in the fields of childhood development and psychology.  There are too many contributing factors to name, and they do and should be allowed to influence the classroom experience.  Teaching should not be a stagnant and monotonous endeavor.

The children are our future… It has become as cliche as saying, “think outside the box.”  But like most cliches, it is grounded in truth.  In many ways, the changing world we live in is a volatile one.  With a soaring population, the end of fossil fuels in sight, global climate change, a fragile economy, the need for sustainable agriculture, species extinction, combatting health problems, poverty and many other complex issues, we need innovative solutions from creative, problem-solvers, not adept test-takers.  Defenders of the Common Core Learning Standards have joked that “we’re learning to fly this plane while it’s being built.”  This is no laughing matter.  We can’t afford to have our children become the fallout of a failed experiment.  The children are our future.  We need solutions, not more problems.

Education Reform: a Blog of Cartoons by a Nationally Board Certified Teacher

Education Reform: a Blog of Cartoons by a Nationally Board Certified Teacher.

These are very worth checking out!  Funny, yet scary-true.

Happy Holidays at School

I love handmade gifts!  So this year Oscar and I worked together to make something meaningful for the special grown-ups in my son’s life at school.  Using the watercolor project I outlined here, Oscar made some delightful bookmarks for all of his teachers and aids!

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And he made a wonderful little painting for his “Aunt,” the loving woman who watches him now and then.  He loves to ride the bus there whenever he has early dismissal.  He is excited for the annual Christmas party tomorrow after school.  I hope she is just as excited to see his painting!

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I helped out too!  Sampler bags of Royal Shortbread Cookies… my specialty!

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Happy Holidays!  And thank you for all that you do and the time you spend with my son when he is away from home! (I suppose I owe them Royal Shortbread for being the royal pain in the ass that I am 🙂  )

Give the Gift of Art

DSC_6092Art is essential for children.  Besides the intrinsic pleasure of creating art, its value in childhood development is often overlooked in a culture of raising test scores.  Not only is it a creative outlet and a visual form of self-expression, art has been linked to greater academic success in schools.   From improving fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination to creating a sense of pride and accomplishment in young minds, art can provide a litany of benefits to children.

I am an artist.  I don’t mean that I enjoy painting in my spare time (I’m a stay-at-home mom–what spare time?!?!?).  By artist, I mean who I am in the very core of my being; It informs all that I am and everything I do.  I also happen to be over-educated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in the discipline of painting.  I began a career teaching college art before we deciDSC_6082ded to have children.  But ultimately, I just wanted to be home with my kids and be involved in every aspect of their childhood.  There have been times when I’ve felt conflicted and I miss the challenge of working with young adults and I miss the thrill of preparing an exhibition.  For the most part, being a mother and being home has been entirely rewarding!  But that’s besides the point.  I want to talk about children’s art!

My son goes through phases here at home when he enjoys making art, and I usually just follow his lead and provide himDSC_6084 with whatever materials he needs to spark his artistic genius. 🙂  I always saw my forte as working at the college level, but as a parent I am consistently blown away by the way my son paints!  I stand beside myself in awe at his natural sensibility for composition (the layout of the picture), and his use of color is just out of this world!  With total confidence he puts brush to paper and performs the raw act of mark-making without any hindrance by concepts of representation or style.

As a mother with a background in art, I curiously look forward to the art my children will bring home from school.  So far with my son in Pre-K, it has been mostly crayons on a print-out picture.  At our school’s open house we did receive one laminated “keepsake.”  But other than my son’s hand prints at the bottom, all the pictures looked the same, with the same poem cut out in the same shape, glued on top of the same color and formatted exactly the same.

At home, I regularly save my son’s paintings.  I have a visual timeline of his creations since he was an infant and just able to scribble chaotically across a sheet of paper.  He is now almost five and I patiently await his future creations.  When he was three, he made several watercolor paintings on artist quality rag watercolor paper.  One is framed and hangs above my rocking chair.  DSC_6080I receive praise all the time on the beautiful little abstract piece of art on my wall.  Everyone is astonished to find out that Oscar made it when he was three.  And I hear comments all the time from parents who wish they had a piece of their child’s art to save and cherish like that.

It doeDSC_6085sn’t take that much to create an environment for your child’s artistic creativity.  There are so many media you can use: crayons, pencils, watercolor paint, tempura paint, collage, rubbings, finger paints, stamps– you name it!

Oscar has a friend named Jonah.  Jonah’s mom is a friend of mine.  She once commented that she would love a framed piece of her son’s artwork.  I was lucky enough to have him for a few hours this past weekend and I thought… “why not make that happen for her?”  I’m going to tell you how he made his mom so happy and how anyone can set the stage for their child to create a wall-worthy piece of artwork that can function as a childhood keepsake, as well as a wonderful gift for family and friends.DSC_6091

Purchase any picture frame that you like.  11×14″ is a good size as it isn’t huge, but still leaves room for a decent painting.  Although any paper will suffice for a child’s creative outlet, you’ll need decent paper for this project.  If it’s too thin it will buckle and you risk the paper tearing if it gets too wet.  It’s worth it to find a sheet of artist quality watercolor paper.  You can buy these by the sheet from an art supply store or you might even be able to find a tablet of watercolor paper in your local Walmart, Kmart, or Target.

Cut your paper to fit the frame.  Then prepare the table!  Tape the paper down so it doesn’t shift and tape each edge of the paper to create a 1 1/2″ wide border.  I used artist’s tape, but painter’s tape will work well as you will be able to remove it from the paper easier than masking tape.  If you do use masking tape, just be careful when removing it.  Get out a watercolor set, a cup of water, a brush or two, and some paper towels to blot the brush, and let them paint!  That’s it!  Let them fill the space with color.  You might need to encourage them to work out towards your taped edges so that you get a nice crisp line between the white border and the painting when you remove the tape.  I like to tape down several sheets of paper at the same time and let my son move from painting to painting, doing a little here and a little there, going back and forth, letting parts dry a bit then going back in to finish it up.  I just think it gives him more freedom without feeling the pressure to “finish” any single one.

When they are done, let the paintings dry before removing the tape border.  Pull it carefully off of the paper, being sure to pull it away from the painting in case you get some tearing.  Insert your child’s beautiful work of art into its frame and… Voila!

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Oscar and Jonah had so much fun doing this.  It was an enjoyable experience by itself, but having a frame and taping the edge and knowing they were making a gift gave this particular project a sense of importance to them.  Jonah’s painting is on the right–he loved the idea of making a surprise for his mother.  Oscar’s painting is on the left–he hasn’t decided to whom he will give this picture.  They are wonderful, aren’t they?

I wrapped the framed painting for Jonah and he just couldn’t wait for his mom to open it.  He was beaming with pride, she said!  And her reaction:

“I think it’s the most beautiful artwork I’ve ever seen.  I can’t stop staring at it!  Jonah was so excited and so very proud to give it to me.  It means so much that you remembered me wanting to frame his art and you took the time with him to do it.  Thank you so so so much! Best Christmas present ever! I really can’t stop staring at it!”

So give the gift of art this year.  Give it to your child in the form of a valuable opportunity.  Give it to yourself in the form of a keepsake and you’ll capture a memory of their early childhood.  Or give it to others as a present under this year’s tree!