Hands-On Fun at Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts

Today the kids and I had an open Saturday afternoon so we decided to use our free passes to the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts where a dear friend works.  We pedaled our bicycles through the blustery weather to the museum, which is only about ten minutes from our house.  After the kids goofed around a bit outside with the sculptures that decorate the grounds, we headed inside for a little art viewing.  Our good friend, Yumi, happened to be working that day so we got to ask her questions and hear her explanations about some of the art. Katie is the biggest art enthusiast of the family.  It was fun to see her looking closely at the art and even taking notes on which paintings she liked and why she liked them.

Highlights of the visit included seeing a painting by famous British artist J.M.W. Turner and getting to participate in some hands-on activities that helped the kids pay closer attention to works that are currently on display.  And it was fun to see our friend Yumi in action as well!  Then on the way home we stopped by the local convenience store for a little snack.  It was the perfect ending to an enjoyable day.

Here are some photos.  You can click on individual images to see them more clearly.



Learning About Our Insides by Making an Anatomy T-Shirt



In my proactive search for cool hands-on science activities, I came across this blog post that explains (with free printable templates) how to make a t-shirt with a realistic drawing of human internal organs on it.  While the kids already know basically what their heart, lungs, and stomach look like and where they are located, I thought this activity would be a great way to help them remember the names and locations of some of the organs they might not be as familiar with, such as the pancreas, appendix, and spleen.

To do this project, I bought white long-sleeved kids’ undershirts, which came two in a pack and were less expensive than regular shirts.  Since I wasn’t sure how excited the kids would be about going around town with their organs in full view, I thought they could just use them as pajama shirts or for wearing around the house (especially when we are doing science together!)  The t-shirts could easily have been short-sleeved, but since it’s winter I thought that long-sleeved would be cozier.  I printed out the templates from the website on white card-stock.  The templates were two pages so I stapled them together to make the full picture.  Then I inserted them inside the t-shirts so that the picture was where we wanted the drawing to be when it was done.

The kids then used fine-tip black permanent magic markers to draw the outline of the organs.  Since the card stock paper was in between the two layers of the shirt, it kept the pen from bleeding through to the other side.  The t-shirt really needs to be white so that you can see through to the template underneath.  This part of the project was a little bit tricky because depending on the light in the house it was harder or easier to see through to the picture on the template.  Austin and Ethan moved around to different locations until they found a spot where they could see best.  They also had to be very careful not to move the template if they moved the shirt so that the picture would end up in the right spots.

After the kids finished tracing the organs the best they could, they used another copy of the picture that I printed out that had the organs labled (also from the same website).  This helped them see where the different organs began and ended.  They then colored the different parts their colors of choice using fabric markers and fabric crayons I had gotten on Amazon Japan.  With both the markers and crayons, you have to place a piece of paper over the colored places and then iron it for a bit to make the color permanent when you have finished coloring.

We all really like how the t-shirts turned out and they came in very handy when we were reading about digestion the other evening!  When the book mentioned a certain body part involved in digestion, I had them find it on their t-shirt.  We also used our science textbook’s description of where each body part is located to see if their t-shirts placed their intestines, heart, stomach, etc. in anatomically correct locations.  They weren’t perfect (the amount of intestines is a bit less than in a real human body) but they were pretty close!

All in all it was a worthwhile project that will hopefully help our anatomy studies “stick” in their brains better this year.  Katie was actually so excited about her t-shirt that she wore it to school and showed it off to all of her friends and teachers!  So, I’m calling this project a success!


Embroidering the Kanji


It’s always a challenge to find fun and memorable ways to help my kids (and me!) remember the 1006 elementary school level kanji (Chinese characters that are used in the Japanese language). (See these posts here and here for what we’ve done in the past). One thing we commonly do together during homeschool kanji study time is to look closely at the characters, figure out what their parts are, and then make up silly stories about them. For example, the kanji means “what” and the part on the left means person.  The kids and I decided that it looks like a person wearing a huge backpack with some secret stuff inside of it.  Looking at it makes us wonder, “What is in the backpack??” So that helps us remember that the kanji means “what” and how to read it in Japanese. The kids also write the kanji on paper (or sometimes in the parking lot with sidewalk chalk or on cookies with chocolate pen if we’re feeling creative) and of course they practice reading sentences or stories that have the kanji in them.

Katie is now in second grade so this year she is charged with learning 160 of these characters. To help get the kanji to stick in her brain better, we decided to start a kanji embroidery project.  After Katie practices a kanji in her book and then sticks it to her “kanji tree” on the kitchen wall, she gets to embroider it onto a blue sheet that will later grace her bed.  Not only has this helped Katie remember the kanji she has embroidered so far, but her embroidery stitches have really improved with all the practice.  The project has also inspired her to watch Youtube videos on her own to learn new stitches like the lazy daisy stitch, the french knot, and the chain stitch. (Now all I have to do is find a way to combine kanji memorizing with Lego building and the boys are all set!)

Here are a few more photos of her adventures in kanji embroidery.


After Katie practices the kanji in her textbook, she writes it onto a blank fruit, flower, or leaf shape and then sticks it to her kanji tree. This tree is for kanji that relate to people. Once she learns all the people-related kanji we will add more trees with other themes to make a kanji “forest.”









Pottery Making in Mashiko, Japan

We live in the Japanese city of Utsunomiya, which is less than an hour away from a town called Mashiko that is famous for pottery making.  Tourists from all over Japan make their way to Mashiko to buy pottery and to try their hand at making it themselves at one of the famous pottery kilns.  Despite living close to Mashiko, we rarely go there and no one in our family had ever tried pottery making.  But one weekend Bryan had plans to take Austin and Ethan to a sports camp so Katie and I decided to head on over to Mashiko and let the family Queen of Arts and Crafts give it a try.

We ended up going to a place called Hasegawa Touen, one of many pottery makers who have inexpensive classes for beginners and who welcome children.  Most of the shops in Mashiko offer two kinds of pottery making experiences: forming pottery out of a ball of clay with your hands or using a pottery wheel.  We decided to go with hand forming the clay since it sounded easier.  The staff woman who helped us was very friendly and she assisted Katie whenever she had any questions.  Otherwise, Katie was free to make whatever she wanted and could make use of various tools and clay stamps that the staff provided.

After a bit of deliberation, Katie decided to make a mug that she decorated with various animal-shaped stamps.  When she was finished, the staff woman engraved Katie’s name and the date in the bottom of the mug and told us it would be ready  in about a month.  When we inquired about why it takes so long, she said that first they have to dry the clay, then bake it, then glaze it (in the color of Katie’s choice), and then bake it again.

Several weeks later, we received a call from Hasegawa Touen and went to pick up Katie’s pottery creation.  She was very happy with the results and it is now her go-to mug for all types of beverages!  Way to go, Katie!  You did a great job!  Maybe next time we will try the pottery wheel!

Crafty Katie

When Austin and Ethan were Katie’s age, they spent lots of time playing with toy trains, cars, and Legos.  Katie plays with toys too, but she spends the majority of her free time creating things out of paper, disposable chopsticks, tape, glue, and staples.  Lots of staples.  In fact, to help her enjoy writing, we recently started a blog for her called Katie’s Craft World.  She comes up with craft ideas and makes them.  Then I photograph her with her crafts and she dictates to me what she wants me to type into her blog to explain how to make her craft.  It’s her first foray into homeschool writing assignments, but without having to worry about spelling or get exhausted from writing it down herself.  I get a kick out of the creative craft ideas she comes up with, like sushi made from origami paper or a mini badminton set made out of drinking straws and staples.

Something else Katie has gotten into is sewing.  Back in 2010 I first gave her a piece of felt and a needle and thread to practice making super simple stitches.  She enjoyed it and since then has been improving in her sewing ability little by litte.  A few months ago, I ordered this kids’ sewing book from amazon.com and also this one and we put together her very own sewing kit. She was super excited to have her own sewing tools, fabric, and books with various projects in them and she set to work right away to make some of the easy ones.  She can now thread and knot a needle on her own and knows how to do a running stitch and a whipstitch.  So far she has made drink coasters and a “tooth fairy pillow” with a pocket to put the tooth in.  She’s also made a couple of sweet dreams masks (to block out sun while you sleep), stuffed animals, and a blanket with a pocket and a “pocket pal”.

I only know the very basics of sewing, so I’m no expert but I am looking forward to learning alongside Katie as I try to help her gain new skills.  I think it would be fun to take a sewing class with her some day if she continues to be interested.

Making Kanji Fun!

Sometimes it can be overwhelming to think about needing to learn between 150 to 200 new Japanese-style Chinese characters (called kanji) every year when you are an elementary school-aged boy who is also learning to read and write well in English and (frankly) would much rather be out playing sports or building with Legos than writing the kanji characters over and over again to memorize them.  So, I’ve recently been trying to think of ways to put a little more excitement and variety into the kanji learning experience.

One idea I have tried is to print out a blank board game and use kanji cards and a dice to practice kanji with the boys in a fun way.  They roll the dice and the number that comes up is the number they can move on the board, but only if they can correctly read that number of kanji.  If they can’t, then they can only move the number of spaces they were able to read.  We’ve also included some chocolate chip rewards for getting past certain spots on the game board — chocolate is always a big motivator in this house. 🙂

Another thing I’ve done is to purchase a kanji bingo game from Amazon Japan.  When I bought the game, I thought it would include cards for all the second and third grade kanji, but unfortunately it only included a few of each level.  So, I used the boys’ textbooks to make many more cards for the game and then divided them into sets.  Playing kanji bingo helps the kids (and the mom!) to think about the parts that make up each character since you must match either the top half of the kanji with the bottom half or the right side with the left side to play the game.  We can also use the cards to play a rousing game of “Old Maid”.

An educational consultant told me that taking a multi-sensory approach to learning the characters can be really effective.  Instead of simply writing them on paper with pencil, she suggested having the kids use their fingers to “write” the kanji on a rough surface like sandpaper to help it stick in their brains.  I liked her sandpaper idea, but decided to choose more interesting surfaces like a square of fake grass, colorful corrogated cardboard, and a wide scrubbing sponge.  We’ve also tried making the kanji with playdoh, pipe cleaners, and glitter glue, and by forming them on a cork board with push pins.  But the most delicious study method we’ve done so far is to have the boys write them on sugar cookies using a chocolate pen — yum!!

My hope is that these non-traditional ways of practicing the characters will help make the kanji easier for the kids to remember and also help them develop the feeling that memorizing kanji can actually be fun.  So far, my students have given these activities rave reviews!

Incorporating Art in our Homeschooling

My dad and my brother are both quite artistic, but unfortuntely the “artsy gene” passed me over when I was being formed in the womb.  (Bummer!)  But, despite my almost complete lack of artistic skill, I do my best to incorporate art into our homeschooling whenever possible, mainly because the kids love it.

When I read to the kids from a novel or from the Bible I often let them draw pictures related to what I’m reading while they listen.  When we read a novel called Kildee House a month or so ago, all three kids tried their hand at drawing the main character’s house in the woods.  When we read a couple of novels about horses, they enjoyed drawing or coloring pictures of horses while they listened to me read.  When we do copywork as part of our language arts program, I always have the kids draw a picture to go along with the sentences they have copied.

I also try to keep lots of art supplies on hand for the kiddos to pull out and make various “projects” of their own design with.  Katie loves drawing portraits of friends and giving them as gifts when people come over.  Austin and Ethan enjoy making castles or mountains out of cardboard for their Lego mini-figures to have adventures on.  They constantly create all kinds of things using paper, glue, tape, crayons, paints, and anything else we have on hand.  One day, for some reason, the boys got into making paper snakes of various sizes, including a giant one with scary, sharp teeth!  They had so much fun adding and adding to their paper snake collection!

When we studied about the life of Michelangelo recently, we taped coloring pages with scenes from the Sistine Chapel ceiling to the bottom of two tables in our homeschool room and the kids got a chance to experience a small  taste of what it must have been like for Michelangelo to spend four years craning his neck to paint his famous fresco.  It was cheating a bit, but I had them use crayons instead of paint to avoid the inevitable spills and huge messes that would have followed if I’d handed them paint for them to use while lying on their backs. 🙂  Michelangelo, we discovered, actually stood on a scaffolding (in a very uncomfortable position) while he painted the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, but we cheated on that too since our tables were way too low for them to stand under.  But, hey, we had fun! 🙂

Another art resource that has been popular in our house is a mosaic making kit that I got at Toys R Us awhile back.  It comes with colorful plastic cubes and pre-printed mosaic templates for creating pictures of things like dolphins and watermelon slices.  After using the templates a few times, Austin and Ethan started to create their own mosaic pictures, usually based on scenes from the Star Wars movies. (Yes, you know they are die-hard fans when they start to immortalize Star Wars in a mosaic!) 🙂

Below are photos of some of these recent art activities.

A Star Wars… Apron!

At UICS, Austin and Ethan occasionally get to make things in the kitchen.  They always look forward to days like that. 🙂   In Japan when kids work in the kitchen at school, there is a set uniform.  They need to wear a bandana tied on their head (to keep their hair from getting into the food), a doctor’s mask (to keep germs out of the food in case they cough or sneeze), and an apron (to keep their clothes clean).  It’s easy to find aprons for kindergarten boys because many Japanese kindergartens require the kids to wear smocks for some of the day (like when they are doing crafts or eating lunch) to keep their clothes clean.  So, the stores sell smocks with bullet trains, bugs, or famous cartoon characters on them that boys get excited about.

But, for the elementary school set, it’s a little hard to find an apron that is large enough and boyish enough for a guy to want to wear it to school.  I went looking awhile back for a school apron for Austin and just could not find anything boyish-looking.  So, I decided to improvise and buy a very plain adult-sized apron at the dollar store, bring it home, and have Austin decorate it with whatever he wanted.  He decided on a Star Wars theme and I think it turned out pretty cool!  This is definitely a one-of-a-kind apron!  After seeing this, Ethan suddenly became dissatisfied with his school apron and wanted to make a Star Wars one for himself!  I haven’t gotten around to getting one for Ethan yet, but when I do I’ll try to remember to post photos of his creation too! 🙂  Just click on the photos to see more detail.

Prolific Artists

Austin and Ethan are big fans of the National Wildlife Federation’s magazines for kids.  My Aunt and Uncle gave them a subscription to Your Big Backyard, which has a section that publishes kids’ drawings of animals.  When the kids were younger, Austin sent in a picture of a bird to the magazine and it ended up being  published in one of their issues.  That was a very exciting experience for him!  So, Austin and Ethan recently sat down and created a ton of new animal pictures that they asked me to send in to Your Big Backyard, in hopes that they will get published again.   They were so proud of their drawings that they wanted me to put them on my blog too.  Here is a slideshow of their pictures.  Enjoy!!

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No Longer the Oda Family

It’s been a year since we moved to our new house, and little by little we’ve been getting ourselves settled in and making improvements here and there.  One improvement Bryan and the boys recently made was to put up a name plate on the outside wall of our house.  The name plate used to read “Oda”, the name of our landlords, so when sales people would come to call at our door they were extra shocked to find that a foreigner (who looked nothing like a Mr. or Mrs. Oda) had answered the door! 🙂

Thanks to Bryan and the boys, who made a super cool new katakana name plate for us, that is no longer a problem and we get slightly less shocked looks on people when we answer their knock on our door! 🙂

Here are some super cute photos of their project.