Easing Back Into School via Ninjas

Yes that’s right friends, ninjas.  
Our boys had a busy start to the summer with a vacation in Florida, a visit with family in Georgia and then family visiting us in Texas. When all the excitement died down at the end of July, boredom crept in and they started getting antsy. August is brutally hot this time of year in Central Texas with temps hovering around 100 degrees so we don’t get outside as much as I would like. About three weeks ago I suggested we start school a little early and to my surprise the boys jumped excitedly at the idea. So the following Monday, August 1st, we started our first day of school. 

Cullen learning to spell very important words.

I really wanted to ease into our school year for all our sakes. The boys had very little structure over the summer and it can be hard initiating a daily school schedule when there is not a finite separation between home and school. I also knew I would be working much more in depth with Cullen and wanted to see how he responded to sitting at the table for a project or listening to a story with more difficult vocabulary than he was accustomed to. Factor in a now mobile baby sister, and the upcoming school year was looking a little daunting. 

Labeling the five Chinese elements.

I’m a big fan of child-led learning. It’s one of the many things that drew me to homeschool. I believe we naturally apply ourselves more when we are interested in a subject matter. Obviously, there are things that need to be learned no matter the interest level but I’ve found that with a little creativity, you can take a child’s interest and turn it into an extensive lesson plan encompassing a multitude of subjects. Since I hadn’t planned on starting school until mid August, I decided to give the boys free reign on subject matter for the first three weeks of school. I asked them what they would like to learn more about and was met with the unanimous answer of ninjas. I wasn’t the least bit prepared for this answer. I thought for sure it would be animals or the ocean or something else science related. 
Ninjas it was and there was no way I was going to talk them out of it. 

Korean and Chinese numbers.

Both my boys take karate which I’m pretty sure led to the fascination of ninjas so I decided to start there. The form of karate they practice is called Tang Soo Do which is a Korean style karate with some Chinese influences. All the commands are given in Korean and they are required to learn these as well as many other words as they progress in belt rank. Thanks to our awesome instructors and karate manual, Draven learned several new commands in Korean and we worked with Cullen on counting to ten in Korean. 

Cullen practiced spelling simple words by both writing and using letter blocks. Draven has been vocal about wanting to learn Chinese as well so we practiced writing the five Chinese characters that are represented on the Tang Soo Do flag (foreign language and spelling…BOOM!)

Some of Draven’s finished work. We painted the background of our papers beforehand with watercolors.

We also worked on memorizing the Eight Key Concepts of Tang Soo Do and their school’s Student Creed that the boys will be expected to know for future belt tests (memorization, handwriting and art…BOOM!)

A few exploding ninja stars along with the karate school’s Student Creed.

There were a few days we snuck in some real fun. I let the boys play ninjas while their baby sister was sleeping and gave them tasks to complete like army crawling under and around things and collecting weapons (picking up toys). This is an awesome quiet time game because ninjas are super sneaky and quiet. We also found an easy tutorial via 

Youtube on making exploding ninja stars and had a blast throwing them at the fence outside (arts and crafts, science and hand-eye coordination…BOOM!)

Cullen testing out a ninja star.

Several days I read aloud about China from The Story of the World and Draven worked independently through two Magic Tree House Fact Tracker books, one on Ninjas and Samurai and the other on China. The Fact Tracker books never disappoint – they are chock full of history in a fun to read and easy to understand format.

A little free reading on our subject matter, sporting karate pants of course.

We also used our Pin It Map to label China and it’s rivers, mountain range, desert and adjoining seas. Draven drew and labeled his own map of China with a narration from The Story of the World (history, geography and language arts…BOOM!)

Pinning various landforms and bodies of water in China and east Asia.

Our final projects will be finished this week and are original pieces by the boys culminating all they have learned in our three week unit study. Draven is writing a fiction book titled The Ninjas Versus the Samurai. Cullen is working on several artistic ninja pencil drawings (it’s okay, you can laugh).

. Both have high aspirations of selling their finished products (creative writing, handwriting and art…BOOM!)

We spent about 1-2 hours a day for what will be three weeks. It was a lot more educational than I thought it would be and a ton of fun. Both the boys were really engaged and that’s not always an easy feat with a 7 and 4 year old. I would definitely encourage a project like this even if you don’t homeschool. It’s a great way to learn more about your child’s interests and just get them excited about learning. Deep down I think we all just want our kids to find something they are passionate about. Something that stirs their soul. Their interests most certainly will change as they grow and mature but it’s never to early to light that fire and instill a love of learning. 

A Guide to Austin Area Parks, Trails and Watering Holes

“I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found.”-John Muir
We are so fortunate to live in Central Texas with its unique geologic history that has created some of the most breathtaking scenes I have seen. Combine that with Austin’s Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, which has acquisitioned over 31, 780 acres of endangered species habitat and we have a wealth of green space in our area, much of which has public access.

You can find beautiful, secluded parks and trails nestled away all over the city and surrounding areas. I’m always on the hunt for the next awesome discovery but it can be quite time consuming, perusing websites and reading reviews on local parks and watering holes. A lot of people have asked me about the places we frequent so I thought I would compile a list of the good, the awesome and the yet to be explored.

I’ve tried my best to label everything like it is listed in google maps so once you’re ready to explore, all you need to do is type the name of the park or trail into your gps and go!

Finding treasures on the greenbelt at Campbell’s Hole.

Our green spaces are all maintained to some degree but I am a big believer in us each doing our part to help preserve them. My children know to stay on the marked trails and pick up after themselves. We leave nothing but footprints and I must ask that if you visit the places below, you do the same. You can always find trash along the greenbelts as there are no entrance fees and many people frequent them so we try and pick up what we can. I make it a game and the boys really enjoy it. Often times we have had others around us pitch in to help. It’s pretty cool.

Draven enlisting the help of a friend to pick up trash at McKinney Falls.

Almost all of the places I included are easy hikes to do with children and many have access to water which is always a winner with my crowd. So without further ado, here is a list of our favorite spots in no particular order. 

Free Greenbelt Access Points, Parks and Trails:

1. Barton Creek Greenbelt – Main entrance on 360 between Mopac and S. Lamar

2. Gus Fruh entrance – Barton Creek Greenbelt

3. Campbell’s Hole entrance – Barton Creek Greenbelt, Spyglass access

4. Trail Head entrance – Barton Creek Greenbelt, by Austin B-cycle Station

5. Trailhead to Sculpture Falls – Barton Creek Greenbelt, Camp Craft road

6. Twin Falls entrance – Barton Creek Greenbelt, Capital of TX Hwy and Mopac

7. Bull Creek Greenbelt Upper

8. Lower Bull Creek

9. Bull Creek District Park

**A note about Bull Creek – It has been known to sometimes have high fecal content, most likely from dogs. Plenty of people swim in it but we don’t usually because Cullen swallows a lot of water when he swims and Storie’s favorite pastime is tasting river rocks.

10. Five Mile Dam in San Marcos – This park has easy access to the water but not much shade.

Draven getting a close up look at Five Mile Dam.

11. Balcones District Park – A nice park right in Austin with trails that lead to a pretty waterfall, just know you will see graffiti and hear street traffic.

12. Secret Beach (Roy G. Guerro Colorado River Metropolitan Park) – This is a fun little spot that’s tucked away. Here’s a link that tells you exactly how to get to Secret Beach.

Dirt digging and shell collecting at Secret Beach

13. Circle C Park – If you park in the first parking lot and you can walk right down to the water under the bridge or follow the walking trail to the right and take a quick hike before finding the water (this creek dries up in the summer without rain).

Hunting crawfish at Circle C park.

14. Colorado River Wildlife Sanctuary – This trail is heavily wooded so you really feel like you’re exploring in the wilderness and it leads right to the Colorado River. Be sure to wear bug spray and watch out for poison ivy!

An awesome tree formation at the Colorado River Wildlife Preserve.

15. Mount Bonnell – A fun, short little hike uphill with a fantastic view at the top.

16. Mayfield Park and Nature Preserve – Right across the street from Mt. Bonnell you can visit the beautiful grounds of Mayfield Park and hang out with their peacocks.

17. Wild Basin Creative Research Center –Run by St. Edward’s University, the preserve has several self-guided trail maps of the 227 acres. It is home to eight endangered species and 27 species of great concern. There is a $2-$3 suggested donation.

Checking out a scenic view at Wild Basin.

18. Spring Lake Preserve – Located in San Marcos, this lake is fed by more than 200 springs and is absolutely beautiful.

19. Stagecoach Park in Buda – There is no swimming access here but I love the trails and historic landmarks.

A giant stone compass circling a firepit at Stagecoach Park.

20. Austin Nature and Science Center – Housed on 80 acres in Zilker Park, the center has beautiful landscapes, nature exhibits and educational activities. One of our favorite places!

Parks and Preserves that Require a Small Fee:

1. Krause Springs – Located in Spicewood on 115 acres, it is hands down my favorite place in Texas. There is a breathtaking man-made pool and a natural pool, both fed by springs. If we lived closer, we would most likely be there every day.

The lush falls at Krause Springs.

2. Blue Hole – A beautifully forested swimming hole with rope swings. What’s not to love?

3. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – If I was by myself and it wasn’t 100 degrees, I could walk around here all day long. The center is home to 650 native Texas plant species and has a plethora of nature trails. Their children’s garden is simply dreamy!

Creating in Ladybird’s children’s garden.

4. Westcave Preserve – Guided canyon tours are given to a lush grotto on the weekends or you can schedule a group tour Tuesday-Friday. I love the staff here! You can tell they really enjoy educating their visitors and they offer the coolest adventure packs to check out which include field guides, nature journals, binoculars and more.

Hiking at Westcave Preserve.

5. Hamilton Pool Preserve – Right down the road from Westcave, Hamilton Pool is a breathtaking swimming hole. We typically visit in the spring or fall because it gets so crowded. Note that you must make a reservation to enter now until September 30th.

6. Zilker Botanical Gardens – Located on 26 acres in Zilker park, this place is simply magical. Our favorite gardens are the Japenese Garden and the Prehistoric Garden. 

Checking out tadpoles at Zilker Botanical Gardens.

7. Umlauf Sculpture Gardens – This is a unique outdoor museum centered on the works of Charles Umlauf. Admission is free through August 31 thanks to donors who gave through Amplify Austin!

Working on a scavenger hunt at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden.

8. Barton Springs Pool – A natural spring-fed pool in Zilker park, known by most everyone. We love the free Splash exhibit right by the entrance.

9. McKinney Falls – This is an awesome state park with falls that cascade over super cool limestone formations. It’s a fan favorite!

Jumping from the cliff at McKinney Falls.

10. Landa Park – We recently discovered this park in New Braunfels that has beautiful nature trails and the most spectacular spring-fed pool with the coolest water slides ever. 

Exploring the spring-fed pool at Landa Park.
Below are a few more places I’ve been dying to check out:

1. The Narrows, Blanco TX – The pictures I’ve seen of the formations are simply amazing. Everything I’ve read says it’s quite difficult to get to because the land around it is privately owned but that makes it all the more intriguing…

2. Enchanted Rock, Fredericksburg, TX – I adore the legends about this gigantic pink rock and can’t wait to go hiking with the kids here. I’ve also read that it’s a great place to stargaze.

3. Emma Long Park, Austin, TX – I’ve heard great things about this large park with lots of trees and a big sandy beach. Apparently it even has a motorcycle trail.

4. Pace Bend Park, Spicewood, TX – I honestly can’t believe we haven’t been here yet. This park has tons of scenic views from these amazing limestone cliffs and nine miles of shoreline on Lake Travis. 

For more information, you can check out a full listing of Austin area parks here. Please feel free to share your favorite places in the comments below. We love finding new spots!