Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Traveling with Kids tip

Thanksgiving break is coming up and we have two trips ahead of us....naturally my TeacherMama mind is already ticking along with ideas to help our roadtrip run smoothly.  We usually limit screen time on road trips and encourage our littles to spend some of the time engaged in various activities.

One thing that has worked well for us, particularly with my daughter, who is 7 (she's liked this since she was 4, though), are coloring sheets with information on the areas or states we are traveling through.  I usually bring a clipboard for each kiddo with sheets I have printed off and a pencil bag with colored pencils (marker lids get dropped and crayons melt in a hot car).

I often use the Crayola website, as they have all the state printables.  Also I just google "Oklahoma Coloring Sheet" and look at the google images that pop up.

My kids are also interested in seeing a labeled map of the US so they can find our state and the states we travel through, so I often print some of those, as well!

This is a great time-passer, but also adds some geography and map reading skills to your trip!!

For older kids you could let them read through the state info and then play a trivia game with little treats (Skittles, goldfish, mini cookies, etc) for correct answers!  My kids love trivia games!

For more of my travel posts and ideas, click the "travel" tag on the sidebar!  

Monday, November 16, 2015

Thanksgiving Devotionals with Kids

I subscribe to the SHE READS TRUTH daily Bible Study emails and always find them such a powerful tool.  Today a new series started, a 10 day focus on Psalms of Gratitude, with a simple response each day.  Day 1 started with Psalm 100 and a simple reflection....perfect for Mamas, but ALSO perfect for Littles!  This can be adapted to any age....if you are looking for something to focus your family's hearts during this Thanksgiving season, I'd encourage you to check out this free resource.

It begins on today's date on their website (click). 

I am going to read this psalm with my kiddos tonight and then let each of them fill in their own blanks (see the assignment.)  I love exposing my children to scripture in this way and am very fond of the simpleness yet powerfulness of what this study will bring to our family.

Give it a go!!  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

@Mamaschool....sink or float experiment.

I told you he was into science experiments!  His other interest this week has been sink/float experimentation.  This probably came about because of a couple new boats he bought with his chore money at the dollar store.  Anyhow, we've done sink/float several times over the past couple years and he remembered it and asked to do it again.  Yesterday I set him up with a nice table of objects and a big glass bowl of water and he had a good time experimenting.  Today he asked to do it again while I was doing some dishes.  I didn't have a good window of time to set up the "big" activity, so I told him to get out a tupperware bowl (no matter what, it's best if the dish is clear so you can observe the object from all sides) and sent him out into the backyard with a small bowl and instructions to bring in 5 objects to see if they'd sink or float.  After sending him BACK out to dump out the bowl of sand he though he'd try (maybe next time, buddy....creative but it wasn't a good time for kitchen floor mud!) he came back with a pecan, a shell, a pine needle, a little teacup from Quinn's fairy garden (DON'T TELL HER--YIKES!) and a rock.  He got straight to work trying them out.  So today's experiment was a float/sink snack, eh?!  Just a little tidbit of time he spent exploring and a smaller set up than we often use, but he was still exploring and doing science!!  Besides just the floating and sinking, he was also exploring the properties of water/a liquid!  Wow, such scientific power in a few minutes of curious play! edition. A great book for babies!

This week we had a little 4 month-old fosterlove with us.  Of course she was included in Mamaschool, too!  Beck and I set up our little play gym and Beck happily and lovingly hung EVERYTHING he could find for her to look at.  :)  We also found the perfect book to prop open for her to look at.  

Ten Little Beasties is a short book that can be sung to the tune of "Ten Little Indians."  I love books that are also songs, and so do babies!  The high-contrast illustrations are perfect for tiny readers--even newborns would be captivated by this book!  My big boy loves it, too, which is a win-win!  
 We often prop up books around our babies, especially when they learn to roll on their tummies!  This allows them to see something beautiful, stimulating and interesting at their level!
We just love Ed Emberley's books!!!!

@MamaSchool....the daily things.

At MamaSchool we look for the learning in the little things...the daily things that happen over and over again, but leave openings for little hands and hearts and minds to grow.

Lunch is one of these times.  Learning to set the table properly.  Taking time to add beauty through the dishes and linens we use.  Handling breakable dishes carefully and learning what to do when one of them accidentally breaks.  Learning to pour tea independently.  Using a knife to spread peanut butter and jam (fine motor!).  These are all niches for learning to occur.  Sure, it might take a little longer to teach a small person to carry our good pottery plates instead of tossing out some plastic ones.  Of course I could have made that sandwich WAY quicker and FAR less messy.  But these are the moments in our day that MamaSchool is most beautiful....when Mama takes a breath and steps back and lets him do things himself...or takes a breath and steps up to show him one more time how to do it carefully and correctly and with his very best effort.  

And no, lunch doesn't always happen this way.  Sometimes I do make his food and it is on plastic...and that is life and that is okay....But we try hard to slow our days enough that being 4, and all the lovliness that involves, can he learns to gracefully and kindly and lovingly navigate this world around him.  And me?  I am still learning those lessons too.  So it's MamaSchool for us both! with magnets!

During the week my big girl is in first grade all day.  That leaves me and the little man (he's 4) home together.  He always gets asked if he goes to school too, and saying, "No," didn't seem quite right, because we do a whole lot of learning during our days, so we started calling it "MamaSchool."  Typically our mornings are devoted to his "schooling," with lunch and a brief rest (and a bit of work for Mama) afterwards, then we go get Q from school.

My background (and my passion!) is teaching early childhood, so of course I can't NOT school my kiddos. :)  

I strongly believe that young children learn primarily through play and self-initiated exploration and their own curiosity with the world around them.  You won't find us doing letters of the week or math lessons....or really any type of conventional "lesson" at all.  However, we do spend our days learning a whole lot.

We base our days and our studies on my Little Man's interests.  Right now he is ALL ABOUT doing science experiments.  Not sure where he heard about science experiments--probably one of his audiobooks.  Anyhow, that is what he asks to do any chance we can!

He has also been interested in magnets.  I don't remember exactly how that came about, but he was asking questions and expressing interest in magnets, so I followed his lead.  I got out a few magnets I had from my classroom days, and we went to Mardel with some of his birthday money and bought  a little set of various magnets (the strong science type that have the poles marked on them.)  Then we got out a tray of stuff and set to work figuring out what things the magnets would pick up and which things they wouldn't.  As we worked, I began to use the correct vocabulary--repel, poles, attract, etc. as I talked with him about what we were doing/seeing.   I showed him how two magnets with the same poles would push away from each other.  We just played and played with magnets.  Through this, he was absorbing and exploring fundamental principles of physical science and of magnetic force.  We were also having so much fun!  Of course the first day he used the magnets for about 5 minutes.  But we've gotten them out every day since and he's stretching the time he wants to spend exploring.  He'll repeat some of the same activities again that we've done previously (repelling magnets, etc.), but often I will show him (or he will figure out) something new.  Today we put paperclips on a tray and moved them from below with a magnet.  

As I teach my son science simply by DOING SCIENCE with him, I hear the wise voice of one of my wonderful college professors in my head.  He drummed into us the importance of teaching science by just letting kids do science.  Not by vocab sheets or matching terms or definitions....not by writing out a lab report...but early on, just by doing the work of a scientist.  By using the tools scientists use--and learning to use them correctly.  By trying things.  By exploring.  And that makes me smile, because Dr. Vincent is right.  
Tonight the kids decided Matt would read bedtime stories to Quinn and I would read to Beck.  Beck commented that boys go with girls and girls go with boys (Matt/Quinn & Beck/Me) and further observed that it was kind of like magnets, how North goes with South and South goes with North.  AND HE'S FOUR!!! 
Best of all, this type of learning was so easy for me to facilitate.  Magnets and objects....and that's it!  Other than that all I have to put into this is the gift of my time--sitting down and playing and learning and talking with my little scientist.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Painting with Feathers

A simple but fun art+nature activity.....large feathers we found on a nature walk and tempera cakes.  Really any type of paint would work!  The kids had a great time using something different as a paint brush!  After painting their papers with the quill end, they ended up dipping the barbs in the paint, which yielded really pretty feathers I snatched up to use on my nature shelf!  

Monday, October 12, 2015

Michaelmas centerpiece

These days Q does most of her Michaelmas celebrating at school.  I did create a little tablescape.  The felt dragon I made a few years ago, some rocks and crystals, and a little St. Michael made out of a peg man, so fabric, and toothpicks.  Simple, but did the trick!  

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Gospel Writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) Playdough Mat

This year Matt and I are teaching the 4th grade Bible Class on Sundays at our church.  Our area of focus this year is the Gospels.  I have made some playdough mats geared to older kids to help reinforce some of the concepts we are teaching.

For this particular class session, we introduced the 4 gospel writers, talked about their backgrounds and discussed the major emphasis of each book.  Then students had some time to process this learning through the playdough mats.  We encouraged them to think through what they had learned about each writer--what could they add with playdough details to illustrate these things?

Our big kids had a lot of fun working with playdough--for many of them it had been years since they had used it, so it was fun for them to spend some time doing a kinestetic activity!  It also encouraged some higher-level thinking and processing skills to mull through the lesson we'd just had.

Some of the kids were hesitant and needed some teacher prompting to get started and think through what they could add.  Others zoomed right off and were adding little playdough details left and right!!

For logistics--I like to print out the sheets and put them in page protectors, then I can change them out as we used different mats.  Once I have introduced this particular mat doing a group time, I can reuse it at a class starter--an activity that is set out for children to begin working on as they stagger in at arrival time.

Click HERE to download a fullsize, printable version.  

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Ocean chalk easel invitation

Something I love about easel invitations is that they span the age-levels of kiddos.  Any age kiddo (or adult!) can stop by and add in some details to the current scene.  Even my little guy, who has limited interest in art and drawing can't resist chalking a little bit!  Here he is adding some elements to the ocean.  :)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Another easel invitation......

I left this:
 Which she turned into this:  (complete with an oral story that goes along with the drawing!)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Art Invitations--encouraging kids to use the easel

When I first put out the easel (it frequently takes "breaks" in the upstairs closet when we're not using it as much), it gets lots of use from little artists.  As the weeks pass, though, the kids don't notice it as much and don't gravitate toward it.  One method I often use to encourage easel drawing (remember--it is SO GOOD for fine and gross motor development as well as art skills) is by offering an "invitation."  

This means that I set up something that invites the artist in....makes it irresistible for them not to draw!  Here is my first invitation.  My 7 year old is beginning to read, so she could read the simple directions I wrote.  She erased my words and wrote "My name is Quinn," and decorated that person all up!!  
I often prepare invitations to be ready for my kids to create art while I am preparing dinner.  Typically my invitations are simple and take 2 minutes or less of my time to prepare, and my kids spend a loooong time drawing.  Remember that any new experiences takes 5-7 times to become familiar, so the first several times you put out an invitation, your kids may not respond to it.  If they don't, gently call their attention to it, sit down and draw yourself, modeling what to do and speaking aloud what you are doing.  "I think I'll start with her hair.  I want her to have long, curly red hair, so I will use the chalk to draw spirals that look like curls.  Maybe a purple hairbow would be nice.  Now she needs clothes....I think I will do a purple skirt to match her bow.  And boots!  I can draw clouds and raindrops in the sky since she is wearing rainboots."  As your children observe you, they will begin to learn the process for drawing on the chalkboard, and over time they will internalize this and be ready to create their own art!  

My 4 year old son doesn't love drawing....but lately he has discovered that he can draw rainbows all by himself.  For an invitation for him I drew the first red arch of a rainbow and left the other colors out on the tray of the easel.  He made his rainbow, then erased it before I could snap a photo, then he spent a good 20 minutes drawing happily away in chalk!

I'll try to remember to catch snapshots of other easel invitations I offer for my kiddos to share in this space.  

Do you have an easel?  If not, this also works with a large piece of paper taped to the wall....or even flat paper on a table, though writing on a vertical surface strengthens arms in a way horizontal writing does not, so try to provide easel-like experiences for your little artists!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Make Your Own Library!

This summer my kids had so much fun playing library!

One day I decided to get them interested in some of the books we own in our home library that they haven't read in a while.  I gathered up a handful of different genres and set them up on our stairs.  I put animal non fiction together, biography together, fiction together, etc.

I let them each choose a couple books, and we got out their little toy cash register and they pretended to check out the other one's books!

Not only did they have fun PLAYING library, but they were also motivated to read some books they hadn't touched in a while and revisit some books from our home library!  I got to direct which books they were exposed to (because I chose them and set them out!) and I pretended to be the librarian who asked them about their interests and helped them choose some books.

Over the course of several days we made paper library cards for each of us and also signs for the shelves!  Great literacy skills!

My kids were both really excited about this pretend play and both of them subsequently set up libraries in their own rooms!

I remember playing library as a kid, too!  A great pretend-play activity that can be adapted to any age--from board books to chapter books!  Don't have a cash register to use for checkout?  Make one out of a box!  Get creative!  Remember it's about the process!  

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

In Art News

We have an art easel that we use off and on in our kitchen area.  Our art studio area is upstairs, so I also like to offer some art opportunities downstairs.  The easel was put away for about 6 months, but I recently brought it out again and of course it was a big hit!  Absence makes the heart grow fonder, especially with easels!  Ha!  

Remember that EASELS HELP DEVELOP MOTOR SKILLS (click).....they are essential for early childhood homes!  And fun!

Here's what it looks like for Q(6) and B(newly 4):

Paper in a basket underneath, a role of washi tape to attach the paper to the easel.  I gave the kids a mini-lesson on the correct way to do this.  Q can tape up paper independently, B needs help.  Often times I tape up a blank piece of white paper, and it proves irresistible--someone comes to paint as soon as they spot it!  I also try to occasionally stop and paint a bit to model it for my kids.  They get so interested in watching Mama paint, too!  

A jar of assorted paintbrushes

A sponge (cut in half to make a small square) for wiping brushes or spills

A small container of small chalk bits (small pieces encourage correct finger grasp for young writers) and a little eraser

2 mugs that are used for rinse water for painting--one for warm colors and one for cool colors.  Q and I learned to do this in our recent watercolor class.  I love that it teaches her to think back about her color theory and where particular colors belong.  B just uses them both for either color, and that's fine (with me, not his sister...she hates that).  

I have a little stool next to the easel that holds a pallet of watercolor cakes (the largest size crayola makes).  I put out washable cakes for independent painting, but we use liquid watercolors when we sit down for a guided painting time.  

I also recently bought Q some tempera cakes for some variety.  I am not super impressed with the ones we got, but she likes them.  I hoped they would be darker and more vibrant.  I ordered them, but I need to see what some of the craft stores or even Lakeshore carry.  Theirs might be higher quality.  Anyhow, paint cakes are great because they are less messy than liquid paint and I don't have to worry about wasting paint that dries out.  I provide liquid tempera upstairs in the studio, so they still get different opportunities with a variety of paint mediums.  

We have a cupboard nearby with a basket of old washcloths that the kids have access to for any clean up that is necessary!  They know to put completed pictures on the table if they want to paint another one!  We have a little "training session" when I first get out the easel to show them how to use everything.  Q is very helpful in getting water for her brother and taping up his paper, which is great!!

Books to read to First Graders/ Audiobooks for First Graders

This list is a continuation from my BOOKS TO READ TO KINDERGARTENERS, so I am not going to go into a lot of discussion--click back there if you are interested in more details!  I'll go straight into the booklist of recommended titles for first graders.  Yikes!!  How do I have a first grader!  I will need to note that first grade was my favorite grade to teach in my public school days, so everything first-grade-related is so very sweet in my heart!  

I will update and add to this list as Q's first grade year goes on, so this is just the start of our list!  Stay tuned!

And now the books!!
The Oz Series by L. Frank Baum
(note--Q has listened to the Wizard of Oz and this book in the series, but I am going to wait a bit more before really getting into the series.  With some classic, beautiful series', I want to wait a little longer until she is old enough to fully appreciate and remember them.  Just a "thing" I have.)

Dragons of Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett

Anything written by Beverly Cleary

The "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Piper Reed Series by Kimberly Willis Holt

Freddy series by Walter R. Brooks

Encyclopedia Brown Books by Donald Sobol

Cam Jansen series by David A. Adler

The Chinese Siamese Cat by Amy Tan

Horrible Harry series by Suzy Kline

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

The Blossoms Series by Betsy Byars

Classics of Childhood Collection by Blackstone Audio

Humphrey Series by Betty G. Birney

The Treehouse Series (The 13-Storey Treehouse, etc) by Andy Griffiths

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey

Kid Who....series by Dan Gutman

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

My Weird School Collection by Dan Gutman

Dragon Series by Jackie French Koller

Dragon Academy series by Kate McMullan

Lad, A Dog by A.P. Terhune

The Callahan Cousins series by Elizabeth Doyle Carey

The Paintbrush Kid/The Poppy Seeds by Clyde Robert Bulla

Thursday, August 20, 2015

On Our Nature Shelf....exploring rocks and gems

Remember that sometimes just "putting it out there" is a great way to invite little learners to explore science (or any!) objects.  When we were in South Dakota this summer, there was a big rock display at a gift shop.  They were reasonably priced, so I picked up a nice selection for our geology studies.  I haven't yet had time to pull together a geology study, but I did decide to put the rocks out for open exploration.

Note that my kids have been taught how to explore scientific objects properly--They take the whole tray/basket to the table and handle the items gently.  Then they return the items to the shelf when finished.  They also know these specimens aren't for playing with in other areas of the house, they are specifically for scientific exploration, so they won't be included in building a castle or hauled in mini dump trucks (we have other rocks for that!!)

I love these little Golden Guides and pick them up whenever I see them at used book stores or thrifting.

Putting this little display out for my kiddos really peaked their interest and both of them have enjoyed looking at, touching, and exploring the rocks and gems.  Q will even use the book to try to identify them!

Obviously these rocks are more interesting than things we could find in our backyard, but we make some great nature displays even from our own area.  Often we save rocks that have neat textures or shapes or sizes to put on our nature table, so don't be discouraged if you don't have something amazing.

Including kiddos in finding items for your nature table/shelf is always a hit.  They feel ownership and pride and are so much more likely to use good stewardship for "their" items!

What's on your nature table/shelf/windowsill??!!!

Magnets for babies! Otherwise known as: How to keep babies busy while you cook.

We got to have our little niece quite a bit over the summer, so I loved reaching back into my "Baby's Bag of Tricks" and remembering some of my favorite tips that worked with my babies.

One of the hardest times with babies (and sadly, still my two bigger ones) is the hour or so before dinner, when trying to cook, set the table, pull together the house a bit and little ones are wrecking havoc!

One thing that worked well with my two were magnets.  I kept them up higher on the fridge, out of their reach until I needed them to keep a little person busy.  Then I put them down at Baby Level and let her explore.  I modeled for her how to slide them and how to take them off and put them on, and she quickly got the hang of it (she is 10 months).  The funnest game is to take them all off, of course!  And, like any activity, the first time yields an interest of approximately 2 seconds....but if you keep up the exposure and model repeatedly, they will build up their ability and interest in sitting and playing longer.

I have these old fruit magnets I got at a thrift store.  I also have used large letter magnets, some laminated photos I glued magnets onto, dominoes I modge-podged photos onto, etc.

HERE is the link page to all my magnet posts...the ones particularly about babies are the older ones, so scroll down!!  (there is also a link in my sidebar under "magnet work")

Besides keeping baby busy, working in this position builds cross-lateral connections in the brain (as their arms cross the midline as they grab at the magnets) and strengthens arm strength that will later be needed for fine motor skills such as using utensils, writing and cutting.  Whoo-hoo!!

Standing babies enjoy magnets just out of their reach that they have to s-t-r-e-t-c-h up to grab and pull down.  This makes them feel so accomplished!!

In our churchbag......

I was cleaning some junk (old bulletins, etc.) out of our church bag today and decided it was a good time to post what we currently keep in that thing!

Right now we have Q (6) and B (newly 4) using the bag, along with a random couple of other kiddos that sit with us, so our bag is made for older preschool/younger elementary-aged kids.

First off, we expect our children to participate fully in worship during the first part (singing, prayer, scripture reading, etc.).  We don't open the bag and our kiddos stand/sit and particpate just like everyone else.  Usually Daddy holds one kiddo and I hold the other, or at least they stand next to us, with our friends (our church has a large urban bus ministry....) sitting between us.  That helps us keep kids focused and attentive.  If we have extra foster kiddos with us, we disperse them between us.  :)

When communion starts, we let our kids begin to use items from our churchbag.  These items are purposefully included to help our children meditate upon, participate in and understand the meaning of communion and Jesus' sacrifice.  Q goes to children's worship after communion, but B stays in "Big Church" still and continues to use the items throughout the sermon time.

Typically I choose which child gets which item.  This might be because they haven't done a particular item in a while and I'd like them to, because they are too antsy to use playdough well that day, or because I want two kids to share the markers between them.  No matter what, they use what Mama hands them or nothing (and all of this has been discussed, taught and practiced beforehand...there is NO WAY you can introduce new items cold-turkey in the middle of church successfully, in my opinion....)  We've already had a mini lesson with the item during the week.  Or maybe just a short discussion on how to use it.  Friends do a really good job of just following what my kids are doing with a few whispered directions from me/my kids.  I love watching my kids include another friend into what they are doing and very quietly explain what to do!

We use a small canvas bag.  I keep it packed and ready to go on our shelves by the back door and I am in the habit of grabbing it each Sunday on the way to church.

 These cards are laminated printouts of famous pieces of art that depict different scenes of Jesus' life.  I just printed them off, laminated them, and keep them in a baggie.  During communion, I look through them with the child next to me and we talk about each picture and what it is of in a whisper voice.

 This is a sign language book I made--I looked up pictures for signs that go along with church words (worship, communion, pray, bread, sing, etc.) and put the picture and written directions onto cards.  The child sitting next to me and I whisper the directions and do the signs in our laps.  I love that many of the signs are designed based on the meaning of the word--for example, the sign for Jesus involves using your fingers like nails in your palms.  Through using the signs for the words, children can participate in the meanings of the words and concepts in a kinesthetic manner.
 I love art books.  My kids have responded really well to this book, which I picked up at a thrift store.  I often see similar items at the thrift store or Half Price Books, so picking up a used copy of Jesus art by the masters is a great idea.  I like my kids to see the different concepts depicted in different ways.  Of course we have had a discussion (sometimes in the car on the way to church is a good time for this) that these are from the artists' imagination, and that is why different artists depict the same scene different ways.

During communion I invite my kids to page through the books while sitting in my lap/next to me and in a whisper I provide some context about the pictures.  Older kids can look at a picture and then use their Bible to find the text (which is usually listed next to the picture).
 Inside the book I have this picture clipped, which my daughter loves.  It's The Last Supper and has the apostles labeled, and also has a page of information about different symbolism in the painting.  She loves to have this quietly read to her.
 All kids seem to love these simple, vintage books.  They are the stories of Jesus (this one is the crucifixion) depicted through simple stick figures.  Matt or I read the book quietly to the child on our lap during communion or let them look at the illustrations independently.

 We also have 2 small 3-ring binders.  One has writing and drawing prompts.  I keep them in clear page protectors and provide some vis-a-vis overhead markers for the children to write on the dry erase pages.  I also keep spare paper at the end in case they want to draw something from the binder on their own.
CLICK HERE to download the printable "Blood" page.
CLICK HERE to download the printable "Bread" page.

 I have sentence starters and also this page on how to dry a cross (link is on the photo).
 I also love using the coloring sheets on the FLAME website--I usually chose those that pertain to communion or Jesus.

I also made a printable where the child copies Isaiah 55:3 and then traces their hand.

 The other binder has our Playdough Mats--which are ways for younger kiddos (and older, too!) to respond to elements of Communion in a tactile, and age-appropriate way.  I use either the mats from FLAME or some I have made myself, located on the sidebar of this blog.  The playdough is only for completing the activities on the mat, not free play during this time.  We have had great luck with this not being too messy of an activity.  We of course keep the child working right next to us, and sometimes I don't hand them the whole cannister, just small balls at a time to work with.  Also, I try to introduce new mats (and FOR SURE the concept of using a playdough mat) first in our home, not in the communion setting, so I can teach it and demonstrate it.  Often I bring these out at the table while the kids are waiting on me to make lunch or dinner.

We keep a bag of markers.  Sometimes our bag gets left in the car, so I don't keep crayons it it, as they melt.  
 One the bigger kids go to children's worship, I let Beck use the legos during the sermon.  Research on listening comprehension shows that many kids can actually listen more intently and comprehend at a higher level when their hands are busy.  Jim Trelease recommends this in his excellent, most-highly recommended READ ALOUD HANDBOOK.  So Beck is allowed to stay sitting on the pew and work with legos while he also listens to the sermon.  It works great!  He knows if he works quietly he gets to keep the legos, and if he gets wild or loud we put them away and he has to sit in Daddy's lap with nothing in his hands.
I keep the churchbag the same for several months at a time, but after my kiddos begin to lose interest in an item, I change it out.

HERE is a link to some other items that have been in our churchbag.

As you can see, we work to engage/talk (whisper!) with the kiddos all during the communion time to bring their attention to what is happening and why, and to build their understanding.  We consider ourselves their mentors, as we guide them through some child-appropriate elements to help them draw meaning from communion time together.