We’ve been using Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express to guide our Christmas-themed preschool lessons at home. Regardless of how many times I read this story, I always feel throat-lumpy and eye-misty at the last page. Every time. In addition to its themes of holding onto a childlike innocence irrespective of age and embracing a belief in wonder and magic, The Polar Express also obviously lends itself to a train motif—and fortunately, the Internet is ripe with train-themed printables for the preschool and kinder set. As a teacher, too, I am often at my best when I take a core work of lit and then develop interdisciplinary studies around that lit. I never landed upon a good core lit selection last month and as a result, my lessons were all over the place (I felt), yet I am feeling renewed and inspired with The Polar Express.

So here is a bit of what we’ve been doing:

We used a morning Montessori tray to make a Polar Express themed snow globe. It just so happened that I had a small toy train left over from an English cracker two Christmases ago, and we’ve been wanting to make a snow globe… We secured the train inside of a baby food jar… and…

…Katie poured water from our small tea pot and both kiddos added glitter (blue and silver with stars). I know there are fancy ways to make snow globes, but we kept ours on the simple, cheap, have-everything-on-hand side. While we do sometimes buy special materials at The McGaugh Academy, one of our tenets is trying to recycle, upcycle, or put to full use everything we already have as we are learning. We try to be creative with what we have—in itself a mental challenge and good training!

Katie tests the snow globe! (Also, notice the kiddos’ pajama pants—the one up-one down thing must be genetic?)

Our snow globe.

Later, we worked on bar graphing. Along with counting to twenty this year (mastered, yay!) and working on simple addition and subtraction (going very well), I also have been teaching Katie how to graph. We had so much fun with our Family Fruit Graphing Project a few months ago during our Apple a Day unit. Today, we used materials found at Teaching Heart. We printed out a grid and then a collection of pictures (bells, reindeer, trains, snowflakes, etc). Katie first had to practice her cutting by cutting the picture strips. Then she sorted the pictures into like items. Finally, she pasted each one on the graph, which allowed her to compare and contrast quantities of these different items. We answered questions such as, “How many more reindeer are there than trains?”

Then, around mid-afternoon, right when I should have been most concerned about prepping dinner and giving baths, true inspiration struck. I had a newly emptied Quaker Oats canister sitting on my counter when, suddenly, I thought, “Holy cow, that looks like a smokestack!!!!!” It must have been trains on the brain, although I have noticed before how those oatmeal canisters are the perfect shape for a great many crafts. I often save them until inspiration strikes. Today, it was a smokestack… And from there, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to an upcycled train of their own…

If there is one part of this project I would revise, it would be to let my children hunt around the house for the boxes, to enlist them more in the design and engineering. But I was too excited. I ran around for a few minutes collecting boxes that would work:

Two Amazon boxes, two Costco diaper boxes (one for the engine body and one to cut out wheels and a front plate), the Quaker Oats canister, and another rectangular box (ours happened to be the Costco-sized sandwich baggie box).

The two Amazon boxes were fine as is, needing no attachments, but if you make this train, there is freedom to get as elaborate as you want. We used duct tape to hold together the parts of the engine. Then I put the kiddos in their paint clothes (myself, too) and we went outside with the tempura paints and from there, it was all wild wild fun carefree artful painting. Katie had a wild joy in her voice as she kept exclaiming, “This is so fun! This is the best day!” Oh it was a glorious mess. Paint went EVERYWHERE. At one point I thought that this was either one of my best ideas, or one of my worst, but either way we were seeing it through no matter how covered in paint (and yes, Eric’s tongue too) we were. Eric is fairly new to painting, but he loves it just like his sister.

Eric painting his boxcar.

Our train is now painted and ready to be assembled. It is drying in the garage and in the next day or two, we plan to link the cars and the engine together somehow (we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it—I am certain we’ll think of something. Katie suggested a Christmas paper chain, and I’m thinking that would be so whimsical and fun). Our very own Polar Express! I figure we can play in it by the Christmas tree, and I can serve them hot chocolate in it. One thing I’ve discovered as a mother is that, no joke, my kiddos can sit inside of cardboard boxes for hours. Cardboard boxes are IT for them. They make boats, forts, tunnels, anything. So I am sure I can convince them to sit in the train for at least the duration of one more reading or two of The Polar Express.

Other activities at The McGaugh Academy this week:

Katie and I made old-fashioned pomanders. I’ve always wanted to make these…

They smell like Christmas!

We also made a walnut baby ornament and hung him on our kitchen tree. We found directions here. Fortunately, I had a wooden bead in my bead box. The ribbon and fabric were scraps on hand. I did buy a few whole walnuts from the market, though.

We used pipe cleaners and a cardboard circle with a hole in the middle to make this wreath. I had seen a version of this wreath on Martha Stewart’s site, but we didn’t really follow the directions much at all. I just want to give credit for my source of inspiration for this craft. Ours was made entirely of pipe cleaners (even the candle flame) and cardboard, just what we had on hand.

This is a fun time of year for crafting with my babies! I am excited to see how our train turns out, too!