Unschooling: Our December 2016 adventures, a little late

Welcome to 2017, everyone! The new year marks our sixth calendar year as homeschooling bloggers, which seems really weird to me. It doesn’t look like I’ll be any better at regular postings in 2017, based on the fact that it’s taken half a month to do last month’s roundup, but hey, maybe I’ll surprise you! I really do like sharing our family’s lives, even if it’s not the most frequent. (And you can always find me on Instagram and Facebook if you want to see more!)

Sarah makes all kinds of art and gives it as gifts. Dan’s parents, at left, got a collage of winter scenes so they can remember what a Pennsylvania winter is like back home in the desert. Dave, Dan’s brother, got what Sarah calls a “painting frame” for a favorite saying of his – done in Seahawks colors, as he’s a huge Hawks fan.

If you’re new to seeing our days recapped in this format, check out our archive of previous wrapups here for some more info on why we take this approach and some other highlights of our adventures.

Christmas things

Our Christmas this year was excellent. Dan’s parents, Paul and JoAnn, and his brother, Dave, came to visit from Arizona, along with their dogs, Sadie and Sassy. Then, right after Christmas, my brother (also Dave) came (also from Arizona) to surprise my mom, along with his son (also Dan). Other than the name confusion, it was a house full of family fun. Chris had the honor of cooking the Christmas turkey and did an amazing job, especially considering… he’s a vegetarian!

Another of Sarah’s projects in December was making gingerbread men. This one “got tangled in the Christmas lights,” she said.

We always do an advent calendar of small gifts for Sarah leading up to Christmas, and for the past few years we’ve put clues in the pockets of the calendar that lead to a surprise. (This is the same Avon advent calendar with a mouse that I grew up with.) We did Christmas-themed trivia this year, and used a true-or-false theme like we do in the family trivia game I talked about last month. So there would be a statement, like “Oklahoma was the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday,” then a note that said “If this is true, look for your gift near a large map. If this is false, look for your gift near a small map.” (That one’s false. That’s a freebie.)

Disclosure: This post has some affiliate links. I only link to things we legitimately use and recommend, so if you see such a link, it’s because we really do believe in the book or item!

This year, we chose to spend most of our “gift” money helping as many good causes as possible. We adopted 5 kids through the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree, bought some coats for kids who needed them, got a Christmas tree and ornaments for a family that didn’t have any, paid for dinner for an older man in a diner, gave generously to Toys for Tots, sent stuffed pengins across the country, helped pay for a new roof at my mom’s church and more.

Another gingerbread project: Making a gingerbread train from a kit. The back car of the train carried two trees, which Sarah and Snowball Pengin are decorating here.

That said, we still had some neat gifts. I gave my mom an AncestryDNA kit; we’re still waiting for her results, and mine just came back from testing that I did just after Thanksgiving! (Hint: Sarah is excited because we can now confirm SHE’S BRITISH.) That also gave us a cool opportunity to talk about how DNA testing works, what DNA can and can’t tell us, and things like that.

Sarah’s top gifts received were her new drone (from my mom) and her new jeans (from Dan’s parents). Her favorite gifts given were the handmade pieces of art she worked hard on for everyone! My favorite gift received was a set of three-pronged forks from Dan; if you think forks should have four prongs, you’re just wrong.

This “painting frame” was a gift for my mom from Sarah.

Good things

We started a family tradition at the beginning of 2015, where we have a jar in the middle of our kitchen table labeled “Good Things” and a box of small slips of cardstock and pens next to it. Each member of the family is invited to share the good things that happen to them, big or small, by writing them down and putting them in the jar.

Then, at the end of the year, we all sit down as a family and take turns reading the good things aloud!

On the last night of 2016 when everyone was home (I think Dec. 28 or so), we did our readings, and came up with a total for the year of 209 good things. It was awesome! (My favorite: “You are my good thing. To: Mom. From: Sarah.”)

Our Good Things project is awesome. The five members of our family (plus occasional entries from some visitors) came up with 209 good things for 2016!

Steel City Con

Sarah’s big pre-Christmas gift from Chris, Dan and I was a trip for the four of us to Steel City Con, a good-sized Con in Pittsburgh that we’ve been to a few times.

Highlights here: Sarah got the autographs of two members of the cast of The Walking Dead, her current favorite show. She met and got her photo taken with Josh McDermitt (who plays Eugene) and Michael Cudlitz (who played Abraham). We had a great time! (My favorite part of Steel City is always checking out the amazing art booths, and I was able to get a bunch of Christmas presents there too.)

We call this a hulkie. (Chris, Sarah, me and Dan at Steel City Con.)


Another of Sarah’s top Christmas gifts was Hamiliton: The Revolution, which she’s been reading for hours while listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat.

She’s also rediscovered her love for R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” series thanks to a jigsaw puzzle of Goosebumps covers she got as a gift (and which we put together, glued and hung on her wall). She also received as a gift and read almost all of Ripley’s Believe it or Not 2017.

On a more challenging note, she’s decided to dig in to Dante’s Inferno and is doing an admirable job wading through that tough piece of literature. (We talk about it as she goes, which really helps.) She also got the graphic novel version for Christmas, which I think will help it sink in even more.

Sarah’s Goosebumps jigsaw puzzle was a hit! (She then went back and read or reread several of the books pictured!)

Movies and TV

A special note for our newer readers: I’d love for you to check out our post on learning from movies and TV shows. It really explains a lot about why we are such fans!

Here’s a look at some of what we watched this month besides, obviously, The Walking Dead:

Sarah. Josh McDermitt of The Walking Dead. Serious happiness. (Also, she actually saved that plaid shirt she’s wearing and framed it.)

Video, board and card games

Our gaming was a bit different in December, because Sarah traded in her PS3 to start working on getting credit to put toward a PS4. (She’s not quite there yet, but by the time her birthday comes in March, she should have enough!) So we played more app-based games, spent time on Steam and enjoyed our family game nights.

Steep was a snowboarding Steam game that Dan and Sarah enjoyed together, and Sarah and I kept challenging each other in QuizUp. We also had a good time playing Apples to Apples and Family Feud with our visitors.

Universal Yums

One of the coolest presents I got to give was a family subscription to Universal Yums, a subscription box that sends snacks from a different country each month. Our December box got wrapped and put on the tree, and when it turned out it was from one of Sarah’s favorite countries, Germany, that was even cooler!

We had a great time trying the snacks, as well as reading the German trivia and listening to the German music playlist through the website! Verdict: German Oreos = amazing. German “russisch brot” cookies = excellent. German peanut curls (think cheese curls, but, uh, peanut-flavored) = maybe a taste we haven’t yet acquired.

I’m not in any way an affiliate of Universal Yums, but I can definitely HIGHLY recommend it. Our second box came today as I’m writing this, and I can’t wait to report on it next month. You can definitely look forward to hearing more about this in our roundups as long as our subscription continues!

Here is Sarah opening our first Universal Yums box. One of our favorite parts was that the tissue paper covering it made the German flag!

Unschooling places, projects and odds and ends

The weight of a cow: NO idea how we got onto this, but somehow Sarah ended up digging around to find out how much a cow weighs and how much meat you get from it. Learn something new every day.

French things: Sarah is still fascinated by French, so we got lucky when the free lesson in the Christmas Around the World Online Unit Study was about Christmas in France. We also did some more Duolingo French.

Cultural geography: That’s a fancy way of saying we’re always interested in learning about other places. Things we explored this month included world population comparisons and the tallest buildings in the world.

So what’s new with your family this month? Drop me a comment! I love hearing from all my “blog friends!”

Chemistry plus alchemy plus magic plus gaming: Tons of homeschool fun

Disclosure: In exchange for the honest review of our experience which appears in this post, our family received a copy of the Quest for Arete Starter Set for free. We were compensated for our time completing the review, but all fun had was ours!

Our family has been obsessed with chemistry and its origins in alchemy for several years. In fact, way back in early 2014, I put together a huge resource guide for studying chemistry, focused on a lot of the ways our family loves to learn – apps, games and real-world experiences.

Given that, you can guess how cool Sarah thought it was when we recently got the chance to review a new game, Quest For Arete, that’s based on some neat chemistry facts, overlaid with the magic of alchemy!

Quest for Arete is a great game that combines chemistry, alchemy, magic and gaming into homeschool fun.

The Magic of Quest for Arete

Arete (pronounced Are-a-tay) means excellence, and in this collectible card game for players 12 and older, you build that excellence by playing as a sorcerer’s apprentice trying to master the elements to make offensive and defensive spells.

Along the way, you’ll get familiar with the names of the elements and their discoverers, as well as the concept of valence electrons (which matter when talking about what elements can bond with one another). And you’ll get to explore some super-fun spell names, catch some science inside jokes, and see some beautiful artwork, too!

By using your elements to make spells, you score points – it’s that simple. This game has a variety of gameplay methods; our favorite was the simplest, Arete Rummy, which is a great way to get familiar with spell-casting. Later, you can customize your deck and start dueling with offensive and defensive spells (think Magic: The Gathering and similar).

Since we’re big into cooperative game-play in our house, the Rummy version was perfect because we could work together to get the highest spell scores possible! In either the Rummy or Dueling games, you can get the whole family involved if older siblings or parents help out younger kids.

In Quest for Arete, the spell names are just as fun as the beautifully illustrated game cards. Wound Salve is H2O2 - which you might know as hydrogen peroxide - for example!

Chemistry vs. Alchemy vs. Magic

Quest for Arete’s tagline is “In the real world, this is the magic.” While there are many awesome ways to get familiar with the elements through gameplay, there are some differences between real-life chemistry and the world of Arete. For instance, to help gameplay proceed more fairly, you can substitute similar elements, such as beryllium for strontium, in the game. Please do not try this with your chemistry set.

Similarly, not all of the element combinations given make “real” compounds. The ones that do, though, are a ton of fun if you’re into geeky inside jokes.

My favorite?

Wound Salve, which is H2O2. You might know this as… hydrogen peroxide, a great wound salve if ever there was one!

Another favorite of mine was Well Killer, aka BeF2, beryllium difluoride, a clear liquid that’s toxic if swallowed. If you’re into chemistry, you’ll have fun trying to pick out the real ones and learn more about them, and in fact, that’s the biggest rabbit-trail we went down as we played Quest for Arete for the first time! (We also had a good time exploring Roman numerals, which are a key part of the scoring system!)

Playing Quest for Arete, magic spells are a key part of gaming and a way to learn a little chemistry.

Expand Your Arete Adventure

Sarah’s advice to anyone who wants to enjoy Quest for Arete to its fullest? “Get all the expansion packs!” She was sold on an awesome spell called Drunken Cat, but that required an element our pack didn’t have. (Don’t worry, she was perfectly content to make Yellow Fever instead, bless her murderous little heart.)

We have the Quest for Arete Starter Set, which includes two base decks as well as the Alchemist’s Expansion Pack and the Armorer’s Expansion Pack. There’s also the Sorcerer’s Expansion Pack, home to the elusive Iodine needed for Sarah’s Drunken Cat!

You can also explore Quest for Arete – and the family who created it together – on their website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.