Preschool Years at Home

Laughing, Loving, and Learning Together

Summer Vacation With a Side of Algebra

It’s 102 degrees outside.

The local splash pad feels like an outdoor sauna. Playground equipment is too hot for comfort by mid-morning. And the last time we were at the local zoo, most of the animals were hiding indoors in a desperate effort to escape the TX sun.

So what’s a kid to do over summer vacation when it’s too hot to do anything outside?

Why, learn some algebra, of course! Yes, even at the ages of 8 and 5.

Balance Beans

ThinkFun’s Balance Beans

I’m not a slave driver, I promise. (Well, except perhaps when laundry is involved …) I simply volunteered my kids to test ThinkFun’s new Balance Beans Game. I waited for it to arrive, opened the box, explained game play, and left the kids to entertain themselves. … They’ve been “playing” (aka “learning”) daily since then.

The concept behind the game is straightforward. Children arrange select pieces on a 7 x 3 balance board according to the design shown on a puzzle card. They must then strategically place designated pieces to balance the two sides of the board. Pieces positioned on the center row (Row 4) effectively have a value of 0, altering neither side of the equation. Pieces positioned on the two rows closest to the center (Rows 3 & 5) have a value of 1. Pieces positioned on the two rows next to the outside (Rows 4 & 6) have a value of 2. Pieces positioned on the outside rows (Rows 1 & 7) have a value of 3. Therefore, a single bean on an outside row can balance out a group of three beans on an inner row (x=3y).

Children do not have to understand the math behind the game to play. Through simple hands-on experimentation, young players will quickly discover that beans placed farther from the center lower the balance board more than an equal number of beans placed closer to the center. The first level of puzzle cards may easily be completed purely through play and experimentation.

DSCN1630My 5-year-old, who is at the bottom of the recommended age bracket, quickly grasped the basics of the game, but primarily relied on trial and error to solve the puzzles. Still, she was able to complete all ten of the Easy puzzles in short order, and with each success her confidence and enthusiasm grew.

My mathematically-inclined 8-year-old quickly deduced the formula behind the game and used this knowledge to her advantage as she tackled the Hard puzzle cards.

Even our 2-year-old wanted to get in on the fun. Being two, he wasn’t thrilled with the concept of copying designs shown on puzzle cards and using only designated pieces to solve puzzles. (Two-year-olds aren’t big fans of rules and regulations …) He did, however, understand that both sides needed to balance. With that understanding, he created several symmetrical designs of his own, then branched out and began discovering how fewer beans far from the pivot could balance out a greater number of beans closer to the pivot.

By the end of the first day’s play, all three kids deemed Balance Beans a favorite. With us actively parring down our family game library in preparation for an upcoming move, the older kids were quick to ask, “Can we keep it and take it with us? Please???”

Yes, kids, we can … at least until you’re ready to move beyond elementary algebra, logic, and physics.

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Creative Minds at Work — Through Play!

Creative minds at work ...

Creative minds at work …

Construction toys get lots of love in this house, especially magnetic construction toys. So when I had the opportunity to purchase Magtoys Magnetic Building Blocks – Toy for Children’s Creative Intelligence and Educational Development – 84 Pieces With Free Storage Bucket at a discount in exchange for an honest review, I snagged them.

Recreating the Globe Theatre ...

Recreating the Globe Theatre …

Now, my children are no strangers to the joy and versatility of magnetic building tiles. We’ve been amassing Magna-Tiles since Little Bear was a toddler, and we began collecting Magformers style= a couple of years later. Both options run $1/tile or more on sale, making a less-expensive alternative quite attractive to this budget-conscious mama.

Our  new Magtoys Magnetic Building Blocks arrived late one evening. (Yes, UPS delivers after the kids go to bed …) After opening the package and examining them, I left the case (Yes, they come with a sturdy plastic storage case!) in the middle of the living room floor for the kids to discover the next morning.

Little drummer boy ...

Little drummer boy …

Buddy Bear was the first to discover them. He crawled out of bed much too early and sleepily began making his way to the kitchen in search of breakfast, only to discover a new toy along the way. What did my sleepy, hungry boy do? He plopped right down beside the blocks and played with them for the next half hour!

Any toddler mom will realize this speaks volumes for a toy. Few things hold a 2 1/2-year-old’s interest for a full half hour. Even fewer things capture the attention of a tired, cranky, hungry toddler.

Shortly after Buddy Bear’s discovery, his sisters too crawled out of bed and headed for the kitchen. They too stopped short in the living room, sat down, and began to play. Given that we already own similar toys, I was somewhat surprised that our new Magtoys Magnetic Building Blocks captured Little Bear and Bitty Bear’s attention. So I asked the kids what they liked most about their new toy.

Little Bear immediately pointed to the variety of shapes. Most of our Magformers are squares and equilateral triangles, with a few pentagons thrown in for good measure. The Magtoys set included diamonds, hexagons, trapezoids, and isosceles triangles.


DSCN1194 For my younger two, the appeal was simpler. “WHEELS!” they squealed in unison, holding up the two sets of magnetic wheels included with the set.

As a mom, I wanted to see how the quality of this less expensive brand stood up to that of a more established brand. In comparing the two side by side, I found the components of this set to be almost identical to their more expensive counterparts. The magnets in these pieces are a fraction (less than 1/16 of an inch) smaller and the plastic a touch heavier. Despite the differences, these blocks held together just as well as the more expensive brand and proved to be compatible with the Magformers sets we already had.

Because tiny magnets pose a danger if swallowed, I actively tried to break a piece of this set to see just how easy it would be for my 2 1/2-year-old to get a magnet out of the plastic and into his mouth. I won’t say the task is impossible, but I will say that nothing I could envision him thinking of — throwing a piece across the living room, dropping a creation onto the hardwood floor, smashing a piece with a toy wooden hammer, stomping on one, etc. — cracked the plastic. At the end of the day, I felt comfortable leaving even my littlest builder to build to his heart’s content.

Sleeping Beauty's castle

Sleeping Beauty’s castle

One week in, this set of blocks is still getting daily play, and all three kids still enjoy playing with it. Today, Bitty Bear created a castle for Sleeping Beauty, while Buddy Bear showed me the different three-dimensional shapes he could create. Overall, I think Magtoys will be a great addition to our construction toy library, and I would recommend the product highly. Given the difference in cost, in fact, I would choose it over its name brand competitor.

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Just Following Their Lead …

Both girls hit the ground running this morning, with long lists of what they hoped to do today. So instead of trying to return them to our routine, I decided to go with the flow and follow their “plans” for the day. First off? A steady stream of read-alouds! Turned loose on the bookcase, they pulled out favorite after after and listened for as long as Mommy was willing to read:

When my voice and tolerance for kid’s books finally reached their limits, the girls turned their attention to the game shelf and begged to play their Disney Princess Enchanted Cupcake Party Game. Now, I’m generally not a fan of anything branded Disney. But Jessica saw this game in Target before Christmas, and it was love at first sight. The game is manufactured by Wonder Forge, creators of several other good early childhood games that we’ve liked, so I took a chance on buying it, and I’m really glad I did.

So what can a “just for fun” game, complete with Disney Princess hype, actually teach? In this case, quite a bit.

As with most games, players must take turns and follow rules — basic skills for the preschool set and beyond.

Unlike many games, however, Disney Princess Enchanted Cupcake Party Game is cooperative. In order to succeed, kids have to work together. Now, we have shelves full of competitive games, so I’m not “anti” competition. But my girls have competitiveness programmed into their genetic code, and I really don’t have to teach them to try to win. I do, however, sometimes have to actively encourage teamwork and cooperation, and this game is a painless way of doing this. (Arguments take precious time that could better be used building cupcakes — and Mommy doesn’t stop the sand timer for sibling disputes!)

In order to “win” the game, players follow recipe cards to build four-part cupcakes complete with specified cupcake liner, cake, frosting, and decorative topping. In educational terms, that translates into reading and following instructions, visual discrimination, and fine motor work — another set of needed skills.

Last but not least, there’s a healthy element of chance in the game. Each turn begins with a player flipping an instruction card. Only when players have flipped a Mix, Bake, and Decorate card does cupcake making commence. There are also four clock cards in the deck, however, and if all four of these show up before the needed Mix, Bake, Decorate sequence, it’s game over. Our first game today ended with a clock in the first hand, a gentle testament to the fact that sometimes neither board games nor life go exactly as planned.

As we were playing our third and final game for the morning, Baby Bear dug out the previously-unopened Melissa & Doug Sort and Snap Color Match she’d gotten for her birthday and asked to play with it. In keeping with our theme, I inserted a fish pattern card, and the girls sat down to work. Baby Bear initially had a bit of trouble manipulating the pieces well enough to insert the snap caps into the board.

Observing big sister ...

Observing big sister …

But after taking time to observe how her big sister did it and with a bit of practice, she was soon working away by Little Bear’s side:

Working together ...

Working together …



The girls went on to do frog and turtle pattern cards as well; then, Little Bear asked whether we had any turtle pictures they could color. I didn’t. (Pond and river creatures are on the schedule for next week!) But Google Images proved to be our friend, and both girls happily colored their turtles of choice while I fixed lunch.

After lunch, both girls helped clean help, then played together happily for a solid hour or more. It was only after I heard Spanish and walked in on this scene —

"Uno, dos, tres, quatro ..."

“Uno, dos, tres, cuatro …”

— that they seemed to remember Mommy was in the house. Yes, both girls were half-hanging off the sofa, half-standing on their heads. Yes, both were counting to 10 in Spanish, thanks to the pedagogy of their good friend Dora the Explorer.

Of course, once Mommy appeared on the scene, happy play time came to an abrupt end. Baby Bear began begging to watch her beloved Dora, while Little Bear asked to do some “real” school work.

Doing "real" school work ...

Doing “real” school work …

So while Baby Bear zoned out with the electronic babysitter, Little Bear and I tackled phonics. Today’s work included …

Then, Little Bear used her screen time to watch today’s coral reef episode of The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That and complete Reading Eggs Lesson 45, while Baby Bear and I worked together a bit.

For Baby Bear, “school” is still very much defined in terms of “Play with me! Play with me!” Today’s “work” including building with Wee Wedgits, assembling her Fish Colors Mix N Match Peg Puzzle several times over and reviewing color names, identifying the ocean animals on her Melissa & Doug Wooden Animal Nesting Blocks, and sorting and stacking the blocks.

Sorting ocean animals from largest to smallest ,,,

Sorting ocean animals from largest to smallest …

Baby Bear and I wrapped up our time with a few minutes of Wee Sing and Learn ABC play on the iPad.

Having gotten in her “Mommy time,” Baby Bear ran off to play on her own while Little Bear and I sat down to do math. Today’s work included …

  • yesterday and today’s practice sheets from Daily Math Practice, Grade 1;
  • 15 minutes of Miquon Math (counting, more/less, review of even/odd numbers; numeral formation)
  • counting to 100 by 5’s
  • a quick lesson in adding single-digit numbers to 10

We ended our school time with a game of POP for Sight Words Game, which Little Bear won easily with a bit of help from her sister. (Baby Bear can’t read yet, but she wanted to play too, so she drew word cards for Mommy to read. She took great delight in digging POP! cards out of the box, repeatedly forcing Mommy to return all of our popcorn sight words to the box. …)

More play time was followed by dinner, bath, three more ocean-themed read-alouds (during which Baby Bear succumbed to sleep), and two more chapters of Robinson Crusoe (which ushered Little Bear up to the brink of sleep).

Hopefully, we’ll soon be able to get back onto some semblance of a normal schedule. But for today, the girls proved themselves quite capable of filling the hours with fun and learning.


First Art

There’s something about the word “free” that draws me like a mosquito to a bug zapper. So when I heard about Crayola’s My First Crayola summer contest, I dutifully filled out the entry form … and promptly forgot about it. …

Until today. When FedEx showed up at the door with a box bearing the Crayola logo. DH asked whether to open it in front of the girls or put it up for later, and I shrugged my shoulders in genuine confusion. “I haven’t ordered anything,” I replied. Then, I remembered the contest.

“But I did enter a contest on their Facebook page last month,” I continued. “You know, one of those contests where you fill out the entry form and never hear anything more about it?”

He handed me the package and allowed, “Well, I guess you just heard more about it.”

We didn’t win the $1,000 Amazon gift card they awarded as a grand prize, but we did get a cute little My First Crayola No Mess Marker and Paper Set. Baby Bear immediately began clamoring for the marker (which looked like a cow), so I handed it to her. It took a couple of minutes for her to understand that it was to draw with — not to chew, toss, or hammer with. But once she understood its purpose, she promptly put her new tool to work:

Little artist

I have to say that this product is probably not one I would have purchased had I simply seen it in a store. It’s comprised of one solitary marker and 15 sheets of paper, and it retails for $7.99. Something in my admittedly cheap frugal genetic make-up rebels at the thought of spending roughly $0.60 per page after tax so that my 14-month-old can scribble. But after seeing my child actually use this product, I may well consider purchasing a replacement in the future (especially if it’s on sale!). She loved it. She was overjoyed to be coloring like her big sister. And I loved the fact that she could scribble to her heart’s content without getting marker anywhere other than on the specially-designed paper.

Thanks to Crayola for putting art within the reach of even the youngest children!

Baby Bear’s first drawing


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Bits and Pieces

With package after package of new educational goodies arriving these days, it’s hard to say who’s more excited — the girls or their Mommy! Our Timberdoodle Co. order arrived this past Friday, and both girls zeroed in on a tin of Heat Sensitive Thinking Putty. Little Bear is a sensory seeker, so I expected her to love having a tin of bouncy, stretchy, color-changing goo in her favorite colors. What I hadn’t counted on, however, was Baby Bear’s fascination with the stuff. The container alone captivated her, and once she figured out how to empty it of its contents, there was no stopping her! I stepped out of the bathroom one recent morning to be greeted by this scene:

Good clean fun!

She’d gotten the tin off one of the school shelves, taken it to the desk, opened it, pried the putty out, and started playing with it in less than two minutes of unsupervised “freedom.” She played independently for at least 15 more minutes (no small feat for a 14-month-old!) before reluctantly allowing me to pry it out of her hands so that we could go bye-bye. Thankfully, the tin holds 3 1/2 ounces of putty — plenty to entertain both girls and at least one parent.

I have to admit, the color-changing properties of this substance are less spectacular than I had hoped. The girls, however, have been so busy stretching it, squishing it, squeezing it, and shaping it that they haven’t even noticed the color variations (or lack thereof).

My overall rating? At least 4.5/5 stars. I can’t quite bring myself to give it that fifth star since you pretty much have to refrigerate to see more than minimal color changes, but it will be on our homeschool supply list for years to come.

We also got our Rainbow Resource Center order this week and dug through it this morning. Among other things, I picked up a magnetic tile and tray set to accompany our much-used Mighty Mind design cards. Little Bear couldn’t wait to try them out and create some freestyle magnetic art on her easel:

“Who’s the best Mighty Mind artist around here?”

Mighty Mind is easily a 5-star product in my book (so much so that I already have Mighty Mind Challenger and Super Mind waiting in the wings). The addition of the magnetic tiles and board make a great product even better.

Magnetic Mosaic

Along with new tools, we’ve also been pulling some older items out of the closet and putting them to good use. Little Bear got the Orb Factory My First Picture Maker for Christmas, but one whiff of the magnetic foam design tiles that came with it sent me gasping for fresh air. I broke the tiles apart, spread them out in the box so that they could air out, put the box out of reach of little hands, and promptly forgot about it … for six and a half months. I finally noticed it again yesterday, gave it the sniff test, and happily observed that the reeking chemical smell was gone.

Little Bear was eager to try it, so I set her up with the first pattern card in the deck. She worked alone for about 20 minutes before getting frustrated and asking for help. The magnetic backing on the foam mosaic tiles is quite weak, and the slightest bump was enough to displace them. Digging through a bag of 300 tiles to find the ones she needed was also a bit daunting. Inevitably, every time she’d turn to hunt for tiles, she’d bump her project and skew half the tiles she’d already positioned. In the end, I dug out tiles while she positioned them, and she finished the task happily enough. She said that she liked this product, but not as much as sticker mosaic kits made by the same company because, in her words,  “the stickers stay where you put them.”

I was admittedly a bit disappointed by this product. On the one hand, I love the idea and versatility. It comes with 20 reusable pattern cards which challenge kids to match tiles by color, number, and letters. It also has great potential for free play. The magnetic tiles are rather flimsy, though. Five of them lost their glittery top layer during the first play session, and we were handling them gently. The pattern cards are also quite thin — similar in weight and feel to glossy fingerpainting paper. Laminating them for added longevity isn’t really an option due to the weakness of the magnets in the magnetic tiles. Last but not least, the chemical off-gasing concerns me. Yes, the odor has decreased with time, but I don’t typically expose my children to chemicals that leave me gasping for air.

Overall rating? 3.5/5. We’ll probably get a decent amount of use out of this product, but I wouldn’t order it again.

So what else has our week been filled with? Lots of reading and lots of time in the pool, a few games, daily fine motor work, Duplo zoo building, Magnatile farm building, and Konstruk Tube rocket building … lazy summer fun with a purpose!

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Down on the Farm

A girl and her farm

We began the day with a trip to the library, where the cubs enjoyed story time and helped select books for the week ahead. Then, with triple-digit temperatures on the horizon, we came home to spend as much of today (with highs “only” in the low 90s) outside as possible.

I’d gotten a free Melissa & Doug Farm Blocks Play Set a few months back and tucked them away with our farm theme in mind. We pulled them out of the closet this weekend, but quickly discovered that the blocks did not work well on carpet. So this morning, we decided to try them on the flat, relatively smooth surface of the sidewalk. As you can see from the picture above, we had much more success building there.That said, I was left with mixed sentiments regarding this product.

The blocks are cute, and both the cubs and the kids next door enjoyed playing with them for the better part of an hour. The play set was not as open-ended as I would have liked. (Much like a puzzle, the buildings could be assembled only one way.) That said, Little Bear’s  puzzle-loving playmate had a blast trying to figure out how to assemble them, while Little Bear opted to play with the more open-ended fence and animal pieces. It’s worth noting that all of the pieces were quite small. The barn was only about six inches high and could hold only one animal; furthermore, the chicken coop was not designed to accommodate any animals (much to the consternation of certain little farmers). Overall, the blocks proved a fun morning activity, but didn’t earn a permanent spot in our toy collection.

We continued our farm-themed fun by pulling out our Duplo tub (which includes the Lego Duplo Ultimate Farm Building Set) and building a variety of barns, animals, and tractors with it. Although Duplos are one of our always available toys, they held the kids’ interest much longer than the wooden farm blocks. I realized after the fact that I failed to photograph this morning’s creations … perhaps because I was too busy building alongside the kids.

We paused from our play long enough for lunch, rest time, and story time. Today’s read-alouds included …

1-2-3 Farmyard

A winning hand

Next, we pulled another new game 1-2-3 Farmyard! off the shelf. Little Bear loves games, and this one was no exception. That said, like many moms, I tend to play kids’ games out of obligation and was surprised to actually enjoy this preschool game.

The game is made up of animal cards (representing numbers 1-6), empty pasture cards, and a single wild card. Players begin with a hand of six cards, then draw and discard to achieve one of four objectives. In the first variant, players seek to build a hand that includes one of each animal card. Little Bear grasped the game play concept quickly, proving real competition the first hand and winning the second. In the second variant, players draw and discard cards to make a farmyard with animals that add up to 10. Little Bear loved this variant as much as the first. In the third variant, players create a farmyard with only odd or even numbered animals (not a concept we’ve covered). In the fourth (and in my opinion, simplest) variant, players build a farmyard with their two favorite animals.

After three hands and two variants of this game, Little Bear was begging to continue playing, and I quit only because Baby Bear was demanding my attention. Of the two dozen or more preschool games we own, this one is easily makes our top five favorites list and might edge out Richard Scarry’s Busytown as Mommy’s favorite. According to the box, the game is for children ages 4 and up, but at 3 1/2, Little Bear could easily play three of the four variants. At the same time, there’s enough variety and strategy to the game that I could see her playing it just as happily at 5, 6, or even 7.

The only negative aspect of the game, in my opinion, was that the cards were printed on cardstock instead of chipboard. I suspect this game will get enough use to warrant replacement a couple of years down the road.


In other farm fun, the girls played with our Melissa & Doug Farm Sound Blocks again today, and Baby Bear was still captivated by them. Little Bear played with her Alex Toys String a Farm, while singing a verse of “Old MacDonald” for each animal she added to her “necklace.” Little Bear also completed farm-themed cutting and tracing activities.

Wrapping up the day’s excitement, Little Bear pulled out her ABC Duplos for some free play this evening, while I attempted to get some work done. Minutes later, she called out, “Mommy! Come see! I made the word ‘cat’!”

… In the past, she’s had a tendency to stick random letters on the board and call them words, but when I looked in on her tonight, she had indeed succeeded in spelling the word “cat.” “Bug,” “dog,” and “hen” soon followed. Slowly but surely, my little book lover is becoming a little reader.

"I made the word 'cat'!"

Three-letter word success

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You Win a Few, You Lose a Few

With both cubs still under the weather, I quickly realized that today was a day for hugs, snuggles, rest, and whatever fun could distract the little people from their sore throats and aching ears. So while Little Bear enjoyed an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, I pulled a couple of new resources out of the office.

First was the Learning Palette, a hands-on, self-correcting learning tool manufactured by Learning Wrap-Ups. I’d previously used Learning Wrap-Ups in the classroom and had high hopes for this product as well. Little Bear had seen it a couple of months ago and been drawn to the bright colors and easily-manipulated discs.

When I actually took it out of the package today, though, I discovered that it was not quite as intuitive or easy to use as its sister product, Learning Wrap-Ups. The Learning Palette system is made up of a base unit, 12 colored discs, and add-on sets of activity cards. For today’s practice, I opened a set of Beginning Consonant activity cards and put the first card on the unit. Little Bear’s task was to use match pictures with their initial sounds, a skill she’s largely mastered. She found the format of the activity on the Learning Palette extremely confusing, though, and abandoned the task almost immediately. I then sat down with her to help her work through the process, and we managed to answer five of the twelve questions before she again dismissed the activity. It’s worth noting here that she’s not a child who is quick to give up or abandon tasks. What’s more, she was not frustrated by the learning objective, but rather by the method.

The Beginning Consonant activity cards were divided into four quadrants, with the same three letters and three pictures beginning with those cards appearing in each quadrant. She had no problem recognizing that fork began with /f/ or butterfly with /b/. The challenge for her came in understanding that she had to match fork with the f in the same quadrant in order for the Learning Palette to identify her answer as “correct.” It also frustrated her that the answer discs didn’t necessarily stay where she put them. It was easy for her to bump them out of position or for Baby Bear to grab them (and they were small enough to be a choking hazard). I do think that the product could be improved with a magnetic base and magnetic answer discs.

In all fairness, the Learning Palette is designed for slightly older children. Little Bear is only 3 1/2, so she may get more use out of it in the future. We have Rhyming Words activity cards and Kindergarten Math Readiness cards as well, so we’ll probably try the product again at some point down the road.  For now, though, it’s going back on the shelf.


  • Bright, colorful, and engaging
  • Hands-on
  • Self-correcting
  • Battery-free
  • Versatile (Activity cards range from PreK-6th grade level, and some of the higher level math activities look good.)


  • Somewhat confusing for younger children
  • Center knob that holds cards in place obscures a portion of the card (One picture on this morning’s activity card was unrecognizable with center knob in place.
  • Answer discs do not lock into place
  • At $10 per set, activity cards get pricey

All in all, I’d give this product a 3/5 rating. It has its uses, but it’s certainly not a must-have.

Next, we turned our attention to Can You Find It?, a hunt-and-find activity book produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Little Bear enjoys I Spy and Can You See What I See? books, so even though this particular title was geared toward elementary school students, I hoped it would be a hit. And it was. She enjoyed this book as much as its photo collage counterparts, and I loved the fact that she was scrutinizing famous works of art.

The first  two-page spread began with a reproduction of Joseph Hidley’s View of Postenkill, New York. In this painting, she was asked to find a bridge, a man in a top hat, 9 horse-drawn vehicles, a carriage with a horse, a horse without a carriage, a water pump, a load of hay, and a barn with open doors. In her quest to find the hidden objects, she also caught a glimpse of life in a by-gone era.

Given Little Bear’s age, this wasn’t a book that we sat down and read from cover to cover. She does, after all, have the attention span of a preschooler, and it took us a good five minutes to find all the objects in the first painting alone. But this is a book to be savored in small portions, not rushed through. It lends itself well to being worked through at a preschooler’s pace.

All in all, a 4.5/5 star product. It may not be an essential product, but it’s a great tool — especially if you’re able to pick up a second-hand copy for a fraction of the $15.95 retail price.



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