For Isaac, and Andrew and Jeff

I have a little gratitude post catching up don't I?  It's the last day of November and I can't believe it. (Lately, I've been saying that at the end of every month.)
So these three guys are going to have to share one post, and it's fitting because they are a lot alike.
First up, Isaac, who is at the bottom of that pile, above.
Isaac takes being the oldest brother seriously.  He truly misses the kids when he's gone at college and they really miss him.  (Yes, you do Abbey, just admit it, even though he drives you crazy sometimes, I know you miss him!)  
Isaac has been just about the best first-born child I could have had.  He is tolerant of my worries and of my lectures and is respectful of our rules.  He likes to hang around here too which is nice.
And seriously, one of the things I like best about Isaac is that he always compliments by cooking and eats everything I make, no matter how delicious or not delicious.   

Next, Andrew, my biggest helper.
He always has something funny to say and can lighten the mood pretty quick if need be.
He is a hard worker and I appreciate the help he gives me so much.
He and Janey are best buddies and he is going to be such a great Dad one day. 

(Jeff and Abbey at the Father Daughter Dance.)
He does so much for me and our kids, and nothing for himself really.
He is always on the go, coaching someone's team, which means he comes home from hectic days at work, shoves some food in his mouth, and goes right back out to run a practice with a whole bunch of kids, and that's almost all year long.
If it's not coaching it's something else-he considers his role as a husband and father more important than anything else in life.
He works so hard for us, and I appreciate his endless support and love.
I need him desperately, I can't do this teenage to baby mothering dealeo without him, I know that for sure.


For My Parents

Especially at this time of year, I am grateful for my parents.  I could name a million reasons why, but more than ever, it's the quiet, simple, non-materialistic lifestyle they chose to raise me and my siblings in.  I will always have the fondest memories of the Christmas season, mainly because it revolved around Advent, the lighting of the candles every night at dinner, saying special prayers, and counting down to the birth of Jesus.

It takes effort and more work to keep the real reason of Christmas at the forefront in our children's lives, (and probably more difficult than ever today), but my mom and dad did it so well, so consistently.  It is very inspiring to me.  This lifestyle carried over into the whole year also-work and service and doing your best and being grateful for all we had-was always at the forefront of our daily life, of course, shown first by the example they set, and then by the habits and rules and education they provided us.

As I grow older I have realized more and more that my parents are one of a kind-just really really special, truly admirable people with incredible work ethics and the purest set of values.  How lucky I was to be born to them, and to be loved by them.  I am eternally grateful.


Our Favorite Toys

Here's an updated list of our favorite, most-played with, delivered-to-your-doorstep, Mom-approved toys.

And here are our favorite games.
Here are some great teen gift ideas.
An abridged list by age/interest.
All updated!

For all gift post ideas, click on the image in my sidebar, over there to the right.

I know that finding good, classic stuff can be difficult...there seems to be so much straight-out junk for kids in the stores today. I do end up spending a little more on toys I know will appeal to all ages and will last through the years, but to me it's worth it, because it just gets handed down from sibling to sibling (I've had 22 years of Santa visits and birthdays at our home already!), and played with-it's not just broken and thrown away. 

I have always loved adding to our collections (and always have something to offer when those relatives ask, "What should we get them?)...whether that collection be Legos, or a train set, or Magna Tiles.

Baby/Toddler Toys
Ours is slightly worn out after 21 years because they loved this so much.

Great for hand/eye coordination.  They can do this at about 3.

Janey (3) loves making necklaces and once again, great for hand/eye coordination and color recognition.

I usually try not to buy lights/sounds toys, but this was a gift and Janey loves it.  The teapot sings cute songs (and has a low/high button) and we've all memorized it.  It comes with little cups and a cake. She plays with this all the time.

These are all classic and used for each of my babies. I love the cups the best.  My babies have played with them, and Janey at three still does.  I think "baby" toys last a long time-we are sometimes eager to replace them with big kid toys, but they love them for a long, long time.

This was another gift we received that Patrick and Janey LOVE. 

There are probably cuter wooden shape sorters out there, but I've found those usually aren't as simple as this (they have cut outs on all sides.)  Janey still plays with this.

Alphabet blocks and the corn popper are others we've used for two decades.

Janey LOVES this little car, and the boys love pushing her around on it.  Now she can ride herself around. It's perfect for almost-walkers also-this is what really helped cautious Janey.

Patrick loved this truck as a toddler.

Jumbo Zoo Animals-This is a cheap little set of BIG zoo animals.  It's really hard to find big models of animals and I searched high and low.  These go in the bath tub, the pool, the sandbox.  Sometimes it seems that they all get along so well, and sometimes there are a few battles.

Super duper soft and cuddly stuffed animals.  

Wood peg puzzles-we have so many, most of them for years and years.

Janey loves this purse, we call it her "church purse".  I found it at Target in the girl's department. It's the perfect size for her. What is it with girls and bags? 

Love the emotion in the bear's faces.

This is so inexpensive and I love these stickers!  I've already purchased a new one for us, as we've used the entire pad up.  We use a blank notebook and make our "girls" in that, and then name them. Janey (3) can really manage well with peeling the stickers off and I help her put them on to get them straight.

KidKraft Vintage Kitchen - White ($112 which is more than half off-they have red, pink and blue also for a few dollars more. )
Janey loves this kitchen and it's really really on sale right now-for less than Santa might have paid his elves to make it last year during prime-sale-season. :)
I researched kitchens like crazy when I thought Janey was old enough for one, and this is what we chose after my cousin gave it a glowing review, BUT with this warning:it comes in a lot of pieces! If you wait till Christmas Eve to put it together you will be sobbing at 4 a.m. from exhaustion.  This is a job for a grandparent or an uncle or a Dad (or a teenager you might hire for twenty bucks to lock himself in a room and assemble it one afternoon.)
It is sturdy and the knobs turns, the shelves move, the little doors open and close and the little phone is a sweet touch.  The storage capability is great also for easy clean-up:

These were a gift to Janey-they do have batteries but I haven't had to change them yet in more than a year.  She LOVES these.  They really "work"-she uses marbles to mix up, and blend and pour, and has used real water in the percolating coffee maker (not sure if you are supposed to do that but it still works.)

We bought these accessories (plates and utensils and wooden food) for her kitchen-just the right amount (I didn't want a set with 1,000 items!)

Love this velcro cutting food, board and knife.

Zingo-One of my favorite games to play with the little ones, all the kids enjoyed it through the years.

Janey's favorite things are her hand-me-down babies and her hand-me-down crib and her little cheap stroller.
When Patrick was a toddler he loved his stroller also-inexpensive but such good use out of it!

Children's Toys 

PlasmaCar-Andrew and Patrick wore this thing out with miles and miles of riding-they can reach at three (but it is for all ages, even older children enjoy this.) They would also wear out the tops of their shoes with dragging, but I didn't mind.  That energy burning exercise is all I'm looking for. And they "fit" on this for a long long time, so it's worth the investment.

Vintage Fisher Price (from Ebay or your mom's attic :). They don't make them like they used to.  I know that the vintage people can be choking risks so they made them bigger and chunkier nowadays but I love the old versions (and I can't see a child attempting to swallow an entire Little Person?).  We have the garage, the farm, the house and the school room. 

Trains, of course!  This collection started 17 years ago and I just love it.  We started with the most basic set (and I think it was maybe just a Melissa and Doug-not a Thomas brand) and added to it slowly and surely over the years.  (I don't know if you still can but I used to get the engines at Michael's with a 40% off coupon.) Even with all the boys, I think it was one of Abbey's all time most played with set.  I just love those little Thomas characters.  My Dad built us a train/coffee table and we still use it in our family room.

Duplos- Some of these blocks are 17 years old, no kidding.  All the kids played with these.

This is a neat building set, that comes with lots of little cards so the kids can match the diagram. Janey at 3 loves this just to stack, but Patrick (7) and Andrew (12) will play with this also so it appeals to a wide range. 

If I am honest, these light sabers are at the top of our list of most-played-with-toys, you can see how battered and worn they are!
What is it with lightsabers?  I don't get it. 

Of course Legos are a huge favorite here.  My favorite is the Eiffel Tower that Matt built.  I am glad that we bought it when we did because it now sells for $1,189.  No joke.  I think Andrew's favorites are the Star Wars Lego and Lego City series.  I can't imagine life without Legos.  As you can see, they can quickly take over a room.  At the time I didn't realize it, but Legos help teach so much-following directions and lots and lots of concentration.  Although sometimes they can be pricey, I don't regret one bit the money I've spent on Lego, and they usually have great sales this time of year. My kids have spent hours and hours of winter days putting these things together, and Lego sets have always been on their Christmas and birthday lists.

If you have a child who likes to really play with their Lego models after they are built, but gets frustrated when they fall apart, these Technic sets are great.  They are much sturdier in the way they lock together.

This is SO much fun!
Definitely for junior high and high school kids this hovercraft thingy was a huge hit last year. It has a rechargeable battery and takes some skill and a little practice to get the hang of.  (There are some YouTube videos that show how to work these.) 
My now sixteen year old really researched which brand was good, and this is the one he chose. He was able to get so good at working it, he could follow someone around the entire house with it hovering right behind them which was funny. It is NOT funny if you get it tangled in your older sister's beautiful long hair though.  
If you order this make sure you look at the estimated delivery time, as some companies ship from out of the country and it won't be here in time for Christmas.

Andrew (6th grade) begged for this last year and I really did my research on it and though long and hard about it. I wanted it used only for reading and nothing else. (It has parental controls.) It really has been great.  He uses this about 50% of the time, reading "real" books the other 50%.  I bought it because I just could not keep up with his book reading. He can download books from the library by himself this way and always have something to read.  Again, it is a nice "gadget" gift to appease a tween whose mom does not allow video games and cell phones and computer games.

A great robotic toy for a 10-15 year old. Matt enjoyed this-it takes some time and skill to put it together, but it was worth it.

I'd call this the year of the Rainbow Loom at our house.  
The initial set is about $15, and it comes with a starter package of bands.  You can buy refill bands (about $3-4) in all sort of colors.  It helps to have an organizer box, and they sold cute ones at the local toy store but I also found the Stanley organizer (meant to be for screws and nails I think) works well also.

This is so much fun!
Once you get the kit, you send away for the caterpillars, and then follow the easy instructions for care, till they turn into butterflies.  We've done this a few times, and it has always worked perfectly.  (Remember it has to be warm outside for the caterpillars to be sent in the mail.)

Patrick loved this puzzle when he was an older toddler-I think it was his most-played-gift last year.  

Everyone should have a big ugly plastic basketball hoop in their living room, don't you think? :)
I don't mind it as much when I think of all the energy the four boys burn during the 5 long months of winter.
We've tried a few different brands but this one has been the only one that has really held up to all the dunking it endures daily-even from teenagers and college aged adults, and old dads also.

A great marble run that comes with a nice booklet of different configurations.  (I have to help Patrick with this one-Andrew at nine could figure it out on his own.)

I wasn't sure about this-it's about $30 for a strip of plastic, and there are no gadgets or gizmos with it-except for a suction cup (to stick one end on windows) and another piece to make a loop.  The kids have to find books, chairs, etc and be creative, but we've had hours and hours of play with this and they've had tons of fun racing.  To see it in action you can watch here. 

This is another really cool marble run that the boys get really creative with.  I often find it wrapped around my living room.

We've had this forever and it's about the only toy that makes noise that I don't mind.

Patrick and Andrew were introduced to Playmobil by their cute neighbor friends.  
Legos will always be a favorite of ours, but this collection is a little relief from the thousands of little pieces and parts, while still being "buildable" and great quality.  
They decided to start with the popular dragon land set.
Patrick also plays with the zoo set (PLAYMOBIL Large Zoo with Entrance)often.

The Razor Rip-Rider-These things are crazy and give me a heart attack but all the kids love them.  ONE OF MY BEST PURCHASES! They go really fast and the wheels in the back allow you to spin in circles.  The boys love these and ride them constantly.  Ages four-teenagers.  They even play crashing games with them and they've held up forever. When friends come over this is the toy they gravitate towards.

Ripstiks are probably one of the favorite outdoor toys we've purchased.  They do take some co-ordination and core muscles to master-which means it takes kids about 5 minutes to figure out and if you are older than thirty you might put yourself in the hospital ;).

This basic ancient scooter has suffered so much abuse from all ages of children, poor thing, but it has endured it all.

For teenagers, longboards are all the rage.  

Pogo Stick  (this is close to what is pictured above, but not the exact match)
  I think Andrew's record is several hundred, no joke. It gives me a headache just watching him.

I don't even remember who asked for this once, but it's now in Patrick's closet hiding his treasures.  He loves that it is all under lock and key.  The kids have used it to play store too.

Here's another brand that is smaller but locks.

Snap Circuits -Matt (12) has always loved these and I saw Andrew (8) had it out the other day.  I have never figured it out but the kids seem to be able to make things work.  I know they've tricked me with a door bell sound before.
This maze is a great toy for bored kids.  From Isaac to Patrick, it's been a hit, and there seems to be a new version every year (we have three now!)

Isaac brought one home from college and the boys all loved it.  It's more difficult than it looks. Video of how it works here.

A nice reader left a comment about this toy being a favorite with her sports-crazy boy and I bought it for Patrick and he plays with it constantly. He is always setting up games-one time I thought he was cleaning up because all the guys were in a big pile, but he corrected me and told me he was just waiting while they all fought over the ball.  
His Christmas/birthday list this year asks for the Football Guys and the Hockey Guys .    

A few of you asked me what in the world these cool blocks are when I posted this picture in one of my Ordinary Day posts.
Patrick and Andrew and Janey probably play with these the most out of any toy we own.  Honestly, they are really irresistible even to me.  All the sides of each tile are magnetized so they click together. We initially bought the 32 piece set,  but this year I'm going all out and getting the 100 piece set which I would have bought in the beginning had I known this was going to be an all time favorite.

The boys also love Zoobs. We have thiscase of them.  They come with a huge set of instructions for all different types of models.  Andrew loves these (he is 8.)  Patrick (almost 4) just started being able to snap them together. Andrew is asking Santa for the Zoob car designer kit.

Build A Road -It has little cars that DO need a battery in them just so you know, but the batteries seem to last forever, and the cars really zip around.  The kids can snap the track into all different configurations.

Magna Doodle-A cheap old magna doodle has always been a favorite with each of the kids.  Patrick and I play a game where I draw something and then he guesses what it is and then he draws something and I guess.  I never get it right, go figure, and he loves that.

My parents had a set of these at their house last year and at first I thought, "What's the big deal with a whole set of little planks?"  Well, my kids (and my husband!) played for hours with these things and Santa brought us our own set.  It takes concentration and skill to build with these blocks.  The set comes with a big book of ideas.

(The one in the picture isn't available but the one I linked to is the newer version.)
This year's all time favorite-thank you Aunt Tracy! It has gotten many a boy tired before bed time and my boys playing together-ages 17-3.

We used to use this on our dining room table, but when we had the island built in the kitchen it fit this set up almost perfectly. We use it often.  The net grips under the surface and is flexible in terms of thickness.

Drawing books and sketch pads.  Once in awhile Michaels will have a 50% sale for their nice sketchbooks.  I have found all sorts of drawing books at book stores.  

Andrew (6th grade) is really into these and uses them for drawings and projects.

A vintage typewriter from Ebay.  Abbey loved this when she was younger and her friends did also.  Make sure you get one that comes with tape-they don't sell that at Office Max anymore. :)

One of Abbey's all time favorites- she played with it from about 3rd grade till about 6th grade.  (I have seen this book at Michaels also.) She received it with a big sketch book and a little pair of scissors-it comes with the all the cute paper.  She filled a big folder with fashion designs.

Shrink Art Jewelry Kit-Abbey also loved this craft book. She even had a little business going in 7th grade selling earrings to her classmates.  I spent many an evening, baking shrinky earrings, thinking, "Oh boy what did we get into here?"  She loved it though and could hardly keep up!

Abbey loved these little rag dolls! She had some of the clothes that are made for them, but she would often just sew or pin her own together out of little quilting quarters I would pick up, or just plain felt. Her and her friends would put together the cutest little outfits on these girls.

Oh I wish I could say they made this sweet Madeline set but they don't anymore. (You can still find them on Ebay.) These were the perfect substitute for Barbies or those other dolls that look like you-know-whats.  Ick.
If any mom of girls out there knows of a nice sweet replacement (these are about 7" tall) that is available in stores or on-line please suggest in the comments!

I love this doll house.  When I bought it for Abbey I don't think I paid over $200, now it's $600 which is ridiculous.  I bought a little wooden family, and lots of accessories at Hobby Lobby using coupons. Now I've put some of those more delicate furnishings up, and Janey uses the house and furniture for some Calico Critters I purchased in addition to the little family. She loves it and plays with it all the time.  If anyone can suggest a great durable beautiful wooden doll house in the comments?

and one more thing...
All American Girl, of course-Abbey played with her dolls into middle school, and loved all the books.  Janey is still too young at three for them, but she has Abbey's old Bitty Baby that she loves.

Here's some things that wind up in our stockings on Christmas morning. Lots of these things you can just find during your weekly grocery shop. Mrs. Claus I'm sure is in charge of this aspect of Christmas. :)

-flashlights/headlamps for reading in bed
-new pens and pencils for school
-cheap gloves (the kind that cost $1)
-gum/breath fresheners
-socks and underwear
-for girls: little make up items, hair bands and ties, nail polish
-new toothbrushes
-card games

Feel free to ask any questions in comments or email me.