The Giving Tree Helps With Gratitude

A few  years ago, before the arrival of JohnJohn, we made our first “Giving Tree”.   I really don’t know why I decided to start that tradition other than it felt good and seemed like a fun and easy activity to do with two kids under 5.  To be honest, I really wasn’t a very “mindfully aware” back then.  The whole concept of “living intentionally” seemed a little far out.

Nonetheless, every day that first November we sat together at our dining room table and talked about something good that happened to us that day as well as something good we did for someone else.  Then we wrote those things down on either side of a construction paper leaf, decorated the leaves, laced them with a loop of white thread, and hung them on branches we found on our lawn that I had stuck in a vase.

After the 30 days we used the Giving Tree as a Christmas decoration.

I loved listening to the kids talk about how they were grateful for “pasta”, or “Bucky”  (Bucky, Molly’s security blanket, showed up A LOT that first year), or for Spiderman.  Figuring out what toddlers do for others was a happy puzzle we solved each day.

That November was really special.  And seeing that Giving Tree every day with all those colorful leaves for two months added a special joy to my holidays that year.


It got me thinking about how good gratitude feels.  The more I directed our attention to goodness, the better our days were.  Really.  It sounds a little eccentric, but it’s true.

I think about gratitude a lot these days, especially as I train my kids to say “Please.  Thank you.  Thanks.  Please.  Thank you.  Thanks a lot!”

How many times do we parents encourage our kids to use those words every day?  Why do we do it?

Gratitude is not just about good manners.  And it’s not just about being a kind person, even though I wish that for all of my children.  Gratitude is actually good for the grateful!

Research by Dr. Robert Emmons at UC Davis suggests that people – – regardless of age, gender, race, or spiritual affiliation – – who are consciously grateful are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives.

I know, I know.  Measuring happiness, stress, and satisfaction seems pretty difficult.  It’s not like you can rake them up into a pile.

I like neat piles of things that you can measure. Here, I’ve counted about 50 leaves of seeded paper.

And what is gratitude anyway?

Gratitude is, very simply, being mindful  – – being aware – – of the good things that happen to you, no matter how small.  It’s free.  It’s easy.  And when you make a Giving Tree, it’s fun!

That same research shows that people who are consciously grateful also:

~get more sleep,

~have a higher immune response than those who aren’t,

~live longer lives,

~and have a higher performance in the workplace or academic setting.

Those are things you can measure!

In an effort to extend the joy even longer this year we are making our Giving Tree with a little twist.  We’ve added seeded paper.  Sometime after Christmas we plan to put the tree outside so when the leaves will blow off they’ll hopefully take root in the ground.

Come Spring, we’ll see flowers where all those blessings were planted.

An Unexpected Benefit From Sketch Tuesday


Caring? For your “C” word?
I can just hear my mother-in-law, “that Joseph is just such a sweet, special boy. Special! Just SPECIAL!”.
You’re right, Mom. He is.


Overachieving Molly. Two “C” words.

For those who don’t know, we try to pick something to sketch on Tuesdays.  It can be anything and there are no rules for how to draw or color it.  We have been doing it for over a year and most of the time, if the kids don’t come up with their own idea, we go with whatever topic is listed on Harmony Art Mom’s blog.

All I have to say is, “it’s Sketch Tuesday” and the kids have their books out (we’ve finally decided to keep 1 notebook each so we can keep track of everything).  After many months, it’s finally a habit!

I usually ask the kids about what they draw and have them tell me a story.  Sometimes I write down what they say or let them write it down.  Then we date and sign the sketch (we’ve never sent anything in to to Harmony Art Mom – – I just can’t seem to get organized enough for that).

I’ve gotten some questions lately about how we spend our days and oddly, three people this week asked me for updates about Sketch Tuesday.  I don’t post the sketches each week because I wasn’t sure if it would be interesting for anyone other than my MIL and me.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: participating in art is good for you.  Sketch Tuesday is an easy and inexpensive way to be creative.

Here’s a surprise benefit from this practice: mindfulness (or “being aware”).  Mindfulness training has some pretty serious benefits.  So mindfulness is a tool I want my kids to have in their toolbox for life.

Taking 5 minutes to sit together to draw and write at least once a week has helped us to quiet our minds.  Out of that quiet have come some great conversations about feelings (as well as some really fun pictures).  And you never know where that will go!

This week we sketched something that begins with “C” and, as you can see, Joseph had “caring” on his mind.  It was pretty fun to talk about why he drew this picture.  And that lead to talking about caring and vulnerability in general.

We live in a competitive world where weakness is frowned upon.  While vulnerability is the core of shame and fear, it’s also the cradle of joy and love.  That’s taken me almost 40 years to understand.

I could not have come up with a better lesson plan for talking about something so tricky and yet so vital to living a full life.

A big thank you to Harmony Art Mom for giving me the idea of Sketch Tuesday and a really great explanation of why teaching art is important, as well.

Watercolor Birch Trees


Molly, putting the finishing touches on a piece she donated for a student art show to raise money for art classes for kids. It’s totally going for more than asking. How do I know? I’m buying it! How much do you want? I’ll take it!

Molly took an art class a while back and learned how to do this easy painting project.  We have done it several times now with different friends and it is always a big hit.  Children and adults alike look like geniuses!

Here’s what you need:

  • watercolor paper
  • watercolor paints
  • a brush of your choice
  • water
  • masking tape
  • a black marker
  • scissors

Instructions as described by Molly:

  1. Cut a piece of watercolor paper to your desired size.
  2. Rip up pieces of masking tape the long way (vertically) so that at least one side looks frayed.  The outline of the tape is what your tree will look like.  Put the tape on the paper so that one end touches the bottom.  Add branches if you’d like.  Add more trees!  The more the merrier.  Make sure the tape is flat against the paper so no watercolor gets underneath while you paint.
  3. Paint the paper however you’d like!
  4. Let it dry. Really.  Hide it if you have to but really let it dry before you peel off that tape.
  5. Peel off the tape.
  6. Use your marker to make little marks on the tree.  If you’d like to make it look a little grey around the marks, run your finger over it to smear it.
  7. Sign and date your work!

A Stack of Resources for Storytelling

Yes.  That is a fresh pack of markers.  Jealous???

Yes. That is a fresh pack of markers. Jealous???

One theme of our Winter homeschooling has been storytelling.  Like most kids, my children love to draw.  And they love to tell stories.  They don’t worry about being perfect or even about making sense.  They just have fun.  I’d like to credit our Letter Mondays and Sketch Tuesdays with getting the ball rolling but I am pretty sure that all this fun is just coming naturally to these kids.

The ability to tell a compelling story is a skill I want my kids to have in their toolbox.  Not only will it allow them to entertain others but, more importantly, it will allow them to advocate for themselves or others, which is something I am hopeful that they will always be able to do.  Writing a compelling story takes imagination, discipline, and the education to know proper language and grammar (three more things I want for my kids!).  Some say that storytelling is the ultimate weapon.  If that’s the case, I definitely want my kids to have it.

Here are some of the resources (in no particular order) that we are using to learn about storytelling right now:

1. Animal Party Doodles Place Mats by Author Taro Gomi.  This is a book of placemats that have an unfinished pictures with a prompt to get you talking and writing and storytelling.  We have these at home and in the car.  They are really great for restaurants.

2.  Don’t Forget to Write for the Elementary Grades: 50 Enthralling and Effective Writing Lessons (Ages 5 to 12) by 826 National.  This is a book of creative writing lesson plans that you can modify for whatever level you are teaching at.  The description says it is for ages 5-12 but the lessons are pretty detailed so I would say it will be more fun the older your kids get.  And when I say that, I mean I think it would be good for anyone interested in getting a prompt for writing, even adults!

3. The Second Anti-Coloring Book: Creative Activities for Ages 6 and Up (Anti-Coloring Books) by Striker/Kimmel.  This is in the same vein as the Gomi placemats in #1.  It is a coloring book that has black and white pictures with prompts, such as “Wouldn’t this person look better in a necktie designed by you?”  And then you can color in the picture of the tie.  We usually talk about what we think is happening in the photo too.

4.  Skill Sharpeners Spell & Write Grade 1 by Evan-Moor.  A basic reading, writing, and grammar & punctuation workbook.

5. S is for Story: A Writer’s Alphabet by Esther HershenHorn and Zachary Pullen.  I think you have to read a lot to become a good writer.  This is our favorite book on stories. It gives a different element of a good story for each letter of the alphabet.  And the explanations are wonderful.  This is one that adults can learn from too.

6. R is for Rhyme: A Poetry Alphabet by Judy Young and Victor Juhasz.  This one is like the Writer’s Alphabet, above in #5.  It gets pretty detailed and so is also a really great read for adult writers too!

7.  Draw Then Write, Grades 1-3 by Evan-Moor.  This workbook is really valuable because it has the student draw a picture of something specific, like a lion.  Then, it has the student fill in a few sentences with words from a word bank.  And lastly, (this is my favorite part!), it has the student write about that lion by answering the ever-important questions of “who, what, where, when, and why.” It adds a bit of discipline to the whole storytelling subject, especially for younger kids.

8.  Lined paper for storytelling.  You don’t have to buy lined paper but I do find that my children’s handwriting is better for it.   It helps them focus as they write their words — not just on their subject matter but also their form.

9.  A Sentence a Day by Samantha Prust.  I use this with Molly to practice editing but we don’t do it every day.  It is amazing how much time and attention one sentence can take!  Sometimes less is more.

10.  Washable Markers.  My kids like markers instead of crayons and nothing beats a brand new pack.

11.  Rory’s Story Cubes.  This game is just a bunch of dice with images on them.  We roll them and then each take a turn adding bits to a story using the images.  It is really fun with little kids because they get really silly.

12.  My kids love, love, love this video from Flocabulary:

13.  BrainPOP jr.  If you are looking for an App for an i-device, our favorite for storytelling (and a lot of other subjects too) is BrainPOP jr., which, when searched for “storytelling,” had about 16 short (each about 4 minutes in length) movies about, well, storytelling.  The App is free, as are many of the movies, although it does have two levels of paid subscriptions as well.  I think you can also access it via computer.

14.  Banish Boring Words!  by Scholastic.  A book of fun synonyms.  The book says it is for grades 4-8 but my 6-year-old loves it.

We have recently tried to pull everything together by working on a story for the PBSKIDS GO! Writer’s Contest.  It has been a fun project and I think Molly really learned from the process of editing her work.  It is definitely a fun and worthwhile project.  The deadline is still a couple of weeks away.  Check it out!

And how scary is that blueberry monster in Joseph's latest story?!?

And how scary is that blueberry monster in Joseph’s latest story?!?

Ready to write?  I would love to see what you are working on!  I’d also love to hear what tools you’re using with your kids.  Or for yourself.  And what do you think of ours?

Friends with Secret Talents

I have a friend with a lot of secret talents.  She doesn’t hide them.  She simply doesn’t brag about them.  (Difficult to work “Oh, yes, that painted portrait hanging on the wall is mine.  I mean, by me. ” or “I courted my spouse by coming out of the bedroom by playing the trombone,” into everyday conversation, even if it is awesome.)

How does she do it, especially now that she has three pre-schoolers of her own?

She reminds me that we parents need to find a bit of time to nurture our own interests and talents.  For ourselves.  For our kids.  For our partners.  She is one of the reasons I started writing.

I admire her time management and her vast artistic abilities.  I wish I had more of both!  She started a blog of her own recently using yet ANOTHER talent, and as someone who loves photography and kids,  I pore over every new post.

This week’s:

I love this post because it reminds me of our own nighttime rituals.  And the calm that finally comes as freshly bathed kids sleepily climb into the bed, finally still for a few moments.  Can’t you just smell those clean babies!?  And of course, it reminds me of the beach, where we spend time every year with family and with some of our best friends, making memories.

Do you have friends who inspire you?  Let them know!