A Week at Mt. Rainier National Park

We planned for months to do a week-long camping trip at Glacier National Park but two days before we left we still were not able to get a Going to the Sun Road ticket (the website always crashed when everyone tried to buy tickets at the same time every morning and were instantly sold out) AND the weather was forecasted to be 100 degrees and smoky. 24 hours before we left, we decided to spend the week at Mt. Rainier instead! The weather was forecasted to be perfect and we called the park to make sure we thought we could get a first-come-first-serve camping spot. We are so glad we changed it up last minute!

Cougar Rock Campground fills up fast in the morning, especially on weekends! It has flush toilets, soap, paper towels, and drinking water but no hot water or showers.

Day 1: We had everything packed Thursday evening and left Friday morning for a family birthday party a couple hours from our house. We stayed in a hotel Friday night and left at 4:30am to arrive at Cougar Rock Campground by 7am. Seth waited in line at the ranger station until the ranger arrived at 7:30. There were 14 camping spots available for the day and we got the 6th one! Our camp spot was still occupied so we drove to Grove of the Patriarchs for a morning hike. Grove of the Patriarchs has enormous old-growth trees and a suspension bridge. Round-trip it is 1.5 miles and totally doable with little kids. In the afternoon we got to our campsite and set up our camp!

Grove of the Patriarchs Suspension Bridge
Old Growth Trees

Day 2: Sunday we drove up to the Sunrise area of Mt. Rainier. Looking back we probably should have gone on a weekday since we had to wait over an hour in line to enter the Sunrise area – they were letting cars in as cars drove out to make sure the parking lots were not overwhelmed. We were easily able to find a parking spot once we were in though! We did a hot and dusty 2-mile hike called the Silver Forest Trail. The views of Rainier were nice but were pretty much the same the entire way.

Silver Forest Trail at Sunrise

Day 3: We spent the day in the Paradise area of Mt. Rainier. The Paradise area is pretty much the only area in the park with full cell phone service. We took the Skyline Trail to Myrtle Fall and then continued on for about another 3/4 of a mile. There were gorgeous views of Rainier, wildflowers, streams and the trail had a good mix of shade and sun! The kids also completed their Junior Ranger booklets and got their Junior Ranger badges at the Paradise ranger station.

Hiking in the Paradise area

Day 4: This was our biggest day, and probably deserves its own blog post! We drove 3 hours south to Mt. St. Helens to hike the Ape Caves, a lava tube tunnel that is open to the public. Ape Caves does require a reservation and a $2 reservation fee, but it covers your whole car of people. There were plenty of spots available for a reservation when we booked a couple days in advance! There is an upper cave more difficult section and a lower, easier .75 mile section. We did the lower cave and it was perfect for the kids! It is definitely not wheelchair/stroller accessible but our kids were able to walk the entire way themselves.

Ape Caves!

Day 5: We woke up to cloudy skies and a colder campground on Wednesday. When it is cloudy at Mt. Rainier you aren’t able to see the mountain at all. We drove back up to Paradise and explored the Paradise Historic Inn. The kids enjoyed splitting a cinnamon roll from the cafe and Seth and I got some coffee. It felt warm and cozy and was a great morning of relaxing after our 6 hours of driving the day before. In the afternoon, we drove down to Longmire and walked around the 1/2 mile Trail of the Shadows nature trail. The clouds cleared by the afternoon and it ended up being the only cloudy day!

There are a lot of different areas to pull over and see waterfalls on the side of the road!
Crystal Mountain Gondola View

Day 6: Another out of park adventure day, we drove to Crystal Mountain Resort and took the gondola up the ski area. The views were incredible – you can see Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Adams from the top. We enjoyed our packed lunch at the top and did a little bit of hiking. There is a restaurant at the top for anyone wanting to pay $25 for lunch. You are able to hike down the 5 miles if you want, but the kids really wanted to ride the gondola back down!

Day 7: Our final day! We packed up our camp in the morning and explored part of the Carter Falls trail which starts right across the road from Cougar Rock Campground. This trail was really beautiful and we could have probably done more of the hike if we were ready with water and hiking shoes on the kids! We met some people on the trail from the Glacier area this day and they told us it was very busy, smoky, and hot in Montana – we were so thankful we chose Rainier!

I’d love to answer any questions about visiting or staying at Mt. Rainier National Park! It was a wonderful family camping trip! There are incredible longer hikes in the area too if you have older kids or no kids with you!

Salt Creek Camping!

We just finished unpacking from our 3rd camping trip to Salt Creek Recreation area (near Port Angeles, WA). I wanted to share about our trip in case anyone else is looking for a fun weekend camping trip in NW Washington! This is such a fun campground for kids since it has a playground, World War 2 bunkers, and endless tide pools to explore.

We left Bellingham early at 6:30am to catch the 8:45am ferry out of Coupeville. We arrived at Salt Creek around 10:30am and were able to snag a first-come, first-serve camp site (even though it was 4th of July weekend!). The campground has 92 sites and about half are reservable and half are first-come, first-served. (We’ve tried to get reservations before and have never had success, they are always really booked!)

We set up our tent and bug tent on Friday and took the kids down to the tide pools to explore. After a quick afternoon nap, the kids took their strider bikes to explore the World War 2 bunkers (previously Camp Hayden) and went to the playground. The campground also has sand volleyball courts, horse-shoe pits, a basketball court, and a baseball field! Camping at Salt Creek is $32/night and they only accept cash or check. There are both pit toilets and flush toilets depending on how far you want to walk from your camp site!

Saturday we spent the day in Olympic National Park. We did a 3.2 mile hike to the top of Hurricane Hill. The 360 views form the top are incredible! We picked up Junior Ranger booklets from the ranger station which the kids worked on while we were in the park and at the campsite the next morning. We have an annual National Park pass, otherwise the entry fee would be $30 for Olympic National Park. Hurricane Hill is paved the entire way so would be accessible for a stroller or technically a wheelchair – but you would want to make sure you had really good brakes on the wheelchair since it has 650 feet of elevation gain.

Sunday we packed up our campsite and spent the afternoon biking the Olympic Discovery Trail in Port Angeles. This trail is 135 miles long between Port Townsend and La Push. Around 90 miles of the trail has been developed into a paved path and I think they are working on completing more of it. We biked 10 beautiful miles along the water! We also stopped by the Olympic National Park Visitor Center to turn in the kids’ Junior Ranger packets to get their Junior Ranger badges!

I totally recommend Salt Creek for a weekend trip! None of us got a single mosquito bite which was a nice surprise! It was a lot foggier/cooler at our campsite and about 2 minutes after we drove out of the park it was totally blue skies and sunny!

This trip was kind of a trial run for a much longer camping trip we have planned later this summer. We were using our 6-person tent for the first time and hadn’t used any of our camping equipment since last fall. Happy Camping!

Will Our Baby Have NF1?

We just announced on social media that we are expecting Swanson baby #3 in October! We are so incredibly excited and can’t wait to meet the little one!

This is a really personal post and I’ve read and re-read it a bunch of times. I’ve been hesitant to post because maybe I’m oversharing…Here’s the thing though: I feel like I’ve been very public with our family’s journey the last couple years online through Oliver’s cancer treatment and Eliza’s treatment for her eye tumor. Because I’ve been so public, I’m going to address having another baby with the potential for having a genetic condition. I know not everyone is going to agree with me, and that’s ok. We aren’t all coming from the same views on life. I’m not writing this for anyone’s approval or coming from a need to explain myself. Ultimately this comes down to us and God. I believe that every life is a gift from God and he has each person’s life planned. I’m writing this because I know that those who have followed our story may be curious, or there may be other NF1 parents read this and may have faced this question themselves or will have to think about this in the future. I’m in a facebook group for parents of kids with NF1 and I know this can be a divisive topic!

We met with a genetic counselor twice to discuss NF1 and the potential risks and outcomes of having another baby. My first question was if having another baby would have a high chance of leukemia again. Our genetic counselor told us that having another baby with leukemia would be a 1 in a million chance again because Oliver had a DOUBLE genetic mutation. If he would have had one without the other he wouldn’t have developed his leukemia. I would obviously never want to put another child through that if I had the choice.

Most people with NF1 never develop any malignancy related to NF1 – if they develop tumors they are usually benign (like Eliza’s). 2/3 of kids with NF1 will never have major medical symptoms. Eliza and Oliver happened to both be in that 1/3 that did have major issues. Around 15% of kids with NF1 will get an optic glioma, but less than half of those kids need treatment. If you are interested in seeing more statistics about NF1, ctf.org (Children’s Tumor Foundation) is an amazing resource with tons of statistics and resources!

I could go on and on throwing statistics of this and that out, and how the most likely scenario is either no NF1 or a mild case, but with NF1 (and really, life in general), there are zero guarantees of what will happen. I’m just beginning the second trimester of pregnancy, and I know that even a full healthy pregnancy isn’t guaranteed to anyone – genetic conditions or not! I’ve learned in the last few years that we like to pretend we have a whole lot more control over our lives than we really do.

This baby does have a 50% chance of having NF1. I have NF1 (I don’t “carry the gene” for it – you either have it or you do not have it. The symptoms of it vary widely person to person and there is no way to predict mildness/severity). Eliza and Oliver both have NF1, but we didn’t know they (or I!) had it until Eliza was 3 and Oliver was 1.

I had a doctor tell me that if I want to have another baby, I could get pregnant, do genetic testing, and then terminate the pregnancy and “try again” if the baby had NF1. I was flabbergasted the doctor said that to me…again, I HAVE NF1. It was like the doctor telling me my life should have been terminated. WHAT! All this to say, we WILL get genetic testing done, but it will be after the baby is born. This way if they DO have NF1 we can do regular screenings to catch any issues early on.

Our kids have had challenges, sure. But they also have incredible, full, happy lives. They are full of joy, have friends, will go to school and are not suffering. They are not worth less because they have a piece of genetic material in the wrong spot. Goodness gracious.

Honestly, when you have a child, there are ZERO guarantees what is going to happen. Signing up for parenthood is signing up for risk of heartache. God gave us two incredible kids in Eliza and Oliver. I think they have an amazing story to tell of God’s faithfulness. This world is full of brokenness, and we have seen that first hand. Our world struggles with those with differences. I think we have come a long way, but there is still more advocating to be done. I know some people with NF1 choose not to have children of their own, and some have 5 kids! We’ve prayed about this baby and we have the support of our close friends and family.

I’m very open about discussing NF1 and our family’s journey if you have questions. Like I said above, ctf.org is a great resource on statistics and resources for NF1 families. Thank you for taking the time to read!

The 17 Books I Read in 2020

I have a goal each year of reading one book each month. 2020 unexpectedly gave a lot of us extra time for reading so I ended up reading 17 books! I would love to read more, but I spend a good amount of time reading aloud to the kids. While the kids are little, I think my goal is going to stay at 1 book a month. I’ve tried (and failed) several times to get into audiobooks – I just am not really a noise person. I almost never have music or the tv on in the background. I’ll keep trying audiobooks every so often though because I feel like they could be fantastic if I could get the hang of listening to them!

Like always, I kept track of the books that I read in a little notebook. I write the title, author, number of pages, and date completed. I usually write 1-2 sentences about what I thought of the book. This helps me a ton if anyone ever asks what I thought of a book or for a book recommendation!

My favorite fiction book from this year: The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes

My favorite nonfiction from this year: Teaching from Rest by Sarah Mackenzie

Least favorite: Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World (explanation below!)

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Without further ado, here are the books I read in 2020:

  1. Risen Motherhood by Emily Jensen & Laura Wifler: This book was great at applying the gospel to different aspects of motherhood. It was a bit repetitive but still well worth reading. My favorite chapter was “The Gospel and Our Children with Differences.”
  2. Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World by Kristen Welch: I wanted to love this book, but it really rubbed me the wrong way. Specifically, there was a point where she said, “If you want to feel grateful, go tour a cancer ward.” Our family spent a ton of time on the pediatric cancer floor and I would have been appalled if someone just came touring through to feel better about themselves! Umm…let’s not just be grateful because we have it “better” than others. I think gratefulness in kids begins with gratefulness of their parents and kids will emulate what they see. Overall I’d pass on this one even though I thought I would like it!
  3. Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein: This book described the damage done by the “purity culture” in the evangelical church especially through the 90s. A lot of the research the author cited was fairly anecdotal but it is important to realize how much hurt and shame came out of that movement.
  4. A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman: My first fiction book after a huge stretch of nonfiction! This book was a bit darker/heavier than I was anticipating but I see why so many people loved it!
  5. Where the Crawdads Sing By Delia Owens: This book started a little slow for me but really picked up towards the middle and I couldn’t put it down! I would recommend this one!
  6. The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer: This was a beautiful and melancholy book intertwining WW2 Poland with today. Every time I read a WW2 book it just blows me away the trauma and pain people lived through. I would definitely recommend this one!
  7. Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World by Joanna Weaver: The first few chapters made this book feel a bit dated (written over 20 years ago) but as the chapters went on there were some good points about finding rest and stability in God while continually serving everyone around you.
  8. Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss: This book had a lot of similarities to the book I read last year called Influence. The stories from the author’s time in the FBI were interesting. It had good advice about disagreeing with someone without making the other person defensive or angry.
  9. Raising Worry-Free Girls by Sissy Goff (no relation to Bob Goff): This book is good not just for moms but for anyone who has or knows someone with anxiety. It is written from a Christian perspective and contains practical advice for anyone that struggles with anxiety or worry.
  10. Teaching from Rest by Sarah Mackenzie: This was probably my favorite nonfiction read of the year! It was wonderfully short and discussed both priorities in homeschooling along with practical scheduling ideas. I would recommend it to any homeschool mom! (Sarah Mackenzie is the author that also wrote Read Aloud Family)
  11. The New Husband by DJ Palmer: I picked this one up from a “free library” on our Teton trip this summer! It was basically the plot of any run of the mill suspense movie. It is never one that I would normally read but was fine for reading in the hammock in the Tetons!
  12. Made for Brave by Alyssa Galios: This book will make you cry guaranteed. It is a true story memoir of a young mom that loses her husband to cancer. She wrestles with questions like, “how can a good God allow bad things to happen?” I would definitely recommend this book!
  13. Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: This book was written like the transcript of an interview which was a really unique way to read! It was a really engaging fictional story about a band outside of my normal genre of reading.
  14. Homeschool Bravely by Jamie Erickson: This had a similar vibe to Teaching from Rest but was quite a bit longer. It stressed that education is going to look different and work differently for every family. It was definitely pro-homeschool/anti-public school though which was a downside. I think for some families public school is 100% right and for some families something different is right. I’d take it or leave it with this one!
  15. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate: A heart wrenching story about the orphan trade in the US in the 1940s/1950s in Tennessee/Georgia. I had a little trouble following who was who at certain times since they kept some people’s identities hidden until the end of the book, but I would definitely recommend this one!
  16. The Brave Learner by Julie Bogart: This was another one that I really wanted to love, but it fell a little flat. The author is very type-B/permissive parent. I appreciated some of the ideas for routine that she had, but I’m still not going to set up a permanent art table in the middle of my living room or let my kids draw all over my couch and walls and just shrug that off as “kids learning.”
  17. The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes: Who knew a book about a traveling librarian could be so riveting! This one really kept my attention all the way through! I would definitely recommend it!

I would love to hear any book recommendations you have for me to add to my 2021 list!

1000 Books in 2020!

In January, 2020, I made a goal of reading 1000 picture books aloud to the kids in 2020! We finished our goal on December 28, 2020! I chose 1000 because it averaged out to around 3 books per day/20ish books per week which was just slightly above our average anyway. I kept track of the books in just a regular cheap notebook. In retrospect it probably would have been faster/easier to just keep track on the computer!

Keeping track of the books

We used to go to the library every other week to check out 50-60 books, but when the libraries shut down in March we had trouble getting new books! We flew through our home library (we don’t keep a ton of books because there aren’t too many books that I like to read over and over) and then ended up finding out about The Book Bundler company that sells boxes of used books relatively cheap. The books were definitely hit and miss, but enough to last until the libraries opened again!

Book Bundler Haul

Curbside pickup has been a game changer for books! I put books on hold that I know are available at the library and they usually have them ready to put in the trunk of my car within 24 hours! I’m able to be more selective with the books instead of the kids just randomly pulling them off the shelves (although I do miss that too).

Library Book Haul

I don’t think I’ll keep track of our picture books for 2021 just because it is somewhat tedious to write down that many titles. Eliza just turned 5 and is starting early reading skills (sight words, BOB books, etc.) so having this year of consistent picture book reading hopefully will help her continue to improve her reading skills! We will also most likely spend more time on chapter book read-alouds now that Eliza (and Oliver) are happy to sit and listen to them. I’m proud of our family for reaching our goal for this year though!

Here is the breakdown of books per month:

January: 109, February: 74, March: 61, April: 89, May: 93, June: 82, July: 107, August: 64, September: 88, October: 83, November: 70, December: 80

Some books were fantastic, others were duds, but overall the kids got exposed to a lot of vocabulary, a variety of plots, and hopefully a love of reading!

What reading goals do you have for 2021?!

One of my favorite places in the world to be!

You Can Make Cheesecake!

Cheesecake is by far my favorite dessert! I feel like it gets a bad rap for being difficult to make and I’m hoping I can show you how simple it can be! Pretty much any special occasion I offer to make a cheesecake because I feel like I can’t justify regularly making an entire cheesecake for our family of 4. I started making my own a couple years ago and have learned a LOT through trial and error. The biggest thing I learned though is that cheesecake is NOT as hard as it looks like to make! You can start getting really fancy and add special cheeses but I stick to the regular Philadelphia cream cheese recipes and they taste so good!

Eliza mostly liked the whipped cream on this pumpkin flavor cheesecake!

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Tips for making cheesecakes:

  1. I get most of my cheesecake recipes from Baker By Nature. I’ve never tried one I didn’t like. The White Chocolate Raspberry one is amazing! Once you have the basic recipe figured out though, it is really easy to modify flavors. You can also just do a plain cheesecake and put whatever toppings on you want too!
  2. Let your ingredients get to room temperature (including sour cream, eggs, cream cheese, and lemon juice). This makes the very smoothest cheesecakes without any clumps!
  3. Use a water bath. This is a slightly larger pan placed around the cheesecake pan filled with boiling water as you put it in the oven. This prevents the cheesecake from cracking. Do you HAVE to do a water bath? Nope! A cracked cheesecake taste just as good as a non-cracked one – they just don’t look quite as pretty!
  4. After they are done baking, turn the oven off and don’t open the oven door for at LEAST an hour or even longer. This allows the cheesecake to cool slowly so it won’t crack!
Pumpkin Cheesecake wrapped in foil + water bath!

Tools for making cheesecakes:

  1. You need a springform pan. These range in price from $8-20 or I’m sure you could pick one up for around $2 at a thrift store. A springform pan has a little hinge that takes the side off the pan since you can’t dump cheesecakes upside down to remove them from the pan without damaging them.
  2. You also need some sort of pan to go around the springform pan. I just use a 10″ cake pan but you can use any sort of pan that is wider than the cheesecake pan.
  3. WIDE Aluminum Foil to wrap the springform pan. I made like 10 cheesecakes before I realized regular foil wasn’t cutting it and I needed to buy extra wide foil. I would wrap and wrap and wrap the edges of the springform pan with regular foil but ALWAYS got leaks and soggy cheesecake. Once I bought foil wider than the pan, I just use a single layer and have never had a leak!
  4. A blender. You can use a KitchenAid or hand-held electric mixer too but I have found that the blender makes the smoothest cheesecakes.
The batter mixed in the blender can be poured easily into the pan!

Last tip: If you don’t want the hassle of the springform pan and water bath, cheesecake bars taste *almost* as good and don’t need any special tools!

White Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake
Peppermint Mocha Cheesecake

Eliza’s Favorite Craft Supplies

I know I JUST did a post about preschool toys, but this is the time of year to do these lists! These are all fun Christmas gift ideas if you are looking for non-toy ideas!

I love doing crafty things…knitting, crocheting, paint (by number), latch hook, cross stitch, cake decorating, etc. I especially love doing crafts with Eliza since she has a relatively long attention span for a 4-year-old. I’ve arranged these from least messy to most messy. (Seth rolls his eyes when I buy a 1800 Perler bead pack or finger paint because he KNOWS it will end in some sort of craft disaster haha!).

We recently put a lock on our craft closet due to a late-night incident involving sparkle Elmers glue all over the carpet in the kids’ bedroom…

Everyone has a different level of how much crafty mess they can handle so the further down the list you get, the more mess you can expect!

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  • Water Wow: These are magical boards by Melissa and Doug that change color when you add just water! They come with a little brush you can fill. The best part is they turn back to white once they are dry so they can be used over and over again! Eliza is actually almost getting too old for these, but they are a fantastic quiet time activity with no mess! (Be warned, 1-2 year olds will try to suck the water out of the tip of the brush but I figure that’s ok).
  • Paint by Sticker: Eliza is almost 5 and just discovered these. It is similar to a paint or color by number but uses stickers instead! These take quite a bit of patience and concentration but again have virtually zero mess or cleanup involved! I think kids ages 4-12 would love these!
  • Kumon Scissors and Mazes: Pretty much any Kumon brand book is great (check the recommended ages on the top right of the books for difficulty). Eliza especially likes the scissors skills books and the maze books. The only downside of Kumon books is I wish they had tear-out pages!
Eliza learning to use scissors with her Kumon scissors skills book
  • Colored Masking Tape: We’ve used this to make roads for hot wheels cars, design tape outfits for stuffed animals, make pretend bandages for dolls, and make designs on our windows. This is so versatile and really nice to have on hand!
  • Roll of White Paper: You can use this indoors or outdoors! We like to roll ours down our hallway and let the kids color all over the paper. You can also use this on an easel to have fresh paper to pull down. This is great for markers, pencils, pens, kwik stix, colored masking tape, and so much more!
  • Dot Stickers: These are the kind of stickers you would use to label garage sale things and our kids LOVE them! They are also fantastic for learning counting, sorting, etc.
  • Construction Paper + Markers: This is pretty standard for kids but again so versatile. Eliza likes doing “Art Hub for Kids” videos on youtube to copy drawings of her favorite cartoon characters!
  • Kwik Stix: These are “tempra paint sticks” which are MUCH less messy than paint. They are kind of a waxy blend between a crayon and a marker. Our kids love using them because they are very easy to draw with and are very brightly colored.
  • Do-A-Dot Markers: There are zillions of free dot marker coloring pages if you google them. I’ve used dot markers to teach both letter shapes and counting. The kids also like just using them for fun too!
  • Wonder Stix: I recently discovered these to use instead of Expo markers for white boards! They are more of a waxy texture and don’t smudge as easily as white board markers. White board markers also stain really bad and are impossible to get out of clothes. These wonder stix also work on regular paper and windows too.
  • Play Doh: We’re getting into the messier territory now…keep play-doh away from carpet! Eliza and Oliver looove mixing the colors together too so I usually only get 1-2 colors out at a time. Cookie cutters, rolling pins, forks, spoons, etc are all great additions to playing with play-doh without having to buy specific “play-doh toys”
  • Sparkle Glue + Tissue Paper: Eliza LOVES Elmer’s sparkle glue and gluing tissue paper. This is solidly the “messy” category now. Glitter glue is fun because you can use it to “draw” designs or a word/name and glue sequins, rice, beans, feathers, etc. on to a page!
  • Easel + Paint: We have a Melissa and Doug easel that the kids can use to paint. My favorite place for the kids to use this is outside though because no matter how hard I try, paint always seems to get out of control. I’m sure this will get easier as the kids get older but for now I only get this out when I’m ready to really invest time in set-up and clean-up!
  • Water Beads: Water beads are full of so much squishy fun (even for me) but they are slippery and will bounce all over the house unless you have incredibly careful kids. My favorite place to use these is outside in the water table. They are biodegradable so you don’t have to feel bad if some of them end up in the grass! You do need to be REALLY careful with these around toddlers though because they are dangerous if eaten since they swell up with liquid.
  • Perler Beads: These aren’t actually messy unless they spill…which they will! Eliza loves doing patterns like these but still needs a little help with more complicated designs. There are pretty much unlimited patterns you can print from the internet and this is another great quiet-time activity!

Crafting is a huge part of our homeschool preschool! I would love to know if there are any craft materials we are missing out on that I didn’t list!

Christmas Gift Ideas for Preschoolers!

Gift-giving is one of my top love languages and Christmas is definitely my favorite holiday of the year! I’ve already started shopping for this year – I keep seeing that shipping will most likely be delayed this year so it is a good idea to start early!

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Our kids have no shortage of toys thanks to cancer treatment and all the generous people and organizations that helped us through that difficult time. We have a playroom with lots of different choices, but there are certain toys our kids pull out again and again and play with for HOURS. These are open-ended toys (can be played with lots of different ways) and are perfect for pretty much from when they stop trying to eat the toys and older!

#1. Picasso Tiles! These are magnetic tiles that stick together on any side to build towers, rocket ships, houses, jails, and anything else you can think of! The most popular brand is MagnaTiles but these are about double the price. Picasso Tiles average out to about $0.50 per tile and Magnatiles are usually around $1.00 per tile. From what I have read, Picasso Tiles and MagnaTiles are interchangeable if you buy some of each, but we just own Picasso Tiles.

We have like 100 of these pictures because every time Eliza builds a tower she wants us to take a picture of it 🙂

#2. Little People Sets (by Fisher Price): These are great because they can be chewed on by a baby, but Eliza at almost 5 still LOVES playing with them. The best part is that they fit exactly inside a PicassoTile square so the kids spend a lot of time making little houses or towers for their Little People. There are so many different Little People sets – Frozen Castle, Barnyard, Nativity Scene, etc. The kids spend the most time just playing with the people themselves though, even more than the sets they come with. They sell sets of just people or animals too. I saw at Walmart that you can even buy individual ones!

#3. Wooden Alphabet Blocks: We bought these when I was pregnant with Eliza for our maternity pictures. They seem like such a simple thing compared to other more glamorous toys but these get played with a lot too! We’ve also been able to use them for preschool for identifying letters and colors!

Oliver playing with blocks and Hot Wheels together

#4. Hot Wheels Cars: This one is the only one that is more than an Oliver toy than an Eliza toy. She isn’t super interested in playing with cars, but Oliver plays with them all. the. time! He lines them up in rows, races them down the hallways, takes them with him in his car seat…he basically always has a Hot Wheels car with him. We have Hot Wheels tracks too that the kids get out every once in a while, but what they really like playing with is just the cars themselves! These happen to fit perfectly in the Picasso Tile cubes too so they mix really well together!

#5. Counting Bears: You might remember having these in your classroom as a kid. We use these for preschool and have used them for Eliza’s vision therapy, but the kids ask to play with them a lot! This set comes with colored bears, cups, dice, grabbers, and a carrying case. The kids make up games together (with rules that always seem to benefit Eliza haha), toss them into the cups, count them, make up stories with them, and a lot more. The only downside of counting bears is that they are definitely a choking hazard for little kids AND they can sometimes get lost more easily than some other toys.

Eliza playing counting bears with her patch on

#6. Disney Brand Plush: We have a variety of stuffed animals but this Disney Stuffed Elsa is Eliza’s “lovey.” She has Elsa, Anna, and Rapunzel from the Disney collection (and don’t tell her, but she is getting Ariel for her birthday) and they all have a special place in her bed. If she gets hurt or is tired, she always wants Elsa. She got Kristoff for finishing her last day of chemo last year and then wrapped and gave him to Oliver for his birthday because Oliver LOVES Kristoff…which was pretty much the sweetest thing ever! Just make sure if you are ordering from Amazon it is from the actual Disney store; there are quite a few knock-offs on there. You can also just order from the Disney website!

Construction paper clothes for Eliza’s Elsa doll

#7. Grocery Cart: We swooped up a kiddy grocery cart from a side of the road free-pile when Eliza was learning to walk. The kids have gotten endless hours of play from it. One downside is it does take up a good amount of real-estate in the playroom but I can never bring myself to get rid of it because of how often it is used. It is also really useful for cleaning up the living room because the kids can pile the toys in there and just cart them back to the playroom at the end of the day!

#8. Squishmallows: Eliza and Oliver both got big Squishmallows for Christmas last year and Oliver decided his big Squishmallow would be his lovey (haha). He literally sleeps on top of it every single night and we honestly could probably just get rid of his bed and just keep the Squishmallow. We ended up buying him a mini-version of his big one to take in the car for Seattle trips. We even brought his Squishmallow to the Tetons this summer because we knew he would for sure sleep on top of it in the tent! Eliza has gotten a couple mini-squishmallows for prizes from her vision therapist and she loves them too.

Oliver’s regular sleeping spot (and his Hot Wheels cars in the lower left)
Mini Squishmallows

#9. Trampoline: This was definitely a quarantine panic purchase this past March. We ordered one just in time and then they started to sell out everywhere! I know there are mixed feelings about trampolines and their safety. I think almost all trampolines come with nets now and our kids can only jump about 2 inches high so I think at least while they are small it should be safe enough! The kids have spent hours and hours running and jumping on the trampoline. This was especially helpful when the parks and trails were closed, but they still go out almost daily to get their wiggles out!

#10. Tuffo Rain Suit: This last one isn’t technically a toy, but we LOVE our Tuffo Rain Suits! I’ve given them as gifts many times and our kids play in them all Fall, Winter, and Spring! I’d say they run slightly big, so no need to size up! These rain suits allow the kids to play outside no matter the weather all year round! They even work well in snow if you bundle up underneath!

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park

We just came home from a weekend at Cannon Beach! On our way home we stopped at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park located near Astoria, Oregon. This is a bit of a drive for anyone living in NW Washington, but if you happen to be in the area it is definitely worth a stop!

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park is a grouping of a couple different locations. Our National Park Pass that we bought for our Teton trip in August lets us in to all the National Parks for a year, but if we did not have the pass it would have been $10 per adult (although this kind of seemed like an honor system because there was no entry gate or tag to purchase to display on your windshield). We were at the Fort Clatsop location for about 2 hours total.

We first stopped at the visitor center where they had FREE junior ranger packets and badges! We have found this varies from park to park (you had to pay for badges and junior ranger activity books at Yellowstone). Eliza especially was very excited to try to search for different plants and animals listed in her junior ranger book.

After picking up the kids’ junior ranger pamphlets and a map, we walked around the Fort Clatsop replica buildings. The kids were able to climb all around the structures. There were almost no other people around when we were there (on a Monday morning)!

After looking around Fort Clatsop, we did the Netul River Trail hike/walk which is about a mile long one way. There was a lot of wildlife along the river trail. Eliza found 10+ caterpillars, we saw a heron, banana slugs, river otters (muskrat? We weren’t entirely sure what they were), and ducks! It was totally flat and had several boardwalks along the path.

Reading through the park information, it sounds like they have a lot of great programs during the summer including FREE guided canoe tours and ranger hikes and programs! There is no camping at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park so it is more like a day-trip to do if you are already in the area at another state park or staying on the Oregon coast.

If you have more stamina than a 1 mile hike (pretty much our kids’ max), they have a trail that connects Fort Clatsop to Sunset Beach (about 5 miles) that sounded beautiful!

I would definitely stop here again as a place to stretch our legs if we are driving through!

Centennial Trail Bike Ride!

The nice weather of summer/fall seems to be coming to an end, but there are plenty of outdoor things to do in late fall/winter! We recently biked a good chunk of the Centennial Trail in Snohomish County.

North Trailhead (do not recommend that port-a-potty though!)

It is a little bit of a drive to get there (about an hour from Bellingham), but it is a 30-mile (one way), completely paved and off the road biking trail! It is perfect for kids! Our kids are not very confident on bikes yet so Seth still tows them in our bike trailer (close to 100 pounds!)

We biked from the Nakashima Heritage Barn to Arlington and back to the Nakashima Barn/North trailhead for a total of about 18 miles round-trip. The trail goes right by Twin Rivers Park in Arlington which is a great stop if it isn’t too busy. There is a big playground there with an awesome splash pad open during the summer.

To get to the park entrance, take exit 208 for SR 530 toward Arlington. After 3.7 miles, turn left on to SR 9 (this is an easy turn to miss on your way home). After 7.7 miles the trail head is on the left!

The whole path is so peaceful and beautiful. It would be great for walking a dog or running too if you were not wanting to go as far.

With so many things likely being closed down this winter, hopefully this gives you another idea for getting outside!

My parents came along too!

We have been wearing neck gaiters while biking because they are easier than a mask to take on and off quickly when passing others!